Right when I saw him, I could tell Mark was a good kid. I think that’s the only reason why I picked him up off the side of the road. An irrational fear of hitchhikers is just one of the phobias horror movies have instilled in me, but here was an 18-year-old kid with glasses, a turtle-neck sweater and a backpack, looking like he just got out of class for the evening, holding his thumb out in the same way he had probably seen homeless men all his sheltered life. I felt compelled to pick him up, if only to protect him.
I pulled off the 40 and honked for him to get in. He threw his backpack into the back and clambered in with a white, suburban smile. Buckling in, he thanked me and offered me a $20 bill. I told him to keep it, but that I might take it for gas money depending on how far out of the way his house is.
“I’m not going home,” he said simply.
“Where then, kid?”
“My name’s Mark.”
“Look, Mark. Everyone gets into arguments with their parents when they’re young. It’s just part of becoming your own person —”
Mark cut me off.
“There wasn’t an argument,” he said, sounding a little annoyed. “If you thought you were just going to drop me off at the next exit, then I’ll get back out. I don’t mind waiting a little longer for someone who will take me east.”
Instead of answering him, I only accelerated back onto the highway, setting cruise control. We were 30 miles away from Santa Fe and the air was starting to cool down a little. I figured Mark was probably just as excited as I was to be leaving Arizona behind, so I prodded a little further.
“How far East?” I asked.
“However far you make it.”
“New York,” I told him.
“Are you sure you want to be stuck with me for that long?”
“Well, you don’t smell like piss. You don’t seem to have any track marks, no mental problems…”
“I have problems,” he said suddenly. An awkward silence filled the car as he looked out the window at the trees sailing by. “I’m sick.”
“Are you contagious?”
He chuckled to himself and said no under his breath. He was thinking still, as though unsure if he had given the right answer. I shrugged it off for the time. I figured it was just one of those moments of teenage angst, as though he wondered whether his Existential crisis could affect those around him. But a part of me knew that this was more than a personal crisis; more than teenage angst; more about him than what met the eye.
I pelted him with questions as we tore through Texas and on until Oklahoma, when the sun started dying out from the western fringes of Tulsa. He looked exhausted from all of the questioning, but I hadn’t even gotten to the big ones yet. I pulled up to a Comfort Inn parking lot and found Mark looking awkwardly over at me.
“I have money for a room,” he said.
“Then go ahead, I’ll be here when you wake up.”
“You’re sleeping here?”
I leaned my seat back as far as it could go and pulled a sleeping bag up from the back. I connected my phone to the free wifi. Right about then, I would have started looking at porn, but considering the circumstances, I begrudgingly flipped through Reddit posts instead. I had been avoiding the big social media sites for a while now. I had burned more than a few bridges back in Arizona.
As if anticipating the big questions that were coming, Mark leaned his own chair back and started spilling his guts. It seemed like he was talking to himself at first, but gradually, he started looking my way, awkwardly making eye contact. Still, he talked and talked like he hadn’t said a word in years.
“Just a week ago, I packed as much stuff as I could into my backpack, and I just left without saying a word to anyone,” he said. “I knew the goodbyes would be too hard; my family might have talked me into staying. They would say that they would rather stick with me through the tough times until the end, but they have no idea what is happening to me. What I am becoming.”
He glanced at me for a moment, testing my reaction.
“Shortly after my first doctor visit, several months ago, my mother assured me that she was happy she stayed with my dad for as long as possible before the disease took him too. Apparently it’s genetic. She said she would do the same for me, but I am not nearly as strong as my father. Now that the same symptoms are becoming manifest in me, I can’t even fathom how he held out for as long as he did.
“I go several days at a time without sleep, and even then I can only get a few hours of rest. But the sleeplessness takes its toll on my body. I get exhausted, completely broken down mentally and physically. It’s in those moments that my thoughts sink down into disgusting, impossible places. It’s like there is a trap door in my brain that keeps getting looser every day.”
“What do you mean, a trap door?” I asked.
“Something we all have, as humans. It’s something that allows us to slip into the same filthy places as murderers and rapists. I’ve thought about it alot since it started. I think it is only a strong upbringing, or an ethical prescription that keeps the trap door shut for most people. That’s the one thing no one else in my family knows about my disease: as time goes on, the door begins swinging open wider.”
I knew at that moment that Mark was not at all what he seemed. Still, I was too impressed with his honesty to give in to the sudden urge to kick him out of my car. Here he was, probably in his late teens, completely abandoning everything he had known and telling a stranger that he was getting murderous thoughts. All I could do was try to lighten the mood a little.
“You want to kill me?” I asked him.
“No,” he said. He took in a deep breath and sighed before closing his eyes and relaxing down into the seat. “Not yet.”
The next morning I was awoken by a steady tapping on the window. Not surprised, I opened my eyes to find a security guard with his flashlight shining in. There wasn’t any daylight out, but I knew it was morning. I figured it was early enough to start, so instead of getting out of the car, I turned the engine over and threw it into reverse. The security guard yelled and loped after us just enough so that anyone watching could say that his fat ass tried, God bless him.
“Sorry if I woke you up,” I said, without looking over.
From the passenger seat, a voice said that it was okay, but if I hadn’t looked over at him, I would have been positive that there was a different kid sitting there. His voice sounded suddenly hoarse and deep. Even as I took in his face I noticed that his eyes looked different. They were askew a little, as though one eye could watch the road while the other would swivel my direction. So distracted by his sudden appearance, I almost swerved off the road.
“Didn’t sleep?” I asked, trying for an answer.
“Not at all.”
“Just… thinking about killing people and stuff?”
He chuckled a hideous chuckle, completely unlike yesterday. His wild eye must have read my expression, because he suddenly turned to me and spoke in a more heartfelt voice, saying, “I still never thanked you for picking me up. Especially because of how far we have to go, it means a lot.”
“Well, I never said I would take you the whole way.”
I was touched, but not enough to keep from looking over at his maniac eyes every few seconds. He was like someone else entirely.
“Yes you did,” he said seriously. “I asked if you could be stuck with me for that long, and you said that I didn’t smell like piss.”
“I also said you don’t seem to be crazy, which has changed, my friend. That part has changed a little.”
“What do you mean?” he asked, sounding a little scared. “What did I do?”
His appeal was genuine, I could tell even despite the edge in his voice. Every time he spoke it was in a different tone. He seemed to be struggling within himself.
“Nothing,” I said. “Let’s just keep going.”
The flat Oklahoma landscape left nothing to look at as we drove on in silence. Even the highway itself was vacant of all except freight trucks, mostly flowing the opposite direction. This only intensified my nervousness. Who would be there to help if I had to pull off and deal with this kid? I felt stupid for even keeping myself in the position. How easy it would have been for me to just pull over and let him out. The sympathy that kept me hanging on was evaporating with every second.
“They don’t have a name for it,” Mark said, breaking the silence. “My disease. It’s totally unknown in the medical field, but it’s supposed to be symptomatically related to Alzheimers. You start losing your memory before the other stuff comes. It’s like someone is cutting these big chunks out of you, but something else starts taking its place.”
He reached into his pocket and pulled forth something silver. My hand shot over to his and I wrenched his hand away before he could unsheathe it.
“Is that a knife?” I asked, swerving on the road again.
“Yes, but it helps me!” he pleaded.
“Helps the urges. It’s for me. Just let me use it.”
Reluctantly, I let him wrench his hand away, if only to keep us from veering into oncoming traffic. Still I kept a watchful eye on him as much as I could. It was a long fishing knife. I said nothing as he proceeded to cut tiny slits across his forearm. He pulled a blood stained rag from out of his backpack and pressed it down as he continued cutting fresh wounds on his other arms.
“Girls used to do that at my high school,” I said.
“It’s not the same,” he growled. “The momentary pain makes me forget about my urges.”
“So you are having urges?”
He hesitated before saying yes. I knew from the moment I woke up that that was the case, just by his mismatched eyes and his cold voice. I figured he hadn’t slept at all. Even now, as he cut away in self-medication, his countenance was deepening. I had had all that I could handle. I started slowing down, preparing to pull off the road.
“Don’t,” came an acidic voice in my ear.
I felt a sudden stab of pain in my side. He was upon me, his face contorted like some kind of demon, snarling beneath his black bangs. Even as he held the tip of the blade to my skin, I felt that old familiar rage rising up inside of me. I’ve had it before, when I used to hit the bars a lot. I would get so drunk that the slightest thing would spark this bonfire of rage within me. That’s what I was running from, and that’s what ignited my fury right then.
I snatched his wrist into my grip and pulled his arm away before he could press further, keeping one eye glued to the road. I gripped his bony little wrist hard enough to make him drop the knife, and once he did, I wrapped my hand around his throat and squeezed with all of the fury burning inside of me.
“You’re going to fucking kill me?” I yelled in his face, turning back to the road instantly. “I picked you up and listen to your bullshit and you’re going to try to kill me?!”
“I’m… sorry…” he choked out as loud as he could. His eyes were watering, whether from emotions or from loss of oxygen, I don’t know. Still, he pleaded on in the same voice I remembered from yesterday. “I didn’t want to. It wasn’t me. That wasn’t me, I’m so sorry.”
My grip loosened a little bit. I could hear the old Mark coming back into control. But even as I loosened up a little bit, I saw that same flicker from before in his eyes. His features were contorted again as he unbuckled his seatbelt and dove for the knife at his feet. Just as he pulled back up, everything stopped.
I felt my heart drumming heavy in my ears. The pulse was heavy on the surface of my skin. We went too far left. I saw the grill of the semi inches from the hood of my car. All the world was suspended in that second. Then, I was crushed out of consciousness, almost instantly. The last thing I remembered seeing was Mark’s body bursting through the front window.
When I came to, I couldn’t move my neck, nor could I move either of my legs. I was warm and fuzzy, despite everything. Slowly, I found myself aware of being in a hospital room, the morphine dripping like the ticking of a clock off somewhere far far away. Everything was far, even the nurse who was opening the blinds and smiling down at me.
“Glad you’re awake, Harrison,” she said sweetly.
Harrison? I thought about it for what felt like hours. Who is Harrison? Is that me? I tried opening my mouth to ask, but found that I could not speak. Gauze was bound from under my chin to the top of my head. As I thought on, I found that I could not even remember my name.
“You’re probably worried about that boy,” she said, looking pitifully at my expression. “He’s dead, dear. I’m so sorry. The detectives actually have a lot of questions for you, but the doctor told them you won’t be able to speak for a while.”
She smiled again, but as she did so, I felt an acidic hatred bubbling up inside of me. It was inexplicable. I thought of several different ways I would have liked to wipe that smile off her face. It was no smile for me. It was such a self-conscious, smug fucking smile and I wished I could tear it right off.
Just as soon as it came on, the thought went away, and I was left reeling inside, motionless and voiceless. I wanted to apologize to the nurse for what I was thinking. I wanted to hug her now and tell her to go away, but I was completely immobilized. For days this went on, and as I saw different members of the staff, I plotted each and every death for them all, and I waited patiently for the moment when I could execute it.
Then, I would feel sorry again. When the maliciousness wore off, I could think only of Mark’s twisted expression. The word was flashing in my mind like a neon sign:
Contagious. Contagious. Contagious.