My take on a classic story. Hope you enjoy. 🙂
Jack sighed. This trip was not turning out as great as his best friend promised. They were halfway to their destination, and completely lost. Rain pounded the windshield, his lights were dirty and his wipers were crap. They should have stopped at AutoZone before driving their cars across the country in a last ditch effort to have some fun before college classes began.
“Does that hoopty go any faster than 25 miles an hour, Jackson?” Hal’s voice came through the speakers of his car.
Jackson looked in his rearview mirror at Hal’s silver car and laughed. “Not when it’s raining cows outside.” Hooking up their cell phones to their car stereos, powered through the cigarette lighters was Hal’s idea. All of it had been, really. He’d routed their trip, making plans and hotel reservations across the country, allowing a whole week to get from California to Kentucky with a three day buffer in case of car trouble, or some other unforeseeable problem… like this freaking monsoon. It wasn’t trekking across Europe, but after seeing that horror movie about a youth hostel, he was actually okay with that.
The rain had already put them an hour and a half behind the day’s schedule, mostly due to the “should’ve done that” trip to AutoZone Jackson lamented not making. He and Hal decided that it might be best to keep the phones on until the storm blew over. Jackson suggested going ahead and stopping for the night, but Hal didn’t want to lose the deposit on the hotel room, so they kept on.
“Hey dude, what’s up the road there on the right?” Hal asked.
Jackson leaned closer to his windshield, slowing down just a bit, and squinting his eyes. “Is that a person?” Jackson wondered out loud. He felt bad for whoever deemed it necessary to walk around in this mess. He slowed down even more as he drove closer.
“What are you doing, man? You can’t stop to pick up a hitchhiker!”
“I’m just going to stop and see if they need some help.”
Jackson ignored Hal’s protests as he pulled up next to the mound of walking clothes and rolled down his passenger side window. “Hey, do you need a ride?” he called out. A wrinkled face appeared from underneath a cloak. The lady smiled at him and nodded. He pushed open the door to let her inside just as Hal pulled out from behind him and rushed down the road.
“Didn’t your folks tell you to assume all hitchhikers are serial killers?” Hal grunted.
The woman looked at the cell phone hanging from the visor. “Your friend seems upset,” she said as she fastened her seatbelt. Jackson laughed. “He’s always in a bit of a hurry. I’ve got time to get you where you need to go, though.””
“It isn’t far, and I can’t thank you enough,” she squeaked. “My husband needed his medicine, and my car broke down. I can’t pay you money, but I have tea ready. I’d be honored if you could join me… as payment for the ride.”
“Tea is a bad idea, Jackson,” Hal said. “You need to tell her to get out of the car and come on. We’re late.”
The lady snorted. “Tea is never a bad idea, child.” She turned towards Jackson. “Please say you’ll join me.”
Jackson offered a small smile to the lady and agreed. Hal gunned the gas and pulled around Jackson, who gave the woman an apologetic smile as Hal’s taillights disappeared into the darkening horizon. Hal didn’t even try to be polite after that. He spent the next five minutes complaining and ranting at Jackson over picking up the “old biddy”. Jackson could feel his cheeks warm with embarrassment and told Hal goodbye as he hung up the phone. He ignored Hal’s callback and listened as the woman named Pearl Mallory told him about how much Jackson reminded her of her husband, interspersed with directions on how to get to her home. Hal called a total of 23 times before Jackson finally pulled into Pearl’s driveway. He left the phone in the car as he helped her out and they walked up the steep stairs to her home.
Once inside, she led him to an old fashioned embroidered couch, and pointed at the tea set sitting on the squat, cherry wood table. “You just make yourself at home, son. Pour yourself a cup, I promise it’s exactly what you need.” She offered Jackson another toothy smile and disappeared into a hallway. Jackson looked around the dusty old room filled with pictures and memories of family and friends. He poured himself a glass of tea and sipped, relishing in the warmth of it as it slipped down his throat. He hadn’t realized how tired he was until then. The stress of driving in the rain and the embarrassment of how Hal treated to little old lady melted away as the tea began to settle him. He closed his eyes for only a moment and awoke with a start as the sun shone on his face.
He sat up looking around, confused. “Pearl?” He called out, but nobody answered. He yelled his appreciation, hoping Pearl heard him as he ran out the door. The sun was high in the sky and he knew Hal was going to be pissed. Pulling out of the driveway, he took one last look at the house. The night before, in the pouring rain, it seemed much more a safe-haven than the dilapidated shell it looked in daylight.
He dialed Hal’s phone, but Hal wasn’t answering. Jackson tried to make up for lost time by driving twenty miles over the speed limit. Just outside the tiny town, police cars blocked the road. He stopped his car, hoping one of the officers standing around would be able to give him an alternate route. An officer nodded at him, pointing at Jackson’s car. “You can’t go this way, son,” he said.
Jackson smiled at him. A tow truck struggled against the weight of a car on the slippery mud that used to be the road. “This is the way my GPS says I need to go. I got sidetracked helping someone get home last night or I would have made it before the road washed out, I guess. Is there another way around?” he asked.
“You’ll have to drive out and get on the main highway to bypass. It’s about an hour out of the way, but it’ll get you where you need to go.”
Jackson nodded and started to turn around to head back to his car, when the tow truck finally succeeded in pulling the mud encrusted car onto what was left of the road. Jackson’s heart skipped a beat, recognizing the car as Hal’s. He started running towards the car, but the officer grabbed his arm. “No, you don’t understand. That car belongs to my friend!” He struggled against the officer, but wasn’t able to get out from his grasp. “I stopped to pick up an old lady and get her home and out of the rain. My friend…he was going ahead to the hotel! That’s his car!”
“Pearl?” The police officer questioned. Jackson kept fighting to get to Hal’s car, but the officer got in his face and shook him. “Your friend is in the hospital. He’s banged up pretty bad, but he’ll live. Now I need to know – the lady you picked up – did she give you her name? Was it Pearl Mallory?”
Jackson nodded, slapping tears from his face. How was he supposed to call Hal’s mother and explain that not only was her kid in a wreck, but that he’d abandoned him to give a stranger a ride?
The policeman nodded. “Pearl’s husband died out here about twelve years ago when the road washed out. Pearl begged him not to go. She hated the rainy season. Believed it wasn’t safe. Now every time it rains, we get a report of somebody picking her up and taking her home. She always pays them with a cup of Earl Grey tea.”
“So?” Jackson asked, not understand what any of this had to do with Hal or his car.
The policeman smiled and patted Jackson on his back. ‘Pearl Mallory died ten years ago.”