Dust at the State Highway 10 junction began to coalesce, and I found myself wondering when the last time that occurrence filled me with anything resembling hope.
The dust disappeared in a flash and replaced by a car. One of the new-fangled models, made by foreigners out of mostly plastic parts. God only knew the make and model. I used to be so good at identifying a car by the sound of the motor, even at this distance. Now, I was clueless.
I stuck my thumb out, or what was left of it. As it had happened countless times before, the car thoroughly ignored my spectral signal, and moved straight on north to the 29 junction.
No one ever picks up hitchhikers anymore. That’s probably for the best, generally speaking. It’s dangerous. Hell, had I not picked up that one particular hitchhiker in the fall of 1965, I wouldn’t be cursed to beg for rides from beyond the grave for all eternity. Then again, if people were willing to take a chance on wayward travelers, this whole curse thing would be a lot livelier.
And so it continued. Night after night. A car passes by. Maybe the driver is a little spooked that the beggar on the side of the road glows in the night, but that only meant they were less likely to stop.
And then, one night, a car broke down.
The same uniform cloud of dust bloomed from the distance, but as the shape of the car appeared, the cloud turned black. The vehicle swerved, before rolling to a stop a few steps away from mile marker 523.
I floated toward it. The driver was already out and looking at the billowing black cascade emanating from his engine. Taking one look at the man, I knew he had never worked with his hands a day in his life and had no hope of figuring out anything that was happening to him.
“Brooooooooooooke dooooown?” I asked, and immediately winced. I hadn’t spoken a word in so long, and my first utterances sounded as if they were spoke by a—
“Are you a ghost?” he asked. He seemed to be taking the possibility rather well, to his credit.
“I—” I had never been asked this question directly. I was surprised it hadn’t come up before. “No. I’m just… Atomic. Radioactive. Nuclear.”
“Yeah,” the driver said. “I’ve heard of it.” He clearly didn’t buy the answer but didn’t appear as if he was going to press the issue further. After all, a ghost was just as farfetched.
At least, I thought it was. I had been out of the loop for a while. Spirits like me could be a dime a dozen out there in the world. The possibility of others like me sent me spiraling into a day dream—or I suppose, just a dream, as I always manifested at night—about meeting a nice other ghost and settling down to haunt some quaint little cottage in the country. Which then, inevitably, reminded me of my eternal attachment to this particular stretch of road. God, this guy was bumming me out.
“Car trouble?” I asked.
“No, I got the optional mesquite package.” He then shrugged, ending the charade.
“How was your engine temperature?” I asked.
“Oh, it was—” he twitched, apparently catching himself in another lie that wouldn’t help anybody. “Which gauge measures the temperature?”
The wisps of my ectoplasmic form wafted in the wind while I carefully picked an answer. “That’d be the thermometer.”
“Oh,” he said. “Yeah. I don’t remember. I hadn’t really looked at it.”
“Do you have something to drink in there?” I asked him.
He looked perplexed. “Uh, yeah… Why, are you thirsty?”
“No… What do you have?”
“A bottle of water,” he said, confusion seeping from every word.
“Grab it, and bring it here,” I told him. He did so and proceeded to hand it to me, but I ignored that. He didn’t need to see a ghost try to grab a bottle. It was awkward as hell. “See that white tank there to the left of the engine?”
“That’s your coolant tank. Your engine has been running too hot. Pour everything you’ve got in there.” With these convoluted new cars, it was just as likely where the windshield wiper fluid went, or it could have even been some kind of space-age liquid battery, or an air freshener meant to pump through the AC. As it turned out, we were both probably out of our depth.
He opened the tank and a sharp hiss of steam shot out. He then emptied the bottle into the tank and replaced the cap.
“Now,” I warned him. “That won’t take care of things, you should take it to the mechanic just north of the 29 junction. They’ll need to get you some proper coolant in there before you end up completely frying this thing.”
“The mechanic north of 29? There isn’t anything there other than a cow field. Tornado took that mechanic’s shop years ago. Are you sure you aren’t a ghost?”
I shrugged, hoping that would answer. “One more thing,” I said. “Can I get a ride?”
“You know, I would,” he said as he put the hood down. “I just don’t pick up hitchhikers. I could call somebody to come get you, if you like?”
I sighed. “Na. Never mind.” How he was going to use a telephone out here in the middle of nowhere was beyond me.
He approached the driver’s door and opened it. Before he got in, he turned back to me. “You know, it’s odd. With them bypassing this road with the new expressway next month, this might be the last time anyone ever breaks down here.”
But it was too late, he got into his car and drove back along his way, his car sputtering, but no longer belching smoke from the front.