Hitchers Online - Will McIntosh

PROLOGUE

Only thirty minutes separated my grandfather’s death from Lorena’s. I didn’t find out Grandpa was dead until the next day, but I knew he was dying, so it wasn’t exactly a surprise. I figured the selfish old bastard would live a few more months, at least. His lungs had seemed fine when we’d argued that morning.

About the time dear old Grandpa was dying I was pulling a dripping oar into a canoe on the Chattahoochee River, thinking it would be nice to drift with the current for a while. The morning had been one long relentless paddle upstream (metaphorically speaking) and I felt I deserved a break.

“You don’t think she’ll get fired, do you?” Lorena had asked drowsily as we drifted. “I didn’t mean to get her in trouble, even though she was incredibly rude to me.” She was still ruminating about the argument she’d had with our waitress at the Blue Boy Diner. I was ruminating about the argument I’d had with my grandfather that morning, which had far greater implications for our future.

What I didn’t know at the time was that we had no future. We had about twenty-five minutes.

“I’d feel terrible if she got fired,” Lorena added.

“I doubt they’ll fire her,” I said, not sure if that was true. The truth was, I thought Lorena had overreacted a little. If it had been my pancakes I would have let it go. But I’d never tell Lorena that now. What would be the point, except to make Lorena feel bad?

It had been one of those loud, public confrontations that made me cringe inside, even when it was taking place at someone else’s table, and as I said, I’d already had one extremely traumatic argument that day. Lorena had asked nicely for the waitress to take the pancakes back, and I distinctly remember her telling the waitress to hold the butter. Of course she had—she’s lactose intolerant. She always does.

When the pancakes arrived and Lorena pointed out the butter, the waitress suggested Lorena move it into the cup that held the little cream containers. She’d been frazzled, slightly huffy, her dark bangs pasted to her forehead by sweat. She was about our age—late twenties—and had long tattoos of assault rifles morphing into flowers trailing up each of her forearms. The tattoos suggested she was an easygoing neo-hippy sort of woman, but her eyes suggested much of that peace, love, and good times listening to Phish had been blunted by double-shifts at the Blue Boy.

Faces had lifted from grilled chicken sandwich platters to watch Lorena and the waitress go at it.

I said I’ll take it back.

I heard what you said. It’s the tone and the eye roll I didn’t appreciate.

The waitress had backpedaled from her huffiness as soon as Lorena reacted, but it was too late. Lorena looked like such a sweetheart that people sometimes made the mistake of thinking they could push her around, but Lorena was a sweetheart who would bite if poked.

“Look at the bright side—we got our meal for free,” I said.

“Not that I could eat after that. My lunch is still in my throat,” Lorena said.

I’d dropped a ten dollar tip on our table when Lorena wasn’t looking. Somehow I sensed that the waitress had been having a bad day, just like us.

The scenery unrolled along the Chattahoochee River, shifting from dense forest to cozy cabins to grassy hills. I can still see it. Dense clouds formed a low ceiling just above the treetops. Everything was crisp and clear.

Eyes closed, Lorena stretched languidly, her wrists bent, her Latin-with-a-touch-of-Asian face turned toward the sky. “This is so beautiful. We should do this more often, when we’re not feeling so depressed.” She reached out and massaged my neck. I remember feeling that familiar jolt of pleasure and surprise that this incredible woman had married me. It was a sensation I’d felt almost hourly during the first few months of our marriage. In all of our wedding photos I look stunned.

“Can I say something that’s sneaky and makes me seem like a bad person?” Lorena asked, kneading the knots in my neck.

“You? You’re incapable of sneaky. You’d bleed out your ears if you tried to be sneaky.”

“Oh, that’s a lovely image,” Lorena laughed. “It would be sneaky, though.”

We paused to admire a dilapidated shack leaning out over the river, clearly abandoned. On another day we might have paddled over to take a peek inside. We both had a weird fascination with abandoned places.

I turned in the canoe, sat with