It's called The Hitchhiker's Tale.
It was just my luck that my car broke down on a deserted rural road in the middle of the night. Moreover, my cell phone was absolutely drained, preventing me from calling a cab. Fortunately it was a warm night, but that didn’t change the fact that I was squarely in between Danville, where my plane had landed, and Littlestown, where the mythology conference was. I was to present a paper on the symbolism behind Loki’s imprisonment the next morning, and I could not be late.
That was what prompted me to stick my thumb out when the headlights snaked down the road ten minutes later. Inadvisable, I know, but I was desperate. It was almost thirty miles to Littlestown.
The headlights turned out not to belong to a car, but a pickup truck. It pulled over and the driver, a ginger-haired boy in maybe his late teens or early twenties, leaned out of the window. “Hey, you want a ride?” he called amiably.
“Thanks.” I got into the front seat, settling my briefcase under my knees. The car was, I had noticed, badly dented and scraped in several places.
“Where are you headed?” asked the boy, pulling back onto the road and glancing at me curiously. I must have been quite an atypical hitchhiker: a thin man with academic glasses and a briefcase, wandering the empty roads at midnight.
“Littlestown,” I told him. “I’m on my way to an academic conference on mythology. I specialize in the Prose Edda, you know.”
“Oh yeah? I haven’t heard of that,” said the boy, a smile tugging on the corner of his mouth. “I don’t get out much, though.”
“What about you?” I asked. “What brings you to this stretch of road so late at night?”
“Me?” He shrugged. “I just like driving.”
A thought struck me and I chuckled. “This is like something out of an urban legend. When I get to Littlestown and describe you, someone will tell me that you died ten years ago and still keep driving around picking up hitchhikers.”
“Twenty-three, actually,” said the boy, turning the wheel slightly as the road curved.
I frowned. “Twenty-three what?”
“It was twenty-three years ago,” he explained, “not ten.” He glanced at me, deadpan.
I laughed and after a moment his mouth quirked upwards and he laughed with me. “Nah, I kid,” he said, checking the rearview mirror. “So tell me—what do you do for fun?”
The drive took less than half an hour, and the boy, who introduced himself as Asa Baker, let me out beside the hotel. I walked into the lobby and called in my reservation, planning to rescue my car the next day (or rather, that afternoon—it was one-forty-five a.m. when I got to the hotel).
After I presented my paper, I got a ride from one of my colleagues, a woman who taught creative writing at Littlestown University and had presented a paper on story tropes. When I told her where my car was, she stared at me in confusion and said, “How on earth did you get all the way here in time for the conference?”
I told her that a young man called Asa Baker had picked me up and brought me to the hotel, and she looked at me with half-lowered eyelids.
“My students put you up to this, didn’t they,” she said. It wasn’t a question.
“What do you mean?”
“Asa Baker. He’s one of the more popular urban legends around here. He was a nineteen-year-old farm worker who died in a freak road accident twenty-something years ago. People say he drives around in his pickup truck and offers hitchhikers rides. My students are always joking about meeting him on a dark road in the middle of the night.”
I stared at her. “You’re kidding.”
“Nope.” She raised an eyebrow. “So how’d you really get here?”
“But…” I shook my head. “My God, he wasn’t joking. He actually wasn’t joking.”
“Who wasn’t joking?”
“Asa Baker. It really was twenty-three years!”
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