What does wanderlust mean when you’re a ghost? Find out by joining Darcie Little Badger’s wonderfully intrepid Corey and Jimena on the road. ~ Julian and Fran, April 2, 2023
Those Hitchhiking Kids
By Darcie Little Badger
They hadn’t died while hitchhiking, and ghosts couldn’t own a car, but Corey and Jimena shared the condition of wanderlust, so something had to be done. In high school, they’d ditch class to bus-hop through Houston, losing themselves in mazes of hot streets. Death hadn’t extinguished the urge to travel without aim, although it made the process trickier, more frustrating.
A red truck sped past Jimena, who lowered her thumb in momentary defeat. She’d glimpsed the driver through his dusty, bug-greased window. A middle-aged man, his baseball cap drawn low over deep-set eyes. There’d been a pine-tree-shaped air freshener hanging from his rearview mirror. Based on those observations alone, she couldn’t decide whether he’d opted to ignore her, or simply hadn’t seen her. Over the past fifty years, hitchhiking had become increasingly difficult for Corey and Jimena, their success rate dropping from now-and-then to almost-never, and although Corey often reassured her that “times change; people are just more cautious,” Jimena was afraid that they were fading like old paint in the sun. That someday, no human on Earth would be able to see them, and then what?
“Only six cars in one hour,” Corey said. “The highway’s a dud.”
“Let’s try another one,” she joked. Around them, the Chihuahuan Desert exhaled mirages, air rippling over the yellow-red earth. They were trudging to the end of Route 67, which ran from the tip of Illinois to the edge of southwest Texas.
“Take pity on us,” Corey groaned at the sky, and then he flopped onto his back, his limbs spread starfish style. “It’s sweltering.”
“There’s no rush.” Jimena sat cross-legged behind his head, her body casting a shadow across his youthful face. Visually, they hadn’t changed in over fifty years. Corey still had a couple blemishes on his left cheek, one on his broad nose and the shadow of facial hair down his jawline and chin. Jimena’s oval face lacked wrinkles, and her smile sparkled with the bulky silver braces she’d worked three years—from sophomore to senior year—to afford. A shame. She could’ve spent that money on concert tickets and milkshakes.
But they’d died young, and fast, and hadn’t seen it coming.
To pass the time, Jimena wove tiny braids into Corey’s dense black hair. Braiding, unbraiding, rebraiding. He dozed. She hummed aimlessly. Her shadow lengthened from his neck to his chest before the sun ducked behind the distant mountains.
“I think we’re near Marfa,” she said. “Walking distance, maybe.”
“That old army town?” he drowsily asked. “Been there, done that.”
“The last trucker who picked us up.”
“He said Marfa is full of artists now.”
Corey laughed. “No way. How can we see everything, if everything keeps changing?”
“We don’t change.”
“That so?” He sat up beside Jimena and rested his head on her bare shoulder; she wore a sleeveless sundress, white daisies on yellow. A very flattering print, one of her finest outfits. The dress she’d died in. What dress had she been buried in? Probably the austere long-sleeved navy-blue smock she’d always worn to Communion. “Am I getting old and boring?” Corey wondered aloud. He wore a white shirt and denim jeans, his go-to date-night outfit.
“Never boring,” she reassured him. After the accident, they didn’t get hungry or thirsty, didn’t burn in the sun, and never got bored. But they slept. They dreamed. And if they weren’t careful, they’d dream forever, which was why Jimena and Corey always napped in shifts. There’d be time for rest eventually, but they wanted to witness Earth’s finale. Corey thought humans and their nukes would be the death of Her. But Jimena was convinced that the human species would go the way of dinosaurs before their planet disintegrated in the heat of a luminously aging sun.
A red convertible, top down, went cruising past. Even though Jimena and Corey were sitting idly, the car slowed and then stopped on the shoulder of Route 67. From the driver’s seat, a woman shouted, “Are you kids all right?”
The hitchhikers jumped to their feet. “We need a ride!” Jimena called back; she always made first contact with drivers, although Corey was chattier on the road.
The driver waved them over. “That’s where I’m headed.”
* * *
Their new friend, Wendi with an i, was a sculptor of clay molds for bronze casts. Forty-eight years old and recently divorced, she’d been driving for three days. She wore a driving scarf—yellow silk, tied under her chin à la Audrey Hepburn—and smoked an e-cigarette, exhaling the scent of stale mint.
“What kind of statues do you make?” Jimena asked. She sat in the passenger seat, while Corey manned the back. He had to lean forward to hear the ladies over the steady rush of air, which was cooling quickly.
“Figurative,” Wendi said. “Human busts.”
Corey’s immature snicker was lost in the wind, although Jimena instinctually knew that he’d laugh at the word bust, always did, so she rolled her eyes.
“Don’t roll your eyes at me,” he whispered in her ear. Could he see her reflection in the rearview mirror? Or were they both just predictable?
“I’ve always felt like a bird in a cage,” Wendi continued. “Well-fed and protected, but restrained. My career has been defined by safe art because safe pays the bills, if you’re lucky, and I’ve certainly been lucky, but . . .” She trailed off, distracted by a sign along the highway:
MARFA’S MYSTERY LIGHTS
“‘Mystery lights’? Is that for real?”
“Yup,” shouted Corey. “Marfa’s mystery lights! Some people claim they’re aliens.”
“Or experimental military aircraft,” Jimena added.
“Or Apache ghosts.”
“What do they look like?” Wendi asked.
“Typical UFOs, I guess,” Corey supposed with a shrug. “We’ve never seen ’em. Say, what’s the time? I feel weird.”
Out of unchangeable habit, Jimena glanced at her wristwatch, which was frozen at 10:13. Then, she checked the dash. “Only nine forty-five.” But that couldn’t be right. Suddenly, her skin was feverishly warm, which normally meant . . .
“My clock’s slow,” Wendi said.
Corey and Jimena locked eyes in the rearview mirror. He winked. She winced. At first, Corey’s gaze was clear, bright, with irises like rich oak, polished to a shine. Then, capillaries burst, and blood flooded his left sclera. When Jimena looked down, there was a hole in her sundress, and the pretty daisies were as red as roses.
“Oops,” Corey said.
At least Wendi didn’t crash in shock. She just screamed and stomped the brakes and reached for Jimena and then screamed some more when her gloved hand passed through air because the passenger seat was empty and had always been.
Five hundred miles away, the hitchhikers materialized alongside a random, forested stretch of Route 67. Green pines swayed in a heavy wind, their pointed canopies bumping together like hands in prayer.
“I wish my watch worked,” Jimena sighed. “Poor Wendi.”
* * *
They’d been in Bo’s car for three hours when Corey noticed the sign:
MARFA’S MYSTERY LIGHTS
& EV CHARGING PORT
“Hey, look!” he exclaimed, pointing. “Remember those, J.?”
“Have you seen them?” Bo asked. He was a sturdy, bearded man in a baseball cap and windbreaker. His eyes were a shade of green that came from contact lenses, not nature. They’d met Bo near a charging station along 67; he’d been reluctant to take two people. Said it was dangerous. Said he’d be outnumbered. Said you couldn’t trust strangers, much less hitchhiking strangers. Haven’t you heard the horror stories? The highways are lined with killers and robbers, all looking for a sentimental mark. But after Corey and Jimena turned their pockets inside out to prove that they were empty, Bo had agreed to take them near the border. “Don’t try anything funny,” he’d warned them. “My car’s a driver-defense model.”
Jimena had nodded solemnly, pretending that she knew what that meant, that she’d been born in an era of intelligent electric cars, and hadn’t died before the first seat-belt law.
The sign seemed to animate Bo, his fingers tapping against the steering wheel, his question loud and eager.
“We rarely visit Marfa,” Corey explained, “so no.”
“Keep your eyes peeled.”
The car’s domed roof was as clear as glass, a convertible without the rush of sweet desert air. Through the dome, Jimena could see the Milky Way, the waning moon, Venus and Mars, and a dozen restless pinpricks of light that she’d recently learned were satellites, not falling stars. An important distinction: you could practically set your watch by the predictable movement of satellites. To Jimena, who had a broken spectral timepiece, that was more useful than unfulfilled wishes.
“What time is it?” Jimena asked, sitting up; she’d been lying unbuckled across the back seat to stargaze.
“Nine twenty-three,” Bo answered. “Why, are you in a hurry?”
“We need to reach town before ten.”
“No problem.” Bo took a slow right turn, leaving the highway for an unmarked dirt road, little more than two ruts cutting through the Chihuahuan Desert. In the front passenger seat, Corey was uncharacteristically silent, so Jimena raised the obvious: “This isn’t the right way.”
“Don’t you want to see the Marfa lights?”
“You won’t find them in an approved viewing zone. Real locals know a better place.”
“I thought you were from Fresno.”
“Not originally. I lived here as a boy.”
“Just five more minutes.” Bo pressed a star-shaped icon on the touch-screen dash, and the overhead dome went black; maybe it had always been a video screen, nothing but a facsimile of the sky. In the soft moonlight, the desert through the side window resembled impressionist art, layered shadows creating the suggestion of rocks and squat cacti. With very little effort, Jimena could imagine they were hitchhiking on an alien planet. Humans had walked on the moon and steered manned spacecraft around Mars. Someday, there might be roads on the moons of Jupiter. Rides to distant solar systems. Thousands of ghosts born in the void. Humanity was capable of such wonders.
Soon, the car stopped and went dark, except for a single light over the rearview mirror. When Jimena wiggled the latch on her door, nothing happened, but that didn’t surprise her. They’d been hitchhiking for forty thousand days. More, probably. She’d lost count. Attempted robberies happened. And worse. Bo knew they possessed nothing but the clothes on their backs.
She sought Corey’s eyes in the rearview mirror. He nodded subtly. Jimena scooted behind the driver-side seat and leaned forward, pressing her forehead against its faux leather upholstery, waiting for a sign. Corey’s fingers tensed into fists. It would be easy for Jimena to wrap her long arms around Bo in a tightening squeeze; he’d claw at her cold skin; she’d feel nothing.
“Sorry about that,” Bo said. “Child locks.” He pressed a button, and every door popped open.
“You have a family?” Corey asked, visibly relaxing.
“Three sons. They’re grown now, but old habits die hard.”
As one, they all stepped outside.
“Well, damn,” Bo grunted, hands on his hips, staring at the southern horizon. “I wasted your time. Doubt we’ll see anything over that. Used to be dark.”
The horizon was aglow with Marfa’s electric lights, so bright, they diluted half the Milky Way.
“Been a while since you last visited?” Corey asked.
“Mister, the world’s a-changing.” He snickered giddily and pulled Jimena into a half-hug.
“Oh, thank God,” she sighed, letting Corey spin her.
“What’s tickled you?” Bo asked. “Is development a punch line now?”
“We’re just relieved.”
“You had us worried for a moment.” Corey laughed. “Driving to the middle of nowhere, child locks deployed.”
“Thought I’d kill you?” Bo asked, snorting in disbelief, as if they’d just claimed that one plus one equaled five, instead of stranger equals danger.
“No!” Jimena giggled. “Thought we’d have to kill you.”
“Whuh . . .”
“Out of self-defense!” Corey reassured him. “Well . . . defense of others.” It was easy to phase through a car’s aluminum shell, and they couldn’t die twice, anyway. However, they’d kill—had killed—to protect living hitchhikers. It wasn’t fun, but it didn’t give them nightmares, either.
The ghosts they made, on the other hand? Oh. Nightmares always claimed them quickly.
“Hilarious,” Bo snapped, while backing away from the cackling kids, “you freaks can walk from here. Town’s lit up like the Vegas Strip. Can’t miss it.”
And after he zipped away, Jimena and Corey danced in the desert until 10:13, and then they danced along the moonlit cornfields of Iowa.
* * *
Hand in hand, Jimena and Corey materialized in the black desert; moments earlier, they’d been trudging through Missouri. People didn’t drive much anymore, and large swathes of Route 67 were gone, leaving islands of weed-split concrete scattered throughout five states. How long had it been since their last conversation with a living person? Eight days, at least, and that guy had been a security enforcer who’d raised hell until they ran away, giggling at the absurdity of his threats.
Although Jimena enjoyed meeting new people, there was only one person she needed. Every day with Corey was exciting and blissful, as if death had suspended their relationship within the blaze of new infatuation. As Jimena ran her fingers through Corey’s wind-tangled hair and pulled him into a firm kiss, she wondered if she’d loved him then, centuries ago. If he’d loved her.
For a minute, the hitchhikers clutched each other tightly. Neither breathed. Their hearts didn’t beat. The silence of unchanging things was absolute.
“Where are we?” Jimena wondered aloud. “It feels familiar.” Had they visited every inch of Route 67?
Corey pointed at a dust-streaked, rusty sign. They huddled close to read its faded lettering in the moonlight:
MARFA’S M STERY LIGH S
Then, on the horizon, a burst of white light flared and then ascended quickly toward the heavens; the sky lit up, as if sunrise had come early.
“Is that a mystery light?” Jimena asked, covering her mouth in shock. “We’ve finally seen one?” No, she realized. It was too bright.
“A rocket.” Corey’s eyes reflected the distant flame of combustion. “They’re going to space.”
“There’s people inside?”
The sound reached them, a ferocious delayed roar.
“We should have hitched a ride!” Jimena shouted.
They waited until the spaceship was a bright speck arcing around Earth, yet another satellite. Sometimes, there seemed to be more satellites than stars.
“At first, I thought it was a nuke,” Jimena confessed with a sheepish smile. “That you were right, and that the world was going out with a bang.”
As expected, Corey snickered at the word bang.
“Be serious,” she chided. And then, in the dark, Jimena wondered, “If everyone runs to the sky, who will build more cars and roads? What will we do when the highway is gone for good? Disappear? We might not have a billion years.”
“I don’t know, baby.” He shook his head. “That’s the beauty of it, though. Don’t you think?”
“The beauty of what?”
In response, Corey spread his arms, as if indicating everything. Then, his all-encompassing gesture transformed into another hug.
The future might not be so terrible, Jimena decided. Perhaps, when the highway crumbled, they’d be set free. Like a cage opening. They could really see the world. Meet new ghosts. Swim in the ocean.
A soft clip-clop sound interrupted their embrace. Jimena and Corey jumped apart, wide-eyed. Illuminated by a handheld lantern, an elderly woman rode a silvery gray draft horse on the remnants of Route 67. The elder’s round brown face was densely wrinkled, her white hair was braided, and her arms were marked by an intricate web of geometric tattoos. Not an expected sight at 10:45 p.m., but perhaps she’d been watching the rocket launch.
The woman stopped her horse with a click of her tongue. Looking down at the hitchhikers, she raised an inquisitive eyebrow.
Jimena stuck out her thumb.
Thank you for joining our journey this week.
Darcie Little Badger is the Nebula and Locus award-winning author of Elatsoe and A Snake Falls to Earth. She drifts between Texas and California (but has only hitchhiked once).
“Those Hitchhiking Kids,” © Darcie Little Badger, 2023.
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I really flippin' loved this! A++ Thanks so much!
This is a really good story! It flipped my expectations at every turn, and left me filled with hope and wonder.