The Polite Thing

by Chrissie Rohrman

I’m three miles from home when the wide, boxy back end of stranded car appears in the beam of my headlights. A bearded man steps into the road and waves his arm, flagging me down. I tense up, knowing I shouldn’t stop. It’s nearly midnight, the road otherwise deserted. If this were a horror movie, I’d be a goner for sure, the moment I touch the brake pedal.

Still, I know that I should stop, because it’s the polite thing to do. It’s what Mother would want me to do.

I pull to the side of the road behind the beached sedan, gravel crunching beneath the tires of my truck. The man stays by the bumper of his car, puffing on a cigarette. My fingers tighten around the steering wheel before I unbuckle and slide from the bench. The night is dark and quiet, and the thick, warm air smells of impending rain. If this were a horror movie –

Almost on cue, a rumble of thunder sounds in the distance. Diligently, I count five Mississippi’s. The man takes another drag, the tip of his cancer stick glowing in the night. “Need some help?” I call, one hand wrapped around the frame of the door.

“Damn thing’s a piece of shit,” he complains around his cigarette, punctuating the statement with a punt to the back tire.

I nod, keeping my distance. The car’s gray paint is faded in patches, a spiderweb of cracks decorates the back window, and the metal of the wheel wells resembles Swiss cheese. It’s a wonder the clunker is still on the road.

Although, it isn’t, and that’s sort of the point.

If this were a horror movie, this stranded man with greasy hair and a dirty t-shirt would be a serial killer, the kind to lure a Good Samaritan to the side of the road under the pretense of car trouble only to slit their throat at a secondary location.

Mother always said I had an overactive imagination, but it was never quite clear whether she encouraged such wild-running thoughts or was concerned by them. She also told me that it’s important to be polite, and kind, and that’s why I had to stop for this scraggly man and his broken-down Buick Skylark. It’s the kind thing to do, even though it’s midnight and the road is otherwise deserted.

He takes the cigarette from his mouth and extends a grimy hand. “Charlie.” It’s the perfect name for a killer, I think, if this were a horror movie.

“Matthew.” I don’t shake his hand.

Charlie doesn’t seem to take it personally. He shrugs and drops his cigarette to the pavement. “I really appreciate you stopping, Matt.”

I wince and fiddle with the keys to my truck, staring at the thin ribbon of bluish smoke rising into the air. I give him an opportunity to do the polite thing and snuff out the cigarette. He doesn’t. “I can give you a ride into town,” I finally offer.

“Thanks, man.” Charlie grins and hooks a thumb over his shoulder. “I just gotta get some things outta the trunk.”

I nod and follow him to the back of the Buick with wide steps, keeping some space between us. Charlie leans into the trunk, blocking my view of the interior with the bulk of his body. As he grabs a worn duffel bag, I catch a glimpse of a butcher’s apron, streaked with rusty red and brown.

If this were a horror movie, I think, but push the thought away before it grows any traction.

“You like country music, Matt?” Charlie asks once we’re on the road. Before I can respond, he leans over and snaps on the radio, turning the knob and tuning to a station outside of the presets.

A sharp twang of a guitar invades my ears, accompanied by soulful crooning.

“George Strait,” Charlie says as he settles back on the bench seat and props an elbow on the door. “He’s like an icon of mine.”

I nod, though the nickname, and the music, grates on my nerves. I clench my jaw, and my knuckles whiten around the steering wheel.

The rain starts then, a few fat drops impacting the windshield. I turn on the wipers, and they squeak in protest as they drag across the glass. Within minutes, I can hardly see the road through the downpour. The inside of the truck feels cramped and hot, filled with tension and twenty-year-old country music. If this were a horror movie, it would be the part when Charlie grins too big, showing gaps in his teeth, and says something like boy, it’s really coming down, or hope we don’t get stranded in this.

Instead he peers through the windshield and lets out a low whistle. “I really appreciate this, Matt,” he says, because this isn’t a horror movie.

“Matthew,” I finally correct, feeling a familiar angry heat rising in my chest. I drop my left hand from the wheel, feel out the worn leather-wrapped hilt of the hunting knife in the pocket of the door.

I’ve tried to reign in my overactive mind. I’ve tried to be kind, to be polite, for Mother. But I’m no Good Samaritan.

Chest heaving, teeth grinding, I twist the steering wheel. The truck veers harshly over the bump of the berm before I stomp on the brake pedal.

“Whoa, Matty!” Charlie’s elbow slips from the door and he looks over me with a nervous chuckle.

Rain pounds against the windshield. A crack of lightning shows his wide, confused gaze, and then thunder growls overhead.

“Matthew,” I say again. I raise the knife and bring it down to his neck as politely as I can.

Mother would be proud.

Chrissie Rohrman is a training supervisor from Indianapolis, Indiana. When she has successfully corralled her husband and five fur babies, she enjoys entering every writing competition she can. She is currently drafting her first novel, the start of a YA fantasy trilogy.

Published 7/16/20