How To Leave A Stranger: Short Story

The man narrowly avoided the girl, rounding another nameless curve in the unlit country road. He hadn’t time to consider much before pulling up. The wheels stopped twenty metres ahead of where she stood, slouching and morose in the mist. He hadn’t planned on picking up a hitchhiker. But then, how could he leave her?

She waited there in the wet paddock grass, considering his intentions, perhaps.

The man squinted into his rear view mirror and wondered if he should reverse. No. That would seem solicitous. He cranked down the window instead, meaning to offer a casual invitation.

He didn’t need to call out. The pale face appeared, framed by the window. Long, dark hair hung lank around her pixie face. She looked like she’d been crying. It was probably the drizzle, washing mascara down freckled cheeks.

“You headed for Wellington.” It wasn’t a question. This winding road had only one logical terminus. She stooped there, two metres out from his wagon, making no move to open the door.

He felt cold prickles on his forehead. The passenger seat was getting damp. “Hop in.”

She opened the rear door and threw an army-surplus rucksack across the seat. To his surprise, she joined her luggage in the back, looking like a little kid without a booster chair.

“This is no taxi service.” He meant to say it kindly. He hoped she heard his smile through the darkness. “You sit in the back, I might expect a fare.”

Did she not trust him? Might he thrust his palm between her thighs? Not likely. Not on a night like this, when both hands were required on the wheel, just to keep the gale from buffering a wagon right off the road. Still, he shouldn’t have said that.

The wagon idled. If she didn’t trust him in the front, he didn’t trust her in the back. She sat shrouded in shadow. The girl could be carrying a flick knife for all he knew. A blade to the throat would be easy to choreograph from the back seat – harder from a lateral position. Hitchhikers were supposed to offer basic companionship as fare. Or had times changed?

The girl obliged him and manoeuvred her agile body through the narrow gap between the front seats. Without meeting his eye, she strapped herself in. The seatbelt jerked, steadfast against her attempts to set up a barrier between herself and the man.

He leaned hard on the steering wheel. The wagon bumped back onto the tarmac. He indicated out of habit, not because there was another vehicle within cooee. Not on the back road.

“This the classical station?” The girl’s index finger made a tentative move towards the stereo. “Guess they reckon no one’s up listening after midnight.”

“It’s a CD.” His favourite.

The man glanced at the girl’s slim wrist and at her chipped nail varnish. Had the parents taught no manners at all? What’s all this, questioning his music when the ride itself was a random act of kindness?

The girl bit her bottom lip with rabbitesque teeth. “Can’t stand that violin screeching on.”

She turned the knob. A staticky buzz ebbed and flowed between high-pitched alien whirrs until the dial settled upon the strongest signal – a station with its daytime announcers on LSD and its night-time crew on pot. The girl drummed her leg to the rhythm of some frenetic, drug-induced guitar distortion.

“There’s no way of saying this without sounding creepy,” said the man, “but a girl should not be hitching alone. Especially at night.”

“You read the papers?” She wiped strands of hair from her forehead. Oncoming headlights of a rare road-sharer drew the man’s attention to a raindrop glistening on the tip of her nose. Just for a second.

He nodded. It’s not what you read about. It’s what you don’t.

“Shouldn’t take no notice of papers. S’all bullshit. Bad stuff happens all over the place and when you least expect it. Anyway, I strike more luck hitching alone than with a bloke.”

He didn’t doubt that. She was dressed for the journey. Short skirt. Damp, clingy t-shirt. He noticed she shivered and thought to offer his jacket – the one he’d removed earlier and placed, neatly folded, upon the back seat. But that would seem fatherly, over-familiar, chivalrous. This girl was not his daughter, nor a potential conquest.

Instead, he cranked up the heating. The cool interior was suited to these long, overnight journeys: less chance of falling asleep at the wheel. But he would make an exception for his passenger. He’d hardly doze off with ska-punk blaring at this volume.

Hot breeze wafted towards the girl. She closed her eyes. Had she noticed his attempt at a welcome?

The narrow road dipped into gullies and rose into hillcrests. By day, the view would reveal green fields and flocks of grey sheep huddled beneath the mountains. By night, the farmland was uniform in its dark cloak of mist. Windscreen wipers clicked and slithered across the glass. Pleased at his own driving prowess, the man’s left hand manipulated the gear stick. He conducted the purring engine through the valley.

He wondered where the girl was headed. He wondered where she’d been. Did she have any idea of her worth? Someone, somewhere, had laboured to give her life. Someone had cared for the girl, at least enough to offer basic sustenance and shelter. And she repaid her parents like this – risking physical safety by waiting on the verge of a deserted highway – likely to die of hypothermia, if not sideswiped by a rig. Or abducted by evil.

The girl’s eyes were closed but small hands formed fists in her lap. Why would she trust him? Why would anyone? He wouldn’t trust himself if he happened upon his own double on a back road. Who’d get inside a car with a wide-shouldered man in need of a shave? Especially when his goatee made a sub par job of concealing the long scar engraved down one side of his face.

The girl regarded the man through heavy lids. “Do you got a job?”

“Of course I have a job.”

“Well, my uncles don’t got no job.” He’d presumed too much by his tone. “What you work as?”

“I’m a musician, of sorts.”

The girl looked at the stereo, then at the man. “No kidding! What you play? You in a band?”

“I play the violin. In a quartet.”

A grin spread slowly across her face. She raised her eyebrows then rested her mouth in her palm.

“Not what women want to hear,” he said, then regretted his words. Better to justify that. “Most people would agree that the guitar is a far more attractive instrument. Right up there with drums and sax.”

The girl puffed out her cheeks and drew up her knees. She looked like his daughter: a thinly disguised, older version. But then, the man saw ghost-daughters everywhere.

“You heading home from a gig, then?”

“On my way.”

The girl nodded. “Your job explains the beat up old wagon in need a some panel beating.”

The voice of youth. But then, aren’t they all attuned to the physical manifestations of affluence these days? A breadline violinist must settle for engine reliability over image. He must also catch the cheap ferry. The two twenty-five Interislander, to be precise. He glanced at the dashboard clock. Plenty of time. He’d anticipated the gorge would be closed to traffic on a night like this.

“And where are you off to at this hour?”

“Me?” She said this as if there might be an unannounced fellow passenger stowed in the boot. “Nowhere in particular. Just gonna wing it for now. No point making plans when plans just change.”

How she sounded like his wife, pointing that out. Even the way she rolled her eyes. The man had always been the planning type. Holidays, meals, bill-payments; he always had a mental timeline, always knew where he was headed, what he would do once he got there.

The girl dropped her slim legs to the floor. “Anyhow, my life aren’t none a no one else’s beeswax.”

The man jabbed the knob on the stereo. The music ended. They listened to the road noise for a while, and the click-click-click of the windscreen wipers. He needed new rubber strips. Another thirty bucks. Then the girl turned the radio back on. She grinned. He let the ska-punk play.

“You married?”


 “Din think so.”

What on earth gave him the bachelor whiff? Was it the empty petrol-station pie packets crackling beneath her Chucks? Might the interior of his wagon, like his Spartan cottage, lack a woman’s touch?

He’d intended on staying married, but promises were fruitless; marriage required two souls of similar inclination. Last time he saw his wife she’d made her mark – branded him with the claw of her eternity ring. He didn’t mind. The surface tingle on his cheek was nothing to the torture of loss sitting heavy in his chest. He’d welcomed the transfer of pain.

The wife had wanted a different reaction. She wanted him to fight back, to argue his case, to tell her it wasn’t his fault. But he slouched over the sink, weeping, with one bleeding cheek cupped in one large hand. The wife couldn’t bear the grief mirrored in the man’s eyes. So she left.

So much for life plans.

Against instinct, the man tried not to look ahead. If he could make it through today, tomorrow would reveal itself, eventually. Nights were the longest. Ghostly girls disrupted his REM, each ghost older than the one before: each with eyes more knowing, but with a body just as small. Better to keep driving… Keep moving. Keep distracted. He glanced at the slight figure beside him, anticipating her next move, second-guessing her needs. Her arms were sticks. She’d have no chance against a large man.

“Where would you like me to drop you off?”

“You passing anywhere near Cuba Street?”          

“I can’t dump you in the city.”

“Why not?”

Why, indeed. Why had he picked her up in the first place? He’d hurtled round the bend thinking one stray head of cattle might launch itself into his path. He’d pumped the brakes before realising the beast was human. In an instant he’d become this girl’s guardian, in loco parentis, morally obliged to follow through in his duty of care. He had no choice.

“I aren’t as young as I look.” The girl thrust out her bottom lip. “It’s a pain in the arse, looking young when you aren’t even.”

“You look about eighteen to me.”

“Hm.” Her shoulders hunched. She chewed on one thumbnail. “Most people think I’m fourteen. Cos I’m small, you know?”

After years of working behind a bar, the man could tell a minor by the eyes. This girl might pass for thirty, going solely on the look behind hers. Besides, he had a special interest in eighteen-year-old girls. He saw them everywhere, laughing and flirting and sipping on Bacardi Breezers: each a spectre of the man’s imagined daughter.

The road was straighter now, undulating and wider and lit by lamps.

The girl began to fidget. She bent down to massage her feet, then yawned with exaggerated arms. “Want some chewy?”

The man shook his head.

The girl unbuckled her belt and twisted around in the seat. Her bony left hip pressed against the man’s left biceps as she wrestled with her luggage in the back. He edged away.

The girl struggled with the zipper of her rucksack then fished around inside. “Gotcha.” She replaced her small rump in the front seat, holding up crumpled gum-wrapper like a prize. She worked at the packet with both thumbs until she’d produced the last piece of Juicy Fruit.

“Lucky you didn’t want any, eh. S’only one bit left.” She relished the last pillow of gum as if it were a three-course meal, smacking her lips in appreciation.

The man thought to pull in at the next BP. The girl could do with a feed. But he’d be risking another life, offering the girl a pathogenic petrol-station pie at this hour.

“Don’t you know anyone in the capital? Anyone at all?”

 The girl made a fist and examined her fingernails. “I got a friend or two.”

“Can I drop you off at a house? You want to use my phone?”

“Nah. S’all right. I can just turn up.”

“Tell me where to go.”

“Yeah man. I’ll tell you where to go!” The girl chuckled at her joke-for-one.

She directed him off the highway and into suburbia: tree-lined streets, carefully tended gardens. Left, then right. Right again.

“Turn off here.” The girl gave the man no warning.

A taxi at their rear blasted its horn.  

“Sure you know the way?”

She nodded, expressionless. “Here. Stop here.”

He pulled to the side of the road. They had reached the pinnacle of a hill: harbour views by day, distant city lights twinkling by night.

“This the place?” The man peered towards the replica Greek villa, the one with a rectangle of yellow light shining from a second storey window.

The girl shrugged and attempted a smile.

“Your friends really live here?”

The girl retrieved her rucksack from the back seat. The tatty bag was too compact to contain much of use. She didn’t seem to own a coat. But the girl had street smarts. She wouldn’t hitch a lift from a random man, a dodgy fellow with a scarred cheek driving a beat up old wagon, only to assume he’d be on his merry way afterwards. She didn’t belong here, but she needed him to think so.

Standing on the cobbled footpath beneath an antique street-lamp, the girl raised one hand in solemn farewell.

The man watched from his car as she lingered for a moment on the footpath. Knowing he wouldn’t leave, she threw her rucksack over one shoulder and tip-toed across the wet lawn. She turned towards him again at the front door, lurking in the shadows without pushing the doorbell.

The girl slouched just as his daughter had, the last time he saw her. He’d dropped her off on the highway. The daughter had giggled and ducked from view behind the shelter. That had been a father-daughter ritual: bus-stop hide-and-seek. That’s where he lost her.

Gone. Just like that. Nine months’ gestation. Nine months’ post-natal depression. Nine years of growing and caring and laughing and crying. It’s still in the papers, now and then. But it’s not what they say in the papers. It’s what they don’t.

Nine years later, the man will never know an adult daughter. When he allows himself to remember, he dreams of a giggling child. He tries to imagine a grown woman, but sees ethereal eyes in the face of a stranger.

The man squints towards the hilltop porch. Perhaps the girl has wedged herself behind one of the Doric columns, hoping to play hide-and-seek forever.

The man extends an arm towards the back seat and reaches for his jacket. He can’t abandon a young woman on a cold, wet night. But the rectangular protrusion he expects to find in the pocket has disappeared: fifty-five in cash, library cards, loyalty vouchers, old receipts, the lot.

He sees the girl’s shadow flicker inside the porch. He could amble up the driveway and retrieve his wallet without fuss. He would have given her The Stars: food, shelter, the shirt off his back. She doesn’t need to ask and, sensing this, she hasn’t.

The man swings a U-ey and cruises down the hill in first. He hasn’t enough cash for a refill of petrol. He hasn’t planned on that.  

For a very short time afterwards, the ghost-dreams leave him in peace. And he feels that he may have paid penance.

I think ghost stories are at their best when the ghost stands in for some horrible happenings in the viewpoint character’s past. In this case, the girl is flesh and blood but in storytelling terms she’s functioning as the man’s ghost.


On paper, things look fine. Sam Dennon recently inherited significant wealth from his uncle. As a respected architect, Sam spends his days thinking about the family needs and rich lives of his clients. But privately? Even his enduring love of amateur astronomy is on the wane. Sam has built a sustainable-architecture display home for himself but hasn’t yet moved into it, preferring to sleep in his cocoon of a campervan. Although they never announced it publicly, Sam’s wife and business partner ended their marriage years ago due to lack of intimacy, leaving Sam with the sense he is irreparably broken.

Now his beloved uncle has died. An intensifying fear manifests as health anxiety, with night terrors from a half-remembered early childhood event. To assuage the loneliness, Sam embarks on a Personal Happiness Project:

1. Get a pet dog

2. Find a friend. Just one. Not too intense.




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