The Hiker

            The thick straps of my hiking backpack cut deep into my shoulders and I can feel the skin tearing. It hovers almost two feet over my head, blocking half of the white sun, and I try to keep my toes within its shadow. I half sit, half lean against the guardrail and hope it doesn’t break beneath the weight.

            My thumb in the air, I face the narrow road that winds down the mountain and try to smile. My tattered white t-shirt is smudged with a combination of grease and dirt, and I cut off one sleeve this morning so that I could wrap it around my forehead to mop up the sweat beading my hairline. My left hiking boot has a hole in it and my big toe sticks up like it’s trying to hitch a ride entirely of its own. And then there’s my hiking backpack: the tall figure looming behind me that looks as if it wants to swallow me whole.

            Two cars pass by without stopping, one green one and one blue one. My thumb never waivers in the air, but I feel a shot of pain run up my arm and wonder how long I can hold it straight. I push my smile wider, cheeks sore, and it works. A silver five-seater pulls up next to me and the engine coughs to a stop. He rolls the window down slow, and I watch his thick arm move back and forth as he twists the crank. His face is flat and wide, and he clears his throat like a chain smoker, the kind of coughing in which you can hear that it hurts.

            You lost, miss? He asks, voice hoarse. He clears his throat again and my muscles tense. I keep myself from flinching as phlegm sails to the gravel below his window.

            Only a little. I try to smile again and the man laughs a big laugh that echoes out into the thick trees behind me.

            Well, I’m headed to the bottom of the mountain if you want a lift. I can drop you off at the bus station.

            Perfect, I say. Stumbling to my feet, I readjust the weight of the backpack on my shoulders. The man puts his car in park and steps out.

            Here, let me get that for you. I pull off each strap and it plops to the ground, resting against his car.

            It’s okay, I got it, I say, out of breath. My fingers pry at the trunk, but it won’t budge.

            Can you unlock the trunk? I half-yell. The man walks around to the back of the car, his steps slow beneath the weight of his wide stomach.

            Hmmm. He scratches his chin, lined with tiny gray hairs that glisten in the heat.

            You know, why don’t we just throw your pack into the backseat? There’s a bunch of crap in the trunk anyways.

            It smells pretty bad, though. I don’t want to stink up your whole car. The man laughs again, loud.

            Honey, that backseat’s used to all sorts of smells. His laugh turns into a thick cough, and he puts his hands on his knees and breathes out slow. With his back turned, I cup my hand to the window and look into the backseat.

            Let’s get it in there then, he finally says, standing up straight.

            You sure you don’t want to just shove it in the trunk? I ask.

            Nope, this’ll do. He grunts, swinging open the back door. The two of us throw my backpack across the gray seats. As he slams the door, I check to make sure nothing fell out.

            Jesus, he moans, you were hiking with that thing? I run around to the passenger side door and slip into my seat. As the buckle clicks, the man sinks into the driver’s seat and I feel the car tilt to the left.

            Yup, I say, that’s why I quit early. We were supposed to be out there for another two nights, but I just couldn’t do it anymore. The man nods.

            With that thing, I don’t blame you. He puts the car into drive and with a quick look over his shoulder, we speed down the narrow road, spiraling to the bottom of the mountain. My knuckles turn white as I grip the side of the car.

            The name’s Jim Larry, he says. Jim Larry sticks out his hand and I shake it, squeezing his sausage fingers tight.

            But most people just call me Big Jim.

            Creative, I mumble, but he doesn’t hear me, eyes glued to the bottom of the mountain as we race towards it. I grip the side of the car tighter.

So what should I call you? Big Jim asks after a while. I look over my shoulder at the backseat, my backpack resting against the side door.

            Whatever you want.

            C’mon now, don’t be shy. They have to call you something. I turn around to face him, hating his thick bottom lip and all of the words that fall from it.

            TJ, I say without looking into his bluish gray eyes. Big Jim makes a sharp turn and the whole weight of the car shifts to the left. My backpack slams into the left window and falls to the floor. I cringe.

            What’s that short for?

            Something long, I snap, but Big Jim just laughs.

            I suppose it would, he says. I turn around and make sure that nothing fell out of my backpack, scanning the floor with my eyes. When I find nothing, I turn around and tighten my grip on the door.

            Spook easy, huh? Big Jim asks, eyes on my white knuckles. I nod slowly. Sweat pools at my hairline and I feel one salty droplet trace my jaw.

            We’re almost at the bottom, don’t worry. Big Jim pats me on the back, hard, and the heel of his palm finds the perfect spot between my shoulder blades. I lurch forward, catching myself on the dashboard.

            I can’t wait either, honey, ‘cuz that bag sure does reek. Big Jim laughs, and I force a chuckle from the back of my throat, turning to check on it again.

            Once we finally get to the gas station, Big Jim puts the car in park and I jump out as fast as I can. Fresh air cools my face and I drink it in, smiling up at the white sun. I close my eyes and throw my arms out wide, welcoming the weight of the big blue sky.

            Here, let me get this for you, I hear Big Jim say behind me and my eyes spring open. I rush over to the other side of the car and grab one of the thick black straps.

            It’s okay, honest, I got it. Big Jim waves me off.

            Don’t worry, I’ve got it, hon. A little thing like you shouldn’t be lugging this around. My grip tightens on the black strap and I pull it towards me.

            It’s really okay sir, I’ve— As Big Jim lets go, I yank too hard and the pack falls to the ground, bouncing on the pavement. The top busts open and a severed head rolls to my feet. I swallow hard.

            What the— Big Jim stammers. But I’m already running.