More Horowitz Horror

By: Anthony Horowitz


The Hitchhiker


Why did my father have to stop? I told him not to. I knew it was a bad idea. Of course, he didn’t listen to me. Parents never do. But it would never have happened if only he’d driven on.

We’d been out for the day, just the three of us, and what a great, really happy day it had been. My fifteenth birthday, and they had taken me to Southwold, a small town on the Suffolk coast. We’d gotten there just in time for lunch and had spent the afternoon walking on the beach, looking in the shops, and losing money in the crummy arcade down by the pier.

A lot of people would think that Southwold was a rubbish place to go, especially on your birthday. But they’d be wrong. The truth is that it’s special. From the multicolored beach huts that have probably been there since Queen Victoria’s time, to the cannons on the cliff that have certainly been there a whole lot longer. It’s got a lighthouse and a brewery and a sloping village green that all look as if they’ve come out of an old-fashioned English novel. None of the shops seem to sell anything that anyone would actually want and there’s one, on the High Street, that has these fantastic wooden toys. A whole circus that comes to life for twenty-five cents. And the talking head of Horatio Nelson who puts his telescope up to his missing eye and sings. You get real fish and chips in Southwold. Fish that were still swimming while you were driving to the restaurant. Sticky puddings with custard. I don’t need to go on. The whole place is so old-fashioned and so English that it just makes you want to smile.

We started back at about five o’clock. There was a real Suffolk sunset that evening. The sky was pink and gray and dark blue and somehow there was almost too much of it. I sat in the back of the car and as the door slammed, I felt that strange, heavy feeling you get at the end of a really good day. I was sad that it was over. But I felt happy and tired, glad that it was over too.

It was only about an hour’s drive and as we left Southwold it began to rain. There’s nothing strange about that. The weather often changes rapidly in Suffolk. By the time we reached the highway, the rain was falling quite heavily, slanting down, gray needles in the breeze. And there, ahead of us on the road, was a man, walking quickly, his hands clenched to the sides of his jacket, pulling it around him. He didn’t turn around as we approached but he must have heard us coming. Suddenly his hand shot out. One thumb jutted out; the universal symbol of the hitchhiker. He wanted a lift.

There were about fifteen seconds until we reached him. My father was the first to speak.

“I wonder where he’s going.”

“You’re not going to stop,” my mother said.

“Why not? It’s a horrible evening. Look at the weather!”

And there you have my parents. My father is a dentist and maybe that’s why he’s always trying to be nice to people. He knows that nobody in their right mind really wants to see him. He’s tall and disheveled, the sort of man who goes to work with his hair unbrushed and with socks that don’t match. My mother works three days a week at a real estate agency. She’s much tougher than him. When I was young, she was always the one who would send me to bed. He’d let me stay up all night if she wasn’t there.

There’s one more thing I have to tell you about them. They both look quite a bit older than they actually are. There’s a reason for this. My older brother, Eddy. He died suddenly when he was twelve years old. That was nine years ago and my parents have never really recovered. I miss him too. Of course, he bullied me sometimes like all big brothers do, but his death was a terrible thing. It hurt us all and we know that the pain will never go away.

Anyway, it was typical of my dad to want to stop and offer the man a lift and just as typical of my mom to want to drive on. In the backseat, I said, “Don’t stop, Dad.” But it was already too late. Just fifteen seconds has passed since we saw the hitchhiker and already we were slowing down. I’d told him not to stop. But I’d no sooner said it than we did.

The rain was coming down harder now and it was very dark, so I couldn’t see very much of the man. He seemed quite large, towering over the car. He had long hair, hanging down over his eyes.

My father pressed the button that lowered the window. “Where are you going?” he asked.

“Ipswich.”

Ipswich was about twenty miles away. My mother didn’t say anything. I could tell she was uncomfortable.

“You were heading there on foot?” my father asked.

“My car broke down.”

“Well—we’re heading that way. We can give you a lift.”

“John . . .” My mother spoke my father’s name quietly but already it was too late. The damage was done.

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