We have just driven off of the ferry and only made it a mile or two up the road when we see him. He is walking sideways, his neck and thumb pushed out towards oncoming traffic, his body so close to the edge of the road that I wonder for a moment if he is hitchhiking or hoping to die.
"It's on my bucket list."
Kari slows Ruby, a red 1994 Volvo station wagon, to a stop on the narrow shoulder of the highway. Cars in the same lane as us have to swerve into the left. The young hitchhiker runs to catch up.
When the back door cracks open, I can smell him. Stale cigarettes and cleaning product hit the seat behind me with a thud. The scent confuses me until we find out where he is coming from.
"I forgot I took my medicine, so I took another one."
I listen to stories before I judge them, this is how I was raised and the only way I have found to embrace the world. Danger is an after-thought to most of my decisions, especially when traveling. I listen to my gut, I listen to stories, and I physically guard my purse and person. I try to never shield myself from a new experience and this has never led me to danger or too far astray. I start to wonder whether my luck has run out.
Medication does not scare. Neither do hospitals or psychiatric wards. The allusions to mental illness in his speech and story do not make me worry for my safety.
It is Kari's eyes in the rearview mirror that frighten me. The way Ruby is built I cannot see the stranger behind me, but I have a perfect view of her brown eyes shifting back and forth, balancing driving and keeping watch.
The stranger is from the island, born and raised. At first he tells us he has no siblings and then it is five or six of them. At first he tells us his father is dead and then his survival becomes a shouting Christmas miracle. He was in medical school online for a while, studying the heart and the brain. This boy is lost in his own head and Kari and I are holding onto our control. The steering wheel for her, the rearview mirror for me. He asks if we can take him to the tip of the island.
"I don't think we're going that far, sorry."
I know when he is reaching into his cloth tie-bag because Kari stops looking at the road. I brace myself for the worst--screaming or an animal or a hand around my neck. Later, when we have dropped him off in an open area near a pay phone and other people, Kari tells me that he took his empty hands slowly back out.
We continue our day, driving a few more miles up the road to Rhodedendron Campground to hike Grandpa's Legend. As it turns out, Grandpa's Legend is a circular and entirely flat path through a forest. We laugh at its ease.
I try to find a better word for afraid to describe the fifteen minutes the three of us shared. Uneasy tells too little and terrified says too much. Why was a stranger more frightening than the time I got my car and I stuck in a crater of mud five miles down a deserted road without a phone or contact in the Azores? More unnerving than a Belgian train conductor screaming at me first in German then in English for putting my feet on his train seats?
The answer is perhaps a simple one. Even though we pulled over to the side of that road, the mixed-up man reminded me of something I had not had to reckon with in years. That there is always the possibility of choosing wrong and losing control.