Blade runner

The audio for “Blade runner” is featured in this episode ☝️ of the Without a hitch podcast

The second episode of a trilogy of hitchhiking stories

I was at an immediate disadvantage when he pulled the machete out from under his seat. I was unarmed and had no experience with combat in a moving vehicle. Or any form of combat, with any kind of implement. I couldn’t ignore that the blade was dinted, rusty and dirty – unsuitable for safe butchery.

As I braced for the sickly impact of steel and bone, I imagined the situation reversed. Perhaps I could learn something from this? It was a bad sign, because I was already presuming the battle lost, my bleeding self analysing the situation and hoping for a next time. If a front-seat passenger produced a blade while I was driving, I’d unclip their seatbelt with my left hand and slam on the brakes. The situation, however, was not reversed; and this daydream was a fairly inadequate defence.

All I had for protection were flimsy, naked forearms full of veins. And words. “That’s an impressive machete,” I offered, voice cracking, “but you can probably put it away now.” The machete continued to waver in his free hand. He was barely watching the road. I mentally crossed “hostage negotiator” off my career ideas list.

The car hurtled on. Late afternoon sun sliced through the car; dust motes tumbled through the space between us. The view outside was a quaint photo essay on the hinterland: pastures immutable, farm animals nearing the end of their day, bits of bush buried in the shoulder of a hill, a grey slit of road receding into the distance.

Daydreaming again. My brain had just decided to check out and hope for the best. I’d frozen, perhaps in an attempt to blend in with the brown faux-leather seat – like an albino lizard trying to hide on a piece of mahogany. Clearly when push came to shove, my survival instinct was just to do nothing.

When I was about eight, I rounded the corner on a large dog. Our family had recently taken in two kittens, the sole survivors of a litter torn to shreds by a rogue pitbull. Assuming the beast before me was the same killer dog, I screamed, shook and remained cemented to the spot. My cry for help came out as a gargling noise. In a different time, my kind would not have survived to adulthood.

Who knows? Maybe doing nothing is the right thing to do when you're in a car and faced with a blade. Raising my arms in defence might have been interpreted as tacit agreement to proceed with the fight. The dog didn’t kill me. Maybe this guy wouldn’t either.

He started to chat, occasionally balancing his weapon hand on the steering wheel. He was ex-gang, with grey, knotted dreadlocks that squirmed down his back. His tattoos had been poorly planned – a cast of travelling players who didn’t get along, trapped together on a stage, forever. The sun had done its terrible bleaching work and the fine edges of each tattoo had long since bled into the surrounding skin.

“You have a licence? The pigs took my licence,” he said. It took effort to feign surprise at this nugget of information. We drove past an old asylum, Lake Alice. “That fucking place,” he sneered. The comment was left open to interpretation.

I started a silent catalogue of regrets related to motor vehicles. I wished I hadn’t reversed out of my park so fast at the start of my driving test; the instructor had to pull the handbrake vertical to stop me hitting the car behind. I wished I hadn’t given up when he told me my driving skills were “alarming”. I might have been safely driving my own car right now. Or maybe not.

After Lake Alice, machete guy’s menace began to wane. Maybe his arm got tired. Maybe he thought, “What’s the use? If I kill this joker I’m only going to have to drive off somewhere, dig a hole and bury him. I’m too old for this shit.” Maybe he was testing me. Did I pass? My driving test result had made me very sensitive to failure.

At any rate, I didn’t have to leap from a vehicle travelling at 110 kph. (It was the first time I’d considered it, and while the thought was exhilarating I imagined it would be quite painful.) He lowered the machete and slid it underneath his seat; the blade rasped against the seat’s innards and then just sat there, rattling.

He told me that a while back he’d picked up a pair of hitchhikers; they'd both hopped in the back like they were up to something. “Probably done a runner from Lake Alice,” he said. “Something about them.” Neither of them had said a word for the whole journey. And the entire time he’d awaited a smash on the back of the head.

Never again. Now he armed himself against what he presumed were the nefarious intentions of all hitchhikers. Here was a guy who grasped the first solution that came to mind and swung with it.

There were some holes in his logic: If they’d attacked him, wouldn’t they have all crashed and died? And why did he continue to pick up hitchhikers? But I wasn’t about to call him out.

A poorly maintained blade and a patch of neurosis aside, he didn’t turn out to be so bad. We chatted about his grandkids, his car and his prison days. We began to form that ephemeral bond between hitchhiker and driver, where you can talk candidly, knowing you’re unlikely to cross paths again.

When we arrived in Whanganui he offered to drop me all the way home, but instead I made up an excuse about meeting friends in the middle of town. There have been other episodes like this one, where despite initial warning signs I’ve eventually surrendered a degree of trust to a driver – but rarely have I seen it fit to add “And here’s where my family and I live.”

This article was originally published on The Wireless.