A Hitchhiker (Christmas Special)

15 min read

Berta switched between the long and short beam lights, but it made no difference. Big blotches of snow, heavy with water and turning into ice smudges, blanketed the view ahead. All she could see was a wall of wavering black, grey, and white—the dancing noise of an out-of-sync TV screen—and a few metres of wet asphalt with a vague line in the middle that disappeared under the front of her car.

Joel let out a muffled cough, and Berta forgot she was holding the wheel. In the mirror, she saw how the tip of his little nose lifted, the nostrils expanded, the lips came together and formed a tube, expelling a portion of air that circulated through his lungs.

If it happened here, up in the mountains, without his inhaler… Berta counted long seconds of silence. Joel’s face relaxed. The coughing fit did not start.

Relieved, she brought her attention back to the road. The car still rolled down the slope, cutting through the thick snowfall, and she still saw no further than a few car lengths ahead. A moment of clarity flickered when the mountain loomed on her right, shielding the car from the sideways winds. The pattern in the white noise changed, revealing a blob of a moving figure. It was a man, Berta realized as her lights bounced off a hunched back.

A man was walking along the side of the road in complete darkness, fighting ice under his feet and snow all around him. He turned to the sound of an approaching car and extended his arm in an unmistakable gesture. He was alone on this mountain road, far away from any settlement, he was wet and cold, and he was asking for a lift—

—He was an unfamiliar man on the road, alone in the mountains, walking on foot in this kind of weather, trying to catch a ride instead of calling for help. He could be a deranged loner, a homeless creep. A murderer or a rapist, she heard the voice of her mother in her head. She was a defenceless woman, and she had a child in the back seat.

The car came close enough for its lights to illuminate the man’s face. For an instant, Berta thought she saw a white mask in its place. No, it was just ice, forming a crust on his facial hair. He waved at her to stop. Berta’s foot hovered over the accelerator. Even if he was harmless, he was soaking wet. He would be dripping dirty water all over the seat.

It’s Christmas, a different thought flooded her mind. This man could have been forced to abandon his broken car, his phone could have died, he could have been walking like this for hours, at the risk of catching a cold or getting hit by a car. And the village was only ten minutes away if she drove him. And not all men were bad, mother!

She slammed on the brakes, and the tires locked for a moment, desperate for grip. Her car stopped a few metres short, and the man jogged to reach her.

“Good evening, madam,” he said, opening the passenger’s door, but did not leap in right away. “It was so kind of you to stop.”

He was a tall, strong man of thirty-something—it was difficult to guess his real age with a snowy beard and knitted hat covering most of his face. His clothes were presentable despite being soaking wet. He did not appear homeless or creepy.

“Where are you headed?” she asked.

“Down to the nearest car shop. If I’m lucky to find anything open tonight.”

“Are you in trouble?”

“Nothing a new battery couldn’t fix,” he said with a smile. An honest, likeable man’s smile. “If I may ask you—”

She had already decided to give him a lift, she wouldn’t have stopped otherwise, and now she saw no point in making him beg. “Sure, get in!”

He hurried to shake his shoulders clean of snow, slid his hat off, squeezed it dry and tucked it into his pocket. Before jumping in, he banged his feet off one another to leave as much sleet outside as possible. Such a considerate man, Berta thought, ashamed of her initial petty distrust.

He pulled a glove off and offered her a handshake. “I’m Nick.” His fingers were ice-cold.

“Berta. And the guy behind us is Joel.”

Nick turned to look at the back seat. “I hope I didn’t wake him.”

“He’d sleep through a rock concert,” Berta said with a stifled chuckle. A rapist-murderer wouldn’t hesitate to wake a child, would he?

The man beamed her another easy smile. “Thank you for picking me up.”

“It’s no bother. I’m going down to the village. Could use some company.” She sent the car rolling down the slippery road again, the snow pattern flickering across the windscreen. “What are you doing up here in such weather?”

“I was on my way to work when the battery died.”

“You work on holidays?”

He brought his frozen fingers to his mouth to breathe life into them. “I’m a seasonal worker. A few days like these are worth the year’s pay.”

“What kind of job is that?” Berta glanced through the mirror at her sleeping son. She could use something part-time with good pay herself.

“I work for a charity organization.”

She wouldn’t have guessed it. A strong man like him could be a construction worker or a fitness instructor. “A charity?”

“Yes. We make people’s wishes come true. It’s called—” He paused for greater effect. “The Christmas Miracle. I know, I know—cheesy.” He sounded like a self-conscious master of ceremonies.

“Nah, it’s quite clever. If it’s annual, it conveys the spirit. I never heard of it, though. Who is it meant for?”

“It’s for everyone.”

“Everyone?” She glanced at her passenger. The ice on his beard melted, and now beads of water shone in the random speck of light coming from her dashboard. “Not just orphans, sick children and veterans?”

“Absolutely everyone. Anyone can get their miracle, but only once in their lifetime.”

“A fair restriction,” Berta agreed. “What kind of miracles do you specialize at?”

“All kinds of things. Once, for example, a teenage girl got a cocker spaniel she wanted so much.”

“Aww, you gave her a puppy?”

“We found her a retired service dog, deaf in both ears, gone through several hands after his first owner, a police officer, moved to a different country and left him behind. That dog and the girl had seven great years together.”

Berta bit her lip. “It’s a beautiful story.”

“It was, yes. We grant all true wishes, but I always prefer something non-materialistic.”

Berta slapped the wheel in resolve. “Okay, sign me in. Where is the form I need to fill out to place my wish for consideration?”

“There’s no form.”

“How do you apply?”

He brushed his palm across his lips, disturbing the droplets, as if thinking of the best way to explain something complicated. “You just wish for it. Truly, sincerely wish. If it’s something you genuinely want, it will be granted to you.”

She glanced at him in disbelief. “How do you know what people wish for? Do you read their minds?”

Nick laughed. He had a nice, soft laugh. “Of course not. But when people want something for real, they make it known. They read about it, talk about it, search for it.” Berta arched a brow at the man, and he explained, “Nowadays everyone leaves a digital footprint, a trail of data like social media, browsing history, loyalty cards, bank statements, or phone records. It already contains information about what people want. It’s just a question of interpretation.”

“You mean, you spy on people?”

“Good grief, no!” He laughed again, and she felt another stab of guilt for her suspicions. “We’re not sitting all year long secretly staring at strangers through their webcam. There’s no need for that. The algorithms do the job.”

“The algorithms?”

“ELFS, we call it. Essential Longing Forecasting System. It uses different publicly available sources, and the deep learning algorithms find patterns that lead to the final pairing: one person to one desire. The stronger the wish, the more obvious the link is. Then it’s all a matter of selection.”

“So it’s the machine that does the guessing? What if it’s wrong?”

“I haven’t seen it fail. But there’s always a further examination of the applicant. We make sure it’s the thing the person desires the most before going into the implementation stage. Selection and approval are done by real people, people like me. We go through the list, double-check everything and even meet with the top candidates for a live interview. But it’s not bullet-proof even then.” His voice became dreamy. “Sometimes, people get what they want and realize it’s not what they need. Sometimes, they are offered the thing and don’t accept it.”

“I wouldn’t refuse if someone wanted to grant me my wish.”

“What would it be?”

She gave him a forbearing smile. “I’m afraid my wish is not easily obtainable. I mean, it’s not a puppy. You can’t get it in a store.”

“We don’t do things that can be bought in a store. Consider this case: one year, there was a guy who wanted to meet a perfect girl. He lived on dating sites and went on hundreds of dates, but no woman met his criteria for a perfect partner. ELFS gave us a clear picture: she had to be his age, intelligent, beautiful—but not too beautiful to be cocky—artistic and slightly melancholic so he could save her from herself. And ELFS found a single girl like that, a perfect match. We made it look like they met accidentally through a common hobby.”

A single red eye of a traffic light plunged out of the darkness. Berta knew they reached a single-lane pass where the traffic was regulated automatically, and now they had to wait for at least two minutes for the lights to turn green. The car came to a halt.

“You seem to put in a lot of effort,” she said, facing the man.

“We always do. But this particular story has no happy ending.” He turned away.

“He didn’t like her?”

“Oh, he did. He fell in love the moment he saw her. But she didn’t reciprocate. They dated for a while only because he was persistent, but it fell apart. We now try to be cautious with wishes that involve other people as Christmas miracles. But I remember a child being adopted into a loving family, so nothing is impossible.”

Berta considered it for a moment. “Okay, try this: I want my son to be cured. No more asthma.”

Nick flashed a sad smile. “You cannot make a wish on someone else’s behalf. It’s one in a lifetime! You cannot take away their one shot of getting something they truly want. You need to wish for something for yourself.”

“Why couldn’t I wish for a healthy son?”

“If you found out you are pregnant, and your new baby boy was born healthy,” he said, squinting at her, all the resolved misgivings about the man crept back at Berta, “would you consider your wish granted?”

“No, I mean Joel!”

Joel has to make a wish for his health to make it come true,” Nick said softly, apologetically, and Berta’s sense of disquiet dissipated.

She forced air out of her lungs. “It’s probably impossible anyway. We saw dozens of doctors. Tried everything. I moved into these mountains to live in a sterile environment, and he still gets at least three episodes a week.”

“I heard contact with farm animals can do the trick. Something to do with evolutionary-familiar bacteria.”

Berta knew he meant well. She was used to hearing advice from people who had never experienced it themselves and still offered counsel. She shook her head. “He’s allergic to everything. Even entering a room where a cat once lived could provoke an episode. Imagine what a sheep could do?”

Nick didn’t persist, staring at the traffic light until it switched to green. “Don’t you wish anything just for you?” he asked when the car was cutting through the chaotic swirls again.

“Just for me?” Berta palmed the wheel. “There has been no ‘just me’ ever since Joel was born. Some people don’t get it. If I wished for something, it would be something uninspiring, like getting a decent job. Something I could do while staying close to my son. Something simple and down to earth, but also fulfilling. I’m not interested in making a career, I just want the employer to treat us as human beings, recognize we have a life outside of their business.” She threw him a challenging look. “Can your organization make such a miracle?”

Nick smiled. “Only if it’s your true wish.”

Through the curtain of snow, Berta caught the first glimpse of urban lights. Down in the valley, on the opposite side of the river that ran with them down the mountain, a selection of colourful spots marked their destination. They were almost there.

“Is your job fulfilling, Nick?” she asked, steering from the main road into the village. “It must be nice watching people get what they want the most.”

“I’m not there to witness the moment. But I admit, sometimes I run ELFS just to check on someone after they get their wish, to see what their new desire is.” There was a trace of sadness in his voice. “People are complicated. But yes, I find satisfaction in my job.”

Big panels of light that resolved into windows floated on both sides of the car. Berta could distinguish parked vehicles by rounded piles of fluffy snow against the dark stone walls of old houses. They passed a bright blue sign of a guesthouse and turned into a smaller street.

“This is it,” she announced after carefully placing her car into a parking spot in front of luminous windows. “That’s the pharmacy before us, and you can find a car shop around the corner.”

“Thank you, Berta.” Nick turned to her, extending his hand. “And Merry Christmas!”

She squeezed his hand. It was still cold. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Nick.”

He pulled his hat back on his head, sealed the collar and jumped outside without looking back. A gust of cold wind broke into the car to take his place. As the door closed, Berta turned to look at her son. He slept peacefully. She would easily run in and out, and he wouldn’t even wake. She pulled out a scarf and wrapped it around her neck.

The pharmacy door was only two leaps away, but when Berta reached it, she was already peppered with snowflakes. She halted by the door to shake them off, turning back to peer through the ad-mottled glass door at the rippling world outside. As she watched her car slowly turn from red to white, her mind drifted to wonder if the car shop was still open, if Nick was able to get his battery, and if he needed a lift back up to his car, until she realized her eyes rested on one of a homemade advertisement taped to the glass.

“Help wanted,” it said in big letters, and a smaller font continued, “A retired couple of farmers are looking for a kind-hearted person to help tend to the animals. We offer comfortable living on-site, organic food, and adequate compensation. Parents with children are welcome, we are a family here.” There was a drawn map of how to get there and a phone number.

Without her commandment, Berta’s fingers reached to peel the ad off the window. A sense of urgency came upon her.

“Merry Christmas,” the pharmacist behind her said, trying to grab her attention.

Berta pulled on the handle and rushed out of the pharmacy. The car shop around the corner met her with dark windows. Closed. Berta stood, gaping at a white undisturbed blanket of snow that covered the pavement in front of it. A swarm of slowly swirling ice flies danced around her, landing on her hot cheeks to melt. Her fingers shook as they clutched the piece of paper in her pocket.

“Merry Christmas,” she whispered a belated reply into the dark.