A naked man wearing nothing but an astronaut’s helmet walks down a lonely stretch of highway. I first see him up ahead as a tiny speck, but each second brings more clarity in my vision. On an empty portion of burning pavement in pancake flat Kansas, this man steps toward his destination, whatever that might mean.
“You need a ride?” I ask through my open window, my car creaking to a standstill.
He opens the door and slides into the front seat, inches away from me. I can’t see his face through the copper-colored screen. I think: should’ve got those damn seat covers.
The helmet stares forward and doesn’t waver. His arms hang loose at his sides, leaving his nakedness open for the entire world to see. I think about giving him something to cover himself up, but I don’t because I’m not sure why he’s naked in the first place and I don’t know him at all.
I put the car in drive and ask in my most casual voice, “Where are you headed?”
“Just a couple miles up the road.” The helmet muffles his voice to a whisper.
An awkward silence falls as we ride down the interstate. It’s one that defines “awkward,” at least for me. The astronaut’s helmet makes it hard to judge if he feels similar.
I decide to test my grit, “So what’s the deal with what you’re wearing? It’s not everyday you see a naked man with a space helmet on walking down the highway.”
He says nothing.
“I mean…did you get mugged or something, is that how you lost the rest of your clothes? Are you a nudist just trying to get back to your commune? Wait…are you a real astronaut that crash-landed and in that crash the rest of your spacesuit was destroyed? Maybe you’re a humanoid alien here to destroy the world.”
The big off-white helmet turns to face me. I can see myself in the visor, and I don’t like what I see.
He says nothing for a moment. Then he says, “One of those is correct.”
The helmet swivels back to face the road and I am confused to the point of silence.
Midday sunlight beams on the ebony concrete, making the deep blue glare that tantalizes me with a promise of being refreshed and cleansed. It makes me thirsty and for a second a flicker of fear rockets through my veins, the thought of always heading toward something that is uncatchable. A life spent chasing what should’ve never been desired in the first place.
His hand raises and points to an off-ramp, I exit and continue to head toward where he wants to go: a gas station. Without thinking I check my gas gauge, but I’m at almost a full tank. He unbuckles his seat belt, but before he can step out of the car, I ask, “What are you doing here?”
Still like the barrel of a gun points at his temple, he says, “I’m restoring cosmic balance.” At this he closes my door.
The gas station is decrepit. Dust blows over unattended pumps with cracks running down them like the strands in spider webs. A bell chimes as he opens the door and enters the shop.
In less than a minute I hear the bell again, the astronaut walks to my car with slow, pointed strides. He leaves bloody footprints from the gas station all the way to my car. Each one a complete imprint of the shape of his foot with dribbles of blood between them.
An elderly woman, using a lopsided wooden cane that must be homemade, shuffles to the door while staring darkly at the bloody trail. When the chiming of the front door ceases, there is a high-pitched scream.
“What the fuck was that?” I yell. It feels like wool is caught in my throat.
With a quick motion, so fast it was almost invisible, the naked man pulls a concealed knife from under his helmet. Blood oozes off the serrated edge.
The tip of the blade brushes against my Adam’s apple. He says, “We’re almost done. Just drive and you’ll be fine.”
Without hesitation, I do exactly what he wants. I put the car in drive and follow the roads that he dictates with the tip of his bleeding knife.
I think: Never pick up a naked hitchhiker wearing only a space helmet again, obviously there’s something seriously wrong.
It’s a code that I’ll live by if I survive this.
The space man points for me to park in front of a house. It’s a small two-story with crumbling paint the color of moldy tangerines and a balcony that juts out of the second story, unable to support any weight due to its missing most of its floorboards. A strong breeze could knock it down.
He uses the threat of the knife to get me out of the car. I do what he wants. The point of the blade presses into the small of my back, pushing me up to the door. I step aside and the astronaut knocks.
A beer bellied man with chestnut chest hair poking out of his sweat stained wife beater answers. I notice his eyebrows raise and he tries to take a step backwards while shutting the door. The astronaut is too quick though.
The space man slams his helmet into the scared man’s forehead. After impact, the man falls to the floor in a crumpled pile.
We let ourselves in. The astronaut closes and locks the door, after making sure no one had seen what he just did.
The space man makes me tie the unconscious body to a chair with a rope he must’ve grabbed from their garage, and because the man is heavy it takes a while. There’s something about hauling and then strapping a limp body to a chair while a naked space man points a blade at me that makes me realize that something is horribly wrong with my life.
An hour passes, but the man does not stir. I lay on the couch waiting for something to happen. The astronaut stands over the man, the visor facing the sagged head of our captive. My eyelids gain weight and flutter with the effort of staying awake. They lose and close and I lose myself.
Sleep has always resembled death to me. The way your mind, the conscious sense of self that makes you you, falls out. You have no control. Instead, you toss and turn while images stream past your eyes. The random, vivid, sensuous visions fill your mind, leaving a sticky residue of confusion and chaos that takes a few hours of your morning to dissipate. That’s only if you’re lucky enough to wake up, something most people don’t even consider before they fall asleep.
In my dream the sky is a Technicolor collage. Rust red clouds swirl around a pale purple sky. Orange birds that look like a wide letter “v” in the distance fly into the odd colored oblivion. The grass feels like marshmallows against my fingertips. There is almost no gravity; I bounce up and down like I’m weightless, unburdened by my past.
An escape pod rockets down to the hilly land on which I stand. It slides against the ground, digging into the hill nose first. The grass melts and clings against the sides of the pod.
Out steps the space man, but he’s wearing a full astronaut’s space suit like the ones worn when America first landed on the Moon.
A voice rings in my ears. I can only assume it’s his, “Living is a collection of random events that happen to one specific individual, but life is the story that individual uses to give those events meaning. The story is the important part, without it there is nothing but coincidence and chaos.”
“Okay.” I respond without moving my lips. “What does that mean though?”
He then lifts his helmet and I finally get to see the face he’s been hiding. There is nothing there. It’s more than that — he doesn’t have a head, there’s a gaping space of nothingness in its place like a black hole. It’s a point that destroys time and space by crushing everything unlucky enough to be caught in its gravitational pull.
I jerk awake.
I’m not sure how much time passed, but neither man moved since I fell asleep. One difference that stands out is that now instead of a knife, the astronaut has a gun. From where he got it I don’t know.
The man tied to the chair lifts his head a little, his breath comes out in pathetic rasps, and I think I hear him weeping. A metallic sound, the friction of the slide on a gun pulled back, makes him cry harder.
“I-I’m so sorry.” The man says, his voice unsteady like a drunk walking a straight line.
Barrel flash and the smell of gunpowder, the space man releases a bullet into the man’s head.
I don’t know why.
The now lifeless corpse falls off the chair and onto the floor. Blood pools from the exit wound in the back of his head. And all I can think is: God, I do not want to be the person that has to clean up that mess.
The phrase cleaning up loose ends comes to mind and adrenaline pumps my body into action. “Can you let me go now? I don’t know who you are. And I really don’t care. I really just want to go home.” I plead.
He puts the gun down on his thigh, “Not yet.” The visor of his helmet points straight at me so I can see my own fear reflected there.
What I learned today: there’s no reasoning with crazy.
I don’t hear anything, but I can tell the astronaut does because he bolts to the front door. He pulls a woman into the room by her straw colored hair. She screams, but I doubt anyone heard her. He throws her down hard to the floor, and when she tries to call out for help again he pistol-whips her, catching her right in the mouth.
Words can’t describe how disconcerting it is to hear the sound of teeth clinking onto a tile floor.
Out of the corner of her eye, she spots the dead body of the man. She gasps and stifles what would have been a screech by putting her hand over her mouth. Her eyes dart up to the astronaut, “I guess I’m next, huh?”
He doesn’t respond.
“We shouldn’t of just left you out there. It’s not our fault…we didn’t mean…” She falters.
He doesn’t move.
“I didn’t think you’d make it back alive.”
He still doesn’t speak.
I can’t help myself, my curiosity and desire to understand overwhelms my self-preservation instincts, “Why are you doing this? I don’t know what happened to lead you to this point, but this can’t be how you want things to turn out. You’re painting a trail of blood all over this town.”
The woman takes this opportunity to try to escape. She gets up quick, runs behind me, and through the kitchen. I also see a pale blur that I know will lead to nothing good. As I reach the front door, I hear a gun shot.
I bolt across the front yard, turn around to see if he noticed my absence yet, and when I look back in front of me he’s right there with his gun pointing at me.
My teeth clench together, I try to tackle him, but my body rebounds like a bouncy ball against pavement.
He’s standing over me, and I want to say something to make this stop, but it seems inevitable.
At least I don’t really feel the bullet enter my chest. My body must’ve gone into shock right away. He pumps another round into me and then heads back into the house, leaving me for dead.
I flail my arms, trying to get to my feet, but it’s useless. So I just stare at the house, realizing it’s probably the last thing I’m going to see.
The puddle of blood under my body makes me feel cold, or maybe I just feel cold because I’ve lost so much blood.
There are voices around me now. Someone talks into a phone in a panic stricken voice, “He’s lost a lot of blood.”
Then I hear the sound of a rocket engine and I feel it make my entire body tremble. From the backyard of the house, I see the tip of a space shuttle rising quickly. The space ship blasts off as quickly as a gunshot.
As I close my eyes to save someone else from having to do it, I realize: I don’t know what any of this means.
W.Y. Johnson is a graduate from the University of Colorado at Boulder where he studied literature. He is also an active screenwriter and producer of independent film in Denver.