It was typical of my dad to want to stop and offer the man a lift and just as typical of my mum to want to drive on. In the back seat, I said, 'Don't stop, Dad.' But it was already too late. Just fifteen seconds had 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 gong?' he asked.
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's broken down.'
'Well - we're heading that way. We can give you a lift.'
My mother spoke my father's name quietly but already it was too late. The damage was done.
'Thanks,' the man said. He opened the back door. I suppose I'd better explain. The A12 is a long, dark, anonymous road that often goes through empty countryside with no buildings in sight. It was like that where we were now. There were no street lights. Pulled in on the hard shoulder, we must have been practically invisible to the other traffic rushing past. It was the one place in the world where you'd have to be crazy to pick up a stranger.
Because, you see, everyone knows about Fairfields. It's a big, ugly building not far from Woodbridge, surrounded by a wall that's fifteen metres high with spikes along the top and metal gates that open electrically. The name is quite new. It used to be called the East Suffolk Maximum Security Prison for the Criminally Insane. And right now we were only about ten miles away from it.
That's the point I'm trying to make. When you're ten miles away from a lunatic asylum, you don't stop in the dark to pick up someone you've never met. You have to say to yourself that maybe, just maybe, there could have been a break-out that night. Maybe one of the loonies has cut the throat of the guard at the gate and slipped out into the night. And so it doesn't matter if it's raining. It doesn't even matter if the local nuclear power station at Sizewell has just blown up and it's coming down radioactive slush. You just don't stop.
If you noticed, there is a reason for why my parents were slightly depressed, even on this day. That reason was my brother, Eddie. Nine years ago he fell into the path of a train; I was standing behind him, and had to watch him be crushed. But perhaps soon he will be but a memory, and we can continue our lives.
The back door slammed shut. The man eased himself into the back seat, rain water glistening on his jacket. The car drove forward again. I looked at him, trying to make out his features in the half light. He had a long face with a square chin and small, narrow eyes. His skin was pale, as if he hadn't been outdoors in a while. His hair was somewhere between brown and grey, hanging down in clumps. His clothes looked old and second-hand. A sports jacket and baggy corduroys. The sort of clothes a gardener might wear. His fingers were unusually long.
One hand was resting on his thigh and his fingers reached all the way to his knee. 'Have you been out for the day?' he asked. 'Yes.' My father knew he had annoyed my mother and he was determined to be cheerful and chatty, to show that he wasn't ashamed of what he'd done. 'We've been in Southwold. It's a beautiful place.' 'Oh yes.' He glanced at me and I saw that he had a scar running over his eye. It began on his forehead and ended on his cheek and it seemed to have pushed the eye a little to one side. It wasn't quite level with the other one. 'Do you know Southwold?' my father asked. 'No.'
'So where have you come from today?'
The man thought for a moment. 'I broke down near Lowestoft,' he said and somehow I knew he was lying. For a start, Lowestoft was a long way away, right on the border with Norfolk. If he'd broken down there, how could he have managed to get all the way to Southwold? And why bother? It would have been easier to jump on a train and go straight to Ipswich. I opened my mouth to say something but the man looked at me again, more sharply this time. Maybe I was imagining it but he could have been warning me.
Don't say anything. Don't ask any difficult questions.
'What's your name?' my mother asked. I don't know why she wanted to know.
'Rellik,' he said. 'Ian Rellik.' He smiled slowly. 'This your son in the back?'
'Yes. That's Jacob. He's fifteen today.'
'His birthday?' The man uncurled his hand and held it out to me. 'Happy birthday, Jacob.'
I took the hand. It was like holding a dead fish. At the same time I glanced down and saw that his sleeve had pulled back exposing his wrist. There was something glistening on his skin and it wasn't rain water. It was dark red, trickling down all the way to the edge of his hand, rising over the fleshy part of his thumb. Blood!
Whose blood? His own?
He pulled his hand away, hiding it behind him. He knew I had seen it. Maybe he wanted me to. We drove on. A cloud must have burst because it was really lashing down. You could hear the rain thumping on the car roof and the windscreen wipers were having to work hard to sweep it aside. I couldn't believe we'd been walking on the beach only a few hours before.
'Lucky we got in,' my mother said, reading my mind.
'It's bad,' my father said.
'It's hell,' the man muttered.
Hell. It was a strange choice of word. He shifted in his seat.
'What do you do?' he asked.
'I'm a dentist.'
'Really? I haven't seen a dentist...not for a long time.'
He ran his tongue over his teeth. The tongue was pink and wet. The teeth were yellow and uneven. I guessed he hadn't cleaned them in a while.
'You should go twice a year,' my father said.
'You're right. I should.' There was a rumble of thunder and at that exact moment the man turned to me and mouthed two words. He didn't say them. He just mouthed them, making sure my parents couldn't see. 'You're dead.'
I stared at him, completely shaken. At first I thought I must have misunderstood him. Maybe he had said something else and the words had got lost in the thunderclap. But then he nodded slowly, telling me that I wasn't wrong. That's what he'd said. And that's what he meant.
I felt every bone in my body turn to jelly. That thing about the asylum. When we'd stopped and picked up the hitchhiker, I hadn't really believed that he was a madman who'd just escaped. Often you get scared by things but you can still tell yourself that it's just your imagination, that you're being stupid. And after all, there are lots of stories about escaped lunatics and none of them are ever true.
But now I wasn't so sure. Had I imagined it? Had he said something else? You're dead. I thought back, picturing the movement of his lips. He'd said it all right.
We were doing about forty miles per hour, punching through the rain. I turned away, trying to ignore the man on the seat beside me. Mr Rellik. There was something strange about that name and without really thinking I found myself writing it on the window, using the tip of my finger.
The letters, formed out of the condensation inside the car, hung there for a moment. Then the two 'l's in the middle began to run. It reminded me of blood. The name sounded Hungarian or something. It made me think of someone in Dracula.
'Where do you want us to drop you?' my mother asked.
'Anywhere,' Mr Rellik said.
'Where do you live in Ipswich?'
There was a pause.
'Blade Street,' he said.
'Blade Street? I don't think I know it.'
'It's near the centre.'
My mother knew every street in Ipswich. She lived there for ten years before she married my father. But she had never heard of Blade Street. And why had the hitchhiker paused before he answered her question? Had he been making it up? The thunder rolled over us a second time.
'I'm going to kill you,' Mr Rellik said.
But he said it so quietly that only I heard and this time I knew for certain. He was mad. He had escaped from Fairfields. We had picked him up in the middle of nowhere and he was going to kill us all. I leant forward, trying to catch my parents' eyes. And that was when I happened to look into the driver's mirror. That was when I saw the word that I had written on the window just a few moments before.
But reflected in the mirror it said something else. KILLER
I was afriad, shivering at that point. An hour later in the car, the fear intensified. And all that time, Rellik was holding that knife, passing it from one hand to another.
Then I remembered. He was sitting next to me, and one of Mum's rants came to me. She kept telling me not to sit there, that the door was loose. And I knew how to deal with him.
I leapt up, and grasped Rellik from behind. Dad turned to look, and his hand spun on the wheel. Taking the advantage, I grasped the door handle, and pushed it open. Then pushed Rellik out. There was a faint scream, and then nothing. My parents were in shock, and Mum left the car. Neither of them said anything. She then spoke. 'He's dead.'
I tried to explain, told them about what he said, his name. But they didn't listen, and turned the car around. For a full hour, we drove. And then we came upon it, Fairfields. The asylum. We all spent the night there, and in the morning we gave our story. They told me I misheard Rellik, that his name was Relag, a gardener who worked at Fairfields. He had been holding a lighter, not a knife, and it had been mud on his arm, not blood. As my parents left, I heard my mother moaning. 'I thought that he was cured, for god's sake! Cured!'.
I stopped listening, and blot out all they said on Rellik. They were liars, the lot of them! They knew what happened! But they were lying to me, again. And this was not the first time. The last time I was here, at Fairfields, they told me I killed Eddie! They wanted me to believe I was a murderer. That was nine years ago. Nine years behind bars in a padded cell, of therapy sessions for something I never did. From a window with iron bars, I watched their car move into the distance, and prepared myself for another decade of treatment.