Fiction Fantastic 2018 Winning Story: “Cliffhanger” by McKenna Hein

The story below is a winner from our Fiction Fantastic Young Writers Contest, open to all youth in Lane County. For more information on this contest, including how to enter, visit here. Support this program with a donation.

You can purchase this story in the 2018 Winners Anthology, Secret Keepers here.

“Cliffhanger” by McKenna Hein, South Eugene High School

Third Place, High School Level, 2018


McKenna Hein

South Eugene High School

“Hey, loser, how was school?” I smile and inhale deeply on an almost-out cigarette and lean against my old beat up truck.

 “Hey, Steve,” my younger brother, BJ, smiles and straightens his glasses. The lenses are about as thick as bottles and make his eyes look about twice as big as they actually are. His brown eyes glance up towards the sky. I join his glance and notice huge thunderclouds are rolling in.

 “Looks like a storm is on its way,” I sigh and take one last hit off my cigarette before stomping it out on the asphalt. It’s a cold day, the kind that makes your nose run without you noticing and your breath comes out like smoke. The sun sets around 3:40 this time of year, and there’s several feet of white powder on the ground. We climb into my hunter-green pickup and it stalls. The clock flashes a red 3:25. It takes way too long to get out of the parking lot.

“God, I hate this school,” BJ groans. “I can’t wait to be done with this shit.”

Says the one who half-asses everything, I think to myself.

The sun has pretty much entirely set by the time we get out of the city. We live about ten miles from the edge of town.

“So how was school?” I elbow him.

 He rolls his eyes and pushes his dark brown hair back with the palm of his hand.

 “Well…” he inhales. His attention shifts to a hitchhiker, dirty and ragged at the side of the road with his right thumb pointing the same way as we travel. “Don’t see many of those these days, do you?” he says looking a little worried.

 “Not really,” I pause.

 Another hitchhiker.

 “What the hell is the deal here?” BJ shifts uncomfortably. “You see like one of these guys a year, and that was two in the last three miles. Maybe…wait, make that three,” BJ interrupts himself as we pass another.

 “I bet people keep crashing. Idiots need to learn how to use chains or buy snow tires. I mean, it’s January in Alaska, what do these people expect?” I laugh.

 He smiles. “You ever think about picking one of them up?”

“I’d be lying if I said I never thought about it. Only problem is the fact that I don’t want to get murdered by inviting a stranger into my car,” I joke. “Plus, this is a three seater bench. Nobody is going to want to be crammed in here with the two of us.”

BJ laughs. The next hitchhiker is a little close to the road and moves towards us as we pass. He has a bit of a crazed look in his eyes. 

“Shit!” I yell as I swerve hard to the left and slam on the brakes, forgetting that the road is slick even with snow tires. We slide a good fifty feet on the road like the white ground is coconut oil instead of snow. My little truck doesn’t stand a chance. It is too lightweight and too fragile. I strain to regain control and for a moment it seems hopeless. I turn the wheels to the left, even though we are already going that way and are headed for a cliff. My attempts seem useless. I pump the brakes again and suddenly feel less out of control.

I manage to stop us right off the side of the road. Four more feet and we would’ve been off the side of a small cliff and into a ravine. Gasping for air and trying to control the adrenaline, I look over at BJ. He is shaking, eyes wide and his lip busted open just enough to have a small stream of blood running down his chin. I want to ask him if he is okay, but I can’t get the words out of my mouth. I can’t seem to catch up with my breath. Oh crap, did I hit that hitchhiker? My mind races. I glance in the rearview mirror. He is walking towards us. Smiling. Why the hell is he smiling? I almost manage to say out loud, but can’t actually speak yet.

BJ glances over his shoulder. He manages to get some words out, “Well, I don’t think we hit him.” He speaks slowly and slurs his words a little. He looks back at me.

My mind has slowed down a little now. “BJ, am I seeing things or is that guy smiling?”

“There’s no way,” he turns around. “Oh shit he is. What is up with that?”

“No idea, but I’m going to go find out. Stay here and just chill out okay?” I look at my brother and he looks completely terrified but nods in agreement.

I get out of the truck slowly. My head feels kind of fuzzy and my knees shake. 

“You all right, sir?” I ask the stranger as approaches. I look at the man. I wonder to myself if he is drunk. That would certainly explain his almost walking in front of a car and smiling like a total goofball right now. 

He kind of laughs when he says, “Just peachy. And yourself? You look a little shaken up there.”

I look past him and realize more people are walking towards us. Must be coming to see what happened. I slowly come to the realization that I am feeling really creeped out and paranoid.

“Why didn’t you stop for me, kiddo?” the man steps closer. Too close for comfort. He smiles again.

I feel the hairs on the back of my neck rise and take a step back. “Look, I don’t want any trouble. I just don’t usually stop for hitchhikers.” 

Out of nowhere, I hear BJ yell my name, and I turn to look at my truck. There are three men there, and each of them look exactly like the man I am talking to.