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Warmth in the north country

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I WAS driving down the coast of Maine toward midnight. The dark, the winter cold, and the swirling crystals of a light, wind-blown snow only accentuated the emptiness of the highway. It was a few more miles to my destination, which loomed large in my mind on a night like this. As I rounded a bend my high beams arced from left to right, momentarily illuminating a figure off to the side, which soon faded as the lamps settled back on the road. I gazed up into my rearview mirror and caught it - a mere shadow now, the snow devolving about it like an obscuring veil. And then, darkness.

It would be foolish to pick up a hitchhiker at such an hour. What was he doing there anyway if not to waylay some unsuspecting driver? I placed my hand under the truck's heater vent and could barely perceive the warmth, diminished as it was by the bitter wind blast feeding into the radiator. I slowed and swung the truck about, coursing back on the other side of the road, to get a better look at the hitchhiker. There. He looked to be only a boy, in a motorcycle jacket and jeans, his hair wild and his face buried in his turned-up collar.

I turned around a second time and approached him again. He was huddled into himself, his gloved hand offering a feeble signal for a lift. I stopped. The steady engine hummed for both of us as he climbed in and stamped his feet against the floor mats. ``Thanks,'' he said, and I felt more relaxed for this word. ``Where you headed?'' I asked.

``Boothbay Harbor.''

So was I. We drove on together. I instinctively fumbled at the radio but achieved only the crackle of static. ``It's really cold out there,'' I offered.

Silence. He was asleep, and the last of my apprehensions evaporated. Every so often I would look over and regard my passenger - catching glimpses of his ragged jacket and patchwork jeans. I supposed he could have been aggressive if he had wanted to be. But for now he looked as if he had received more trouble than he had given.

Within a short while we had arrived in the heart of Boothbay Harbor. I pulled over on one of its vacant streets and nudged my passenger. He stirred, mumbling to himself. ``This is it,'' I said.

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