Tolerance by Jack McKenzie

A couple driving through hazardous ice and snow pick up a pair of hitchhikers; by Jack McKenzie.

Alice was the first to see them, although afterwards, amongst friends, Harry would say that he had seen them before she did. It didn't matter. The timing meant nothing compared to the substance, and it wasn't worth the trouble to argue about it, so when they were together he let her tell the story her way. And in her story she saw them first.

They were on their way back from visiting Alice's cousin, Gerald, who was dying of cancer. As they drove along, Harry behind the wheel, they both agreed that they were glad that they had made the trip. They talked about how much it had meant to Gerald's wife, about how people don't care enough about the dying these days, but the truth was that Harry cared very little about Gerald or his imminent death. The only thing that concerned him at the moment was making it home on the icy roads, and not ending up in one of the snow banks that bordered either side like crashing waves frozen at their peak.

As said, he had already noticed them by the time Alice said something. Over to the right, halfway in the road where their car sat, the two of them stood, huddled together almost like lovers, stranded in the middle of nowhere.

"Pull over and see if they need help," Alice said.

Harry did not think this wise, but his wife insisted, and he did not tarry when she did.

He checked his rear view mirror, saw no signs of traffic, then slowed to a stop a few feet behind them, pumping the gas to keep the engine running and leaning forward to peer through the windshield. Alice had already rolled down her window.

"You fellows all right?" she asked in a near shout.

"Our car broke down," said the larger of the two men. He had his arm crooked over the shoulder of the smaller man and the other hand situated somewhere near his stomach. They were dressed exactly alike: black derby hats, white scarves, and black overcoats that, with the way they stood linked to one another, appeared to be stitched together. Harry had a bad feeling about them. The big man smiled a bit too hard and the other was so pale that you would have thought he had recently lost a great deal of blood, although there were no signs of it on the snow. "Do you think you could give us a lift up the road? Just a few miles?"

Before Harry could say anything, Alice replied, "Sure. Hop on in."

Harry inconspicuously shifted the rear view mirror so that he could keep an eye on them, watching as the big man awkwardly opened the door with his hugging arm and the two slid in. The big man then kicked the door so that it swung until it creaked on its hinges and shot back to the car shut.

"Whew!" he said. "It's cold. I thought we were going to freeze to death out there."

"Good thing we came along," said Alice. "If we hadn't, you just might have. We haven't seen another soul on the road. Harry, turn up the heat and warm these poor boys up."

Harry did so, glancing in the rear view mirror to find them still locked together, hugging each other.

"I'm Alice and this is my husband, Harry."

"Where you fellows headed?" Harry asked. He pushed the gas and got them moving once more.

"Just up the road," said the big man. "There's an old farmhouse a few miles up from here. If the weather wasn't so bad, we could probably have walked it."

"Farmhouse?" asked Harry. "What you fellows doin' hangin' out at a farmhouse in this weather?"

"We're just meeting some friends," said the big man.

Harry looked up in his rear view mirror again, catching the big man staring at him. The small one still had his scarf up, covering his mouth from the cold.

"That's nice," said Alice. "It's a nice time to be meeting friends, with the holidays and all." She turned around in her seat, the seatbelt drawing her twentieth century bosom toward the door. "Did you have a good Christmas?"

"Oh yeah," said the big man. "You bet. Ate like kings, opened presents. The whole bit."

"Where you fellows from?" asked Harry. "You don't talk like you're from around here."

"Harry, quit pestering our guests."

Harry looked over at her, then back to the road, then at the men in the backseat, then back to the road again. The heat was roaring through the vents, but they had yet to become unglued from one another.

"I always love this time of year," said Alice. "Our son visited us with his wife and our grandchildren. We've got three." She bent down to the floorboard and rummaged in her purse, coming back up for air with a photograph in hand. "See?" She held it out to them, but neither reached forward to take it. Undaunted, she leaned further into the backseat, holding it before their faces.

"Beautiful grandkids," said the big man. "You've certainly been blessed with beautiful grandkids."

"Oh, we have. They're little angels. Isn't that right, Harry?"

Harry grunted out a response, checking the rearview mirror once more, catching the eyes of the small man in the reflection, a look that seemed to say something. It wasn't a leer, but it was something, something that was trying to say something. Whatever it was, Harry didn't like it, and quickly drew his gaze away.

He stepped on the gas, inching the speedometer to almost forty-five miles an hour, hoping to get to this farmhouse as soon as he could and get these two out of his car.

"Do either of you have children?" Alice asked.

The big man let out a laugh.

"No, no," he said. "We're both confirmed bachelors."

Harry let out a barely audible grunt, and ignored the look Alice shot him.

"Well, there's something to be said about that," she said. "Our son didn't marry till he was older and it was good for him. Let him get his feet set, so that by the time he decided to do it, he was ready."

"You must have raised him well," said the big man.

"I tried," said Alice. "Lord knows I tried. Of course, it wasn't as hard raising children back when we were doing it. Not as hard as it is now with all of the drugs and things they can look at on the television set. I wouldn't want to do it again. Not nowadays."

"Uh-huh," said the big man.

"Your friend," said Alice, "Is he all right? He doesn't look like he's feeling well, and he sure doesn't say much."

"Is that the farmhouse you're talking about?" Harry asked, almost yelling. Alice turned back around in her seat to see it off in the distance.

"That'd be it," said the big man. "I told you it was just right up the road."

"Well, if you don't mind, I'm just gonna drop you off," said Harry. "I don't want to be rude, but I don't want to risk getting stuck in the snow by driving right up to it."

"I wouldn't ask you to," said the big man. "The two of you have already done more than enough."

"Oh, we couldn't have let you sit out there on the side of the road," said Alice. "Not in this cold."

They sat in silence for the short remainder of the trip, then Harry slowed to a stop. It was hot in the car by this point, but the hitchhikers were still clasped together in the backseat. The big man seemed to shift for a moment, shuffle, and then he asked Harry, "I'm sorry to do this to you, but would you mind opening the door for us? I know it's strange, but I..."

"You want me to open the door for you?" Harry asked.

"If you don't mind," he said.

"What's to mind?" asked Harry.

He got out, the car idling low, then he opened their door, holding his arm out as if to invite them outside. The two scooted over in the seat and stepped out of the car. Harry shut the door behind them.

"Well, we certainly do appreciate the lift," said the big man.

"Not a problem," said Harry. He held his hand out for a parting shake, but both of the men just looked at it until Harry pulled it away. "You fellows take care," he said, staring them both down for a final time. The eyes of the small man again seemed to say something, but at this point Harry didn't care and didn't want to think about it. He got back in the car and pulled off.

"Well, that was nice," said Alice. "The one didn't have much to say, but the other had a tongue on him."

"I never thought we'd see such up in these parts," said Harry. "I guess it's everywhere now, though. The whole world'll be full of 'em in a hundred years. You take my word. Everybody'll be that way in a hundred years. Makes me glad I won't be alive."

"Oh Harry," said Alice. "You gotta have more tolerance nowadays. It's the only way to live with everything going on."

Harry gave another grunt, this one a great deal louder, and continued to drive on.

Behind them, the small man drove his forehead into the nose of the big man, causing a loud curse to fly from out of his mouth and blood to come streaming down the front of his face. The small man took off running, away from the farmhouse, his overcoat left behind him. His hands were tied behind his back and, with several sharp pulls of his shoulders, he ripped one free, reaching up to tear the tape free from his mouth. He was almost to the barbed-wire fence when a bullet pierced his back, sending him into the snow, which immediately began to turn a light pink underneath him.


  1. very good indeed.
    you really set the scene for something and it didn´t disappoint.

    Michael McCarthy

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. There's a nice undertone of tension, well guised by the oblivious gab of Alice and the "put out" attitude of Harry. Fun read

  3. Good use of foreshadowing in this interestinglitle tale.

  4. A good title for the story too as you have to think about what they were tolerant of at the end of the story also.

    Garreth Keating

  5. I love the way that it builds from the ordinary to the horrifying. The tension was done just right, you had me hooked. I wanted to find out what was going on, and the ending paid off perfectly. Sent a chill down my spine.

  6. Tone of story very good. Brings the reader in, agreeing with Harry that something is wrong, but what exactly? And how many of us would bother to question when uneasy about the situation? Like the interaction between husband and wife.
    A D Nohr

  7. Liked the story-especially the interplay between Harry and Alice and the big guys obvious lie about his great Christmas.

  8. An interesting and well written story about preconceptions making people blind. I knew something was coming ,but I did not suspect it would be this kind of an ending.

  9. That was really good! I knew something was up, but was not expecting that.