Updated: Aug 11, 2020
This is the first chapter of an ongoing collaborative novel project. You can read all the chapters here.
I’m driving the road that comes up from the coast when she flags me down.
She looks like she was dressed for what should have been the weather. She’s got one of those huge, puffy coats, but it’s tied around her waist, a makeshift attempt to deal with the unseasonable warmth, or the unexpectedly long and difficult hike, take your pick. She’s got an enormous duffel bag that’s almost dragging her down to the ground, a ponytail pulled through the back of her Cardinals ballcap, a new-but-dogeared paperback rolled up in her hand. Despite her frustration, she looks oppressively bubbly.
I pull over. I mean, I’m not a monster. She’s stupid for hitchhiking, but I’m not about to leave a kid trudging through the mud and the leaves on the side of the road. She’s surprised I actually did it, surprised enough that she almost slips on the leaves, almost lands on her ass in the mud. I’m about to get out and open a door for her, but she’s already climbing into the front of the car with me, and now she’s trying to shove her giant bag into the back seat through the tiny gap.
“Do you—are you really—”
“No, I got it,” she says, obviously not getting it.
“Let me just—” I say, mouth full of canvas and zipper. I grab the bag from her hands, climb out of the car, and throw it in the back seat through the rear door, the way God intended. I’m not mad, but now I’m worried I’ve given her that impression. The bag, by the way, weighs about as much as she probably does, and I’m wondering how she was walking upright at all. I shake my head, climb back in, put the car in drive. It smells like teen girl sweat in here now, which I’m mildly uncomfortable with.
“So you’re headed—”
“You know O.C.E.A.N.?” she says. “The Oceanographic Corporation for the Education of Affluenza’d Neophytes? They’re, like, a program for high school kids where you go to sea and work on a ship, and—”
I laugh at her, which I shouldn’t. It feels like kicking a sack full of puppies. “Yeah,” I say. “I know it.”
“I’m just trying to get there.”
“And you thought you could walk all the way from the bus stop.”
She laughs, awkward. Snorts, which doesn’t help. “The bus drove right by the place. It didn’t seem that far, and it was such a nice day—”
“—until you tried to walk three miles uphill.”
“Yeah, then it got a little uncomfortable.”
“What are you even doing,” I say, “flagging down a stranger and getting in his car? It’s not safe to—”
“I thought you might be an Uber.” She brushes a stray hair under her ballcap.
“That’s—that’s not how Uber works.”
“You don’t just flag an Uber down, there’s an app you’re supposed to use on your phone, and—”
“But you are an Uber.”
I glare at the “U” sticker on my windshield. “Technically.”
“So what’s the problem? I’ll pay whatever the fare is—”
“I’m not going to charge you. Take advantage of a kid dying on the side of the road, are you kidding?”
“I wasn’t dying.”
“If you say so.”
“Oh come on—”
“You were barely standing upright. That bag is twice as big as you are.”
“It’s a long voyage,” she says. “I wanted to be sure that—”
“It’s only six weeks, and I promise the fashion police aren’t coming along.”
She scoffs. Stares out the window at the trees flying by, thumbs her paperback (Maroonish like Jazz Fusion: Totally Unreligious Thoughts on Why You Should Definitely Be Religious). I’m not trying to be condescending and off-putting, but—y’know—it’s hard. I know what she’s thinking, because these kids who come up from out west are always thinking the same thing: Wow, look at all the trees! and I’m always like Yup, they’re great until you need to see where you’re going. It’s the least interesting conversation in the world, and it’s not one I’m excited to have again. Still, I should probably do something to break the awkward silence.
She sighs, doesn’t look up at me. “Oh, is that the conclusion we’re jumping to?”
“I mean, the Cardinals hat kind of gives you away.”
“But mainly it’s just that I’ve seen this before.”
“Kids from out west fly into Boston, take the bus here, think they can walk it to O.C.E.A.N. It’s something about the trees, I think.”
I shrug. “I’m just saying. You’re not used to seeing trees. They have a way of messing with your head, confusing you about distance. That’s why you thought it was a good idea to walk all the way from the docks.”
“Or I’m just…y’know. Ready for adventure.”
“Oh boy, here we go.”
“What, isn’t that the whole point of the O.C.E.A.N. program? To teach kids to, like, take risks, and—and have adventures, and whatever? Isn’t that the whole point of going to sea?”
“Sure…if you’re a rich kid participating in an expensive academic program. If you’re an actual sailor, the main reason to go to sea is so you don’t starve. And the free booze. And because you can’t get a job at McDonald’s, or whatever.”
“God, you’re cynical. Is that what driving an Uber does to people?”
“You could say that.”
“Well, I’m here for an adventure.”
“And that’s why you gave up on walking, right? Because you couldn’t get enough adventure?”
She sputters. “It’ll be different when I’m at sea—”
“Yeah,” I say. “It will. You’ll be exhausted, and seasick, and eating half-rotten food, and unable to escape the smell of shit. But I guess you could call that adventure if you want—”
“Please tell me we’re almost there.”
“Another minute or so.”
She’s pulling her AirPods out of her pocket, cramming them into her ears and starting up an old Miles Davis tune on Spotify. Why is it the only jazz album high school kids know about is Kind of Blue? I know the track well, though, so I slam on the brakes just as his trumpet solo hits its climax. Y’know, just for fun.
“We’re here,” I tell her. In front of us is O.C.E.A.N. headquarters, looming like the Cape Cod mansion it is.
“Great, thanks—no, you don’t have to—what are you doing?”
I’m turning off the ignition, getting out, stretching my back.
“I can get my own bag, you don’t have to—”
I can see the panic in her eyes, and honestly I’m kind of loving it. She’s realizing what this is, now that it’s too late. “This is my stop too,” I say, winking. I toss her her bag and it almost drags her to the ground.
“I’m Doug,” I tell her, offering a handshake that I kind of wonder if she’ll accept. “I’ll be your captain when we embark.”
She hesitates, glances up at the cupola, bites her lip. Finally accepts the handshake. Because kids are dumb, but they aren’t stupid.
Project CoNarrative is an ongoing multimedia experiment in collaborative storytelling from two award-winning authors. We're taking turns writing chapters and building on each other's work, improv-style. You can read them for free, here on the internet, as we write them.
If you're enjoying Project CoNarrative, please consider supporting us via Patreon. Supporters get early access to chapters, along with a monthly podcast, a quarterly newsletter, a print edition of the finished book, and more. Click here to support us for as little as $3 a month.