Hitchhiking is the New Uber, Redux (Chapter 22)
I stick my thumb up, but that feels dumb. Do hitchhikers really do that?
I pull my arm back and ball my fist and hop from foot to foot. My feet hurt and I’m sweating, because apparently June in Cape Cod is a freaking sauna. I tuck my book into my armpit and take a moment to cinch my puffy coat, slipping down my hips, as tight as it will go. Then I heft my duffel bag higher on my shoulder. If I don’t find someone to pick me up soon, I’m going to be late, and I can’t be late on my first day.
A black corvette blows past and I drop my book into the mud. Catcalls float back to me like a misogynistic afterthought. “Really?” I mutter, bending to retrieve Jane Eyre and checking that all my dog-ears are still in place.
The book burns—hot like an ember. I start and drop it again. Great, now it’s really covered in mud. What the hell is wrong with me?
The sound of another car coming up the road.
I snatch up Jane Eyre and roll it up in my hand. Hurrying to the very edge of the road, I wave and smile and hope I look friendly and not crazy, and when the man slows his car and stops, I’m so relieved I shove aside the caution I know I should feel to getting in the car with a strange man and slide my way through the slick mud and leaves to open his door.
Somewhere in the near distance, some sort of bird screams.
The man looks at me over the top of my massive duffel bag and I look at him, and then I guess we both agree to pretend we didn’t hear . . . whatever that was . . . and I commence with shoving my bag into the back of his car.
“Do you—are you really—” he says.
“No, I got it,” I say.
“Let me just—” he says. He grabs the bag from me and climbs out to walk around and throw it in through the back door.
Is he mad? I can’t tell, but I don’t think so. I don’t think that’s what he looks like when he’s mad.
I touch my temple as a deep crease forms between my eyebrows.
The man climbs back in and puts the car in drive.
“So you’re headed—”
He wants to know where you’re headed. Snap out of it.
I drop my hand and smooth out my expression so I don’t look tragically distressed. So I’m having freakish “I know this person” vibes. What about it? “Oh, uh, right. You know O.C.E.A.N.? 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—”
He laughs—it’s a throw-your-head-back sort of laugh, which would put me at ease if I weren’t so freaked out right now. “Yeah,” he says. “I know it.”
“I’m just trying to get there.”
“And you thought you could walk all the way from the bus stop.”
I laugh, too, but it comes out super awkward because I’m totally faking it. “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,” he says, “flagging down a stranger and getting in his car? It’s not safe to—” His voice is escalating like he’s chiding a friend or a family member, not someone he just met.
I stare him down for a long moment until he blinks, and we both look away. I don’t know what else to say, so I offer the only explanation I can. “I thought you might be an Uber.” I brush a stray hair under my Cardinals ball cap.
“That’s—that’s not how Uber works, Sunny.”
“You don’t just flag an Uber down, there’s an app you’re supposed to use on your phone, and—”
“No, I mean, what?”
“I don’t understand.”
“You called me Sunny.”
He mouths silently for a moment, and then says, “ . . . oh. Is that—that’s your name, right?”
“Yeah, it is. But how did you know that?”
“You told me. You must have.”
“I really don’t think I did.”
He pales, and then I’m scrambling for the door handle and tumbling out of the car, and he’s coming around the vehicle to meet me with his hands up, saying, “Hey! Hey, hey, hey, I promise I’m not a stalker or anything!”
“Then how did you know my name?” I brandish Jane Eyre like a baseball bat.
“Honestly, I don’t know! I just looked at you and knew it. Like, it was in my head already.”
“I’m supposed to believe that?”
“It’s the truth!” He takes a deep breath and lowers his hands. “Look, if you don’t want to ride with me, that’s fine. I totally understand. You have a right to feel safe.”
“Damn straight, I do!”
“Let me just get your bag for you. But I don’t feel right letting you walk along the road by yourself, either. Can I call you a real Uber?”
My heart is racing, and somewhere on this damn stretch of road, something is burning. The smell of sulfur fills my nostrils, making me feel nauseated and fuzzy in the head. But I nod. “Thanks, Doug,” I say. “I’d appreciate that.”
He darts wide eyes at me and I slap my hands over my mouth.
Without another word, we both get back in the still-idling car.
“Do we . . . know each other?” Doug asks.
“I have no idea,” I say. “I kind of feel like I know you, but I don’t know that I know you. Does that make any sense? Like you’re in here somewhere”—I tap my head—“but I have no actual memories of you.”
Doug nods once, grimly. He shifts the car into gear and pulls out onto the road.
“Where are we going?”
“To the mansion. O.C.E.A.N. I have a feeling we might find some answers there.”
“Why’d you laugh when I said that’s where I needed to go?”
“Because I’m the captain of O.C.E.A.N.’s sailing vessel. O.C.E.A.N. is in my blood—it’s in my family’s blood and has been for generations. Dollars to donuts, if you and I are connected for some reason, it has to do with O.C.E.A.N.”
“But . . .” I wrinkle my nose and turn to peer out at the trees flashing by. We drive past a kid about my age with longish greasy hair and dressed in head-to-toe grunge that would have been in style in the mid-90s. He’s walking the same direction we’re driving, and I press my hands to the glass to watch him until he’s out of sight around a bend.
“But what?” Doug says.
“Sorry. But O.C.E.A.N. is just a summer sailing program for spoiled rich kids. I don’t understand what it could possibly have to do with . . . this.” I raise my eyebrows at him.
Doug releases a sardonic chuckle. “Ah,” he says. “You didn’t read the fine print. They never read the fine print. If you had you would have found out there’s a whole lot more to O.C.E.A.N. than sailing the high seas.”
“A whole lot more like . . . ?”
But Doug is grimacing at his foot and the car is slowing down. “Gah,” he says. The smell of burning rubber fills the air.
I lean toward the window. “What is that?”
“It’s hot. The pedal, it’s . . . melting my shoe! I can’t even touch it.”
Coughing, I roll down the window as the car slows to a crawl.
“Wait . . . no. It’s fine. It’s not hot at all,” Doug says in a hollow voice.
“Well, whether it’s hot or cold, it doesn’t matter anymore,” I say. “We’re here—look.”
We’re stopped on the road just outside the turn to the long drive in to the massive O.C.E.A.N. mansion. A place I have definitely been before.
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