“I’m sorry, ma’am, but this is the last car we have available.” The agent shook his head at the monitor and shrugged. It was a small, older car, and no one had a key to the trunk, it seemed. The family ahead of me would never get all their bags into it, clearly, and they stood ready to argue with him for the next hour. They had reservations. Made last month. For a minivan. The agent glanced at the line forming behind me, and looked as if he were about to cry.
“I’ll take that one, if it’s all right,” I piped up. The returns would trickle in; everyone would get a car. Eventually. Certainly before next Tuesday. I’d avoid the wait and they’d all have a shorter line. No one voiced objections to my plan, if they had them. I smiled sweetly at the agent. He handed me a rental agreement and directions to the lot.
Keys in hand, I tossed my backpack and duffel bag into the back seat and pulled out a paper map. Surrounded by mountains, the GPS would be slow to kick in and might cut out without notice. It pays to go old-school, especially when you’re heading out to the middle of nowhere. The radio was tuned to some local news station. The announcer broke in to mention that there had been a plane crash, earlier in the day, somewhere near Chicago. Flight en route to Cleveland, Ohio. I was glad to be on solid ground. Technically, flying was safer than driving; it had never freaked me out, the way it did some people. But the thought of a plane crashing – seventy-nine people killed, apparently – was a stark reminder that most commercial aircraft were almost as old as I was. Shit, I wouldn’t drive a car past ten years, and some of these planes were thirty years old or more. A chill ran down my spine and I said a quiet prayer for those seventy-nine people.
The road to the base of the mountain was mostly four-lane highway. Very civilized. Hot. Scenery on either side of me: flat, scruffy, brown, dotted with green patches of scruffy bushes and brown patches of distant towns. I could spot the Walmart from fifteen miles away. I guessed the bright red dot was a KFC.
A jackalope bounded across the road. Coyote, maybe. Chupacabra? I don’t know the local fauna, but it was bigger than a dog and smaller than any deer I’d seen. Startled, I tapped the brakes, maybe a tiny bit too fast and hard. THUMP-THUMP-THUMP. A soft shuddering thud resonated through the car. A flat? Now what? The ride was still smooth, easy to control – surely not a flat?I pumped the brakes, gently, testing them. Nothing wrong with the brakes, as far as I could tell. I noticed they were ABS brakes, so maybe I really had hit the pedal too hard when the creature darted out in front of me.
Shaken, but not stirred, I continued towards Granny Mountain. It was called that because it looked like an old, wizened woman crouched over to pick flowers in a meadow. Odd outcroppings of rock resembled cheekbones, nose, outstretched arm. The arm was like one of those those weird, impossible cliffs you see in cartoons – the kind that always break away from the main cliff wall in one piece, crashing to the canyon floor along with the poor creature that’s frantically scrambling to return to safety. The shadow it cast on the valley, below, was eerie. Who’d stand, let alone build, under such a rock formation?
The road turned to a winding, two-lane, rural mountain road. I passed a line of trees; below the treeline, the vegetation was lush and green, and the temperature grew cooler. THUMP-THUMP-THUMPITY-THUMP-THUMP! The car shook. The thumping grew insistent, then urgent. “Dammit,” I cursed. This was no place to have brake problems. I pulled over to the side of the road, as close to the edge as I dared. BAM-BAM-THUMP! Followed by a metallic clunk and muffled shrieks and angry growls. “What the hell?” I jumped. I got out of the car. For the first time, it occurred to me that a locked trunk meant no spare tire. Worse, though, something – or someone – appeared to be locked in there. I looked for an inside latch to pop. Nothing. Maybe I could pull out the back seat? What if it was an angry, rabid dog, like Cujo?
I looked down at my mobile phone. No signal. Of course there was no signal.
I opened the back door. The muffled vocalizations were becoming more urgent, angrier. I looked around for a weapon. Best I could find was a ball point pen. I guessed I could stab the furious, thumping creature on its way out, if it went for my face – and immediately hoped I’d be able to jump out of its way fast enough not to have to. I grabbed hold of the back of the rear seat and pulled. Something on the other side kicked. I pulled, it kicked. It bellowed rage. And kicked some more. We finally demolished that rental car seat. Nothing flew out at me full of teeth and claws. I peered into the gloom of the trunk and saw two big, red-rimmed eyes staring back at me. Blinking. “Who are you?” the creature asked in a tone that melded fear, gratitude, and teenaged sullenness with a perfect lack of irony.
“Who are you?”
The girl climbed out of the trunk of my rental car. This was turning out to be a disastrous camping weekend.
“Never mind. Just…thanks. For letting me out of there.” She looked lost. The defiance was draining from her face by the second, only to be replaced by silent tears streaming down her cheeks.
“Who shut you in there?” I looked, again, at my mobile, hoping to get a signal so I could call the police.
She shook her head. “Doesn’t matter. Jerks. I’m better off without them.” She started to walk away.
“Where are you going?”
She stopped, then, crumpled to a crouch, and let out a guttural wail. I squatted down beside her and put an arm around the girl’s heaving shoulders while she sobbed. “I can take you to the police station,” I offered.
“No!” she shouted. “They’ll just…”
“Why do you even care?” she snapped, daring me not to care.
“Well, it’s not every day I rescue a girl locked in my trunk. I’m trying to figure out how to explain this one to the police when they come looking for you. Come on, get into the car. Let’s get you some help. I’ll bet your family’s worried sick.”
Her head snapped up, her expression incredulous. She began to laugh bitterly. “Who do you think locked me in there?”
I let that sink in, digested the shock and let it turn to anger, then motioned for her to get into the car. “Let’s not stand out here arguing about it,” I said, and she meekly followed. It was near dusk, by now, and I made a rash decision. “I have enough camping gear and food for two. Why don’t you come with me, and in a day or two, we’ll go figure out, together, what to do.”
“Do you have a name?” I asked.
“Hi, Alix. I’m Chelsea. Fasten your seat belt,” I added, refusing to turn the key in the ignition until she did. Alix appeared to be about sixteen or seventeen. She was pretty under all that emo-Goth-steampunk ensemble she had going, and as she wiped the Alice Cooper mascara from her cheeks, she struck me as a smart, sad kid who’d built up a wall of artificial toughness that could not withstand more than a few hours in the trunk of this car. “How long have you been in there?” I asked.
“I have no idea. A day? I fell asleep while they were returning the car, and I guess they forgot about me.”
Sure, kid. We both knew better.
“Why did they put you in there in the first place?” I asked.
“I guess they don’t find sarcasm as amusing as I do,” she said softly. “My dad’s not fond of being challenged. That’s what he says, you know. ‘Don’t challenge me, Girl.'”
“Are you particularly challenging?”
“And your mom?”
“Not at all challenging.”
“Any brothers or sisters?”
“No.” Alix turned away, stared out the window. We rode in companionable silence to the top of Granny Mountain. As we unloaded the duffel and backpack and set up the tent for a night under the stars, I tried to learn more about Alix.
“Where’s home?” I asked her.
Why did that ring a bell? Cleveland, Ohio… It hit me like a punch in the gut. “Was your parents’ flight home today?”
“Yeah. They had a layover in Chicago, but they’re probably home by now.”
I’m sure they are, I thought. I didn’t speculate as to where those two souls would call “home,” it wasn’t my place to do that. I had no idea how to break the news to Alix. But I was determined to give her twenty-four hours of peace, nature, and kindness before her world – already crushing her under its weight – came crashing down around her.
“Let’s go camping, Alix. We’ll deal with that tomorrow.”
Day 2- 25 Jun – Use this idea to write a story : You’re traveling in a rental car when you hear the thumping of a flat tire. You pull over and discover the thumping is not coming from a flat, after all, but from the trunk. What or who is making the noise?
It’s hard not to turn this into a crime scene, but I didn’t want it to be too cliché, too tragic, too…realistic? I wrote this, on and off, in less than a day, so excuse any little errors of logic or spelling! I hope you enjoy the story!