By Nadja Maril -
It was an old car. Probably a Chrysler, Chet figured. Definitely not a Ford or GM. Not Korean, Japanese or German either. No it was a Chrysler, low and wide to the ground with a heavy feel to the door when your hand wrapped around the handle.
Before sliding into the back seat, he took one last look out at their surroundings, the off ramp of the Massachusetts Turnpike at dusk. They were lucky to have found another ride before it got dark. Too bad the navy blue carpeting smelled like old peanut butter, but hitchhikers could not be choosy. He moved his pack loaded with books and a change of underwear towards the window.
Rich had opted for the front. Typical Rich, grabbing the better spot. It didn’t matter. What a geek. And that girlfriend he was always calling. Pretty, yes. But whiny and manipulative.
The woman behind the wheel of the old Chrysler had been nice to stop. Brave too. What middle aged chick would feel safe picking up two men? Could she tell they were college boys, even from a distance? Could she discern by their faded blue jeans, knapsacks, and ragged haircuts they’d be no trouble, no trouble at all.
Warm tones to her skin. An open smile. She told them straight away she wasn’t going far. “Just five more exits to the shopping center,” she said, “But at least in the direction you want to go.”
Her sweater, an olive green cardigan, was exactly like the one his old high school physics teacher Mrs. Stoker wore every winter day. An odd coincidence. “Doesn’t she have anything else to wear?” he remembered his classmates whispering.
They’d shot spitballs at Mrs. Stoker’s back while she wrote on the blackboard. Laughed about her old lady shoes, black with laces. He couldn’t see the driver’s shoes. Was she also wearing old lady shoes? Strange lady, Mrs. Stoker. Always gabbing on about other planets.
They should have left campus sooner, but he’d wanted to get a chance to talk to Professor Heaton, who only had office hours on Fridays, to ask him where he’d messed up on that chemistry quiz. Then, he’d made a mistake accepting the ride offered by that blue pick-up going to Springfield. Not exactly the most direct route home, thinking once they got to the turnpike it would be a straight shot down to Hartford. But a second ride did not come quickly.
The radio was playing something softly, a soul tune, he strained his ears to hear the words and instead of singing heard Rich clear his throat.
“In case you’re wondering, I’m Puerto Rican,” the woman said.
Chet sat up straighter. Had he missed a question, a piece of conversation?
“Your friend,” the woman said while pointing to Rich beside her. “He wanted to know. It was bothering him.”
How did she know what he was thinking?
He wasn’t surprised to learn Rich was trying to figure out the woman’s ethnic background. Rich was like that, always putting people into categories. Wanting to know things about where you lived, how much your parents made and where you were from. But it was as if the driver had known his question before he’d spoken.
“I never said anything.” Rich mouthed, turning around to stare at Chet, his eyes wide. He looked rattled.
No need to get so tense, Chet thought to himself. This is kind of cool. What’s she going to say next?
“I can read your mind,” she said. You’re thinking about money. Do you need some money?”
“Oh no,” Chet said, his hands pressing down into the worn vinyl seat. “We may be hitchhikers but we don’t need your money. I can’t take your money.”
“Your friend here wants it.”
Chet’s mind was circling. This woman doesn’t miss a beat. Yes, Rich was all about money. Even asked Chet how much he had in his wallet when they started out that afternoon. Wanted to know if his folks gave him any sort of allowance.”
“Hell no.” He’d reminded him, surveying the highway for oncoming cars. “My father’s dead. Remember? Mom barely makes enough to cover the bills.”
“So,” he said to the woman driver, squinting to avoid the setting sun, “You can read minds.” Looking at the back of her head, he could see tiny wisps of hair catching the light. It looked almost like a halo. “Can you read mine?”
“Your mind. It moves quickly. Jumps. But I can tell you that your mother will be happy to see you.”
Chet thought of his mother and the long hours she worked at the hospital. Constantly on her feet. Wanting a desk job. He knew she had a few days free now, the way her twelve hour shifts were arranged, if he got home before nightfall, they could have dinner together.
Maybe he’d find a jar of her homemade pickles in the refrigerator and they’d grill up some burgers, put them on buns with crisp lettuce, sautéed onions, melted cheese. His mouth began to water, imagining it all.
Rich laced his hands together and put them behind his neck and sighed. “It will be a surprise,” he said, “A big surprise for me to be home.”
She was talking to me, Chet wanted to tell him. But it was pointless. Self-centered Rich. No wonder they didn’t hang out in high school. At any rate the woman was smoke and mirrors. Their destination home was obvious. It didn’t take a mind reader to know most parents missed their children. Rich’s parents were no different. Hell yes, well maybe different from his own. Chet’s dad had been to graduate school while Rich was the first in his family to go to college. He’d bragged to Chet that his folks planned to throw him a big party when he graduated. Buy him a nice car.
“Don’t worry,” the woman said, “You’ll pass chemistry.”
Chet felt his hands turn cold. “How do you know?”
“I told you I have a talent. A knack for reading things.”
Rich squirmed in his seat. “The future. Can you tell me my future?”
“It’s yours to make,” she said while pulling out into the passing lane. “The girl can wait.”
Maybe she really can read minds, Chet thought to himself. Rich wants to transfer to be closer to the girlfriend. Obsessed with that girlfriend.
“Humans,” the woman said, “ They never want to take responsibility.”
“Humans?” Chet repeated.
“I’m a star.” She moved the car back into the far left lane.
“A star? I thought you said you were Puerto Rican,” Chet said.
“Puerto Rican is my human form while visiting your planet,” she said. “There’s a group of us, sent on a mission.”
“Who sent you?”
The car accelerated. Chet’s stomach began to jump.
“Hey lady,” said Rich, “You’re driving too fast.”
“Don’t mess with what you don’t understand,” she said. “I’ve got coordinates. Places to be.”
Chet moved his tongue over his teeth. What was she talking about? He was so confused.
The car careened ahead. “One more exit and it’ll be time,” she said. Rich stretched out his arms as if to grab hold of the wheel and jerked back, hands down at his sides.
The car moved over to the far right lane and Chet heard the turn signal beep. Lights greeted them as they pulled off the exit ramp. The car turned into a shopping center.
“It’s safer here,” she said, “Then standing on the highway.” The engine off, she pulled two twenties out of her wallet.
“I told you before,” Chet said, “I don’t want your money.”
“You better take it,” she said waving the bills in the air, “because your friend wants his.”
Rich reached for his share. “Lady, that was quite a ride. Thanks.” He opened the passenger door, grabbed his sweatshirt, heaved his pack on to his shoulder and broke into a run.
Chet watched him get half way across the parking lot before slowing down. “If I take it,” Chet said, “I’ll donate it to charity.”
“That’s okay,” she said, “But first, let me show you something.”
He didn’t move. Was she going to read his mind again? Or was she a conjurer? She turned around and met his gaze. Her eyes were the color of amber. She reached out her hand and rested it on his shoulder. A sheet of fear, a force began at the top of his body and traveled down to his toes. The shock of it. Pure adrenaline. The power of it. In the distance he could see Venus begin to flicker.
Before he had time to speak, she lifted her hand and touched him again. A new sensation, one of animation, traveled from his head downwards. He felt charged with positive energy. Pleasure, a feeling of comfort permeated every cell of his being. He tingled with confidence. Such a good feeling, he almost didn’t want it to end. Wow. How did she do that, he wondered?
In the store with the red and green neon sign, he bought a cold bottle of juice and shoved the change, almost eighteen dollars, into the donation box for the March of Dimes. Rich had bought himself a Slurpee, bag of chips and a ham sandwich.
It was getting too late to hitchhike. If he phoned his mother, she’d probably drive the hour to pick them up. Not that he wanted her to drive, when her car had too many miles on it already, and he’d have to listen to the lecture about how it wasn’t safe with all the crazies on the road to hitchhike. It didn’t matter. Maybe that woman Star was a loony tune. But then there had been that thing she said, before she drove away.
“Don’t worry. You’re not alone. Your dad is watching and you’ve made him proud.”
Nadja Maril is a former magazine editor and journalist living in Annapolis, Maryland who loves long walks and dancing. Creating new recipes with homegrown ingredients soothes her when the day gets tough. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from the Stonecoast Program at USM and her short stories and essays have been published in dozens of publications including: Change Seven, Lunch Ticket, and Defunkt Magazine. She is currently working on a novel and additional credits include weekly blogposts at Nadjamaril.com. You can find her on Twitter @SNMaril.