I wrote this story for my Fiction Writing class fall semester.
Stop Acting Foolish
When Claire had told her that she wanted to take a year off and might not even go to college, her mother grabbed her by the arm and took her in the hallway.
“What do you think you’re doing?” asked her mother. The 4th of July fireworks were supposed to start soon, as long as the rain held off. “You’re going to Vanderbilt and majoring in pre-med. We’ve talked about this.” Her mother spoke in a hushed voice, looking around nervously to see if anyone was within earshot.
“Well, maybe that’s not what I want anymore.”
“Stop acting foolish,” her mother hissed.
“Mom, I’m not ‘acting foolish.’” She made air quotes with her hands around the word “foolish.”
“Claire, we’re not having this conversation.”
“You’re right. We’re not having this conversation.” Claire turned on her heel and walked out the front door. She stomped through the damp grass, kicking a small decorative American flag. A burst of thunder rumbled above her.
Claire got into her car and slammed the door, still breathing hard. She hated how her mom thought she was some sort of perfect little angel, unable to think for herself. Mom had no idea how Claire felt about anything. She didn’t want to be her mom’s robot, living out her commands. She wanted to travel to Europe and become a supermodel.
Her mom had said Claire had taken too long getting ready for the party, so she and Claire’s father had left without her. It was so humiliating for Claire to show up to the 4th of July party alone. All of her friends probably thought she looked like a complete loser. Her mom always criticized her for spending too much time putting on makeup and fixing her hair. She just didn’t understand the importance of taking pride in one’s appearance.
Claire took a deep breath, checked herself in her rear view mirror, tore out of the driveway and headed home.
Rain started to pour down in buckets from the nighttime Indiana sky. The poplar trees lined the streets of West Terre Haute, a rural close-knit town.
Her headlights suddenly illuminated a young man holding just a backpack on the side of the road. His arm was extended and his thumb pointed up. He had no umbrella or jacket. He simply stood there like a handsome soaking wet statue. He looked to be about her age. Claire didn’t think he looked too homeless because he was dressed so nicely. He wore dress shoes, corduroy pants, a t-shirt, and sunglasses, and his wavy red hair almost reached his shoulders. Maybe he was down on his luck, in need of some help.
Claire’s first thought was about how her parents had always told her she was still too young to date. “You don’t need to be thinking about boys. You’re just seventeen,” her mom scolded. “Focus on your schoolwork.” All of Claire’s friends had steady boyfriends. They all went to the movies on the weekend and held each other’s hands during the scary parts. Claire simply ate her popcorn and thought the scary parts looked corny. All by herself.
That’s because I’m the good girl, Claire thought. Little Miss Perfect, never coloring outside the lines. Claire had lived a life that would make any parent proud. She’d always worked hard to please her parents, nailing straight A’s since forever, studying her SAT flashcards, and practicing hard to become the first chair flautist in her high school band. But Claire was tired of always being the good girl.
Filled with hormones and rage at her mom, Claire wanted to prove her wrong. She could do something unexpected and have it turn out fine. Taking a year off college wouldn’t be the end of the world. She’d tell them about how she picked up this nice-looking hitchhiker because it was raining and drove him to where he needed to go. She would explain how as a kid, they told her to always help others, so that’s all she was doing. And it all worked out fine.
She slowed and pulled over in front of the guy. The need for excitement in her life and anger at her parents clouded her better judgment. Before she could roll down her window and ask if he wanted a ride he opened the passenger door and hopped in. He slammed the door behind him.
Claire leaned over and checked how she looked in the side mirror. Her blonde- highlighted hair fell in poker straight-layered lines around her round face and her blue eyes. She wore a simple pink V-neck shirt and skinny shorts that her father thought were too short for going out in public. Looking in the mirror, she thought of how her mom always scolded her for wearing low-cut shirts and checking her reflection too often. Her mother always tried to control her appearance and it made Claire feel like she wasn’t actually living. She was simply her mom’s puppet.
The man sat down on the leather passenger seat and turned to grin at her. It wasn’t a thankful grin or a necessarily friendly grin but rather an expression of confidence. He tilted his head down, clearly looking at her breasts.
She loved the way he looked at her. The attention is what she lived for. Claire leaned toward him, batted her eyelashes and asked, “Where you headed?” She smiled and nonchalantly tugged her shirt down lower. She could feel a rush of adrenaline from shedding her good-girl image.
“Doesn’t matter,” he spoke in a strange baritone voice that reminded her of a tuba. He tossed his backpack on the floor and spread out his legs. She stared at his untamed hair. It was magnificent to her. He was much more handsome up close than he had seemed from outside and he looked a little familiar to her. Like she had seen him somewhere before. But she just couldn’t place where she knew him from.
“Do you want to borrow my cell phone?” Claire held up her pink bejeweled Blackberry and handed it to him.
He nodded and took the phone, but didn’t use it to immediately call someone. Instead, he stared down at the screen, typing furiously.
“I’m headed into Terre Haute,” Claire told him. She flipped on her turn signal, checked her mirrors and steered back onto the highway.
“Sounds good.” The guy leaned back in his seat, making himself comfortable. He stared intensely straight ahead. Even though it was nine at night, he didn’t remove his sunglasses. His face reminded her of a kid she used to go to elementary school with. He had a weird name and other kids made fun of him.
Claire glanced over at him, cleared her throat, and tried to make small talk with him.
“Where are you from?” she asked.
“Wow, me too. What a coincidence.”
“Yes.” He paused. “Or maybe fate.”
“I said that’s great.”
Claire nodded and pressed on the accelerator a little and turned to see if he was making some sort of joke. He was smiling and staring straight ahead. He reminded her of this guy who often waited outside her afterschool. Claire assumed he was always just there waiting to pick up a sibling or something.
“Pretty shitty weather outside.”
“You have such a clean car.”
“Yeah, I guess you could say I keep it neat.” Claire said. She rolled her eyes as she thought how her dad made her clean it once a week. Little Miss Perfect has to have a perfectly clean car, she thought to herself.
“This leather is so soft.” He peered over at her and petted the back of the seat.
“Thanks,” Claire said quietly. Claire tried harder to spark a conversation with the hitchhiker. “How old are you?”
“Same as you.”
“I never told you how old I am.”
“I could just tell. You seem seventeen.”
Claire stole a better look at him. The guy who waited outside her school wore sunglasses just like his. Turning her attention back to the road, she noticed she was drifting past the middle line. Jerking the wheel, she overcorrected.
“What did you say?”
“No, you said Claire. How did you know my name?”
“You misheard me. It’s hard to hear over this music.” He switched off the radio.
“How did you know my name?” she repeated.
“Did you talk to someone?”
“I just looked into your eyes,” he said, leaning toward her.
“How do you know my name?” She said for the third time.
“I just do.”
Claire unclenched her hands from the steering wheel and flexed her fingers.
She could feel her palms growing sweaty. Her mouth was dry. This hitchhiker no longer seemed like just a cute guy in need of a ride.
“What’s your name?” Claire asked.
“That’s an interesting name.”
“I’m an interesting guy,” Claire nodded. “I know a lot.”
Claire raised an eyebrow. “Yeah?”
“I know your favorite color is green. You have a sister named Emily and she’s a freshman at Hilliard Darby high school. You’re parents are Barbara and Bill. You’re mom is a teacher and your dad works in insurance. ”
Claire gasped. She took her foot off the gas and slowed down. Her breathing grew rapid and uneven.
“How do you know who my parents are? How do you know who my sister is?”
“I told you Claire, I’m a smart guy,” he said, smiling.
“Did you look me up online?”
“No, I most certainly did not,” he articulated each syllable carefully.
“How do you know so much about me?”
“Don’t you remember me, Claire?” He took off his sunglasses, revealing dark brown eyes. He stared at her intently, waiting for her response.
“You do look familiar,” Claire stammered. “Did we go to elementary school together?”
“You were the prettiest girl there. I always tried to get your attention but you never noticed me.” He told her, “Then, my parents decided it would be best if I was homeschooled. They said I didn’t ‘play well with others.’ But I couldn’t stop thinking about you. I vowed to learn everything I could about you and spend the rest of my life with you. No matter what it took.”
Claire looked over at him, trying to see if he was playing some sort of joke. He was gazing at her like she was a prized diamond.
“Who are you?” she shouted. Her heart pounded with terror.
“I told you. My name is Chester.” He slowly reached his left hand over and lightly placed it on her thigh. Claire jerked away.
“I waited outside for you at your high school. I thought you’d remember me and come talk to me.” He looked affectionately into her eyes. “But you didn’t. So I had to find a way to come to you.”
“What? How did you know I’d pick you up?”
“I knew you were going to the party. I knew you drove by yourself. And I knew you were too nice to pass by a poor guy stuck out in the rain.”
“How’d you know I drove myself to the party?”
“I have friends. They keep me informed.”
Claire pulled the car over to the shoulder of the highway. She recognized the exit sign and knew she was a couple miles from her house. She frantically reached in her purse for her cell phone.
“Get out. I’m calling the police.”
Chester watched and continued to smirk. She forgot she had already handed her phone to him. Claire’s breathing started to become uneven. She tried to lean over him and grab the phone from him but it was too late. He rolled down his window and tossed it out the window. Then in another swift motion, he yanked the keys out of the ignition.
Her heart raced. She’d never say goodbye to her mom, her dad, or her sister. Thinking of them just increased the pain she felt in her stomach. She knew she might never see any of them again. She wasn’t mad at her parents for making her drive herself. She didn’t feel annoyed at herself for taking too long to get ready for the party. She felt numb.
Her shirt was drenched in a cold sweat. I was so stupid to think I could do something reckless like this, she thought. She wished she hadn’t challenged Little Miss Perfect and had just ignored the devil on her shoulder telling her to be rebellious.
“It’s okay, Claire” he told her as he placed his hand onto her inner thigh. Like a slithering snake, his cold hand slid inside her shorts. He squeezed her leg and began to work his way up her shorts.
Before he could reach her crotch, Claire reached into her purse and pulled out the pepper spray her mother had given her for Christmas. With trembling hands, she fumbled to press the release. Red liquid shot out of the can and into Chester’s eyes. He howled in anger. Removing his hands from her shorts he tried to rub it out of his eyes.
Claire grabbed her bag. She yanked on the door. And sprinted out of the car. She couldn’t run very fast with her heels. She stopped for just a moment to hop out of them. She stashed them in her bag. The mud squished on her bare feet, feeling cold and slimy. The rain pelted her body like rocks but she still felt relieved to be out of the car away from Chester.
Suddenly, she felt an intense stab in her left foot. She cried out in pain and fell into the soft mud. Struggling to see in the dark, it looked like she had cut herself on a piece of broken glass. Her foot was bleeding. The pain was too intense for her to keep running.
Claire broke down and began to cry. “Mommy! Help! Mom!” she yelled.
Suddenly, she heard footsteps. They sounded like heavy boots running. Claire curled into the fetal position, terrified of what Chester would do to her.
“Claire!” Her mother cried out. She ran to Claire, got down on the ground and embraced her in a hug.
“Oh honey. We were so worried about you. When you weren’t at home, your father and I went out looking for you.” She squeezed her closer. “Bill, I found her!” she called out to the road. Her father appeared, racing toward them, looking tired and concerned.
“Oh my God. What happened?” He bent down, looking at her bloody foot.
“I’m sorry. You were right. I should have listened to you and Mom—”
“Where are you hurt?” he asked.
“I cut my foot,” she said.
“Don’t worry, you’re safe now.”
“I was running from the hitchhiker I picked up,” Claire said.
Her parents exchanged shocked looks for a moment and then back at Claire, “Why would you do that?” her mother said first.
“I was mad at you. I was angry that you wouldn’t let me make my own choices.”
“Claire, of course you’re allowed to make your own choices,” her mother said.
“Your mother and I will always be there for you and support you no matter what you choose.”
“Even if I take a year off?”
“We can talk about it.” her mom hesitated, “If that’s really what you think will be best for you.”
“Thanks,” Claire said. “Mom, why are you crying?” Tears were rolling down her mother’s cheeks.
“I was so scared that we wouldn’t find you.” she sniffed and tried to wipe the tears away. Her dad put his arm around her.
“Your mother refused to stop looking for you. We were both very concerned,” her father told her.
“I’m sorry,” Claire said to her parents as tears filled her eyes too. “I never meant to put myself in danger and upset you.”
“We know. We’re just glad you’re safe now,” her mother said.
Her father reached down to lift her up but paused when he saw how much she was shivering.
“How long have you been out in this rain?”
Claire’s teeth chattered, “I’m so cold.”
Claire looked at her loving parents and no longer felt mad at them for trying to tell her how to live her life. She felt mad at herself for being selfish enough to put her life in danger. Her foot still throbbed with pain but the pain didn’t feel as bad now that her parents were with her. She knew her foot would heal but the scar would always be with her, reminding her of what had almost happened.