The middle of night.
The middle of nowhere.
Beginning at the end, like a great film noir. Bill Holden dead in the swimming pool. Fred MacMurray giving his last confession.
Going full circle. Like a noose.
There’s a car, a diner, a neon sign in the parking lot fading to streaks in the rearview mirror as the car speeds away. Inside are two people— a young woman in the passenger seat and a man behind the wheel. Both stare through the windshield to the road ahead, uncertain.
About who they are.
About where they’re going.
About how they got here, to this precise moment in time. Just before midnight. The final seconds of Tuesday, November 19, 1991.
But Charlie knows what brought them to the cusp of this uncertain new day. As the situation unfolds frame by frame, like film through a projector, she knows exactly how it all happened.
She knows because this isn’t a movie.
It’s the here and now.
She’s the girl in the car.
The man behind the wheel is a killer.
And Charlie understands, with the certainty of someone who’s seen this kind of movie a hundred times before, that only one of them will live to see the dawn.
Staying isn’t an option.
That’s why Charlie has agreed to get into a car with a perfect stranger.
She’s promised Robbie— promised herself as well— that she’ll bolt if anything about the situation strikes her as shady. One can’t be too careful. Not these days.
Not after what happened to Maddy.
Charlie has already steeled herself for flight, mentally listing all the scenarios in which she should run. If the car looks battered and/ or has tinted windows. If someone else is inside, no matter the excuse. If he seems too eager to depart or, on the flip side, not hurried enough. She’s sworn— to Robbie, to herself, to Maddy, whom she still sometimes talks to even though she’s now two months in the grave— that a single shiver of apprehension will send her running back to the dorm.
She doubts it will come to that. Because he seems nice. Friendly. Definitely not the type of guy who’d do the things that had been done to Maddy and the others.
Besides, he’s not a stranger. Not completely. They’d met once before, in front of the ride board in the campus commons, dwarfed by that wall of flyers from students desperate to get home and those eager to drive them there in exchange for gas money. Charlie had just put up her own flyer— carefully printed, her phone number placed on each meticulously cut tab— when he appeared at her side.
“You’re going to Youngstown?” he said, his gaze flicking from her to the flyer and back again.
Charlie hesitated before responding. A post- Maddy habit. She never willingly engaged with people she didn’t know. Not until she had a grasp on their intentions. He could have been making small talk. Or trying to pick her up. Unlikely, but not entirely out of the realm of possibility. It was how she met Robbie, after all. She’d been pretty once, before guilt and grief had sunk their claws into her.
“Yeah,” she eventually said, after his gaze returned to the ride board, making her decide he was there for the same reason she was. “That where you’re heading?”
“Akron,” he said.
Hearing that made Charlie stand at attention. Not quite Youngstown, but close enough. A quick stop on the way to his final destination.
“Rider or driver?” she asked.
“Driver. Was hoping to find someone willing to split the cost of gas.”
“I could be that someone,” she said, letting him look her over, giving him the chance to decide if she was the type of person he’d want to spend hours alone in a car with. She knew what kind of vibe she gave off— an angry dourness that would have made guys like him tell her to smile more if she hadn’t looked like she’d punch them for doing so. Doom and gloom hovered over her like a rain cloud.
Charlie studied him right back. He appeared to be a few years older than the typical student, although that could have been a product of his size. He was big. Tall, broad- chested, square- jawed. Wearing jeans and an Olyphant University sweatshirt, he looked, Charlie thought, like the hero of a forties campus comedy. Or the villain in an eighties one.
She assumed he was a grad student like Robbie. One of those people who got a taste for college life and decided they never wanted to leave. But he had nice hair, something Charlie still noticed even though she’d let her own grow limp and scraggly. Great smile, too, which he flashed when he said, “Possibly. When were you looking to leave?”
Charlie gestured to her flyer and the four letters placed all- caps in the dead center of the page.
He tore a tab from the bottom of the flyer, leaving a gap that brought to Charlie’s mind a missing tooth. The thought made her shudder.
The man placed the torn- off tab in his wallet. “I’ll see what I can do.”
Charlie hadn’t expected a response. It was the middle of the week in the middle of November, with Thanksgiving just ten days away. No one was looking to leave campus then. No one but her.
But that night, her phone rang, and a vaguely familiar voice on the other end said, “Hi, it’s Josh. From the ride board.”
Charlie, who’d been sitting in her dorm staring at the half of room that had once been filled with all things Maddy but now sat lifeless and bare, amused herself by responding, “Hi, Josh from the ride board.”
“Hi—” Josh paused, no doubt checking the paper tab in his hand for the name of the girl he was calling. “Charlie. I just wanted to tell you that I can leave tomorrow, but it won’t be until late. Nine o’clock. If you want, there’s a space in the passenger seat with your name on it.”
“I’ll take it.”
And that was that.
Now tomorrow is today, and Charlie is having one last look at the dorm room she’ll most likely never come back to. Her gaze sweeps slowly across the room, making sure to take in every inch of the place she’s called home for the past three years. The cluttered desks. The beds piled with pillows. The strand of fairy lights Maddy had put up their first Christmas and never bothered to take down, now in full twinkle.
The golden sunlight of an autumn afternoon streams through the window, giving everything a sepia glow and making Charlie feel both joy and sadness. Nostalgia. That beautiful ache.
Someone enters the room behind her.
Charlie smells her perfume. Chanel No. 5.
“What a dump,” Maddy says.
A melancholy smile plays across Charlie’s lips. “I think I—”
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