Holding up the cardboard sign, she chuckled. Years ago, she'd left her shitty hometown in the exact same way. Somehow it felt fitting that she was hitchhiking back.
The reason for it was different, of course. 6 years had passed and her life had changed immensely. She'd left home to find a better life, force one if necessary, and had managed to do so. It had taken longer than she'd hoped for, but it had been worth it. She was living with her best friend in a nice apartment downtown, with a dog they ostensibly shared responsibility for but was mostly hers to clean up after. Kate meant well, but she was more of a cat person. She'd paid her way through college, even if it was just community college, but she was working in the field she studied for and she knew that that was something to be thankful for.
A car whizzed past and the cardboard sign fluttered. It had started to rain and she'd forgotten to bring a coat. She sighed and stepped a bit closer to the road.
She checked her phone and saw Kate had left a message.
"Hope everything's alright. Let me know when you get there, right? I don't like that you're hitching a ride..."
She shook her head. Kate always worried about stuff like this. No matter that she'd done this before and it'd always been fine. She figured she knew how to size someone up to see if they were trustworthy or not. She wouldn't get into a car with 3 brodudes, for example. Neither would she get into a car with 3 valley girls, but for wholly different reasons. She didn't really get along with the vapid "like"-minded girls. She preferred intelligent people, people with opinions they could discuss. She didn't need to agree with everything, but if a conversation can be held about it, then that's valuable as well.
A car came rushing towards and past her and she sighed again. The rain was picking up. She would get drenched soon, and all she had was a sweater, which was happily getting slowly but surely soaked.
It had never been her intent to go back. Her home life hadn't been great. Alcoholic dad, passive mom, y'know, the whole spiel. Every cliche you see on television shows all the time, checking all the boxes television writers think make them "edgy". She'd felt far more frustrated with it back then, but it's been such a long time that she managed to push past that and figure that it had never been her fault. Her dad was an asshole who liked to hit people he didn't agree with and her mom was an idiot for not standing up for herself. She'd tried to get her to go along with her when she left, but she'd mumbled something about how "he wouldn't like it" and closed the door.
"You made your bed..." she mumbled under her breath as yet another car didn't slow down at all.
But now he was dead. Good fucking riddance, she thought to herself, as she smiled a little. When she'd gotten the news, she'd shared it with Kate. Kate, of course, had been emotionally overwhelmed and had told her it was okay to cry. But she'd felt no need to. Kate had said that that was okay too, that she should take her time to let it settle in.
Kate probably wouldn't understand. She's from the other cliche family type. The almost saccharine happy family, parents who are still in love with each other and a brother who's always looked out for her. She didn't have a problem with it, she was really glad others had better origin stories. But that didn't mean she was somehow wrong for feeling the way she did.
She was going to the funeral. Not because she wanted to pay him respect, but because she wanted to make sure he was going into the ground. For what he'd done to her. For what he'd done to her mother.
This was the last family funeral she'd ever have to go to, and she was going to make sure it was worth it.
A car horn beeped feebly, which she only noticed after the third beep or so.
A Volkswagen Beetle, an old vomit-green model, stood a few yards ahead of her, on the side of the road. She held the cardboard sign above her head to shield her a little and walked over. When she looked in, she saw a guy sitting in the front seat, the passenger-side window rolled down.
"You going to Saratoga?" he said with a smile as he pointed to her sign.
He didn't look that creepy, she thought, considering what Kate would say about this.
"Yeah," she responded with an equivalent smile.
"I'm going past there. You can hop in if you'd like."
She looked into the car to just get a vibe for this guy. Some energy drink cans in the center console, a crumpled pack of cheap cigarettes. It wasn't clean, but it wasn't dirty.
"I'm Denise," she said.
She decided that it was probably okay. He looked like a regular guy, t-shirt, jeans and sneakers. A bit of a beard but not all that convincing either. The radio was on and it was playing some mainstream rock music.
She opened the passenger door and plopped into the passenger seat.
"So what brings you out into this beautiful weather?" he asked as he moved back onto the road.
"Going home. Funeral, actually."
"Ah, my condolences. Family or friend?"
"Family. My dad."
"Oh, I'm... I'm sorry to hear that."
"Don't be, he was an asshole."
The conversation stalled there. He didn't seem to know what to do with that information and Denise was okay leaving it like that for now. She stared out of the window as the sun went down and the dusk set in. It was about a 2-hour drive from here, so she put her bag on the floor and settled in.
She noticed the car made a clanking noise from time to time and it smelled a bit like gasoline.
"She's an old clunker, isn't she?" she said, hoping to make things less awkward.
"Haha, yes, that she is. It used to be my dad's. Did you know they kept on making these old model Beetles in Mexico until 2003?"
"Seriously? Until that recently?"
"Yeah, can you believe it? Introduced in the 1930s and produced for nearly 70 years."
"Is this one of those?"
"Nah, this one's really old and shitty. But it's my old and shitty car, and it has family nostalgia attached to it. We went on many vacations in this old beast."
She smiled. They hadn't been on vacations. Summer vacation was playing outside with whatever school friends were around at the time. Her best summer had been when everyone else's summer vacations hadn't lined up. She'd been able to hang out with friends all summer long.
Her first real vacation had been a year ago, when her and Kate had gone to Canada for 2 weeks. They'd gone to Montreal to meet up with a friend of Kate's, and it had been amazing. It had been her first time out of the country, her first time being in a place where a lot of people spoke in a different language than the boring American English she heard all the time.
It had been an eye opener, and she'd spent the months after that obsessively making a list of places she wanted to go to. The obligatory Europe tour through Paris, London and Amsterdam. Thailand and Japan were on that list. See the northern lights with her own eyes. Since Canada she'd also been to Mexico, and it had merely added more places to her list.
"So, where are you going? If I may be so bold, anyway," she asked Jacob.
"Home as well, my sister's getting married."
"Thanks!" and he smiled wide. "It's my older sister. To be honest, we'd kinda given up on her finding anyone, but life always finds a way to surprise you, doesn't it?"
It was raining heavily by now and the Beetle was having trouble keeping its windscreen clear.
"Man, I'm glad I picked you up or you'd be getting sick by now."
"Hmhm," Denise mumbled in agreement. Then she noticed something. A car passed them fast on the left.
As it moved into the lane in front of them, it suddenly hit the brakes. Hard. It swerved left, right and left again, with every swerve losing even more control. It then suddenly jerked and smashed into the guard rail with a lot of force.
"Look out!" she yelled.
The car dug its nose into the rail and the back of it was lifted into the air. It seemed to hover for a bit when it rolled and smashed down onto its roof harshly and loudly.
Jacob tried to avoid the car but it was too late. The old Beetle's brakes weren't up to the task in this kind of weather and as he threw the front wheels almost sideways, the car just continued forwards and into the now overturned and slowly spinning block of metal.
Just before they hit, a weird and ironic thought quickly and completely crossed her mind. Hers would be the last family funeral, not her dad's.
A bright light shining in her eyes, making her squint because it hurt.
She realized her head hurt even without the bright light.
Her leg. Jesus that hurt bad.
She shook her head and slowly opened her eyes a bit, afraid of more bright light. Her head was pounding and when she could finally see, she didn't understand what she was seeing.
The dashboard was really close to her, but she could feel her back touching the seat. That was odd. She could see where the dashboard was digging into her jeans, where there was a dark, wet spot. Blood, probably, she thought. She touched her forehead with her hand because it hurt so much and she felt something wet there too.
More blood, probably.
The sound she could hear around her was fuzzy, like the wah-wah style of speaking adults used in Charlie Brown. She never liked that cartoon. She shook her head a little to get her bearings back, shake off the shakiness. She saw that they were on their side. She looked right and saw asphalt. Asphalt with shards of glass and an empty energy drink can.
Bright blue and red lights flashed. She could hear voices with an acuteness to them. Probably police?
When both sound and vision were fairly regular again, she remembered she wasn't in the car alone. She looked left, yelped and immediately closed her eyes again.
But she couldn't unsee what she had seen. The image danced in front of her closed eyelids.
The dashboard had crumpled in on her. And it had done the same to Jacob. But on Jacob's side, there was also a steering column that needed to go somewhere.
"Ma'am, are you alright?" a police officer shouted through the open window on Jacob's side.
"Yeah," she managed to get out without opening her eyes again.
"Bear with us, we'll have to turn the car the right side up to get you out."
"Sure, just get me out of here!" she managed to get out louder.
The voices continued speaking and soon after, the car started jostling. It landed on its wheels with a thud and a clang. Firemen appeared at her door and they started cutting away the door.
It took 25 minutes to get her out, and when they got her to the ambulance that had just arrived, they put her in immediately. The nurse quickly scanned her injuries and said that she was probably going to be just fine. That she was really lucky. She didn't really feel like she was lucky and didn't expect to be fine anytime soon, but she accepted, rationally, that her body would most likely survive intact.
She wanted to ask about Jacob, but she already knew the answer.
"Where are you from, miss?"
She considered what to answer. If she said Saratoga, she would be brought to a hospital there. Maybe, if she was really that lucky, she could still make her dad's funeral in a few days.
"New York," she said.
"Alright," the nurse responded as he went into the front of the ambulance and talked to the driver.
The ambulance started driving.
She worked her phone out of her pocket and saw that the screen was cracked but would still turn on.
"Kate, had a bit of an accident, but I'm going to be fine. I'll let you know what hospital I'm in once I know." she sent.
"WHAT HAPPENED" she immediately got back.
"Car crash. I should be fine, though."
"But what happened?!" Kate fired back instantly.
She sighed and put her head back. Kate was a sweetheart, but this was not the time.
"I'll tell you about it when I come home," Denise typed.