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The hitchhikers appeared in the week of wildfires.
Lauren saw them as she drove to McDonalds after her dual-credit class. The three young men sat, leaning on their duffle bags, on the grass outside of the Toyota dealership. The giant gorilla on the dealership’s roof that was inflated all the time now, regardless of sales, roared silently down at them, but they ignored it. The hair and skin of all three was dark tan; their ragged clothes and bags were muted by the same color. Had they been walking along a dirt road and gotten filthy? Or were they just darkened by the sun?
The one who had his thumb stuck out in a gesture Lauren had read about but never seen—the one who marked the three as definite outsiders—wore no shirt at all; the tattoos covering his arms and chest were clearly visible despite the dust. The young man next to him, with longer hair, actually wore a shirt; the third man compromised with a formerly-red shirt that was so full of holes it hardly covered his chest or arms. Their raggedness and their dust united them and set them apart from the rest of the town simultaneously.
Lauren saw all this in the time it took her to glance at them, stare for a moment in fascinated horror, and look away with a thrill of adrenaline twisting her chest. Those men were dangerous, and she knew it. What on earth were they doing here? Colerville was kept alive by its churches and its one community college; there was nothing here that could attract these young men, and they most certainly would not be welcome. She imagined that the leaders of the town were already meeting quietly to discuss how to move the young men on as quickly as possible. And they would be moved on, and everything would go back to normal. She settled more comfortably in her seat, glanced at the three men in her rear view mirror, noted with relief that they were still sitting staring at the road, and drove on to McDonalds.
She expected the three hitchhikers to be the main topic of conversation, but her friends had come from band practice on the high school campus and hadn’t seen the hitchhikers at all. They were so busy discussing what the director might make them do since they were now seniors—maybe he’d have an award lunch (cool) or make them mentor freshmen (very not cool)—that Lauren didn’t have a chance to tell them about the hitchhikers before they had ordered their drinks and settled down at an outside table. Amanda turned to Lauren then, but it was to ask her own question—“So how are your dual-credit classes going? Still want to stay here next year?”
“Of course.” She’d been a straight-A student throughout high school, and looked forward to finishing college with that record unbroken. “The classes are going well so far, though homework’s worse than ever. I don’t think I could make it anywhere else.”
“Sure you could. You’re a genius,” Amanda told her immediately.
“Thanks.” And that was the only reason Lauren would ever leave Colerville—so people would stop calling her a genius and expecting her to act like one. They didn’t know how much effort it took to keep up her grades; she might be genuinely intelligent, but she also wanted straight A’s badly enough to sacrifice band, sports, family time, and, to a large extent, hanging out with her friends. This Tuesday afternoon McDonalds drink was one of the only times she spent with them outside of school.
“But really, I’m so glad you’re staying here. We’ll probably all go to the same college, and you can help me with homework,” Amanda grinned.
Lauren smiled back, trying to imagine balancing Amanda’s homework with her own all the way through college. The hitchhikers had looked college-aged; she wondered if they had planned to go to college, but had been too poor. Or maybe they’d lost their homes in the wildfires that were burning all over the state—but if so, they’d be with families, and they’d probably have more things with them. She supposed they might be newly graduated students exploring the country before they settled down, but that would be stupid; anyway, wouldn’t they have gone home before their clothes literally started falling off of them?
Jeremy, one of her other friends, glanced at the news report on the television and sighed. “I’m sick of hearing about fires. My mom actually made me pack yesterday afternoon. Just in case.”
“Pack what?” Lauren asked.
“Clothes, electronics, whatever I wouldn’t want to lose. Most depressing afternoon of my life.” He smiled thinly as if to show he didn’t really mind.
“Dang. That would be miserable,” Lauren agreed, trying to hide the shiver of fear in her own chest. She hated the fires. She hated the way the wind made her afraid, hated the way smoke on the breeze could come from the next town or a grass fire hundreds of miles away, hated the way her whole future could go up in flames—literally—with no warning. The occasional smoke clouds were like the hitchhikers, reminding her that her life could be wrecked no matter what she tried to plan. Maybe her dad would have a car accident and lose his job, and she’d end up having to drop out of college in order to earn money. Maybe she’d find even a community college unmanageable.
Or maybe she’d succeed there and always wonder if, with her SAT scores above 700 in all three categories and her near-perfect ACT, she could have gone to a highly selective university and succeeded. But she would never know, and she would never risk the failure. She had no desire to self-destruct spectacularly within a semester of enrolling.
“You know, people always talk about self-destructing or burning out—like a spaceship or something—but that’s really so misleading. It sounds like you get to start over, but really you’ve just got to rebuild, except now you’re using the debris that’s left after the self-destruction.”
Amanda raised her eyebrows. “Random.”
“You’re right.” She hadn’t really meant to say that; it was one of those spur-of-the-moment remarks that were nearly always ill-judged. “Sorry. So how are your classes?”
Amanda was still looking at her, concerned. “Fine. What did you mean about self-destructing?”
“I’ve just been thinking about how much I don’t want to get too stressed in college. Here, I’ll get you a refill.” She took Amanda’s glass and her own and went inside the restaurant, leaving Amanda and Jeremy to wait outside. And probably to talk about her, but that couldn’t be helped. She wouldn’t say something weird like that next time. All the rules of civilized (and wise) behavior could be summarized by “when in doubt, keep your mouth shut.”
She filled Amanda’s root beer at the soda machine and set it next to the ketchup as she filled her own Dr. Pepper. Picking both cups up, she turned and nearly dropped them as she saw a dusty young man standing at the counter. He wasn’t looking at her; in fact, he was scrutinizing the counter rather than making eye contact with the woman taking his order. It was the hitchhiker who had a decent shirt.
Lauren turned away and began fiddling with the straws until she realized he would almost certainly be coming to get his drink. She moved quickly away, but stopped as she saw him filling a canteen at the water fountain, which was between her and the door. Quickly turning back to the straws, she topped off her glass while she listened to him filling another canteen before his order came. Two hamburgers off of the dollar menu; nothing else. He dug in his pocket and set a handful of coins on the counter, then took his wrapped hamburgers and left. Except while ordering, he had not spoken or made eye contact with anyone in the restaurant. Nevertheless, Lauren’s heart was pounding.
She waited until she saw him cross the street, then moved toward the door, noticing the clerk still counting the coins. The woman, the mother of one of Lauren’s classmates, glanced up and smiled at her. “Would you look at this! State quarters, all of them. 2000 and 2001, it looks like.”
“That’s cool. I used to collect them.” She really didn’t want to talk about the hitchhikers. Smiling at the woman, she headed out to the porch, wondering about the quarters. Someone’s collection, now sacrificed? Of course, it could have been stolen, but she really couldn’t assume that. And the quarters were all from 2000 and 2001. Were the hitchhikers just beginning to spend them, or did they only have the five 1999 quarters left? Or were they completely random, and she was being overimaginative?
“Oh my gosh, did you see that?” Amanda gasped as soon as Lauren came outside. “I’ve never seen anyone like that. Who was he?”
“A hitchhiker, I guess. There were three of them by the side of the road when I was coming here. I was going to tell you.”
Jeremy nodded, looking a bit shaken. Amanda exclaimed, “You should have! At least all three didn’t come in there with you.”
“Yeah, but I would’ve been fine. He didn’t even look at me.” She handed Amanda her drink, wondering how far two hamburgers would go between the three young men. When had they last eaten? But there were places that they could get help, and they obviously did have some money. She certainly wasn’t going near them.
Amanda took a long drink of her root beer. “I wish they weren’t hanging around here.”
“They’re not hanging around,” Lauren said reasonably. The young man had already disappeared. “I’m sure they’ll get out as soon as someone gives them a lift. They can’t feel welcome here.” She had been rather frightened of the young man in the restaurant, but his silent unease had made her pity him. He knew he wasn’t wanted.
“He was filthy,” Amanda said.
“The other two didn’t even have shirts,” Lauren told her, and watched Amanda’s horror with some pleasure. She had finished her second drink by the time that she had described every detail of her earlier glimpse of the hitchhikers, and they had all tried to guess what brought the young men to Colerville.
Amanda and Jeremy left for home, but Lauren lingered, eating the last of her ice. The hitchhikers were nowhere in sight, but she couldn’t stop thinking about them. She wasn’t scared of driving home, or even terribly worried about their futures. They looked as if they could probably take care of themselves, and it would be dangerous for her, a single teenage girl, to give them a ride or even offer them money. But their presence added to her unease. Perhaps this was just reality striking, and her handling it poorly, but she couldn’t be happy in a world where almost anything—from wildfires to whatever had sent the young men out wandering—could upset anyone’s future. Risk management was all very well, but it couldn’t avoid everything. And every decision—like her decision not to apply to competitive schools—had consequences that she couldn’t foresee.
If life was so perilous, it made sense to avoid whatever threats she could. And right now, that meant staying where she was comfortable and where she would excel. But she couldn’t shake the empty unhappiness in her chest. If there was no certainty anyway, what point was there in limiting herself?
Those young men had lived, and were still living, lives she couldn’t imagine. They had collected state quarters, and given up that collection in order to survive. They had quite probably done drugs and stolen and goodness knew what else. They might have been born poor and failed signally to rise above their beginnings. They might have hit a prolonged run of bad luck. But they were coping, and they had each other. Maybe they were even happy.
And here she was, with intelligence and a good family and a college career ahead of her, and she chose to avoid any risk. They would probably give anything for her kind of potential, and they would probably have taken risks with it; they’d obviously taken risks that led them here. But even if she risked academic failure, she’d hardly end up like them. And yet, even if she did not risk failure—even if she stayed here all her life—she might still end up like them.
All she could do was live while she could, and try to fulfill her dreams. Life might mess up her plans, but at least she would have tried. At least she would have tested herself, and found self-respect in the testing.
She tossed her cup in the trash and walked briskly to her car. Learning to take risks would be very hard, but she could begin as soon as she got home. She could apply to Baylor and Trinity and Rice, and perhaps to other schools. She’d gotten, and deleted, a lot of emails from selective schools after taking the PSAT; she’d dig through those again. Applying wouldn’t guarantee her admission; it wouldn’t guarantee that she’d be able to go if she got in. But if all went well, she’d have a more exciting future than she would have dared to dream of at the beginning of this afternoon.
Had the hitchhikers still been in town, she might have even offered them money. She owed them a future, after all. But the space in front of the car dealership was empty. She slowed down slightly, although that was mostly because the car in front of her was slowing. The giant gorilla was deflating now, but the head and hands, still full of air, hung gruesomely over the edge of the building as though the gorilla had just fallen off of a phantom Empire State Building. She smiled at it, accelerating as the car in front of her finished looking at the gorilla and sped up.
The hitchhikers had gone, leaving for another job, another cheap meal, another day of trying to survive. She hoped they would survive. She wished now that she had dared to do something for them, although she still didn’t know what that would have been. Perhaps she had misjudged them, and they would have responded to her kindness with kindness. Or perhaps not.
It didn’t matter. They had gone, and she must go too. She would go home first, and stay there for a year yet. She had plans to make, and dreams to dream. She couldn’t guarantee herself happiness. She had no intention of abandoning her common sense when analyzing risks.
But sometimes the flames of a burnout might prove to be a refining fire. And sometimes, the scraps of self-destruction might make something more beautiful than the original craft.
She wouldn’t know until she dared to try.