Exercising the craft—October 3, 2016

By Ekta R. Garg

Prompt: Write a story about three people who are on a road trip together, only to stop off at a gas station and pick up a fourth person whom they don’t know. Why did they pick this person up? Where are they taking him/her? What happens?

http://www.writersdigest.com/prompts/the-hitchhiker-writing-prompt

*****

Lila bobbed her head in time to Cake by the Ocean as she walked up and down the aisles of the convenience store. Trust Jared not to gas up the car before they left the house for their big trip down to Florida. What her big brother had in adventurous spirit, he lacked in planning. And when Matt said he would drive down with them, all the boys could talk about was how many chicks they’d hit on when they got to the beach. Gassing up the car, buying snacks for the road, and making sure they actually had a place to stay? Details.

She’d taken care of the inexpensive hotel from her phone, but Lila hadn’t actually found out about the deficiency in the fuel tank or their snack supply until Jared pulled into the gas station. Matt was already dozing in the front seat, so it was up to Lila to make their food selections. Hence the hurried trip inside.

Now that she was standing in front of the chips, though, she just couldn’t make up her mind between barbecue and sour cream and onion. Did she really want the car smelling like either all the way from Virginia to Florida?

“Lila? Oh, wait…um…”

She rolled her eyes as she heard Jared’s voice in the other aisle. Grabbing four packets of chips, she made her way to the end and around the display of Little Debbie snacks. Jared stood halfway down the aisle facing someone with her back to Lila.

“Come on, Jared, at least leave the Virginia girls alone,” she said, grinning at him.

He looked over the girl’s head, but he didn’t return her mirth. Instead he looked…spooked. Lila opened her mouth to ask what was wrong when the girl turned around to face her.

It was her. Or her face, anyway. The chip bags slipped from her hands and landed with plastic crunches to the floor as Lila covered her mouth with her fingers.

“Sorry,” the girl said in a slightly raspy voice. “Looks like your friend got us mixed up. But I guess we do look a little alike.”

A little alike?! Lila thought.

“That’s the understatement of the year,” Jared muttered. He shifted his weight and glanced behind him as if searching for something.

“Sorry to bother you,” the girl said, stepping toward Lila, “but do you have a few extra bucks? I’m kind of down on my luck right now.”

Her request made Lila take half a step back, and that’s when she noticed the girl’s ratty jeans. She couldn’t quite identify the color of the girl’s limp hair. She wore a few shirts in layers, and her tennis shoes looked like she’d dug them out of the trash.

“Do you—how can you—we’re—”

“Yeah, twins,” the girl said with a hint of amusement. “Everyone’s got one.”

Lila inhaled sharply, and all of the sounds around her disappeared for just a moment. A rush of adrenaline made the blood pound in her ears, and although she could see the girl’s mouth moving and Jared saying something in response she couldn’t hear either of them. Her vision clouded and started dimming. The only thing that she could see was the picture in the photo album. Two babies, side by side.

Only one adoption certificate in her mother’s safety deposit box.

“Jared,” Lila said, reaching for her brother.

Jared darted around the girl and grabbed Lila’s arm. Lila collapsed into him, and he led her down the aisle and to the small seating area in the windows of the convenience store. The girl followed, uncertainty making her hesitate and then stop when she was about ten feet away.

“What’s wrong?” the girl asked, her eyebrows pinched. Her eyes darted between Jared and Lila, and Lila had to look away. She couldn’t watch her own anxiety, her own fear reflected in this flesh-and-blood mirror.

“You are twins,” Jared said in a quiet voice. “Real twins.”

The girl stared at both of them for another minute then burst out laughing.

“Sure, right,” she said. “Okay, fine, you don’t want to give me money, I get it. Just don’t try to get out of it by feeding me a bunch of bull.”

Lila forced herself to stare the girl down. Her laughter continued, but it came out at a higher pitch. After a few more moments, the laughter sputtered and stopped.

“You’re serious, aren’t you?” the girl asked, apprehension tugging her mouth downward. “You actually think we’re…that you and I are…”

“Sisters,” Lila whispered. “I was adopted when I was a baby. They told my adoptive mother that the other baby died, but…but you…”

The girl’s eyes became as round as dinner plates.

Jared squeezed Lila’s hand, and she looked at him. She and Jared weren’t twins by any stretch of the imagination, but if there was anyone else in the world who would understand what she felt it was him. She’d told him on a few occasions how something remained hollow inside of her. Like she had a phantom limb. The sensation that something that used to belong to her had gone missing when she wasn’t looking.

Now she was looking. At this girl. And in that instant, the hollowness disappeared.

“Come with us,” Lila blurted out. “We’re going to Florida. Orlando. A road trip before my last year in college.”

The girl rolled her eyes. “Sure, sweetheart, whatever you say. Cue the violins as we ride off into the sunset.”

Jared tugged on Lila’s arm. “Lila, are you crazy? She’s some homeless girl from the street! Mom and Dad will—”

“Mom and Dad thought my twin was dead,” Lila said, turning her attention to her big brother. Her adoptive brother. “Now we know she’s not. And,” she went on, turning back to the girl, “it’s not exactly like you have any major commitments holding you here. Or do you?”

The girl cocked her head and put a hand to one hip, considering. Lila’s gaze went to that hand. Everything in her life was pinned to this girl’s waist by those five fingers.

Finally she shrugged. “Okay, whatever. I’m in.” She held out a hand. “Aubrey.”

Lila’s eyes stayed fixed on the hand for a full sixty seconds before she took it. “I’m Lila. Nice to meet you.”

“You too. Sis,” Aubrey said, and just like that the amusement had come back to her eyes.