The Ride of Your Life
“I’m so, so, so, so sorry!”
Gabby Carter had just jumped out of her seat to hand her meal tray to the flight attendant, and she figured she would hand in her neighbor’s tray as well. But leaning over made her tray table bounce into the air. Which had caused her drink to bounce into the air as well. Cranberry juice rained down the tray, dripping onto the floor and Gabby’s armrest and the cover of the magazine that the woman in the seat next to her had been reading before she fell asleep.
“Sheesh. I just wanted to help without waking you up,” Gabby said miserably.
“Well, you didn’t,” snapped the woman, who was all
tucked in for the flight. She had taken off her shoes and replaced them with woolen booties. She also had a sleep mask pushed up onto her head and a neck pillow resting on her collar. In other words, she didn’t seem to care how crazy she looked. “I’m perfectly capable of turning in my meal tray by myself. And anyway, I wasn’t sleeping.”
“You were too sleeping!” Gabby protested. “I heard you sno—breathing deeply.”
The woman glared at her. “I was resting my eyes. And I needed the rest, sitting next to you. Look at you. We practically just took off, and your seat already looks like a bird’s nest. I can’t believe they gave me a seat next to a child.”
“We’ll have everything back to normal in no time,” said the flight attendant. He was a youngish man, and he looked as if nothing ever bothered him.
“Let’s just clean up a little here,” he said, “and we’ll all be as good as new.” From somewhere in his cart, he pulled out a damp towel and deftly began to mop up the spill. He glanced at Gabby. “Why don’t you sit down and fasten your seat belt again?”
Gabby sat down. An hour into the flight, she thought, and already I’m causing trouble.
“And you, ma’am—would you like something else to read?” the flight attendant asked the woman next to Gabby.
“No!” she snapped. “Just take this away.” She handed him the juice-stained magazine. Then she pulled a book of Sudoku and a pencil out of her purse and bent over the page with angry concentration.
“Is this your first flight?” the attendant asked Gabby.
Gabby sighed. “No. My sixth. And I’ve spilled something on every trip.”
“Sometimes it’s hard to sit still,” the flight attendant said. “Anyway, I’m Toby.” He gestured down at his name badge. “As I guess you already know.”
“I’m Gabrielle,” said Gabby. “Gabby for short.”
“And where are you headed, Gabby? Besides Iowa, I mean.”
“I’m going to visit my best friend, Sydney,” Gabby told him more cheerfully. “She lives in a town called Trouble Slope. Have you heard of it?”
“I don’t think so. Is it close to Des Moines?”
“It’s, like, a two-hour drive.,” said Gabby. “My aunt lives in Des Moines, so she’s going to pick me up at the airport and drive me to Trouble Slope. It’s a pretty small
town. But it does have a college,” she added. “That’s where Sydney’s parents work. They’re both professors, and Trouble Slope was the only college they found that could hire both of them at the same time.” She sighed. “So that’s why they moved out of San Francisco a year ago.”
To Gabby, it had felt like the longest year of her life. She had other friends, of course, but she and Sydney had been best friends since kindergarten. It hadn’t been hard to stay in touch since Sydney had moved. The girls had texted or video-chatted pretty much every day. But texting and video-chatting were just not the same as having Sydney actually live in San Francisco.
“What’s Sydney like?” Toby asked sympathetically.
“Sydney is—Sydney is calm,” Gabby told him. “That’s one of the best things about her. She never seems to worry or get flustered. She never leaves anything till the last minute. She’s never late. She’s the total opposite of me.”
“Sounds as if you make a good team,” Toby said. “She’s calm, and you’re—uh—energetic.”
“Exactly! Sydney usually likes it when I do something crazy. Because she never would have thought of it.”
“Well, I hope you have a—”
A voice suddenly broke in—the voice of the cranky woman next to Gabby, of course. “Don’t you have anything to do besides stand here?” she asked Toby.
For a second, Toby looked startled. Then he arranged his face into a smile. “I’m sure I do,” he said. “Thanks for the reminder. Can I get either of you anything before I go back to work?”
“You already asked me that,” said Gabby’s seatmate.
She is really rude, thought Gabby. It seemed as if the best thing she herself could do was not to give Toby any more trouble. “I’m fine,” she told him. “But thanks for listening.”
“My pleasure,” said Toby. Then he leaned over and pointed at the cranky woman’s Sudoku.
“That should be a five, not a three,” he said. He winked at Gabby.
As Toby headed up the aisle, Gabby silently vowed that she would sit without moving for the rest of the flight. She wouldn’t even use her half of the armrest. She would give her seatmate absolutely nothing to complain about. . . .
Gabby had been up late packing the night before.
Sitting motionless now, she felt her eyes starting to close. She had just one more thought before falling asleep.
I hope I don’t end up leaning on that lady’s shoulder.
“We’re landing. Wake up!”
Once again the woman next to Gabby was making her presence known.
Gabby straightened up, rubbing her eyes. “We’re landing?” she echoed in a blurry voice. “I slept for three hours?”
“Yes. You missed the movie. And the snack.”
The woman’s eyes rested on Gabby for a second. “I’ve been to Trouble Slope several times,” she added abruptly. “I’m very well acquainted with that place.”
Still groggy, Gabby struggled to sound polite. “You—you have? I mean, you are?”
“I had family there,” said the woman. “They moved out as soon as they could.”
“Is it a nice place?” Gabby felt stupid the minute the question was out.
“It certainly is not. It’s dangerous.”
“Dangerous?” Gabby echoed. She was wide awake now.
“That’s what I said,” the woman replied curtly. “It’s especially dangerous for children. You’d be better off if you turned around and went home right now.”
Before Gabby could answer, the plane touched down on the tarmac and came to a stop. Everyone started bustling around—including the woman next to Gabby, who jumped to her feet and pushed into the aisle ahead of all the other passengers.
Which was just as well, since Gabby hadn’t come up with a response to her strange warning.
What a weirdo, Gabby thought as she reached down for her backpack.
Because—come on—how could a tiny town in the middle of nowhere possibly be dangerous?
Aunt Lisa spotted Gabby the minute she stepped into the baggage claim area. “Just look at you!” she marveled after giving her niece a hug. “I swear you’ve grown three feet since I saw you last. Are you hungry, by any chance? I know we’re two hours ahead of California time, but—”
“I’m starving,” Gabby interrupted. “I feel like I ate lunch three days ago.” She pulled out her phone to check
the time. Seven o’clock. The plane had been right on schedule. And even though it was only five o’clock back at home, she was dying for supper.
“Let’s eat here at the airport, then,” said Aunt Lisa. “There won’t be much besides fast food once we’re out of Des Moines.”
“It was really nice of you to pick me up, Aunt Lisa,” Gabby remembered to say a few minutes later as she and her aunt studied their menus. They had found an airport restaurant, the Palm Palace, which was doing its best to persuade its customers that they were in sunny California. The tables were made out of surfboards, and a few pairs of flip-flops had been scattered around for realism.
“I was happy to pick you up!” replied her aunt. “I just wish I could see you for a real visit. If I didn’t have this stupid work trip tomorrow, I’d keep you for a couple of days. I’m glad it’s a two-hour drive to Trouble Slope so we can catch up.”
“Aunt Lisa, have you ever heard anything . . . bad about Trouble Slope?” Gabby asked.
“Bad? What do you mean?”
“Well, this weird lady was sitting next to me on the plane, and she said it was dangerous there.”
“Dangerous?” Aunt Lisa echoed. “A university town miles from any city? I’m guessing it’s one of the safest places in the United States. What did this woman say, exactly?”
“Oh, she said a lot of stuff.” Quickly Gabby ran through the story of her unfortunate encounter. “Spilling that juice was the most embarrassing moment of my whole life,” she said.
Aunt Lisa gave a little cluck of irritation, but not because of Gabby. “That woman sounds awful. I’m sorry you had to spend the whole trip next to her.”
Gabby giggled. “She was probably sorry she had to spend the whole trip next to me! Anyway, I’ll stop thinking about it. Sydney would tell me there’s no use worrying about stuff that’s in the past. And I want to get into Sydney-mode before I see her. Oh, I can’t wait!”
“Let’s order dessert right away, then,” Aunt Lisa suggested.
Gabby thought that would be a good idea.
“And now to remember where I parked my car,” said Aunt Lisa when they had finished their ice cream (raspberry
sorbet for Aunt Lisa, brownie batter for Gabby). “It’s not always easy to spot—it’s not that big.”
That was an overstatement. Or was it an understatement? Aunt Lisa turned out to have the tiniest car Gabby had ever seen—a green two-seater that looked about three inches tall. There was barely room for the two of them plus Gabby’s backpack and suitcase, but after a short struggle, they managed to squeeze everything in. Aunt Lisa dug around in her purse until she found her parking receipt.
“Why bother waiting in line?” Gabby asked as they approached the ticket booth. “You could just drive under the cars ahead of us.”
It was true that Aunt Lisa had to reach way, way up to hand the money to the parking-lot attendant.
“I hope you don’t have a long way to go in that lunch box,” he said as he passed back some change and a receipt.
“Just a couple of hours,” said Aunt Lisa.
She edged the car forward, waiting for the mechanical arm to lift. “And . . . we’re off!” she said to Gabby. “Soon you and Sydney will be together again.”