The People in the Car (A Sleeping Princess sequel)

By MJ Austins

Clarence stared dismally from the paper order to where Martin sat in the driver’s seat of the shipping truck.

            “Absolutely not.” He managed, feeling his panic start to rise. It was the second day of spring break and he had been looking forward to spending the entirety of his free time sleeping.

            “It’ll be fun!” Martin declared enthusiastically with a very on-brand grin. “Like a road trip!”

            The back door of the shop creaked and Clarence turned to see Jenny crossing the back alley, a grim look on her face.

            “Laura signed off on it without a second look.” She reported. “She said business is slow enough she can afford to send you two off. Apparently Tom and I can cover the whole shop.” The condemnation in her voice was light, but Clarence still picked up on it.

            Martin rolled his eyes. “Come on, Jenny, I know it will be boring without me around,” – Jenny scoffed at that, and Martin continued a little louder – “but maybe another mattress inspector will show up!” He chortled.

            Jenny narrowed her eyes. “You know, I’m not sure Laura thinks you’re responsible enough to manage a shipment drop-off. Do you even have a viable driver’s license?” Without waiting for an answer, she flounced back inside with a purposeful air akin to a manta ray hunting its prey.

            Clarence wondered if he should warn Martin.

            Martin had his boots up on the dash and was now drinking the last of his lime green slushie with an absurd amount of noise.

            Clarence decided against warning Martin.

            Fifteen long minutes later, Jenny returned with a vindictive look in her eyes. “Laura agreed to cover my shifts so I can go with. To supervise.

            The look on Martin’s face was almost worth the prospect of eighteen hours in the car with the two co-workers who argued the most.

            Jenny jangled the keys to the truck until Martin, face fallen, moved to the passenger seat. Clarence wiggled into the back at Jenny’s sharp look, unwilling to cause any more fuss than absolutely necessary. He wondered if he should mention they were supposed to pack overnight bags and leave tomorrow morning.

            Jenny started the truck with a nasty rattling sound and threw it into reverse. “Let’s get this show on the road.”

            She backed out onto the street a little too aggressively for Clarence’s taste. Martin hit the window with a thump and a whimper, and hastily buckled his seatbelt.

            Jenny beamed. “I’ve only driven stick shift twice before; this is actually really easy!”

            Clarence wished he’d been successful in convincing Laura he needed the week off of work. At least he would be paid overtime for this. At least, he had better be. If push came to shove, he would just threaten to quit; Laura was having a hard time hiring new hands, for some reason – all three had quit within three days – and had since refused to accept any two weeks’ notice from the current staff. All this meant was that Martin had officially stopped worrying about being fired.

            Jenny merged onto the freeway while Clarence was still mourning the loss of his only chance of recuperating from the demands of his double major. He sighed remorsefully and pulled out his three hundred and fifty set of flashcards in preparation for Spring Break Quiz he knew was due Monday.

            The screeching of brakes and honking horns would probably become background noise, he suspected. Driving with Jenny was just Like That. There was a brief and very uncomfortable jolt when she accidentally ran over a traffic cone, but otherwise the first few hours of the road trip went pretty uneventfully; evidently Martin was still sulking about Jenny’s unwanted presence.

            As hour two turned into hour three, Martin’s enthusiasm returned full force and he began to argue with Jenny about what exit they needed to take. Unbeknownst to either of them, Clarence had watched their exit sail past fifteen minutes ago and had made the decision to say nothing because the prospect of Jenny making an emergency U-turn in seventy mph traffic was terrifying and unfortunately very probable.

            Jenny downshifted from fifth to second gear, missing all the numbers in between, and navigated the truck out from a gentle spin and onto the off-ramp, narrowly missing fifteen cars, one of which was only saved by their expedient use of brakes. Halfway down the off-ramp, the truck jolted a second time and then promptly died.

            Jenny gave a squawk of outrage, then a shrill, panicked scream as the truck gently collided with the barrier on the side of the road and came to a sizzling halt.

            The cars behind them streamed around the crash, seemingly unbothered.

            The three of them tumbled out of the truck cab and gathered around the sight of the crushed and smoking front end of their only mode of transportation.

            Martin burst out laughing.

            Jenny burst into tears.

            Clarence wondered if he would be experiencing this if he had moved to Mexico unprompted seven months ago, like he thought about doing periodically.

            “What are we going to do?” Jenny asked tearfully, halfway to hyperventilating and pacing anxiously as if they weren’t dangerously close to standing in the middle of a steady stream of traffic.

            “Call Laura and tell her our mission failed?” Martin asked.

            Jenny spun on him. “We can’t.” She hissed. “I p-promised her” – she gave a hiccupping sob – “I would supervise you!” She buried her face in her hands. “This is all r-ruined!

            Martin took a step backward and gave Clarence a look that was clearly a silent plea for help.

            Clarence shuffled his flash cards nervously until Martin’s shoulders sagged, seemly realizing no help would be forthcoming.

            “Um. I… may know a guy.”

Jenny twirled so fast she nearly fell over. She clapped her hands together. “You do?”

            Martin took another step backward, clearly unnerved by Jenny’s sudden transformation. Clarence wasn’t; he knew this was all emotional manipulation. Martin was easier to manipulate than a golden retriever.

            “Uh, yeah. One of my friends in the area has a truck he would probably let us borrow for a few days. As long as we return it unharmed. Do… you want me to call him?”

            “Yes!” Jenny threw her arms around Martin. “Thank you so much!”

            Martin blushed slightly. Clarence swallowed nausea. The last thing he wanted to see was his co-workers developing feelings for each other. That would be more unbearable than their constant arguing.

            Jenny let go and hovered while Marvin had a short phone conversation with a crackling line. “He’ll be here in ten minutes,” He reported after the line went dead.

            Clarence sat down on the blacktop and leaned against the truck wheel well. Waiting here was about the same as sitting in the car; Jenny and Martin’s bickering about whose fault the crash was, was at least quiet and subdued, if intermittently punctuated by Jenny’s indignant hissing. She was like a goose in this regard. Clarence didn’t mind geese. They reminded him of his sister, but less dangerous and much less likely to be in prison.

            Forty five minutes later, an eighteen-wheel semi-truck pulled up to the side of the road behind them. Martin jumped up, clearly recognizing the man who hopped down from the cab.

            The man – a rough looking, middle aged fellow who clearly didn’t know how to shave – exchanged a few words with Martin and then handed him the keys to the semi, before being picked up in a lime green chrome Lamborghini.

            Martin jogged back to them. “He said he would send a tow truck for…” – he waved a hand at the wrecked truck – “this.”

            Jenny nodded, looking relieved. She looked at the semi. “…Are you going to drive?”

            This is how Clarence ended up sandwiched between his two least favorite co-workers, clutching his flash cards like a good luck charm while Martin wove a semi through traffic like it was his old Prius. The terror he felt was mirrored by Jenny’s silent, bloodless face and her white-knuckled grip on the arm-rest. Clarence didn’t know where they were in relation to their destination. He was too terrified to care. He just wanted this day to end.

            Eventually, despite every muscle in his body being tenser than an acrobat doing trapeze without a safety net for the first time, his five hours of sleep caught up with him.

            He dreamed of car collisions and of Jenny weeping over Martin’s dead body.

            When he woke up, the semi was parked in a trucker rest stop and Jenny was climbing back into the cab with two extra large slushies in her hands. Martin hopped back into the driver’s seat with a pale red slushie which smelled strongly of Red Bull. The scent gave Clarence flash-backs to finals week.

            Martin turned the key in the ignition.

            The engine rolled over and played dead.

            Martin tried again, with much less luck.

            The semi was dead.

            Martin softly said a very small and very tame swear. Clarence covered his ears anyway, because it was the principle of the matter.

            The cab was silent for a moment before Jenny quietly piped up. “I think my friend has a farmhouse around here. It’s a few miles away.”

            Clarence stared out at the dark rest stop. It was almost midnight and the air Jenny had let in had been cold.

            Reluctantly, he followed Jenny out into the night air, Martin quick on his heels. It’s an adventure, he reminded himself miserably, it’s an adventure you’re being paid for.

            Twenty minutes later, Martin started a sing-a-long with himself and Clarence found he no longer cared about being paid. He just wanted this experience to be over.

            The farmhouse was locked and empty of life. An old military all-terrain vehicle sat outside the barn, its shape unnerving in the moonlight. Jenny unlocked the house with a key from under the mat. The inside light she turned on flickered restlessly. Clarence swore he felt a cold finger slide down his spine, but it could have just been Martin.

            “This will be a good place to spend the night,” Jenny said bravely, although her hands were shaking. “There’s guest bedrooms upstairs.”

            All three of them stared at the dark, shadowy stairs into the black upstairs.

            “Or!” Jenny continued brightly. “We could sleep in the living room.” She made a beeline for the couches in the next room.

            Together, the three located the linen closet and set up makeshift beds on the couches. Clarence settled onto the wooden floor. He’d already slept in the cab, he could do with less sleep than the other two. After Jenny turned off the dim coffee-table lamp, he stayed awake and stared up at the pitch black ceiling, listening to the house creak and howl, until he couldn’t keep his eyes open any longer and a fitful sleep enveloped him.

            Clarence woke up with the runny sunlight illuminating the room. Jenny was awake already and having a quiet phone conversation with someone. Martin had his pillow over his head, his snoring muffled.

            Jenny finished her conversation with a grateful “thank you” and hung up. “My friend said we can use the all-terrain vehicle. The keys should be in the kitchen drawer.” And she jumped up, as if a military vehicle was a perfectly acceptable replacement for a normal shipping truck.

            Clarence sat up groggily and stretched. Jenny came back from the kitchen, waving the keys brightly.

            “There’s an old chicken coop out back, I heard the rooster earlier. Do you think you could go see if there are any eggs left? I found some canned food in the pantry; we can make breakfast, at least.”

            Clarence nodded. Gathering eggs, at least, he was familiar with.

            By the time he got back to the house with the eggs, Martin was up and singing in the kitchen, cooking something on the stove while Jenny hovered anxiously. Whatever it was smelled amazingly like pancakes and… was pancakes.            

Jenny took the eggs from Clarence with a smile and ushered him to the side. Clarence shuffled to the dining table and took a moment to flip through a few more of his flashcards. He was having trouble remembering the symptoms for a cardiac arrest and that would definitely be on the test.

            The breakfast, for all that it had been cobbled together from stolen food, was surprisingly delicious. Or maybe Clarence had just not eaten since breakfast the day before.

            Either way, he finished his plate feeling refreshed and ready to face… ten hours in a military all-terrain vehicle.

            Because that was what was in front of him. Jenny. Behind the wheel of a military vehicle.

            And they still didn’t know where they were.

            At this point, Clarence didn’t care about their destination. He would settle for being back home again.

            But off they went, hitting a round 45 mph before the bouncing of the vehicle became so unbearable it was clear any faster might be a death wish. The highway disappeared behind them as Jenny seemed intent on testing the ‘all terrain’ part of the vehicle’s name.

            Maybe she was trying to make up for wasted time by taking the most direct line from point A to point B. The issue Clarence saw with this goal was that none of them knew what point A or point B was.

            Clarence tried to look at his flash-cards again. Martin started singing an off-key rendition of “300 Bottles of AquaFreshTM On the Wall” but kept losing track of what number he was on.

            Jenny forgot to dodge a tree.

            And as quickly as their ATV journey began, it ended.

            Martin laughed at the sight of the front of the ATV wrapped around the surprisingly sturdy tree, but it sounded a little bit closer to hysterics for Clarence’s comfort.

            They sat there for a while, silently, thinking, before Clarence had the worst thought. Based on where they were, his friend Yvonne might be nearby.

            “Hey,” he said awkwardly, breaking the silence. “I, ah, might know someone who can get us moving again. If you want me to call her.”

            Jenny jumped up and threw her arms around him in a suffocating hug. Martin looked mildly envious. Clarence disentangled himself as Jenny thanked him profusely.

            He called Yvonne, desperately hoping she wouldn’t pick up.

            She did.

            “Yo, wassup Ace?” Her voice was crackly and almost drowned out by the roar of wind.

            “Uh, my co-workers and I are in a little bind. If I send you our coordinates, can you by chance come get us and take us to…” he looked panickedly at Martin, hoping for the name of the city they were supposed to be delivering to.

            Martin mouthed something at him.

            “…ah… Hanalulu?” Clarence hazarded a guess. Based on Martin’s wide eyes, it wasn’t the right guess.

            “In Hawaii?” Yvonne sounded somewhat shocked. “Ah, no can do, Ace,”

            Martin shook his head frantically and mouthed something again.

            “Ah, sorry,” Clarence quickly cut Yvonne off. “Hialeah. In Florida.”

            The line was silent for a moment. “Well, Ace, that’s certainly more doable. But that is a very different location.”

            Clarence gave an awkward smile, even though Yvonne couldn’t see it. “Yeah.”

            “Anyway, I can’t be there personally, but I’ll send you a plane that’s programmed to head in the right direction. All you need to do is disengage autopilot and land it. Can you do that? You remember your lessons from the summer, right?”

            Clarence swallowed and nodded. “Uh. Yeah.” He did not.

            And so, he found himself in the cockpit of a streamliner private jet, watching the clouds go by as the plane flew itself toward Florida. Everything seemed like it would be alright. The chair was very comfortable, and Martin was passed out on one of the very nice seats in the back, his snores drifting at rhythmic intervals. Jenny had helped herself to the fizzy waters and some fancy crackers and looked like she was emotionally recovering from crashing two different vehicles in a 24 hour period.

            Clarence closed his eyes for a moment and let the tension leave his body.

            When he opened his eyes, it was evening, the gas tank indicator on the control panel was blinking red, and out the window, all he could see was dark ocean.

            Martin and Jenny were both asleep in the back.

            Clarence jumped up, adrenaline filling him, and ran to wake Martin and Jenny up.

            “I- uh,” he tripped over his words. “I fell asleep and now we’re in the ocean and the plane’s run out of fuel and-“

            “What?” Martin grabbed his arm. “Slow down.”

            Clarence couldn’t slow down. He ran to the emergency panel and pulled out the safety parachutes, shoving one into Martin’s arms and another at Jenny. “Plane’s out of fuel. It’s gonna go down.” He managed to say, through lips practically numb from panic.

            Martin laughed. He put the parachute on, and the emergency life vest Clarence threw at his head.

            Jenny was surprisingly calm, all things considering, and Clarence was grateful. She was only crying a little bit and her full-body shaking wasn’t all that distracting.

            Martin managed to get the escape hatch open and grinned at him, his face eerily lit against the dark sky. “All in a day’s work, right?”

            And they jumped.

            The air pulled viciously at him, cold and biting, like it wanted to rip his skin off. Below him, Martin released his parachute. Clarence copied him. He heard Jenny’s just above them. The descent, although cold, was surprisingly anticlimactic.

            They plunged into the icy cold ocean. Above them, the lights of the plane slowly marched forward. It would eventually tip and fall into the ocean. There was nothing Clarence could do about that. He was just trying to keep one hand each on Jenny and Martin, and keep his head above the waves.

            “I think I know a guy with a boat,” Martin managed, only choking a little bit on the ocean water.

            Jenny burst out into hysterical giggles. Clarence managed a little bit of a smile. It was a ridiculous situation.

            Ten minutes later, the waves around them were illuminated by a floodlight attached to a late-night fishing boat. Clarence watched Martin, and then Jenny, be unceremoniously fished out of the water. He felt himself be lifted onto the boat with the sort of numb acceptance that comes with having reached the absolute limit of experiences a mind is capable of processing.

            They sat on the deck of the boat for a long time, wrapped in the blankets the fishing crew had provided, sipping vaguely fishy hot cocoa from tin cups. There was nothing that could really be said.

            Finally, Martin managed to initiate a conversation with the captain of the ship, who spoke rough, broken English – the boat was Cuban – and got on a phone line connected to the Sleeping Princess.

            Laura’s voice was like a breath of fresh air after 18 hours in a car.

            “Where are you and where is the delivery???

          Martin made a face that looked alarmingly close to tears. “Well, you see… we are… in Cuba.” His voice broke just slightly, and he hastily cleared his throat, his eyes going from Jenny to Clarence. “And the delivery is…” Realization seemed to dawn on his face. “I do not know where the delivery is.”

            Clarence knew. They had left it on the Sleeping Princess’s shipping truck. He’d realized it while he was gathering eggs at the farmhouse but there hadn’t ever been a moment it felt right to bring it up in.

            The line was silent for a moment.

            “Cuba.” Laura repeated, sounding defeated.

Clarence reached for his flashcards, and realized he had left them in the plane. They were somewhere high in the air, prepared for their own adventurous plunge into the ocean.

            He leaned back and laughed until he couldn’t breathe.

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More Stories by MJ Austins

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