Out in the country, close to where I grew up, was a small airport. When I was a kid, I used to ride my bike out there. I liked seeing the airplanes—just small, personal planes—and I often wondered where they’d come from and where they were going. Our humble airport offered a glimpse of life outside a small town.
When I took Driver’s Ed, our instructor would have us drive out to the airport. It was a good place to practice driving, a gently curving swath of road with hardly any traffic. The only people who used the road were either going to the airport or learning to drive.
Once I finally got my license, I’d cruise there sometimes to take a peek at the planes. There was a waterhole in the pasture next to the airport. I liked the rumble my tires made when I drove over the cattle guard, a metal bridge with slats meant to keep the cows from wandering onto a busier road.
Not long after my sixteenth birthday and my newfound freedom to drive, I got roped into helping with prom. I was a sophomore so I wasn’t old enough to attend, and hadn’t been invited, but someone tagged me to serve refreshments. I wasn’t particularly thrilled about it—it was kind of embarrassing to go. One of my friends was dating a senior, so she’d been invited. In comparison, I felt like a fraud, crashing the party. I couldn’t back out gracefully though, so I put on a nice dress and a smile, and went.
After helping out at the dance, I decided to cruise for a while before heading home. This wasn’t a horrible idea, or at least, it didn’t start out that way. It was before my curfew, so it wasn’t like I was going to get into trouble.
I turned onto the road leading to the airport, feeling my mother’s minivan jounce lightly as I crossed over the cattle guard. It was a moonless night and nobody was on the road. That was fine with me. After hours of feeling socially awkward, serving drinks and watching everybody else have a great time, being alone was refreshing.
I cranked up the radio and sang along, enjoying my solitude. A favorite song came on, Joyride, by a group called Roxette. It was nineties bubblegum pop, but it was fun and fitting, lifting my mood considerably. The song ends with a trademark whistle.
I happen to be a terrible whistler. I can hold a tune when singing, but I can’t whistle to save my life. I’d been singing along to Joyride, and then tried to whistle that last part. Tried and failed—all the notes came out flat, with no power behind them. I figured I’d improve with practice, so when the next song began, I kept whistling. I was still way off. I took a breath to try again.
Then, from the back of the minivan, I heard someone whistling. Eight notes, repeated twice. It was the tune from Joyride, clear and strong.
I froze, the whistle on my own lips dying as my hands clenched the wheel. I wasn’t alone in the car.
I knew when I looked in the rearview mirror, I’d see a face staring back at me. Someone had snuck into the van, and here I was, a teenage girl on a lonely road in the middle of the night with whoever it was. I didn’t recognize the voice, which meant there was a stranger in my car, a stranger with bad intentions, no doubt. Why else would you sneak into a girl’s car? Then I realized that no one knew where I was.
I braved a look in the mirror, but saw nothing—no face, no movement. But I’d heard the whistle. I hadn’t imagined that, or the feeling that someone was in the car with me. Whoever it was had crouched back down, I decided. The van had a big cargo area behind the back seat, one large enough to fit a man. I mentally cursed at myself for not checking out the car before driving away from the school gym.
It would have been a bad idea to stop the car in a place where no one could help me, so I did the only thing that made sense. I turned the van around and drove home, less than a mile away. I tried the keep up the pretense that I still thought I was alone, pretending I hadn’t heard that whistle. I sang along to the radio like everything was fine, forcing myself to keep to the speed limit. If I drive too fast, I told myself, he’ll know.
I pulled into the carport of my house as calmly as I could, put the van in park, and leapt out of the vehicle. I slammed the door and pressed the lock button on the key fob. The minivan had child safety locks, so the person would have to climb to the front of the vehicle to unlock the doors. It wouldn’t buy much time, but enough to get in the house, I hoped.
I ran to the front door and unlocked it, keeping an eye on the minivan. Then I waited, ready to duck inside and close the door to the house if I saw a shadowy form rise from the darkness of the back seat. If I did, my plan was to lock the front door and go wake my dad.
I stared at the van, sure I’d see movement—at least a slight rocking as the person shifted positions. But there was nothing. No sound, no movement.
My curiosity outweighed my fear. I left the front door open, ready to run back inside if I saw anything. I walked along the side of the van, peering in the windows. The security light in the carport offered me a clear view of most of the vehicle’s interior.
As I neared the back of the van, I could feel my heart thudding in my chest. I imagined placing my face close to the rear window and seeing a stranger pop up like a Jack-in-the-box, his hands smacking the glass in front of me.
I kept my distance and gave the cargo area behind the back seat a tentative look. It was furthest from the security light and not as illuminated as the rest of the van, so it was difficult to see inside without getting closer. I gathered my courage and leaned forward, my face nearly touching the glass.
The cargo area was vacant.
I stepped back in surprise. Maybe he’d somehow crawled up front when I wasn’t looking? I slowly circled the van, looking in the windows. It was completely empty.
I don’t know who took a joyride with me that night, but I know one thing. He sure could whistle.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2015