AN: This, like my last few works, is an Eagle Rock adjacent piece. However, Claire is a new character that was not in any previous drafts, so I'm still figuring how she fits into the story. I do have an overall trajectory I'm envisioning for her character though, so please give your honest thoughts!
It was July 20th, 1969. The day that Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins were set to land on the moon. I was not watching like everyone else. Instead, as the sun set that day, I was sitting on the side of the freeway, my thumb outstretched. I had two bags with me, my old school backpack and the carpetbag I’d brought with me from Liverpool.
There hadn’t been a single cause that led me to it but the truth was that university wasn’t the salvation I thought it would be. I couldn’t picture myself going for another semester, another year, working at the diner while customers hurled ruled and inappropriate remarks all day long just so I had the money to pay for it. I reasoned that rather than spend my savings on tuition, I could travel the country. Hitch to Des Moines and from there, take a bus somewhere far away. At worst I would tire of it and return to school in the spring. At best, I would create unforgettable experiences I otherwise never would have had. Mum and Dad, on the phone, had told me it was a bad idea, that I ought to just go back to Duluth to live with them, but that was completely out of the question.
As I sat, I could feel daylight slipping away and with it, the warmth of the sunlight. I started to wonder if I’d made a mistake. Either way, I didn’t want to walk anymore, but a car hadn’t passed by in almost an hour. I supposed that I should have chosen another day to leave. As darkness quickly fell, I found myself staring up at the sky, wondering about the astronauts and what they must have been feeling. Were they scared? Were they lonely? They must have been. But at the same time, I wondered if they were inspired. What they thought looking down at the earth from up there, seeing things that so few will ever see.
The honking of a car horn broke me from my daydream. I looked up and saw that it was actually one of those Volkswagen vans. It was a faded blue-green color. It was empty save for its driver, one of the most attractive men I’d ever seen.
“Need a ride?” He asked.
It took me a moment to respond. He didn’t take his eyes off of me the entire time. “Um, sure,” I said.
I approached the car, put my bags in the back, and then got in the front seat. He smiled at me as I did. I took a deep breath as he began to drive. It did feel good to sit down, finally. Earlier that day, I must have walked for miles. “Where can I take you?” The man asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I haven’t really thought that far ahead.”
He gave me a look. “What’s your name?”
“Claire,” I said.
“It’s nice to meet you, Claire,” he responded. “I’m Jay.”
“Hello, Jay,” I said. I could feel a round of tears coming, so I turned away, trying my best to hide them. I wasn’t exactly sure it was coming from. This was what I wanted, right?
“It’s all right, Claire,” he said. I could tell he, like many of the boys at university, was interested in my accent. “Let me guess,” he said. “London.” I turned back to him and sniffled.
“Liverpool,” I corrected. Then, in my best Queen's English dialect, I added, “We’re not quite as refined in the north.”
He laughed, rather genuinely too. I didn’t think it was that funny, but apparently it was, evidenced from the way that Jay kept smiling.
As we continued to drive, I asked if I could turn on the radio. He agreed. Even though I hadn’t spent much time following the Apollo news, I was dying to know how they were doing. Sure enough, it was what was on every radio station.
It hadn’t happened yet, but it was close. If it was going to happen, it would be within the hour.
Jay smirked. “What do you think of all of this, Claire?”
“I mean…” I paused, unsure as to whether or not this was a test. I blushed without giving a response.
“I’m just curious,” he said.
“It would be great if they made it,” I managed. I felt myself blushing now. The simple feeling of being in his presence made everything feel intense, heightened. He was attractive. I was attracted to him. I wondered what it would be like to kiss him.
“Fair enough,” he said.
Just then, he laughed. I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. “So, Claire,” he said. “You still haven’t told me where you’re going.”
I paused. Where was I going? “I suppose Des Moines,” I said. “But I’m in no rush.”
“What’s in Des Moines?”
“A bus ticket out of here.”
He gave me a long, concerned look. “Whatever it is,” he said. “It doesn’t matter.”
I nodded, but said nothing. It wasn’t anything in particular, was it? I just wanted something different that wasn’t another year of school or with my parents.
“Why don’t you spend the night with us?” He asked. Was he married?
“Who’s we?” I asked.
“You’ll see,” he said. “You’ll like them.”
“How far?” I asked again.
“Less than ten miles,” Jay said. “But don’t worry about that. I want to know about you.”
“There isn’t much to know,” I said. The sun was quickly setting, and I was registering about half of the news broadcast. Most of it was technical jargon I didn’t understand, but I imagined that once it did happen, we would know.
“You moved from England. Why?”
“My father got a job here. Three years ago. Well, in Minnesota,” I said.
“How old are you?” He asked.
He smiled again. “I think you’ll like the girls,” he said. “And they’ll like you.”
“Your daughters?” I asked. Someone like him had to be married and have a family.
He laughed. “No,” he said. “Girls like you. I gave them a home when they had none.”
Oh. I supposed that it made sense. I started to tell him about my plan, to take a year off school and travel the country. How my parents didn’t think it was a good idea, but how I wanted something different.
“I think you’ll really get along with us then,” he said. “Because that’s exactly what we do.”
My entire face was hot now. “I’m glad you found me,” I said.
“Me too,” Jay responded.
The rest of the drive flew by. I wanted to keep talking to him, to know about his life and for him to ask me about mine. For a moment, I even forgot about the moon landing.
Before I knew it we were at a small campsite somewhere in a wooded area. I didn’t recognize it, but then again, in the past year I supposed I hadn’t been outside of Iowa City.
Jay got a few supplies out of the trunk. There were paper towels, lighter fluid, and a bag of canned food. As I got out of the car, he asked if he could take my bags too. His hands were already full, but still he asked if he could take my bags. He already seemed like he had his hands full, but he insisted.
I looked up at the sky, heard the crickets. It was peaceful. Going to be a good night. As I waited for him to be ready, I said a quick, silent prayer for the astronauts.