My imagination could turn any scenario into a deathtrap.
Examples of my irrational fears extended from being convinced my mom would forget me in the desert, to knowing the amusement park’s Ferris Wheel would malfunction and crash into the sea. Don’t even get me started about when I learned the symptoms of the Ebola virus. I spent that whole week terrified I’d throw up my liquidated spinal cord.
But nothing was exciting or dangerous about my small town, only child’s life. I mostly spent my time reading books alone in the forest. That was, until my Aunt Mary got divorced and came to live with us. Suddenly, my quiet, little house became a noisy depot filled with sounds of cackling laughter, boxes filled with Aunt Mary’s collection of quartz crystals and tarot card decks, and more people living in our two bedroom, one bathroom home than was probably legal.
My cousin Sarah, Mary’s eldest daughter, was twenty. She didn’t technically “live” with us but she “crashed” with us between her time at school and exploring the world. Once, she even hitchhiked to Mexico in a bikini. She’d regale us with stories of her adventures, adventures that fascinated me, but I was too scared to ever dream of doing. Despite this, I idolized her. All I wanted to do whenever Sarah was around was to prove her I was carefree, too.
My best friend, Marina, was much more like Sarah. Marina was fearless to the core. Aunt Mary’s youngest daughter, my cousin Roseanna, was the same way. When Sarah babysat us all, I was the real babysitter, constantly judging the situations for real and imaginative dangers.
Sarah drove an old Kelly green Volvo we called The Green Monster. You may know the car –lots of room inside, you can hear the muffler from a mile away, and something is always broken.
The inside was an art studio. Sarah would park the car, and let us draw with paint pens on The Green Monster’s cream colored vinyl ceiling, doors, and seats, until the interior was a rainbow menagerie of Stussy symbols, unicorns, and Savage Garden song lyrics (I never said I was cool at ten.)
The Green Monster also had a fold-down backseat were you could access the trunk, and close yourself inside. When we weren’t drawing, we’d play inside the parked car pretending we’d been sent to the brig of a pirate ship, or thrown in to the dungeon of a castle. Most the time, I’d try to make sure that Marina or Roseanna were in the trunk with me. My fears about running out of oxygen, or getting locked in, or dying of carbon monoxide poisoning always dissuaded me from going in the trunk by myself.
One night, Sarah was going to watch the three of us while my mom and aunt went out. The plan included pizza, videos, and an old-fashioned sleepover. Sarah had been insisting for weeks that if I hadn’t seen the movie Heathers, which I hadn’t, that I hadn’t lived.
Night fell. We were all playing in The Green Monster. Marina suggested that we should ask Sarah if she’d let us ride in the trunk on the way to the video store.
I laughed. You know, the kind of laugh you make when you think someone is joking and then you realize that they are not.
Before I could shout any of my many, many protestations, Marina and Roseanna were already jumping up and down, begging Sarah if we could pretty-please ride in the trunk.
“We can’t ride in a car without seatbelts!” I blurted out.
“Oh, come on, Annamarie,” Sarah said, “Lighten up.”
The words stabbed me. I’d never “lightened up” in my life.
Then Sarah added, “But, obviously, only if your mom says yes.”
I breathed a sigh of relief. That was my out. Instantly, I pretended to join Marina and Roseanna in the jumping, and ran with enthusiasm equal to them to ask my mother. There was no way we were riding in a car without seatbelts, because there was no way in the universe my mom would approve.
We bounced inside. I pleaded with my mother to let us ride in the trunk. If there were Oscars for faking enthusiasm, I would have won.
But to my shock, my horror, and my sense of all things I thought I knew about my mom, she just shrugged. My mother who was possibly the strictest, Catholic school-trained disciplinarian/1960’s bohemian contradiction in the entire world shrugged.
She was the paranoid woman that I modeled all my fears – rational and irrational—after. After the infamous shrug, she looked and her sister Mary, and proclaimed, “If your aunt doesn’t mind, I don’t.”
Mary did not mind. I was outraged. Silently. I felt as if my simple, quiet life had been transformed into a free-for-all commune. I’d read about this kind of thing in books. We were one charismatic guru away from moving into the mountains and having to make our own soap.
There was no way of backing out. I’d bluffed myself into my own claustrophobic, non-seatbelt-ed prison on wheels.
The good news was, since I’d never seen a police car in town I was pretty sure I didn’t have to be afraid of getting arrested. But my other fears multiplied exponentially. What if we are rear-ended? What if the latch malfunctions? What if the car flips off into a cliff? What if we are trapped? And what if I have to eat Marina and Roseanna to survive? The list of “what-ifs” went on and on. In my mind, “what-ifs” crackled hot like popcorn in a microwave. (Not that microwaves were allowed in my house.)
An hour later, I was shut into the dark. The only light came from the crack of the partially open, unlatched backseat into the interior of the car. The Green Monster launched, backward, into the night like a rocket ship. Grey exhaust fumes followed us winding around the twists and turns of partially paved roads. It was thrilling, but only in the way that is deeply terrifying.
Sarah talked to us the whole time. This made me feel like there was less of a chance she’d forget us and I’d have to Donner Party my cousin and my best friend.
Our first stop was The Video Kid. The building slanted on its rickety foundation. We surreptitiously bounced out of the trunk and into the yellow shack of a video store. We left with all the ‘80s movies “critical to our development” that we could carry, and sneaked back into the trunk. By the time we got to the pizza place, I’d started to calm down. I even started to have “fun.”
There was the thrill of driving for the first time ever without a seatbelt. Only a small thrill because we couldn’t have been going more than 30 mph, but I felt like we were flying.
After getting our pizza, we hopped into the trunk again. Through the open backseat, I could smell the hot cheese and pepperoni. I felt my stomach dip as we drove down the sharp incline toward Main Street.
Through the crack of the trunk latch, we could see the streetlights flash by as we glided through downtown. We felt the car slow, but I figured it was a stop sign. Then I saw them: red and blue lights flashing. A siren whined outside. It all happened so fast.
Suddenly, Sarah turned around, not looking at us. As she reached for the backseat, she said with a forceful whisper, “Don’t make a sound.” Then her hand shut us into the trunk. The latch clicked. We were in total darkness.
Besides to cry, my first instinct was to leap out, confess everything, and beg for leniency. I didn’t want to go to juvenile hall. I didn’t want to have a criminal record. My life as I know it is over, I thought. But Marina, always calm in the face of danger, put her arm over my shoulder and whispered, “Just be quiet.”
Minutes passed like hours. All I could hear was the muffled voices of two men— policemen— and Sarah. We couldn’t hear what they said. I was so anxious I was shaking.
We’d been trapped— silent, dark, and alone—for five agonizing minutes when a bright light flashed on the trunk. The light grew brighter and brighter, then moved back and forth. It was a flashlight beaming right onto the trunk.
I bit down hard on my cheek. The searchlight streamed in and reflected off Marina’s face. She was terrified. So was I. We held our breath, waiting to be caught.
But then flashlight shut off. The trunk did not open.
Five more minutes. Ten more minutes. Twelve more minutes. I was starving. I had to pee. I vowed that if I got out of this, I’d never, ever, drive in the car without a seatbelt again.
My heartbeat pounded in my ears. I couldn’t tell how long we’d been in there. I can’t take it anymore, I thought. Panic surged through my body. I had an urge to kick the trunk open and get it all over with. But then, kicking the trunk was all that I could think about.
My fears took over my motor functions. I couldn’t stop myself. I bent my knee and kicked the metal door as hard as I could. Marina and Roseanna gasped. But at that exact moment, The Green Monster’s chassis rumbled, and the engine revved. The car was moving again.
Five minutes later, we pulled to a stop. We heard the front door slam. The trunk blasted opened. Sarah stood, looking down at us, bathed in a halo of golden light from the streetlight above.
When I dared to lift my body up, I realized we were parked in front of my house.
We jumped out of the trunk. We laughed. We danced around my front lawn, like animals released from a cage.
Once we were safely inside, with pizza in our mouths, Sarah told us why we’d been trapped in the trunk over thirty minutes. Someone had scraped off The Green Monster’s current year license plate registration tag.
When the only cops to ever grace our town with their presence pulled Sarah over, they also discovered she had forgotten to bring her driver’s license. This meant that they had to call the station to make sure she was who she said she was, and she didn’t have any outstanding warrants.
For a half an hour, they rigorously interrogated Sarah. All while she had three terrified preteen girls trapped in her car’s trunk. Talk about an adventure.
And the real kicker? Though she wasn’t arrested, Sarah did get issued with a ticket.
For not wearing her seatbelt.