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... a small activity bus drove down a state road.
“Are we there yet?” a passenger asked.
“Not funny,” the driver replied.
There was a beat of silence.
“But, seriously,” another passenger said. “Are we?”
“Ask in four days,” Gia said from the driver’s seat, eyes trained on the rear-facing mirror as two of her passengers made eye contact for the first time since entering the bus.
Whitney and Bella.
The two teenage girls might have been strangers when they woke up that morning, but were now clear allies in the shared desire to not spend four days in a transport vehicle designed to give travel tours to the elderly.
Teenagers loved riding in vehicles designed for rest homes. Especially when those vehicles had a special needs bathroom in the back and a governor on the engine. The vehicle literally couldn’t go faster than 64 mph downhill with no brakes.
That meant they’d been passed about 50 times in the 71 minutes they’d been on the state road. And that was a lot of times for a teenager to pretend to not notice they were being scrutinized by people who were lapping them.
Three out of five teens in Gia's vehicle were currently incapable of slouching any lower in their seats. Their shoulder blades were resting where their butts had been sitting an hour ago. They made for a true picture of embarrassment in Gia’s rear-facing mirror.
“Wait, what?” Whitney balked as Gia trained her eyes back on the road. “I thought you were kidding about being trapped in this thing for four days! I mean, that was a joke, right? This is really a two-day trip. Right? Like, you’re going to surprise us on day three and say we're already there, right?”
“Nope,” Gia said, eyes still trained up ahead. “This is a two-week trip. At least, eight of those days will be spent traveling. I did not lie to you about that. Remember all the discussions we had about honesty and informed consent regarding this trip before you signed on?”
Three of the five passengers groaned their desire to halt that direction of conversation immediately, as Adam absently nodded in answer to her question and Kei kept sketching in a notebook as if Gia had said nothing at all.
Kei. Now there was a kid that was a total enigma.
Genderless. Asian. Beautiful. Mostly silent. Often drawing.
The night before, Gia had signed a contract agreeing to never use language or pronouns referring to Kei’s sex in any way. If she did, Gia would be sued by Kei’s family 'til her dying day.
So processing the implications of that would be a fun way to stay awake on the long drive ahead. To avoid litigation, all she had to do was find a new way of speaking that removed casual pronoun usage from her everyday vocabulary.
Easy peasy. And Gia's brain definitely wasn't imagining near-infinite scenarios where she might genuinely let a pronoun slip before realizing it.
Man, what a headache. Part of her wished she could go back to officially not knowing, yet she needed the information for medical history reasons. There had been no way around informing her. But Gia could never disclose her medical knowledge in public. Not even as a gesture or a slip-up.
So that was a fun little mental rock to have in the back of her mind in all this, but it wasn't Gia's primary concern when it came to Kei. Primarily, she needed to keep her eye open for people who might find Kei’s gender-fluid appearance reasonable cause for assault, while also keeping a record of anything around Kei that was stolen or misplaced.
In Gia's research, all sources had agreed that Kei's parents got full stars when it came to tidying up in their enabled child's wake. Their approach to taking responsibility was a bit of a bright spot in all of this.
And yet, Kei’s parents were running out of hope when it came to imagining their child as a functional adult who could go out into the world without a clean-up crew in tow.
All five sets of parents seemed to have that same concern, actually. And their desperation to prove that their children weren’t spoiled beyond repair was the reason Gia was driving five kids out into the middle of nowhere as part of a Hail Mary.
The kids in Gia's transport vehicle might look petty, detached, or bored on the surface, but they were actually deeply steeped in crisis in their everyday life.
Gia had known none of these things when she'd mentioned the trip idea to Adam's dad at a party. Adam’s dad had then mentioned Gia's idea to Whitney’s mom, who had then bounced the concept off of Chad’s dad, who had been the first to call Gia and ask what the packages were for taking his son and his maid’s daughter out into the desert.
That had been a fun call to get out of nowhere.
But after Gia hung up on Chad's dad, she’d learned that Chad was a Party Boy Influencer with 3.5 million followers urging him to self-destruct. Chad’s antics were often at home, which had lured the maid’s daughter, Bella, into the game. And her behavior changes were self-evident in Chad's post history and on her own account.
Bella and Chad were definitely not a couple, which had Gia reconsidering his dad's request just as Adam’s mom had called to say that she only wanted Adam to go if there would be other kids there his age to spend time with.
Gia was then in the middle of deciding that maybe she could handle two party kids and one anti-social genius when a black SUV had pulled up in front of her house, and Kei’s emissaries stepped out.
Their visit had all been very Men in Black, except for the fact that Gia remembered it all.
Part of her wanted to go back to before she’d opened her door that day. But what was done was done, and Gia was left wondering why the footmen she was dealing with were releasing Kei into her protection. They were clearly trained soldiers and way more qualified to escort Kei to their destination. Yet they wanted Kei to go with Gia, for reasons unspecified.
So that had a definite consideration in the risk analysis Gia had run before signing on to pure madness. All the data pointed came to the same conclusion:
Eject & run. With prejudice.
Rescind the offer and move on.
But then Whitney’s parents had approached Gia. And by the time they left Gia’s house that evening, it had made sense not to have Bella be the only gendered female on the trip. Especially if Bella was all about being attracting male attention. A little honest competition might go a long way in making Gia's job easier.
Or not. Time would tell.
Either way, they were en route and on schedule with about a 40% chance of Kei’s parents tracking their movements via satellite and 100% chance of Chad's Instagram followers hatching escape plans along their path. Chad was literally famous for filming escapes from different locations.
The only thing Gia knew for certain with Chad was that if he outplayed her, it would be caught on film and broadcasted to millions. She'd be "the man" if she caught him, and the fall guy if she didn't.
When it came down to it, each of the teenagers in her care were their own special brand of fun just waiting to play jack-in-the-box with her life and reputation.
Maybe that was why she'd ultimately taken the job. The pure challenge it offered.
Part of Gia needed to prove she could do it. And she was about to do it. All she needed to do was keep the schedule and stay on the path and she'd be golden until the trip home.
And she'd assess and cross that bridge when they came to it. A lot might change by then and there was no point in getting too far ahead of herself.
Best to focus on the moment.
Gia was taking a calming breath when she noticed Chad pulling out an earbud to join the conversation Whitney had already forgotten she started.
“Four days?” he grumped. “For real? I put my money on three days, tops. What kind of hack establishment are you running here?”
“I guess you’ll find out,” Gia replied, putting a little too much cheer in her voice. “But if you want to learn some fun skills right now, I planned some games we could play! My favorite is—“
Three pairs of earbuds found their way into three pairs of ears before Gia could finish the sentence. Meanwhile, Adam and Kei continued working as if no one had said a word.
Silence followed and Gia decided she needed to enjoy the sound of white noise while she could. It was going to be a long drive.
Four actual days with five unpredictable teenagers in an enclosed, inescapable space???
Seriously. What in the world had she gotten herself into?
Time would soon tell, but for the moment, Gia enjoyed the silence.