Mom said don't get in cars with strangers, but...
"So, run this by me one more time..." he insisted, one hand on top of the steering wheel and the other in the shape of a lazy pistol pointed into the air.
I looked into the side mirror of the car as if there'd be answers. "Look, I don't know how else to put it. I went to bed in my room at home, then woke up somewhere in this massive cornfield."
Still perplexed, he answered, "Well, we don't get many travelers out here, mostly because it ain't possible. But I can at least help you get where you're going."
It had been only a few minutes since I caught a ride from this stranger. He had introduced himself as Buck, and told me we were deep in his home state of Iowa where he worked as a "repairman". He was headed home from a trip into town, and he seemed thrilled to have someone to talk to.
"I've never even been to Iowa, Buck," I trailed off...
Buck looked a good deal older than me but spoke with youthful excitement, perhaps on account of me being there. His face was creased, with a hardened browline, a strong jaw. and messy, slightly sun-bleached brown hair that, as I assumed, a rural lifestyle would engender. Underneath his baseball cap, though, he wore reading glasses that were much more contemporary and stylish than I would have expected.
I attempted making pleasant conversation, but the effort of trying to find my bearings kept my brain distracted and busy. I had to start piecing this puzzle together--backwards.
During this thinking, we passed the carcass of what must have been a general store. I could only make a quick observation, as Buck had returned to his ludicrous cruising speed, but the missing wood panels of the shop's walls gave me a view inside almost as clearly as the windows did.
The cupboards and countertops were as bare as the floorboards, but hung on the front door was a sign that read "Now Leasing". The store could just as likely have been abandoned a decade ago, or emptied and scavenged in only a few months1.
Recently closed, I guess?
"The pandemic hit this area pretty hard, huh?" I managed, trying to level with the man that I was realizing could very easily and quietly murder me.
Buck scoffed and replied sarcastically, "Yeah, which one?"2
"Pandemics usually hurt 'round here3. Could've been any of 'em."
"The pandemic, Buck," I replied as if he was the one lost, "The one currently happening. The reason I was stuck inside all of 2020."
Buck's face relaxed and he let exasperated air out of his mouth, "Oh, that one? Man, that was 20 years ago, how you reckon I'm supposed to remember that?"
I stared straight at Buck's profile, abruptly interrupting the conversation like I had caught a tennis ball in the middle of a rally.
"What are you talking about?" I asked, in the cadence of a command, but with subdued volume so as to not alarm my clearly delirious captor.
Before he could answer, the car spoke.
"Hey, Buck. You got that right coming up in a few miles. Then we'll be home."
Its voice rang through the speakers with familiarity and warmth.
Buck responded, taking his time with a confirmation, "You got it. Thank you, darling."
The entrance of a third voice into the conversation only compounded my confusion. I stared straight down the empty road before us and laid out my next question very plainly.
"Buck...what year is it?"
"2041 as of a few days ago. That a problem for you?"
I'm going to be sick...
That couldn't be right. It was 2021. We just finished the worst year most of us can remember, and it was January of 2021.
But Buck seemed so casual, as if I had only asked him the color of his talking car. Was he right? I started looking for the car door handle, making rough calculations on if a barrel roll escape would kill me.
"That doesn't make any sense. I was just in 2021."
"Well, you were also just in the middle of a cornfield, so I'm not puttin' you in charge of a lot of decisions."
The speed at which Buck was driving, clearly not expecting any other hitchhikers, paired with the blurred tapestry of passing cornstalks began to make me sick.
"Did New Years just happened?"
"Yep. Was glad to see 2040 go myself. Down year for me."
I started to feel blood pumping through my neck and rushing to my ears. I paused to catch up on breathing and make sure I was hearing Buck correctly.
I blurted out, as if my insistence would eventually garner a different answer, "What year is it?!"
"It's 2041, mijo. Buck, who's this fish-out-of-water?" the car responded to my panicked request, seeming to know that I was looking to it as an unbiased party.
Shaking my head quickly, I closed my eyes and kept the questions coming, "Wait--okay--hold on, so who's president?"
Buck interrupted, kindly, his own vehicle, pitching back with "We, uh, actually don't talk about her too much 'round here."
I am 100% overwhelmed...
I began pumping the brakes on the intake of new information. My brain was feeling as sick as my body.
"I might need you...to pull over."
The car ignored me and chimed in again, "Slow down for this turn, Buck. Don't want you hurtin' yourself again."4
"I know, Carla. I got it under control," Buck teased in annoyance.
I pressed a finger to the dashboard of the car, accusing it. "So is this some 2041 car AI or something?"
"A little older, but something like that."
"And you really had to name it Car-la?"
"That ain't the name of my car, son," he said, offended, "Now roll that window up before you get out. We're here."