Summary: He wants a ride. She wants a thrill. So, in spite of her best friend’s arguments, Christina stops to pick up the handsome hitchhiker. He’s everything she thought he’d be. And more. Much, much, more. Enough to thrill Christina and Terri… to death.
Tagline: Don’t stop now
Note: As Dove requested, I’ve updated my template, because we now apparently call the Bad Guys Muffin Man. Hey, it makes as much sense as most Point Horrors.
I don’t remember ever reading this one before, but I love road trips and road horror and hate the torture porn that now comes with this type of story. We’ll see where Stine falls in that spectrum. I don’t have high hopes, considering our feud.
We open with Bad Guy POV. That tells me everything I need to know about how much I’ll love or hate this book. (Spoiler: BAD GUY POV IS THE WORST.) Someone is begging James not to hurt her, and he keeps thinking that if only he could control his temper, this wouldn’t happen. So far, I hate you, James. He’s walking along Highway 1 in the dark, on his way out of Key West.
James was powerfully built for seventeen, muscular, with big shoulders and a broad, football player neck. He had short blond hair, buzzed close on the sides, a handsome face, serious, seldom smiling, and olive-green eyes that always seemed to be angry.
He tries to hitch a ride, but no one stops for him, and the road is mostly deserted anyway. While he walks through the hot, muggy night, he wonders whether it is possible to walk away from your home, leave all the bad stuff behind, and never return. He’s lived in Key West since he was twelve, when his parents were killed in a car accident (“smeared across the highway”); he lives with his aunt, and she likes Key West, the crumbling old houses, the choppy waters, the cats everywhere, and all the tourists.
James has hated it since he arrived, and is always angry. For awhile, he thought other teenagers felt the same way, but they all seems so laid-back compared to him, and that just makes him even angrier.
A van full of teenagers teases him by stopping and then pulling away when he jogs toward them. That is a pretty dick move on their part.
He raises his fist angrily and wants to kill them. All I can picture is this:
Whoever the unnamed girl is, this time isn’t the first time he’s hurt her, but it is the last. You could at least give her a name, Stine, fuck.
James walks some more, rages some more, and I am already tired of this book, or at least of James’ POV. Finally, a car stops to pick him up (a black Buick Skylark), and the driver, an old man, offers him a ride as far as Fort Lauderdale (which has some great hole-in-the-wall restaurants with amazing ocean views, so you know, and a fantastic escape rooms). James tells the old man his name is George Murphy and as he settles into the car, he thinks it’s his lucky night.
And we jump to Terri’s point of view. She’s riding in a car (a Honda Accord) with Christina and begging her to slow down; Christina loves to drive fast, and she’s tired of driving 15 miles an hour. Everyone in Florida drives that slow, she whines, and I kind of love her already. Terri reminds her that they don’t want to get stopped, but Christina brushes this off because they came to Florida to live dangerously. Christina has been partying since they arrived, and can’t even remember the names of all the boys she’s teased.
Terri’s been picking up guys, too, but she remembers at least one of them, Matthew, and wonders if he will write. They tease each other about all the hooking up, and then Christina spends some time gushing over how awesome a swimmer Terri is. I’m totally shipping outlaw road tripping queer girls already. I’m sure that’s not what I’m actually going to get, though. *adds to the list of things to write*
They’ve spent a week in an unnamed town in Florida (possibly Key West?), and are disappointed that they have to leave now. When they see flashing lights behind them, Terri freaks out, and even Christina is nervous and slows down. It’s not a cop, just a tow truck, but Terri continues to point out that they can’t afford to get stopped. Did you steal the car, Terri? Are you on a murder spree? If Stine twists the story so that they are really a danger to James, and he’s met his match in them, I will take back every bad thing I’ve ever said about his books. (For a moment.)
The girls are both seventeen, have birthdays three weeks apart, and are “as different in appearance as they were in temperament.” (Wakefield twins, is that you?)
Christina: thin, wiry, blonde corkscrew curls, dramatic brown eyes, mischievous smile, always seems to be enjoying a private joke.
Terri: cautious, sky-blue eyes, creamy white skin, straight black hair, chubby. Terri worries about her size a lot, though she doesn’t discuss it with Christina.
Well. This could go well, or it could be terrible. On the well side: She hooks up just like Christina does, which is awesome. On the terrible side: Stine (and most of the PH writers) hate fat people. Brace yourselves, y’all, we’ll see how this goes.
Apparently, they are on their way to Tampa, and neither know how long they’ll stay, Christina is just hoping to catch up with the football player she met last year, even though Terri says he’s too old for her. He thinks she’s 21, so Terri is probably right.
Neither of them know how to work the AC, and Christina jokes about trading it in for an American car. You two really are car thieves, aren’t you? I SUDDENLY HAVE SO MUCH HOPE FOR THIS BOOK.
Oh, god, no, I don’t want to have hope around Stine. He will only dash it upon the rocks of ableism and hatred.
Oh, they’ve just left Fort Lauderdale. That makes more sense, actually, since we last know James was headed that way. They talk a little more about the boys, and how Christina hates the crowded beaches. Daytona has too many high school geeks, Palm Beach has too many rich snobs, I am delighted by all this beach talk.
And then an enormous red truck roars toward them and crashes into something. Normally, I would give this a cliff hanger trope count, but I am feeling generous because of how much I like Christina and Terri so far.
Both Christina and the driver of the truck swerve, and though Christina manages to get them out of the way, the truck slams into the concrete embankment. Terri wants to stop, but Christina refuses, because they absolutely can’t. She rationalizes it because he’s a truck driver and he’ll radio for help if he needs it. Terri continues to freak out, but Christina insists he’s fine, she can see him getting out of the truck. Terri thinks they made him crash, but Christina says they didn’t. Based on how it was written, they didn’t, so I don’t know why Terri is trying to take on all the blame. (Terri goes on to say that Christina was in the wrong lane, but that was not my impression at all earlier.)
They talk some more about boys, and Terri is pretty down on how eager Matthew came across, in a creepy way — and then Christina spots a cute hitchhiker. Terri thinks he looks like a killer.
AND we’re back to James’ POV. Fuck. He teases them about how they should never pick up a hitchhiker, and then gives them his real name even though he normally gives a fake one. (His name is James Dark. James. Fucking. Dark. COME ON, STINE.)
They’re headed to Tampa, and he claims he has a cousin Paul in Tampa who owes him money. Likely story, bub. Terri then tells him they’re headed home after Tampa, back to Cleveland. James says he didn’t think anyone lived in Cleveland, and Christina jokes you can’t actually call it living. Most of my friends who have lived there would agree.
Anyway, James thinks about how they’re both hot and he could go for either one, maybe both, and maybe he’ll let them take him all the way to Cleveland. I hope they kill you and leave your body along the side of the road, James.
He slips up again and tells them the truth about where he came from (Key West). Why in the world are you telling them the truth? Seems like you’ve done this enough that you should have this lying thing down pat, dude.
They talk about beaches and Disney and how to party. James eventually says that Terri reminds him of a girl he used to know, Lizzy, who was a great swimmer and diver; she used to dive with treasure hunters, which is kind of adorable. I bet Lizzy is dead, and I hate James, because she would be far more interesting. He ends up snapping at them when they ask too many questions, and then warns himself not to scare them because he wants them to take him all the way to Cleveland.
After that, they sit in silence awhile. James does not like silence. Silence means he can think, and he hears the unnamed girl’s voice again, begging him not to hurt her. James pushes away these thoughts, gets the AC working for them, and suggests they stop at a cool-looking diner. (It does sound pretty great. It looks like a railroad car, shiny metal, with a single row of windows along the length; a neon sign names it Everglades Diner.) Terri points out that they are nowhere near the Everglades, and Christina and James both tease her about it.
James notices both girls checking him out, and is “secretly” pleased, though it’s not actually very secretly, considering he then gives Christina his sexiest smile. He expects her to look away, but she doesn’t.
NO REALLY OUTLAW SERIAL KILLER QUEER GIRLS PLEASE.
The guy working the counter ignores them for awhile, even after James asks for some service, and James can feel his anger building. The guy keeps ignoring James, hits on Christina, and then James attacks. Terri screams for him to stop, but James beats him up, leaves him on the dirty floor, and demands that the girls get out of there with him.
As they leave, he catches the girls exchanging “meaningful glances” and can’t decide if that means they’re frightened or impressed. I hope it means they have flagged you as their next victim.
Back to Terri’s POV.
Once James falls asleep in the back of the car, Terri tells Christina they made a mistake and shouldn’t have picked him up. Christina says he looks like a little boy when he sleeps; Terri counters with Freddie Krueger’s little boy, and I find her super charming, even if the book spells his name wrong.
They gossip about him for awhile, and though they disagree, they don’t actually fight, which is really fun. Terri admits that she’s frightened, and that things have gone okay up to now, considering, but now she’s worried he’s going to complicate things.
She also calls him a total psycho, because of course she does. Oh, Stine. You were doing so well.
Mental health: with tact and sensitivity: 1 (+1) (Essentially, “crazy” is a blanket term for a bad person with no qualms about killing anyone and everyone. Often because they are “crazy”. Because that’s how mental health works.)
James wakes up then and asks if they’re in Cleveland. Nope, they’re about 80 miles from Tampa. He flirts with them for a bit, though only Christina responds, and then they have him start driving, even though he doesn’t have a license (or doesn’t admit he does). Apparently, Christina only has a temporary license that isn’t actually good in Florida, but she’s done most of the driving. She and Terri exchange another meaningful glance. James calls her a real criminal, and they exchange yet another meaningful glance. You’re going to that well pretty often, Stine.
Terri switches to the back seat, and we’re suddenly in Christina’s head. She thinks about him as handsome in a hard, dangerous way. Just as he starts to turn on the radio, they hear a loud siren close behind them.
James shouts that he’s not speeding, and Terri cries out that they never should have picked him up. Christina keeps her calm, tells James not to try anything, and orders him to pull over.
James does pull over onto the shoulder, and then into tall weeds, which seems like he’s going too far, but whatever. I’m sure you’re surprised to know the cop drives right past them, leaving them shaken and panicked in the car.
James jokes that the cop was just racing home for dinner, but it takes Terri and Christina awhile to calm down. James then confronts Terri about what she said, and asks if she thinks he’s a dangerous criminal wanted by the law. Terri quickly tells him no, that she was just afraid. She focuses on Christina instead of him when she points out he was out of control back at the diner. She apologizes to him, which is bullshit, considering he was out of control back at the diner, but she’s trying to calm down and keep their secrets, so it makes some sort of sense.
James shakes her hand, and she’s surprised that his hand is ice cold. It makes her wonder if he was more frightened of being stopped by the police than he let on.
Once they’re back on the road, Christina talks to him about how fast he was driving and how fast he thinks the car could go and whether he’s done much driving. He says he hasn’t because his aunt can’t afford a car. She puts her hand on his shoulder, teases him about being a poor boy, flirts with him, and he’s very playful in return.
Terri is asleep in the backseat, which means she fell asleep pretty damn fast after that adrenaline rush. Guess terror can take a lot out of you.
Christina feels drawn to James, because he’s so different from the boys she’s been partying with. The others are lightweights, only interested in partying and surfing and getting girls, but James is interested in — she’s not sure, because she doesn’t know anything about him, but she still feels drawn to him.
She’s getting tired, too, but asks if he’s a mystery. He tells her that he’s a mystery waiting to be solved, then turns on the radio. He finds some music, but it kicks off shortly after for a news update about an elderly Fort Lauderdale man found unconscious on Highway 95. He was beaten with a blunt object, dragged from his car, and the car was stolen. The police believe a hitchhiker may be responsible.
James turns off the radio, and tells Christina he hates news.
This is totally supposed to set him up as the Muffin Man, especially with that opening chapter, but it really reads as if Stine is actually setting up a twist ending where the girls are the ones who beat up the man and stole his car. I am still holding out for that ending.
Next chapter, back to James’ POV, Terri is driving, and James is trying to direct them to Paul’s house. Terri is impatient because they’ve circled the block twice, and he’s having trouble finding the right house. The girls are grumpy and tired of driving, and James has decided he really is going to go all the way to Cleveland with them, though they don’t know it yet.
They finally find the house, and James tells them his cousin Paul also has a kid, Ethan, and a wife, Paula. Christina points out the ridiculousness of Paul and Paula, and James laughs. Terri’s hot and even grumpier than ever, and James drags her into the sprinkler to cool her off. She calls him a creep, and he teases her that they both feel cooler now.
Paul is welcoming enough. (Description: Late twenties, thinning hair, lively, blue eyes, beginnings of a potbelly.) Paul invites them in, but then stops to ask if James has been keeping out of trouble. James decides he’s trying to embarrass him in front of the girls, and anger washes through him.
Paul turns up, playful and welcoming. (Description: Short, thin, mousey, frizzy brown hair, small face, oversized pink plastic glasses.) She teases James about being soaking wet, and then reminds Ethan that James is his cousin. He’s also pouty because James went into the sprinkler when he’s not allowed to do so.
They end up spending the night, and it’s nice and relaxing for awhile, until James decides to ask Paul for the money he owes James. He’s afraid Paul is going to throw a fit, but he happily forks over the $50 he owes. He has a bunch of cash on him, a favor for “the boss,” but he won’t tell Paul what kind of favor. He shows off the $1000 in fifties he has, and then tosses the wallet back onto the counter. Gee, I wonder if that’s going to end up stolen sooner rather than later.
The cartoons the girls are watching with Ethan end, and the news talks more about the Fort Lauderdale man, now named Roger Eckridge, who is in a coma, barely hanging on to life. There is a statewide manhunt for the hitchhiker believed to be responsible, and James catches Christina and Terri staring at the screen. They whisper together after Paul turns off the broadcast (because Ethan is shouting for cartoons), and James suggests he and the girls go for a walk. They don’t get up, though, and he takes off on his own.
Again, this feels very heavy handed, but I am enjoying it.
Later that night, James tries to sleep on the couch, but it’s too short and the cushion zippers dig into his back. He starts to feel suffocated again, just like he had before. Walking helps. But it wears off, and all he can hear is that girl begging for him not to hurt her.
Before he can escape for another walk, Christina sneaks down the stairs wearing a long white t-shirt and short shorts. They sit and talk about how they can’t sleep (overtired, too hot, etc.), and then they make out for awhile. The suffocating feeling dissipates, and Christina whispers to him that he’s really dangerous when they’re done.
Oh, honey, that probably shouldn’t turn you on. Unless you really are a serial killer, in which case, you do you.
The next morning, James tells Terri that he’ll be riding with them to Cleveland; he told Christina the night before, and she’s pleased. Terri is not, but only asks if he’ll chip in for gas, and he agrees to do that. Paul thinks he should stay in Tampa, because he doesn’t have anything going on in Cleveland, but really, it’s not like he has anything going on in Tampa either. Paul says he can get him a job working on building a new resort hotel. James turns him down, though.
After he says good-bye to his family, he catches Terri and Christina arguing at the car. Even though he can’t hear what they’re saying, he thinks they’re arguing over him, and he starts to get mad because he’s never done anything to Terri, and he doesn’t understand why she doesn’t like him. Fuck, dude, not everyone has to like you.
He settles in to drive first, and decides that Terri must be jealous about Christina hooking up with him. GOOD LORD DUDE.
Before they can leave, though, Paul comes running out because his wallet is missing. He, of course, assumes Paul stole it, because he used to steal from a candy store. James is angry at him, and claims he doesn’t have the wallet. I believe him; I bet one of the girls does. Paul tries to pin him, and James gets angry again. He punches out Paul (oooh, concussion time!), and drives off before Paula can get out to stop him.
After awhile, Terri starts telling Christina that it isn’t good, and doesn’t stop until Christina tells her to shut up for once. Then Christina talks to James about how it is weird the wallet was missing, the last time she saw it was on the shelf by the front door. That seems like a weird place for him to keep it when it is stuffed full of money; I thought it was back in his bedroom before. What in the world are you doing, Christina?
James drives too fast and finds a rock station (Guns N’ Roses — Terri hates Axl Rose — and then Metallica). He and Terri snark at each other about music, and then everyone falls quiet, until a few hours later when the news comes on with an updated about the Fort Lauderdale man, who died that morning.
Again, James shuts off the radio and grumbles about too much news and too little music. He finds Christina glaring at him, eyes wide, expression thoughtful (not sure “glaring” and “thoughtful” go together); she starts tugging nervously at her hair. Then Terri demands he pull over so she and Christina can talk.
James stays in the car while they walk away and have their argument. He thinks Terri is frightened and upset and Christina is angry. James again thinks they’re fighting over him and that there’s more than enough of him to go around. Fuck, dude, you are obnoxious.
He does stop that line of thought when he realizes Terri is crying. As he watches, Christina tries to comfort Terri, but Terri won’t let her. They both keep looking back at James. SUBTLE, GIRLS.
His hands hurts, and he finds his knuckles cut and caked with dried blood, and he feels bad that he hit Paul so hard, and thinks it was a shame, he was trying to end the visit clean this time.
Then he starts thinking about all the arguments he had with Melissa, how she begged him not to hurt him. He gets tired of Christina and Terri arguing, and decides he’ll just leave them behind and hitch a ride somewhere by himself. Before he can do that, though, he realizes he can just drive away, because he’s in the car and they’re not. I was going to say, dude, you are not being smart, but then you were so … good job. (Not a great person, but smart about it at least.)
He laughs and watches their expressions as he drives away.
They take off after him, shouting, and he eventually stops the cars about a hundred yards away. He thinks it’s a great joke, and they’re both furious. Terri demands to drive, and James teases that she doesn’t trust him anymore. Despite that, he switches seats with her, and she thinks about how maybe she’s being unfair to him, like Christina says, but she doesn’t understand why they need him. She worries he will follow them all the way home, move into one of their houses, never go away.
Then she starts thinking about how crazy her thoughts are, how crazy their situation.
Mental health: with tact and sensitivity: 2 (+1)
I am actually super into this book, but I do think that (a) the head hopping is getting obnoxious, but also (b) the fact none of them actually think about what they’ve done is a real cop out, Stine trying to keep it a secret. As much of their inner dialog and memories as we get, there’s no real good reason we don’t get anything from them.
Christina joins James in the back, James teases Terri about joining them, and Terri turns up the radio so she doesn’t have to listen to them make out in the back, because of course that’s what they’re doing. She tries to focus on it, letting it carry her away from thoughts about Christina, James, the hitchhiker — and that word keeps echoing in her head.
Terri is annoyed at Christina, and doesn’t understand why Christina would hook up James now, some scary guy they know nothing about. Christina has had guys in the past when Terri hasn’t, and the impression is that she’s never felt like this before, so that’s just another reason to be annoyed about James. (Terri, I hope you two have been embracing all your chemistry; I’m rooting for outlaw queer Terri and Christina still, obviously.)
Then she thinks about the story on the radio, about the old man who died, and how dangerous it is for them to have taken on James. She’d tried reasoning with Christina, she’d tried tears, but Christina just isn’t listening. She tries to talk herself out of being mad, tells herself to let the music carry her away like it normally does when she’s stressed.
The finally reach Georgia, stop for lunch, and then Terri drives the rest of the afternoon until around sunset they’re on a narrow two lane road with few cars on it. Christina is just starting to talk about wanting dinner, but then Terri tells them that she thinks they’re being followed.
This is another dramatic cliffhanger chapter ending, but I think this one, too, actually works, mostly because Stine hasn’t done one every single chapter ending. See what happens when you use them more sparingly? THEY ARE ACTUALLY DRAMATIC AND USEFUL WHEN YOU DO.
Anyone, a blue car has been behind them since Gainesville, Terri says. They start looking back, and at first James doesn’t see it, but then a blue Taurus passes a truck and settles back several car lengths behind them. (Terri is driving fast now, and passing vehicles to put space between them, but the Taurus keeps matching them.)
James points out that it could just be another car headed north, which is true, but Terri says she’s been watching it for awhile, and it always stays in the same lane she’s in, and it keeps pretty far back, but not out of sight, and when she slows down to let it pass, it slows down too and won’t pass.
That is damn creepy, Terri. You are being a rockstar driver so far.
Neither Christina nor James can make out the driver, because it’s too dark now; all Terri has managed to see is that the driver is a man.
Terri drops the car from 75 to 50, which is a dramatic decrease; the Taurus slows down too, keeping the same distance between them. That’s fucking freaky. She then tells them to turn around and stop staring out the back window, because the driver’s going to figure out they know he’s following them. That is also smart, Terri!
They’re trying to figure out who could be following them, and why, when Christina suggests it is Paul. James gets angry because he doesn’t have the money, but before the fight can kick up, they race up onto an exit ramp. Terri is driving fast enough she’s having a hard time keeping the car on the road. She’s just about got it under control even though they’re on a narrow, unpaved road, when they run up on a slow-moving tractor crossing the road. In her attempt not to hit it, Terri puts the car into the grass on the side of the road, which is surprisingly not a ditch, then gets the car back on the road.
That is some seriously fucking impressive driving from a teenager. Damn, Terri. Rock hard, girl.
At first, they think they’ve lost the Taurus, but nope, it turns up again behind them.
Christina has her turn sharply onto another narrow country road, but the Taurus makes the turn after them, and then starts to try to catch up with them. Remember, they’re doing all this wild, fast driving on an unpaved (i.e., gravel) road, which means there’s not great tracking and there’s a ton of dust being blown up by both cars.
They make it back to the highway, which means a smoother ride, but Christina points out they will never be able to lose him on the highway. James wants them to find a town where they’ll be safer, but then the Taurus pulls up next to them and tries to bump them off the road.
YOU KNOW HE’S FOLLOWING YOU! HOW THE HELL DID YOU LET HIM SNEAK UP ON YOU LIKE THAT? YOU WERE BEING SO AWESOME JUST A MOMENT AGO. FUCK, KIDS.
(And, of course, then Terri thinks the other driver is crazy, because being dangerous must mean they’re crazy, right? Mental health: with tact and sensitivity: 3 (+1))
The Taurus knocks them off the road until they hit a tree. They’re mostly okay, though banged up and scared, and the Taurus is backing up toward them. Terri tries to reverse away from the tree, but the engine is dead. She struggles to get it started again, but it doesn’t work. (James thinks she’s flooded it. I’m sure it has nothing to do with the fact she just DROVE HEADFIRST INTO A FUCKING TREE.)
The Taurus stops and a man gets out and starts toward them. They can’t see any of his features, and are trying to get out of the car to run when a tow truck shows up and the driver asks if they’re okay. When he asks what happened, Terri tries to tell them about the car chasing them and forcing them off the road, but the Taurus and its driver are gone.
The driver gets the car started and back on the road. The damage isn’t too bad; the left headlight is shattered and the bumper is dented, but nothing that will stop them from driving. (Except they could get ticketed for the headlight, so with all their worry about being pulled over, continuing to drive it is not actually the smartest idea.)
They’re actually smart about this, too, and get rooms at a motel in the next town so they can get the car fixed in the morning, specifically because Terri is worried the police will stop them. Fuck, Terri, every time I start to get annoyed, you get your shit together. I’m impressed.
Stine, this is mostly going well so far. I hope you can stick the landing.
(The motel is called Sleepy’s, which is both cheesy and adorable.)
They even park the car at the back of the motel so it will be hidden from the street in cause the dude in the Taurus is still following them.
(Random Wing info pause: Though “hotel” and “motel” are often used interchangeably now, they are technically different. Motels are “motorist’s hotels” which was used to identify hotels with ample parking, and generally had doors facing the parking lot to make coming and going easier. Hotels had inward-facing doors, more amenities and services, and more common areas. Motels are road trip staples.)
James hears Christina and Terri loudly arguing again in the next room. He’s exhausted and doesn’t understand how they can still be fighting after all the excitement they’ve had. He then thinks about Melissa again, and how she begged him not to hurt her. He can’t get any rest, though, because Christina and Terri are shouting too much, but when they finally stop, he wonders if Terri had finally won and convinced Christina to dump him. Even though he doesn’t actually have an answer, he starts to get angry again, and is furious that Terri is getting on his case because she’s jealous.
His anger is interrupted by someone banging on his door and telling him to come out with his hands up (using a husky voice).
OKAY, STINE, THAT WAS AN UNNECESSARY CLIFF HANGER ENDING.
Dun-Dun-DUNNNNN!: 1 (+1) (Cliffhanger endings of chapters for no reason other than to build false tension and piss us off.)
Fuck, Stine, and here I thought you’d get through an entire book without triggering that trope counter.
It is, of course, one of the girls teasing him; to my surprise (and his), it is Terri this time. He’s still angry at her, and it’s made worse by this joke, but then she says she wants to talk to him, and apologize. She asks him to go for a walk, and he wonders what she wants, and where Christina is.
They walk across the parking lot, which overlooks the small town off to the right and a flat field leading to a dark pine forest to the left. Terri takes his arm, says it’s a nice night; when he asks about Christina, she looks hurt, and then says Christina was tired and wanted to try to sleep, but Terri’s too pumped up from all the wild driving and excitement to get any rest. Then she says she wanted James all to herself for once, and James wonders if she’s hitting on him, which would be weird because she hates him.
Except you’ve spent all of their fights thinking that they’re fighting over you because they both want you! So much for continuity, Stine.
Continuity? Fuck that shit: 1 (+1) (Because why stick to what was said last chapter? Or even last sentence. Make it up as you. If your lead character says it, it MAKES IT SO!)
He asks what they were fighting about earlier, and Terri is surprised that he could hear them, but then says they were just letting off steam, and it wasn’t really about anything. He’s skeptical (because he constantly thinks they’re fighting about him, remember, Stine!), and Terri talks about how they have been friends a long time, and how they shout at each other sometimes.
They walk for awhile, and then hear someone else coming through the trees toward them. They get nervous, but it turns out to be possums. Again, I’m fine with this cliffhanger, because it ties well into the story of them being followed. The other one was just a cheap (and failed) jump scare that Stine gave away by using “husky” to describe the voice.
They tease each other about being so scared and jumpy, and then Terri kisses him. She says it was her apology for being so mean to her, but she won’t let him kiss her again. He asks if she’s a tease, and is getting angry and confused, because he wants to kiss her again. Watch your step there, James, that’s some bullshit. She can kiss you and then decide not to kiss you again, just like you could kiss her and then decide not to kiss her again.
She swears she wasn’t coming on to him, she wouldn’t do that to Christina, and he teases that Christina never has to know. Terri calls him on that being shitty, and wants to go back to the motel, but he grabs her, says he’s a big bad guy, asks if she’s afraid to be alone in the dark woods with him. He’s teasing, but it’s not really coming across like that. She tells him no, but he can see a glint of fear in her eyes.
Skip to the next morning, James is back in his room, and Christina wakes him at 7:15 by pounding on his door. She’s frantic because Terri isn’t in their room, and she wants to know if she’s in his room. When it turns out she’s not, Christina suddenly turns into some old-fashioned southern belle and proclaims she’s so frightened, Terri’s disappeared. (It just comes across as not in her voice at all, and I can’t even explain why.)
Another chapter cliffhanger, but it sort of works, so I’ll skip the point … this time.
James suggests she got up early to get breakfast, but Christina claims she’s a light sleeper and would have heard her, but besides that, her bed wasn’t slept in. James tells her he heard the two of them fighting last night, and then suggests that Terri is angry at her and decided to split. She, too, waves their fight off as no big deal.
James is still half-asleep, not sure whether to tell Christina that he was with Terri the night before, and suggests they call the police. Christina scoffs at this because in that small a town, they’d be useless. She also shoots down his idea to call Terri’s parents, because Terri hardly talks to them and snuck out of the house to go to Florida in the first place.
Finally, Christina decides they should drive around and look for her. Doesn’t … doesn’t Terri have the keys? But this never crosses their mind.
Sure enough, after they check out of the motel, they go around back and, shock, the car is gone!
CLIFFHANGER. I’m giving this one a point because it came so close to the last one. CHOOSE YOUR CLIFFHANGERS CAREFULLY, STINE.
Dun-Dun-DUNNNNN!: 2 (+1)
(They probably could have gotten a room looking out at the part of the lot, but I’m going to let that go. Maybe the didn’t think about that.)
BUT OH. TWIST. Terri couldn’t have taken the car because Christina has the keys. Christina, why do you have the keys? Terri was the last person to drive. Do you have the keys because you killed her and dumped her body? I am going to be very cross if you did that.
Christina then says they need to get out of there, they’re in real danger, someone was after them, and if he took Terri and the car, he’ll be coming for them next. She’s frantic and terrified, and James buys it, but mostly she comes across as putting on an act. (Or maybe I’m just reading it with my own wishful storytelling in mind. That’s fully possible.)
They start walking north, hoping someone will come along eventually, and that it won’t start raining any time soon. They get coffee and jelly doughnuts at the one coffee shop in town and then head out. UMM. If you are so freaked, perhaps you get your food to go?
They’ve not been walking long when James points out a blue Honda that roars past them with two women in the front seat. Christina tells him no, she thinks it is the smaller model of the car she has. She’s already getting discouraged about how long they’ve been walking with no ride.
James then slips and says that she was fine when he left her, but he hadn’t told Christina about that part. He swears he thought Terri told her, but Christina claims that all Terri said was she was going to get some air. Then she shouts at him that he took Terri into the woods and didn’t bring her back. She yells for him to stay away, and demands to know what he did to Terri.
He, of course, calls her crazy.
Mental health: with tact and sensitivity: 4 (+1)
James doesn’t answer her questions, and Christina tells him not to lie to her any more. She won’t let him touch her, and she’s both angry and afraid. They fight, until someone starts shooting a gun, and then they fling themselves to the ground…
…only to learn it is two hunters who didn’t see them and didn’t meant to scare them.
Dun-Dun-DUNNNNN!: 3 (+1)
Damn, Stine, you’re adding on those cliffhangers fast, now. What happened to your earlier writing? They all joke around a bit, but Christina is still terrified, especially these two strangers have a gun, and she feels like they keep staring at her. She’s getting kind of paranoid lately, not that I can really blame her. Is that where this story is going, Stine? I will be very put out if so.
After being kind of obnoxious, the hunters head back into the trees, and Christina and James pick up their argument all over again — only to be interrupted by a car finally stopping to pick them up. The driver is a young man with thinning short brown hair and black-rimmed glasses. He’s Art, and he’s headed to Atlanta, which will give them time to dry off before they have to find another ride.
Art babbles a lot about the weather and what roads he’s taking and how touristy Key West is. James thinks about Terri for a long time, until Christina figures out they’re headed south and not north. Art tells them they’re taking a little detour so he can show them something. He then has to go looking for the defrost, and admits he hates rental cars — he rented it because he know they’d recognize the blue Taurus.
Shocked. I’m shocked, I say. This is my shocked face.
This is also another cliffhanger ending, but this one works, I think.
Christina tries to force him to pull over, he hits her until she stops, and James doesn’t understand what’s going on. Christina then tries to jump out of the car, but Art pulls out a small, silver pistol. He says he doesn’t want to shoot them, but it’s up to them.
He drives them back into Florida, and won’t answer any of their questions. James decides he can take Art even with the gun, and starts watching for the perfect opportunity. That, James, is a good way to get you both killed.
Art takes them into the swamp, where a friend has a little swamp cabin. It’s a small, clapboard cabin, with no neighbors to hear them scream. Art talks about his friend a little, stretches, and James leaps to tackle him, but Art is too fast and slams his knee into James’ stomach. Well damn, Art. Look at you go.
It knocks James out, and he wakes up tied to a chair. Art is in the process of tying Christina to another one. She begs not to be tied up, and then starts to offer him money to let them go. James thinks this is a bad plan, because he knows she doesn’t have any money. Two things here. First, how has she been paying for gas with no money? Two, you still haven’t figured out one or both of the girls stole Paul’s wallet, have you?
She tells Art it’s in her bag in the trunk, and Art brings it to her. She gives him Paul’s wallet, and finally James figures out what happened. Way to catch up, James. Way to catch up.
Christina says that now that Art has it, he has to let them go, but of course he was lying. He tells her that a thousand dollars is not enough to pay for what she did. She begs him to tell her why he’s doing it, but he just ties her up. She keeps begging to know why he’s doing this to them, and even after he introduces himself as Art Eckridge, she doesn’t know who he is. I’m sure you’re shocked to learn they killed his father, Roger Eckridge.
James thinks Art is crazy, because of course he does.
Mental health: with tact and sensitivity: 5 (+1)
Christina swears she doesn’t know that name, but Art keeps telling her that she and her friend killed him. Not James, her friend Terri, and Art has already taken care of her. Art goes off on a monologue about how many times he told his dad not to pick up hitchhikers, but Roger wanted to believe that people were good.
Christina continues to beg for her life, and then says that she knows James killed his father, he confessed the whole thing to her.
There’s a bunch of crazy talk, so I’m just going to get the blanket trope counter out of the way, since we’re almost done: Mental health: with tact and sensitivity: 105 (+100).
Art says he doesn’t believe her because he was there and he saw her and Terri do it. He saw them push Roger out of the car and drive away. Plus Terri told him everything before he took care of her, before he punished her for her crime.
Christina then says that she didn’t mean to kill him.
James is shocked, that the whole time he was riding with them, the whole time the radio kept putting out news reports, the whole time they were the ones who did it. The reader is not shocked at all. James thinks about what a jerk he’s been, and how wrong he was to trust them, and his anger starts to come back again.
Meanwhile, Christina is saying she didn’t mean to hit Roger so hard, she didn’t want to kill him, on and on. The boys they met in Fort Lauderdale stole all their money, and they were just so tired of trying to hitchhike home and deal with the guys stopping to hit on them before they’d give them a ride.
Art wants to know where the car is, and Christina admits she hid it the night before, while James was walking with Terri. She then offers to take Art to the car, but he says he has other plans for her.
He forces them out of the cabin and into the swamp, and keeps babbling about his friend who owns the cabin. God, Art, just kill them already, this is boring. He then brings up Jack’s unusual hobby; somehow there’s a freshwater pond filled with piranhas, because that’s what he does, he raises them.
It’s a shame Dove took a break. She found the last piranha appearance super entertaining.
Apparently, he starves his piranhas, too, which makes no sense at all if he wants to breed them, but okay, whatever, I just want this to be done at this point. (Stine is not sticking the landing.)
Art says he already threw Terri in there, and then cuts their hands free so they have a fighting chance. WTF, ART. If you want to kill them to punish them (or at least Christina — James was just in the wrong place at the wrong time), DON’T GIVE THEM A CHANCE TO FIGHT BACK, FUCK.
Art pushes Christina, but she drops to her knees, unbalancing him so that he falls into the water instead in a perfect belly flop. The waters move wildly, his body jerks, and then he gets sucked under, the water red with Art’s blood.
Once it is all over, James tells Christina they need to leave, to get to the police to tell them about Art and Terri. Christina grabs Art’s pistol and tells James he can’t leave. He begs for his life, but she says he has to swim with the piranhas, too, because the only person she trusts is herself. They argue back and forth over whether he’ll jump or whether she’ll have to shoot him first, and then a blood-soaked figure interrupts them.
He’s dead! He’s dead! HE’S FUCKING DEAD! … oh wait, he survived: 1 (+1) (Where the story tries to convince us that there really is a body count, only to later reveal the victim only sustained minor injuries.)
Terri tries to attack Christina with a rock, but Christina grabs her and throws her over the cliff edge. Christina picks up the gun again, and tells James to jump. Instead, he kicks the gun out of her hand and into the water, and then they grapple, each trying to shove the other over the edge of the cliff. She’s just about to push James over when a hand grabs her ankle and pulls her into the water.
SURPRISE TERRI AGAIN. She’s clinging to a tree root sticking out from the cliff, and James pulls her up onto the cliff. She begs for his help, and James gets her to a hospital for treatment while Christina is devoured by piranhas.
He’s dead! He’s dead! HE’S FUCKING DEAD! … oh wait, he survived: 11 (+10)
Extra points because it happened so fucking close together.
At the hospital, James talks to the police, and then they question Terri in her hospital room for a long time. After they’re done, he goes in to see her. Turns out, they were arguing the whole time because Terri tried to get Christina to go to the police, but Christina refused. When James admits that he thought they were fighting over him, Terri laughs and asks how he can be so conceited. Good point, Terri.
Here’s what really happened: after Terri got back from their walk, Christina took her into the woods to show where she hid the car, and then bit her up. Terri pretended to be dead, and Christina believed it. Then a man found Terri, threw her in the pond, and she was such a good swimmer she managed to get out. That time, Art didn’t wait around to see her be killed, because he was in a hurry to get to Christina and James.
James says he’s going back to Key West because he hurt Melissa really badly — he broke up with her. Terri again laughs and calls him conceited. He thinks she’s probably right. He’s going to hitch his way back home, and she tells him good luck. Her parents are coming to get her. Everything is wrapped up neatly.
UMMM. You completely failed to stick that landing, Stine. Damn. I thought you had this one.
It was pretty great for awhile, but then it veered into ridiculous and boring (somehow at the same time) and then into too neat an ending. Surprise death! Surprise life! Surprise life again! No repercussions for Terri and manslaughter and grand theft auto. James thinking all those thoughts about Melissa begging him, when it was all about a breakup. Some cheap tricks in this one, Stine, but the bones of a really entertaining story with some interesting characters. An improvement over some of the other books of yours I’ve recapped.
Continuity? Fuck that shit: 1
He’s dead! He’s dead! HE’S FUCKING DEAD! … oh wait, he survived: 11
Mental health: with tact and sensitivity: 105