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Rivendrift 1: Chapter 1

Chapter 1

Riley Moore adjusted the passenger seat for the third time, as if that would make the car feel less foreign. But the rented BMW 7 Series sedan’s pristine interior was so perfect Riley thought he might break the controls, so he stopped playing with them and put his hands in his lap. This was not the car he had pictured taking to Loyola University Maryland on move-in day. But his father had insisted on it.

“You sure you don’t want to drive?” Mark, his father, glanced over at him from the driver’s seat as they cruised south on Route 83, hands gripping the steering wheel with practiced firmness.

Riley sighed. “I already said it’s fine, Dad.”

Mark grinned, his hazel eyes twinkling in a way that always reminded Riley of a mischievous boy who’d never quite grown up. “More for me then. Wouldn’t want to miss the chance to pilot this baby.” He patted the top of the dashboard twice. “Plus, your mother would never let me hear the end of it since you’re not on the insurance.”

In the backseat, Elise Moore looked out the window, her eyes tracing the blur of green interrupted by glimpses of suburban developments. She was quieter than usual, her brow furrowed as though she were solving a complex equation in her head. Or perhaps, thought Riley, she was simply calculating the risks of this journey, trying to divide her worries into manageable portions. His mother was like that—meticulously anxious and habitually withdrawn from the world’s chaos.

“I still think we could’ve fit everything in the Civic,” Riley muttered, not for the first time that morning. He didn’t like the pretense of the expensive car and imagined all the awkward conversations it would create with anyone who noticed when they pulled up to his dorm. While the car was certainly impressive, it wasn’t true.

“And arrive looking like clowns who just crawled out of a junkyard?” Mark chuckled. “Son, contrary to popular belief, appearances matter, especially on days like this.”

Riley looked out the window, contemplating his reflection in the glass. The young man who stared back was a mix of his parents—Mark’s angular jaw and Elise’s delicate nose. Hidden in his brown eyes was his father’s desire for adventure dimmed by his mother’s reserve. Riley was an amalgamation of contrasts, and yet, he was neither as bold as his father nor as reticent as his mother. He was something else entirely—a quiet dreamer with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge but never daring enough to seek out adventure for himself. Though, he argued, there were reasons for coloring within the lines… always reasons.

After a prolonged silence, Mark asked, “You nervous? Eh, don’t be. It’s the right next step for you. And you’ve worked hard to get here. Harder than anyone else in your class, that’s for damn sure.”

“Mark,” Elise chided in a displeased tone.

“What? I’m just saying. He’s earned it.” Mark doubled down, staring at Riley. “You’ve earned this.”

“Watch the road,” Elise said.

“I am, I am.”

While he wouldn’t admit it outright, Riley’s thoughts were a swirling mass of hopes, fears, and the sort of existential queries that plagued any nineteen-year-old young man trying to make their place in the world. “Maybe that’s the problem,” Riley finally said, breaking the silence. “I’ve worked so hard to get here, and now I don’t know what comes next. I’ve never been the one to... you know, wing it.”

Mark looked at him, his eyes softening. “Ya know, life is about improvisation just as much as it’s about preparation. You’ve got the prep part down. Maybe college is where you learn to relax a bit more, ya know? Make some friends. Take a class on something you don’t know anything about. Fail and realize it’s not the end of the world.”

Elise, still gazing out of the window, said, “Just don’t forget why you’re there, Riley. We’re proud of you, but scholarships don’t maintain themselves.”

Like he needed reminding.

Riley’s grades had been his parents’ favorite discussion topic at every family gathering for years. What they didn’t discuss, however, was just how much that kind of focus had cost him. While his peers had celebrated their youth, Riley had been busy planning his future. There was rarely extra time for weekend trips or even just hanging out. When other adults talked about the “trials of parenting teenagers,” Riley secretly wondered what it would be like to have parents who were a little less proud from time to time. But everything he did was about preparing for the future and reaping the rewards. More recently, his SAT scores had earned him a full scholarship to Loyola, so long as he maintained his GPA. He never anticipated how much weight it would come with.

As if reading his thoughts, Elise said, “Neither you nor this family can afford to take on the burden of—”

“I know, Mom,” Riley said, his voice tinged with exasperation. He caught her eyes in the side view mirror before she looked away.

“He’s got his head on straight, El,” Mark said. “Nothing to worry about. He’s gonna do great things.”

“I never said he wouldn’t,” she replied softly.

Riley sat there, sandwiched between his parents’ differing worldviews, and wondered how he could possibly manage to meet both their expectations. And yet, what about his expectations for himself? Everyone said college was something of a crossroads, a place where he would have to make choices that defined him independently of his family. Of course, that came with other haunting shadows. He couldn’t shake the feeling that what he did now would stay with him for the rest of his life.

No pressure or anything, Riley said to himself.

But all he could feel was pressure. Test scores. Teachers. Guidance counselors. When would it end? He’d worked hard his entire life to this point, all in the hopes of “going somewhere big,” as his father called it. In Riley’s mind, arriving at that mythical place meant not having to work so hard. But it turned out adulting was going to require just as much work as being a kid. Probably more. Definitely more.

A notification sounded from the GPS on the dashboard, jolting all three of them. “Follow I-83 South to MD-139 Charles Street in Towson,” the robotic voice purred.

Mark perused the GPS and raised an eyebrow at Riley. “Phoenix. See that?” He pointed to the town’s name east of the interstate. “Like one of our stories, right?”

His dad had read him all sorts of books growing up, and Riley had plenty of fond memories of those bedtime stories. But he knew what his dad was trying to do, and it wasn’t working. “Sure, Dad. Except here, the dragons are probably just professors with tenure and a penchant for pop quizzes.”

Mark laughed, a deep, hearty sound that momentarily filled the car with joy, dispelling the nervous energy that had grown between the seats. “Well, if you do run into any dragons, just remember, they’re more afraid of you than you are of them.”

“In what world are dragons afraid of humans?” Riley asked, trying to humor his father while at the same time feeling annoyed. He wasn’t a child anymore and didn’t appreciate his dad trying to treat him that way. Plus, bedtime stories didn’t belong in the—

“In the real world,” Mark replied, finishing Riley’s thought, his eyes twinkling again. “It’s a place full of challenges, but also one where you have a say, where you can turn those dragons into allies… even friends sometimes. Don’t forget that.”

Riley nodded, but it was an empty gesture. Mark had never been to college. Barely graduated high school, and then married mom that same summer. Which explained part of why they were so adamant that he attend Loyola. What did he know about slaying dragons in the real world?

“Who needs to pee? Anyone?” Mark asked. “No? Well, I do. Pit stop.”

Mark pulled off at the next exit and left Elise and Riley in the parking lot. The mother and son took a minute to stretch their legs beside the sedan. Feeling like their conversation from before was left hanging, Riley said, “I’m gonna work hard, Mom. Don’t worry about me.”

She nodded but her eyes grew distant.

Riley needed to convince her more. “Listen, mom. Even if I lose the scholarship, I’ll take full responsibility for whatever costs—”

“It’s not just you I’m worried about, Rye. It’s your future… your future family. Your dad, he’s… always had all these bright ideas. Dreams. And how many of them have worked out?”

Riley knew the answer but felt like speaking it would only add insult to injury even with his father out of ear shot. So he leaned his back against the car and sighed.

“This counts. It sets precedent,” she went on. “So that one day, when you have a spouse and maybe even children of your own, you don’t have to—”

“I got it, Mom.”

“It’s just that I don’t want—”

“I said, I got it.” Riley’s tone was stronger than he meant it to be, and Elise recoiled.

“What’d I miss?” Mark asked, emerging from the sliding doors while swinging two plastic bags laden with drinks and snacks. His face lost its perpetually optimistic glow as he seemed to register the tension. He found it again when he tossed Riley the key fob. “Your turn!”

Riley fumbled the device as if it were hot. “Dad, I’m… I said I was fine.”

“Yeah, okay, whatever. We both know you want to.”

“No, I… I really—”

“Come on. A little adventure won’t kill you.”

“Oh, it very much can, dad. I’m not even on the insurance.”

“Mark,” Elise chided again. “Please.”

“What? Do I look like I care about any of that right now? Fine.” He put a hand on his chest like he was pledging allegiance. “I, Mark Moore, assume full responsibility should anything happen. There. Happy now?”

When neither Riley nor his mother budged, a fiery look flared behind Mark’s eyes, and the skin over his temples pulsed as he worked his jaw. Finally, Mark blurted out, “It’s my son’s move-in day, and if he wants to drive a BMW, then nothing’s gonna stop that.”

All at once, everything but the car faded away. Riley could drive it. Even wanted to at some level. It enticed him. Maybe he’d finally feel like some of the other kids in his class who’d gotten fast cars and accepted dares on a whim. The glaring problem, however, was that accepting his dad’s thrilling offer also meant admitting that he’d missed out on his teenage years. That he’d been too busy trying to be a good adult when all he really wanted was to be a normal kid.

But that window of opportunity had closed. He was off to college now, carrying the weight of living up to everyone’s expectations. There was no room for risk. Everything had to stay on track. The harsh reality was that he would never get his teen years back… never taste what true freedom felt like.

“I don’t want to,” Riley said flatly and threw the key at his father.

But the toss went wide, and Mark had to stretch to make the catch. He hefted the fob in his hand a few times before casting his son a forlorn look. It seemed like Mark wasn’t disappointed in Riley so much as he was disappointed for him, so that when Mark finally spoke, Riley felt guilty for his father’s forced smile. “Alright. Well, almost there. Let’s go.”

The awkward silence begun in the parking lot extended as Mark got back onto the interstate and continued south, punctuated by Riley’s intermittent crunching of potato chips. Mark picked up his phone, flicking to his music app, and then hit play. Even before Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit picked up from where it left off, Elise admonished, “Hands free, Mark!”

“Alright,” he muttered with a sarcastic undertone. Mark wedged his phone in the cup holder and started singing along, nowhere near Grace Slick’s pitch.

The music wasn’t helping Riley. If anything, his anxiety seemed to rise in time with the song’s build up. He glanced at his dad, seemingly oblivious to the world around him. Lost in his daydreams about the future. And always saying that “Elise didn’t want to come along for the ride.”

Riley caught Elise’s face in the side view mirror again glowering out the window. She always accused Mark of being careless and jeopardizing the family. Whereas she was the sole voice of reason that kept the family together and the house out of foreclosure.

In that moment, a clear picture formed for Riley. While he was already committed to the path of adulthood and all the responsibilities that came with it, his parents were entering a new season where anything was possible… a second chance at being teenagers even. His dad didn’t need to dream about the future anymore; he could do something about it now if he wanted to. And so what if they downsized? His mom was a master of finances. She could sell the house, buy an RV, and travel the country. The possibilities were limitless. They just needed a shared vision.

Riley grabbed for his dad’s phone and hit pause. “What are you both going to do while I’m gone?”

Mark reached for the device, but Riley held the phone back.

“What do you mean?” Elise asked stiffly.

“I mean, when was the last time you did something fun together? Took a calculated risk, like you’re telling me to do? You’re empty nesters now, right?” His parents shared a wordless look in the rearview mirror. Riley prodded a bit more. “Isn’t there something you’ve always wanted to do together?”

“Well, Elise?” Mark said.

“What are you asking me for?”

“I think you know why.”

“We’re not getting into this again, Mark. It’s Riley’s day.”

Mark nodded, hands gripping the steering wheel so hard that his knuckles turned white. “Yup. And Riley just asked us to do something fun together.” The BMW accelerated. “It must be bad if our own son notices.”

“At least someone’s paying attention,” she said, arms folded. “Eyes on the road, Mark!”

“Hey, guys, I didn’t mean to start anything,” Riley said.

“Oh, no, you didn’t start it,” Mark replied.

“Your father did that a long time ago.”

Mark snatched the phone from Riley’s hand and fumbled with it. The music returned, the volume went up, and then Mark put his eyes back on the road and instantly swore at the solid rows of red taillights.

Riley shot forward, jarred by the sound of screeching tires and the sudden, gut-wrenching lurch that sent his heart catapulting into his throat. There was a moment—a surreal, terrifying moment—where the world twisted into a mosaic of shattered glass and splintered metal. Where Grace Slick’s voice soared in psychedelic euphoria. And where Riley felt sure that he was going to die.



Meenaz Lodhi
Meenaz Lodhi

I’m hooked! I do hope nothing bad happens to them! 😳🙏



This is so amazing I cannot wait for the rest of this story!!


William Ketzeback
William Ketzeback

Yikes! One heck of an opening chapter. Love the foreshadowing of White Rabbit. :)

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