Rocking. Gentle at first. A lullaby. Rock-a-bye baby. Then harder. Rougher. Her head banged against glass. Her body rolled back the other way and she was falling. Onto the floor. Hard.
Her heart spiked and her eyes shot open. “What the fuck?”
She rubbed at her throbbing elbow and stared around. Her eyes felt like someone had rubbed grit into them. Her brain felt like wet sludge.
You’ve fallen out of bed. But where?
She sat up. Not a bed. A wooden bench. Running around the side of an oval-shaped room. A room that was moving from side to side. Outside, gray sky, swirling flakes of snow. Glass all around. Nausea swept over her. She fought it down.
There were more people in here, sprawled on the wooden benches. Five of them. Bundled up in identical blue snowsuits. Like her, Meg realized. All of them here in this small, swaying room. Buffeted by the wind, snow caking the glass.
This isn’t a room. Rooms don’t move, stupid.
She pushed herself to her feet. Her legs felt shaky. Nausea bubbled again. Got to get a handle on that, she thought. There was nowhere to be sick. She walked unsteadily to one side of the room-that-was-not-a-room. She stared out of the glass, pressing her hands and nose against it like a child staring out at the first snow of Christmas.
Below—way below—the snow-tipped forest. Above, a frenzy of flakes in a vast gray sky.
More rocking. The roar of the wind, muted by the thick glass all around, like a hungry animal contained behind bars. Fresh white splatters hit the glass, distorting her vision. But Meg had seen enough.
A groan from behind her. Another of the blue-clad bodies was waking up, unfurling like an ungainly caterpillar. He or she—it was hard to tell with the hood on—sat up. The others were stirring now too. For one moment, Meg had an insane notion that when they turned their faces toward her they would be decomposed, living dead.
The man—mid-thirties, heavy beard—stared at her blearily. He pushed back his hood and rubbed at his head, which was shorn to dark stubble.
“What the fuck?” He looked around. “Where am I?”
“You’re on a cable car.”
“Cable car. You know, a car that hangs on cables—”
He stared at her aggressively. “I know what a cable car is. I want to know what the hell I’m doing on one.”
Meg stared calmly back. “I don’t know. D’you remember getting here?”
“The last thing I remember is . . .” His eyes widened. “Are you . . .are you going to the Retreat?”
The Retreat. The deliberately ambiguous name made it sound like a health spa. But it didn’t imbue Meg with any feelings of well-being. On the contrary, it sent schisms of ice jittering down her spine. The Retreat.
She didn’t reply. She looked back outside. “Right now, we’re not going anywhere.”
They both stared into the gray void, more patches of snow obscuring the glass. A snowstorm. A bad one.
“Stuck? Did you say we’re stuck?”
Meg turned. A woman stood behind her, around her own age. Red hair. Pinched features. Panic in her voice. Possibly a problem.
Meg didn’t answer right away. She regarded the other people in the car. One was still curled up asleep, hood over his face. Some people could sleep through anything. The other two—a short, stout man with a mop of dark curls and an older, silver-haired man with glasses—were sitting up, stretching and looking around. They seemed dazed but calm. Good.
“It looks that way,” she said to the woman. “Probably just a power outage.”
“Power outage. Oh, great. Bloody marvelous.”
“I’m sure the car will be moving again soon.” This from the bearded man. His previous aggression had dissipated. He offered the woman a small smile. “We’ll be fine.”
A lie. Even if the car started moving, even if they reached their destination, they were not going to be fine. But lies were the grease that oiled daily life. The woman smiled back at the man. Comforted. Job done.
“Did you say we’re on a cable car?” the older man asked. “I don’t remember anyone mentioning getting on a cable car.”
“Does anyone remember anything?” Meg asked, looking around. They glanced at one another.
“We were in our rooms.”
“They brought some breakfast.”
“Tasted like crap.”
“Then . . . I must have fallen asleep again—” More confused looks.
“No one remembers a thing after that?” Meg said. “Not till they woke up here?”
They shook their heads.
The bearded man exhaled slowly. “They drugged us.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” the red-haired woman said. “Why would they do that?”
“Well, obviously so we wouldn’t know where we’re going, or how we got here,” the short man said.
“I just I can’t believe they would do that.”
Funny, Meg thought. Even now, after everything that had happened, people struggled to believe the things that “they” would do. But then, you can’t see the eye of the storm when you’re inside it.
“Okay,” the bearded man said. “Seeing as we’re literally stuck here with time to kill, why don’t we introduce ourselves? I’m Sean.”
“Meg,” said Meg.
“Sarah,” the red-haired woman offered.
“Karl.” The short man gave a small wave.
“Max.” The older man smiled. “Good to meet you all.”
“I guess we’re all here for the same reason, then?” Sean said.
“We’re not supposed to talk about it,” Sarah said.
“Well, I think it’s pretty safe to assume—”
“To assume makes an ‘ass’ out of ‘you’ and ‘me.’ ”
Meg stared at Sarah. “My boss used to say that.”
“Yeah. Used to annoy the fuck out of me.”
Sarah’s lips pursed. Max broke in. “So, what do you…… I mean, what
did you all do, before?” “I taught,” Sarah said.
Quelle surprise, Meg thought.
“I used to be a lawyer,” Max said. He held his hands up. “I know— sue me.”
“I worked in bouncy castles,” Karl said.
They looked at him. And burst into laughter. A sudden, nervous release.
“Hey!” Karl looked affronted, but only mildly. “There’s good money in bouncy castles. At least, there used to be.”
“What about you?” Meg asked Sean.
“Me? Oh, this and that. I’ve had a few jobs.”
A gust of wind caused the cable car to sway harder.
“Oh God.” Sarah clutched at her neck. She wore a small silver crucifix. Meg wondered how many more reasons she could find to dislike the woman.
“So we’re an eclectic bunch,” Max said.
“And ‘ass’ or not, I assume we’re all heading to the Retreat?” Karl said, raising his bushy eyebrows.
Slowly, one by one, they all nodded. “Volunteers?”
More nods. Only two types of people went to places like the Retreat.
Volunteers and those who had no choice.
“So, is now the time to discuss our reasons?” Max said. “Or shall we save that for when we get there?”
“If we get there,” Sarah said, looking at the steel cables above them nervously.
Sean was eyeing the sleeping figure in the corner. “Do you think we should wake up Sleeping Beauty?”
Meg frowned. Then she stood and walked over to the prone figure. She shook his shoulder gently. He rolled off the bench and hit the floor with a thud.
Behind her, Sarah screamed. Meg suddenly realized two things. She knew this man.
And he wasn’t asleep. He was dead.
Excerpted from The Drift by C.J. Tudor. Copyright © 2023 by Betty & Betty Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.