The morning was bitter cold. Lucy could still see her breath as she exhaled even inside her car with the heat on. Her toes felt like they were fused together inside her shoes. She pressed her foot down on the gas lightly, feeling like she was putting a cement block on the accelerator. This morning had rapidly gotten away from her. One thing after another had come up. It was the perfect storm of just enough small things going awry to mess up the entire day. Although she had only left the house five minutes late she was betting she would end up getting to work a good fifteen minutes past when she was due to clock in. That was just the way the day was going.
As if on cue, traffic slowed down again. Break lights flashed on the car ahead of her and she also began to decelerate. Terrific. Behind her, a loud engine roared. It was loud and coming up much faster than it should have been. She watched in her rear view mirror as a black shape grew larger and larger. Her eyes grew as did the size of the head lights behind her. It did not seem like he would slow down in time, but with the screeching of tires, he did.
For the next few minutes that she waiting in standstill traffic the Impala idled loudly behind her. It was an old Impala. Full of rust spots with mismatched doors. It was black, but that flat black that may actually just be a coat of primer. Breaking into the quiet of the morning was the sound of a honking horn. The Impala’s horn. The car in front of her had inched forward and in the moment that she spent awash in relief that she wasn’t rear ended, she had not. Keep your hair on grandpa, she thought.
Traffic finally began to move. Lucy followed with the flow and in a few more minutes was turning onto another street. Once again traffic in front of her slowed to a crawl. A school bus up ahead appeared to be the culprit. It was coming to a stop at an apartment complex in the oncoming lane. She considered speeding up and trying to beat the wait but thought better of it and once more applied those cold feet to the break. The Impala impatiently roared back up behind her. When she looked into the rear view mirror this time she felt as though the driver was sitting in the back seat of her car. His entire face was in full view and she could read his lips well enough to know what he was saying about her in his car.
“Well, right back atcha, buddy.” Lucy was midway to leaning forward to change the radio station. Hoping that finding just the right song on the radio could turn this entire morning around. Instead, as if he heard her, the man behind her laid on the horn again. This time he shook his fist and then gestured wildly at the bus. Her lip reading skills had either improved or he was making an effort to make sure that she could understand what he was saying, go you dumb bitch.
Feeling her blood pressure rise, Lucy considered getting out of the car. Just putting it in park and calmly getting out, going to the window of his shitty old beater, using her flashlight to crack the window, and then just beating him senseless with it. But calmly. She could just give him one good smack- again, the horn interrupted her thoughts. This time she physically jumped. He pointed at the school bus. The arm with the stop sign on it was beginning to close. She had to get off this road, get away from this guy before she really did snap and get out of the car. The rational part of her brain knew that she wouldn’t, that she couldn’t, but that other part of her brain. The irrational part was picturing throwing her car into reverse and backing into him over and over and over again.
All the children were loaded onto the bus and it had pulled away from the apartment. Lucy pulled forward and decided to take a detour to work. For her own sanity’s sake. She was already expecting to be late. A few more minutes wouldn’t make a difference either way. A couple of turns later and Lucy had a red pickup truck cruising happily (and silently) behind her. Mere moments more, and she was alone as she threaded through a small residential section. Lucy came to another stop sign. For a moment the sun shone over the tops of the houses in the distance. It came through the bare branches of trees and directly into her car. Finally, she felt some warmth. Reaching forward and turning down the heat she could see below the sun glare.
The road in front of her was littered with bodies. Road kill, to be specific. As Lucy paused at the intersection she saw them all. Littered may have been a bit dramatic. However the sudden sight of all of the possums, squirrels, and the like, was bracing.
“What in the world?” Lucy whispered, as she looked down the street. There were no other cars. She could see straight down the three mile stretch to the next intersection. Cars drove by but none turned in. Looking from left to right, Lucy scanned for signs that something was amiss. Nothing moved, a sign in itself. The street was lined with houses, but no one exited. There was no movement behind the windows either. Her first thought was terrorists, naturally. It was early morning in small town USA, on a quiet residential street. The perfect place for ISIS to strike fear into the hearts of America. After the panic washed over her and abated, the next most reasonable idea popped into her mind. This was obviously the work of some animal serial killer. So she, at least, was safe from any malfeasance. She relaxed her grip on the steering wheel.
Whatever was going on, she wasn’t ready to drive down the street yet. Maybe some assholes had gone drag racing during a mid-road small animal kegger. Maybe someone threw poisoned meat out to lower the rodent population (although she was unsure if squirrels were meat eaters. Those cute little bastards struck her more as vegetarians). Or a gas leak. A gas leak was possible too. All of these thoughts took place in the span of sixty seconds. Nobody had turned onto the stretch of street ahead since she stopped. Stranger still, no one had exited their houses since she had stopped. It was still early but most people were probably already on their way to work by now (as she was, albeit late). All those school kids had probably been off loaded from their buses by the time Lucy pulled up to that stop sign. She mused over this for another ten seconds. Quietly, behind her a black Impala pulled up.
Movement ahead of her caught her eye. A plucky little (vegetarian?) squirrel scampered from the side yard of one of the houses. Seeing fresh life brought Lucy back to reality. She was running late for work. There was probably some sort of ratio of dead animals to square mile on roads like this. Maybe it only seemed like a lot today because she was the only car on the road. And her day had gotten off to a bracing start. Correction, had been the only car on the road. There was movement again, this time she noticed it behind her. The Impala inched forward so that she could clearly see the driver in her rear view mirror.
Easing up on the break, about to move forward, Lucy once again looked to the squirrel. He scampered, his tail swished, his whiskers shivered (she imagined this last bit, he was too far away for her to see his actual whiskers). Raised up on his hind legs he sniffed the air near the street. Then, with more dignity than she would have thought a squirrel could possess, he pirouetted and collapsed. It happened in slow motion. Her brain first registering surprise, and then acceptance. Surprise at witnessing his shuffling off this mortal coil. Acceptance, because after all, squirrels are naturally graceful. They can run along a power line faster than a Cirque Du Soleil performer meandering on a tightrope. Reapplying pressure to the break, Lucy considered something, an errant thought. It was interrupted by the honk of a horn. The douchebag Impala, revving its engine, idling closer yet. Lucy shook her head to clear it up, to right the ship of her thoughts, but again a honk over turned it.
“God dammit!” The body of the squirrel was in front of her, the honking Impala behind. This time he really laid on the horn. Giving a voice to his impatience. Letting out a huff of air, blowing away whatever thought she had been on the cusp of forming, Lucy took her foot off the break. Inching forward slightly, she made a tight U-Turn. Doing her best, she avoided going within a car’s length of the first animal corpse, a raccoon. She also avoided making eye contact with the driver of the Impala. The carnage on the street must not have registered to him. He tore away from the stop sign before Lucy had completely cleared the intersection. Curiosity raged within her and she glanced up in her rearview mirror in time to watch the black car’s pace slow to a crawl, swerve, and then stop as it came to rest against a curb. The now familiar sound of the horn bleated once more into the empty street, and this time did not stop.
A few turns later and she was no longer alone.
“Miss,” a man in a blue Gas and Power uniform said as he motioned for her to roll down her window, “you need to clear out of here. There’s been some kind of gas leak and we have evacuated this whole section.” Lucy smiled, nodded as if in confirmation, and rolled her window back up. She was back on her regular route to work. The sun was shining, the chill had abated, and maybe her day was finally turning around.