Last Thursday morning started out like any typical day: as usual I was running late for work and bolted out of the house after a few sips of some bitter coffee. I flipped on the radio in the car and frowned when they read the traffic report; Miss Cheery Voice announced that there were two separate accidents on Highway 25. If I was late again and Mr. Johansson found out, it could cost me my job.
I knew one other way to get to the office and after I hurriedly backed out of the driveway with the bumper scraping the curb, I headed for West Oak Street. My only hope was that this route wasn’t clogged with other commuters who had also heard the traffic report.
West Oak looked good and I dashed through the intersection at Franklin and made the next right onto Charleston Blvd. Charleston goes right over the highway and I glanced down and smiled; it was indeed bumper to bumper in every lane except the carpool.
I immediately thought about my old friend Fred, and how we would happily use that lane when we commuted together. Fred was a good guy and I was sorry I didn’t see much of him anymore; since taking that promotion he didn’t need to be in as early so we had stopped driving together.
After I hit Sanford and then Jenkins, I thought I was fine. But the problems really began when I missed the light to get onto Lake Ave. It was one of those judgment calls — do you risk hitting the gas and possibly going through red, or do you slam on the breaks? I probably could’ve made it if some idiot on a bike hadn’t darted in front of me but I was forced to stop; the car screeched to a halt a few feet over the white line.
After what seemed like an eternity, the light finally changed and I made the left onto Lake and then a quick right onto Morgan. I had to swerve a little to avoid a bike that was jutting out into the road and as I began cursing whatever kid left it there, I saw a pair of legs sticking out from some tall grass.
After glancing at the clock on the dashboard, I quickly pulled over and got out. A young man wearing a blue and green spandex outfit was lying in the grass. His eyes were closed and a trickle of blood hung on the edge of his mouth. I crouched down and saw that his legs were twisted into an unnatural position. I leaned over and put my face near his; he was still breathing, but just barely.
I didn’t have my cell phone with me and quickly looked around, hoping to find someone who could help. But besides an old man walking slowly on the other side of the street and a couple of kids carrying backpacks, I didn’t see anyone. I felt I needed to do something and, after a quick peek at my watch, decided to just put the man in the car and take him to the hospital.
Although the man was slim, he wasn’t light; I first tried grabbing his legs and dragging him to the car but he was just too heavy. When I tried picking him up under his arms, his right elbow smacked me in the jaw causing me to drop him suddenly. His head may have landed on a rock but since he was already unconscious, I figured there was no harm done. I finally managed to just roll him and, because of the high curb, I was able to roll him right into the backseat. I may have caught a little of his arm with the door when I slammed it shut, but again, I knew he wouldn’t be able to feel it.
I might even be considered a hero, I thought, walking around to the front of the car. And when Mr. Johansson asks me why I was late, with his coffee breath and nose hair, I could look right into his milky eyes and say “I was busy taking someone to the hospital, saving a life! Got a problem with that?”
I smiled as I got behind the wheel again. But my smile quickly faded when I realized that Mr. Johansson wouldn’t care about why I was late, only that I was. If I was with Fred of course, it wouldn’t be a big deal. Fred was a bit of a kiss-ass and Mr. Johansson loved him, called him “the son he never had”, had actually gotten teary-eyed when Fred said he was moving upstairs.
I glanced at the clock again; I now had exactly eight minutes to get to work. My only chance to make it on time was to hop on 25 and hope the traffic had gotten better.
When I turned onto Clifton Road and then the onramp to the highway, I could see traffic hadn’t cleared up at all. I cursed under my breath but suddenly realized I wasn’t just a single driver anymore; because of my new passenger, I could now use the carpool lane.
There was a lot of controversy over the $38 million Marshall County had spent to create a carpool lane on Highway 25. It was a noble gesture, trying to get people to drive less, help the environment and all that. The problem was that almost nobody used it. While the three right lanes were always packed during rush hour, the pristine carpool lane with its gleaming white diamonds remained empty.
Of course every once in a while a bold solo driver would use the lane but more often than not they’d get pulled over and ticketed. And the hefty fine was a deterrent for most people.
I merged onto the highway and slowly made my way over to the left. As I slipped into the lane, I remembered how Fred would laugh and point at the other drivers as we sped past them. I was always more than a little embarrassed when he did that and would try to crouch down in my seat.
I still couldn’t believe he had left me. I begged him not to take that promotion, not to leave me alone with decrepit Mr. Johansson in that miserable office. But Fred, with his fake hair and fat neck, had only grinned as he cleaned out his desk; he really had been a cocky bastard sometimes.
Just as I saw the sign for my exit, I heard a siren. Looking in the rearview mirror, I saw a motorcycle cop quickly gaining on me. After gazing at the clock again, I sighed and pulled over to the left-hand shoulder.
“What’s the problem officer?” I asked as the burly man ambled up to my window.
He stared down at me with a slight smirk on his face. I could see myself reflected in his mirrored sunglasses.
“You do realize that’s a carpool lane only?” he asked smugly, pointing to the road.
“Yes I do. That’s why me and my friend were using it.”
I gestured to the backseat and relished the confused look on his face as he peered through the window.
“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t see him back there. I guess you’re free to-” He leaned in closer. “Is he alright?”
“Uh, yeah, just a little tired. We really have to be going so…”
“Hold on a second.” After another glance into the backseat, he walked back to his bike and picked up his radio receiver. Looking in the side mirror, I saw him talk into it and then wait for a response. For a second I considered just driving away; I really needed to get to work. After another moment the cop looked back at me and then put the receiver down.
For some reason I really wasn’t that surprised when he unholstered his gun as he walked back to the car.
The bike guy died in the hospital so now they’re charging me with murder. They claim that three witnesses saw me intentionally run him over and then stuff him into my car. I overheard the motorcycle cop tell someone he thinks I did it just so I could use the carpool lane. Then they both snickered.
What they don’t seem to understand is that I was definitely going to call an ambulance when I got to work. Definitely. Well, if not then, certainly when I got home later that night. Traffic’s terrible at five o’clock, so of course it would have been nice to be able to use the carpool lane then, too.
They’re offering me a deal: if I plead guilty to manslaughter, they’ll drop the kidnapping charge and I’ll get 12 years. My tired-looking court appointed lawyer in the wrinkled suit thinks I should take it. I think I should too.
Especially before they find out what happened to Fred.
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Portland Fiction Project
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