Caroline must have done this drive at least 82,359 times before. At least, that’s what it felt like. Five days a week, sometimes six when there was extra work no one else would put their hand up for. Week in, week out. Year in, year out. She was a saint, even if no one else recognised it.
Oh, who was she kidding? This was her time. A time when she didn’t have to think about anything she didn’t want to. A time to listen to music and let her mind wander, as long as that mind remembered to keep one eye on the road.
She sat back, took a deep breath, and started the car. The surrounding light was dim so the car lights came on. Aah, the wonder of automatic lights. Gone were the days of flat batteries from forgetting to turn the car lights off on foggy mornings. How has the human race become so lazy?
She turned the heater up. It was colder now than when she had arrived this morning.
She connected her iPod, smiling slightly, feeling like a dinosaur. Who even uses an iPod anymore? I do, that’s who!
Closing her eyes for a few minutes, she listened to Maria Brink screaming at her to ‘Just Drive’. Humming and nodding her head, she was ready. These next sixty minutes were hers. Once she got home, there would be responsibilities; things she had to do, people she had to care for and talk to. But for now, this time was hers.
It was late so hers was one of only a handful of cars left in the carpark. Most of the others were out of there as soon as the official workday ended. She was usually one of the last out. Not that management ever noticed. They only noticed when things weren’t done, never when they were. Why do I bother? But she did bother and she knew she would do the same thing tomorrow. Unless the lottery paid out but, considering she didn’t have a ticket, that was unlikely. Maybe I’ll buy a ticket tomorrow.
She pulled out of the car space and slowly wound her way down and down, towards the exit. On level three, a cat slunk through the shadows and ducked down the stairwell. Tortoiseshell, thin, obviously a stray. She wondered how she would fare living on the streets. She was realistic. Probably not very well. My hair would look a lot less cared for than yours, my friend.
On level one, a large brown rat with red devil eyes stood on its hind legs next to the ramp. It rubbed its front paws together and twitched its nose, sniffing the air. Watch out for the cat, she mumbled, as they made brief eye contact. Caroline empathised with the rat. Sometimes she felt like she was that rat, scavenging for scraps, trying to stay alive in a world full of hunters. The rat dropped to all fours and scuttled backwards, blending ghostlike into the surrounding dark.
She stopped at the boom gate and swiped her parking validation card. The boom gate didn’t open. She swiped a second, then a third time. The boom gate stubbornly stayed closed. Come on! I’m tired and I just want to go home. Following the sixth swipe, the boom gate changed its mind and jerked lazily upwards. It stopped, swaying and wobbling, threatening to fall. She squinted at it, silently daring it, then stamped her foot down, squealing her tyres. She was out!
She waited for a shiny blue Toyota to pass, then pulled out onto the street in front of a weather-beaten, dented, red Mazda. Looking in her rear-view mirror, she chuckled at how drivers often resembled their cars, the same way people often resembled their pets.
The Mazda driver had bright red hair sticking up everywhere. That hair wouldn’t recognise a comb if it passed one on the street. His interior light was on and she could see his sunken, dark-rimmed eyes under bushy caterpillar eyebrows. He hunched over his steering wheel, guarding it like a student with an exam paper, worried someone would steal his words and his future.
Do I look like my car? Probably. Silver, compact, and seen better days. She wasn’t getting any younger, just like her Kia. But we’re both still useful. She smiled and patted her dashboard like a dog. We do our jobs, don’t we?
She stopped at the red light and watched the world go by. The streetlights flickered once, twice, then with a burst of effort stayed on. A trickle of people traipsed along the street while others stood at the bus stop, stamping or shuffling their feet. Everyone was hunched over, coats pulled close as the temperature dropped quickly in the absence of the sun. No one wanted to make eye contact. The walkers stared resolutely at the pavement and the feet passing by. The standers stared incessantly at their phones or up the street hoping to be the first to see the bus trundling towards them.
BEEP BEEP! The Mazda driver honked impatiently. Caroline jumped and faced forward again. The light was green. She glanced in the mirror and raised her hand in apology before moving off slowly. What’s your hurry?
When she reached the outskirts of town, the Mazda was still close behind, blinding her with its cross-eyed lights. She put her foot down to push her little car up the hill but the Mazda impatiently roared past in a cloud of black smoke, engine screaming and threatening to pop a gasket. As it passed, the driver glared across at her while fiddling with something in his passenger seat. She ignored him and eased off the accelerator, keen to let him go.
Once he was out of sight, she put her headlights up. There were no streetlights out here, very few cars, and she didn’t want to hit an animal in the dark.
She turned right onto the road that would take her home. The tension left her shoulders and she relaxed into her solitude. The Goo Goo Dolls filled the cabin, suggesting she ‘Feel the Silence’. She sang along loudly as she always did when she was the only one in the car.
She’d been driving for about five minutes when a dense fog started to lower itself as if the countryside was pulling a blanket over its head. Her high-beam lights reflected blindingly off the suspended water droplets and she soon couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of the car. She switched her lights back down and slowed to a crawl, hoping no one would come along behind her at normal speed. She didn’t have spare money to pay for car repairs.
The song switched and I Prevail crooned about being ‘Alone’, which was exactly how she felt right now. She could barely see anything in any direction and could have been the only person left in the world. She gripped the steering wheel tighter, and leant forward, squinting into the gloom.
She almost didn’t see the dead deer in the middle of the road but, just in time, she slammed on her brakes. Her tyres squealed and her brakes shuddered, complaining about the sudden stop. The car stopped with its front bumper almost kissing the beast’s stomach.
She cursed the person who’d hit it and hadn’t bothered to move it off the road. She sat there for a second, then put her hazards on and pulled over to the side of the road. I’d better move it in case anyone else comes along, she sighed.
She grabbed the torch from her glove box, took a deep breath, and stepped out of the car. She looked right and left but the fog was so thick she wouldn’t have seen anything until it was almost on her anyway. She went over to the deer and the feeble torchlight showed its neck and both hind legs were broken. She put her hand on its side. It was still warm.
She felt sad for the deer and hoped it didn’t have family waiting for it, wondering why Mummy never came home that night. At least you don’t have to worry about anything ever again.
She held the torch in her mouth, leant down, and gripped the deer’s front legs, preparing to drag it off the road. She suddenly stood up again and looked around frowning. There was red paint on the deer’s face and shoulder, and glass from a broken headlight crunched under her feet. A smashed red bumper bar lay in the other lane and black tyre marks showed where the driver had tried to avoid the beast.
She ran over to the other side of the road. The red Mazda was upside down in the ditch. She hurried around to the driver’s side. The airbag had deployed and now lay like an empty parachute over the steering wheel. The man lay crumpled, bloody and lifeless in his seat. She reached in and touched his neck but couldn’t feel a pulse.
She hurried back to her own car and called emergency services.
She pulled the deer off the road then went back to the Mazda. She felt like she should wait with the driver even though she was sure he was as dead as the deer. Her presence might comfort him, even in death. How much more alone could you be than dead?
She pushed her damp hair off her forehead and stamped her feet. She couldn’t see much in this murky light. Bored, she swung the torch around and saw a bulky shape, not far from the car. She went over to it. It was a large black gym bag lying zip-side down. It must have been thrown from the car. Probably what the guy was fiddling with when he passed me.
She looked back at the driver then back to the bag. He didn’t look like someone who cared about fitness. What's in the bag? Should I open it? She shifted from foot to foot as she considered peeking into someone else’s private life. How would I feel if the situation was reversed?
She reached out with her foot and pushed the bag. It was heavier than it looked. She looked back at the Mazda again, then pushed harder and flipped the bag over.
She leant down and unzipped it. She fell to her knees, oblivious to the dampness soaking into her jeans as she knelt there staring. The bag was full of money. More cash than she’d ever seen in her life.
She sat there, blinking drops of water from her eyelashes, thinking through her options.
The night was silent and she was alone.
Caroline wondered if she’d just won the lottery without buying a ticket.