The laminate coating on the steering wheel is wearing through, leaving rough patches that tug at my lycra glove. I’ll have to get that fixed. On the clock: 07:51, which gives me nine minutes; on the speedometer: 141 kph, just above the average I’ll have to maintain to clear the checkpoint on time. I peek at the side mirrors and the cyclist weaves back behind a rig, able as always to anticipate my glances, to keep me from getting any more than a glimpse of her. She’s clad in predictable black leather, lithe where I am bulky, her sleek helmet contrasting with my angular one like a robot from the future chasing a steam-powered relic. That’s not an inappropriate comparison, come to think of it.
Out here in the flats where the lanes are generous and the traffic is moderate I can open up a bit, maybe give myself some cushion. The current stereo track is a shifting tempo experimental number so I tap the Next button and a steady bass line tingles along my thighs. Throttles were made to be opened; my sense of acceleration spreads from my spine depressing the seat back and the decrease of strict control over the wheel from whisper to growl. I draft my way past a courier van, using the slingshot effect to clear one-ninety for just a second or two and make a tight weave between two carpoolers.
I wish I could believe the cyclist is stymied, roadblocked perhaps or forced to downshift out of self-preservation, but I know better. A kilometer and a half of clear space opens before the switchbacks start which isn’t much time to burn but I do it anyway, boosting with a tug on the release valve that flattens me: breasts to armpits, stomach to tailbone, cheeks to ears. Timing the valve screw to lower the boost can be tricky. At these speeds your eyes are unreliable, human depth perception and distance estimation, even decision making, not evolved to compensate for speeds up around 300 kph. On an open stretch, during a land speed test for example, it doesn’t matter. Here, my window and margin of error is measured in meters which translates into seconds and I know the risk of miscalculation is far beyond that of a grisly death. This is a company car, after all.
I’m only a half second off in getting the valve closed. I compensate with a wider drift than I hoped for, the tires crossing the white line marking the lane’s edge, hitting the half-foot wide dirt track between pavement and wide open air, sending the internal sensors into a panic attack of flashing red and digital paroxysm. I hang on to the shuddering wheel, loosen my squeeze on the throttle just for a blink until I feel the treads catch pavement again and then I horsewhip her into a full backside press. To my left the valley spreads open like a mother’s arms, the glisten of sunrise off the glass and chrome sea on the floor 500 meters down.
The grade of the road steepens and I hit the first one-eighty sideways, handbrake locked, tasting sweat on my upper lip while the needle drops. I flick my eyes up to the rear view as I slide, and there she is, so low she could lick the asphalt were it not for her helmet. I wonder where her inside leg even goes when she does that. I also curse. She’s gained on me.
For the next six kilometers, I have to push the cyclist from my mind. Loss of focus in the switchbacks is termination. That and, of course, fiery death. My best average through this stretch is 118 kph, but as I refocus on the road I note I’ll have to have my best day ever by four kilometers per hour if I’m even going to avoid a tardiness suspension. I also note that this is usually where the cyclist makes her move and she’s closer than usual today. Something really lit a fire under her this morning.
Data-crunching takes away from my reaction compensators, but I snap them on before I hit the first gate. Information is power. At the halfway point the numbers tell me I’m averaging a respectable 117 but the cyclist is so close I can hear the whine of her bike over the roar of my own machine, even over the thunder of the breakbeat on my soundtrack. Just breaking my personal record will still get me fried and fired today. If I can’t shatter it, the curtain’s going to fall.
At the Pinnacle Hairpin, a condom-tight landing at the bottom of a steep hill and the top of an even steeper one we call the Race Stretch, I get a view of the rest of the route for just a microsecond before my vision gets taken up by the rock cliff face that looms at the sharp ninety below the Stretch. This is where the cyclist will catch me if she does, because this is where I always wimp out. I dunno, sailing over a cliff doesn’t seem so bad to me, but flattening against a solid wall like an aluminum can beneath a boot heel creeps me out. For once the sharp left that rudely truncates Race Stretch isn’t my main concern. In that brief moment of oversight I see the final lazy curve that terminates the switchbacks is bumper-to-bumper. My heart sinks with my guts as I hit the 26% grade and realize I have no chance.
It’s funny how caution can be ejected like a spent magazine with sufficient blunt force. Like the trauma of a cruel breakup demands a one-night revenge romp, the mind wipe of desperation and inevitability brings a self-destructive clarity. I snatch a look in the mirror and the cyclist is at my bumper, the curve of sunlight at the horizon reflected in the sleek contour of her faceguard, looking exactly like a cat’s triumphant grin. The drop rod is in her hand, two feet of steel and fiberglass with a crackling blue claw at one end, poised to disable and digest. I didn’t think today would be the day she finally caught me.
This is the only thought in my head when I crank the wheel to the left, pointing the nose toward the wall of traffic still 180 meters below, then back to the right as the edge of the road disappears from my field of view: Today? Really? I go into a spin, one I’d love to say is well controlled but I’d be fooling no one. I could be whipping over the edge to my left, I could be hurtling onto the mossy shoulder to the right. Even remaining on the pavement, the best I can hope for is a flat, straight spin into the wall at the bottom of the Stretch. As with the cliff drop versus wall smash, whirling into the cliff is a preferential outcome to the drop rod only due to fear of the unknown. The only people who’ve ever experienced a Catch cannot relate the experience.
To be perfectly clear, I don’t believe in luck or fortune. Some part of my mind made the conscious decision to go into a wild spin with the cyclist’s rod claw inches away, a lunatic choice no matter how you evaluate the scenario. Except, as it turns out, with the benefit of retrospect. Improbably, it works. The cyclist, perhaps boiling with eager greed for the takedown bonus, over-reaches. When I turn, she misses; when I spin, she is off-balance. She disappears for a moment as I’m facing her, a shot of adrenalized surreality at seeing her through my front windshield instead of via reflection. And then she reappears, upside-down, the bike throwing sparks in its slide down the hill, the rider bouncing awkwardly, bones—or whatever—turning to pulp and limbs flopping as if rubberized. I wish I were a good enough person to feel pity or remorse for her, but to my shame, I let out a small whoop of joy. The triumph is short lived.
The continued spin takes my sight line away from the cyclist’s catastrophic end and reveals my own in the form of a dusty kick of grass and vegetation from the shoulder. Gravel peppers the undercarriage and there is a sick crunch after two more rotations when the rear end hits the rough wall and the vital sense of motion is torn away like a bandage gripping sensitive hair. I don’t remember getting so far behind, suggesting I black out shortly. When my dizzy eyes catch the clock readout, it is hatefully red at 07:59. Even if I get started, it’s over. I crush my fists against the peeling wheel and curse. A single choked sob escapes my chest.
I’ve been commuting for nine years. The company car is functionally mine, tweaked and adjusted in ways both approved and not approved by the technical department. I know everything about her; I call the machine a “her.” Yet I have never heard the chirrupy, jangling sound that emits from the speakers, cutting my music to a dull mute. The dashboard ignites in green. “Congratulations,” the display reads, “Takedown Bonus: 05:00 Added.” The clock readout that had been reproachful crimson fades to a hopeful yellow. I waste a few seconds looking around as if I expect to see Punk’d crews racing in, their mocking laughter ricocheting off the canyon walls.
The motor still idles, and I gun it a little to see if I can still move. A tooth-edging squeal from the body prying itself away from the rock is all that separates me from forward momentum again. I take the harshly angled curve at the bottom of the Stretch at a leisurely 50 kph, feeling for any lingering concerns like a misaligned axel or a rubbing tire. She’s smooth and easy, itching to accelerate. I check the clock and see it’s now 8:01 and I’m not fired. Yet. I hammer the throttle and scream obscenity-laced proclamations of triumph and joy through the last of the switchbacks.
I almost forgot about the traffic jam.
When it rises up in front of me I downshift and see that my bonus time is over half spent. For an insane second I think maybe they’ll give me a reprieve. Never heard of anyone taking down a cyclist before, didn’t even know a Takedown Bonus existed. Surely that’s worth more than a lousy five minutes? Except five minutes isn’t a pittance. It’s a jackpot. The raw unfairness of it all clouds my judgement and I feel the underbite of my jaw set further, pressing into the helmet’s padding. Hell with it, I think. At least this stretch has a guard rail, even if the drop is only a dozen meters or so. I boost.
The distance between rail and lane edge is two meters. The typical distance between lane edge and stopped vehicle is, to my estimating eye, a quarter meter. My minimum width—which means without mirrors—is 2.06 meters. Nineteen centimeters is my magic number. Any car encroaching further to their left will reduce the window. At boosted speeds that much space is the difference between a pebble and decapitation underneath a rig. It’s a fraction of a degree angle on the steering column. I hit the stop line in a state of absolute calm and perfect panic. I hear the sharp, short pok of my mirror snapping off against a lazy, left drifting passenger bus’s flat back end. Losing the mirrors was fully expected.
The jam is short, as far as jams go. A rushed commuter got aggressive with a lane transfer right at the gate and got cut off, probably buried their nose and did an end-over-end flip. I can’t see the wreck, but I can see the emergency response disco about thirty more car lengths ahead. I catch the jut of a tanker protruding disastrously close to the lane marker and I lean, physically lean my body as if it would help, to the left. The rough shoulder dips a bit and a high guardrail post poks off the driver’s side mirror, sounding much louder than the other, like a gunshot right next to my head. The sense that the tanker is too close to the far side comes from no direct sensory input I can determine, it is as much a feeling as anything else. There is nowhere else to go, no more millimeters to turn. I hear the squeal of friction on the tanker side first, the roof denting in as the taller, stationary tank squeezes against the top of the vehicle. The impact forces the my wheel beneath my hands to the left, and the howl of metal-on-metal from my door is nearly as frightening as the upside-down hailstorm of hot orange sparks outside my window.
Two possible outcomes tango together, discrete but pressed closely together, swirling and exchanging a probability that manifests as the dance lead. It’s not clear which will prevail. If the male leads, one of the myriad physics equations being teased out in slowed time results in a spin, a flip, a slide and I become an insect in a can tossed to the compactor. If the woman wrests control, I make it past this rig somehow, with negative space to spare, and there is nothing to stop me from triumph. Luck isn’t a factor as it does not exist. How then to influence the outcome? Without luck perhaps there is no destiny. Without destiny there is only reaction and even then, all reaction is based on incomplete data. Does blowing on dice ever matter? Can such a thing ever be measured? Probability does not exist in a vacuum, the landing of dice or coins or roulette balls is also beholden to gravity and the fluid dynamics of air molecules or magnetic interference. Can we ever hope to correct or account for so many variables?
Perhaps in this space God resides, lurking between what we mistake as fortune and the infinitely complex mathematics of a single moment, the space between thought and action.
I open the booster all the way. God be with me.
Time resumes its normal speed, I clear the front of the tanker and cling to the wheel, my muscles leaden from fatigue. My adrenal glands ache, a pump sucking mud at the bottom of a dry well. The sound of sideswipe damage clears at once like an ear popping after a slow shift of altitude, leaving in its wake the throbbing pulse of a sampled drum beat, sounding thin and quiet by contrast. The wreck of the other commuter blurs past and I have open lanes. I clear the gate with 84 seconds to spare, and drop the chute to make the turn into the parking stall. I feel there should be some kind of fanfare, but the display only bloops lightly and flashes my remaining time in azure, the tiny word “Success” appearing in a low corner. My second favorite part of the day.
I change in the employee washroom and there are a few vague remarks from colleagues throughout the day, a couple of whispers I catch behind my back in the lunch line, nothing overt, nothing direct. It’s not polite to talk about commuting. However, at the end of the day, my boss pokes his head into my cube. His stoic expression never betrays what he’s thinking because he is a company man through and through. But I wonder about that tightness at the corners of his eyes. Resentment? Disappointment? Amusement?
“You sure gave the tech boys a lot of work today, Ms. Booker.”
“Please, boss, I’ve told you before. You can call me Joni.”
“Were they upset?”
“Do you actually care, or are you just trying to extend the conversation?”
I give a demure little half-smile. “I guess I don’t really care.”
“Good. You shouldn’t.”
“Anyway, I just wanted to let you know… feel free to leave fifteen minutes early today,” he says, patting the top of my desk twice, tap tap.
“Really? Thank you, sir!”
“Anytime. You earned it.” He turns to go, nodding to himself as if to say, good talk. Then he pauses. “Oh, and Joni?”
“Hell of a show out there.”
A wide grin blazes out on my face, one I don’t even bother trying to wipe off as I hastily gather my things and bolt for the door.
I stand in Parking and my smile broadens as I see the magic the tech department has done on my baby. I smooth the pleats of my suit jacket and snap my skirt taut, striking a pose as the door glides open, inviting me to climb in. I accept. Now for my favorite part of the day: the drive home.
The second short story stemming from my dad’s writing prompts. This one was, “A middle-aged woman in a business suit gets into a car with a big grin on her face.”
It should be noted that I wrote most of this story while mis-remembering the prompt as “A middle-aged woman in a business suit gets OUT OF a car with a big grin…” which explains perhaps why the bulk of the story takes place with her already in the car. I had this whole thing worked out where the car would swap her out of her racing gear and into a business suit like Mr. Incredible’s car does at the beginning of The Incredibles. Fortunately I re-checked the prompt and figured out a way to fix it. Actually I think adding the last little coda does a lot to make it a cohesive story as opposed to just a context-deprived scene.
Apparently I responded to Nik’s critique that not enough happened in Pharma Chameleon by putting in ALL THE ACTION. Honestly it was fun because it was a real change of pace for me, which kind of suggests my writing is not exactly pulse-pounding. I probably need to work on that a bit more.
I do like this story, and in particular I like it compared to Pharma Chameleon, not just because this one is exciting where that one was dull. I like that it hints a lot at a world and setting but doesn’t belabor any of it. I do wish it gave a little better sense about Joni, but I also think that may just be part of the “leave them wanting more” which I was consciously trying to do. Hopefully that just means it’s successful in a way.
[…] The Commuter […]