Carpool – No. 65

Clutching the teddy bear against his car’s rumbling steering wheel, Adam let out a long breath.

“You up for this, little man?” He stared into the ebony marbles sunk in the snowy fur, half hoping for a reply. “Yeah, I don’t know either,” he said as the teddy bear remained mute.

His nerves climbed and Adam wiggled his fingers in the bear’s squishy sides, sending the ribbons drooping from the cherry-red bowtie fluttering like petals. A cramp twisted his gut and he thumped his head against the driver seat’s headrest.

“You should have bought tulips,” he mused to the ceiling, “she likes tulips.”

Catching his reflection in the rearview mirror, he locked onto his worried frown.

“It doesn’t matter.”

His reflection nodded with a tightened jaw and eyes flashing with courage.

“You’re not going to get a better chance,” he argued. “Ask her now, or when you get to work, Carl’s going to sweep her away.” He scowled at the thought. The confidence in his reflection waned and he tore his gaze from the infectious sight. “He’ll probably have an armload of tulips,” he said to the teddy bear.

Shaking his head, Adam sagged into his seat. Movement, from the apartment building up the frosted stoop, snatched him from another staring contest with glassy eyes. With his pulse racing, he slipped the bear in the gap between his left hip and the door.

Through the passenger window, he spotted earth-toned snow boots tromping down the steps, preceding the hem of corduroys and an evergreen overcoat. Gail had a travel mug cupped in one mitten, and her laptop bag slung across her chest, accentuating the form underneath winter gear. Bending at the waist, she squinted beneath a matching skull cap with auburn pigtails poking out from the knitted roll. Her breath misted the window before her chap-stick lips broke into a smile.

Adam grinned back and popped the lock.

She swung the door open, allowing in an icy gust to mix with the heated air he’d trapped within the car.

“Morning,” she said, plopping into the seat and setting her bag in the foot well. She knocked her heels against the doorframe, shedding snow, before swinging her legs inside and closing the door. A crimson blouse poked out beneath her half-zippered coat and scarf; a testament to the day’s occasion.

Adam abandoned the bear in its hiding spot and clasped the steering wheel with both hands. “Morning.”

He checked the side mirror and then rearview, avoiding meeting his cowardly gaze in both, and focused instead on the traffic lumbering along the modestly sanded road. Flicking on his blinker, he merged them into traffic with a minimal fishtail sway as Gail buckled her safety belt.

“Thanks for the lift,” she said.

“Oh sure, no problem.”

“I couldn’t imagine driving in this.”

Adam shrugged and forced his fingers to loosen their apprehensive grasp. “How’s your car?”

“Busted. The exhaust system is totally blown. But with this,” she gestured to the snow banks lining the street like a gauntlet, “I’m not sure when I’m going to get it back.”

“Well, if this works for you, we can make a habit of it. I drive through here anyway.”

“Really?” He felt her quizzical look as he glided up to a stoplight and kept his gaze on the road to avoid giving his lie away. “I would have though the highway would be faster for you.”

“Sometimes.” Adam raked a hand through his shower-damp hair. His left elbow squished the teddy bear as he grasped the bottom curve of the steering wheel. The light changed and he depressed the gas, pushing them tentatively through the intersection.

“So…you have plans for tonight?”

She seemed about to spit out her sip of coffee. “Me? No. I think Carl’s up to something but,” she shivered. “That’s so not happening, not even today. No sympathy dates for me.” Shaking her head, she rested her mug in her lap and blew out a long exhale. “What about you?” she asked, nibbling at her lower lip. “You must have something planned.”

“Maybe…” He flicked his gaze to the rearview mirror.

Do it, his reflection screamed.

Adam broke away with a weak cough and concentrated on the icy street as his courage wavered. The silence hung all the way through the next few blocks. Up ahead, the street lights burned green through resurging flurries, changed to honey yellow and then as red as the teddy bear’s tie and Gail’s half-hidden blouse. Adam depressed the breaks and they slowed again. He cast her a sidelong glance, catching her profile as she watched pedestrians lumbering down a snow smothered sidewalk. “Gail…”

She swiveled from the window, her lashes fluttering around wide, hazel eyes. “Yes?” she said, her voice tentative, like a flake worried about melting, and then her features tightened.

She’s holding her breath, Adam noted, and then realized he was doing the same. He reached for the squished bear at his side, but the whirr of spinning tires behind them snared his attention. He spotted an SUV, complete with panicked driver, through the rearview mirror a moment before impact.

“Oh, no.”

The initial blow sent them spinning forward on the slick asphalt and into the intersection. Horns bellowed before the second and third car smashed into them, smacking both sides in turn before the SUV bashed into the back bumper again.

Whiplash and then the strain of his seatbelt snapped Adam forward, back and to either side. He clenched his eyes shut but stars bloomed in the darkness behind his lids. The steering wheel’s inflating airbag hit his face like a pillow in an unexpected fight. Screeching metal and cracking glass drowned his hearing while his heart thumped a rapid base.

Then, silence clutched the car and his world hovered in a stretched second. As if in slow motion, Adam collapsed into his seat and watched, for a moment mute and deaf, as the airbag deflated like a punctured balloon. Only the faint crunch of flakes falling onto his spider-webbed windshield worked through his dazed senses. The thought of Gail followed, stirring him back into motion. He lolled his head to the side.

She hunched in the passenger seat, hands grasping her seatbelt, her eyes shut. Coffee had spilt all over her coat and the travel mug had tumbled to the foot well where the muddy-colored liquid seeped into the mat and pooled at the base of her bag.

“Are you okay?” asked Adam. He frowned as his voice emerged from the other end of a tunnel.

Gail opened her eyes delicately and swiveled her gaze to him with care. “I think so.” She licked her lips, her eyes unfocused as the tension in her shoulders ebbed. “My head hurts,” she said, touching her fingertips to a bruising swell blooming at her right temple. She recoiled as if bit. “You?”

“I’m all right.” Adam gave her a wobbly grin and then spotted the hatchback through the passenger windows. The little car had imbedded into the backdoor; the driver in a similar shaken state behind a dwindling airbag. Sweeping his gaze through the cracked windshield, Adam noted a station wagon crumpled into the hood of his car, and then in the rearview, spotted the instigating SUV over the waves of metal that had once been his trunk. “Whoa.”

He glanced back as Gail fumbled at latch, but warped frame kept the door from opening.

“We better wait for the police or an ambulance or something,” said Adam.

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” she said and listed back into the chair.

Adam reached for the keys dangling in the ignition, but let out a gasp and froze. Pain washed through his right shoulder and flooded his chest.

“You’re hurt,” said Gail. She extended her hand toward his right arm but stopped short of touching him, as if fearful of doing more damage.

Adam caught his breath as dizziness threatened to take him into unconsciousness. He fought back with a rise of testosterone at the thought of being the one fainting. “It’s just my arm,” he said, struggling to sound nonchalant.

Bracing his good hand against his seat, he tested his remaining limbs and found himself otherwise intact, minus a swiftly mounting headache.

Soft fur brushed his fingers, distracting him from the aches, and he glanced down at the teddy bear. The pudgy face appeared unflustered by the accident. Glass eyes stared expectantly at him; the stubby arms open as if waiting for a hug. He plucked the bear out of the crevice and decided trauma had put the tremble in his arm.

“Look what I found,” he said, offering the stuffed animal over the parking break.

Gail stared for a moment, and then cradled the teddy bear in both hands. She straightened the bow tie while the hint of a grin worked onto her lips. “Who’s this?”

“He’s looking for a date for tonight,” said Adam. “What do you say?”

“Oh really?” She shook her head and then stopped with a grimace. Wilting into her chair, her lips spread into a broader smile. “I feel like you’re taking advantage of the situation. I’m not sure I’m thinking clearly enough to answer a question like that.”

“This is all my master plan,” he said, sweeping his good hand at the surrounding carnage. “Knock her senseless, check.”

Gail chuckled and looked down at the bear, her cheeks flushing.

Adam licked his lips as endorphins kicked in, dulling the demanding injury in his shoulder. His heart sprinted once more and he waited, hoping to avoid another crushing blow. “So?”

Gail tilted the bear so the beady face and opened arms stared back at him. Her gaze though, landed in his. “How can I say no to such a face?”

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