I'm on automatic pilot in the mornings.
If anyone is planning my death, or to 'take me down' (or whatever the current vernacular is today), I'd suggest they make their attempt in the morning as I'm stumbling through my tasks before I leave for work, or maybe while I'm driving for work, since I'm usually on automatic pilot by then, listening to NPR or putting my thoughts in order for the day.
That's going to be my excuse for why I didn't remember about the detour; it was difficult enough for me to remember a meeting at another location first thing on Monday morning (and I was the one who had suggested it, so it was only my fault.) And since spring had barely begun to arrive, it was still dark in the mornings, and my car automatically swung towards my usual route, down the main road and not towards the go-around like it should have been.
I really didn't realize anything was wrong until I saw the first flashing sign, and then my caffeine-addled brain caught up with current events and I remembered vaguely hearing something about a bridge out and a detour that took twenty minutes to get around. Which would, of course make me late for the meeting.
I pulled over right in front of the detour sign, but my cell phone didn't have any service and I had--in a fit of what now seemed like stupidity--refused to let Russ place a spell on my cell phone so that wouldn't happen. I can't remember what my argument had been, but it had sounded plausible at the time.
There was a little side road right before the detour, but I had no idea where it led, and even less of an idea where I'd end up if I took it instead of the 'official' detour. But still, if I could find a quick way around, it would save me some time and embarrassment, so I turned my car down the side road and left the flashing signs behind.
Right then, of course, it started to rain.
We'd just had a month of snow and rain and ice and rain again, so the ditches on either side of this road were swollen and full, and in some places, had erupted from their banks to spread across the road and mingle in the middle. I know just as well as anyone that you're not supposed to drive through rushing water, but what else could I have done?
And as I inched along the road, hoping for another side road with less flooding, I realized that I hadn't seen a single light from any house on either side of the road since I'd first turned down this 'shortcut'. Trees pressed close against the pavement where the ditches had filled with silt and mud over the years, and the shine of my headlights were the only lights to pierce the cloying darkness.
And had it gotten darker? I glanced at the clock on the dashboard--it was eight in the morning, and it looked like midnight outside.
I kept going, inching slowly down a hill, through six inches of rushing water, realizing, somewhere in the back of my mind that I shouldn't have come here; I should have turned around and gotten to the meeting late, rather than never arrive at all.
But it was too to turn back now. I drove down the middle of the road with my brights on and my windshield wipers running on full blast, until I reached what was, for me, the end of the road.
At one point, the bridge had been accessible, but as it is with many small rural routes, upkeep had not been on the township trustees priority list. The bridge had washed out a long time ago; the road ended in a jagged chunk of asphalt that was, even now, flaking away into the raging water. The rusting hulk of a car stuck up out of the middle, as if someone, long ago, had tried to pass and had never reached their destination.
On the other side, the road meandered upward and vanished into the trees. On my side, the only sign of habitation was a white wooden cross--like the ones that appear at the scene of fatal accidents--fairly glowing in the darkness.
My cell phone beeped. Without taking my eyes off the raging river, I picked it up, dialed Russ' number by heart, and listened to it ring. That's when I saw the man standing beside the cross, one hand resting on the top of it as if he had all the time in the world. Staring, of course. Right at me.
I disconnected the call as he stepped onto the road and made his way across. He wasn't exactly dressed for the weather; he wore a light corduroy jacket, now soaking wet, and a leather hat. Jeans, boots that weren't quite hiking boots; he touched my car's hood as if to assure himself it was really there, then moved to my window.
At least the rain had lessened a bit, I thought, as I rolled it down enough to talk.
"The road's out," he said before I could speak. Even up close I couldn't get a good look at his face; his hat cast it in shadow.
"I see that," I said. "Do you know if there's a driveway or anything where I could turn around?"
The man pointed towards the cross, and I saw a gravel drive leading deeper into the forest; presumably towards his house. "If you turn around there, you should be able to get back to the main road."
"Thank you," I said, and when he didn't move, I said, "I appreciate your kindness."
The man blinked at me. "Kindness?"
"You didn't have to come all the way out here in the rain to tell me the road was out," I said. As the rain lessened, the sky grew lighter, more akin to morning now and not night. Thunder rumbled in the distance, a low grumbling as if the storm itself protested moving away.
"It wasn't that far," he said, and glanced up at the sky.
And for the first time, I saw the man's face clearly.
I didn't recognize him, but he seemed familiar nonetheless. Greying ginger hair peeked out from under his hat; his eyes were pale, either hazel or green, I couldn't tell. But he seemed the type to burn in the sunlight; more suited behind a desk than outdoors.
I stuck out my own hand. "Karen Montgomery."
He stared at it for a moment, then touched my hand with his. "Sam. Sam Rose." His hands were workman's hands, seamed and calloused.
"I appreciate your kindness, Mr. Rose," I said, and this time, he stepped away from my car and retreated back to the cross to watch me attempt to back up and turn around, now that--was that the sun?--the storm seemed to be over.
When I glanced back at the cross, Sam Rose was gone and the painted wood that had seemed so flawless in the darkness was now weathered and worn and listing to one side. Even the raging water seemed calmer; but the car had not changed. It was still a rusting wreck, forever drowning in the creekbed, forgotten like the road.
With weak sunlight sparkling off my windshield and the water draining quickly from the road ahead, I made my way back to the detour, and then back to the main highway. I was only thirty minutes late for my meeting, and by lunchtime, the terror of the morning had faded enough so I could joke about it to Russ when we met for lunch.