What our children have to fear is not the cars on the highways of tomorrow but our own pleasure in calculating the most elegant parameters of their deaths.
—-J. G. Ballard
I have been feeling in a deep hopeless rut lately, and I’m sure a lot of you have too. After writing another Sunday Snippet I decided to set an ambitious goal for myself. I’ll write a short piece of fiction every day and put it up here. Obviously, quality will vary – you get what you get. Length too – I’ll have to write something short on busy days. They will be raw first drafts and full of errors.
I’m not sure how long I can keep it up… I do write quickly, but coming up with an idea every day will be a difficult challenge. So far so good. Maybe a hundred in a row might be a good, achievable, and tough goal.
Here’s another one for today (#37). What do you think? Any comments, criticism, insults, ideas, prompts, abuse … anything is welcome. Feel free to comment or contact me.
Thanks for reading.
Kitten on the Highway
Kyle Tellman had two routes that he would drive to work. As he took his shower every morning Kyle would listen to the radio that sat on a shelf over the toilet. The traffic reports would run every ten minutes and would help him decide which way to take. One route was over ordinary streets, residential or arterial, stoplights, stop-and-go. The alternate route was over Interstate 635, which, like all freeways in Texas, was dedicated to and named after a famous local politician. This particular highway honored President Lyndon Baines Johnson and was usually referred to as LBJ freeway or simply LBJ.
LBJ was an endless circle that looped around the city of Dallas with a radius of about twelve miles, centered on the giant crystal towers of downtown. Along the stretch that Kyle inhabited it was eight lanes each way – sixteen in total – a wide, nasty, hot curve of killer concrete.
He made the wrong decision that morning. There was no mention of accidents on the radio so Kyle chose the freeway but traffic was jammed up, inching along, bumper to bumper. Once he was on, he was committed, so there was nothing to do except turn up the radio and resign himself to being late.
Off to the right, as he crept past, he could see an amateur monument, a white wooden cross planted along the ditch. He could see the bundles of flowers bleached by the sun and a few glass candles with pictures of the Saints silkscreened across the front. A loved one had died here, flipped over at speed or ground beneath the tires of an eighteen-wheeled truck..
To the left, Kyle could see the cause of the slowdown. Two motorcycle cops had a speed trap set up in the lanes going the other way. They were crouched down behind their big ‘cycles resting their radar guns on the seats to steady their aim at the onrushing vehicles whipping around the curve into their sights. White helmets and black leather.
That two cops on the eastbound side would stop traffic on the westbound lanes was insane, but they did. Once the onlookers… the rubberneckers, began getting their amusement from the misfortune of folks that were exactly like them, only going the other way, the whole system jammed up and nobody got anywhere. The wages of Schadenfreude.
There were more than fifty thousand vehicles on LBJ freeway during morning rush hour. Kyle’s eyes were constantly moving between the car right in front of him – watching especially for red brake lights, occasionally checking the two cars locked in on each side, and flicking every second or so up to the mirror to look at the truck behind.
The traffic, all the commuters were not moving very fast, but were still way too close together. Fifty thousand souls locked together in an anaconda of steel, biting its own tail, wriggling slowly in the red light of the rising sun, moving fitfully around the circle of unforgiving concrete.
At that one critical instant, Kyle was not actually looking at the little patch of moving concrete freeway between his hood and the rear bumper of the car leading him, but out of the corner of his eye he caught something… a mottled white blotch that, moving back from under the car in front, visible for a second, and then passing quickly between his own wheels. He reflexively looked up into the mirror to get a split-second glance as it came out behind him before it disappeared under the trailing truck that followed him.
It was a kitten, and it was alive.
Or was it? Everything had happened so fast, his brain had not had time to reliably process what his eyes had reported. It was only a vague shape from the corner of his eye. He was trying to figure out what he had seen based on a memory – a half-blurred and rapidly fading memory. Was it a kitten? Or was it a piece of windblown trash?
And if it was a kitten, what could he do? He was still stuck in traffic and it was a half-mile before the next exit. He was already running late for work and his boss had not been happy lately. Kyle could not afford to be waltzing in after everyone else – especially with the vague and insane excuse of seeing a live kitten on the freeway. Even if he went back, what good would it do? The best thing by far was to forget what he had seen and troop on, get to work as fast as he could.
But Kyle could not forget. The image of the kitten… of something… out there on the highway… he could not get it out of his mind. It burned. As the green exit arrow appeared to his right he realized he had no choice. It didn’t matter how much trouble he would get in at work. He exited the freeway.
There was a U turn lane at the cross street so he didn’t have to wait for a green light. He whipped around to the opposite side and took the ramp up into the speeding stream of vehicles. Traffic this way was lighter so he was able to open it up. He remembered the motorcycle cops and the speed trap so he was careful no to exceed the limits.
As Kyle approached the spot he thought he saw the kitten he moved to the left and desperately tried to look over into the other lanes, but there was a high concrete crash barrier so he couldn’t make out anything at street level. His heart sank, though; there were a lot of cars over there.
Finally he drove past where the cops were and saw they had given up and gone somewhere else. He exited again and this time, had to wait through two lights, making two left turns, to get on the frontage road and then the entrance ramp.
Rush hour was ending and the cars were now moving at speed. Kyle was looking for the kitten and hit his breaks, driving as slowly as he could. He looked closely at the pavement as he moved past the stretch where his memory told him the kitten had been. Kyle’s stomach turned with the fear of what he might see. He couldn’t imagine the kitten surviving and was petrified to come across a smashed spot. And what if the kitten was alive? He had slowed and all the other commuters were whipping around him at speed. He didn’t think he could stop and get out, chase a frightened kitten across the lanes without getting killed.
As these thoughts roiled his brain, he was past. It had gone all too fast. He had seen nothing.
So now what? He had checked. He could go on to work.
But as he passed that ramp he realized he had to look once more. What if the kitten had moved to another lane? He went around again, as fast as he could, and then drove slowly through the zone, as he was beginning to think about it. This time he used the lane closer to the median. Nothing.
Around again. This time the outside lane, nothing.
One time, really testing things, risking it, going very slow, he started opening his door at the critical spot and looked directly down onto the moving concrete. Kyle was surprised at how much stuff was scattered across the freeway: smashed cups, cigarette butts, chunks of dislodged concrete, torn hunks of paper, bits of shredded tire, little arc-shaped lead weights, a license plate, churned hunks of flattened steel from old accidents… but no kitten. His sight became eagle eyed as he scanned the surface on each trip, over and over.
Finally, he mustered all his willpower and grappling with the wheel with white knuckled fists he bypassed the exit ramp and went on. It was too late, though. He had spent too much time and had looked too hard.
He could not go on to work. As he passed the familiar exit that he took every day, year after year, he kept on going, straight under the rising sun.
“The freeway is a loop – there are gas stations – I have a credit card,” Kyle thought to himself. He wasn’t sure how long he could keep driving or how long he would keep driving. The only thing he knew was that he wouldn’t be stopping soon.