At four in the morning, a shrill buzz jolted Coria Brien from her deep sleep. Raising her head and squinting into the blackness, she groped for the offending alarm clock, slamming it off. She rolled her head, cradled in a tangle of long ginger curls, back into her pillow.
She rubbed her button nose, arms stretching over a bare blond headboard. The flight to Glasgow would be long with a two-hour layover in New York’s Kennedy International. Her first semester at Detroit’s Wayne State University had been more challenging than she anticipated, it wasn’t her first choice, but a decision she didn’t regret. It was also an opportunity to reconcile with her dad, something opposed by her mother, but what her heart wanted. Now it was back to mum for the Christmas holiday, and perhaps a chance to soften what kept her parents apart. She pulled the covers snug to her chin and rolled over on her side, thinking about her mum’s Christmas cake, holly and red ribbon everywhere. She closed her eyes, remembering their dining table with so much decoration on it they had little room for plates. Those thoughts and more lingered until she remembered. She had a plane to catch.
She threw off her covers. It was five, her plane departed at eight. Shower, or straight to it? She grabbed the outfit planned for the day, assessed her hair in the mirror. She contemplated a shower, but the process of washing, drying, and brushing her hip-length tresses would take too long. She gave her hair a hard brush, corralling it into a ponytail. She considered makeup. Her mouth drawn tight was small, barely stretching the width of her button nose, her cheeks freckled, she decided that with a daunting flight, anything she applied would only smear or run into her eyes. She was dressed in a simple white collared blouse and a tan corduroy skirt, adding a thin wool sweater in case of a chill. A quick mirror check, she was an hour behind, but if she didn’t wait for a car service, but used the Audi A4 her father had lent her, she could make it.
Coria put her carry-on in the backseat and draped her coat over it. Her dad’s four-year-old dark blue Audi was showing its age. It was five-thirty when she pulled out of student parking onto Warren Avenue and then I94. In regular traffic, it could take thirty to sixty minutes to reach the Detroit Metropolitan Airport, but at this time in the morning, Coria judged it would take twenty. That was okay, had her ticket, just the security check to worry about and, the way Metro was spread out, the long run to her gate. Coria double-checked her return flight, assuring herself she would arrive in plenty of time for her association board meeting. She had joined the local chapter of the Association of Women's Rights in Development as soon as she registered for classes. In Glasgow, she was elected president of her AWRD chapter and found herself propelled to activity chair at Wayne. She was an outspoken critic with an extreme dislike for local politicians trampling on women’s rights.
Five forty-five, humming along doing sixty on the interstate, and the drizzle turned into a dense fog fed by the waters of Lake Ontario. She slowed to thirty as the taillights ahead blurred to a pink glow. Anxious about traveling any faster, she became irritated with herself for not checking the weather, or fifty other things, she imagined she should have done. Tightly gripping the wheel, she forced herself to press down on the accelerator.
Traffic was light, and as she accelerated, she became aware of a black truck in the left lane hovering just within the visual range of her mirror. A red semi-tractor trailer loomed through the fog, she tapped the breaks and instinctively turned the wheel to maneuver into the left lane. Her blind spot alert sounded, and she quickly adjusted. The black vehicle slowly stepped past her. It was a flat-bed tow truck. She waited for it to pass, and then she pulled behind it and around the semi.
Six-ten, the lane in front of her cleared. Where the tow truck had gone, she wasn’t aware. Not that it mattered. Coria realized she had passed Willow Run Airport, and she was more than halfway to Metro. She was also at a curious juncture in topography, where the Ann Arbor hills gave way to the flat plain leading to Detroit, and where the population thinned to a rural area. She would be in long-term parking in fifteen minutes. A little tight, but first flight out, I should be okay.
Then it happened. Headlights out, a wall of pitch in front of her; Coria scanned her dash for a clue. The instruments black. Instinctively she attempted pulling off to the breakdown lane. The steering wheel wouldn’t budge. With both hands gripping the left side, she tugged it to the left. The car slowing drifted to the shoulder. It headed for the guardrail. She struggled with the wheel to the right and pressed on the brake. She didn’t slow. She didn’t turn enough. The shrill scream of metal grinding metal, she strained, pushing both feet on the brake pedal. After an eternity of seconds, her vehicle came to a stop.
Six-fifteen, there were no lights on this desolate stretch. Now, what am I going to do? Punching the emergency flasher button, and that worked, she swept her hair back from her face. She took stock; it was ten miles at least to metro, the next exit was half that distance. Walking for help would eat up all her time. No westbound traffic, and nothing was coming on her side either. Grabbing her trench coat from the back seat and LED torch from the car’s glove box, Coria attempted to get out her driver’s side door, but with the vehicle wedged against the guardrail that proved impossible. She climbed over the center console and exited into the mist. The chill cut through her clothes, and she slipped into her trench coat and turned on her flashlight. The fog consumed the light from her flashers and torch and only illuminated three feet in front of her. Then it was a curtain of white.
Six-thirty, she walked around the front of her car. The rubberized bumper dangled above the concrete, and the entire driver side of her dad’s Audi gouged and pierced to bare metal, said totaled. The thought of trying to restart the suddenly dead engine, but standing in front of her vehicle, she noticed the left front tire facing inward and the right straight. That dispelled any thought of driving her way out of this.
Coria screamed and spun around. The source of the question was a doughboy looking man standing next to her, his face framed in a thin shaggy beard, hanging like Spanish moss from his face. He wore dark green coveralls with ‘Sar’s Towing’ on a breast-side patch and black stained cap tilted back on his head.
Coria put a hand to the base of her throat. “Oh, I’m sorry. You startled me. I didn’t notice anyone pull up.”
“Fog,” he said with only his lips moving, his eyes staring ahead and beyond Coria.
“Yes, it is terrible weather. I’m lucky you came along. Will you be able to give me a tow? I don’t know what I’ll do with the …”
He wasn’t there anymore. His appearing disappearing act made her uneasy. Coria heard the snort of an engine and then blinding light. A large black flatbed tow truck crept passed her and pulled in front of the Audi and faded into the pall. More snorting and the red glow of taillights colored the swirling mist. Bright lights broke through the shroud illuminating the shoulder ahead, and spots of orange on top and sides of the truck defined its shape. Coria heard the clattering of chains. The doughboy stepped out of the white and approached her, carrying two lengths of chain with soup bowl size hooks in his hands. He stopped in front of her, the hooks on either side of her.
He drew in a deep breath. “Got t’put them on.”
Coria’s heart was beating impressions on her chest, or so it felt. “Oh, the car. Yes.” She stepped to the left. The doughboy pried two square patches of plastic off the bumper and attached the chains to her vehicle.”
He turned toward his truck, and as he passed her, she said, “I need to get to—”
Six-forty-five, the shrill whine of a large electric winch alerted Coria to step aside as the motor drew her vehicle towards the flatbed, it's rear tilted to the ground. How much is this going to cost? “Wait.”
The whining stopped. “Ma’am?”
“I need to get my luggage from the back seat.”
She popped open the rear passenger door and lunged across the seat to her roll-on bag. “Got it.”
Seated inside the truck with her luggage between her legs, she rubbed her forehead and rechecked the time. She tried to calculate the time needed to check-in at the kiosk, security, the gate. But her mind wouldn’t focus, and what difference would it make. The driver was on the back deck of the truck. She rolled down her side window, but she felt the weight shift on the vehicle as he got down from the back. She rolled her window up and watched him heft himself behind the wheel.
Seven, if he dropped her off, could she make it? She smiled as he stretched the shoulder harness around him. Doughboy put the truck in gear as Coria slumped, releasing some tension. He placed an air mask over his nose and mouth. Coria looked puzzled, and he lifted the mask from his face. “Oxygen, asthma.”
He turned a knob on a tank sitting between them, put on his emergency flashers, and slowly accelerated onto the highway. Coria took a deep breath and then let out a sigh of relief. The truck rumbled to highway speed. Her shoulders, her eyelids drooped heavy. Exhausted already, and my trip hasn’t even started.
But it had.
She saw a sign ‘Airport 8 Miles’ and the truck pulling into a cross-over in the I94 median. That didn’t make sense, and it was the last she remembered.