Allison let go of the steering wheel, switched the cell phone to her right hand, and turned on the wipers with her left. Her knee kept the wheel in place, so her little Ford Focus didn’t drift too far over. Her friend Megan continued to chatter about how unfair her new boss was.
The April rain grew heavier as she swept around a curve, hugging the concrete barrier wall that divided Lamb Canyon Road. On either side loomed walls of tortured geology; huge boulders jutted out at random angles. Allison regularly ignored the natural beauty on her commute to classes at Mt. San Jacinto Junior College. The canyon was a nuisance to her; it broke up her phone signal and caused her to slow down almost to the speed limit.
She was between Interstate 10 and Hemet Valley, where Lamb Canyon Road emerges from the San Andreas Fault and straightens out. The worst section is just north of the valley, when a series of sharp turns combines with a six percent downhill grade.
It makes for an exciting and challenging drive, even if a motorist has both hands on the wheel and the phone turned off.
A song Ally was sick of two weeks ago came on. She had to look down at her radio to change the station.
Cruz Ibanez wasn’t one to curse at things he couldn’t control, but his partner Randy Beers was. The rain wasn’t going to let up, like the Boss had hoped, and CalTrans stuck to their rules religiously, so there wouldn’t be any paving today.
“This sucks, bro.”
Not looking up from the road as he bent down, Cruz grabbed another orange cone, and handed it up to Randy. “Could be worse. We get paid for half a day.”
“Half a day ain’t gonna cut it for very long,” said Randy, who, Cruz noted, couched most thoughts in threats and ultimatums. “I got child support.”
Cruz was still happily married; in fact, getting home early might mean Rosa wouldn’t have to take the kids to daycare on her way in to work at the mall in Moreno Valley.
“Can’t ever catch a break,” Randy whined. “My beer fund’s down to nothin’. Someone at the Hall has it in for me, man. I was on the bench way too long.”
Wouldn’t be because you complain about everything, pendejo.
They picked up another three cones in blessed silence before Randy said: “How much longer you think this is going to take?”
Cruz passed another cone up, his hardhat-shielded eyes squinting against the rain. “Another ten minutes for the cones. Twenty to hook up and tow the arrow boards back to the yard. Clock out by ten, maybe.”
Oscar “Oso” Cardenes, who had the seniority necessary for the plum assignment of driving the cone truck, kept it crawling along at a steady speed. His eyes darted up to the rearview and he said something, but his window was up and the two laborers in the back didn’t hear.
“That guy runnin’ this job acts like he’s so much smarter than us,” Randy said, “KNX said it was eighty percent chance of-- Watch it!”
Cruz had only gotten his head halfway around when the gray streak of a car blew by him, missing the truck by inches. She had to be doing sixty, easy. But the worst part was she’d decided to pass them on the wrong side, in the lane they’d intended to pave. When she got around the curve and saw the paver, she’d yank the wheel over and run over a half dozen cones, probably kicking them all over the road, and they’d have to scramble to get them out of the way.
Why people had to be in such a hurry was beyond him. On a rainy day like this, everybody should take it easy.
“Yeah, I thought I did, too. But my prof is such a--”
Ally saw the truck, in the left hand lane, picking up orange cones that had been set on the dashed line, going way too slow.
“Ally? Did I lose you?”
There was a little Mexican guy on a platform on the back of the truck, reaching down and grabbing the cones, handing them to a scuzzy white guy that stood on the flatbed.
She was mostly in the left lane (okay, so her left tires were over the solid white line that delineated the breakdown lane) and they were on a left-hand curve. Ally had to choose between hugging the concrete barrier on the inside shoulder, or jerking the wheel all the way right and possibly losing control as she did so. It was a no-brainer; the little Focus tucked neatly between the truck and the barrier rail.
“There.” She brought the Focus back into the driving lane, little cones flashing by her on the right side as she continued around the curve.
“Sorry, Meg, just some idiot road crew blocking everything off. So anyways--” a small beep in her ear changed her sentence into a growl of frustration. “Hang on. Someone else is trying to call.”
She lowered the phone, hoping it was finally Mark from Sociology class--he had her number since Friday–-and squinted to make out the number in the rainy gloom.
It was her father’s number.
Not now, thought Ally as she put the phone back to her ear and looked back through the windshield.
A grease-stained metal maw filled her view, ready to swallow her up. In the half second before impact, so many things went through her mind: what is this, who put it there, no time to go right, can’t go left with the wall there, I’m screwed--
All that came out of her mouth was: “Oh.”