Paranoia – a short story

They were driving to a concert in central Austin and took Ben White over to to avoid the Mopac route which promised to be congested by an event on Sixth Street. It was good to think that their city was so vibrant with multiple events occurring simultaneously; even though this fact made route planning a challenge. As they approached the Ben White – I 35 interchange Susan breathed deeply and tried to relax. The flyover always worried her, but this time she tried to focus on the sunlight and the brilliance of the sky. Her tactic seemed to be working as they drove up the ramp, but then she sensed movement reminding her that they were going too fast. She clenched her fists and closed her eyes willing the experience to cease as quickly as possible. That was when her husband exclaimed,

“Susan, the view, look at the magnificent view of Down-town Austin; and over there you can see St Ed’s, it looks like a cathedral!” Susan’s husband’s comment about the resemblance to a cathedral was made based on his knowledge that Susan loved cathedrals and knew that she would look. She opened her eyes and attempted to look at, and savor, the view. Her gaze couldn’t take in the distance, for it emphasized their elevation, instead all she could take in was the foreground with tell-tale black skid marks on the crash barriers on the sides of the fly-over.

“Too fast! You are driving too fast.” Her voice was loud, filled with panic. She didn’t tell him about the skid marks although she speculated how they had been made and whether anyone, driving too fast, as they were, could have lost control and driven over. She wondered what conditions made this happen. Was it safe when conditions were dry like today and only hazardous when it was wet or icy? She even hazarded a guess that they could have been made by some irresponsible dare-devil teenager driving the crash barrier for fun. Some fun, she thought, but then, skate boarders perform equally amazing feats just for fun.

Her husband didn’t seem to have slowed down, so Susan spoke again, “Please slow down, you ARE driving too fast.”

“People are behind me. We are going the speed limit, Can’t slow down.” He reached over and patted her knee in reassurance.

“NO!” she exclaimed, “Please keep your hands on the steering wheel.”

She shut her eyes again. When she did so she saw a May 11 1976 image of the Houston Southwest Freeway –Loop 610 intersection over which a vehicle hauling 7,500 gallons of anhydrous ammonia had lost control, careened off the exit ramp and plunged fifteen feet down onto the Southwest Freeway, spilling its contents and creating a toxic cloud of gas. Seven died as a direct result of the crash; most, it is true, died from the toxic fumes.

Susan wondered, as she did every time she was on a flyover, what it would be like if the car flew over the flimsy-looking crash barrier. She knew that it is said that, in those few seconds, a person’s whole life flashes before their eyes. Of course, she told herself, this is merely speculation and cannot be verified as the dead don’t come back to life. Might it not be equally feasible that persons pray or think of the havoc that they leave behind? The thought that those few seconds could be calm, filled only with one’s last living thoughts intrigued her. As always her questioning tempted her to wonder if it would be so bad for it to happen for then she would know. Perhaps, she thought, this is why I am even able to tolerate driving, or being driven, over a flyover.

They were now merging into the heavy I-35 traffic. Susan relaxed and waited for their route to take them over Town Lake after which they would get a stellar view of the State Capital building with its distinctive pink granite dome. The view corridors may be a hassle for developers and their designers but for the public they offer intriguing vistas of the building which gives Austin its first raison d’être. The telephone rang and Susan gulped in fear as her husband squirmed to take his mobile phone out of his pocket. At least it hadn’t rung while they were on the Ben White, I-35, interchange! At last he had it in his hands and appeared to be about to answer it as the car began to swerve.

“Give it to me.” She commanded. “It is too dangerous for you to attempt to drive and talk on the phone.” He obliged and she listened to a computer confirming her husband’s upcoming dental appointment. “Just the dentist reminding you of your appointment on Monday,” she told her him.

When they arrived at their destination they parked on the third floor of the parking structure. A wasp flew out from among the concrete beams and buzzed them. Susan was unperturbed but her husband blanched and dodged the insect. Several more flew toward him; he flailed his arms and ran. People getting out of an adjacent car looked quizzically at Susan. She explained, “He is allergic to their stings. Every time that he gets stung his reaction seems to be worse. He is trying to avoid getting a seriously swollen arm.”

The concert was soothing, beautiful; Mozart’s Requiem Mass. Funereal, maybe, but Susan loved Mozart’s music and always enjoyed his melody. This time she was so engrossed in the moment that her thoughts didn’t wander as they often did during concerts. This one was integrated into a ‘real” mass and an invitation to remember the dead. It was moving and a true Requiem mass.

Even though it was getting dark after the concert they planned to drive north to make a quick visit to their daughter to return some music books. Those grand-daughters always seemed to manage to forget something when they came for their piano lessons. Afterwards they would take Mopac south completing a round trip of the City. Susan liked the elegance of their travel plans and was pleased to think that at least their homeward bound trip only included one high narrow, one-car flyover of the type which scared her.

As they approached it, the flyover between I-35 and 290 Susan concentrated on her breathing, and willed her husband to drive slowly. Surely that won’t be too challenging, she thought, as traffic is light and he knows that I prefer to take flyovers leisurely. Indeed as they went up he seemed to be taking the ramp gently. Everything was fine. Susan even opened her eyes; that’s when she saw the danger. It wasn’t outside the car but a wasp inside. She gently raised her arm to shield her husband. Her movement drew his attention. When he saw the wasp he forgot everything except his fear of being stung. He swung his arms in the air and must have pressed his foot on the accelerator as the car sped into the crash barrier. The impact, causing them to become almost vertical, got his attention and he attempted to brake. Susan didn’t scream she was uncannily calm as she thought to herself that they were now making skid marks on the crash barrier. Her husband might have been able to gain control again had not the wasp taken this moment to sting him.

The car shot over the crash barrier. Even now Susan didn’t scream all she could think about was how happy she was to be dying knowing what one’s last thoughts are as one flies through space toward inevitable annihilation.

© November 2014, Jane Stansfeld.

4 thoughts on “Paranoia – a short story

  1. Your descriptions bought back memories of an incident in my teens. I was passenger in a car that hit a bridge post at 70 mph, rocketed over a stream and rolled several times on the other side. I can remember it happening fast but it played in my mind in slow motion and I was calm, so your description took me back to that event. It’s hard to be on a freeway and slow down as you seriously disrupt the traffic flow. On the European autobahns they sit right on your rear flashing their lights if you are doing less than 180 kmph and pass you at 200.

    • Your car roll accident must have been awful. I understand the calm as I recall an accident which I once experienced which ended up in a tree. After all the noise and movement the engine stopped and everything was uncannily quiet except for the car radio which, for some reason. continued playing music. As I recall, some soothing classical piece. To this day my most poignant memory of the whole episode is the ensuing silence broken only by the radio.

  2. Well, Jane, I think you are the queen of prefiguration, or literary foreshadowing, as it is called. As usual I was pulled in to the very end….a logical but macabre end…but not macabre, really, just logical and uncanny at the same time, if that’s possible. I’ve been musing on your title. Whose paranoia is it? At first I assumed it was about Susan’s fears. But she dealt with them. The husband’s fear, on the other hand, seemed incapacitating in its irrationality.
    When I first read the story, I was confused by the word flyover. Around here, that’s a formation of jets in the sky for some special occasion. I had to look it up. It’s what we call an overpass. Maybe yours is a flyover because of the speed?
    The final scene left me in wonderment. A very enjoyable story.

    • As usual I thank you for your read and well thought out comments. – always a joy to read. I also thank you for the comment about the flyover. I believe that this must be a residue from my origins in the UK. I think that I should change it to ‘overpass’ for my American friends, Indeed, by now, they may also be called overpasses in the UK. You ask about the title; I selected this title because I wanted to combine the two fears which played off each other bringing a form of irony to the story.

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