I pulled onto the gravel lot near the interstate, a make-shift commuter lot out in the boonies. Bruce, Max, and Maura were waiting, the exhaust from their cheap imports mingling with the winter fog—both notable against the blackness of pre-dawn sky.
As was our habit, I popped the trunk, and they dropped their belongings before ducking into my Audi.
"Happy birthday, old girl!" said Bruce from the back. "Got something real special. Might grow a little hair on your chest, though." Bruce was a custodian with a loutish laugh and a fondness for moonshine.
"I baked your favorite—red velvet," said Max, a short order cook, first floor cafeteria. "It's in the trunk—but safe. Checked the seal twice." Good, I didn't need another accident.
"Yes, happy birthday," said Maura. She was a network admin whose creativity didn't serve her in the workplace. At her last performance review she'd been reprimanded for not following prescribed methods of trouble-shooting. She sat in the front, fidgeting with her seatbelt. "I made you something," she said.
"Thank you." My response lacked enthusiasm, though nothing I ever said or didn't say dissuaded them from this awkward annual event. I thought it better to be quiet, let them nod off. I was younger than they were and already the head of human resources—this carpool was my way of giving back. And I didn't mind the drive. The stretch of countryside would continue till we were just outside the city. I enjoyed watching the sky turn from black to midnight blue to gray before settling in for whatever color the day would bring.
The sky was midnight blue when I spotted a flashing message board at mile marker twenty-five. It warned of a detour ahead. There hadn't been a detour yesterday. For some reason, I couldn't fathom, I wanted to ask Bruce for guidance—but everyone was asleep. I peered through the dissipating fog. The empty lanes offered no help.
I adjusted the heat two clicks down, while veering right to follow a flashing arrow. Another one directed me right—away from the interstate. Two more turns and I found myself on a dirt road, dead-ended at a soccer field.
"We're here already?" mumbled Bruce. "Hey, what's that?" Bruce sat up, pointed to the near end of the field where shafts of light squeezed past gaps in the wood of an equipment shed. Everyone was now alert.
"I'm calling someone," I said, but even as I wondered who exactly that might be, I saw we had no signal.
"Let's have a look," said Bruce. He got out of the car, motioned to Max. They walked cautiously, Bruce leading the way until they reached the shed. A moment later a wash of bright light turned their forms into silhouettes. The bulkier figure dropped to his knees, while the leaner one ran back towards us.
I rolled down my window. "What is it, Max?"
"A woman's giving birth! Bruce said to get the stuff from the trunk."
"The birthday cake?"
"No, just open it!"
Maura scrambled out, was at the trunk when the click sounded. But I just sat there. There was no more denying it, I was a lousy manager of human resources. I lacked qualities found in effective leaders. For a long while I stayed put, feeling sorry for myself and wishing that there were flashing arrows everywhere to help a person find her way.
Eventually though, I headed to the shed to tell them I was going for help. I arrived at the scene in time to watch Maura tying off a crying infant's umbilical cord. She used the button-cord thread she carried in her project bag. The smoky odor of scotch permeated the air, burned at my nostrils. They'd either been drinking it or using it for antiseptic—or both. The mother, a young Hispanic girl, held her baby close. They were wrapped in a quilt that was vibrant in its newness—probably my gift from Maura.
This was surely not the prescribed method for delivering a baby.
When the drama had subsided, and I was swiveling back in my leather office chair, I thought to check with the department of transportation about that detour. Turned out, there was no record of it or the signs I swore I'd seen. Seemed like the only appropriate response was to deliver a birthday cake to Room 511. I pictured it in the trunk of my Audi, carefully sealed, waiting patiently.
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