Somebody Else in the Vehicle
said the attorney-type into his cell phone. He wiped the wet from his face. "There must be. It's in the carpool lane." He listened, squinting, and motioned to Winnie: Stop. Don't open the car door yet. Already, other drivers were slowing down to rubberneck. "Where are we, Braintree, Quincy? On 93 north, anyway, a half mile beyond the junction with 128. Yes, I know enough not to move anyone, but I'm telling you, you'll have a hell of a time getting an ambulance through, what with rush hour -- there'll be a backup a mile long before you know it."
He listened again. Then, "Right. I'll look. Two or more, maybe."
Returning from a few quiet days on Cape Cod, Winifred Rudge had missed her turnoff west and gotten stuck on the JFK toward Boston. Woolgathering, nail biting, something. Focus was a problem. Late for her appointment, she'd considered the odds: in this weather, what were her chances of being ticketed for violating the diamond lane's two-riders-or-more rule? Limited. She'd risked it. So she'd been at the right place on the downgrade to see the whole thing, despite the poor visibility. She'd watched the top third of a white pine snap in the high winds. Even from a half mile away, she'd noticed how the wood flesh had sprung out in diagonal striations, like nougat against rain-blackened bark. The crown of the tree twisted, then tilted. The wind had caught under the tree's parasol limbs and carried it across three lanes of slow-moving traffic, flinging it onto the hood and the roof of a northbound Subaru in the carpool lane. The driver of the Subaru, four cars ahead of Winnie, had braked too hard and hydroplaned left against the Jersey barriers. The evasive action hadn't helped.
Winnie had managed to tamp her brakes and avoid adding to the collection of crumpled fenders and popped hoods. She had been the first out in the rain, the first to start poking through dark rafts of pine needles. Mr. Useful Cell Phone was next, having emerged from some vehicle behind her. He carried a ridiculous out-blown umbrella, and when he got off the phone with the 911 operator he hooked the umbrella handle around a good-size tree limb and tried to yank it away.
"They said don't touch the passengers," he yelled through the rain.
Afraid her voice would betray her panic, she didn't even like to answer, but to reassure him she managed to say, "I know that much." The smell of pine boughs, sap on her, hands, water on her face. What was she scared of finding in that dark vehicle? But the prime virtue of weather is immediacy, and the wind tore away the spicy Christmas scent. In its place, a vegetable stink of cheap spilled gasoline. "We may have to get them out, do you smell that?" she shouted, and redoubled her efforts. They could use help; where were the other commuters? Just sitting in their cars, listening to hear themselves mentioned on the WGBH traffic report?
"Cars don't blow up like in the movies," he said, motioning her to take a position farther along the tree trunk. "Put your back against it and push; I'll pull. One. Two. Three." Thanks mostly to gravity they managed to dislodge the thing a foot or so, enough to reveal the windshield. It was still holding, though crazed into opacity with the impact. The driver, a fiftyish sack of a woman, was slanted against a net bag of volleyballs in the passenger seat. She didn't look lucky. The car had slammed up against the concrete barrier so tightly that both doors on the driver's side were blocked.
"Isn't there someone else?" said Winnie. "Didn't you say?"
"You know, I think that is gasoline. Maybe we better stand off."