Rider Number Thirteen: Love and a Cough. 9.6 miles, 31 minutes, $26.80.
I was glad when he came out with a suitcase. Airport trip. I hopped out, opened the back, grabbed his bag and put it in with exaggerated care.
He looked a little droopy.
He plopped into the back seat. He didn’t seem like he wanted to chat. Fine with me. Nothing wrong with a half hour of peace.
“Cuh-huh.” He gave a muffled cough. “Cuh-huh-HUH!”
I thought about saying something. “Coughing, huh?” or maybe “Wow, is everything okay?” or “Would you like a tissue?” But I didn’t.
The intervals seemed identical. I decided to count the time in between. It was 27 seconds. Then 29. Then right on 27 again.
This pattern continued, with no sign of letting up.
I was calm the first 10 or so times. I interpreted the uncanny regularity of the episodes as my passenger struggling to contain himself.
This thought was not comforting.
It meant that my rider — at best — was coming down with a really bad cold. At worst, he was suffering from the flu, bronchitis, whooping cough, TB, or some as-yet-unnamed bug he’d brought with him from his home country.
He was taking it back, now — but not before infecting a mild-mannered driver, setting off a chain of events that would alter the course of human history.
I quickly went through all the stages of dying.
I remembered a quote. It was something about the only things a person can’t hide are love and a cough.
The pattern never changed. I held my breath as much as possible.
We pulled up at Virgin Atlantic. I hopped out and grabbed his bag.
“Thanks a lot,” I said. “Take care of yourself.”
“Tha — Cuh-huh. Cuh-huh-HUH!” he said. He held out a couple bucks. I’m sure they weren’t actually soggy.
“No, thanks so much. I don’t accept tips,” I lied.
I drove back to town with all my windows open and the fan on high.
I don’t know if that helped. But I didn’t get sick.