By Judy Moore
When Conrad’s best friend Buddy drowned, the family cried so much that Conrad almost felt bad.
The whole school went to the funeral – everybody said Buddy was the most popular boy in the eighth grade.
In a way, Conrad missed his friend. But after Buddy drowned, Conrad felt better about himself.
Conrad was disappointed, though, that people didn’t feel sorry for him because he had lost his best friend. All they cared about was Buddy.
Twelve years later
The cashier at the drug store was the prettiest girl Conrad had ever seen – long blond hair, crystal blue eyes and smooth, tan skin. “Lily,” her nametag read.
Since Conrad first saw her at the drug store two weeks before, he started stopping in almost every day. Sometimes he tried to make small talk as he checked out, but she didn’t say much. She must be shy, he figured. A few times, he didn’t buy anything at all – just roamed the aisles and stole glances at her as she checked out other customers. Today, he would make more of an impression.
At five foot five, Conrad had to stand on tiptoe to see his reflection in the mirror at the top of the eyeglass stand. He stared at his receding sandy hair, dull hazel eyes, and pale, freckled skin that showed the effects of years of teenage acne.
Lookin’ good, he thought, preening a bit. He might not have movie star features, but Conrad was convinced he had an air about him. And his stocky stature gave him a certain athletic ruggedness. If only the drug store clerk could appreciate that and see his potential.
As he approached the checkout counter, he examined his purchases and tossed the bottle of foot powder into a bin of energy drinks. He thought about putting back the package of teeth whitening strips, too, but he tucked the package under the box of detergent with the bottle of aspirin. He wished he had bought it at the grocery store yesterday.
Conrad was the next person standing in line to check out when something hit him in the middle of the back.
Conrad turned around to see a muscular man with curly black hair wearing a tank top and holding a motorcycle helmet in front of him. He was the kind of man women always found attractive. Conrad loathed him immediately.
“Watch it,” Conrad snapped.
“Take it easy, man.”
Conrad turned back around as the middle-aged woman in front of him left the checkout. He stepped up to face the cashier.
“You’re looking lovely today, Lily,” he said flirtatiously with a big smile. She ignored him and examined the box of teeth whiteners for the bar code.
When she looked up, he could see her staring at his teeth. He knew he should have put the box back.
Undaunted, he continued. “Too bad you have to work on a beautiful day like this.”
Again, she didn’t smile or respond. She told him his total and held out her hand for payment.
He put two $20 bills in her palm, letting his hand rest on it far longer than it should have.
“Good grief!” she said, jerking her hand away.
With a look of disgust, she quickly rang up the exchange and gave him his change and purchases, all without making eye contact.
Playing hard to get, Conrad told himself as he picked up his bag and stepped a few feet away.
He stopped to put his change into his wallet.
Hearing the motorcycle helmet clunk down on the counter, he turned to look back.
The man behind him whispered to the cashier loud enough for Conrad to hear, “What a loser! You sure have to put up with a lot.”
She rolled her eyes and laughed. “You have no idea.”
The red heat of humiliation crept up Conrad’s cheeks. He couldn’t even appreciate how radiant her face looked when she laughed.
It’s not her fault, Conrad reasoned, giving the man a cold, hollow stare. It’s the man. Her, I will spare. Him, I will not.
He waited in his 2002 white Ford Taurus while the drug store customer pulled on his helmet and climbed onto his Harley Davidson. As Conrad turned on the ignition, he wondered if the letter he had been waiting for had arrived. He would drive straight home afterward to check the mail.
As the motorcycle roared out of the parking lot, Conrad stayed a short distance behind, following it along the highway and then up the entrance ramp onto the interstate.
A motorcycle on the interstate. He laughed out loud. Piece of cake.
Conrad gauged the speed of the motorcycle to be about sixty five miles per hour. He hung back for awhile until they reached a stretch of road where there was little traffic coming in either direction.
His heart began to pound faster as he pushed down on the accelerator.
When he passed the motorcycle, he grinned at the man from the drug store.
The young rider gave him a look of recognition, like he knew he had met him somewhere, but couldn’t quite place him.
Conrad swung in front of the motorcycle, pulled about fifty feet or so ahead and looked around to see if any traffic was nearby. Seeing none, he tightened his seat belt, gripped the steering wheel firmly and then…jammed his foot on the brake.
He watched in his rearview mirror as the young driver panicked, slammed on his brakes and then veered off the road. Still going over fifty, he drove erratically through some high brush and crashed into a tree.
“Perfect!” Conrad congratulated himself as he kept driving, speeding up again.
As always, Conrad was a little concerned that the motorcycle might slam into the back of his car. But the survival instinct always seemed to kick in at the end. Only once had his car been a little damaged.
Five miles ahead, he got off at the next exit, turned around and drove back. As he approached the accident scene, he slowed down to take a good look. Sirens wailed in the distance and a few cars had pulled off the side of the road. The wreckage of the motorcycle was clearly visible, but bystanders blocked his view of the body.
Conrad was sure the man was dead. The motorcycle hit the tree with such force. He would read about it in the newspaper tomorrow -- just another short item in the local section. He wondered how many inches they would give this one? Probably only two or three for this nobody.
He looked at his watch – 2:15. The mail should have arrived. Please let the letter be there, he thought. He pushed down on the accelerator.
Let’s see, he thought. How many does that make? Sixteen? No, seventeen.
Conrad was always careful that he could never be charged, no matter what kind of accident. One of his favorites was to poke along on a country road and wait for the driver behind him to become impatient. Then, when the car tried to pass, Conrad would speed up and not let it in. The look in their eyes. Priceless. If he ever was stopped by the police – which he never had been – it would have been just an unfortunate accident.
Conrad rationalized that the death and havoc he had caused weren’t really criminal acts. He just sometimes wasn’t the most polite driver. And, on occasion, he had chosen not to help someone who could have used his help – really used his help. Nothing illegal. Nothing criminal. Just not the best citizen.
It was usually strangers or brief acquaintances who had done something to offend him – or someone who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when Conrad was in a bad mood. Other than that, there had been Buddy, his first – he knew Buddy was a weak swimmer and had dared him, goaded him, to race across the lake. And then there was his friend in high school, the one who would have been valedictorian if not for his accident. But Conrad didn’t like to think about him.
Conrad had never been able to bear it when people acted like they were smarter or better than he was. And now, it bothered him no end that most of the kids he went to high school with were finished with college and had good jobs. Morons, he thought.
At twenty five, Conrad knew he should have graduated from the university long ago. He had ended up No. 1 in his high school class, after all. But, of course, his mother and stepfather hadn’t saved anything to send him to college. They spent all their money on cigarettes and booze. He had toyed with the idea of an accident for his stepfather. But at least he kept his mother occupied and out of Conrad’s affairs, so Conrad had spared him.
He had to keep taking off semesters to work full-time to pay his tuition. It was a good school, but so expensive. He worked in construction for months at a time, lived at home and saved as much as he could. He wished someone would feel sorry for him and help him out. But no one ever did.
When Conrad wasn’t working, he was studying. It sounded like a dull life, but he had his amusements. Right now, he had his eye on two irritating students in his chemistry class at the university. He just needed to be patient – and become more creative in his punishments.
Conrad pulled onto his street. He couldn’t wait to check the mail – he had been waiting so long. Please let it be here today.
He turned into the driveway of his mother’s one-story frame house and raced up the steps of the front porch to the mailbox.
The return address on the large white envelope told him that the letter he had been waiting for had finally arrived. He kissed it for good luck and tore it open.
“Congratulations!” the first line read. “You have been accepted to Harvard University Medical School.”
Conrad screamed and jumped in the air. Tears welled in his eyes. Harvard! He had done it. All on his own. No help. No accidents. All Conrad. Nobody would ever be better than him again.
His face beamed. I was born to be a doctor.
Conrad had to share the good news with someone. But who? He ran back to his car and drove to the drug store.