07 April 2013

A Fiery Death in the Afternoon

by Leigh Lundin

I write about Florida crime news because it's so weird, offbeat, even kinky and often awful, such as the guy arrested for returning used enemas to a Jacksonville pharmacy or the woman who was arrested this week not for breaking and entering a man's home, not for swimming nekked in his swimming pool, but for answering the call of nature in his backyard. She reportedly blamed President Obama.

But sometimes I stumble upon incidents that grab the throat or seize the heart and won't let go. Years ago, a dear friend told me of a wandering high school classmate who'd been sent from her parents' home in California to Plymouth, Massachusetts. She had trouble fitting in and no one was surprised when she disappeared that autumn, supposedly hitchhiking. The grandparents had a large wooded property and the following spring, they began trimming back the overgrowth. There at the back of the property under an apple tree, they found their granddaughter where she'd hanged herself.

But what shocked me was what the girl had with her: A favorite book, a guitar, and an alarm clock. A god-damned alarm clock. To this day that haunts me, a girl I never met setting a date and time to meet her own destiny with… an alarm clock.

Death. Cold, cold, but very, very personal.

I suppose such an incident might inspire a writer, if one could figure out whether it's the beginning of a story, the end, or the journey itself. Or perhaps it overwhelms an ordinary writer, too existential, too esoteric in its implications.

I've been driving a couple of hours each day mostly on Interstate 4 and the Florida Turnpike, enough that I had to buy a new set of 225-55R16s. Details, fodder for writers, where the rubber meets the road.

So this past week I'm running up the Turnpike at 70mph, 120km/h if you're reading this overseas. Ahead, brake lights. Smoke. Dark smoke, billowing black. Flames reaching into overhead girders.

I'm not a gawker, never have been. Cate says, "Oh, my …."

Out of my peripheral vision, I see a car has smashed into one of the support pilings under an overpass. It's reinforced concrete, two feet in diameter, an immovable object. The Japanese car that plowed into it is not an irresistible force. It's concertinaed into a third of its original length.

Flames, heavy smoke. No ambulance yet. By evening, efficient Turnpike crews will have painted the columns, swept up the glass, repaired the melted asphalt, shampooed the last vestiges of molten metal and fricaseed flesh. That's what your Turnpike tolls pay for.

"Oh," says Cate softly. She turns, drawn by the horror. I focus driving through the traffic and smoke.

Through the flames she can see the rear of the car. "There's writing on the rear window," she says.

"Writing?" I can't turn to look even if I wished.

"Writing, white shoe polish, like…" Only one application comes to mind, a date with destiny. "Like on honeymooners' cars," she says.

Honeymoon bliss, perhaps but certain fiery death in the afternoon.

Sometimes we stumble upon incidents that grab the throat or seize the heart and won't let go. Whether it's the beginning of a story, the end, or the journey itself, it's haunting.


  1. Leigh, these events happen everyday. We just don't know about them, but when we do, it makes me realize the fragility of life.
    Yes, Florida is full of the weird, but this week living in South Carolina is far more embarrassing. Can you believe South Carolinians voted to put Mark Sanford back in office after he left the state the way he did when governor?

  2. Stunning, isn't it, Fran?

    But we in Florida elected a governor knowing he committed the largest Medicare/Medicaid fraud in the history of the country, the largest fraud in a state known for frauds. And HE feels qualified to criticize national health care!

    Fran, I also remember you have your own personal tragedy. We can't forget.

  3. Leigh, you wrote tone and atmosphere quite well into this piece. That alarm clock will stay in my head for a long while. It's not the type of story I think I would write, but who knows. Some day, I may turn toward something more on the literary side. If so, this situation would make an excellent background.

  4. RT, it's been decades and I still haven't gotten that alarm clock out of my head. I picture her reading poetry, playing her guitar, and then that alarm clock going off. Too, too sad.

  5. I, too, don’t think I’ll get the alarm clock out of my head, and I’ll always wonder what drove her to do it.

  6. very spooky. what drives someone like that??

  7. During my career as a police officer I saw a number of deaths by sucide. The determination involved in some them was truly astonishing, and sometimes haunting--like the young lady in your account. Good piece, Leigh.

  8. Alas, I see it with infinite sadness. The taking of one's own life breaks the heart and there's no going back. I'm not one of those who claim suicide is a selfish act, because it's impossible to imagine the pain another feels.

  9. I wrote a story and got it published in AHMM, called "Houdini," about going to an old lady's house way out in the country. She bought and sold books, and every nook and cranny was full of books, piled to the ceiling, in pyramids and columns and piles. The longer we stayed, the spookier it got, especially when we went to her kitchen to pay for some books. On the kitchen door, in bright red letters (lipstick? paint?) was written: "Thieves! Thieves! Return the doorknobs thieves!" (The doorknobs were there.)


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