It was a brilliantly sunny but bitter cold Christmas afternoon in the mid-Atlantic. Interstate 95 was crowded with people headed toward D.C. I was among them, gloved hands on the steering wheel and visions of flying wrapping paper dancing in my head.
I'd just done my usual Christmas Eve sleepover at my sister's house in Fredericksburg, Va., so I could watch her five spawn awaken Christmas morning to giggle and swoon at Santa's bounty. Around noon, I'd said my good-byes to the revved-up nieces and nephews and headed out. Next stop: one hour north to my man Marty's aunt's place for more present opening and some hot-buttered rum.
As I got in the car, I was warmed--not by the heater, but by a show of chivalry late the night before. Marty's parents had insisted I drive their car down to Fredericksburg instead of my own, which was low on gas. Oh sure, I could have gotten gas, but for some odd reason, Marty's parents' home county stopped dishing out petrol at midnight. So I accepted the folks' altruistic, Christmas-y gesture and headed south in Marty's mom's Camry. I felt tingly and cherished--a perfect way to feel on Christmas Eve.
Heading back north on Christmas Day, I started daydreaming in the car. A few hours earlier, after all my young kin had opened the last of their presents, my brother-in-law Eric propped his feet up and declared it a good Christmas.
But, had any of us ever had a bad Christmas? The term seemed an oxymoron. I tried to think back. The worst I had ever experienced was in high school when I had to pull a Christmas Eve shift as a bus girl at Beefsteak Charlie's. Then one year, it was pretty bad when in the middle of the gift exchange, my dog delivered my present straight from his colon onto the living room carpet. Christmas had never gotten any worse. I've been lucky.
Just as these thoughts moved through my head, though, everything immediately changed. As if to punish me for my Pollyanna-like and presumptuous holiday musings, the fates swooped in and delivered a cruel blow. They did it through the Camry. Suddenly and instantaneously, after behaving like a normal, reliable Toyota, the car lost all power right there on the highway.
I felt my pulse start racing. I pushed on the gas pedal. Nothing. Had I accidentally nudged the gearshift into neutral? That's what it felt like. I looked down. Nope -- I was still in drive. What was happening?
Cars whizzed by as my vehicle steadily slowed -- 55 to 40 to 30 to a crawl, all within about 30 seconds. A feeling of doom spread across my body. What the hell was going on?
I launched into denial. This had to be a dream. Surely I was still asleep on my sister's couch next to the Christmas tree. How could everything be so normal, and then a few seconds later, so out of whack?
Never in my life had I broken down alone on the highway. I've never even had a flat tire. And my dad was obsessed about car maintenance, something he pushed on his progeny, so I've never overheated or neglected to change my oil, or even run out of gas. How, in all reality, could my first solo breakdown come on a sub-freezing Christmas Day in someone else's car? It was just too much like fiction. Yep, it had to be a dream. But the strong smell of the smoke wafting out from under the hood and from the exhaust pipe told me this was no nocturnal vision.
Admitting defeat, I maneuvered the car into the breakdown lane. It decided to slow to a stop about 100 yards from an overpass, and just a few feet from an on-ramp. I looked at the little sticker on the windshield; the car had 2,000 miles to go until it was due for oil change. Whatever was happening was an anomaly--or the vengeful fates having their way with me. Where was I? Closer to my sister's house, or Marty's aunt's? I was so disoriented I wasn't sure.
The smoke brought to mind scenes from bad TV shows where people run like mad from a smoking car, escaping just as the thing violently ignites. Was I a fool to stay put? Well, maybe--but it was 27 degrees out, close to zero if one counted the wind chill, and there was snow on the ground; I'd rather be charred to a crisp in an explosion than walk around out in that icy hell.
I sat there for a minute, stunned. I remembered with a jolt of relief that Marty had pushed his cell phone into my hand when I'd left the night before. I picked it up off the passenger seat and dialed Eric. I blurted out what had happened, and then completely spaced out as he responded. I think he said he'd be there to get me as soon as he could, which he said would mean 20 minutes. Then I called Marty at his aunt's. He said he'd arrange for a tow truck.
But just as I was about to give him my exact whereabouts, the cell phone went dead.
Silence. Complete and utter silence. A semi roared by, shaking the car. Then another. Crap, I thought, I should have pulled onto the shoulder more. I was only a few feet from cars and trucks barreling by in the right lane. Between semis, it was dead calm in the car, but in my head there was a cacophony of thoughts criss-crossing and bumping into each other and getting more and more panic-stricken. Would Marty call Eric to get my longitude and latitude? Did he know Eric and Marcia's unlisted number? Had Eric said he'd come get me--or was I supposed to call him back after talking to Marty? Oh crud.
Casting about for practical answers, my mind--often my worst enemy--took a detour and opened up a very bad door. Suddenly, I remembered that people stranded along the side of America's roadways have long been the prime targets for a hefty population of sickos. Stranded, lone females in particular. Thus, without the cell phone, I was now cut off from all human beings, except the frightful wrongdoers, who would surely be by any minute.
Normally, I feel a sort of false imperviousness to danger. When I was a teen-ager encountering weird noises at night, I'd head out into the yard with a knife, fancying myself to be Wonder Woman. My adult behavior hasn't been much different. But sitting there on 95 that day, my imperviousness quickly drained through the floorboards, mixing with the growing pool of antifreeze. I was a juicy roadside target--no getting around that. And how long I'd be sitting like a beacon to the bad, I had no idea.
Next, the awful tales of highway terror came rushing forth in sharp relief. First there was the one about the woman who used her CB radio to announce that she had broken down and needed help. Two guys heard her plea, but instead of helping her, they raped her and killed her. And then there was my childhood chum's uncle, a truck driver who was slaughtered in his rig when he pulled over to take a nap under an overpass.
Then with horror I recalled the story of my pal Julie, who one night had to use a rural Oregon highway known for its roadside rapes and murders. Sure enough, she broke down on that wretched road. Sitting in her car freaking out and trying to decide what to do, she saw a man shimmying quickly down a nearby hill dressed head to toe in camouflage. He was headed right for her.
Julie took off running down the road in her high heels and suit until she reached a pub at the next exit, which turned out to be not far away. She never saw the man after that. But what if she'd been further from the exit? What would have happened then?
I sat there and meditated on the fact that chance seems to play such a monstrous role in these heinous matters. Take the story of Charity Powers, a little Maryland girl who was abducted and killed after she couldn't get a ride home from the skating rink. The babysitter who was watching her brothers was supposed to pick her up, but he'd fallen asleep. He had set an alarm, but it didn't go off, and somehow the phone had been knocked off the hook. So Charity walked up the street to a burger joint and that's where a fiend got her and took her into the woods.
Chance. That's what it all boils down to when you're in such a vulnerable position. Sitting there cold and panicky, I knew my future might very well teeter on the edge of two or three very random details. Would a seething predator happen by my on-ramp at 12:20 p.m. Christmas Day, or not? Would the fact that it's Christmas make him spare me--or cause him to drag me off and tear me up with heightened vigor? Would people gather at my casket, marveling at what a tragedy it was that the cell phone had cut out when it did, and that I was unable to call Eric back and tell him to come? What a tragedy, they'd say, that Eric and Marcia's number was unlisted, and how strange that even though Marty and I had been together a year, somehow I never gave him my sister's number, and so he couldn't call Eric to tell him the phone had died. . .
Then it hit me with a jolt: There was an actual killer on the loose near Fredericksburg. Yep, sometime in the last five years, a man had abducted two teenage girls, then raped and killed them. All of it took place not far from where my car sat stranded. The monster had never been caught. No wonder my sister was so paranoid about her kids riding their bikes alone.
With all this bad imagery careening through my head, I was losing track of time out there alone on I-95. Had it been 20 minutes or an hour since the phone had died?
It was freezing in the car. I wanted to get out and root around in the trunk for the blanket my mom had sent me for Christmas, but figured that might just serve to announce my presence to evildoers passing by. Should Eric be here by now, if he was coming? I decided I'd give it 10 more minutes. If he didn't come, or if a tow truck didn't show up, I'd set out on foot. Never mind that I was in my Christmas best with no thermals on and only a pea coat to warm me.
Just then, in the rear-view mirror I saw a car pull up behind me, several yards away, kicking up rocks and dirt as it approached with urgency. I cursed the fact that I hadn't yet replaced my glasses--I couldn't tell if it was a car I knew or not. The moment of truth was nearly upon me. Had a predator finally spotted me, or was it a family member?
The car got closer and closer. I held my breath as if preparing for a blow to the ribs. It was either going to be the worst hour of my life, or the most relieving in recent memory. The vehicle pulled up to my bumper.
It was Eric.
Exit Stage Fright (2/26/2003)
Editor's note: With this installment we bid adieu to Germ Bag.
Cabin Pressure (2/12/2003)
Escape -- you might think it's what you desire. Until you've actually run somewhere.
New Traditionalists (1/8/2003)
It was Christmas Eve morning on Harvard Street. Marty and I sat on the hardwood floor near our...
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201