Luckily, and Just in the Nick of Time
Updated: Mar 31
Hears a story:
A woman is driving down a dark lonely highway in the middle of the night. Her eyes are heavy, and she’s trying to stay awake. The rain's coming down hard, and several times, lightning bolts rip through the sky, followed by sharp claps of thunder. The reception on the Chevy Vega’s AM radio is terrible (so, let’s make the year 1975). All she gets is static until she lands upon a station pumping out top twenty pop music. Olivia Newton John, The Carpenters, Captain and Tennille, Tony Orlando and Dawn type of stuff.
In between songs, the DJ reads the local news—farm reports, local sports scores, and all things dull and dry. At one point, he interrupts the music with a special bulletin stating that Ernest Ray Carter, a murderer serving time at the Turnerville Hospital for the Criminally Insane, has escaped. (In 1975, giving the guy a hook instead of one of his hands would be okay, but for today, let's just say he has two hands.)
“Turnerville?” the woman, let’s call her Judy, asks herself. “Didn’t I just drive past a sign saying welcome to Turnerville?”
The music starts up again, and the song playing is I’m Not In Love by 10cc. It’s a slow number, and Judy struggles to keep her eyes open. When the song gets to the instrumental section, a woman’s soft, hypnotic voice in the background whispers, Be quiet, big boys don’t cry. It’s too much for Judy. Her eyes close, and she’s asleep.
She awakens to the sound of the rain pounding atop the Chevy, the horn blaring, and Glen Campbell singing Rhinestone Cowboy. Her bleeding head rests on the steering wheel, and the car is head-first into a drainage ditch.
As she pushes herself off the steering wheel, she is startled by the figure of a large man staring in the passenger side window. She can’t make out his features through the rain-covered glass, but he’s tapping his fingers on the window and trying to open the door.
“Are you okay?” the man asks. “Unlock the door.”
She is about to comply, but instinct stops her. Instead, she turns on the car’s interior light. A dull glow illuminates the man. He is rain-soaked, his dark hair looks painted on the top of his head, and his wet face is scrunched and resembles a rotten apple. What stands out most is the white jumpsuit he’s wearing.
“…Ernest Ray Carter,” the DJ says.
Judy backs away. Her heart races and feels so heavy she can hardly breathe, let alone scream. She watches the man climb up the ditch and move toward the back of the vehicle. He’s looking for something. He bends down and finds it. Now he’s approaching the driver’s side window. Judy backs away, terrified. The man lifts his hand, revealing a large rock. He slams it against the window, but the glass doesn’t break.
The man slams the rock against the glass again. This time the window lets out a loud crack. Judy can no longer see the man, as the window is covered in what looks like a thick, silver spiderweb. Then, the glass shatters. The man’s arm is inside the car. The rock bounces off the seat and onto the floor. The fat hand reaches for Judy. The fat fingers grab the collar of her blouse. She struggles to pull away. She grabs the white canvas-like sleeve. She is being pulled forward. Her heart has taken over her entire body. Everything thing about her is racing and pounding.
Suddenly, a bolt of lightning strikes the man. Judy is thrown back from the impact of the electric shock. The pain shoots through her body as if impaled by a swarm of needles.
The man has disappeared, but a blue cloud of smoke lingers in his place. She cautiously moves toward the window as thunder rattles the car. She looks out and sees the smoldering black corpse. The sweet, putrid odor of burning flesh fills her head. She considers a patch on the smoldering jumpsuit that reads Hank’s Garage and Towing.
This story is based on hundreds of similar stories that have probably existed since cars, destitute highways, and escaped psychopaths. In high school, I wrote a similar one about a couple in a lover’s lane. They usually don’t end with the literary device referred to as dues ex machina.
Saving the protagonist by a sudden act of divine intervention is usually a big no-no in writing circles. I understand it. It leaves the reader feeling cheated. It would’ve been more compelling had Judy figured out how to fend off her attacker and escape. She could then flag down a passing motorist and get into a stolen car driven by the real Ernest Ray Carter.
Writing rules are made to be broken, however.
One of the characters in my new novel, You Gotta Die Sometime, is a traveling preacher who claims to receive visions from God. We find out he’s a con man, yet sometimes the dues ex machina device gets him out of jams, and he uses those events to back up his claims. So the reader wonders, is he really seeing visions, or are these events coincidences?
I taught a playwriting class years ago. A student wrote a play about three characters in a house fighting over the family farm. He ended the conflict with a tornado tearing through the house, killing everyone. He was proud of this resolution and claimed his one-act play would be a huge hit. I suggested he find a different way to resolve the conflicts. He became enraged, grabbed a large pair of scissors, and chased me out of the building.
It was raining, and I slipped on the wet grass. He raised the scissors over his head, creating a lightning rod. He gave up writing that day and became a conductor.