Shark Man (#1) Home of the Astronauts

We crossed the state line around noon. It was raining cats and dogs, which made the welcome sign seem a bit foolish—

            Welcome to Florida

            The Sunshine State

It was our third day on the road. I was no longer commanding the front passenger seat. Diane kicked me out when we passed through the small gulf town of Moss Point. She had every right to. She was the oldest.

I rode in the backseat with my other sister. Sue was older than me by a couple of years, which made me the youngest—the baby.

Baby! At twelve-years-old.

We played checkers on a small magnetic checkerboard while Mom’s car slogged through the downpour.

“When’s it going to stop raining?” Sue asked.

“Downpours like this don’t last long,” Mom replied, her eyes glued to the road.

“Yeah,” Diane smirked, “God takes a whizzer over Florida about this time every day.”

“Quiet, young woman!” Mom said sharply. Diane was no woman, but at sixteen she was real close.

We had just made the big turn south out of Florida’s panhandle when the rain stopped. We sped down the interstate, passing the towns of Traxler, High Springs, McIntosh, and Reddick. At Wildwood, we exited the interstate and headed east on the state road.

“Why’d we get off the interstate?” Sue asked, looking around at the changing landscape. “Wouldn’t it be faster if we stayed on it?”

“We’ve got to cut over to the East Coast,” Mom replied, not taking her eyes off the highway signs flashing by.

The further we drove, the stranger the town names sounded: Apopka, Okahumpka, Minneola, Kissimmee…

            Kissimmee?

I’d never heard of a name like that before. For the last seven years I’d been holed up with my family in a small cattle town in south Texas. Believe me, there wasn’t a whole lot of kissing going on there.

I guess that’s why we left. One day, after my stepfather chased Mom through the house waving a pistol, Mom loaded us into the car and off we sped, headed to my grandmother’s beach house in south Florida.

“King me!” Sue squealed as her checker made it to the edge of the board. “That’s three kings to none,” she gloated.

“Yeah, you just wait. This game’s far from over.”

But before I could make a move, the brakes squealed, the tires hissed, and Diane screamed.

Corvairs are made backwards. Instead of the engine in the front of the car and the trunk in back, the engine’s in the back and the trunk in front. It’s a big mistake, because when you jam on the brakes the front of the car wants to stop, but not the back. That’s because all of the weight is in back.         And that’s exactly what happened to us. When Mom jammed on the brakes trying to avoid a deer crossing the highway, the front of the car tried to stop, but not the back. So not only did the car swerve, it spun completely around and skidded backwards down the road.

For a moment we were like astronauts sailing through space, defying every law of gravity, until we came to a jarring stop in the sand along the side of the road. Mom was pale as a ghost. Diane was sobbing. Sue and I clung to each other in the back seat like two giant magnetic checkers. After a minute or two, people started to run up to the car.

“Are you all right, ma’am?” a burly truck driver asked, opening Mom’s door. She trembled, unable to speak, as he helped her out. Diane, Sue and I also scrambled out of the car and into the arms of other people who came to help.

The damage was minimal. Even our belongings on top of the car were still in tact. As we stood on the shoulder of the road, I could hear people murmuring…

It’s a miracle.

            I don’t’ believe it.

            Man, were they lucky.

Soon afterwards a state trooper showed up and helped us back into the car and onto the road. Mom drove slowly, gripping the steering wheel so hard her knuckles turned white.

At the sight of the first motel, she turned off and pulled up to the front door. It was a small, ten-unit motel snuggled beneath a grove of pine trees. A large neon sign attached to the roof blinked steadily—

           Only forty miles to Cape Canaveral

           Home of the Astronauts

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