— I was caught in a fire in my apartment building and had to run down a smoke-filled staircase
— I was mugged in downtown Chicago with my daughter at Maggiano’s (although the fear didn’t start until after it was over)
— I was in —um—an altered state in rural New Hampshire— and thought I was about to be locked in a closet that was part of the Underground Railway for slaves
When I’m asked that question as an author, I usually say the scariest thing I can imagine is being stalked by someone who wants to kill you, but you don’t know who they are or why they’re after you… which happens to be the premise of SET THE NIGHT ON FIRE. (Just sayin’)
But the scariest thing in my life happened over forty years ago in Washington, DC. Yeah, I know. The entire city is probably the scariest place on earth these days, but…
I had just gotten my drivers’ license and was driving my mother’s car. She had a blue ’65 Mustang convertible, btw, which, at the time, was one of the most awesome vehicles around. And looked a lot like this:
So, of course, I borrowed it as much as possible. It was October or November, and I was trying to get to a friend’s house in Rockville. It was after nine PM, dark, and I had been cruising around the Beltway. Now, you’ve got to remember this was just after the Beltway opened, and they were still working on some of the entrances and exits. Drivers too (well, okay, me) were still getting familiar with the road. Also remember, this was pre cell phones, texts, and GPS.
I’d only been on the Beltway once or twice before, but with a typical teenager’s arrogance, I was sure I knew where to go. Turned out I didn’t. Somehow I went in the wrong direction. I kept waiting for a sign for Bethesda or Rockville. Instead I started seeing signs for Virginia. After about ten miles I realized I was going the wrong way and decided to get off at the next exit, turn around, and backtrack.
However, I didn’t pay attention to the sign when I turned off. Suddenly I was on an empty road. It was well paved, but there were no other cars on the road besides me. In addition, there were no lights, no houses, no stores or shops, not even any farms. It was just a dark road with no signage. Worst of all, there were no exits OFF the road. It was like being on a road to nowhere. And it looked a lot like this:
I kept going for another ten miles or so. Still no exits. No intersecting roads or highways. No lights. No one on the road but me. No signage. The only way to go was forward. By now it was about ten PM, and I started to shiver. Where the hell was I? Where was I going? I sped up to about 80 mph, thinking that would do something.
I kept driving. By now, I was terrrifed. I decided I must have landed in the Twilight Zone, and that I was never going to get out. I sped up to ninety. I was lost, and I was panicked. In fact, that was probably my first panic attack. At that time of night, at that season, on that road, it was not impossible to imagine some monster, some evil villain out of a James Bond movie, or some malevolent alien was after me. Tears streamed down my face as I tried to find a car, a house, some symbol or artifact of civilization.
Finally in the distance up ahead, I saw a pair of red taillights. I raced toward them, (thank god for the Mustang) and honked frantically. The guy driving the car looked at me as though I was the monster, but eventually, he must have seen my terror and pulled over.
“Where am I?” I cried.”I turned off the Beltway and I have no idea where I am.”
He looked at me, raised his eyebrows, and said, “You’re on the road to Dulles Airport.”
Now, what you need to know is that along with the Beltway, Dulles airport had just opened, and the Beltway engineers had built a special access road to the airport. But at that time, there were no exits off it yet, and there was no development along the way. Just that two lane highway. And me. And my mother’s Mustang.
Needless to say, I thanked the man profusely, drove all the way to the airport, turned around, and came home. But I was fried, and forty years later, I still don’t like driving at night on unfamiliar roads.
P.S. Given that this is the spooky season, wanted you to know that ACX is having a special spooky audiobook sale, and AN EYE FOR MURDER is one of the featured audios. Hope you’ll check it out. You can find all the featured audios over at Audible right here.
And Happy Reese Bars and Mounds Bars and Kit Kats to you!