The Curse of Engine 49
Based on a true story*
Jerry Townsend wasn’t exactly sure how he ended up driving his Honda at 90 miles an hour headed north on Route 33. The last thing he remembered was coming home for lunch and seeing his wife’s blonde hair and long legs all tangled up with another man under the bed sheets. Then there was a lot of screaming, a lot of blood. Somewhere along the way, Jerry had gotten it in his head to run.
There were no sirens yet, but he was sure they’d find him soon. And then what would he do? He couldn’t outrun them. He had nowhere to hide, no safe house or close friends to take him in. Jerry wasn’t the criminal type; he was just a man who’d lost his cool. “Temporary insanity,” they’d call it. He wasn’t even sure if he could survive in jail while awaiting trial. So Jerry made the only choice he had left. He pushed the gas pedal to the floor and took his hands from the wheel.
The Honda stayed true to its course, but the road beneath it curved sharply left. Jerry slammed against the steering wheel as the front end of his car collided with the guard rail at over 100 miles an hour. Metal screeched on metal and the Honda broke through the barrier, spinning through the air. It landed on its side and tumbled down a hill, coming to rest in a crumpled heap at the bottom.
- - -
“She’s a beaut, huh Roy?”
Roy Alvarez and Tony Buccoti stood in the driveway in front of Station 49. Their brand new 1,000 gallon tanker truck gleamed in front of them, all fire engine red and polished steel.
“You still sure you want to let her go, Larry?” Roy asked. A bald, big bellied man was going over the details of the tanker with a rag.
“Not my decision either way, Roy. But I’m sure you boys down at 13 will give her a good home,” Larry said, looking up at the rig with a mixture of regret and relief.
“Mind if I check her out, Chief?” Tony asked, eyes lit up like a kid on Christmas morning. Roy had barely finished nodding before the rookie had scampered up into the cab of Engine 49.
“So why are you getting rid of her? Brand new rig like this…there’s nothing wrong with her, is there?” Roy joked. Larry didn’t quite meet his eyes.
“Like I said, not my decision. We’re downsizing is all I know, and you boys can use some new equipment,” Larry explained. Roy couldn’t disagree with him there. Station 13’s current tanker had more duct tape than an HVAC convention.
“Fair enough,” Roy said. “We certainly appreciate it.”
The horn blared suddenly, making the two men jump a step back. Tony broke into a fit of laughter up in the cab.
“We’d better hit the road before that kid drives me up a wall,” Roy said, shaking Larry’s hand. Larry’s grip lingered a second too long. His eyes met Roy’s for the first time.
“Just be careful with her. She’s got some…gremlins, from time to time. Ya know?” he said, all too serious. Roy laughed it off and placated the old timer.
“Of course, we’ll take good care of her.”
Roy joined Tony up in the cab of Engine 49. With a roar of the engine turning over and a final blast of the horn, the two were off to Station 13. Roy caught one last glimpse of Larry in the side mirror, a look of concern still plain as day upon the old man's face.
- - -
Jerry braced his feet against the driver’s side door of his ruined Honda and pushed. The warped metal budged only an inch before digging into the earth of the hillside. How he had survived nearly unscathed, Jerry had no clue. Launching off of the highway at that speed should have killed him; that had been his plan anyway. He hadn’t expected the hillside to slow his descent or the sprawling vineyards of a small winery to cushion his fall. Now, people had noticed the apparent accident and were trying to help. That meant the authorities would be arriving soon.
He hauled himself out of the broken window and dragged himself onto the dirt by his elbows. It was a long climb back to the highway, away from the eyes of the good Samaritans closing in on him. If they found him, tried to keep him there, tried to help him, it wouldn’t be long before the authorities had him in custody. So Jerry climbed.
- - -
“You know, you’re lucky you’re not driving one of the old rigs. I learned how to drive stick on an engine with a double clutch transmission parked halfway up Harker’s Hill. My chief told me that I had two choices: learn how to drive the rig or burn out the clutch, collect my things and leave the station. Guess which one I did?”
“I know, I know, Roy. You’ve told me this story a hundred times,” Tony said with a smile. “Didn’t you have to hand crank the thing to get it to start, too?”
“I’m not that old, smartass. You kids today, don’t know how easy you have it,” Roy said with a fatherly smile. Truth was, the modern technological marvel they were riding around in made things a lot easier. Especially for his back. He wasn’t complaining.
“Man, Cookie’s gonna flip when he sees this thing. I’m sure I’ll hear all his old stories again, too. He likes to talk even more than you do,” said Tony.
“Let him talk. It’s what us old timers do,” said Roy.
“As long as he’s got a pot of chili ready for us, he can talk all he wants,” Tony replied. Roy didn’t answer. He was looking at something across the road in the northbound lane.
“Looks like someone went off the road up – watch out!”
A man stepped out in front of the rig and exploded on impact. Blood and brain matter spattered against the windshield. Tony stomped both feet on the heavy brakes. Engine 49 came skidding to a halt in the middle of the highway, but the damage was already done.
“What the fuck?” was all Tony could say. His face had gone clammy and gray. “Didn’t see him,” he muttered. He switched on the wipers out of habit, smearing the man’s remains across the glass in gory streaks. Roy took a deep breath, leaned over and switched the wipers off.
“Just pull off to the side of the road there,” he said, barely able to keep his stomach calm. Tony rolled the rig into the grass just before opening the door and vomiting onto the ground. Roy kept his composure until he came around to the front of the rig. At the sight of the blood spattered grill with chunks of flesh and guts stuck to the radiator screen, Roy’s knees went out from under him and everything went dark.
- - -
Cookie let out a long whistle. He surveyed the front of the new tanker as it pulled into the garage.
“Musta been a big one. Ten-pointer at least, I’d say,” he said. Roy and Tony stepped out of the rig on rickety legs. “The matter with you boys? Long ride get to ya? It’s nearly dark, what took ya so long?”
“We’ll tell you later,” Roy said. “Is there chili on?”
“Course there’s chili on,” Cookie said, wringing his big hands. “But Rookie can’t eat until he hoses all that deer meat out of the grill.”
Tony burped and ran off to the bathroom. Cookie cocked a bushy eyebrow after him as he ran.
“The hell’s his problem?” he asked.
“Later, Cookie. Lay off the kid for now,” Roy answered, already moving toward the dining hall.
- - -
“No shit. Well I’ve never heard of anything like that before. Bad bit of luck, that. What’d they reckon his problem was? Touched in the head?” Cookie asked.
Roy thought over the conversations he had earlier with the cops and the people at the winery who’d seen the whole incident. Tony picked over his chili, not eager to eat the bowl full of blood-red ground beef.
“Had some sort of domestic incident at home and just took off runnin’,” Roy answered. “Folk at the winery said he crashed through the guardrail, damn near took half the vineyard with him, then just up and ran across the highway until-” He smacked one fist into his open palm. Tony dropped his spoon in the bowl of chili and pushed it away.
“That is a damned shame,” said Cookie. “But it doesn’t let you off the hook, Rookie.”
Tony looked up at the old veteran with heavy lidded eyes.
“Bringing a new rig into the station is bad enough mojo without a dead man’s parts all splattered across it,” Cookie said. Tony looked like he was going to be sick for the third time that day. Cookie continued unperturbed.
“Anyone knows that when you bring a new engine in, you gotta wash it with the water from one of the other tankers. Then you gotta slap all new decals on her while she’s still outside. Then, once all that’s good and done, we roll her in here by hand, no engine runnin’. Don’t do it and you’re just begging for trouble.”
Tony stood on wobbly legs, used to doing whatever the older guys told him to do. Roy put a steady hand on his shoulder and guided him down into the chair.
“Enough, Cookie. It can wait until tomorrow,” Roy said. He turned to Tony. “Why don’t you head up and get some rest, kid? If there’s a call, we’re gonna need you sharp.”
Tony nodded and made unsteady progress up to his bunk. Not to be put in his place by a man with less time in the gear, Cookie grabbed up a decal from a drawer, walked over to the new engine and slapped the big 13 logo over the old 49. It hung crooked, but stuck fast.
“I guess I’ll be turnin’ in too. No tellin’ what we can expect tonight, bringin’ all this bad voodoo under our roof,” Cookie mumbled as he followed Tony up to the bunks. Roy joined them a few minutes later, cutting the lights on the mess hall and the twin bays where the old and new engines sat side by side.
- - -
In all his thirty years of service, Cookie never once forgot to turn the stove off after a meal was prepared. In all the excitement of Engine 49’s delivery and the macabre story that accompanied it, the burners had been left on long after the men had gone to bed. A window left ajar allowed a breeze to stir a roll of paper towels in the kitchen. As it touched the red hot metal of the stove top, the entire roll began to burn.
Then the holder. Then the countertop. Then the cabinets. Then the baseboards, walls and floors. Before long, the entire kitchen was engulfed in flame. The fire burned through the wall and began to consume the dining hall, the garage bay, the closets full of gear. Some of the batteries in the smoke detectors chose that particular moment to die. Flames kissed the old engine, climbed its tires and melted its headlights, crept down the lengths of hose like living dragons. By the time a smoke alarm finally sounded, waking Roy, Tony and Cookie to their worst nightmare, the whole station was beyond saving.
The three firefighters stood in the street, waiting to hear the familiar wail of sirens that meant help was on the way. For the moment they weren’t concerned with the years of jokes they’d have to suffer at having their own station house go up in smoke. They were busy watching as the flames licked up and down all sides of the building, black smoke thick as coal billowing out through the openings, listening to muffled pops of exploding glass. They didn’t see the fire crawl across the floor of the garage, following an inexplicably precise line of spilled oil that led to the wheel chocks under Engine 49.
As the triangular bits of wood burned away, the new engine slowly began to roll itself backwards. It was almost as if someone was pushing it from the front, getting it clear of the raging inferno. The trio of firefighters watched the ghostly engine coast to a stop in the relative safety of the front driveway.
“Told you it was evil, bringin’ that thing in here. Bad blood, she’s full of it,” Cookie said, spitting onto the pavement.
“There’s not a mark on her,” Roy said.
As the station burned and onlookers gathered around, as sirens grew louder from approaching engines from other departments, Tony watched as the Station 13 decal caught fire. It started as a little ember around the edge, turning black and curling back on itself. It looked for all the world as if an invisible hand was peeling it away. It fell to the ground and burned, turning to a lump of ash. Still clinging to the door, neat and clean as the day it was put on and untouched as the rest of the rig, was the decal bearing the logo of Engine 49.
*As creative as I am, I can't take credit for the first half of this story. The domestic dispute, the crash, the winery, the transporting of a new fire engine from one station to the other, and the incident that ended the man's life are all true. Names and details were changed, of course, but I felt I had to document this "crazier than fiction" story.
As for the rest of the tale, I originally planned on having the fireman burn in their own station house, owing to the cursed engine. The last image was meant to be of a pristine engine rolling itself out of the garage while the building burned.
But I couldn't in good conscience do that, even to fictional firefighters. I have friends and family who have served and continue to serve as both paid and volunteer firemen. Also, rather than pretend I know anything about fighting fires, I left out some battles of blazes I had planned, complete with the cursed engine making things harder for our heroes. This short story got long enough on me without adding that in!
And I have one person to thank for some insider info on firefighting. Check out his firefighting blog here and be sure to look at his incredible photos!