Flames of Fear

Gayle Thawley

© Copyright 2010 by Gayle Thawley


Photo of a burning car at night.

Though they say, "Time heals all wounds.", it does not, for fear paints an indelible picture that time cannot erase. Flames of Fear is one such work of art.

A plant in my front yard was on fire, ignited by a spark from my sixteen year old daughter’s torched Toyota Camry. The flaming gray metal lit up the black night sky like a bon fire at a football pep rally. No, it was more like a scene from a Hollywood movie where the blazing car explodes just as Bruce Willis dives for cover. Would her car explode too?

Standing in the neighbors yard, helplessly watching the intensifying flames, thought after thought ran across my mind. How did the fire start? Did someone set it on fire? Was it the ex-boyfriend she had deserted two months ago, or worse yet, was it her current boyfriend? Was the person an anonymous pyromaniac who had followed her, set the fire, and then hidden behind a bush to watch with satisfaction over a job well done?

My hunches were interrupted by a strobe-like illumination which blanketed the entire neighborhood. Thankfully, the fire truck was finally arriving. Once stopped four riders jumped to the street without a word and quickly readied their hose. As the shooting water sprayed the raging fire the flickering flames seemed to fight for their life.

Preoccupied with the fire, I had not noticed the arrival of the Fire Marshall and his assistant until they were by my side with their clipboard and pen poised for their work. The questions they posed were an echo of my thoughts. How did the fire start? Did my daughter have an ex-boyfriend? What was his name? Did she have a current boyfriend? What was his name? Was anyone out to get her? You hear so many stories of unimaginable behaviors in this day and age, how do you know?

Incredibly, through all of this I had not stopped to focus either on my husband or my child. My husband’s words clearly brought me to reality. They evinced that the shock of it all had been replaced by the anger only a father could have. Digesting the violence of the entire situation, my motherly instinct to protect my young shifted my attention to my daughter. I was uncertain whether she was shaking from the cold night temperature or from fear, but it didn’t matter. Somewhere between my husband’s ire and my daughter’s tears I realized I had to be the voice of sanity. I wrapped my arms around her just as I had done so many times in her early years and whispered with as much certainty as I could muster, “Don’t worry. Everything is going to be all right.”.

Thankfully, the interrogation process was postponed as the fire was finally extinguished. After a brief conversation, the firefighters loaded their hose and returned to their station. In the meantime, the Fire Marshall and his assistant fetched their investigative equipment from the trunk of their county car and proceeded to inspect the smoldering vehicle. The three of us, tired from standing, sat on the cold damp grass watching in silence for what seemed like hours as the two men with dimly lit flashlights surveyed every inch of the charred remains. The ensuing silence left more time for the nagging questions to return. Was it Steve or Rob? Would there be more violence?

As the sun began to light the sky, the gathered evidence thankfully answered all of my questions. The door and window had not been damaged. A key had opened the door. The radio had been pried from the dashboard. The trunk had been opened and a flare from the emergency road kit had been lit and dropped into the gas tank. Fingerprints were found.

As unbelievable as all of this was for my family, it was quite obvious that the fire workers considered the entire situation to be merely routine. They stated, without emotion, very similar incidents had led them to the unproven theory that a faction of a local chapter of a nationwide gang, MS-13, was overseeing a stereo theft operation through the installation department of an auto stereo store. They further theorized that unsuspecting customers who purchased a stereo would hand over their keys and invariably their address to the installers who would then make a mold of the key. A few weeks later the stereo would be stolen and the car torched to hide the robbery. They had seen it before . . . but . . . this time they had recovered fingerprints. This time the culprits would be arrested and rightly punished for their unconscionable deed.

What relief! No one was exacting revenge on our daughter. They simply wanted her stereo. Knowing that the culprits would be prosecuted gave my husband some comfort, but, quite honestly, it did not console me. I did take some solace from knowing that the cremation of my daughter’s car was a random act of violence rather than a direct assault toward her.

To this day, I vividly remember the plant ignited by a spark from my daughter’s torched Toyota. Even more intense, however, is my stark realization that, whether out of anger or out of greed, it is young people who are hurting young people. Again, question after question races through my mind. How does a mother teach her child to be wary of peers without instilling fear? How can I help all young people?

Although that fiery night has passed, the flames of fear still burn.

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