People curled along the side of Florida State Prison like an amoeba. Children plucked dandelions and crabgrass from the brush, singing, “Fryday! Fryday!” until the elders of the group told them to sit down and shut up. Young women pressed their heads to the chain-link barrier, desperately listening for a hiss of electricity from behind the wall.
It was a hot day. Even though it was January, the air hung heavy like velvet curtains in a theater. The naked landscape was unforgiving, except for strips of shade cast by telephone poles here and there.
Mothers and daughters made signs and t-shirts in advance, plastering them with slogans like “Burn, Bundy, Burn!” or “Tuesday is Fryday!” Sun-toasted men let their bellies spill over their cut-off jeans while they cooked brats on portable grills and wiped the sweat from their faces with the cool condensation of Coors Light bottles.
Judi McIntyre attended the execution to photograph people as they dipped into their icebox cakes. For three dollars, Judi would snap pictures of the attendees. It was 1989, and Ted Bundy’s execution was to be the most talked about tailgating function of the decade. A Polaroid memento was a hot commodity, and as the afternoon wore on, Judi had earned close to a hundred dollars.
Judi was saving up to go to film school. She wanted to make horror films. She liked the suspense, the way her heart would plummet to her feet with the rapid whining of violins. Judi had grown up in the area, in a suburb outside of Jacksonville, and found her surroundings so bland it was like living inside a bowl of Cream of Wheat. She made her mother and stepdad aware of this on a regular basis.
When Ted Bundy’s death was scheduled at the local prison, Judi felt like she had been catapulted somewhere far away and exciting. An alternate world where danger hid around the woodshed out back and every street corner held the possibility of a violent death. She pictured herself inside televisions nationwide. With her long, dark hair parted straight down the middle, the Channel 6 interview team would jump at the chance to ask her about her uncanny resemblance to Mr. Bundy’s preferred victim archetype.
“Are you at all worried about a copycat incident? You could be next,” the news girl would say.
“Well, I like to take risks.” Judi would flash a sly smile across her face and flip her hair, and teenage boys from Maine to Montana would be unable to control themselves in the midst of her feminine wiles. She’d get calls from across the nation, young men asking her to go with them to the new roller rink that just opened up in the city. Of course, she’d turn them down. She would be a cold-blooded, drop-dead vamp someday, she thought. Famous and beautiful and mean.
A fat woman with curly hair tapped Judi on the shoulder. “Can you get a picture of my daughters?”
“Sure, that’ll be three dollars.”
The two girls were wearing pink “Bundy Be Gone” shirts that grazed the tops of their ankles. Their mother shuffled them to the fence surrounding the prison, licking her thumb and rubbing it against their dirty cheeks.
“Say Fryday!” said the woman.
The girls smiled and their mother handed Judi three dollars. “The bastard deserves all the pain in the world,” said the woman.
“Pretty interesting stuff though, don’t you think? Exciting, in a way.”
The woman squinted and gave Judi a look and left with her girls. Judi slipped the money in with the rest of her earnings and wandered the crowd, dragging her white sneakers along the patchy terrain as she went.
“You’re gonna get your shoes all dirty.”
Judi looked up. A boy she thought she recognized from school was standing in front of her.
“Oh, yeah, I guess I am.” Judi laughed. She had a laugh rehearsed for when cute boys talked to her, but it didn’t come off as natural in the moment as it did in her bedroom.
“Could I get a picture?”
“Uh, yeah. It’s three dollars.”
“What about I take you out for croissants instead?”
Judi’s heart jumped. Croissants, how fancy! With his slumping jeans and sunken cheeks, his rumpled shirt unbuttoned just enough to show the corner of a tattoo on his chest, he looked like he might be an art student. Judi wondered if he liked films as much as she did. She packed her camera away and they walked to his truck together.
“So, do you partake in any film viewing?” Judi asked. She watched herself in his rearview mirror, checking her lips and her teeth and the four freckles on her neck to make sure she was forming her words in a way that didn’t seem stupid or too contrived or too planned out. Her palms were sweating.
“What, like, movies? Yeah, I watch movies.” The boy slung his arm out the window. “I’m Matt, by the way.”
“Judi.” She stared at her lap and rubbed her hand against her neck. Films! What a pretentious thing to say. She looked out the window and watched the bleak landscape roll by like a set in a silent movie.
“So, Judi, what brought you to the execution gathering? Are you a Bundy fan?”
“Well, I’m not some dumb groupie, if that’s what you mean.” Judi worried she might have sounded too aggressive, so she flipped her hair over her shoulder and scoffed in a way that was sassy, but not too sassy as to be off-putting to the boy beside her.
Matt laughed. “Ha ha, no, not at all! People like that are the worst. He’s got like followers, worshippers, even. Kinda crazy stuff, man.”
“I was actually there trying to earn money. I’m saving up to go to school and make movies.”
“Oh, very cool. Good for you. I never went to college, myself. I need to get out there and do things to learn. Use my hands. You dig?”
Judi looked at him closely. Maybe she didn’t recognize him from school. She counted the lines in his forehead, which were deeper than she first thought, and watched the crow’s feet stretch around his eyes when he smiled in her direction. But she could handle an older man. Maybe he thought she was very mature.
“Yeah, I see that, I mean, maybe school is overrated.”
“Well, come on now, don’t say that. You seem like a smart girl.” Matt adjusted his position and rested his hand on her knee. She felt a burst of cold energy run through her. She wondered if that’s what it felt like to get electrocuted. She wondered if Ted Bundy’s execution by electric chair had already happened.
“So where’s this croissant place, anyhow?”
“It’s just a little further now, gotta drive far if you wanna go anywhere decent.”
“Ha ha, right.” Judi hadn’t rehearsed a laugh that nervous.
The truck turned left onto a dirt road. There weren’t many trees around, just a speckling of beige rocks and tall grasses. Weeds lined the road and fanned out at the top. Judi thought they looked like hands, waving goodbye as the vehicle moved closer and closer to somewhere far away. She gulped.
“So, like, where are we actually going?” Judi tried to be cool and nonchalant and shrugged her shoulders like she thought a trendy, older film student might. She sat on her hands to keep them from shaking.
“Quiet now, we’re almost there.”
Matt pulled the truck into a field, barren except for a dilapidated barn. The barn door hung open and several boards had been ripped from the exterior so that it looked like a mouth, frightened and shocked. In the deep purple of the setting sun, Judi could see Matt’s hair was reflecting peppery gray.
“Where are we?”
“Shut up, just be cool.”
Judi followed Matt to the barn. As he pushed open the door, the hinges hissed and cried, and Judi wanted to scream and run home to her stupid suburb and her mom and stupid stepdad. Being a terrible television vixen would probably be too much work, and in her mind she promised Jesus that if she got out alive she would become a Sunday School teacher, or at least start going to the First Baptist with her mom on a regular basis.
Matt pulled a string hanging from the ceiling and the barn lit up inside. Giant, white cobwebs dangled from the rafters like snot from a child’s nose. Shards of glass were missing from the windows, and the shadows cut giant triangles like pizza slices against the wall. Judi was hungry. Above the door in silver lettering, someone had spray-painted “TUESDAY IS FRYDAY.”
“I can spot a fellow Bundy fan a mile away,” said Matt. “That middle part? The dark hair? I know what you were doing there.” He grabbed her by the arm and pulled her to a wooden chest pushed up against the wall. “A couple weeks ago, Ted gave a televised interview with an investigator. Have you seen it?”
Judi shook her head.
“He gave all these details on where Georgia Hawkins’s skull was buried. Do you know who she was?”
“You’re just another poseur who thinks he’s cute, like the rest of ’em. Bet you sent goddamn love letters and everything.” Judi braced herself for a gun or a knife or something else deliciously dangerous to be pressed against her throat, but Matt kept talking. “This’ll be lost on you, then.”
He opened the chest. Inside, a sun-bleached human skull.
“The police searched for weeks. But I found it first.”
Judi screamed. She wanted to run, but her joints felt like unmolded clay beneath her skin. Heavy. Wet. Useless. Matt pulled a loose beam from the floor and swung it back. Judi’s vision was littered with black dots.
Judi woke up in the dark with the wet Florida dew on her skin. She touched her forehead. A muddy trail of blood had wormed its way down her nose, and she wondered if maybe she looked like David Bowie in that one photo shoot he did where he had a bolt of red lightning painted on his face. She figured she looked pretty edgy, at least, and didn’t wipe it off.
She tried to get up from the dirty floor, but fell to her knees several times, her brain still rattling back and forth in her skull. When she checked her pockets, she realized they were flat; her thick wad of ones and her camera and her keys were gone.
Judi wanted to cry but figured this might have been a blessing in disguise. Film schools would totally have to let her in now that she was a martyr. And all the kids at in homeroom would claw at her and ask about the bump on her head when she returned to school on Monday, and all the boys would say, “Can I kiss it and make it better?” But Judi would bat her eyes, say, “No, I am resigned to a life with the Lord now,” and sing praise music on Sundays with a cute little gold cross draped around her neck. Although she was sure Jesus would forgive a peck or two, under the circumstances. National news agencies would contact her and ask for interviews and she would have to say things like, “Let me ask my manager if I’m available. Ciao. Kisses.”
Judi began walking down the dirt road toward home, thinking of all the possibilities of her new life. She kicked a discarded beer can along the way, and using the empty, tinny sound as percussion, began singing “Changes” by David Bowie to herself. She had forgotten how much she enjoyed that song.
A van pulled up next to her. The old man driving rolled down the window.
“Hey little lady, do you need a lift?”
Jesus was smiling upon her with good fortune, she thought.
“Gee, thanks, I sort of got abducted just now. But it’s gonna be okay, I think.”
She hopped in the van and explained that she didn’t know where she was at the moment, but she lived in a boring suburb outside Jacksonville with her totally lame parents.
The man smiled and nodded and asked, “What happened to your head?”
“Oh, it’s just a new fashion trend.” Judi flicked her hair off her forehead to expose her grotesque accessory.
As they drove off down the dirt road together, giant drops of rain started splatting on the window and thunder shook the earth. Lightning flashed in the clouds like a Polaroid camera capturing the sky and Judi marveled at the daring world that lay before her. Oh, how electric this new world seemed!
This was originally published in Fall 2017 edition of The Helix.