This is a story. A frightening story that you’d expect to find on the front page of your local newspaper, about somebody else. It’s a story you don’t want to star in. A story that leaves you with a guilty feeling of gratitude that the horror had happened to someone else, not you. It is a story much like those dreamed up by suspense and horror novelists, read by those who want to be scared, who want the suspense and danger, as long as it’s only a fantasy, as long as the reader is safely tucked away under a cozy comforter, beside a warmly burning fireplace, and knowing the front door is latched, with the deadbolt lock firmly set.
But this story is true, with the danger as close as the other side of a door or a window, or perhaps in the same room, breathing, too close, the threatening stench of evil. It’s a story about trusting intuition, about paying attention to those noises that don’t belong, to things that seem out-of-place, to things that shouldn’t have been there in the first place, to things that shouldn’t have moved, but did. It’s a cautionary tale about why, when you hear something you shouldn’t be hearing, never to pull those covers over your head and go to sleep, leaving you vulnerable and unaware . It’s a cautionary tale about why to ignore those people who assure you that there’s nothing to worry about, your imagination has just gone ’round the bend a bit, just let it go. You know your gut: listen to it. Other people’s opinions are just meaningless background noise, a distraction from your own safety and knowingness.
I was young. Less than thirty-young. I was recently widowed, so was struggling to adjust to the life of a single parent, raising my then two-year-old daughter. It was good to have her around: she kept me going, kept me focused, kept me in the present. She made me laugh, and gave me levity, which I desperately needed in those days of wrestling with the demon of a very complicated grief. She was the one bright and shiny spot in my life; she was where I knew joy lived.
We had recently moved to an older, 2-story, 2-bedroom duplex, with a little swing set in a nearby field. Not really a playground, just an unkempt clearing, but my daughter was thrilled; to her, it was Disneyland. The area was surrounded by a thick forest which, at least in the beginning, seemed friendly. But I came to know it differently, later. Our duplex had a little fenced backyard, with the same dense forest beyond the fence. Ours was the last duplex on the end, with trees nesting us in on two sides. To the right was another attached duplex, and in front an open-style car port. It seemed a nice-enough neighborhood, but people tended be private, to keep to themselves.
As a part-time student, and fulltime single mom, I often blended my study, play and leisure time, in the backyard, dressed in my swim suit or shorts and halter, on those rare sunny days in the Pacific Northwest. On rainy days, we’d stay indoors, with the blinds open to allow a little daylight in. I found the rain and gloom somehow lovely. It insulated like the coziness of play inside a tent. A great pleasure was to stay in my shorty-jammies all day long, even with the blinds open. After all, there was forest giving me cover. It never occurred to me that this might not have been such a good idea.
The woods behind the fence had rarely concerned me, even at night, except that, every once in a while, I’d get a prickly feeling at the base of my neck, like I was being watched. I’d get up, look over the fence, and peer into the thick forest. I saw and heard nothing out of the ordinary. There was only silence and undisturbed stillness, the cover of darkness, through the thick firs. Even the neighbor’s dog slept, undisturbed, without so much as a perk of his ears. So after a time, I learned to disregard those naggy feelings of being watched. That was unwise.
It’s always unwise to ignore intuition. It kept us safe before we had weapons and scanners and night-vision scopes, when all we had to protect ourselves was our basic senses. As time went on, we forgot about that sixth sense, intuition, and at our own peril began to rely on technology, leaving that most important sixth sense behind. We thought we didn’t need it anymore. How wrong we were. And I was about to get an object lesson in that very thing.
Nighttime fell. I tucked in my daughter, read her a bedtime story, and strolled toward my own bed. Book in hand, I began my nighttime ritual of reading, ’til my eyelids began to get heavy. That night, I felt an unusual sense of unease, and the usual sleepiness didn’t set in. I got out of bed, and made a second round of checking the windows and doors, just to make sure we were nicely secure. Satisfied that all was well, I grabbed a drink and strolled back upstairs and climbed into bed. I continued to read, but found it difficult to concentrate. I’d read a few pages, then realize I hadn’t a clue what I’d just read. Something was distracting me.
Scrtch, scrtch, scrtch. I looked at the clock. It was 2 a.m. Scrtch, scrtch, scrtch. What was that sound? Very faint, and if I’d been asleep, not loud enough to awaken me. I trained my ears, trying to discern where the sound was coming from. It seemed to be coming from downstairs. I tried to ignore it. I told myself it was probably just a night creature, digging around after something outside. The scrtch, scrtch, scrtch would start, then stop for several minutes, then resume. Because I couldn’t quite place the sound, couldn’t relate it to anything familiar that I’d heard in the past, I relented, and climbed out of bed to check it out.
As I moved from room to room, I turned the lights on, first checking the rooms upstairs, then making my way downstairs. Still in my shorty-jammies, without a robe to cover me, I continued to check the rooms, clicking on the lights as I went. It occurred to me, in a humorous sort of way, that I had no clue of what I would do if I did find something or someone lurking in a shadow or hiding behind a door. I grabbed a knife from the kitchen drawer, and drew it behind my back. I’d never had to protect myself with a knife, so I was wary about whether or not I’d even be able to use it, if need be. If someone was in the house, they’d likely be bigger than me, and would probably have no trouble wrenching the knife away from me, then I’d be the victim. I pushed that thought out of my brain.
I moved to our little living room and sat down on the couch. I listened intently. The blinds were open, and I scurried across the room, yanking the blinds securely closed. Back on the couch, I listened again. No scrtch, scrtch, scrtch. I must have sat, shock still, for half and hour, and not another sound came. I turned the television on, a bit louder than usual, and waited for a while longer. My eyelids were finally getting heavy, and I felt satisfied that the sounds had been nothing more than an animal scurrying or digging. So, leaving the lights on, I made my way back upstairs, checked on my daughter, who was soundly asleep, then climbed into my own bed and fell into a deep slumber.
By morning, I’d mostly forgotten the noises of the previous night. I woke around 10 a.m., later than usual. My daughter was already up and wanted breakfast, and since it was a sunny day, she ate quickly and ran outside in the backyard to play. I followed with a steaming cup of coffee, still in my shorty-jammies. The day was going to be warm; the thermometer already read 70 degrees. I looked forward to a leisurely Saturday spent with my daughter; I could worry about studying tomorrow.
As I wandered through the backyard, a bright glint from the window screen caught my eye. I edged closer to check it out. There, in the lower right-hand corner of the window screen were two etched-out holes, irregular in shape, but large enough for fingers to fit through. There was no rust at the edges, and I knew those holes hadn’t been there before. Scrtch, scrtch, scrtch. The noises I’d heard the night before started to make sense. The screens were too high for an animal to have made them. A sick shock of adrenalin ran through my body, as I realized that someone had been outside my duplex the night before, etching holes in the window screen. This type of screen had little latches on the inside, so they couldn’t be removed from the outside, that is, without a way to grip it, as in etched-out holes near the latches, designed perfectly for fingers to fit into.
“Mommie? Okay, Mommie?” My daughter stood at my side, peering up at me, her eyes and forehead scrunched into a look of worry that no two-year-old should have.
I smiled down at her. “Mommie’s okay.”
“Mommie? What’s this?” She extended her arm toward me, and from it hung a necklace made of rough, thin rope. Dangling from the end was an object I couldn’t identify, carved from wood.
“Where did you get that, Honey?”
She pointed to a spot in the scruffy grass, not far from the stairs that led from the little patio up to the sliding glass door. “Dere?” she answered, her voice rising as in a question.
“Can Mommie have that?” I reached for the crude necklace, and took it between my thumb and forefinger, then placed it carefully in a paper bag, which I laid on top of the refrigerator.
As the day wore on, I pondered the events of the night before, the holes in the screen, the crude, strange necklace. I vacillated on calling the police, but decided to call my landlord, instead. I know it doesn’t make much sense, I mean, what can the landlord do? But that’s what I did.
The landlord visited a few hours later. He listened to my story, a half-grin on his face, as though trying to humor a little child. “You know, if you were married, you wouldn’t get hysterical about these little things. Women shouldn’t live single, especially when they have a child. Why did your husband leave you?”
What? I thought. Hysterical? My husband leave me? He was dead. I couldn’t believe my ears.
“Look,” he said, with the tone of a principal admonishing a misbehaving student. “I don’t want this upsetting the neighbors. So just keep it to yourself. I’m sure it’s nothing. You probably just didn’t notice the holes in the screen before. The necklace is prob’ly some kid’s toy.” He shook his head, as in disbelief, then snorted.
“Maybe I should call the police? I know those—”
“No police! That’s ridiculous.” He spun around and started to leave. “I have enough trouble keeping these units rented. I don’t need a bunch of police running around, scaring people off. I’m showing some units today, and I don’t need to lose tenants because of your hysteria! Divorce is a sin, ya know! If I–” He didn’t finish his sentence, but left, slamming the front door behind him.
An argument ensued between my head and my gut. Maybe he’s right. Maybe I’m making a big deal out of nothing. Something tells me I should report this. Maybe you are being hysterical. My gut tells me something’s really wrong, here. This argument was settled, when my daughter bounded through the back door, with the question, “Mommie? Who gave you the necklace?”
I called 911. My intuition had won out. To Hell with the landlord. Maybe it is nothing. But maybe it is something. What’s the worst that could happen if I called the police? I sat tapping my fingers nervously against the telephone receiver. I lifted it, hung it up, lifted it again, hung it up again.
“Hello? 911? I want to make a police report.” There. The hardest part was done.
The 911 operator was very kind and efficient, but I detected no alarm in her voice. As I finished giving her my report, which started with the scrtch, scrtch, scrtch the night before, and ended with the discovery of the holes in the window screen and the strange necklace, I began to think maybe I was over-reacting. The 911 operator, although very attentive and pleasant, didn’t seem particularly alarmed. She thanked me for calling in my report, and that was that. For the next hour, I wandered around the duplex, alternating between feeling foolish and feeling justified. I did my best to convince myself that I’d done the right thing, but it wasn’t exactly a bold and decisive, “You did absolutely the right thing, no doubt about that!” sort of convincing.
Until the doorbell rang. Hm. I wasn’t expecting anyone. Maybe the landlord to demean me even more, to make sure I wasn’t going to do anything foolish, like call the police.
To make sure I thoroughly understood that I was going to hell because divorce was a sin. I peeked out the peek-hole in the door. Uniforms. Was I being arrested? What did I do? With the chain-lock still in place, I cracked open the door.
“Ma’am. You called in a police report about an hour ago?” I felt a bit silly talking to them through the crack in the door.
“Yes?” Was I in trouble? Were they there to tell me to quit making nuisance calls to the police department, they were busy enough with real problems to deal with silly stuff like this?
“If you’ve got a minute, we’d like to talk to you.” Oh boy, I thought, I was in trouble.
I unlatched the chain and opened the door. The policemen showed me their badges, and I led them into the living room. My daughter stood at my side, looking back and forth between me and the policemen.
“Honey. Go on upstairs to your room and play for a while. These nice men are here to talk to Mommie for a minute.”
“OK,” she said, disappointment in her voice. Then reluctantly, she ambled up the stairs to her room.
“Your report matches the MO (police talk for method of operation) of some local crimes, and we’d like to get a bit more information.” They calmly explained that over the past several months, women had been targeted, stalked, and much in the way I had reported, had been set up for a break-in, a gift had been left, and then the women had been viciously attacked in their homes. The brutality of the crimes had escalated, with each incident. Each woman had been raped and beaten. The last victim had been nearly beaten to death.
The policemen looked around the backyard, at the holes in the screen, noting no rust; the holes were, indeed, fresh. They carefully examined and bagged the necklace. They wandered through my house, presumable noting exit points, window locks, door locks, then looked around outside, noting the forest on the two sides of my duplex.
I shuddered when one of the policemen said, “The forest would make a perfect place for someone to stand and watch you, undetected.” A barrage of questions followed. “Do you sit downstairs at night? Are your blinds open or closed? Do you live alone with your daughter? Do you ever sit downstairs with your night-wear on? Do you have a regular schedule? Do you have regular male visitors?”
I answered as accurately as I could. All doubt about whether or not I should have called the police with my report, vanished. Landlord be damned. I felt strangely empowered. My gut had served me well.
“We think you’re being set up,” one of the policemen said. His tone was grave. “We’re going back to the office and discuss this a bit, and we’ll be in touch. Keep the doors and windows locked.” Both stood to leave, but stopped in the open doorway and turned toward me. “There’s a swing set in the field. I’d suggest not letting your daughter go there alone.” They left without another word. I specifically looked, but didn’t see a police car anywhere. The policemen walked up the sloped parking lot, and finally were out of sight.
I thought of my daughter. Two years old. Vulnerable. What if she heard cries from Mommie in the night? She’d undoubtedly get up and come to see if I was okay. She could be hurt. That’s not good. My job is, first, to protect her. I called my parents, who lived within a half-hour drive. I told them I’d be down shortly, I needed to talk with them. When I arrived, outside of the earshot of my daughter, I explained the situation. I asked if she and I could stay for a few nights. Of course, they were happy, and relieved, to have us stay.
It was about 10 p.m. when my parents’ telephone rang. My father answered, and after a few, “Uh huhs, I sees, and here she is,” he handed me the phone. “The police want to talk to you.” His forehead furrowed with worry. I have no idea how the police got my parents’ telephone number, but they had.
After explaining that I had come to stay with my parents for a few nights, a detective said, “We cannot ask you to do what we’re going to suggest, because it would put you in harm’s way. But we need you back at your place. We need you to keep your schedule as normal as possible. Any change in routine could scare this guy off, and we want to catch him.” I gulped.
“What do you want me to do?”
“We need you to come back to your duplex. We have a plan. We’ll be right outside and we’ll be inside within a minute of your arrival. You won’t see us when you drive in, but we’ll be there. We’ll explain things to you, then. If you agree to do this–and it has to be your decision–go back home, now.”
A long pause, as my mind raced through my options. “Wouldn’t that make me a sitting duck?” I asked.
Gently, but firmly, the detective responded, “You already are. Only right now, you’re a sitting duck, without any protection. We’ve got a plan that will give you that.”
I agreed, only if I could leave my daughter with my parents, and the detectives were fine with that. I left my parents’ home, becoming more frightened the closer I got to home. What if “he” was inside? The detective had said to open the door, glance around, if all seemed well, turn on, then off, the porch light. They would follow, shortly. I pulled into my car port and sat, heart thumping, palms clammy. I surveyed the outside of the duplex. All seemed as I’d left it, with the single light on that I always left on, upstairs. The porch light was off. After what seemed a very long time working up courage, I exited my car. My front door keys were in my hand, shaking. My legs felt like they were going to give out on me at any moment. I felt light-headed. After a bit of difficulty finding the keyhole in the dark, I fumbled and unlocked the deadbolt. I hesitated for what seemed a long time, then I opened the door and reached to turn on the entryway light. All seemed undisturbed. Nothing out-of-place. No unusual noises.
I switched the porch light on, then off. True to their words, within a minute, two detectives entered my duplex and slipped inside, closing the door quickly behind them. I was told to leave the lights off, except the one in the entryway. The plan was explained: every night about 5 p.m., two detectives would arrive and remain in the duplex until daybreak, when they would leave. I was to maintain a normal schedule. While alone, at home, during the day, I would carry with me an alarm which, when tripped, would send a signal to police cars and a response would be made within 1-3 minutes. I was to take it with me wherever I went.
I asked, “How can you get here that fast? Where will you be?”
“Oh, we’ll be around. You just won’t see us. Lotsa manpower on this one, because we think we’ve got this creep.”
So, for a month, the plan was played out, though uneventfully. The detectives arrived on schedule and left on schedule. They used night scopes to watch through different windows into the forest, and the parking lot. Night scopes show body heat, so if anything or anyone was out there, it would be detected. There were a couple of false alarms, but nothing came of them. Then, one afternoon, I got a call from one of the detectives, who said, “We’ve got another situation. We’ve gotta pull the detectives, but we’ll leave the alarm with you. You don’t even go to the bathroom without that alarm, you understand?” I understood.
I felt naked, vulnerable, insecure for that first few weeks, without the protection of the detectives, which I’d grown comfortably used to. But I took the alarm with me everywhere I went; yes, even to the bathroom. One morning, while making my bed, I threw the comforter up and over the bed, unintentionally knocking the alarm from its perch on my nightstand. It was triggered. Within one minute, the front door came crashing in, and three police officers, hands on their gun holsters, erupted through my bedroom door. Two more police officers were downstairs.
“You okay?!” Shouted one of the officers.
Embarrassed, I answered meekly, “Yes. I’m so sorry.” I turned and looked at the alarm on the floor beside the nightstand. “Making my bed, I knocked it off.” My face burned scarlet hot.
Still, the officers gave the duplex a thorough search, and came up empty-handed. They searched outside. Afterwards, one of the officers, who must have been hoping for some real action, looked at me, a disgruntled, scolding look on his face. Another officer, seeing this, and seeing how badly I felt at having unnecessarily caused all this ruckus, said, “Don’t worry about it. It happens.” Then he grinned. “At least, now you know those things work!” The officers left, gently cautioning me to be careful with the alarm. The rest of the day remained calm.
A month later, another woman had a similar threat, identical MO, and it required the police to take the alarm from me, for her to use. “Apparently,” the officer explained, when he came to pick up the alarm,”something scared the guy off from here. We were sure we had him trapped. But call if you have any concerns, please. Once things settle down, ya never know, he could come back. So anything unusual, you call and report.” I watched him leave, my last piece of security in his hand.
I never found out if this stalker had been caught. I didn’t hear or read any reports about him after that. I hope he didn’t have a chance to hurt anyone else. But I learned what it feels like to be stalked. And I learned that our beautiful senses, including and especially the sixth one, are there for a reason: to protect us from threats we cannot detect with our other senses. Oh, and that thing about my last piece of security leaving when the officer took the alarm? I was wrong. The best piece of security is right inside of me, and it’s called intuition.
©Janet Mitchell, November 2011
- Stalking Is a Problem Everywhere, Including Indian Country (indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com)
- Private Social Network, UmeNow Video: Is Facebook Tracking, Stalking? (prweb.com)
- Nancy Dell’Olio left ‘stressed and upset’ by stalking fan (indiavision.com)
- Exposing the Invisible: Stalking in Indian Country (indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com)