When Safety is on the Line

I back out of my driveway when I first see him. The stranger is meandering down the street strangely close to my property. He’s tall, white, and dressed mostly in black. In my rear-view mirror, I watch him get closer and closer to my house. It isn’t even lunch time.

My antique-white colonial sits on two acres of rolling Virginia hills in a small subdivision filled with dense, mature trees and a small creek that weaves in and out of the yards like a thread. We are several miles from the busy part of town, and I know most of my neighbors by face.

My van is halfway down the block when he glances in my direction. His face is unfamiliar. He dips into the woods, just over my property line, causing my heart to skip a beat, then quicken.

What do I do?

I’ve always been the kind of girl who chooses flight over fight. In gym class, I remember ducking every time that red ball came my way, and wincing at the sting on my skin as it bounced off my body.

I also remember getting in trouble during my years as a paralegal. I’d hide under my desk biting my nails, waiting for the lawyer’s backlash to ensue after transposing address numbers or misspelling names like Shwartzman and Agostinelli on important contracts.

In my rearview I see my toddler’s tiny hands swaying back and forth to the beat of “Let it Go,” as Elsa belts it out from her DVD player. This house is where my girls will grow to women.

Flight isn’t an option.

I stop contemplating it, and attempt a U-turn, but my palms are so clammy they can’t grip the steering wheel. I rub my hands across the tops of my thighs hoping the friction helps, and it does. Slowly, I press on the gas and my van turns, then lurches forward down the street.

In front of my property, I watch the stranger walk back and forth through our brush, just beyond the tree line. He keeps getting farther and farther from the street, and closer to my house. I almost can’t see him anymore. I can feel my stomach tighten.

I need a Tums. 

“Hey!” I shout. “Do you know you’re on private property?”

He pivots to look at me. His hood is tightly drawn, so I can’t see the color of his hair, but I know I won’t forget his face. He has a smattering of pink acne scars on his cheeks, and his light eyes are darting back and forth erratically.

He starts walking towards me.

Oh shit. Now what?

As the distance between us closes, I can see the muscles in his forehead twitching nervously, too.

He looks guilty!

I glance at his hands and check for any kind of movement that would indicate he might be reaching for a weapon. I’m suddenly quite fearless in my Grand Caravan.

“I’m looking for my phone,” the kid says. He appears to be in his late teens or early twenties. “My girlfriend tossed it in your woods last night. I was just trying to find it.” He puts his hands up defensively.

“Do you live in the neighborhood?” I scrutinize him. I keep my car in drive and my foot on the brake, ready to run him over.

“Yeah, I live over there,” he says, waving a hand in the direction behind me. There are only two streets in my neighborhood, a dead end cul-de-sac and a horseshoe shaped street that intersects the dead end in two places. He didn’t mention either street by name.

I don’t believe you.

“I’m calling the cops,” I say.

“I’ll leave,” he says. “It’s no big deal.”

It’s a very big deal, asshole. You’re trespassing!

I watch him hustle past my van before I roll down the window to take a picture of him on the sly. He turns left into the horseshoe and disappears. Once air returns to my lungs, I call the cops. Minutes drag before the sheriff finally arrives in his cruiser.

“Without a getaway car, a break-in is unlikely,” says the cop. “But you can’t rule it out. I’ll see if I can find him in the neighborhood for a talk right now. And we’ll start patrolling here more frequently.”

What if you don’t see him? What if he comes back?

I taste my morning coffee mixed with bile at the back of my throat.

That little shit.

My home is more than simple brick and mortar. It’s memories of my children racing down the stairs on Christmas morning. It’s sleepovers with friends and moms’ nights in. It’s kitchen dance parties and summer barbecues on the back porch, catching fireflies in a mason jar at dusk. It’s the place I walk barefoot and bra-less with yesterday’s eyeliner staining the skin beneath my eyes, and everyone accepts me just the same.

And some little jerk in a black hoodie is going encroach on that?

I don’t think so, buddy.

Maybe I’m a ‘fight’ kind of girl, after all…

 

 

Photo courtesy of Jordan Whitt/Unsplash

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A Lesson in Speaking Up and Saying Sorry

The neighborhood I grew up in doesn’t look quite like it used to when I was young. Sure, the tiny bungalows and ranches of blues, yellows, whites and brick continue to sit close to the sidewalk with cement slab driveways and manicured lawns framing each one. Mature trees anchor the street firmly in its blue-collar place. And, even today, I could set my watch by the freight trains chugging along two streets over. But it has changed in other ways.

Most noticeably, the neighbors inside the houses seem farther apart. The kids I played with as a child moved out long before I finished high school, and now they have moved on, making families of their own. The houses have changed hands to an older generation who care less about connecting with one another and more about their own to-do lists.

On any given day when I was growing up, a herd of neighborhood kids would congregate in front of my house to play hide-and-seek, red rover and tag. 

I remember one day, in particular, where we were all taking turns with the jump rope and skip-it.

“I dare you to jump rope from the top of the steps,” I said to Douglas, my next-door neighbor. Before the words even finished running out of my mouth, I regretted saying them.

“Yeah, I double dare you!” my step-sister, Steph, exclaimed.

With a wobbly voice, he accepted. I kept my mouth shut and held one end of the jump rope while my stepsister held the other.

We swung the rope around, making it soar up towards the sky. The first couple of times it came down, towards his feet, he cleared it – no problem. But then on the third or fourth time, something happened. I couldn’t tell if he tripped, or maybe lost his footing against the step, but before I could stop it, he fell backwards onto the concrete. It happened in slow motion. First he was midair, face contorting and arms flailing, then he was slamming against the ground beneath him.

Douglas’ head hit the jagged corner of the bottom step, with a loud thunk. Blood started gushing onto the concrete. His face turned chalky as he opened his mouth into a strange shape and screamed. Razor blades scraped against my ears. My feet weighed ten thousand pounds, but somehow I managed to pick them up, one after another. I ran to find my mom.

I thought he would be broken forever.

Another neighbor, Josh, ran over my driveway and through the next front lawn to find Douglas’ parents.

When the adults met back at my steps, harsh words were shouted and all fingers kept pointing to me and my step-sister. My face was hotter than the blood in front of me, and knew I was responsible. I should have spoken up, but I didn’t.

“It was my idea,” I said, accepting the blame.

Douglas was rushed to the hospital and I was sent to my room where I buried my face against the coolness of my favorite pink pillow. I tried to bury my regret, too, but it kept welling back up through my eyes, streaming down my face in hot spurts.

I wanted to hide there forever, but my mom didn’t let me. After my step-sister went home, she took me to the dollar store. She loaned me four quarters and a dime to buy a toy for Douglas as an apology. I picked out a bag of green toy soldiers because soldiers were strong, and so was my friend.

When we got back home, she made me knock on his door, present in hand. A red-faced Douglas answered with his parents at his side.

“Hey,” I said.

“Hey,” he responded.

“Are you okay?” I asked sheepishly.

“I got stitches,” he said, pointing to a freshly shaved spot on his head, sewn up with thick black thread. Looking at it made my belly feel like I just went down the first hill of a roller coaster at Cedar Point.

New tears burned the corners of my eyes. “I’m so sorry,” I said, handing him the bag of plastic army men as an olive branch.

“Cool,” he shrugged. “Wanna play with them?”

I looked up to my mom and she nodded, nudging me into the house. Douglas ripped open the bag and the little plastic soldiers spilled onto the wooden floor. We played with them while our parents drank fizzy cans of R.C Cola and mended the wound festering between them. When I looked up, my mom smiled, letting me know that everything was going to work itself out.

Though many things in my neighborhood have changed over the last thirty years, the bloodstain on my stepdad’s front step remains. It has faded only slightly with time.

Each time I see it, it reminds me to speak up, say sorry, and take care of my friends and neighbors.

***

Right now, more than ever, I need my mom to reassure me with that smile that everything will, again, work itself out.

I tried. I tried to speak up. To do my part, but it wasn’t enough. That roller coaster feeling in my belly won’t go away this time. I keep worrying about what the future holds for my girls, my neighbors, my friends.

Will more blood spill, because we didn’t speak loud enough? What can I do now?

Little plastic soldiers won’t work this time.

Photo courtesy of  Tim Marshall/Stocksnap.io