I just finished reading In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. I have always wanted to read it because Truman Capote fascinates me. He is one of my favorite people who has lived. But I put it off. I knew what it was about, and frankly, I just wasn’t sure that I could handle it. Once I started reading, I still wasn’t sure I was going to make it all the way through. Anyone who knows me well knows my tangible fear of people breaking in to my house. And Capote tackled a true story of the brutal murder of a family of four in their own home. I shied away from this book because it was too real for me. It scared me. I couldn’t read it before bedtime because I knew it would lead to nightmares, if I was able to fall asleep at all. But I finally mustered up the courage and finished the book. I am so glad I did. And I am so shocked at how it made me feel. There were moments in his conversations with Perry Smith, one of the murderers, where I actually found myself feeling sorry for the criminal. This poor excuse for a human murdered four innocent people for no apparent reason, even against his better judgement, yet I actually cried for him as I read about his unfortunate upbringing. Such a different reaction than I thought would come from this book.
You see, my fear stems from a very real place. When I was about five years old, a burglar invaded my family’s home and really did a number on my ability to feel safe. I wrote about it 5 years ago, but haven’t shared it with others much. Last semester, on Halloween, my seniors asked if we could read a “scary” mentor text instead of the lesson I had originally planned. I had to come up with something quickly, so I pulled up the piece I wrote about one of my most nightmarish memories. I hesitated and hemmed and hawed before actually sharing this piece with students. The piece puts me in a vulnerable place, and I just wasn’t sure I was ready to share that with my students. But then I remembered that I ask them to be brave when they write and tackle the things that need to come out of them. I assure them that I read their writing without judgement and appreciate when they become vulnerable because that truly leads to great writing. Once these thoughts crossed my mind, I knew I had to share this piece with them. And after reading In Cold Blood, I felt the pull to share this piece with others.
So here goes…
A STRANGER’S SILOUHETTE
Perhaps it bothers me most that I have unwillingly devoted my entire life to an unconquerable fear of him and those like him, yet he has probably not given me a second thought, if he even remembers I exist. 23 years later, I can still see that night with more clarity than any other in my history; partly because of the countless times I have heard the story, and partly because its consequences have gripped me in a way I can’t overcome.
Cradled in my mom’s lap, with Officer Tate at our side, I spoke through my hysterical sobs.
“But, where IS he? Where is Sarge? Don’t you think he is scared, out there all alone? I want my dog back, Mom! Make them find Sarge!”
“I promise, Sweetie, my team will find Sarge and bring him home safely. Now don’t you worry your pretty little head another minute about it.”
Paranoia prevented Officer Tate’s words from giving me much comfort. I wanted to believe him; I just wasn’t sure I could trust him. According to my 5-year-old logic, it appeared that Sarge’s absence had caused the frenzy developing before me. It seemed perfectly plausible to me that the team of police officers had assembled in my living room with the sole purpose of finding my dog. At the time, it wasn’t crystal clear why Sarge left, but I knew it was important that we find him. His whereabouts consumed me until the hysteria caught my breath and wouldn’t let go.
When that night began, I had no idea I would ever think of it again. It should have been a typical fun-filled family night in the Teare household. Due to a crippling back injury, my dad’s doctor had given him strict orders to remain flat on the floor for several weeks. My brother, out for the night doing teenager things, would not return until morning. The ladies of the household decided to keep my dad company with a movie night and sleepover. We found our places snuggled closely to my dad on the living room floor. I drifted off to dreamland as Robin Hood wooed Maid Marian with his charm and archery. Eventually, we all settled into our sleep comfortably—my mom, my dad, my two sisters, and our loyal playmate, Sarge.
About 1:00 in the morning, my mom’s caffeine consumption woke her from her sleep. Blind without her contacts, she squinted to see the silhouette of a shirtless man at the base of our stairs about 10 feet in front of her. She thought to herself, Is it Josh? Did he change his mind about staying out all night and decide to come home early? Her heart jumped from her chest when Sarge stood and shook, causing his metal collar to jingle in the darkness. Completely shocked at the presence of life on the other side of the stairs, the man changed his course, walked to the living room, grabbed Sarge by the collar, and led him to the sliding glass door where he pushed him outside and shut the door behind him. Paralyzed with fear, my mom quickly realized this was a stranger and not my brother. Horrified, my mom watched the intruder reappear in the living room. His hair was long, he wore no shoes, and the long chain that dangled around his neck nearly brushed our cheeks as he leaned over each of us to check for deep, unwavering slumbers. Afraid that he could see better than she could in the pitch black, and nervous at the thought of making eye contact, my mom did not allow herself to look above the stranger’s shoulders. Her heart pounded as he came for her next. The what-ifs flooded her mind, but she managed to hold her breath and feign sleep, listening intently for changes in our breathing. Satisfied with his inspections, the burglar proceeded up the stairs to our bedrooms.
At the first creak of the floor above us, my mom frantically shook my dad from his snoring bliss and enlightened him to the nightmare unfolding. They woke us and hurried us to my mom’s full size van without the keys. Sweat collected on our foreheads as we sat in the dreadfully hot van in anticipation of what would happen next. My dad reentered our house armed only with a 9-iron because all of his guns were in his bedroom with the culprit.
The police arrived in no time only to watch the thief jump from the roof and escape with ease. They canvased the scene for clues and found “goodies” stashed on the garbage can beside our house—my mom’s purse, a small radio, the very keys we needed just minutes earlier.
Once the house was deemed safe, we gathered in the living room to sort through the details of the crime. It didn’t take Officer Tate’s team long to squelch my childish agony. Officer McCullen waltzed through the front door with Sarge trotting beside him. I rushed to my furry pal and threw my arms around his neck, vowing to never let go—ever.
I look back on that night often—with anger, confusion, trepidation, relief. Anger. If only I could recover the naïveté of my 5-year-old perspective—the inherent belief in the good. But I can’t. The creep crept into our space. Our sanctuary. Our home. Uninvited. How dare he think himself entitled to what my parents had worked all of their lives to give us, not him? Materially speaking, he didn’t get away with much, if anything at all. However, what he did get holds much more value than the few dollars or trinkets he could stuff in his pockets. What he took, I can never get back.
Because of him, I live in certainty that someone is always waiting in the bushes, ready to strike at any minute. Because of him, I will never sleep soundly. Because of him, hyperventilation visits me frequently as an adult when I lie in bed and make sense, or nonsense, of the threatening noises in the night. Because of him, my daughters will never enjoy Robin Hood because I can’t face the emotions it conjures. Because of him, I hate Halloween and all of the scary scenes it carries with it. Because of him, I will never feel safe and secure in my own home, no matter how many times I check the locks or set my alarm.
Despite my family and friends’ promises that it will never happen again, the closure I need remains unattainable. If only I had an individual at which to direct my fury. With the confirmation of identity, I could march into a prison somewhere and scream in the face of the man who ripped my sense of security from my hands. I could recognize strangers that mean no harm and vanquish my fear that he is still out there waiting to finish his incomplete crime. Unfortunately, I must settle for remaining with and fearful of the bandit who got away with much more than he knows.