By Joan Larsen
I have a story to tell, a tale that lies within me, waiting to come out… a seemingly improbable story that happened in my own family… a story that has marked me, marked my family. Like it or not, TV and the media have made us voyeurs in the most horrific stories of break-ins, robberies gone wrong, and murder. More. We can change channels but there are only others to take their places. They affect our minds and hearts.
But we are fortunate. They just happen to other people. Well, don’t they??
Nobody is going to come after us.
I was wrong.
THE CHILD AND THE ROBBERS
It was one of those December evenings you dream about… a stillness in the air, a new white thick layer of snow on the ground, and, at the cul-de-sac at street’s end, a single street light reflecting down. Christmas was definitely in the air and the calendar filled to the brim with parties and concerts. It was to be a week of both.
A Tuesday night and the children – in the early years of high school – were both performing at separate concerts at our high school. Our son had a choir party afterward. But this was the night of our favorite Christmas party – just a mile away… one of those “don’t miss” things that add the zest to the season. And so we went. The village was so safe in those days that we never worried about the kids coming home alone in the evening. Life has always been bucolic here.
Or so we thought.
The concert out, Debbie cut through the newly snow crusted back yards coming home, not walking the longer way that would have put her on the sidewalk in front of our house.
Lights were blazing in the family room and the same low light that we normally leave in the kitchen was on. The kitchen door was locked and she used her key to open it.
We were home, she thought, and we had brought guests from the dinner party back to our house. There was so much noise coming from the downstairs family room that it did sound like a party. Taking her shoes off at the door, she went to the sink for a glass of water. Glancing at the darkened living room, she saw a man inside, looking out the small glass pane window in the front door.
She had walked into a locked house so she assumed it was one of our friends waiting for a ride home. But then — the man, hearing the water running in the kitchen and thinking it was one of his own friends, said “There is a car coming slowly up the street”.
He turned… and she realized this was a stranger. The lookout. He began to run at full speed toward her. She made a dash for the back door and ran out, shoeless through the snow to the neighbor’s back door and never stopped ringing the bell.
But when things get bad, they get really bad. The neighbors, hearing the constant ring of the doorbell, thought it was their own grown daughter who had a key – so their own response was very slow. They would have no idea of the urgency of the situation. Suddenly, five men ran out of our kitchen door and down the joined driveways while Debbie was still outside, trying to get in to the neighbor’s. Their only thought was to escape as fast as they could. If these burglars, even running as they were, had any sense at all, they then would realize that – particularly against the white of the snow – that she could easily be able to identify them.
But that part of the scare was to come later.
The police were called. We were traced to the local restaurant, driving home to our house ablaze with lights and the whirring lights of the police cars. We had been told that Debbie was “safe”. But what did that mean?? I always thought I could handle things well. I could take charge. Not now. In one moment, I let myself down. The strong person that had served me well over the years disappeared. Melted away. Only instinct told me to ignore the other activity and run to my daughter’s side, sit down, hold her hand, listen. Surprisingly, I did not see tears from her. Perhaps, tears would come later. She repeated her story to the police, saying that the lookout robber thought she was one of his team until he turned to see a young girl there. She had taken a short-cut through the neighbors’ back yards instead of following the sidewalk so the lookout hadn’t seen her arrive. In an instant, the possibilities – possibilities we have all read about as to what could have followed – flashed in slow motion through my mind. My own tears fell and inside I was saying – over and over – “thank God, thank God, nothing happened to her”.
Perhaps the most unnerving part was the local newspapers playing the story up big. Little crime took place in the village, and so they put in all the particulars — as well as her name and her age (14). The worry then became that the five men had to guess that she might be able to identify them. Would there be threats or something worse perhaps?
The men were not caught. For a time – no matter where she was – we worried about Debbie’s safety. But walking into a completely locked house, having one of the robbers actually think that she was one of them before he charged after her, suggested the need for some counseling for her.
In the years since, we have seen no lasting change in her. She seems to have put it behind her and gone on with her college life. But from then on – without saying anything – Debbie always has slept with a locked bedroom door.
Somehow, we all can understand.
An afterword: As word about this story filtered out to the community and to friends, I found myself listening more than talking. Women wanted to tell their own stories of singular events in their own lives – either as youngsters or much later in life. Traumatic events, similar to this break-in but more often not, may have occurred one time… but left them marked forever. So often, I soon found, girls or women involved have held their stories within, keeping them secret. But usually, later in life in a single story heard or read the floodgates for them may open. After much thought on the part of this listener, I believe it takes an understanding ear – as well as caring and compassion – but I have seen the “release” to be a catharsis of sorts. I think we all notice that women come together in their time of need, letting us really know what true friendship really is.
Writer Joan Larsen has spent a lifetime searching for the most remote places on Earth. But it is the polar regions of our world that she has been drawn back to again and again. She has done research in these lands of ice, and considers Antarctica to be her “other home”.