The man at my window didn’t say anything; he just stared. But I was 12 years old and asleep–what was he going to say?
We have that sense when something is wrong, that the world is slipping dangerously, and that we need to pay attention. When I woke up at 5 in the morning, I knew from the tension in the air not to open my eyes. I peered through my eyelashes, and saw the screen was missing from my window. Then I saw the shape of a man and the shine in his eyes. Probably his eyes were not that bright, but that is how I remember them.
I’d been sleeping next to the window, the windowsill level with my bed, because it was a typical Florida June night and we had no air conditioning. My nightgown and sheet twisted around my waist but I resisted the urge to pull them down over my legs. I pretended to be asleep.
He leaned in over me and looked around my room. I thought of the baton next to my bed, and imagined myself hitting him in the head. I imagined that him wrenching the baton away from me. I stayed still.
He rested his hand on the windowsill a few inches from my face. I thought about milk cartons with pictures of other children. I thought this is what it is like when you know you’re really in trouble. Well, pretending to be asleep seemed to be working, and so perhaps I could keep pretending. I rolled over and put my back to him.
Without looking at the window, I let my feet fall to the floor and I sat up. Here is me, I thought, pretending to go to the bathroom. I stood up. I walked into my mother’s room–for a variety of reasons I was living with her that year–and I stood in her doorway. I didn’t go into her room.
“Mom,” I whispered, waiting for the man to come up behind me. “Mom.”
“Hmmm? What?” she said in the dark. Her window was open and I stared at the bushes outside, waiting for the man to show up there. “There’s a man at my window.”
Still whispering as if I might disturb someone. “There’s a man. At. My. Window.”
My mom flew out of bed and ran to my room, flipping on lights as she went. I still remember the shine of her blue nightgown in the light of my room. He was gone, but his footprints were in the dirt around the crushed periwinkles to prove I hadn’t been dreaming.
Mom called the police, and then she called my grandmother and she said, “Marta’s coming to live with you. Today.”
That man may have forgotten all about me, but he’s always there, ready to spring whenever I need to terrify my characters. As they say–write what you know and I had to scare my heroine today.
She’s turned out okay too. Some of us are lucky.