I remember the doorbell ringing. I thought I was dreaming still, but when it rang a second time, it startled me awake. I opened my eyes and the bedroom was dark. Hazy silhouettes of the dresser and nightstand came into view. Glancing toward the window, even with the curtains drawn I could tell there was no sign of the sun rising anytime soon. I turned to the bedside clock and checked the time. The brightness made my eyes hurt, and the well-lit numbers were a blur.
2:17 a.m. Who the hell was ringing the bell at almost 2:30 in the morning? I looked over at Jerry—Gerald, when I was upset with him—who was still sound asleep. He let out that rumbling snore, the one that always came after a few evening beers.
They must have had the wrong house, and I had no interest in getting up. I rolled over and pulled the blankets back over me. Just as I begin to doze off, the bell rang a third time, quickly followed by a fourth. “Jerry, wake up.” I grabbed hold of his arm and shook him. “What time is it, Cheryl? It’s not even daylight yet. Are you okay, honey?”
The doorbell rang again and snapped me out of my sleepy fog. “Jerry, it’s almost 2:30 and someone is ringing the doorbell.”
“Probably some kids playing a prank,” he said before rolling over away from me and pulling the covers up to his neck.
Jerry hated being woken up. He said it stemmed from his time as a young man in the Navy when he’d be woken up throughout the night for emergency training drills, followed by his twenty-six years as a police officer at the Boston Police Department. Thirteen of those years had been spent as a homicide detective, where he would receive phone calls at all hours—“callouts,” as the guys on the force had called them. It seemed most of the murders those days took place in the middle of the night. Even though his title was Homicide Detective, he and his team worked on all the violent crimes in Boston’s West End area.
He’d resigned from the force two years ago, at age fifty-four. Jerry loved his job and could have worked well into his sixties, but after the gruesome and very publicized murder of fourteen-year-old Jenny Wilson went cold, he had never been able to forgive himself.
And even though Jerry’s career had exposed him to the worst in people, he wasn’t callused by it. I loved that about him. We both believed that overall, people are good. Some just choose the wrong path or are products of their environment. But that doesn’t account for most people. I think that’s why Jerry was able to remain so kind and selfless.
“It has rung four times now. Kids playing pranks don’t stay on the porch and keep ringing. Honey, I’m worried.”
Jerry and I lived in a modest suburban home in the suburbs of Nashua, New Hampshire, about thirty five miles outside of Boston. Our house sat in the quiet neighborhood of Riverbend Gated Community, which never had too many strangers passing through. No reason to. It wasn’t a convenient route between the main highway and the city. Plus, the gates were closed and locked by security guards every night. Only residents living within the safety of the tall wrought-iron gates and fences were given a code to enter after ten. It was one of the reasons I felt so safe living there—knowing that after a certain hour, people who didn’t belong there couldn’t be there.
The doorbell rang again. “Oh my gosh,” I whispered to myself. “Jerry, what if something happened to one of the kids? You need to see who it is.”
Kerry, at age thirty-five, had recently given birth to our first grandson, Noah, and was living with her husband in Milford. We were delighted to learn we were going to be grandparents. As Kerry got up there in age, we were starting to wonder if it would ever happen.
Our son, Kyle, was what we liked to call ‘our adult child.’ Just four years behind Kerry in age, Kyle raced dirt bikes most of his waking hours and financed his fun by working a security job at night. Jerry offered him a job at the PI office many times, but Kyle said working those hours took away from his time on the track. We always supported our children and the paths they had chosen for their lives, and racing wasn’t any different. Kyle was a single guy with no kids, living on his own, and supporting himself with an honest living. Safe, happy, and healthy—all a parent could hope for. But no matter how old your kids get, when the doorbell rings in the middle of the night, it will create that knot in your stomach.
Jerry groaned and threw the blankets off. “Okay, I’m going to go check it out. I won’t be able to go back to sleep anyway thinking someone could be hurt.”
As he got up, I gave him a quick smack on the butt. I always loved how his butt looked in boxer shorts, even as an outline in the darkness. Patting his cute butt was something I’d done since he began courting me all those years ago. He gave me that shy little giggle that he never allowed anyone else to hear and told me, “Oh, you’re gonna get it when I get back.” Even with the dim moonlight shining through the curtains, I could see the gleaming bald spot that Jerry denied was on the crown of his head. It made me smile. I loved all his little imperfections.
He grabbed his old and tattered blue robe from the foot of the bed and wrapped it around his broad shoulders. While tying it closed, he used his foot to produce his brown corduroy slippers from under the bed. I watched as he started shuffling to the door. As he stepped into the hallway, I snapped back into the moment. “Take a bat with you.”
“I would if we owned a bat, honey.” He chuckled as he disappeared into the darkness.
I didn’t know why I said that. I knew we didn’t have a bat. But I was scared, and I didn’t know why. We just didn’t get people knocking on our door unannounced, let alone in the middle of the night. We should have owned a bat. Or one of those big mean dogs, like a Chow or Doberman.
We had a dog. But our sweet little sixteen-year-old Maltese, Shadow, wasn’t much of a deterrent for intruders. I had gotten Shadow from the rescue shelter on a whim after hearing Sarah McLaughlin singing on the TV with all those sad-looking cats and dogs flashing across the screen. I cried and cried and told Jerry we needed to save them. Jerry was allergic to cats, so I opted for the cutest little doggie that caught my eye. I called her Shadow because, in that shelter, she was so little and scared that she would take refuge in the shadow of the bigger dogs. And Jerry quickly came to love her as much as I did. He spent each evening sitting on the couch with her on his lap while he drank his beer and watched the news. But with her eyesight failing, she relied more on her hearing. Her bladder wasn’t doing too well, so we kept her confined in the kitchen at night with a baby gate in the doorway and those doggie pee pads on the floor.
I reached toward the nightstand and turned on the lamp. It was much brighter than the illumination of the clock, and my eyes hadn’t adjusted yet.
Not knowing what to do, I sat up straight, pulling the blankets up to my neck. I was worried. Nothing good happens at two in the morning.
I heard the faint creaking sound of the stairs as Jerry walked down. I’d been wanting to tell him to fix those stairs for months, but he was so tired these days, and he’d been working so hard, I hadn’t had the heart to bother him with it.
When I heard the front door open, the sound of low, mumbling voices traveled up to the second story and faded as they entered the room. The words were so quiet, I held my breath in an attempt to hear who it was and what they were saying. But all I heard was the bass tone of men’s voices. Men. Was there more than one man ringing the bell, or was I hearing Jerry’s as well? It was hard to tell.
Jerry was going to be so tired in the morning. He’d play it off and tell me he was fine, but he could never hide the bags and dark circles under his eyes when he hadn’t gotten enough sleep. Maybe I’d make him that breakfast he liked so much, waffles with strawberries and whipped cream. Do we have whipped cream? I’ll make sure to check in the morning.
I was tired, and my mind was wandering, so I got up and went to the window, hoping I could see who was out there. The night was clear enough to see all the stars in the sky, even with the streetlights on. I couldn’t see the front door from the second story due to the overgrowth of the trees. It was the beginning of fall, and the leaves had just begun to take on their beautiful array of oranges and reds. But at this point, they hadn’t started falling off just yet.
There was no car parked in front of the house, which I found odd. Not only was someone here at two in the morning, but they’d walked here? Something didn’t feel right.
I tip-toed to the bedroom door and peeked my head out. The house was dark. Jerry hadn’t bothered to turn on a light. Once my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I was able to navigate around the familiar house. I walked down the hall to the landing at the top of the stairs. The cool fall air filling the house from the open front door made goosebumps appear on my arms. Crossing my hands over one another, I gave myself a hug in an attempt for warmth. Good thing Jerry had put his robe on—he was always such a baby when he caught a cold.
It was mid-September and probably in the low 50s. Fortunately, winter was not upon us just yet. I loved New Hampshire, but I hated the cold. I leaned half of my body over the railing to get a look at the door, but with my belly just as big as Jerry’s and my five-foot-four stature, I couldn’t lean far enough to see who was there. The porch light shone in and illuminated Jerry’s slippers on the old wooden floor. The murmured conversation had stopped.
“Jerry, who is it?” I finally called out in a whisper. He didn’t answer back. The worry I’d felt when the doorbell rang had subsided, and fear had taken its place. Warmth began to filter through my body as my heart rate steadily rose. I could see that the heels of his feet were still. They were the only part of Jerry I could see because of the low-hanging ceiling.
Was someone lost and he was giving directions? I thought to go downstairs and see for myself, but not having a bra on under my nightgown made me feel uncomfortable around strangers. Especially male strangers. Mental note: buy a robe for myself.
What was going on down there?
“Jerry,” I said a little louder and a lot more worried. Again, no answer. What the heck? I knew he could hear me. I just wanted to go back to bed. If I could go back to bed, that would mean everything was okay.
I worked part-time teaching at a school for special needs children. Mostly younger kids, seven to twelve years old. I loved teaching kids at this age—they were still receptive and eager to learn. Their special needs varied anywhere from autism to severe dyslexia. I used to teach full time, fourteen- through seventeen-year-olds, but as I got older, I had a hard time keeping up with them. Diagnosed with arthritis in my hands, the pain made it impossible to restrain the older, much bigger kids, from hurting themselves, as some of the special needs children often did. I truly loved my job and being with children, so with my sixtieth birthday fast approaching, I decided to move to part-time with the smaller kids instead of retiring altogether. I’d been incredibly happy with the transition.
I had work the next day too, but I didn’t need as much sleep as Jerry. Or more like just wasn’t as grumpy if I didn’t get a full eight hours.
I knew I should just go back to bed. Jerry was obviously handling whatever was going on. He hadn’t come back in for the phone, so 911 didn’t seem to be a necessity.
Before heading back down the dark hallway, I leaned over the rail one more time and saw that Jerry’s feet were still planted facing the door. I was trying to listen for any kind of chatter, but I couldn’t understand what was being said. It had only been a few minutes since Jerry answered the door. Too long for anything good to happen. With a sense of foreboding, I started backpedaling.
I froze. I wasn’t sure if that was what I heard, but I was sure of one thing—it was Jerry’s voice. His tone was very matter of fact. And calm. Oddly calm for such a command.
I stood frozen with uncertainty, staring into the darkness of the hallway. The thumping from my chest grew louder with each passing second. For those few seconds, it was all I could hear. Then it came again, this time a lot louder: “Run.” I wasn’t confused by the order this time.
My eyes flinched, but I didn’t move. I was frozen in place. My labored breathing quickly changed to frantic gasps for air. Grasping the sides of my head, I was trying to regain control of my own body. What did he mean, run?
Where was I supposed to run to?
It must have only been a second later when Jerry screamed, louder than I’d ever heard him, in a deep and unfamiliar tone that made me snap out of my paralyzing fear. “Cheryl, run!”
His words were followed by a loud thud and an exasperated exhale. The kind of sound one releases when getting the wind knocked out of them.
After taking a second to comprehend what he was telling me to do, I hustled down the hall and into the bedroom. In my youth as a competitive swimmer, I would have had the ability to run. But at fifty-nine years old and two hundred pounds, that swimmer’s endurance was long gone. I shuffled along as best I could. My knees and ankles ached at the unfamiliar need for rapid movement.
When I got into the room, I pushed the door forward, putting my hand between the door and the frame to ease it into the latch. Click. I didn’t want whoever was out there to hear what room I’d gone into. I wanted to lock it, but I didn’t want to lock Jerry out. I frantically looked around the room. There was nowhere else to run. Why did I need to run? “Oh god, what’s happening?” I said aloud, though talking only to myself. I turned back and forth frantically, looking for somewhere to go.
As soon as I pulled the curtains back—whack! It came from downstairs and sounded painful. I looked back at the closed door. Men started yelling unintelligible words, followed by the stomping of heavy boots—fast paced steps on the wooden stairs. More than one pair, and surely not the sound of Jerry’s slippers.
They were coming. But who were they, and why were they inside of our house?
I need to call the police.
As I scrambled around the room in a panic, I remembered that we don’t keep our cell phones in our room. As soon as Jerry left the force, he wasn’t required to be available for callouts. So, to avoid disruption of any kind, we started leaving our phones in the kitchen to charge. I didn’t think about needing them for an emergency of our own. I wasn’t in the military like Jerry. I had never been deployed overseas like he was, and I’d never been up against an enemy like he was. But I wished I had some sort of basic instinct or training. Instead, I stood in the middle of the room doing nothing but praying. Clasping my hands together, I squeezed my eyes closed and silently begged God for safety. I begged for protection. I’d been a church-goer since I was a young girl and my faith in Him had grown into adulthood. I interlaced my fingers together and pleaded with the Man above.
I promise to read scripture every night. I promise to make the best of each day and see the kids more. Please God, just let us be okay.
Suddenly, the bedroom door was thrown open so hard that the doorknob smacked the wall behind it. White, flakey pieces of paint and drywall peppered the light tan carpet. I screamed at the unexpected entry. Jerry was thrown into the room by two men dressed in all black. They had hoods on, and their faces were covered by bandanas. One of them had a metal pipe or crowbar in his hand, I couldn’t quite see in the shadows. Whatever it was, he was hitting it against his other hand with practiced dexterity. Like he was getting pumped up and ready to use it for something. Jerry had landed facedown at my feet as one of the men turned on the light.
“Oh my god, Jerry. Are you okay?” I kneeled next to him and brushed his messy hair back from his forehead. He hadn’t started receding in the front just yet.
When he looked up at me without saying a word, I knew the answer. There was fear in his eyes. A look I’d never seen from him. Jerry didn’t get scared. He was a man’s man, a survivalist and a protector. At that moment, when he looked up at me from his place on the floor, I realized he could no longer keep me safe. Keep us safe.
Jerry tried to stand up, but one of the men used his boot to stomp on his back. An awful wincing escaped him as his body collapsed onto our bedroom floor. I held Jerry’s face and looked up at the man. In an odd and incongruous moment, I noticed beautiful blue eyes peering above the top of his black bandana. They weren’t your average color; they were a shade of teal that reminded me of the Caribbean Sea.
“Leave him alone. Stop what you’re doing. Please,” I begged.
“Cowards,” Jerry uttered while trying to regain his breath.
Jerry was a proud man, and I knew he was trying to maintain his dignity while being forced face-down to his bedroom floor. His eyes bulged from their sockets and his nostrils flared as he looked up to the men in front of him. Continuous heavy sighs escaped him. These were no longer from the stomp to his back, these were different. Jerry wasn’t used to being the victim, and it showed.
The other man—not the blue-eyed one, the short stocky one—was busy looking around our bedroom. Looking, but not touching or taking anything. He studied our trinkets and the knick-knacks that lined our dresser and shelves with souvenirs from my kids’ travels abroad. When his eyes met our framed wedding picture, he stopped and stared for a few seconds, taking in our happiest day. In the picture, Jerry stood tall behind me with his black tux and cheesy grin, his hands on my waist. Like a picture from high school prom. His hair was thick then. He was thin in the right spots and muscular in the others. I wore a white lacy dress with long sleeves, capped right at the ankle. I’d chosen to forego the veil because I wanted to show off my professionally done hair and makeup. I clutched a beautiful bouquet of purple lilies in front of me, and it reminded me of how happy I’d been to be marrying him.
The man looked down at Jerry, then back at the picture. His voice was slightly muffled under the bandana, but I could understand him clearly. “Man, you actually married this fat bitch?”
Jerry pushed himself up to his feet, not giving the blue-eyed man enough time to force him back down. He tripped on his robe and made it only as far as his knees. Clenching his fists, he held them up in my honor. “Don’t you ever. Ever. Talk about my wife.”
Man, I’d thought I was at a decent weight in that picture. Thick, but not obese the way I ultimately became. This man must really be disgusted by me now.
While the guys were occupied by Jerry’s bravado, I used the opportunity to look around for anything I could use as a weapon. Next to the clock on my nightstand, I saw my statue of Athena. She stood ten inches and was made of Alabaster stone. I slowly sidestepped toward the statue so as not to draw attention to myself. But I got anxious and before I was close enough, I leaned way over with my arm outstretched as far as it would go. It must have been too drastic of a movement, because the stocky guy spun around and glared at me. His dark brown, almost black, eyes peered above the bandana and were fixated on me. I saw the anger in those eyes even before he spoke.
“A fat bitch with balls, huh.”
I didn’t move another inch and I couldn’t say anything. I mean, what could I say to that? Ashamed and embarrassed at being caught, I put my hands over my face and started sobbing.
He punched Jerry in the stomach, then pushed him aside, leaving him hunched over, holding his gut in pain. This had to be messing with Jerry’s ego. Emasculation had never been something he’d had to deal with. I knew he’d been in plenty of fights with younger, stronger men, and come out on top. He always used to train with the youngsters he supervised in the Navy and with newbies in the department. Keeps me prepared when guys of this age and stature come at me, he’d said.
The man walked around the foot of the bed and stood in my face. I peered at him through my fingers. He stood several inches taller than me, about five-foot eight—his stocky build must have made him appear shorter than he was. His deep-set almond eyes appeared vacant as they locked on to me with no emotion. My hands were shaking. I think I was expecting him to punch me in the same careless way he had done Jerry, so I braced myself.
That hit didn’t come. Not yet, anyway. Keeping his eyes on me, he reached over and picked up Athena. Through clenched teeth, voice slightly muffled by the bandana, he told me, “Try it again and you will watch your husband die.” His tone was deep and stern, and I believed him.
He threw the statue to the floor, shattering it into pieces.
“What do you want from us?” Jerry called out in angry desperation.
The blue-eyed man replied, “What I want from you is to shut the fuck up.” Both men laughed. I continued to sob. This couldn’t be happening. Wake up, Cheryl. Wake up.