Years ago, my family moved “up Nort’” looking for small town living to raise our children in and, boy, did we find it. With a population of only 2,012 souls in our little “city,” we get to know our neighbors pretty well. And they know us. In fact, if we drive down Main Street, it’s a bit of a parade—lots of waving and smiling and hollering “hi” to folks, even if you just saw them last night at the town meeting.
We felt safe.
When my husband had to go out of town for a week on business, I thought nothing of sending him off with a kiss and a smile. My kids, four-years and eighteen-months-old, kept me running all day, so we went to bed early. At some point in the night, my four-year-old got up to use the bathroom and then crawled in bed with me. (Thankfully, in that order.)
The next morning, we overslept and I had to scramble to get him ready for his half-day kindergarten class. Neither he nor I are morning people, so we had the usual hassle trying to get him (and myself) awake enough to accurately apply toothbrush to teeth and perform the other morning rituals before navigating the stairs to the main floor.
I got the kids set up at the kitchen table, splashed milk over the cereal and juice into the sippy cups—the whole time grumbling to myself about how cold the house seemed to be that October morning. Then, I went to the laundry room to get their clothes for the day.
Except the door to our garage was broken off its hinges and leaning sideways across the hallway, blocking my path to the laundry. My first thought, “Holy sh*t! How did that happen?” was quickly replaced with “Oh, crap. Are they still here?”
They weren’t. The cops responded quickly and walked through the whole house while the kids and I stood shivering in the kitchen. Strangely enough, even though the intruders broke the connecting door to the garage down (how did we not hear that?), they exited out the kitchen. All they’d taken was a flashlight and three dollars my dad had given my four-year-old for being brave when he got his vaccinations. The police found the flashlight sitting benignly on the stoop outside, as though the intruders were saying, “No thanks. We have our own.”
They’d kept my kid’s money, though.
After reassuring my son that I’d reimburse his bucks-for-shots and popping him on the school bus, I followed the cops around as “we” looked for clues. By now, I had calmed down and transitioned to the writers’ this-will-make-a-good-scene-in-my-next-book stage. We figured out how they had broken in (pried the overhead garage door open); that they had ransacked my car, including a lockbox I’d kept in there for transporting confidential files (also pried open, contents dumped, and lockbox tossed against the wall); that they’d taken the flashlight from the glass-fronted cabinet in the kitchen where we’d stored it (the blinking light that’s supposed to help us locate it during power outages also apparently alerts bad guys to the cool, “hi-tech” flashlight); that they’d missed the bank bag with our construction company’s petty cash in it that was sitting right next to the flashlight (apparently they were distracted by the pretty, blinky light); that they’d taken my son’s money from the counter (cuz they’re greedy [insert swear word of your choice here]); and, finally, that they must have heard something that sent them out the side door, sans “booty.”
That last point gave me pause. It took me out of my writer brain and reactivated the somebody-was-in-my-house brain. What had happened to make them leave without anything more than three lousy dollars? Had they tripped over our good-for-belly-rubs-only Bassett Hound? She’s sweet-natured and her only response to any person, friend or foe, would be to flop upside-down at their feet and assume the petmepetmepetme position. Had they heard my eighteen-month-old as she shifted in her sleep? We kept the baby monitor on constantly and it was set up in the kitchen. Had they heard my four-year-old as he stumbled to the bathroom, making his way through the dark house?
We’ll never know. But now we know enough to be wary of what seems safe, to be aware that bad things can happen anywhere, anytime. We know enough to install an alarm system, to double-check the locks on the doors, to check the shadows.
And it’s just that kind of dichotomy that makes suspense novels suspenseful. (See what I did there? It’s a transition. Not necessarily a good one, but still…) Writing about evil in the midst of good is what made Mary Higgens Clark the Queen of Suspense. Her books are a constant reminder that the ordinary can shape-shift into the treacherous at any moment. In Clark’s worlds, it’s not a good idea to get too comfortable.
When I’m writing, I try to imbue my stories with the wisdom that the “safe” world has only a tenuous hold on reality. It can change at any moment. The memory of the cold atmosphere on the morning—the first clue, ignored—teaches me to use a light hand with foreshadowing. I use the fear and confusion that struck when I came around the corner and saw the door canted sideways, broken. Broken into. When I’m plotting, I try to reenact piecing together the story of the steps the intruders had taken, the attempt to see the path they took so as to understand why they made the choices they made.
Thankfully, my daughter was too young to remember any of it and my son’s memories are consumed by being able to handle the nice cop’s handcuffs, but despite that, there is no denying the sense of violation that resulted from that morning.
If you’re a writer, what experiences have you had that you’ve “used” in your writing?
If you’re a reader, have you ever read a scene that resonated with something you had experienced?