While walking her dogs with her daughter, writer Lindsay Fleming feels compelled to reveal the scary recent murder in Roland Park.
We left the house to walk the dog at about nine. The shadows were long, the trees and shrubbery heavy with summer growth, the waxing moon not yet high in the sky. Many of the houses were dark, with neighbors away enjoying the last few days of summer vacation. As we walked along the park, past the house that will always be “the murder house” to me, where the grandparents had been bludgeoned to death by their grandson, I told her.
“A woman was murdered not far from here while you were gone. ”
It had happened while she was away at camp, and it was pretty much the only extraordinary thing that had happened while she was away. I’d had a hard time finding anything to write in my letters to her—the dog has Lyme disease! Saw a hummingbird and three goldfinches in the front yard! So hot! Watering all the time!—but I did not want to introduce the specter of horror into the idyll of summer camp.
Actually, it was a toss up whether to tell her at all, although she is a mature 13 with an insatiable appetite for crime shows. She blows through whole seasons of Hawaii 5-0, Blue Bloods, Bones, Law and Order SVU, and now, the latest favorite, Criminal Minds, with its focus on serial killers. Sometimes I come upon her watching this show and tune in to see if I should be censoring it (I should) and then I’m sucked in myself. If her fixation is indicative of a future calling, she’s on track to be a forensic pathologist or homicide detective.
I shared what little I knew of the crime–that the woman had been walking two large dogs and that her throat had been cut. My daughter seized upon these details. “Then it was someone who knew her,” she said, with near professional certainty. Which is, of course, what we have all been telling ourselves.
My motive for disclosing the news at just that moment is not entirely clear to me even now. Maybe I’d thought that with a murderer possibly living among us, she should know to be more alert. Or maybe I’d just been carried away by the details of scene—the shadowy night, the murder house—hijacked by my own ghoulish imagination. My mind, abroad in the neighborhood after dark, goes straight to trouble spots. I remember well the morning over twenty years ago when, walking another dog, I’d had to detour around police tape and a raft of squad cars. I’d returned home to report that something “major” had gone down in that house on the park.
“I’m sorry to tell you,” I said. “But it seems like you should know.” Often she doesn’t want to come on dog walks, and that night I’d pressed a little harder. “It’s why I wanted you to come with me; I’ve been nervous.”
“I’ll walk with you from now on, Mom. Don’t worry.” I linked my arm through hers and we continued on our way.
The important thing, I stressed, is to pay attention, to be aware “Just don’t think that everyone out there is a good guy.” As I was making this point, a dark sedan, going too fast, too loud, with thumping bass, roared by us. “I mean, you don’t want to go around thinking that everyone is out to get you either. You just want to be prepared to defend yourself. If you have to.”
“Don’t worry,” she said. “ I took self-defense in gym.”
She went on to relate some of the things she’d learned from crime shows and from self-defense training at school. If you’re stashed in a trunk, you kick out a taillight and stick a hand through to get attention. If someone tries to lead or drag you by the hand or arm, instead of hanging back, resisting, you charge ahead and then jab an elbow back in their stomach really hard. Also she knew how to get her hands free if they were ever duct-taped together. She demonstrated with a violent twisting motion.
What I had to share in the way of self-defense strategy was less technical. It boiled down to pay attention and trust your gut.
I’d learned these things when I was about her age, living in Vermont along a back road in the country. I wrote a short sketch about the offending incident for a writing class ages ago, calling it “Shiver of Recognition” for the feeling I’d had when I stumbled across a news brief: “Bundy was cold-blooded until the end… his confessions closed the books on 13 killings in Washington, Utah and Colorado; provided information on 14 more cases in Idaho, California, Vermont, …” A small photo of Ted Bundy in the courtroom accompanied the report. It wasn’t so much his picture that had grabbed me, that had sent a shiver down my spine, as it was this new information about the extent of his range—he’d been in Vermont, not far from where I grew up.
Dusk, late August, and I’d been called upon to help a neighbor with a new baby who lived a mile away down our lonely dirt road. I was the only one home at the time and set out on foot for the neighbor’s house. Between our house and hers, roughly midway, there was only our old barn and a vacant farmhouse across from it. I’d just passed by these landmarks, walking on the left, facing oncoming traffic, of which there was rarely any, when a car came toward me around the hairpin corner. It slowed suddenly some 50 yards out, and I had a good look at the driver as he approached, but averted my eyes as he passed because he was at the same time taking a good look at me. In those few seconds I beheld the dirty white sedan, the muddied, out of town license plate, the not unhandsome face framed by dark, ragged hair. As he came closer, the way he stared, intrusive and appraising, left me, in an instant, with a sinister feeling and pumping adrenaline.
After he’d gone by, I heard the crunch of gravel as he turned the car around in the parking lot of the barnyard and approached again from behind. The next slow-motion pass was excruciating. I trained my eyes on the ground, pretending nothing was up. The car crept by. It climbed the rise leading to the blind corner and passed out of sight. I crossed immediately to the other side of the road and continued on, hugging the ditch. At the crest of the hill, I peered out around the corner from behind the cover of an ungainly wild rose bush, to see if the coast was clear. The car was parked to the side of the road some 25 yards away. He waited in the front seat, slouched against the door. I turned and bolted for the barn, running as if for my life. There I crouched in the back corner of a stall under a hanging water bucket for over an hour.
In that sketch, which I’ve found again buried deep in a trunk in my study, there is one particularly bad line: As he drove by a second time, I felt his eyes inviting themselves to drink fully of my developing body, of my muscular, tanned legs in cutoff shorts. Next to it the teacher had written, “If one does say so oneself,” delivering a pithy lesson in point of view which still makes me chuckle.
I was thinking of this incident, of the vulnerability of a young girl out in the world, ripe for plucking, as we closed in on home. The air was shrill with the rise and fall of cicada song. The terrier lagged behind us as he is apt to do, his nose in every bush. The moon, just off full, was now visible over the trees.
“You just don’t want to be a victim,” I said. “Pay attention to cars that pass you more than once.”
“Oh, I know that,” she said. “I’m always studying license plates. We talked about it in self-defense.”
“Good,” I said. “If they offer it next year, maybe you should take it again.”
The mind abroad on a summer night goes straight to trouble spots and parks there. It feeds on too much information, as we have seen, and also on too little. We were only walking the dog; we were only imagining.