Staggering in the Headlights

Creative Nonfiction
Erin M. Pushman


It is strange that looking back on anything in your life, no matter how terrible, it seems bearable to you, and anything different seems unbearable (even less terrible things). You look on other people’s tragedies or other possible tragedies to yourself and say, ‘That I could not bear.’ —Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Hour of Gold Hour of Lead.

In South Carolina, not far from where I live, an escaped sex offender captured a teenage girl and held her in his underground bunker for five days. Long before the girl, he was a master of digging and hiding and hurting. He’d committed other sex crimes and evaded police for almost one year through what news reports called an “elaborate system of underground bunkers.” One year: escaping and waiting and evading. First he huddled down in a bunker hidden under a trap door in the bedroom of his trailer; then he crept to other bunkers, dug and scattered here and there. Then he found the girl. A treasure for the holes, the spoils of evasion. The bunker for her was special; hidden in the woods and booby-trapped, it held food stores and boasted a dug-out latrine. He was hard at work digging another hole, under the girl’s bunker, so he could escape down further, if need be. The girl would have heard the scraping of metal on earth. Felt the bruising and opening of the clay below her. He dug these bunkers out himself like a weasel or a fox, crude dens, graves for the living with walls of dirt.

He evaded police.

 

He slips into my room at night. He creaks the wood floor in the hallway and creaks it again when he’s beside the bed. He lowers a hand, tugs my sheet. If I haven’t screamed by now I won’t, so I’m good and quiet when he raises the other hand to show me whatever he has planned for me this time. Shadowed and vague, he could be six feet tall, he could be five. He could be stocky or skinny, longhaired or short. Maybe he looks the same, maybe he doesn’t. I can never tell, and it doesn’t matter because he’s just a nightmare. His presence is real enough, though, that I can still feel him after I wake, can still hear him moving, and I have to wait until he’s gone before I can breathe. His hand slides away from the sheet, his steps knock softly back down the hall, the toe of his left shoe nudges the kitchen door back open, and I hear the comforting click as he shuts it gently behind him. Then, breathing finally, I am able to unwind myself from the tight knot I’ve formed in my bed.

 

A woman in Washington Township, Michigan, an hour or so from where my mother lives, went missing. Her husband said she got into a dark car he didn’t recognize and never came home. An investigation ensued. Before the husband was a suspect, indeed before there was even a crime to be a suspect of, my mother knew the husband killed his wife, and she knew he cut his wife up, and she knew his wife’s body was “in or around the house.” My mother called the Macomb County Sheriff’s Office.

“You’ll think this is crazy,” she said, “but this is what I have in my head. I tend to pick things up, and this is just a feeling I’ve picked up.”

My mother will know things, just that, know them by a turned-in sight, a sense that works upside-down of other senses. If I lose my watch or my favorite pen, I can call her and tell her it is lost; she will close her eyes and “pick up” mercurial imprints—like a photograph not quite there, planned but never taken—images of where the thing has gone. “It’s in a warm place,” she’ll say, “somewhere light comes in…” Or “Do you have an orange bag, or something bright, something holding something else, it’s around there.” Then I will find my pen landed on the windowsill behind the nightstand or my watch fallen inside the orange bag of cat food. Or someone will die, and when I call to tell her, I will find she has felt the dying in the dawn and has by now washed and readied her clothes for the funeral. Or she will call to tell me that this or that something has finally come to pass, and for days now she has known it would.

 

Something in the tilt of his head lets me know he’ll get my husband first. He has a knife or a gun, has it tight and cool in that awful hand, and he’ll make me watch Chris die before he starts in on me. He moves his body, tapping little meanings out into the air with the noises of his clothing: belt buckle clinking for me, shirtsleeve shushing Chris. Soon I know there will be other noises. Soon. I know. But before that, just before, a scream builds in me, then sticks. The sticking scream thrashes me around and forces some other noises out. Small hisses and gulps of sound. Compressed, staggering movements. But they’re all enlarged and inflated by the quiet of the night and the closeness of the bed, and they wake Chris.

“It’s okay, Baby. It’s okay.” But it isn’t.

“He’s in the house. Someone’s in the house.”

“There’s no one.”

“Don’t you hear him? Can’t you hear him?”

“No one’s here.” Just then the noises stop. He is silent, and he is gone.

 

Because the teenage girl was a minor, the police would not release any information about if or how the bunker man abused her. But one day, while he was sleeping, she snatched his cell phone and text messaged her mother, typing out that she was in a bunker in the woods. The bunker man woke and caught her with the phone, but the girl said she was just playing with it. Assuming his victim was a silly little thing, the bunker man believed her.

He was evading police.

 

Coming through the kitchen door, he is too noisy this time; the scrape of the lock being forced stirs me to consciousness, and his heavy step on the tile floor yanks me square to the middle of that point between waking and awake. Still it’s like coming up from underwater, and I cannot quite make the surface, and without making the surface, I cannot scream. And he is not in the bedroom yet, and there would be time to act, to run, to climb out the window, to lift the lamp’s base in defense, but I cannot make the surface, and I cannot scream. I make only a small mewing, a small, small no, no, no-ing. He comes. Chris will not wake.

 

Within twenty-four hours of my mother’s phone call, the Macomb County Police considered the husband a person of interest in the disappearance of his wife. A day or so after that, he became a suspect.

Searching his house, investigators found the wife’s torso in the garage and other parts of her in the wooded area behind their house. My mother called to tell me this. Her head was pounding with the knowledge “in or around the house.” Now the husband was a suspect in the murder and dismemberment of his wife.

But he evaded police.

 

During one trip back home, I spend several days with my old friend Amey, who is visiting her family too. I don’t sleep much; he wakes me every night. Creeping up the gravel drive, circling the house, peering in the windows. Until he finds mine. He grades the gravel under his boots. He grinds the grass below the windows. I feel the imprint he sinks with his treads into the dirt patch he has scraped beneath my sill. His mark here. I make no sound.

One late night, Amey and I get drunk with her dad, and I go far enough to say, “Look, Mitch, I’m a little afraid lately of getting raped and… worse; I’ve taken a self-defense class, but it’s all choreography; you’ve been to Vietnam, what’s the best thing to do if someone’s trying to get you?” Amey’s dad doesn’t even shift his eyes; he just looks directly at me, then stands up and shows me and Amey three ways to kill someone with our hands.

 

Suspecting the police were on to him and would eventually approach his animal den, the bunker man fled, leaving young Miss _____ there and telling her not to make a peep. The police were on to him too, and they were searching the woods. Knowing the police wouldn’t find her, burrowed away in the earthen hole, by sight or smell, young Miss _____ screamed anyway. She heard the police searching the woods above her head, and she screamed and screamed. The police evaded the booby traps, found the teenage girl, and later arrested the bunker man.

Would I have the courage to grab his cell phone and call for help? Doubtful. I can hardly manage a scream in my dreams. And anyway. Once I was a victim, not of a violent crime but of a drunken one, one that guaranteed me two years of physical rehabilitation before I could walk again unaided. I had the chance to run or dive or jump from the car’s screaming trajectory. But I did nothing.

 

Or maybe, when I’m staying with my brother and sister-in-law, he comes as the shadow man sneaking in through the door in the back of the garage. He drags his feet this time, whisper, whisper, whispering them on the carpet. I wake as he passes my bed—passes it—on his way to the baby’s room. He’s come to get my niece, and I strain to push my scream out, strain to stop him, strain to warn my brother and rouse my husband to help. The scream does come, and this time, hundreds of miles away from my own bedroom, the scream evaporates him.

 

When the Macomb County Police Department found the remains of Mrs. _____, they sent out a press release saying they’d received some phone tips, taken them seriously, and would continue to pay attention to them.

The husband ran on.

My mother’s head pounded.

 

I was walking, close to the outside edge of a curve in a sidewalk, a good five feet from the street. Hearing the Audi Station wagon before I saw it, I instinctively looked to see how close I was to the road. I’m fine, I thought. But I was not. Seeing the headlights, seeing they would not make the sharp curve in the street, I stood and watched and listened. Someone inside the car shouted “We’re not gonna make it!” No, I thought, we’re not.

So the hood came, and I rode it for a while, strangely watching the screaming on the other side of the windshield before we—the car, the Audi driver, the passengers, and I—slammed into a brick wall, and I bounced off and sailed through some tall bushes and landed on the earth. Slamming, sailing, landing. I, silent throughout. They, screaming from behind the safety of their glass.

The Audi driver wanted to evade police.

I stayed conscious. When the Audi driver said, “I killed her, oh shit, I killed her, I’m going to jail for the rest of my life. Shit, I’ve gotta get out of here,” I stayed awake and pushed from my mouth the earth that clogged it, and finally, finally screamed:

“I’m not dead. I’m not dead! Call 911. I need you to call 911!” And I screamed I had dirt in my mouth. I screamed my head was bleeding. But I did not pass out, so when a neighbor ran from his house and said, “I can’t see you. Where are you?” I told him where I was, and which building my roommates lived in, and the number to call my parents, and the name of the dorm where he could find my brother, and when the paramedics came I gave them my social security number and my student ID.

 

Still I have a shadow man, a dream rapist, and sometimes, I feel this is coming to me. His cold, cold hands and the rest of him, an impact harder, oh so much harder, than the hood of an Audi station wagon. “This I could not bear”…

 

My mother called the Macomb County Sheriff’s Office back and told them the husband was heading up north, that he planned to drive across the Mackinac Bridge into the Upper Peninsula and head west from there.

“But he’s not at the bridge yet,” she said. She said they could probably find him “in or around” a park in the tip of the Lower Peninsula.

They found him in Wilderness State Park, in Emmet County, Michigan, at the high edge of the Lower Peninsula. He’d planned to go to a cabin in Escanaba, due west of the Mackinac Bridge.

 

When my mother calls to tell me this news, I am driving home on I-85, through South Carolina. In the dark. She tells me the ending of this story; the telling, telling, telling will not stop. And I don’t ask it to. My hands slip on the wheel. Cold, sweating breaths I can not catch hold of. I can’t see straight, and I realize it’s because I am crying. And because Macomb County, Michigan and the woods at the edge of the Lower Peninsula are flaring up behind my eyes. But I know I am not crying for Mrs. _____. I am crying because I don’t want my mother to have known this. To know the hiding places of lost things, to feel the dying of a relative, to sense the coming of an event, these are acceptable knowings, things allowable in a mother’s mind, or in my mother’s at least. But I don’t want for her to know this, not killing and burying, not the taking off of limbs, not to be tapped into an evil mind, not to track it like a cat. Not.

My head pounds. I want to reach for my water bottle, to click my phone shut, but my mother says:

“And I think you’ve been doing this in your dreams too, picking up, things happening around you. I’ve been thinking this for a long time; I haven’t wanted to say…”

And worse.

I have the same ability my mother does. Though it does not come as strongly to me, nor do I make as good a use of it. For a solid month before that Audi station wagon came careening down the road and onto the sidewalk, I’d seen it happening. I saw it almost every time I approached the part of a sidewalk that edges up to the street, and the night before, I dreamed the whole thing out, from the moment of impact when my knees collided with the Audi’s bumper to the arrival in the hospital when the doctors categorized me as critical but stable. But when I heard the tires screaming and saw the headlights dashing toward me in a sprint, I never thought to run. I simply staggered two paces back and murmured something like, “Oh.”

Sometimes he steps out of my dreams to peer at me from the basement entrance below the sidewalk I take to my car at night, or to squat in the bushes just inside the entrance of the park where I walk my dog, or to follow discretely behind me, several car lengths on the highway, creeping closer all the time. I hope I am wrong about this, that he is not coming toward me, really, but if the shadow rapist is waiting for me in the dark, I hope I can do more than stagger in the headlights.

Some names have been changed in this piece.

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“My creative nonfiction has been published in several journals, including Moonshine, Thrift Poetic Arts, and Works.Org as well as The Asheville Times newspaper. I am also a playwright, and my plays can be seen regularly on stages around the Carolinas. One of my monologues has been published in the prestigious More New Monologues by Women for Women by Heinemann of Heinemann/Boyton-Cook.” E-mail: epushman[at]limestone.edu