For years, when my husband went away on business, I counted the hours until his return. This practice was not as romantic as it might sound. I just wanted to know exactly how long I would have to remain suspended in a state of DEFCON 3: ears perking at any noise; stomach roiling; mind cycling through dreadful what-if scenarios, like a tape stuck on a loop. The reason for all this drama? Until recently I was afraid of being alone in a house at night.
I knew this worry was irrational—borderline absurd, even. For one thing, I am an adult. Adults fret about taxes and the Middle East, not the bogeyman. Also, as the mother of two young children, I am almost never actually alone; for me alone roughly translates to "without other grown-ups present." What’s more, I live in a leafy community filled with graceful 100-year-old colonials, where the big event of the year is a rubber-duck race in the town park. It’s not Utopia, of course, but neither is it teeming with tabloid-worthy crime.
And yet from the time that Christopher’s car pulled out of our drive way to the moment he arrived back on our doorstep, I would be on high alert. I spent my daylight hours dreading nightfall. Once the sun set, my imagination kicked into overdrive. While I cheerfully made dinner for my kids, shepherded them down dark hallways, and shooed away monsters under the bed, I was haunted. A rogue’s gallery of evildoers flashed through my mind, each of them taking turns huddling in the shrubs on the front lawn or crouching behind the trash cans out back.
Those nights lasted an eternity. I turned on every lamp on the first floor. I kept a small emergency kit—cell and landline phones, plus a flashlight—right by the sofa, where I perched, half-frozen, like a sentry. I couldn’t watch anything with the merest hint of violence: no C.S.I., thank you very much. Instead I stayed glued to reruns of old shows like Family Ties. (Never have I found laugh tracks more appealing.) In the morning, I would be wiped out. Still, I would perform this ritual the next evening, too, in the somewhat superstitious belief that these small measures kept the demons at bay.
I can pinpoint the moment when I started thinking of a house as a cage rather than a safe haven: It was when I turned the last page of Richard Peck’s teen novel Are You in the House Alone? A fifth grader, I was forbidden to read it; my mother, correctly, thought I was too young. But she had also told me I wasn’t allowed to read Forever..., by Judy Blume, and that hadn’t scarred me (much, anyway), so I took her warnings with a grain of salt. Mistake! In the book, an adolescent girl is menaced by obscene notes and phone calls before being assaulted—horrors I had never dreamed of. But since I had gone against my mother’s wishes and read the book, I felt I couldn’t tell anyone about the fears that had taken up permanent residence in my brain.