I used to joke about my house in Saint Paul, Minnesota, telling people I could sit on the toilet, open the bathroom window, and hold hands with my neighbor who was doing the same thing from his bathroom. Of course, the neighbor’s place wasn’t really that close, but it was close. Too close.
I don’t know why, but apartments don’t seem to convey that same level of wrong. Maybe because we go into apartment living knowing we’re dealing with a shared building. It’s like getting on a plane, bus, or train—we put up with it.
But, houses are domains. Houses are castles. They should be more private than apartments. I won’t deny that both types of dwellings lend themselves to secrecy and speculation and imagination. We can only guess what goes on behind the stucco walls or varnished doors with gold apartment numbers. Even though we might be close enough to reach out and touch someone, we have no way of knowing what’s really happening just feet away. While we shower. While we sleep. While we dream. While we are at our most vulnerable…
Maybe that’s why, as a culture, we are so fixated when yet another neighborhood home is found to have been concealing captive young women or bought-and-sold children or serial killers like Jeffrey Dahmer. He could have been our neighbor. A Jeffrey Dahmer might be our neighbor, present tense.
It’s the close proximity combined with obliviousness to the evil nature of your fellow citizen that makes this stuff so fascinatingly horrifying. Anne Rule worked right next to serial killer Ted Bundy. “I liked him immediately,” she wrote in The Stranger Beside Me. “His physical attractiveness helped to make him a mythical character, an antihero who continues to intrigue readers, many of whom were not even born when he carried out his horrendous crimes. As far as his appeal to women, I can remember thinking that if I were younger and single or if my daughters were older, this would be almost the perfect man,” she wrote. Proof that evil can lurk in the most innocuous-appearing people. Not only innocuous, but charming and handsome.
But, do we ever really know anybody? Do we even know ourselves, when you think about it? There’s no denying that all people change to some degree, large or small, once the door closes, and that in itself is compelling. Good people hide their weaknesses and insecurities; bad people hide their aberrant behavior.
In my book, The Body Reader, pretty much everyone is hiding something—whether it’s personal history, fear, grief, or just straight-up evil. And, some have suffered greatly at the hands of that evil. The female protagonist, Jude Fontaine, is kept in a cellar in a densely populated area of Minneapolis for three, long years. Neighbors never suspected a thing.
Here’s an excerpt from the book’s opening:
One day she stopped screaming.
It was the same day she quit thinking about the world beyond the windowless cell. That world no longer existed. Not for her. Now there were just the plates of food that came at uneven intervals, eaten in darkness, without visual cues, her taste buds unable to discern what went into her mouth.
Her life was listening for his footsteps on the stairs. Her life was listening to the shuffle of his feet across the cement floor and waiting to hear his voice when he spoke. God help her, she’d come to look forward to his voice, his visits. Anything was better than the quiet in her head.
Then there were the times he pulled her from the room within a room, pulled her from the darkness. She would blink at the blinding brightness of the single bulb hanging from the basement ceiling. When she tried to speak, her voice scratchy and unfamiliar and hollow, he’d smack her across the face.
And that was okay.
Today he led her to a drain in the corner of the basement, cranked open a faucet, and aimed the nozzle at her naked body, blasting her with ice-cold water.
Even then she didn’t scream. She had no scream left in her.
She supposed she was. Maybe that’s why he’d quit touching her. Disgusting was good.
Done giving her a dousing, he turned off the hose while she trembled violently from the cold—her shivering a curious thing, she thought with detachment.
“Go on. Back in the cell.”
At first she’d tried to retain her sense of self. For a while she’d tried to remind herself of who she was. She’d tried to recall the color of her hair and the shape of her face. But eventually she let go of all that. This was her life now, and her hair and face made no difference here. Once you no longer desired anything, surviving became easier. Once you gave up and accepted your fate, existence became tolerable because every day wasn’t a reset of a nightmare that wouldn’t end.
In the cell, she curled into a ball on the floor, knees drawn up to her chest as she continued to shake.
Now he would lock the door.
“Can you stay awhile?” she asked, her voice thin as a thread. “Talk to me?”
He stared. Untrimmed beard. Cruel yet distracted eyes. Tangle of brown hair. He wasn’t thinking about her. She’d become an unpleasant chore—the dog he wished he’d never gotten but now had to feed. When he remembered to feed her.
Behind him, the lightbulb flickered, then went out, the entire house falling silent. He mumbled a curse in the darkness.
Blackest of black, but black was her friend. In a world of no sight, her hearing had become acute. She was used to looking beyond the darkness to mentally visualize her surrounds, imagining the distance to the walls and the height of the ceiling.
Moments after the light went out, she felt something strange, something she hadn’t felt in a long time.
She knew how much space he took up, knew how tall he was and how much he weighed. She knew about the calluses on his hands, and the long, wide scar on his belly. She knew the circumference of his biceps and how his breath smelled of cigarettes and beer.
Odd that she was thinking of escape when she’d given up so long ago. But maybe she’d been hibernating, unconsciously waiting for just the right moment, for the time when the universe tipped the scales in her favor. For the second when she had the advantage.
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Anne Frasier is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of over thirty books and numerous short stories that have spanned the genres of suspense, mystery, thriller, romantic suspense, paranormal, and memoir. She won a RITA for romantic suspense, and the Daphne du Maurier for paranormal romance. Her thrillers have hit the USA Today list and have been featured in Mystery Guild, Literary Guild, and Book of the Month Club. Her memoir, The Orchard, was a 2011 O, The Oprah Magazine Fall Pick, One Book, One Community read, a B+ review in Entertainment Weekly, and a Librarians’ Best Books of 2011. She divides her time between the city of St. Paul, Minnesota, and her writing studio in Wisconsin. Visit her website to sign up for book release announcements at www.annefrasier.com.