I was increasingly aware that my life was spiraling out of control, so I dismissed my sense of foreboding that day as an odd by-product of my emerging consciousness. I knew that, despite its picture perfect facade, my life was impetuously veering off course like a Formula One car gone wrong at the Indy 500. I knew I was choosing the wrong friends, for the wrong reasons, though I had to admit that last night was particularly entertaining. We had spent the evening on the terrace of Sandy’s resort, overlooking the water, drinking copious amounts of wine and telling scandalous tales about the people in our small coastal town. I squandered most of my evenings with Sandy in that fashion and, though the nights were fraught with laughter, there was rarely any real joy. On the very next day, late in the afternoon, fate would step in to be my new acquaintance. A few days later I would receive a flashy floral arrangement from her that was so perfect it almost seemed fake. The pre-printed card said, ‘Our condolences.’
The sun was shining and the weather was perfect, another glorious day, though I was too hung-over to appreciate it. It was late in the afternoon, and my babies, Austin and Zoe, were engrossed in the latest episode of Power Rangers.
I was grateful for the brief reprieve from childcare duties, but all the BAM, POW, BANG emanating from the set was getting on my last nerve. Above the commotion, I heard the shrill ring of the telephone.
BAM, KA-POW, BOOM.
“Turn that down, Austin! I can’t hear myself think!”
“Barb, are you there?”
It was my husband, the high-powered if not single- minded, chief executive officer of a newly developed golf estate.
“Jack is coming over for dinner tonight. I need to you throw something together.”
“Jack who,” I asked impatiently.
“C’mon, babe, I’m busy here. Jack Niklaus. We’ll be there in an hour. He’s great. It’ll be fun. See you then.”
He hung up before I could remind him that buttering bread was the only cooking skill I had safely mastered. On more than one occasion, our family dinner was preceded by a rendezvous with hulking men in cumbersome flame-retardant attire stampeding my kitchen with fire extinguishers. I wonder if Jack would find that amusing or irksome?
I stood with my back to the kitchen, the freezer wide open, willing its frosty interior to yield some culinary delight for me to serve ‘Jack’, though I thought we had somewhat prematurely advanced to a first name basis. The cold air actually was refreshing given my hung-over state, amplified now by the assurance of an unsolicited impromptu dinner party.
I had a fleeting thought that, all of a sudden, it was far too quiet in the house. Then, WHOMP, an arm flies around my neck. At first, I think it’s a prank, a childhood scare tactic, a bully move that some think hilarious, a silly little game. I smell his fear before I feel the rest of his body press up behind me, and something presses into my left temple. Out of the corner of my eye, I see my son.
“Mommy? Are you ok?”
As flaxen blonde hair frames sapphire blue eyes, he literally vibrates with an angelic concern far beyond his brief four years on this Earth. I can’t move. My mouth opens to speak as my throat clamps down and stifles the words. I am paralyzed with fear.
In the family room, Zoe, my one year old, cherub faced daughter, begins to cry loudly.
“Oh, God,” I uncontrollably moan.
I look over at Austin, and see his eyes widen with fear.
The grip on my neck loosens, and my captor swings the gun wildly toward the children.
“Make them shut the fuck up. Now. Or I’ll fucking kill them, too. SHUT THE FUCK UP!”
Austin runs from the kitchen. My child is gone, and I have no idea where he is. The house is suddenly, eerily silent. My captor tightens his grip on my neck and pulls me backwards out of the kitchen.
“Give me the money, bitch.”
I’m not breathing. I can’t feel anything. I am anesthetized by mortal fear. I keep repeating, ‘oh god, oh god, oh god’, over and over and over again. The gun presses deep into my temple and hurls me back into reality.
“Oh god, oh god, oh god. I don’t have cash. You can take all our jewelry. I’ll open the safe for you.”
My voice sounds distorted, anguished, separated from my body. The safe is in the master bedroom, down the stairs. I feebly point in that direction, his arm tightens around my neck as he drags me backwards down the stairs.
As we enter our bedroom, I tell him the safe is in the closet. He loosens his grip on me and I turn to open the closet door. Suddenly, he kicks both my feet out from under me and he’s pressing down on top of me. This is our first time face to face. He is wearing a black knit cap, with slits for his frenzied eyes to stare through.
Our eyes are meet. I am staring into the eyes of an evil, but also incredibly wounded, soul. It is both terrifying and tragic at once.
He quickly changes course, and brashly proclaims that “now we must make love.” His own words. Honest to God. “Make love.” I have a brief moment of lucidity and think, ‘Are you joking right now?’ My assassin now fancies himself a romantic-- an inspired if not improbable, Lothario. Please let this be a dream. This can’t be happening. As if to thwart my denial of the present moment, Austin appears at the top of the stairs.
“Mommy, are you alright?”
I turn my face toward the stairs and scream deep from my gut,
“Go get Daddy!”
My mind races; the only thing more horrifying than being raped is that my child will be witness to it. I am also terrified that my attacker will turn on my children, and I feel so incredibly helpless and alone. There simply aren’t words to convey the horror of being unable to protect your own flesh and blood. It’s an incomprehensible nightmare.
Austin obeys my command, and I hear his silver Power Ranger slippers scurry across the tiled floor. I wrestle ferociously with my attacker as he fights to pull my legs apart. ‘This will NOT happen,’ I say over and over to myself. The victim is becoming the victor. The sight of my child has given me newfound strength, my survival instinct is galvanized. I am literally fighting for my life, for the life of my children. Now he begins to strangle me.
His fury is palpable, fueled by fear. Fingers dig deeply into my neck. I struggle to pry them away. I’m looking directly into his eyes, and I see flashes of bewildered panic. This encounter is an unplanned life and death struggle, an unforeseen but unavoidable consequence of time and place. I don’t think he intended to kill me at first, but now he has no choice.
His fingers clamp like a wrench around my neck. I can’t fight him any longer. I think I may be dying. This is it. I am in agony, it is excrutiating.
Then, instantaneously, the pain stops. The struggle intensifies, but the pain disappears. I’m dying. The pain abates. I’ve surrendered, I’ve given up. It’s over.
My mind becomes a virtual microfiche with opaque images of my life flashing rapidly by-- My mother is holding me in her arms in the arched doorway of our home, gazing adoringly at me… I am fishing with my dad, the lake is crystal clear and the water is as smooth as glass, we laugh together as a shiny, golden fish jumps over the bow of our boat… I am walking down the aisle toward my soulmate, radiant with love and hope… We are standing above the crib of our newborn son, Tom and I smile at each other with tears in our eyes… I am kissing the soft, warm cheek of my baby girl as I lift her out of the bath.
From very far away, I hear a faint sound. A voice I can barely make out in the distance, a hushed whisper. Something tells me I must take notice of this voice. The voice grows louder.
“MOMMY, MOMMY, MOMMY!”
Now he is screaming my name, he insists that I live.
My strength is herculean as I fight off my attacker. I pry his fingers from around my neck, and greedily suck at the air. I scream again for Austin to go get his father. My directive now has a dual purpose, I want the attacker to believe that Tom is indeed in the house and, as I’m not entirely certain that I will be victorious in this battle, I don’t want my four year old son to be witness to the possible ending.
I am fully alert now, the oxygen has fueled my brain and energized my senses. The masked man looks up as Austin quickly runs from the room. I sense apprehension through the narrow slits of his mask, and my attacker quickly jumps off of me, grabs for his gun off the floor at the top of my head, and bolts for the door.
I am trying to scream but only low guttural wails come out. He runs past the children, and out through the open sliding door. Austin is standing at the desk near the phone, shock still. Zoe is peering out of a blanket from the safety of the couch. I try to run after him but my legs feel like lead. I rush to the phone and call the emergency line, I let out a guttural scream.
They promptly hang up on me. Remember, our tiny, coastal town was filled with scandalous gossip and adolescent hoaxes, not criminal acts. They would later apologize profusely for mistaking my call for a teenage prank. I forgave them; I had no choice.
The next call I made was to the golf resort where my husband worked. This time, they don’t hang up on me but promptly summon an army of police to the house.
Bruised and broken, dazed and confused, I endure what felt like hours of interrogation-- a second attack on my hypersensitive psyche. I was terrified to go to bed that night. I was nearly delusional in my belief that he would come back to finish the job. Someone, well-intentioned, gave me some pills. I gulped them down, anxious for a reprieve from the horror that had instantly become my life. I spent the rest of the night helplessly trapped inside a fully tranquilized body. My mind was spinning completely out of control-- fearful and paranoid, obsessed and suspicious.
The next day the police came back and awarded my 4 year old son, Austin, a Commendation of Bravery for saving my life. During the attack, he had run from the room to call 911 but the area we lived in, in addition to being exceptionally crime-free and prone to teen pranks, had a different number for emergency calls and Austin couldn’t get through.
Nevertheless, his quick departure that day from the room created enough apprehension for my attacker that he abandoned his murderous objective with a sudden departure.
We have an absolutely heart-wrenching picture of Austin from that day, his lips clamped tightly together as he struggles to maintain his brave persona.
The Chief of Police is kneeling in order to be face to face with her town’s littlest hero, as she holds out the commendation plaque and a real police hat for him. He refused to wear the hat, but he would proudly show it to visitors, holding it with both hands, arms extended out from his body, as if it was a broken, fragile baby bird. In the picture, his sister Zoe stands closely to her brother, unaware of the trauma from the day before.
The days and nights and months that followed my attack were lost in a blur of gut-wrenching heartache and confusion. I couldn’t cope. I was barely surviving.
One night, a few months after the attack, Austin turned to me and said, “He should have killed me instead.” INSTEAD.
It was only then that I realized, with absolute clarity, I had indeed died that day. I was dead to myself, dead to my husband, dead to my children. I was a walking zombie, shadowed unremittingly by an ever-faithful security guard named Tienie who even sat at the door of the bathroom to wait for me.
I had lost my self, my sense of security, my courage to live.
And then… the voice of my guardian angel, my astute little soul, my real-life Power Ranger, once again broke through the haze of my turmoil and compelled me to choose life. The plaque reads, ‘Austin Klein- 4 years old- is hereby commended for outstanding services rendered in that he, on Wednesday 1996-12-11 at 16:50, with no concern for his own safety, called out for help and in that way saved his mother’s life.’ Indeed.