I was tired Monday night, almost asleep in front of the TV until Kim called. We talked for a few minutes, and I remember telling her just before we hung up that I thought I’d go on to bed early and read for awhile. It wasn’t quite nine o’clock then.
The trash can goes out to the curb on Monday night for pickup at the crack of dawn Tuesday, so before I could go to bed, I set about emptying wastebaskets and gathering things to take outside. Then something on TV caught my eye. I don’t even know what channel I was watching, but the program was one of those prime-time news programs featuring all the details of a true-life crime.
For the next hour I watched in sadness and horror the story of a family whose home was selected at random and invaded in the middle of the night by two parolees who had met in a halfway house. During the long hours they were in the family’s home, they beat the father with a baseball bat, drove the mother to a bank and made her withdraw $15,000, then returned to the house, raped the mother and an 11-year-old daughter and, eventually, set fire to the house. The father escaped, barely, but the mother and her two daughters died.
Even though the perpetrators were captured by the end of the hour, the time I spent watching the family’s ordeal and imagining the fear they must have endured left me feeling more than a little unsettled.
By then it was ten o’clock, and the garbage still had to go out. It’s normally quiet in our neighborhood at that time of night, but Monday night was different. The next-door neighbor’s dogs were barking persistently at something I couldn’t see. In fact I couldn’t even see the dogs in her yard until I let Butch and Kadi out into our backyard. My dogs immediately began barking, too, and the neighbor's dogs materialized at the fenceline to fill them in on the latest news.
I went to my front doorway and stood there for a few moments, studying the darkness and looking for any sign of movement. Finally, I summoned up my courage, flipped the carport light on, grabbed two bags of garbage and hurried to the trash can.
With the carport light behind me and the streetlight at the road, there was plenty of light in the driveway. My path to the road was clear, but the complete darkness around that lighted pathway made me feel exposed and vulnerable.
I parked the trash can next to the mailboxes, directly under the streetlight, and turned briskly to walk back up the hill to the house. The woods across the road were at my back now, and I was keenly aware of them. When I reached a point where I could see the light in my living room through the glass storm door, I imagined how easy it would have been for someone to have hidden in the shadows, then slipped inside my house when I turned away to push the trash can to the curb.
"Cut that out!" I scolded myself, all the while moving my eyes from one dark place to another, scanning the shadows. I'd made it about halfway up the driveway when a loud, shrill scream -- OOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHH -- came from in or near our big oak tree and split the night wide open. If I’ve ever had any doubts about my ability to move my ample backside fast when the occasion calls for it, they were vanquished in that instant. There could have been six strange men standing in plain sight in my living room -- six big strange men wearing ski masks and carrying an assortment of lethal weapons -- and the sight of them wouldn’t have deterred me from running into their midst and locking the door behind me.
I had to read for a long time before I could go to sleep that night.
The next day I told my boss about what had happened and he guessed that the screamer might have been a screech owl. I’ve heard owls around here lots of times but never one that sounded like that. Fortunately, due to the wonders of the Internet, I was able to google “screech owl sounds” and eventually listen to one that proved him right.
From now on, the garbage goes out before the sun goes down.