Illustrations by Anson Chan
When I was seven years old, my father started sleeping on the sofa with a rifle.
We lived in a small Oregon town with a population of only a few thousand. Nestled on a gravel-lined, dead-end street, my childhood home was an idyllic setting to raise a family. To the east, a snow-capped Mt. Hood jutted from the tree-lined horizon. To the west, acres of cow pastures rolled into the distant hills. Everyone on our tiny street knew everyone else, and everyone knew our next-door neighbors hated us.
Lined up in neat rows along our backyard was a young orchard: spindly trees still too weak to bear fruit, propped up by wooden stakes and thick twine. Looping through the branches and woven between the trees was a series of tripwires adorned with silver Christmas bells. My father told me he put them up to keep the deer from eating our apples. That also explained the rifle, I thought. My dad wanted to protect us.
“We want you to know this is a safe space.”
The man wore a dark suit — I remember thinking he wasn’t dressed like any cop I’d seen on TV.
I stared at the floor — black-and-white tiles with little gold flecks sparkling under the fluorescent lights. It looked like someone had spilled fairy dust.
He slipped his fingers under the seat of his chair and scooted closer. The metal legs scraped along the worn tile floor of my elementary school principal’s office, and I pressed my hands to my ears. My feet dangled off the ground; I was too short to sit comfortably in the stiff plastic bucket seats.
The principal smiled from his seat across the room. “Mary, the police officers would like to ask you a few questions.”
“You’re not in trouble,” said one of two women lined up like sentries on either side of the door with ruled notebooks.
Hair ratted over my eyes as I nodded. I scraped my fingernail along the ridges of my chair, bubble gum pink polish chipping away. More dust. Still no magic.
The officer in the suit cleared his throat. “Do you remember talking to one of your mom’s friends the other day?”
I shook my head.
“Have you ever talked to an adult about something that made you uncomfortable?” he coaxed.
“Like what?” I asked.
“Anything you might have felt the need to tell a grown up,” the blond woman interjected.
I closed my eyes, and I could hear laughter. And even though it was winter now, I could almost smell the freshly cut grass and feel the summer sun on my skin.
“Hold still, you little shit.” Probably around 12 or 13, the oldest neighbor boy, who was going through an awkward pudgy phase that hits just before a growth spurt, used every ounce of weight to pin our golden retriever against the cold garage floor.
“You’re hurting her.” I could barely hear myself over the sound of the lawnmower.
The boy pushed and the dog’s legs splayed out beneath her.
“Stop!” The dog snapped her head toward me when I screamed and then went limp as if I’d been yelling at her. If the boy hurt her it would be my fault.
I rushed toward them.
The younger of the two boys grabbed my wrist. “You’re new around here. I’ve seen him snap a chicken’s neck in seconds. You probably don’t want to mess with him.”
He twisted my arm behind my back.
My heart was beating so loudly I couldn’t hear much of anything except their laughter.
The dog was on her back with the boy kneeling on top of her. “Good dog,” he said and stroked her belly between his knees. “Now, let’s see how fast she learns to do what she’s told.”
He wrapped his fingers around the dog’s long, orange fur and yanked.
She yelped and bucked her head to the side. The boy stumbled back and landed hard on the garage floor, as he held on to the dog’s collar. She twisted until the boy’s grip was so tight she choked.
“Get off of her.” My mom’s shadow fell across the grey cement.
The younger boy jumped away. The older boy finally loosened his hold on the dog, and she scrambled to her feet, and watched, as she panted.
“We were just playing. We weren’t gonna hurt her.” The older boy held up his hands.
My mom put her arm around my sore shoulder and held me tight. “We don’t play like that and I think it would be better if you didn’t come over anymore for a while. Go home.”
The boys tore off down the driveway.
“Are you okay?” mom asked me.
“They were showing me how to wrestle.”
Her forehead twitched. “Well, they’re not allowed back over here.”
We could still hear the boys’ voices floating down the driveway as they sulked back to their side of the fence. My mom hit the button on the wall to close the big garage door and everything went dark.
After dinner, my father stormed through the front door. Mud from his shoes darkened the entryway, and he climbed the stairs without a word.
My shoulder throbbed and I tossed in my bed to get comfortable, making sure not to bother the dog sleeping at the foot of it. I could hear my parents talking again in the kitchen.
“I’ve taken care of it.” My mom spoke slowly and deliberately. “They’re forbidden to come to our house. I spoke to the mother, and she claims we’re making things up.”
“She’s as crazy as they are.”
“Let’s just make peace and move on.”
His voice boomed down the hallway toward my bedroom. “That kid needs to know what will happen if he tries putting a hand on my daughter again.”
I grabbed my pillow and moved it to the foot of the bed. That was the first night I heard the bells in the yard outside my window.
I didn’t see my father for several days after the bells went up. The only evidence of his presence were the piles of dishes on the nightstand and the late-night whispers about monsters and villains.
Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I’d see him outside with a flashlight.
No one wanted to talk about the oversized Cat’s Cradle in our orchard or that the other kids in the neighborhood made fun of us or why my father watched us in the yard from a lawn chair with a rifle propped up beside him, looking through the trees.
He said he was hunting moles, but all summer he never caught a single one. Then, one fall morning, I followed my mom to the mailbox before school, and I understood why my dad was always watching the trees instead of the dirt.
“Your mom’s a bitch.”
The older of the two neighbor boys crouched with one foot on a tree branch and one on top of the fence dividing their yard from ours. He wore a baseball cap and a brown Boy Scouts uniform with a green scarf and patches along the breast. The younger brother sat on the fence, one leg on either side like he was riding a narrow wooden horse.
My mom shook her head. “You boys need to go home.”
“We are home. This side of the fence belongs to us.” Both boys burst out laughing.
The older boy unzipped his pants. “We own this whole place. Watch.”
My mom grabbed my shoulders and turned my back to the fence “Mary, go back in the house.”
I ran back toward our front door, my mom behind me. Then I heard a sound. Drip. Drip. Drip.
The boys cackled. The younger one jeered. “Can’t you pee farther than that?!”
I shut the door behind me without looking back.
When my mom returned a few minutes later, she was holding a letter in her trembling hand. I followed her into the kitchen, where she slapped the paper onto the counter. The envelope was blank. No stamp or address on the front. And all I could read before she covered it up were two words, typed out in capital letters: MARY and DEAD.
That night my dad moved to the sofa, and we started tiptoeing around the living room at all hours. The dishes and the silence piled up around us during the day, and at night, the whispers became shouts.
“So, you’re just going to sleep all day, string traps in the backyard at night, and flash guns in front of kids? This isn’t just a couple kids that need to be taught a lesson. This has gotten out of hand. I’m calling the police, and I think you should stop egging them on.”
My father’s voice was barely audible over the sound of gunfire on the television. “You do what you want. I’ll do what I need to do to protect my kid.”
The next day my father tacked a poster to the side of our house, just below the fence line, visible only if someone scaled the trees. The image was a caricature of a heavy-set boy wearing a Boy Scouts uniform that bulged over his stomach. The boy’s arms were filled with candy bars and Hostess snacks. A bubble-lettered caption at the top read “Twinkie Boy.”
My ear pressed tight against the inside of my bedroom door.
“Stop taunting them,” my mom said.
“You think I want my daughter seeing some psycho urinating at her mother?” my dad shouted. “Those sociopaths threatened to kill my kid and you just want to do nothing about it? I’m the only one actually protecting her.”
“I didn’t do nothing. I called the police and they said they’re looking into it. There weren’t any fingerprints on the letter, so it’s our word against theirs.”
“They’re not going to keep popping their heads up over that fence if they have to see what’s on the other side.”
“We look like the bad guys right now.”
I tiptoed back to bed.
Maybe dad was right, I thought as I pulled the covers over my head to sleep. Maybe the poster was the answer, a talisman to keep the monsters at bay.
I hoped so.
The sun was high in the sky the first time the cop cars thumped over the edge of the pavement and onto the gravel. Big black and white cars with lights on the top, like in the movies.
My dad was across the yard with my 5-year-old brother, firing his toy bow and arrow into a Styrofoam target.
The police talked to my parents for a long time. My brother and I sat on our swing set — too far away to hear what they were saying, but close enough to see the anger on our father’s face.
“Hey kids. Is it ok if we ask you a couple quick questions,” said one of the officers walking over to us.
I wondered if the police had seen the frayed drawing on the side of the house.
“Do you guys play bow and arrows with your dad a lot?”
My brother grinned and gripped the chain of the swing hard enough to lift his bottom off the seat. “Yeah, it’s mine!”
The officer grabbed one of the plastic arrows from the grass. “Do all the arrows look like these?” He rubbed his thumb over the dull rubber, tip.
We both nodded.
The officer let the arrow fall back to the ground and the dog picked it up. He pulled a notebook out of his back pocket and produced a pen. He scribbled something onto the pad. “OK, kids. Thank you.”
He pulled a walkie talkie off his belt and held it to his ear.
“Look, he has a utility belt like Batman!” My brother giggled.
“Yeah, but Batman fights the real bad guys the cops can’t catch,” I said. Or the ones they don’t believe are bad.
The second hand on the clock in the principal’s office seemed to move in slow motion. I peeled a strip of pink polish off a finger and watched it flutter to the ground.
The officer pinched the bridge of his nose. “Have you ever told someone a secret, Mary?”
I dropped my forehead to my knees. “What kind of secret?”
The two women in the office leaned close to each other and whispered. The blond turned back toward me. “You’ve mentioned bad guys a lot. What do you think makes someone a bad guy?”
I took a deep breath. “Lying. Stealing. Hurting other people…”
“Is your dad a bad guy?”
I shook my head.
The blond woman nodded. “What about keeping secrets?”
The officer interrupted. “Has your dad ever asked you to keep a secret?”
I bit down on my lip. “What kind of secret?”
“Something important. Maybe something you didn’t totally understand.”
I wanted to give the man the answer he wanted so he would leave me alone.
Maybe they were talking about the fight my parents had about the fake dentist appointment from a few weeks ago.
“Mary, your mom called and you have a dentist appointment today.”
My teacher peeked over a little yellow slip of paper. “That’s what it says here.”
I smiled. Maybe we’d get ice cream after.
Around noon, I gathered my backpack and jacket and skipped up the hallway toward the office.
“I have a dentist appointment. My mom always picks me up here,” I told the receptionist.
She smiled. “I remember. Have a seat.”
I sat in the chair for two hours until the bell rang and school was out. When my mom finally rushed in, her chest was heaving. She looked mad.
“Why weren’t you outside for pick-up?”
I huffed. “I had a dentist appointment at noon. Did you forget?
“No.” The color drained from her face. She looked over my shoulder at the receptionist. “I need to see the principal. Now.”
“What would have happened if she’d gone outside to wait? Do you have any idea how serious this is?” my mom demanded when he walked over.
“Obviously, we’ll be more careful in the future,” the principal said.
“There better not be a next time.” She held out her hand for me to follow.
That night my dad woke me up in the middle of the night. Even though I’d been in bed for hours, he was still wearing his shoes and jacket, and he smelled like wet grass.
“You know not to get in the car with anyone else, ever, right?”
I sat up and rubbed my eyes. “Like who?”
“I don’t care. Unless it’s me, your mom, or a police officer with a badge, you run.”
“Just trust me. There are bad people out there. Everywhere. You need to be safe.”
He left without shutting my door.
The clock on the wall struck two. School was out.
“You’re doing great, Mary. Just a couple more questions,” the officer told me.
Voices outside the door raised, and I heard my mom say my name. The officer rushed his words. “Have you ever told your neighbor about bad guys?”
I chewed my thumbnail and shook my head.
“Maybe you went to her house and sat in her lap…”
My spine stiffened.
“…and told her that your dad had hurt you…”
The officer sucked air through his teeth like he was getting ready to rip off a Band-Aid.
“Down there.” His eyes dropped to my lap.
I yanked my knees back to my chest.
“No.” The force of my denial made him flinch. “That never happened.”
And then the door opened so wide it bumped against a chair. My mom pushed past the principal with tears in her eyes. “What more do you need? Blood?”
“Ma’am, calm down. We’re trying to help.” The officer straightened his suit jacket.
My mom’s face reddened. “Interrogating my kid without her parent present is not helping.”
He nodded. “We’re looking into who made the call. I promise you, we take this very seriously.”
“You didn’t even get a name?”
“It was an anonymous tip.”
My mom glared at the principal. “So, let me get this straight. Someone sends my kid an anonymous death threat and the police do nothing. Then someone calls the school pretending to be her mother and you release my kid with no verification. And now you get another phone call from — what? A concerned citizen — and your response is to ask a seven-year-old about her father molesting her? What the hell is wrong with you?”
The blond woman stood. “We understand how this must feel.”
“No, you don’t.” My mom snapped her hand out toward me. “Come on. We’re leaving.”
We drove in silence before I dared to speak. Maybe she was angry at me for talking to the man. I forgot to ask to see his badge, like Dad taught me.
“Mom? Why would someone want to hurt me?”
“I don’t know.” She clenched the steering wheel so hard her knuckles blanched. “Some things will never make sense.”
“Is it because Dad tried to hurt the deer?”
She released the wheel and turned toward me. “What deer?”
“The ones in the orchard. That’s why Dad has the bells and the gun, right?”
She sighed. “No, it wasn’t about the deer.”
“Then why did the police believe a lie?”
“They didn’t. They believed you.” She leaned forward and turned up the radio. It was the last time we ever spoke about the neighbors until the real estate sign appeared in their yard a few weeks later.
The only times we saw the boys now were when we drove past their driveway. Sometimes they were fixing their bikes in their garage, sometimes they were just standing in the windows, but they never said another word to me. Even in the hallways at school, they dropped their heads as they walked past.
After a couple of weeks, my mom removed the Twinkie Boy poster from the side of the house and threw it away. She said we didn’t need a reminder.
It was still dark when I padded down the hallway, through the kitchen, on my way to the living room. The porch lights were on and I could see dew sparkling along the twine tied between the trees and gathering on the little metal bells. No deer. I guess it was working.
Everything had been quiet for weeks.
But I hadn’t forgotten, and neither had my father.
I could hear him snoring before I rounded the corner. I coughed to see if he’d stir, but he didn’t move.
Candy wrappers littered the coffee table and the floor beside the sofa. He’d been up late again, waiting for something to jangle the bells.
I tiptoed into the living room and eased myself onto the carpet under the coffee table. It was cold but I didn’t shiver. I curled my legs into my chest, just like I had when the police had talked to me in the principal’s office. Only this time I wasn’t scared.
Some parents hug their kids, laugh with them, tell them they love them. My dad waited up at night for the monsters, with a rifle tucked under his arm.
That was the moment that safety became elusive, and something I’d spend the rest of my life chasing like those invisible deer in the orchard.
I closed my eyes and listened for the bells until I fell asleep.
Just because most people couldn’t see the monsters, doesn’t mean they weren’t there.
Mary Widdicks is a former psychologist turned novelist and freelance journalist. Her writing has been published in The Washington Post, Undark Magazine, Salon, Vox, and more. Mary is also the author of The Mermaid Asylum psychological suspense series. She is a firm believer in strong, twisted female characters and unhappy endings. Raised near Portland, Oregon, Mary now lives in central Illinois where the tallest things for miles are the corn and the tales people have to make up to convince anyone to live there in the winter. Her upcoming novel, Wounded Creatures, is based loosely on the events in this essay.