I’ve mentioned Stina and her novel, Tell Me When, over here before. I got the opportunity to “meet” Stina early on in this crazy process and it’s been pretty cool, getting to wade into these new waters with another debuting author. Next Monday is the big day, the day Tell Me When releases, and in anticipation of that, Stina has arranged a blog hop to help raise awareness about stalking, something her main character deals with the aftermath of. As soon as I heard about it, I knew I had to join in, not only because I have a story that needs shared, but also because Stina is donating a dollar per every entry to her local women’s shelter.
Stina asked participants to limit their posts to around 500 words and, I’m cringing here when I say this is probably going to go well over that. I’ll try to keep it short. I will. Forgive me when I don’t manage.
You see, I do have my own stalking story. But it ended so quickly and so easily and I was so damn lucky, because my dad, angry and upset and full of the kind of parental fury that only occurs when their young is in danger, contacted my stalker’s dad. Hunted him down, really, and, as best he could, explained the situation calmly while making sure that he knew, in no uncertain terms, my dad would absolutely do everything in his power to protect me. Luckily, my stalker’s dad was immediately and thoroughly horrified to learn what his son was doing. He didn’t even question it. He knew his son was unstable and unpredictable and he urged us to go get a PPO. A PPO he would personally help enforce. Most victims aren’t that lucky. God, they’re not nearly so lucky to have that kind of support from their stalker’s family. My cousin wasn’t. And she did the most innocent thing imaginable.
She existed. And her mom had pictures developed documenting that existence.
Stephanie was just a baby, really. No more than ten. Possibly younger. Probably younger. When I talked to her earlier tonight, getting permission to share her story, asking if she’d like me to use a fake name and explaining I would block her face out of any pictures, we both struggled to remember how old she was exactly. Because that time is so hazy due to the never ending terror that our entire family felt, obviously none more so than her and her parents. Because someone targeted their little girl and he got the information to completely destroy any sense of security they had by scrounging through a photo pick-up bin at the store. That was it. My aunt took some pictures and had them developed. Back then, you know, you filled out one of those cute envelopes and dropped your film in it, and then an employee would develop them for you and stick them out in the aisle, with everyone else’s prints. No one thought anything about it. It was just the way things were done at the time. We never put any thought into the fact that anyone could walk up and pour through them. It never dawned on anyone that someone else could write down the info listed on that envelope and use it to terrorize someone.
And God, was my cousin terrorized. Their phone rang all hours of the night and day, this man, this sick son of a bitch, making sexual comments about Stephanie. My mom told me some of the things he said when I got older. I think I’ve blocked it out in the years since. He threatened them, taunted them. Their answering machine became an enemy, the red, flashing light indicating a message something that filled them with dread, revulsion, and staggering helplessness. It seems like they had their number changed a couple of times and they’d have a reprieve, moments where they could almost breathe, even though they didn’t stop looking over their shoulder. But then the calls would start again. They always started again.
Stephanie and I were thick as thieves growing up, with only three years between us. We were always together, constantly at each other’s houses. But I wasn’t present for most of this. I wasn’t allowed to be. Because one night, back in the beginning when it all started, it became glaringly obvious just how much danger this freak really presented and our parents decided it’d be best if we were kept apart.
We’d been playing in her room. I can’t remember what. I do remember hearing the answering machine come on, but I didn’t think anything of it. I don’t think she did either. It seems like we hadn’t really been told what was going on at that point. Probably, our parents didn’t want to worry us. We were so young. We’d grown up being told that strangers posed a threat and to be cautious, hell, we were probably more aware of the dangers around us than most kids our age were. But this? Something like this? It hadn’t entered our realm of possibility. We quickly learned that it was possible, though. Not just possible, but a reality. That knowledge came in the form of her parents bursting in our quiet, innocent bubble and ripping us both up off the floor, whatever toys we’d been playing with left behind like fallen soldiers. My uncle was carrying me like a child, a child I hadn’t believed myself to be for years, and ahead of us my aunt was clutching Stephanie to her chest as they sprinted with us to the master bedroom, and shoved us into a closet. They didn’t shut the door quick enough for us to not see the gun my uncle grabbed, however. I think my aunt had one too.
We huddled in the darkness, Stephanie and I, clutching hands and sobbing. We didn’t believe my aunt when she said that everything was okay, that it was just my older cousin’s friends messing around. That this was all a game and isn’t this fun, girls? Just like hide and seek. Be very quiet so they don’t find you. We could hear my uncle outside screaming, yelling threats into the heavy night and their dogs barking frantically and my aunt’s choked whispers into a phone, asking for an officer. I remember her pleading, “please hurry. Please.” This wasn’t a game. We weren’t sure what it was, but it wasn’t a game.
Later, after we’d be pulled from the closet, our cheeks still wet with our tears and we were rushed out to the car, we found out he’d been calling for her dogs on the answering machine. He’d used their names. He’d been close enough he knew her dogs’ names.
A couple weeks later, I sat in front of the TV as I watched my aunt talk to reporters on our local news. I cried when my cousin came on, her voice tiny and uncertain, and I wanted to be holding her hand again. Instead, all I could do was watch her purple socked feet as she answered the reporter’s questions. They were too scared to show her face.
For the next two years, my aunt and uncle took turns sleeping. They had an alarm
installed. They kept guns within reaching distance at all times. They pulled her from school and she barely left the house, except to go to the rink for figure skating practice. The rink went on lock-down when she was there. Eventually they gave up and decided to move. They packed up their lives and their hopes and their dreams, and moved to another city, fifteen or twenty minutes away. They left behind all the good memories they’d built in between those walls, but they hoped to leave behind the never ending terror as well. They’d sacrifice those memories for the feeling of safety again.
He found their new house before it had even been finished being built.
Stephanie is now twenty-four and a mama to a gorgeous boy with hair as curly as hers and big, mischievous eyes. She moved again but when I talked to her tonight, she confessed she still doesn’t feel safe. She’s scared to leave her son alone, even in his own room. (“I’m scared to death he’s still around. How do I know he’s not?”) She confessed she’d “let herself go” (impossible, of course. She’s always been gorgeous. No amount of letting go will ever change that) because she thought, maybe, if she made herself unattractive, she wouldn’t ever be a target again. At the very least, she wouldn’t have to be afraid of being one anymore. She’d take the threat away herself. (“Now I’m just lonely and still scared.”) In the past, she’s wanted to come forward, talk about her story, but there’d always been fear in doing so, he’d find her again. (“He’s probably got a new fetish, though. I’m too old now. Sick fuck.”)
All she did was exist. She existed and her mom, being a mom, took some pictures. Probably for a scrapbook. My aunt probably wanted those pictures to look back on, because childhood is fleeting and she knew, all too soon, her baby would be grown. Instead, Stephanie’s childhood was ripped from her. She was set up for a life of constantly looking over her shoulder. I can only imagine that the sound of a phone ringing still makes her cringe. I’m sure there’s a part of her, a part born during those years filled with stifling terror, that instinctively wants to hide when a camera is brought out.
But you know what?
She still poses for pictures and answers the phone. And though she looks over her shoulder, she’s still walking forward. That bastard might have taken from her, he might have hurt her, but he didn’t win. Not in the end. He scarred her, but he didn’t break her.
Thanks for letting me talk, Stina. And thanks for doing this. Stephanie? I love you so much, kid, and I’m so so proud of you.