Who’s developing your family photos?
He knew so much about us.
Things I would never have told him.
He knew intimate details. He invaded our privacy.
He invaded our lives.
And it was all so easy for him.
So easy to learn so much about us.
He knew that my daughters and I had just moved into a tiny apartment.
He knew because we took photos of the denim fabric curtains we sewed for the windows.
He knew where my daughters went to school.
He knew because I took pictures of them in their crisp, new school uniforms on their first day of school.
He knew that I threw a party when I got my divorce papers.
He knew because I had my oldest daughter take a picture of me holding the divorce decree in one hand while giving a big, “thumbs-up” with the other hand.
Yes, it was so easy for him to learn so much about our lives.
All he had to do was look at our pictures—
Photographs of our lives.
Is a picture really worth a thousand words?
I think so.
By examining the photographs taken over several months, he learned about all the big and little events in my life with my daughters. Our photos gave him amazing access to our lives.
And he used what he learned.
He used it against us.
He forced his way into our lives, using the information he’d learned to take advantage—
To terrorize us.
It all started when I dashed into the corner drugstore on my lunch break. A few days earlier, I’d dropped off nine rolls of film for developing. That may seem like a lot of film, but I’d been busy getting my life reorganized after finally divorcing my lazy, irresponsible husband. I’d always loved taking pictures of the big and little events in my life, so I had lots of film, and I finally had the money to get the photos developed.
“Nine rolls of film for Hannah Merriwether?” I asked as I stepped up to the photo service counter.
“Oh, it’s you. I recognize you from your pictures,” the dark-haired man behind the counter blinked several times as his eyes roamed a little too freely over my face and body.
“My pictures?” I prompted.
His mouth lifted in a half-smile before he ducked down to shuffle through a drawer full of marked envelopes. He handed me three packets and kept looking.
I tore open the first envelope and my cheeks flamed. The photo right there on top of the stack was of me. In it, I wore a black, lacy bra and matching bikini panties. I held a hairbrush in my hand, pretending it was a microphone.
Good God, in this picture—
I was practically naked.
It wasn’t meant to be a provocative photo. It’d been harmless fun—a girls’ night. My daughters and I would sometimes give each other manicures and pedicures and wear lacy, girly things and pretend to be world-famous divas.
Yes, I knew that the photo my daughter had taken that night was all in fun.
But just how did it look to this man working the photo counter?
Had he looked at the picture? Was it the reason why he leered at me? What did he think after seeing photos of me prancing around in scanty underwear?
I shuffled through the stack of photos—more of me in even more suggestive poses. I’d never even considered how it might look to someone outside the family.
Then my heart lurched—
The photos of Gabby and Bethany—in their own lacy undies.
My God—had the man looked at my two young daughters in their Mary-Kate & Ashley Olsen underwear sets and gotten ideas?
I clutched the stack of photos to my chest and closed my eyes for a moment. No, surely not. I worked to convince myself that none of the people who worked at this place had time to look at my pictures. Surely, they were busy doing their jobs.
After all, they must develop thousands of pictures.
Surely, there was no way that my pictures would draw any special attention.
But the man had said he recognized me—
From my photos.
“Are the photos okay?” The man raised a brow as he looked at me. “We have that policy where you don’t have to pay for pictures that don’t turn out, so if you’re not happy, you just have to give the photos back to us and you don’t pay a cent.”
I stood there, stunned. Was this man challenging me to give him back the slightly out-of-focus photos of my girls and me in our underwear? I looked at the man again, unnerved by his steady gaze. My skin crawled with the definite impression that the man was, at that very minute, guessing about what I wore under my bulky sweater and broomstick skirt.
“I’ll take the pictures. All of them,” I said, taking my wallet from my purse.
“You’re new around here, right?” The man stepped to the cash register to add up my total. “That’ll be forty-nine dollars and fifty-five cents.”
I fished the money from the bottom of my purse. “That’s right,” I admitted, feeling an awkward silence while the man held his hand out for the money.
“You’ll probably be using this drugstore a lot. It’s the closest one to your apartment.”
“Uh, yes, I guess so.” I handed over the money, tensing when the man caught my hand to pluck the coins from my palm. I’d intended to dump the coins on the counter, but he moved faster than I’d expected.
“This is a good place to start over. It’s a good neighborhood, even if we are in the city,” he said, taking the two quarters and single nickel from my hand.
I pulled my hand away, suppressing the urge to wipe my palm on my skirt to erase his touch. At the same time, I realized he was talking as if he knew exactly where I lived.
“You’re doing that, aren’t you? Starting over?” He tore off the cash register receipt and held it just out of my reach.
“Um, yes, sort of.” I shook my head. What was I doing telling this man anything about myself?
“Know many people in town yet?”
I blinked, trying to figure out what I’d done to invite conversation from this man. “My receipt, please?”
“I like to make new friends.”
“Good for you.”
I tried to keep my voice even. But it was on the tip of my tongue to tell this guy to keep his nose out of my business. And maybe if I’d been a bit more confident, a bit more assertive, I’d have managed to say something smart and nasty that would’ve warned the man away from me forever.
“So, have you got work around here? Close to home?” he asked, narrowing his gaze as if he was worried about me. “I mean, a body’s got to work, and if you don’t have a job yet, maybe I can get you on here.”
“I have a job,” I said, reaching to take the cash register receipt from him.
He pulled back, holding the receipt just out of my reach again. “I shoulda known.” He wiggled the receipt, as if teasing me. “A smart lady like you. You probably got a good job.”
I decided to give up on the stupid receipt and just leave. I reached to grab a store bag and hastily stuffed my many envelopes of photos into it.
“You’re probably a secretary, aren’t you?” he kept on, even as I backed away from the counter.
“I gotta go,” I finally said, spinning away and racing out the door of the drugstore.
Outside, I leaned against the wall, suddenly unable to catch my breath. I put my hand to my chest, feeling my heart race.
The man was certifiably strange. I could only hope that someone else would come in with more interesting photos and put him off his odd interest in me.
I should’ve guessed differently.
Really, it’s amazing how trusting we all are. We give information about ourselves to strangers all the time. Everyone’s worried about the information you give out over the Internet, but have you ever thought about the information you give unwittingly when you take your film in to be developed?
You fill out the envelope with your name and address. You even give your phone number. Then you turn over personal moments of your life to the viewing of a stranger. You trust that your photos will come back printed the right way. You hope you focused properly, and that you don’t look ugly or fat in the pictures.
But did you ever think about who’s looking at the pictures?
Did it ever occur to you that someone you would never, ever open your house and home to, might be storing up valuable information about you just by studying the photos you plan to tuck away in your family photo albums?
I never imagined that my privacy could be so completely invaded—that I could be so completely open to an attack that I never expected.
With my busy life, I managed to forget about the odd encounter at the photo counter for several days. Then Bethany had a cold that just wasn’t getting any better, and I had no choice but to run to the drugstore for a fever reducer one night.
I didn’t expect to see that odd photo counter man at night—
But I did.
“Hi, Hannah!” he said, coming up way too close to me from behind.
Startled, I turned and knocked three boxes of Tylenol off the shelf as I swung around.
“Oh. Hello,” I replied, keeping my voice cool and as calm as I could.
“Someone sick?” He leaned in closer to me, pretending to look past me at the selection of cold remedies on the shelves.
“I gotta get going.” I slid around him, dashing to the checkout counter. I quickly paid, snatched the medicine in the bag from the clerk, and raced out the door.
The man hurried to catch up to me on the sidewalk outside the store. “You shouldn’t be out on the streets in your nightgown.”
“I gotta go.” I stepped up my escape, jogging toward my aging, four-door Ford.
He followed me right to my car.
“That nightgown—your nightgown—I can see right through it. I don’t like it that other men can see everything, Hannah.”
I jumped in the driver’s seat, locking the door behind me. I motioned for him to get out of my way so I could drive away. He stepped back, positioning himself at the left front fender.
“I know what men are thinking when they look at you in that. Men will want to put their hands on you, Hannah. I just want to protect you. I’m the only one. . . .”
He had to back away as I stepped on the gas and edged the car forward. He banged my back fender as I skidded out of his reach.
My heart pounded as I drove the short distance home, but I put on a calm face as I went inside and gave my youngest daughter a dose of the medicine I’d gotten. I fell asleep that night holding Bethany in my arms, concentrating on the reasons why I’d moved us into our crummy little apartment. We’d get ourselves together. I’d make some money, and in a few years, we’d move to the suburbs, where my girls would thrive and we’d live as a happy little family without my nasty, drunk-most-of-the-time ex-husband making us miserable.
Bethany was slightly better the next morning after our rough night, but I couldn’t leave her, so I called in to work and took a sick day. By then, Gabby seemed to be coming down with the same thing, so I dosed her with medicine, and the three of us hunkered down under heavy quilts to nap and read books and watch lousy daytime TV. For three days, I nursed my girls and didn’t leave the apartment.
On Monday morning, when everyone was healthy, I was anxious to get back out in the world. Bethany and Gabby were clean and dressed with their school backpacks in place, ready for our walk to the corner to meet their bus. I was still trying to fasten my too-curly hair away from my face with a scrunchie as we left the apartment building.
I blinked and turned.
My breath caught.
It couldn’t be.
“What are you doing here?”
He pushed off the brick wall just outside the main entrance to our apartment building. He strolled up to us and smiled.
I didn’t like it.
I didn’t like it at all.
“One of the girls was sick? Must be better now.”
He shifted his gaze from the girls to me. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end. I had to shake my head to try to think.
“What are you doing here?” I asked him again.
“I was worried about you. I could’ve helped take care of the girls, you know.”
He reached toward me as if he intended to take my hand. I backed away.
“We were fine. Please excuse us.”
“Who’s he, Mom?” Bethany asked, squinting her little green eyes at the man I continued to back away from.
“Let’s go, girls.”
I turned away and put my hands on my girls’ shoulders to turn them, as well, and to direct us all toward the corner.
“If you’re in a hurry to get to the library, I’ll wait with Gabby and Bethany till the school bus comes.”
He smiled again, and my eyes widened. I blinked, trying to concentrate on everything he’d just revealed.
How had he learned my daughters’ names?
How did he know I worked at the library?
“Please, leave us alone,” I said, my voice not as strong as I wanted it to be.
“But, Hannah, you need me.”
He grabbed my arm, trying to turn me back to look at him.
“Let go.” I made sure to keep my girls behind me as I faced him. “Stay away from us. Go away.”
My heart was pounding, but I didn’t want to shout at this chilling man right there in front of my daughters. I didn’t want to alarm them any more than they already were.
“Mom, who is he?” Gabby asked. “Why is he bothering us?”
“Go away,” I repeated, glaring at the stranger and refusing to let him touch me again. I backed out of his arm’s reach.
“Don’t be silly, Hannah. I’m the man for you now.” He stepped around me to get a better look at my kids. “Gabby and Bethany and I—we’re gonna get along real great, aren’t we, girls?”
“Don’t speak to my daughters. Go away!”
Two women passing on the street noticed and stared, but didn’t stop to offer help. In one quick glance, I noticed that there were other people about on the street. Seeing them, I didn’t feel as alone. My confidence rose.
Inhaling a deep breath, I shouted, “Go away! Stop bothering us!”
He blinked fast and looked unsteady on his feet. “Don’t yell, Hannah. Yelling makes me sad.”
“Go away!” I raised my voice a notch, turning away from him even as I saw him cover his ears and curl his upper body as if my shouting had injured him.
“Hannah. Hannah. Hannah.” He kept saying my name over and over again in a pitiful tone.
Grabbing my daughters’ hands, I changed directions. I wasn’t about to leave them at a corner bus stop—not with this strange man lurking around.
I raced around him, hurrying toward my old Taurus four-door. I cussed when the darned back door wouldn’t open. With surprising strength, I ripped open the sticking door and practically shoved both girls inside.
I drove to their school, working to adjust my breathing to normal, but my maternal protection instincts had me walking the girls right into the school building to make certain that they were safe. All that day, I kept thinking about that weird man and the odd things he’d said. It made my skin crawl.
He knew too much.
Why would he say those things?
And, most importantly—what would I do if he came back to bother us again?
Three days passed and I relaxed.
I should’ve guessed that he’d come back—that he was just waiting for the right time.
I was struggling to hold together a ripping trash bag as I carried it out to the Dumpster, when a hand clamped onto my shoulder. Startled, I dropped the bag.
“Let me get that for you.”
His hand slid down my arm and snagged my hand as he crouched down to scoop up the spilled trash.
“You know, I told you you shouldn’t be going out in your nightgown and here you are again—in your nightgown—out where men can see you.”
I peeled my hand away from his. “What are you doing here?”
A few cans rolled away from his reach as he looked up at me. He gathered the pile with a quick scoop before quickly rising to move closer to me.
My nose wrinkled—both at the smell of the trash, and at his nearness. When I stepped away, I looked right and left and realized that I was completely alone with this man in a dark parking lot. My pulse picked up instantaneously.
“It’s a man’s job to carry out the garbage. I’ll do it from now on.” He moved with a speed I would never have expected from someone as tall and seemingly uncoordinated as him to toss the beaten trash bag into the big bin.
“Go away.” I held both hands out in front of me and stepped back, making sure I left him no doubt that I didn’t want—or need—his involvement in my life.
“I’m your man, Hannah.”
He wiped his hands together as he drew closer to me again. He narrowed his eyes, and I had a strong impression of narrowness from him. His face was narrow; his shoulders were narrow. Everything about him was narrow and angular. Even his mouth was narrow—as if his smile could never be wide and genuine.
“You’re not my man!”
“I am, Hannah. You need a man. I’m Gabby and Bethany’s new daddy.”
He covered the distance between us in two quick strides. He grabbed both my arms and held me so I looked up at his narrow, tight face.
“Let go.” I pressed my lips together tightly for a moment as I tried to stay calm. “I’m going to scream if you don’t let go of me.”
“You’re my woman, Hannah. I’ll take care of you. You need me.” He drew me closer, dragging me into a hug that sent trembling chills down my spine.
I screamed, making sure to turn my mouth toward his ear so that my scream would go straight into his head. He howled, releasing me and clamping his hands over his ears.
“Don’t yell. Wally don’t like yelling!” He stumbled back from me even as he threw me an angry glare.
I turned and sprinted back to the apartment building, yelling as I went. “Go away! Stay away! Don’t ever come near me again!”
I ran back to my apartment and decided to call the police. There had to be something they could do. Surely, this weird man couldn’t keep bothering us.
All the time I spent on hold allowed me to catch my breath and calm down. When a policeman finally came on the line and I managed to explain what had been happening to him, the officer sighed and said there was really very little I could do—or that they could do—until the guy actually did real harm.
So he had to hurt my girls or me before they’d do anything?
How could that possibly be?
After that, I had a serious talk with my girls, warning them to stay inside except when I was with them, and telling them straight out to stay away from the strange man who’d stopped us on the street the other day.
“But, Mommy, why would he want to hurt us?” Gabby asked, her big eyes even wider at my explanation.
“I don’t know that he actually wants to hurt us, honey. He’s just—well, he’s—he’s got problems, and we can’t help him, as much as we want to be nice to people. So it will be best to just stay away from him. He is not our friend, girls. We have to stay safe. Understand?”
“But what if he comes back?” Bethany asked, sliding closer to me and fastening her little hands around my arm.
“He probably will come back. That’s why we have to know how to be safe.” I shook my head, trying to decide just how honest to be. How much of a strong warning could I give without completely scaring my girls? “Then we’ll call the police again. That’s what the policeman said to do. We’ll keep reporting to him.”
We discussed ways of staying safe if the man ever came to our house. By that point, I was so afraid that the nutcase would come back—and next time, come right to our apartment—that I stressed to the girls that they had to get away from him if and when it happened—that they might even have to hide if the man came into our apartment. I know they were scared, but I felt desperate to protect them.
I didn’t tell the girls, but I developed another, more confrontational, plan, as well.
During my lunch break the next day, I went back to the drugstore—not planning to confront the man—but, rather, to seek out his boss.
“I need to see the manager,” I announced as soon as I stepped up to the photo counter.
“I’m the manager,” a middle-aged, fairly decent-looking man said, standing to his full height as he moved away from the drawers of supplies behind the counter to face me. “How can I help you?”
I swallowed hard. How to explain?
“Um, a man works here—in the photo section—and he’s been, um—harassing me.” I set my jaw and narrowed my eyes, challenging him to do something about it.
“Excuse me?” The manager furrowed his brows.
“He’s about so tall,” I said, holding my hand to the man’s height. “He has dark, brown hair and he called himself Wally.”
“Walter Narowski?” He shook his head. “You have a complaint about Walter?”
“He’s been bothering me.” I rushed the words out, knowing they sounded too frantic for how little I’d explained to him so far.
“He’s not here today—what do you mean?” He looked around the store as if searching for Walter Narowski.
I took a steadying breath and decided I’d better start at the beginning. “He looked at my photos. All of my photos.”
“Well, I’m sorry if that upsets you, but that’s his job—to check the pictures to make sure they developed properly.”
“Yes, well—he—he keeps showing up at my apartment. He keeps saying things to me. He’s grabbing me and showing up at my place at night,” I said, realizing that what I was saying didn’t even sound nearly as awful as the encounters had been.
“So he’s not bothering you here in the store?”
“He did once,” I said in a rush. “I came in to get cold medicine for my daughter and he started bothering me. Then he showed up at my apartment after that.”
“Ma’am, I can’t do anything about what Walter does when he’s not at work.” He started organizing things on the counter in front of him as if he wanted to be rid of me.
“He’s harassing one of your customers. Maybe he’s bothering other women, too. Not just me. Maybe he’s going after women after he sees their pictures here in your store,” I said, raising my voice slightly. “He’s coming after me because he looked at my photos. He knows where I live because of the information on the photo envelope. He knows way too much about me and I want him to stop bothering my kids and me.”
The manager looked at me again, his face a shade redder this time. “I’m sorry if Walter is a problem for you, but I can’t really do anything about that, can I?”
“You could talk to him. You could tell him to leave the customers alone. Tell him to leave me alone, or you’ll fire him.” I heard my voice grow tight.
“I can’t really do that, ma’am.”
“Yes! Yes, you can! You can tell this crazy man to back off. You can tell him his boss knows he’s being weird and that your store won’t let him keep his job if he’s going to bother customers at their homes. You can tell him he can’t go following customers home and bothering them!”
“Lower your voice, please, ma’am,” the manager cautioned sternly. “Okay; I’ll say something to him.”
“Will you?” I kept my voice loud. I wanted people to hear. “Or are you just trying to get me to be quiet? You’ll tell your employee—Walter Narowski—to stop harassing me at my home? You’ll tell him he can’t do that?”
“Look, lady, he works later this afternoon.” The manager came around the counter and started walking toward the store entrance, escorting me out. “I’ll talk to him today. Will that satisfy you?”
I stopped and looked directly at him. “My name is Hannah Merriwether. Tell him to leave Mrs. Merriwether and her children alone. Tell him I’ve called the police. Tell him he can’t harass people. I don’t think he understands that.”
I kept my voice steady, and for the first time, I think the man understood that I was serious, and that this was a serious situation.
“I’ll talk to him.” He closed his eyes for a second and took a deep breath. “I’m sorry if you’ve had trouble. I really am.”
“Thank you,” I said, more calm now. “But he really has to stop. He has to understand.”
I crossed my fingers as I left, hoping the manager would realize I meant business.
It was after eleven that night—the girls had been in bed for a couple of hours—when someone started pounding on my front door. I sucked in a startled breath and rushed to it, hoping to quiet whomever it was. I didn’t want the girls to wake up.
“Who’s there?” I called through the closed door.
“You made me get fired!”
I peered through the peephole and saw Walter Narowski using his fists to pound on my door. I stumbled backward when he hit the door even harder and I felt it vibrate. He kept wailing, asking why I’d talked to his boss, asking why I’d gone to the store, begging for me to open my door to him and let him in.
I grabbed the phone and dialed 911.
“Help!” I cried as soon as a voice came on the line. “A man is trying to break down my front door. He’s shouting things and trying to tear the door down!”
“We’ll send someone right over,” the unemotional operator told me.
“Hurry—he’s going to break the door down!”
Behind me, the pounding grew harder.
“Hannah, open the door. I’m your man. You have to let me in!”
“Go away!” I clutched the phone to my chest and watched the door shudder beneath his violent blows.
“Hannah! Let me in! You need me!”
I heard a siren then, in the distance; the police were coming.
My whole body tensed as I heard my daughters crying and running out to the living room. I turned around to gather them up in my arms. I carried them over to the couch and wrapped them both in the quilt we kept there.
“Mom?” Gabby shifted her gaze between the door and me, her eyes wide with fear.
“The police are coming, sweetheart. They’ll make him go away.”
Gabby’s quiet tears dampened my shoulder. We held each other, listening to the man pound on our door, hearing him shout and plead for us to open up and let him in. It took far too long for the police to arrive.
But then, just before they could get him, he ran. And despite what you see on TV, cops don’t always chase down suspects in footraces through streets and alleyways.
No, instead of chasing down Walter Narowski, the police knocked on my door. I peered through the peephole and finally opened up for them.
“Ma’am?” the taller officer said.
“Are you going after him?” I leaned out to see into the hallway.
“We scared him off. He probably won’t come back.”
“He probably won’t?”
“Do you want to file a complaint?”
“Will that get him thrown in jail?”
“No. It’s more complicated than that.”
“That man has been bothering me for a couple of weeks now. He’s scaring my girls and me to death. He has to leave us alone!” I glanced back over my shoulder to my girls, who were still hugging each other on the couch.
“You’ve called the police before?” The shorter—and older—officer shook his head, and I sensed a weariness in him toward this sort of thing.
I nodded. “They told me there wasn’t a whole lot anyone could do until he actually hurts my kids or me.”
“We’ve seen this sort of thing before, ma’am,” the taller, several-years-younger-than-me officer said. “An old boyfriend who won’t let go. . . .”
“No,” I interrupted. “He’s virtually a stranger to me. He works in a drugstore close by. He learned all sorts of stuff about my kids and me when I took my film in to be developed there. You know—you have to fill out the form? You put down your name and address and phone number? He saw all sorts of pictures of us and now he’s obsessed. He’s crazed. He knows too much about us and he’s only getting crazier and crazier.”
“Look, we could go visit the guy. Put a scare into him,” the shorter, and slightly older, officer said, stepping inside my living room. In the softer light, I realized he was about my age, but he seemed like an older, wiser sort of person. “We’re not supposed to do that, but I don’t mind giving the guy a hard time.”
“Paul, we can’t do that,” the taller officer said.
“I’m sick of the bad guys having all the rights,” the second officer said, looking toward my kids. “Do you know his name? We can go see him, shake him up just by talking to him.”
I nearly melted with relief. I told the two policemen everything I knew.
“We’ll go rattle his cage. A lot of times, all it takes is for the cops to warn a guy away. You see, these guys—they usually aren’t very brave,” the cop named Paul assured me as they left.
My girls and I slept fitfully that night—when we slept at all. I clung to the hope the policeman had offered. His words replayed in my mind a thousand times over and I kept praying that he’d be right. I finally decided to call in sick the next day for the girls and myself. I kept us all locked up safe and sound in our crummy little apartment. We made a family game day of it and even indulged in pedicures—
But I didn’t take any pictures that time.
It was after five in the afternoon when the policeman named Paul came to my door.
“Officer Paul Cortez, ma’am,” he said, identifying himself as I looked through the peephole before opening the door.
“Well?” I looked out into the hallway for the other officer. I didn’t see him.
“We talked to Walter Narowski.” He removed his visor and stood stock-still. “My partner didn’t like it—it’s not exactly by the book, and he’s new and young enough to think that cops should always stick to the book. But we did go talk to the guy; I wanted to let you know. Anyway, the guy—he tells a very different story. But I thought you should know we told him to leave you alone.”
“What story?” My heart leaped to my throat. I sensed bad news coming.
“He claims it was a lovers’ spat. He says you’ve been dating him for over a year, and that you recently got cold feet about marrying him.”
He shook his head when I started to object.
“I know,” he hurried on, holding up his hand to stop my protests. “He’s got a whole fantasy worked out around you. He’s got pictures all over his place, too. Pictures of you. Pictures of the kids. My partner thinks the photos mean maybe he’s telling the truth, and you’re the crazy one. But, me—I don’t think so.”
“Pictures?” I stepped back, sinking into the chair near my front door. “He—he works at the drugstore’s photo counter. If he’s got pictures of me—then it must be from when he developed those photos I took in in the first place.”
“I thought that might be the case. Do you have those photos?”
I rushed to a drawer and pulled the packet of photos out. With trembling hands, I started shuffling through the pictures.
“There—that one,” Officer Cortez said, pointing to the photo of me in my underwear, pretending to sing. “That’s the one that made me suspicious of the guy. I mean, real boyfriends don’t put poster-sized photos of their girlfriends in their underwear all over the walls of their apartments.”
“He has pictures of me in my underwear—on his walls?” I crumpled the photo in my hand.
“Several.” The officer shook his head. “Poster-sized pictures like that just don’t ring true. That’s just not the kind of thing that somebody does.”
“He shouldn’t have those pictures. He has no right to them!”
“Do you have the negatives from all those photos?”
I opened the packet and searched.
I had the photos—but no negatives. I shook the empty envelope.
Officer Cortez nodded resignedly. “He’s got them. You can be sure of that.”
“What am I going to do?” I sat down hard on the couch, only then noticing my two girls lurking in the doorway, watching and listening to everything. I motioned for them to come over to me. I hugged them hard and settled them down next to me on the couch.
“We talked to him, but I don’t think it’s going to make any difference. He believes that the two of you have an intimate, intense relationship going on. You’re going to have to take some serious precautions for your family’s safety.”
I spent the next week doing everything the policeman had told me to do, starting with installing new locks on the doors and windows. Something inside of me shifted as I tuned into the female lioness inside of me—the wild woman who would claw out the eyes of anyone who tried to hurt her kids. I changed my routines, going to work at different times, driving different routes to the girls’ school and back, screening all my calls so that I never picked up the phone to a stranger. I did everything that Officer Cortez had advised. And then I waited—waited for my stalker to show up again.
Officer Cortez stopped by a couple of times, and seemed genuinely pleased to see that I’d taken his advice and that, so far, we were okay. I noticed his partner didn’t come with him. By his third visit, he finally confessed that a stalker had terrorized his sister several years ago, and that was why he was so personally concerned about my situation.
“What happened to your sister?” I asked him.
“It was a guy she worked with. He went crazy. Said crazy things to her. Kept coming to her house. Sent her stuff in the mail. Parked outside her house. Made her crazy. Finally, he broke into her house and she shot him.”
“Oh, my God!”
He nodded grimly. “It was hard on her to shoot him. But by that point, it was either her, or him. That night, he broke into her house carrying a gun and three knives. Actually, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about. I can’t officially tell you this—and, officially, I haven’t been here visiting you—but I think you should get a gun,” he said.
I shook my head vehemently. “Absolutely not. I have kids. I can’t have a gun in the house. Besides, I don’t even know how to fire one. I don’t want to know how.”
“The police can’t really protect you, you know. Policemen can’t be bodyguards,” he said. “We really can’t do a whole lot until an actual crime is committed. It’s that simple.”
“I know.” I stood up with him as he moved to the door. “But I can’t have a gun in here.”
“Stay safe, Hannah,” he said as he took my hand and lightly squeezed it before letting go. “I’ll come back when I can. It’s all I can do.”
“Thanks, Officer.” I leaned against the door, watching him step into the hallway.
“Might as well call me Paul,” he said as he started to walk away. “Anyway, I’ll swing by here a little more often. I think our guy will show up pretty soon.”
“I hope not. But come see me again, Paul. Please.” I waved and closed the door, turning the five locks and putting the bar closure against the door.
Paul came by every day the following week. We talked about so many things, and I really started looking forward to his visits.
But I shouldn’t have started thinking about Paul so much. Because it made me stop thinking about the nut who possessed so many photos of me.
The following Friday, I decided to make dinner for Paul. He’d be stopping by, I knew it, so I hit the grocery store and picked up some supplies. I very much wanted to thank him for being my friend, for understanding the situation, and for taking care of us. And, a little part of me, I admit—that feminine-urge part—did secretly hope that something might start happening between us.
I put Gabby and Bethany to work slicing cucumbers and carrots for a salad while I slid a pan of lasagna into the oven. It was a big square of lasagna, so much food that surely, Paul wouldn’t be able to turn down the offer to join us for dinner. I’d just turned to snatch a sweet-smelling chunk of cucumber from the cutting board when I heard the front door open and close. I froze, mid-chew.
Hadn’t I locked the door?
Even if I hadn’t—
Would Paul just let himself in?
As soon as I heard the voice—
My heart froze.
On shaky legs, I walked around the corner to the living room—and shivered as soon as I saw Walter Narowski standing in the middle of my living room. He was thumbing through my mail as if he did so every day.
“Hi, Hannah, honey. Supper smells great,” he said happily.
“You—you can’t be in here,” I said, trying hard to stay calm.
“I’ve been watching you, Hannah, darling. I knew you were getting a special dinner ready, just for me. I knew you were ready for me to come home to you.” He smiled as he strolled back to the front door and turned the five locks, snapping the final one in place with a flourish.
“You can’t be in here,” I repeated, stalling for time, my mind scrambling for a quick solution.
What could I do?
How could I get him out of the apartment?
How would I protect my girls?
“I have to admit—I’m disappointed you’ve been letting that cop in here so much. I don’t like him poking around in our lives.” He dropped the mail back down onto the coffee table and strolled into the kitchen.
Gabby and Bethany looked up from their cooking tasks with wide eyes that shifted between the delusional maniac invading our home, and me.
“You have to leave, Walter. I don’t want you here. You absolutely have to understand that. You are not welcome here,” I said, struggling to keep my voice firm.
“I’m moving in here, Hannah. I don’t have an apartment anymore since I lost my job. We should live together, anyway. After all, we’re a family.”
My heart was pounding. How could I have been so stupid? How could I have left the door unlocked? How could I have let this happen?
How could I protect my daughters?
Turning my full attention to Gabby and Bethany, I picked my words carefully. “Girls, it’s almost time to eat supper. You must go to the bathroom right now and wash your hands.”
“But, Momma,” Gabby pleaded, her wide eyes still fixed on Walter.
“Go to the bathroom right now.” I leaned in close to Gabby and quickly whispered, “Take your sister and lock yourselves in the bathroom. It’s time to hide, Gabby.”
Gabby looked at me and nodded, her wide eyes watering with tears that would spill over any second.
“Hey, what’s with the whispering? Our family doesn’t keep secrets, Hannah. Stop whispering.” Walter moved to me, grabbing my arm to pull me away from Gabby.
I tried to ignore Walter’s hands on me. “Go on now, Gabby,” I told her harshly.
“Okay, Momma.” She took Bethany’s hand and led her away from the kitchen.
My heart twisted in my chest as I watched them go into the bathroom together. My gaze shifted to Walter, and I felt tremendous relief when I realized he was watching me, and only me.
“I know you sent the girls away, Hannah. But that’s okay. I don’t believe in displays of affection in front of children, anyway. We can kiss and hold each other and make love all we want now.”
I blinked hard, looking at him, trying to stay calm so I could think. He moved with me even as I backed up. I ran into the kitchen cabinet and he moved in closer to pin me there.
That’s all I could say. I heard my voice shake and wished I could summon greater strength.
“Hannah, honey, we’re alone now. Kiss me.” He moved closer, his face hovering closer to mine.
I saw his eyelids flutter closed and I curled my hands into fists.
I had to do something.
I had to act. I knew it.
I couldn’t let him think that he belonged in my house.
“Stop!” I shouted at the top of my lungs. “Get away from me!”
Walter froze, his eyes going wide. “Don’t yell, Hannah. Wally doesn’t like yelling.” His voice was steely calm.
“Don’t touch me!” I shouted again, praying the girls would know enough to stay safely away from the situation.
“Quiet!” he barked, taking a short step back from me.
“You have to go away!” I pointed a finger at him and shouted, “Walter Narowski, go away! Go away!”
He curled his hands over his ears and started whimpering. “I love you, Hannah. Don’t be loud. Wally doesn’t like loud.”
Seizing on the only thing I could think to do, I kept shouting at him, forcing him to back up, back away from me. Step by step, I backed him to the apartment door, shouting as he tried to move away from my raised voice.
I thought I had him. I thought I could get around him and get the door open and get him out.
I thought I had control.
I was wrong.
Without warning, Walter sprang at me. His hand went for my mouth, forcing my lips together and knocking me off my feet. I fell hard to the floor with Wally landing on top of me. My breath rushed out of me in a whoosh and I coughed, trying to catch my breath. But Walter didn’t take his hand away. He pressed me down, grinding his knee into my thigh. I smacked my head on the floor and it hurt—a lot. For an instant, blackness threatened.
But I knew I couldn’t let myself pass out.
I hung on.
“Stop the noise, Hannah.” He was breathing hard and glaring down at me. “Momma yelled at me and I stopped her. I’ll stop you, too.”
Immediately, I stilled beneath him.
What did he mean?
Had this psycho killed his mother or something?
“Wally loves you, Hannah,” he hissed, pressing his hand even harder over my mouth. “Wally wants quiet.”
I felt tears fill my eyes and blinked them back. I had to keep my head. I had to think. I nodded, even though it revolted me. Then I reached up and hugged him.
He sagged with relief. “I knew you loved me, Hannah. I knew it.” He took his hand from my mouth then, and I tasted blood where I’d bit the inside of my cheek.
“Let’s—let’s have dinner, Walter,” I suggested, praying it would get him off me. “I—I’ve fixed a lovely dinner. We should go eat it.”
“Wally’s not hungry now.”
His expression changed, and I closed my eyes, knowing I would have to stay calm, keep my girls safe, and somehow get help.
“Wally wants lovin’. Remember when I took those pictures of you in your black bra and panties, darling? Remember?”
I realized he must’ve made up a thousand stories about me in his own sick mind. He had a whole depraved fantasy life that revolved around us. I nodded because I thought it might keep me alive a while longer.
“I want to take more pictures, Hannah. Take off your clothes. I want to see you again. I like to see you.”
His fingers went to my blouse, tugging at the buttons until the whole line of them gave. Then—
“This bra is blue!”
“I—I only have one black bra, Walter. I—I don’t wear it all the time.”
He chewed his bottom lip for a moment. “Okay. Okay. That’s okay, Hannah. Wally likes this one okay. Wally likes the lace.” His fingers traced over the upper edge of the lace bra cups.
His hands moved over me, yanking my shirt off and peeling my slacks down my legs to my ankles. Then he lay on top of me again, grinding himself against me while his hands squeezed my breasts way too hard. I squeezed my eyes together and prayed he’d get the rape over with before my girls came out of the bathroom. He writhed on top of me, squeezing and breathing hard, but he didn’t remove his own clothes.
Then he started moaning and mumbling something, and for the first time since he’d stripped me, I started to think that he wouldn’t actually force sex on me. He mumbled something while he squeezed my breasts. He mumbled something else while he forced my legs apart and started rubbing against me there. I could feel his arousal, but he didn’t unbutton or unzip himself.
Then he bent close to my ear and started whispering things; his breathing was ragged, and I couldn’t understand everything. He said something about all the times in the past when he’d lain on top of me. I bit back a scream when he used one hand to cover my mouth and the other to touch me down there.
Then I heard the bathroom door open—and Gabby’s sharp intake of breath.
My heart hammered.
I couldn’t let this go on.
I couldn’t let him rape me with my girls watching.
“Get off me!” I shouted, turning my head away from his hand, then aiming my mouth directly at his ear. “Get off! Get off!”
“Nobody yells! Momma yelled. Momma doesn’t yell anymore!”
“Leave me alone, Wally!” I shouted, trying hard to keep my voice as loud as possible as I waved Gabby away. Finally, mercifully, both girls retreated back into the bathroom. I heard the lock click again and wept with a strange relief.
“I just want to lay on you, Hannah. I want to feel you—feel inside of you. You always let me before. You smiled before. No noise before.” He squeezed me harder.
I realized this sicko must’ve been rubbing himself against those photos of me that he’d stolen—doing God knew what else to them. Rage and horror seethed inside of me.
“Let go of me, Walter.” I twisted in his grip. “I don’t want you touching me.” I elbowed him and saw him wince in pain; then I elbowed him again.
“But I love you!” he pleaded, finally letting me go long enough to rub at his stomach.
“Get out of here!”
I bent to grab my torn shirt, holding it in front of me. When a knock sounded at my front door, my heart leaped and tears sprang to my eyes.
“Help me! Help!” I screamed, starting to run for the door, but Walter tackled me almost immediately, throwing me brutally to the floor and landing with a crushing, painful force on top of me.
“No one else, Hannah! This is family business!” he wailed, his voice filled with indignant rage.
“Help me! Oh, God, help me—he’s in here! Help me!” I struggled to drag myself toward the door, even as Walter tried frantically to smother me.
“No, no, no!” Walter wailed pleadingly, desperately.
Then Paul started pounding against the door and I cursed the locks I’d installed. Walter grabbed me, pulling me away from the door. I kicked and bit and clawed and struggled and screamed at the top of my lungs, but he was stronger than I’d ever imagined such a long, wiry man could be.
“Paul!” I screamed, even as I heard the door splintering under his frantic assault.
“Tell him to go, Hannah!” Walter begged, blubbering in my ear. “Tell him Wally loves you! Tell him you love Wally! Wally’s not ready to make Hannah be quiet!”
He grabbed my arm then and threw me to the couch. All of a sudden—
He had a gun in his hands.
With a shaky hand, he pointed the barrel at me—
And then toward the door.
“Paul! He has a gun, Paul! Get away from the door!”
Walter was momentarily torn, and I lunged for the phone, frantically punching in 911 even as he squeezed the trigger. Paul burst through the door just in time to catch Wally’s bullet in the shoulder. I screamed and screamed, seeing a bloom of blood on Paul’s uniform—and then my daughters, peeking out from their hiding place.
“Gabby, close the door!”
I still clutched the phone and waved for the girls to go back as the 911 operator finally came on the line.
“I have an intruder in my apartment—a policeman’s just been shot!”
“An officer is already on the scene?” the dispatcher asked.
“Yes—he’s just been shot. Send help right away!”
I’d just started to recite my address when Walter swung around on me, the barrel of the gun pointed toward me.
“Nobody comes here!” he shrieked. He snatched the phone away from me and threw it. “This is Wally’s house! My family! No cops!”
Paul stirred from where he’d fallen to the floor and Walter spun back toward him.
“Where are the girls, Hannah?” Paul asked, even as he struggled to sit up.
“They’re safe. So far, they’re safe,” I answered, my attention shifting between him and Walter constantly.
“You—you stay away!” Walter howled at Paul. “You can’t come in here! This is my house! This is my woman! Mine! Momma said nobody would ever love me. But Hannah loves me. She lets me touch her! Momma said no girl ever would. Momma was wrong. Momma’s quiet now!”
I saw Paul wince in pain as he struggled to get to his feet. The blood seeping from his shoulder was saturating the front of his uniform. Wally backed away from him, coming closer to where I huddled on the couch.
“But, Wally, Momma sent me here,” Paul said, his voice strangely calm. “Momma said you aren’t supposed to be here, so she sent me to get you.”
“No!” Wally shouted, so fast and loud that I jumped. “No! Momma’s quiet now! I made her be quiet!”
“You did?” Inch by inch, Paul moved closer. “You thought you did, Wally, but she sent me here.”
“Momma said you have to come home, Wally.” Paul stood steadier on his legs—how he did, I don’t know—because blood was soaking his blue uniform.
“No! I left Momma in the basement! She was quiet! She was finally quiet!” Walter trembled and wrapped his arms around himself. The gun was pointed back toward me as he hugged himself.
I heard sirens and prayed the police would hurry.
“Momma wants you to come home, Wally. She doesn’t want you here with Hannah,” Paul said.
I thought he might be pushing it.
“Momma’s quiet. Momma’s quiet. Wally made her stop yelling.” Walter started swaying. He turned back to me, his eyes frantically searching mine. “Wally’s the man now. Momma’s quiet. Wally loves Hannah now. Hannah loves Wally.”
“No!” Paul shouted, drawing Walter’s attention back to him again. “Momma says you can’t be with Hannah, Wally. Momma wants you home, Wally.”
“Wally won’t go back!” He trembled and sobbed and turned back to me. “Hannah will keep me here with her!”
I looked beyond Walter and saw three cops in the doorway. Paul looked, too. He took a step to the side, out of their way, and swayed before falling to his knees.
My throat tightened, closing off my scream. Two of the policemen rushed forward. Wally grabbed my arm when I screamed; he pretended the policemen weren’t there, ignoring them when they shouted for him to stop.
“Wally loves Hannah! Wally’s the man of the house! Remember how you let me lay on top of you, Hannah? Remember?” He leaned in closer to me, the gun in his right hand wavering.
“You have to hold still, Wally,” I told him softly. “The policemen are here—they want you to stop moving.”
“Mine. You are mine!” He grabbed my other arm with the hand he still held the gun in. The cold metal made me wince. “Gabby and Bethany are my daughters!”
“No!” I screamed, trying to shrug off his hold. “Stay away from my daughters!”
I leapt to my feet and pushed at him, putting myself between him and the bathroom door. But he pushed against me, moving me backward—edging closer to where my girls were.
“No! Stop him!” I shrieked.
Paul scrambled to his feet again, snatching the gun from the policeman standing closest to him and training it on Walter. “Stop, Wally! Don’t go near the children!”
“Mine. They’re mine. . . .” Walter’s arm snaked around me, pulling me beside him.
Then I heard the popping sound of the gunshot and felt myself falling to the floor beside him. He was grunting and breathing hard, and I gasped against my rising panic.
What had happened?
“Hannah, are you all right?” Paul asked in a rush as he scooped me up from where Walter’s arm pinned me to the floor.
The other policemen rushed forward and slapped handcuffs on Walter even as he squirmed on the floor, blood spurting from the wound in his hip.
“Gabby and Bethany,” I said in a rush, clutching Paul’s shirtfront. “We have to let them know it’s all right!”
Paul snatched the quilt from the couch and wrapped it around me before we rushed to where Gabby and Bethany huddled together behind the old, claw-foot tub.
There, I hugged my girls, weeping tears of relief.
I don’t know how we managed to get through the next few hours of police reports and hospital paperwork.
Despite Paul’s wound, he was calm and steady through the entire aftermath. The girls and I went to the hospital with him, and we all clung to each other, filled with joy, and relief that we’d survived. Since Paul’s release from the hospital, I don’t think he and I have spent a night apart.
The police discovered that Walter Narowski had killed his mother and left her to rot in the basement of their family home months previously. He’d moved into his own apartment and started his job at the drugstore around the same time. Files and records documented the abuse that he’d suffered throughout his childhood, but he’d never been removed from his mother’s custody. She was sick and twisted, and raised him to be the same way.
He is locked up in prison now—and probably will be for years to come.
I only pray he won’t be able to bother us ever again.