The husky man lurking outside the front door of Pamela Crittendon’s house carried a black leather satchel, like a doctor’s bag.
Hiding behind a column between the foyer and dining room, Pamela could see the stranger through one of the narrow vertical windows situated on each side of the door.
His face was hardened and pasty, with tiny eyes and a thatch of curly red hair. He wore all black, from his T-shirt and leather vest to his jeans and cowboy boots. And he stood uncomfortably close to the door.
The doorbell rang a third time. Pamela’s head buzzed.
Backlit by the midafternoon sunlight, the man turned toward the street. Covering half his face with a blocky, gloved hand, he shifted his huge frame from one foot to the other. Then he turned and rapped hard at the glass, knocking the wind out of Pamela.
“Who’s at the door, Mommy?” Seven-year-old Rebecca appeared at the top of the stairs wearing pink plastic high heels, a red sequined dress, and a purple boa. Bumping into her from behind was her five- year-old sister, Faye, who wore a long white dress, a furry brown stole, and turquoise gloves that went up to her armpits.
“I’m not sure,” Pamela said, her voice constricted. “Go back to the media room and play. Hurry, go on.”
Taking a deep breath, she fought her way through a force field of fear to within three feet of the door and made herself yell deeply, sharply, “Who is it?” She searched the man through the glass.
He clamped the doorknob.
“Open!” The hardware made a sickening racket.
“Get out of here!” Her stomach turned. “I’m calling the police!” She rushed for the phone in the kitchen.
Pamela halted, turned toward the noise at the door, and gawked in horror as the stranger bent over and drove his shoulder—the size of a medicine ball—into the door, splintering the wood frame.
“Mo-omm-my?” Rebecca cried from the top of the steps. She was clutching Peep, her favorite doll. “Who’s banging at the door?”
“Get down here, now. Both of you!” But as soon as the words left her mouth, Pamela realized she couldn’t wait. She shot up the stairs, swept up both girls, and plunged back down.
Each frantic step felt like an adrenaline-laced nightmare.
As they passed within four feet of the front door, the glass shattered.
“Ahhh!” Pamela shrieked, dashing away from the eerie close- ness of the intruder, hoping the girls wouldn’t see the man, but their little eyes were huge. Rebecca let loose a terror-ridden scream. Faye was frozen. Pamela kept going, like a soldier bolting through a minefield, with both girls locked in her arms, one thought in her brain: get out.
She heard the man reaching in, groping for the bolt lock.
This cannot be happening.
Dropping the girls to their feet, she flipped the lock to the back door and shoved it open.
She heard glass crunching beneath the man’s boots. “Wait!” he called.
Pamela grabbed the girls’ little hands and rocketed through the door onto the screened porch.
She could feel him coming, maybe fifteen feet behind. She kicked the screened door open.
They hit fresh air. And grass.
Faster than you ever have.
Pamela flew toward the neighbors’ house, ripping at the girls’ hands, feeling as if their little legs had left the ground, as if they were the dollies now.
Across the flat green lawn they dashed, the girls whimpering and squealing with each panicked stride.
Without knocking, Pamela tried the handle, found it unlocked, and burst into the Sweeneys’ house with the girls—slamming the door and dead-bolting it behind her.
Tommy Sweeney shot out of his office then stopped when he saw them. “Pamela? What on earth is going on?”
“A man broke in … while we were there …” It was difficult to breathe. Her heart hurt. Her brain banged against her skull. Her neck and shoulders felt torn from the weight of the girls. “He may be coming … check, Tommy. He was right behind us.” She stroked the girls’ hair with trembling hands and drew them tight against her body.
Tommy darted toward the kitchen window, reaching for the phone on his belt clip. “I see him out back. He’s turning around … He’s going back in.”
Pamela could only nod, relieved that at least someone else had seen him.
“It’s okay. You’re safe now.” Tommy punched at the screen of his cell phone and looked out the window. “Tell me what happened.”
“He rang the doorbell a bunch, then pounded. I told him to go away, that I was calling the police—”
She shook her head. “No time. He broke the glass at the front door and came in.”
When he’d shattered the glass, found the bolt lock, and entered, there must have been only ten feet between them. Ten feet and how many seconds? Three? Maybe four? If she’d delayed only that long in getting the girls, the monster would have had them. And done what? To her? To them?
“Jesus took care of us,” she whispered and nestled the girls close. Tommy was still peering out the window, focused on her backyard.
“Do you see him?” Pamela asked.
“No. He’s still inside.” He held up an index finger and spoke into the phone. “Yes, ma’am, we’ve had a break-in next door to the address I’m calling from … I will in a minute, but you should know the intruder is still on the property … hurry.”