By Shelly Moore
*WARNING: May be triggering for some.*
It was mid-July and my vegetable garden was in desperate need of watery relief. I called out to my dog, put his blue harness around his little front legs and buckled the top while I kissed the top of his head, then hooked the leash to the metal rings on top and opened the door to walk outside.
The air was thick and damp, which was typical for an Ohioan midsummer. We natives affectionately refer to it as “armpit” weather, which is a surprisingly adequate description. The sun felt like a warm blanket on my skin as I walked quickly over the hot asphalt of my driveway to the soft, tepid grass which felt heavenly under my bare feet.
I hooked my pup up to his lead, grabbed his metal water bowl, and relished in the feeling of the warm earth beneath my toes as I made my way over to the garden hose to fill it. I could hear Queen’s “Somebody To Love” playing on my neighbor’s outdoor radio, and I sang along quietly as I carefully walked the filled water bowl over to my four-legged little love, who was now rolling around on his back the summer sun-warmed grass; legs splayed in the air, mouth open, and tongue hanging sideways in a show of pure canine joy. I scratched his belly and told him what a handsome, good boy he was, and when he stood to get a drink of the fresh water I had just brought him, I made my way back to the spigot.
I removed the hundred foot long, supposedly “unkinkable” garden hose from it’s holster one loop at a time and turned the spigot on. My dog’s ears instantly pinned to the sides of his head and his tail tucked between his little white legs; he hated the hose about as much as children hate Brussels sprouts and dentists. I called over to him and calmly assured him it wasn’t bath time, and then continued to sing along with Freddie Mercury as I made my way over to my beloved garden.
“Hey, neighbor!” he called over to me from across the fence and through the treeline. I couldn’t really see him, but he, apparently, could see me so I waved in his general direction and thanked the gods for the sunglasses covering my eyes, successfully hiding my confusion as I scanned for him.
I resumed my watering, lovingly and delicately picking through my giant squash, romaine, and tomato leaves; feeling like a bit of a green garden goddess for having watched these beauties sprout from tiny seeds mere weeks ago. Nothing brought me joy the way gardening did; feeling the soil between your fingers and smelling the earth as you tend to its offspring is a bliss that cannot possibly be described sufficiently in words alone.
“Lookin’ good,” a gruff voice suddenly said from behind me. Startled, I spun to see my neighbor had made his way into my back yard and was now standing five feet from me.
“Thanks! This is only my second year attempting to grow veggies, so I’m pretty proud,” I replied.
Friendly by nature, I welcomed the conversation.
“I have some tomatoes growing on my porch. You should come over and see them sometime,” he said; eyes squinted and cigarette firmly gripped between his pursed lips.
“Believe it or not, I’m not a huge fan of tomatoes. I grow them, but mostly for my kids. They eat them like candy,” I said as I continued to water my garden.
“Where are they today?” he asked.
“At friend’s houses. I’m enjoying some much needed mama time,” I smiled.
“Mmm,” he said, taking a long drag from his cancer stick and then flicking it into the woods behind me, which bothered me slightly because it was on my property, but I let it go. I’d pick it up after he left.
Only then did the silence between us begin to grow uncomfortable, and I started feeling a bit uneasy in his presence. I caught myself thinking about our security cameras; were they pointed in this direction? I didn’t think so. One faced the front yard, one faced the driveway…
Before I had time to finish that thought, he grabbed me in a tight bear hug; my arms pinned to my waist. With his mouth against my ear and his ashtray breath hot on my skin, he said, “Stop struggling. You know you want this just as much as I do.”
I screamed and kicked with adrenaline coursing through my veins and anger, not fear, swelling in my chest.
How dare he.
I had been nothing but neighborly to him for the last several years.
I had never once flirted with him or led him on in any way.
I left cookies on his front porch for Christmas for the last few years; had he misinterpreted that as flirtatious?
How dare he feel that he could do this to me.
My dog barked as ferociously as a sixteen pound dog can bark and tried desperately to escape his harness to come to my aid. I screamed, flailed and kicked wildly. I was not going to let this be easy for him. He brought a muscular arm around my neck and placed me in a tight choke hold, and I felt things crunch and snap within my neck as I gasped desperately for air.
I stared with terror-stricken eyes at my sweet, sweet little pup as the world went dark around me.
The next thing I saw was the nicotine-yellowed ceiling of a camper.
My throat hurt, my head hurt, and my wrists hurt. As I slowly regained consciousness, I realized my wrists had been tightly bound behind me with a plastic zip tie. I had fabric of some sort in my mouth that tasted like it had been used to wipe motor oil from dirty hands in the recent past, and duct tape wrapped tightly around my face so that I couldn’t scream. I fought the overwhelming urge to gag. I closed my eyes and attempted to calm my racing heart; the only way I was going to get out of this was if I kept a calm, level head.
I’m a smart girl. I can get out of this.
“Wakey wakey, little pet,” he said to me from the other end of the camper. I hadn’t noticed him until he spoke.
I glared at him, invisible daggers being thrown from my soul into his. I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of seeing my fear.
“You and I…. man, oh man, we’re gonna have so much fun,” he hissed like a snake.
He used a box cutter to slice my pants along the outside of my left leg, and then my right. He then ripped them off, threw them to the camper’s floor. A serpents smile spread across his face as he caressed the tops of my bare legs with his calloused fingers.
I wanted to cry, but I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction. I didn’t shed a single tear.
I stared at him with silent fury, not breaking eye contact.
He grabbed my right ankle and swung it around him so that he stood between my legs. I felt the overwhelming urge to vomit.
“Dad?” a female’s voice called from just outside the camper. His head snapped toward the camper door and his eye grew wide. He put his finger to his mouth, and the box cutter to my throat.
“I’ll be right out, hun. Give me just a sec,” he called out to her, his finger still pressed to his lips.
He leaned down and pressed his beard-stubbled cheek to mine and whispered, “I’ll be back, my little pet. You stay right like this,” he said as he kissed the duct tape on my lips, then raped me with his eyes. He left the camper, locking the door behind him.
The moment he left I put my bare feet on the floor of the camper and stood, taking stock of what was around me. It was old and musty; smelled of cigarette smoke and mold, and looked as if it hadn’t been cleaned in decades. There were no sheets on the bare mattresses, and the small sink had rust and at least a dozen dead flies adorning its drain. I walked to the door and pushed my ear to it to listen. I heard a door shut and realized I was inside the pop-up camper he stored behind his house.
I was so close to my home. Just feet, really. The camper was just on the other side of our fence.
So close, yet so devastatingly far.
I thought about my poor little dog. Was he still tied to his lead? I listened, but didn’t hear him barking. I worried maybe he had gotten loose and ventured out onto our busy road.
I thought about my children, who would be getting dropped off around dinnertime. What would they think when they came home to an empty house; my car still parked in the driveway? And for that matter, I realized I didn’t even really know what time it was because I didn’t know how long I had been unconscious. I couldn’t even be totally sure it was the same day.
I felt tears start to form in the corners of my eyes, and I quickly stifled my emotions.
I reminded myself that I needed to keep a clear head, or I’ll just become another Dateline story.
I looked around the pop-up again. I knew from my childhood memories that pop-up campers usually had a window or vent on the roof that could be opened. This one happened to be located directly above the sink. Could I fit through it? I didn’t know, but I had to try. My hands were still bound behind my back, so climbing up onto the sink would not be an easy feat. The zip-ties had been tied too tight, breaking the skin slightly on my right wrist. My wrists aches, but adrenaline helped me forget about the pain so I could focus on survival.
I leaned over the sink, laying the weight of my upper body on the counter, and swung my legs clumsily around.
It worked. I was now laying with my face in the sink and my torso planking the counter beside it. I brought my knees to my stomach, trying to bring myself to a sitting, or possibly a standing position, but I struggled. I turned onto my back and bent my knees so my feet were planted on the edge of the counter. I sat up, then stood, and used my mouth to turn the crank to open the vent.
It was so small.
It might be too small for my childbearing hips to fit through, but I didn’t know what other choice I had, so I just kept pushing forward with the only plan I had.
Once the vent was fully open, I stood fully erect with my head peeking out the top of the camper. I scanned my surroundings. The sun had either begun to set or to rise; I wasn’t quite sure, but hoped it was setting and only a few hours had passed since my abduction. I could hear traffic passing on our busy road just out of eyesight, and I could see the roof of my house.
I fought the urge to cry again, and my chest ached.
I head-butted the plastic vent cap using the top of my head while jumping on the counter – careful not to lose my balance and fall – until it cracked, then broke. I felt the skin on my scalp split and warm blood as it trickled down my temples.
How on earth was I going to lift my body out of this tiny hole without the use of my hands?
I spun around to again surveil my surroundings and was surprised to see a girl of about sixteen with bright red hair that fell in ringlets around her face and down her chest standing in the driveway of my abductor staring quizzically at me; mouth agape, head half-cocked, and brow furrowed.
I couldn’t scream, I couldn’t beg for help, so instead I pleaded with every fiber of my being using only my eyes for her to help me.
They say the eyes are windows to the soul, and I prayed in this moment my soul would speak to hers.
Just then, the back door to his house opened and I quickly stooped down so that I wouldn’t be spotted.
“Shit, dad, will you go back and grab my sunglasses? I left them on my nightstand,” the redhead quickly called out to my abductor.
“Dammit, Elsie,” he mumbled, and I heard the noisy storm door shut behind him once again.
I cautiously peeked out the vent again. The girl was now at the door of the camper trying to open it up.
“It’s locked,” she called out to me. “What do I do? Fuck. Shit. Did my dad lock you up in here?” she asked with tears in her eyes.
I could only stare back at her with pleading, desperate eyes.
“Fuck, I can’t open it. I’ll go buy you some more time. It’s an old camper; you can probably kick out the door,” she said, then she turned and went back inside the house shutting the door behind her.
Kick out the door. Why hadn’t I thought of that? God bless this girl. I jumped down from the counter and immediately began kicking at the door with all that I had. It only took four strong kicks before the metal frame bent and gave way; another two kicks broke the door right off its hinges.
I ran from the camper, hands still bound behind my back, down his long driveway toward our busy road. I ran through my front yard and up to my front door and used my head to bang until I began to see stars.
I could hear my dog barking wildly on the other side of the door.
I banged harder. My head ached and the world around me began to fade again as I came dangerously close to slipping out of consciousness.
My six-year-old son opened the door and I fell onto the hard floor inside the entryway, slamming the door behind me with my feet.
“What did mom say about opening the door when she’s not home?” my daughter snapped at her brother from the hallway. Upon seeing me she dropped her phone on the hardwood floor with a solid thud, and ran to me to remove the duct tape and rag from my mouth.
“Lock the door. Lock all the doors. Lock the windows. NOW! Both of you!”
“Mom?” she began to ask, tears welling in her eyes, but I cut her off.
“Do it now!” I demanded.
She grabbed the kitchen scissors and cut my wrists free, and I rubbed them as I ran to the phone to call the police.
“Where were you, mommy?” my boy asked. “I’m real hungry but sis wouldn’t let me have ice cream because she’s mean.”
That’s when I finally allowed the floodgates to release, and I wept as I pulled my children into my chest and held them tightly, kissing their heads and telling them how much I loved them.
“911, what is your emergency?” a woman’s voice asked.