by Meghan Beaudry
The night air feels still and heavy as I lock the door to my apartment behind me. My two small dogs clamber down the stairs to the grass. After five years in the same complex, they’re familiar with our 11 pm routine. The occasional car zips past, its headlights casting elongated shadows of trees and bushes on the walls of the units around me. I rarely encounter other people on the last walk of the night before my dogs and I go to bed. Still, I carry the pepper spray my mother pressed into my hand when I first moved here. Less than a fifteen-minute drive away lie the Texas Killing Fields, a 25-acre stretch of abandoned oilfields where nearly thirty young women have been abducted and murdered.
I didn’t hear about the Texas Killing Fields until five years after I moved into my apartment. Police believe the murders were committed by several serial killers over a three-decade period ending in 2006. The few miles of highway that border the area have been called the “Highway to Hell.” As I walk my dogs, I think of the girls. Heide Villarreal-Fye, age 23, who disappeared from the restaurant where she worked as a cocktail waitress. Her remains were discovered when a dog unearthed her skull. Krystal Baker, age 13, the great-niece of Marilyn Monroe, taken after a fight with her grandmother. Laura Smither, age 12, whose murder was especially shocking because she was abducted from Friendswood, a town as placid and safe as its name implies. I remember Laura’s picture from the news when I was in elementary school. A junior-high-school student with braces, she’d seemed older to me then, one of the “big girls.” Now that I’m an adult and a teacher, I see her differently: a wisp of a girl with a shy smile and a frizzy cloud of dark hair who loved to dance. The kind of kid who waltzes into my classroom giggling about school or sleepovers or the beach. A girl who deserved to grow up and live a full life. Each young woman had hopes and dreams for her future. Each young woman was precious to her family. But to the men who murdered them, they were disposable. Flowers to be ripped from the earth, then discarded.
My dogs stop to sniff a patch of grass. A streetlamp flickers overhead. I remember searching for an apartment six years ago, eventually choosing this one because of the well-maintained grounds and the low crime rating on Trulia. In the year before I’d moved out of the house I shared with my then-husband, I’d memorized the closing time of every Starbucks and McDonald’s within a five-mile radius of it. Each evening, when I heard the garage door to that house open, I would walk quickly from the couch to a room in the back of the house. My then-husband’s footsteps weighed heavily on the floor. Sometimes calm and measured, sometimes hammered and staccato. Once he’d shut the door to our bedroom, I’d tiptoe from the back of the house towards the front door. Past the pantry door he’d once ripped off its hinges. Past the couch where he’d sometimes towered over me, screaming and accusing as I sat trying to blend into the cushions. I’d learned to read the weight of his footsteps, the furrow of his brow, the dented metal of my shelf like a yellow caution sign by the interstate. I’d drive over to Starbucks and sip a latte for the next few hours until it closed. Then I’d sit on a lawn chair in the manicured field near the mall until I knew my husband had gone to bed. I felt like I was trapped in the passenger seat of a car, with a man I no longer knew behind the wheel, rocketing down a highway towards an unsafe destination.
“I can’t control it,” he had said once after screaming at me.
“Would you ever hit me?” I’d asked him once. By then, I knew to keep my voice soft. I avoided eye contact. I flinched at small sounds, like dishes clinking together or doors creaking open.
“I don’t think so…” he’d said after a long time. It took him an hour to answer me—59 minutes and 59 seconds too long.
This evening, out with my dogs, a rustle from a nearby bush catches my attention. One of the dogs stiffens, then barks. I take a step back. Then a possum waddles out of the bushes and around the corner of an apartment building. If I were to disappear tomorrow, questions would be asked. Why did she walk late at night? Why did she work the late shift? Why would she choose to live there? It’s easy to pinpoint a “wrong” choice in retrospect. But you never know what’s outside the pan until you’re forced to leap out of it, praying your feet don’t land in the fire. Sometimes danger lurks behind bushes or hunts you in a field. More often, danger has the keys to your home and knows your birthday and favorite color. For some women, a field is safer than their own four walls.
I climb the stairs to my apartment and lock the door behind me. In three weeks, I’ll move to a house that has a backyard for my dogs to use. I won’t need to walk them late at night. Living in my apartment these past six years has enabled me to save money and purchase the house I’ll move into. As I lock the door behind me, I think of Heidi, Krystal, and Laura. For me, the gamble has paid off. I mourn all the women for whom it didn’t.