Home Alone, With a Drill and a Bow

Advanced defensive tactics for country living

A few years ago I moved from the heart of San Francisco to a 150-year-old house in a remote part of upstate New York. My personal ad might have read: Single woman seeking bucolic escape. That sounds like the opening act of either a romantic comedy or a horror film.

When the topic of my extreme relocation comes up, a few standard questions tend to arise. The first is almost always why? But let’s move on to one that I can actually answer: Don’t you get scared?

Yes, yes I do.

In fact, I’ve come to accept fear as a constant ingredient in my life. Maybe that’s true for every woman who lives alone.

But I would suggest that country living ratchets up that fear because so many more things can go wrong. And no one can hear your cries when they do.

Not that’s it’s quiet out here. My house sounds like a living thing — or more accurately, like a dying one, a sick but determined animal, its ragged breath rattling through the radiator pipes. After I moved in, I often mistook these sounds for an intruder. On top of that, unknown creatures are always rustling in the bushes outside or scurrying along the length of my metal roof. Deer, to my surprise, make a noise not unlike an exceptionally phlegmy man clearing his throat. On a positive note, I truly love the sound of howling coyotes.

But back to my gripes. Late at night you can often hear scratching in the walls. I even recorded it for my exterminator once.

(Yes, my exterminator. Where I live, it’s a core relationship, like with your shrink or your rabbi.)

He couldn’t tell me where the sound was coming from or what kind of creature it was making it. “Busy devil,” was all he said.

This all made me, to put it mildly, a little jumpy. With every groan, creak, or rustle of leaves, I felt an electric jolt and my heart banged against my chest. Especially in the early hours of the morning, the soundtrack of nature is easy to interpret as either a trespasser or an army of rodents dead-set on invading your home, devouring you in your sleep, and settling in for the winter, savoring the relative warmth of a nest made from your hair and sweaters.

I’ve since grown at least somewhat accustomed to those sounds.

But while nature can be very unnerving, it’s the possibility of a human threat that rattles me most.

There are still humans in the country. Did I mention that?

Even when I lived in the city, and within walking distance of close friends, I was never a fan of the drop-by. It was unavoidable during the first few months I moved here. There were neighbors, men looking for work, and local politicians whose inability to read body language was positively terrifying. I hired a handyman once who then took to making random house calls. Mostly he’d ramble on about how a woman living alone needed to remain vigilant. If I chose to ignore the door and pretend I was unavailable, he’d keep pounding until I answered it.

“If any strange man comes around bothering you,” he once said, “call me.”

I wasn’t sure how that would play out.

That said, there’s plenty I can do to keep the creepiness at bay. I’ve lived alone many times before, and I’ve found that the best way to mitigate fear is to develop a comprehensive action plan that takes into account a number of variables, the most important one being that you know your house better than anyone else. When I lived in different places in San Francisco, my action plans usually involved dialing 911, climbing out a window, or, in one case, hiding in a crawl space and screaming for help. Underlying all these tactics is the idea of alerting non-murderous humans ASAP.

Way out in the country, your scream might bring only a curious caw in response. Or an echo. Climbing out a window might only get you from scared to scared and cold. And crawl spaces are crawling with things just as nasty as whoever’s poking around the property, only with sharper teeth.

It had been suggested to me on more than one occasion that I should get a gun. But statistics suggest I would far more likely use it on myself or someone I know than an intruder. I’m not going to argue with numbers.

Besides, you don’t need a gun if your home is weapon enough.

So, what’s my escape plan? Thank you for asking. Say you were a miscreant who managed to find and break into my home. This is how it would go down:

First, if you’re tall or even average in height, forget it. Move on to the neighbors. I’m five foot three, and in several rooms I can change my own light bulbs without standing on my toes. First, I’d try to lure you into a foot chase, and you’d likely knock yourself out cold on of the low-hanging beams or doorways. Not to be a cliché, but since we’d probably be in the kitchen, I’d finish you off with a frying pan.

But let’s say you manage to survive the initial chase, for example, because you are a limbo champion or small child. You make it past the kitchen and into the den. Good luck not tripping over the thick T-molding at the base of every single doorway. Three of these hurdles can lay you out before we even get to the living room. “Welcome to the steeplechase,” you hear me say. The line sounds a little too practiced, like I’ve been waiting to say it for years, but you have other concerns, like lifting your smashed nose from the hardwood floor.

I can afford the trash-talking interlude because by now I’ve set off the alarm, and the police are on their way. Did I mention I have an alarm with a panic button? I do. Now the police may take longer in these parts than other places, but they do come, eventually. Until then, I have a few other tricks up my sleeve.

At this point, you probably expect me to run out the front door. But it’s rarely used and tricky to get open. And I’m not interested in trading my homecourt advantage for a woodland adventure. So instead I run up the staircase. They’re not normal stairs. They’re much taller, and each has a lip that tends to grab first-timers’ toes. But I won’t trip.

I attack these stairs every day like an aging starlet with a new gym card and one last shot at the big time.

You, on the other hand, will stumble at best, giving me plenty of time to run into my bedroom and lock the door.

While you’re trying to pick the lock (which won’t be hard if you’re a self-respecting criminal), I enter the adjoining office and climb down the hidden spiral staircase, which is even worse than the first. It’s suitable for Romanian gymnasts, and that’s about it. A grown man trying to climb the stairs would have to hunch over, use only the balls of his feet, and grip the railing for dear life. I descend to the kitchen, grab my car keys, slip into the garage, and calmly exit the scene.

Of course, that’s just one scenario, and it assumes that I heard you break in. You can never be sure how things will go down.

So let’s play this out a different way. I’m in bed sleeping. You surprise me in the middle of the night. Somehow you make it past my security system — maybe I forgot to turn on the alarm. I do that sometimes. I’d like to think that I’d wake up from the sound of your breaking the window or climbing the creaky stairs or mumbling a four-letter word when the stairs crack your shins. Something a rodent or squirrel would never do. But maybe you get lucky: It’s summer, and the air-conditioning unit drowns out your clumsy entrance.

Still, I definitely hear you try to turn my bedroom doorknob.

If I haven’t mentioned it, I always keep it locked. So the second it starts rattling, I jolt out of bed and press the panic button, which will silently alert the police. At least I hope it’s silent; I’ve never pressed it before. Then I run into my office. Same thing. I tiptoe down the secret staircase, grab my car keys and head out the kitchen door into the garage.

But this time you have an accomplice, who’s guarding the car. I’m trapped. But I’m trapped in the room where I keep all my weapons. As he lunges at me in the doorway, I slam the door on him, knocking him back into the garage. I grab my cordless drill from the tool closet, snap on the battery pack. I pick a quarter-inch drill bit. Too thick for most household projects, but it’ll do the job. (Memo: Remember to keep the battery charged.)

But this is a more realistic scenario, and I’m having second thoughts. I decide I don’t have the stomach for hand-to-hand combat. I decide the optimal weapon for this situation is my recurve bow. (I do target practice in my backyard. I’m pretty good. At least, that’s what George at Flying Arrow Sports said. He gave me my first lesson.) I put down the drill, get my bow and quiver from the closet, and fly back up the spiral staircase. Hearing me, your accomplice decides to explore this cabinet-like door tucked away in the back of the kitchen. He opens the door and sees the stairway, although it resembles no stairway he’s ever seen before. Your accomplice, who is not a genius, remains undaunted. He takes two steps up. We make eye contact. Now picture everything in slow motion.

I pull my bow and aim for his heart.

Thing is, as George will tell you, my big weakness as an archer is that I shoot low. During target practice, I compensate by aiming high. But let’s be honest, at this point I’m a little freaked out, and I forget to do that. I don’t hit your accomplice’s heart. Sorry. I wasn’t aiming for that. I swear. Accomplice screams in pain.

Good-case scenario: You, hearing accomplice’s cries for help, make a run for it like the coward you are. You get back in your car and drive until you run out of gas. Maybe a kind stranger picks you up, offers some gentle but firm life advice on the way into the nearest town. Maybe he helps you begin to view this whole experience as a wake-up call. Maybe you turn things around, move back in with your parents, enroll in exterminator college.

Bad-case scenario: You decide to be a hero and help your friend. You follow his screams to the base of the spiral staircase, see me fumbling to load my second arrow, and charge up, somehow managing to make it almost to the top.

I drop the bow, get to my feet, and land a kick on your solar plexus so hard you make a noise that sounds an awful lot like those phlegmy deer. You snap backward, first knocking your head on one of those low-hanging beams and then on the wood floor at the bottom of the staircase.

I can only shake my head. “Busy devil,” I say.

It’s a better line, but you don’t hear it because you’re out cold.

I climb down the stairs. Based on the blows you took to the back of the head, and the medical shows I’ve watched, I diagnose you with a subdural hematoma. A bad case of it.

I get 911 on the phone to get their ETA. It’s going to be a while. The best way to treat this condition is by performing a burr hole trephination.

Basically I need to drill a small hole in the side of your head.

Don’t worry. I know what I’m doing. I’m not a doctor, but I really like to Google medical conditions.

I grab my drill and swap out the bits. I think this one calls for a 1/16th. I hope the batteries are charged.


Lisa Lutz is the author of The Passenger, on sale March 1.

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