The Hidden Things
The video had been watched only forty-four times before Carly Liddell’s attacker was identified to the police. Viewer number forty-four was the prize tipster, and it was a good thing it was all resolved quickly. The young man in the video had killed a turtle over a span of hours one dull Saturday a decade earlier, at the age of nine, in the early weeks of the same summer he’d set his first fire. Since then, matches, rocks, the heel of his shoe, the long drop over the railing of a bridge, and other weapons of juvenile destruction had been urgently fascinating to him in ways that got him into trouble when he was a boy, in ways he’d learned to hide over the years.
He’d been stealing things, lately. And watching women.
He always would have made the news.
The video, a sloppy edit of footage from a home-security system, went on to become something of a phenomenon. It had been cut together in a hurry by a tech-savvy officer in the cybercrimes unit who was good with that sort of thing. It went up on the police website less than twenty minutes after the flash drive, loaded with the raw recordings from the home’s monitoring surveillance, had been plugged into his computer. Backslaps and high fives all around for that one.
The local news stations had rushed to repost it. It was a civic duty, of course. But at least as good as all that, it was irresistible: a heart-stopper in three acts that clocked in at under half a minute.
By the end of the next day, it had been uploaded to more than a dozen YouTube accounts.
In seventy-two hours, nearly a quarter of a million people had seen fourteen-year-old Carly Liddell come into the frame from the top right, her face pixelated to anonymity in every shot.
The view in the opening clip is admirably long-range, the camera pointing down a concrete driveway, clearly covering the near intersection and eventually fuzzing out of focus a block up the far sidewalk. The feed is tagged in the lower left-hand corner as Exterior_3, which would indicate at least two other cameras are outside scanning the bland green agreeableness of the minivan-and-hybrid neighborhood.
Carly comes down the stretch of pavement covered by Exterior 3 in the last yards of her return trip from school, backpack on one shoulder, crossing the screen on a slight diagonal, right to left. She moves with a loping, coltish gait that already shows signs of being reined in. She’s so close to grown.
Even with her head high, and with only one reflexive glance at the phone in her hand, she doesn’t appear to react at all to the young man slouching beside the hedge on the retaining wall as she passes him.
But even in the grainy farthest reach of the lens, his notice of her is unmistakable. He leans forward, watching, hesitates for a beat, then checks the walkway behind them. It’s deserted. He slides into her wake.
If there were only one frame of the video to see—Carly in front, the young man a few long steps behind—in just that single still image it would be clear that one of the people in the scene belongs there and one doesn’t.
Her posture is soft, easy in a pleasant end-of-the-day fatigue. She’s all but home. It’s in the flutter of the flannel shirt tied around her waist. It’s in the tilt of her head and the bend of her knee.
But he’s rigid, chin down, every bit of his stance just a degree off a natural bearing. Some switch in him has been tripped, and he’s not entirely what he was a few seconds before when he was only loitering on an empty suburban block. Now he’s a mannequin, a robot, an approximation made of impulse wired through him like opposing magnets strung together. The surging current has pushed his arms away from his sides, pulled his legs slightly bent, the omen of a reflex to come, the windup to a sprint or a spring.
Then the edited video cuts to a different camera, labeled Exterior_2, this one mounted on the back side of a decorative column, one of two pillars flanking the front door. Carly and the young man are facing each other. There’s no audio, but he’s closed the gap and seems to have invented something to talk about, something to keep her poised between being rude and being on the safe side of that door.
The young man’s back is to us, still taut and awkward, but now Carly is also rigid. Her key is in the lock, but that’s as far as she’d gotten. He’s walked all the way up onto the stoop and set his body close to the door’s handle, though not quite blocking it—a threat with a built-in plausible deniability that buys time with her doubt.
She’s backed away a little to preserve a cushion of personal space, though it meant giving up the easy reach to the door. She’d have to nearly touch him now to finish getting inside. She plucks at the hem of her T-shirt, shedding nervous energy in the repetition. His shoulder twitches. He says something. She shakes her head and glances at the empty intersection, so close and useless to her.
The young man looks down and shuffles back a half step, and Carly either misinterprets the maneuver or takes the only chance she can count on. She dives for the key and the threshold. He lets her get
past him. He also looks to the intersection. It’s still empty. He doesn’t even have to hurry to stop the door as she scrabbles to slam it closed behind her.
The last part of the video is shot from the back of the foyer, by a camera marked Interior_1. The light off the paint gives a vague green hue to the indoor footage. Carly is slapping at a control panel on the wall. He pushes her away from it. They both trip and scuffle over her fallen backpack. She shoves with all her woefully inadequate might and gains less than an arm’s length from him.
Instead of pulling her in, the young man locks his forearm across his body and drives them on, plowing and pinning Carly into the corner next to her own front door. Her back hits the wall hard enough that the edge of the painting in the foreground jumps and quivers on its nail. Her knees let go, and his surprise topples him into the blank space where her body should have been to receive him.
On elbows and heels, Carly scrambles backward toward the camera, toward the quarter of a million viewers (and each new one, as they come) holding their breath, rooting for her, willing her a way out. She makes it into the sharpest focus yet, her long hair swinging around her shoulder in a sheet of blue-sheened chestnut cascading from the strong side part that’s almost close enough to stroke.
He runs at the camera, lunges for her, catching her left ankle as it shoots out in her ungainly crab crawl. He drags her, kicking and thrashing, away from the clear focus that felt like safety, back into the open foyer. He pulls her leg up, tilting her onto her back. He leans in, stooping low to make a short fall of the distance left to be on her, to finally catch her under his control. And Carly Liddell, never a dancer, never a gymnast, never any color belt in any martial art—but ever the natural math and science whiz—becomes trigonometry and physics. And she has cool boots.
Her mind and muscles do the calculations of the arcs and angles
as she rises up, torso cocked to the left, then swinging to the right to load momentum into her free leg, which she brings back across her body. The knobby tread of her goth-girl combat boot explodes his grip on her ankle.
In a perfect ballet of Newtonian inevitability, unlearned and unpracticed but as natural as a whirlwind, Carly makes a figure-eight flourish of the follow-through, winding up again, this time to bring her boot crashing into the sweet spot where his jaw meets his ear, dropping him like a bag of gravel.
She rolls onto her hands and knees. She pushes up from the floor and looks down at her fallen foe. Run! thinks every single person who will ever watch the footage.
And she does.
But short-lived. The video freezes and the cybercrime tech destroys the triumph and tension with a quick electronic red circle, drawn to bring the audience out of the drama and into the lineup. The young man’s face, sideways in forced repose against the foyer tile, is largely in shadow and not terribly in focus, but it’s lit up enough that someone who knows him well might peg him. To the stranger, he still looks rough-hewn and indistinct. But viewer forty-four had already picked up her phone by the shot of him coming off the retaining wall. He was arrested just a few hours after Carly walked past him on the sidewalk.
It was a good day for Good Samaritans. It was a good day for law enforcement. It was a good day for the local news outlets that vied to make the most appealing special report of the pulse-racing video and happy ending.
And it would have been a good day for John Cooper. His elaborate security system, which his new wife teased him for, had caught the reckless and newly bold young man who had attacked his stepdaughter, and it got the boy before he’d done all the terrible things
he’d been whittling vivid in his mind for years.
The system had worked just as designed, its clarity and clever placement revealing what had happened and when and how, and most importantly, by whom.
In the longer reach, the video had captured a moment of heroic self-preservation that would go on to inspire many people in both the abstract and even occasionally in practical application.
It could have been a good day for John Cooper, but it wasn’t. His wife and stepdaughter knew of the perimeter cameras. They knew about the door chimes and the alarm codes and the motion-detector lighting. But they hadn’t known about, nor would have they agreed to, Interior 1, the camera inside the house. And they didn’t know why he had needed to put it there in the first place.