Finding freedom in the darkness of a planned community

At Night

“Wait…waittt…WAIT! Give me one minute!” One foot balancing on top of a bone shard — “shit!” — the other stuck halfway in a pair of centuries-old leggings. Bra off, any random sweatshirt on. Hair thrown on top of head, wounded ball of foot cradled for half a second. “I am coming little miss!”

I am not a morning person but I wake up and suffer through 6:30 a.m. dog walks because I have to grow up and cast off the “not a __ person” thing one day, right? The sky lights up, the birds fly overhead; it’s so idyllic I could scream bloody murder. The other dog walkers keep their heads down as my three year old hound Ruby Sue pulls, howls, races towards the water’s edge — “she’s a rescue!” I offer as an excuse, but really I’m just an enabler.

We walk around a lake, one lap, every morning. My first lap around the lake was months ago; I hated the sameness around me, the houses running together in one Pinterest-board amalgamation of “haint” blue porch ceilings and flickering lanterns and yards adorned with firepits, carefully planned and laid out for “entertaining.” I hated the cookie cutter-ness, the lack of context, the constant construction, the lake interrupted by man, with its silly alligator signs and doogie pooop bags.

But we’ve become better acquainted, of late. Nuance in a new build? Perhaps.

In the middle of the lake there’s an island, long and narrow, covered in trees. I don’t know why it’s there, or if the 25-acre lake has been here forever, or since the planned community started going up around it. I want to paddle out to the island but I know I never will. It’s too small and I don’t have a boat and besides I’m not sure what the rules are.

I never grew up with an HOA; the rules for my neighborhood were, well it wasn’t really a neighborhood. It was wild marsh and muddy waters, houses set far apart, fiddler crabs taunting the inside/outside cats. Dogs without leashes.

Ruby is always on a leash — she’s gone the minute there’s a scent, a turn in the wind, a leaf in the road. I tie one end around my wrist in a death grip knot, so even if she pulls 100-miles an hour, my out-of-socket arm will follow. Morning walks do not allow me to clear my mind or stretch out my legs. My quick, truncated “wait, WAIT” trots give me shin splints and my mind is always on to the next thing: work, dinner prep, laundry, keeping the dog from rolling in errant geese shit. Very zen.

Nights are different. I relish night walks — this is when I forgive the creeping suburbia. It feels different at night, better, wilder. I race home to my bounding Ruby, her neck goosing in an out of her leash — maybe the morning walk never happened? It’s like she hasn’t seen me in years, we’re reuniting, every night, for at least 10 minutes. “I’m here, I came back, I’m here!”

I prepare for night walks like one may prepare for a boozy battle — two jackets, purse with doggie bags and a hefty rock, metal water bottle, to-go cup of wine. We walk towards the lake; it’s already dark, 6 p.m., late November. Street lamps illuminate sidewalks edged with juniper and sabal minor; Christmas lights, now ablaze, light up hedges and barren crape myrtles. In my left hand I grip my sloshing wine — red, because I’m a masochist — and Ruby pulls my right side body forward, threatening to rip me asunder.

The condos come first. The one to the right with a Rottweiler, the one a bit further down with a chatty Dachsund and his chipper small mixed-breed buddy. The stoic, almost robotic woman walking a gorgeous, deep-red golden. He never pulls. We don’t see the other denizens of the night until we’re on top of them, their shadowy outlines slowing to a halt as Ruby’s ears catapult towards the sky.

I don’t excuse her bad manners at night — we simply cross the street from the neighborhood sidewalk to the lake sidewalk. The light from the street lamp barely reaches, and I pat the rock in my purse.

I’ve always been afraid of the dark. Too much Law & Order SVU, too much ID network, too much fear of the unknown to fully reconcile the benefits of nightfall with its dangers. In college, my fears and anxieties manifested as irresponsible drunken escapades; I was afraid of the dark, but I threw myself recklessly into it, hoping for the best. When I moved to Charleston four years ago, my college bubble dissipated, and I sought street lights as beacons, never leaving their glow.

Now, as an almost-adult with a semi-reliable four-legged guard, I toe the line. I want to sigh a deep sigh, a sigh so deep it would make someone across the lake start. I want to let go of my day and release my grip on what’s to come. I want to focus only on keeping Ruby in a straight line “continue tout droit!” I urge, in what I think may be a vestige of high school senior year French class. I finger the rock’s edges, weighing my options, shall I pursue a thrown rock and run tactic or a stay and kick tactic when and if I’m viciously attacked by a hypothetical bad guy? I keep tabs on who I’ve seen, on which cars have been parked for what feels like too long in the wrong space. Operative words being “if” and “feels like.”

I grow calmer even as my mind and body prepare for worst case scenarios. I’ve come to love the routine, the sameness, the monotony that doesn’t make me feel safer, necessarily, in the dark, but welcome. The selling-point dock with its four adirondack chairs looking out onto the lake and across the way…more houses. But also onto the island. And to a mini peninsula, jutting out away from the construction, drenched in darkness. Ruby and I head towards the peninsula, the wind picking up. We stand in the middle, after I’ve given the space a thorough look-see. We can pause here. We can breathe. I allow myself to close my eyes in this tiny wild corner, for only a second.

Ruby pulls; she’s spotted June, the gorgeous Great Pyrennes who we presume lives near this special spot. I do another 360 assessment, we race out of the dark, towards the nearest lamp, tripping over newly laid mulch and deeply dug sprinklers. Our favorite model home rises up before us — white siding, Robin’s blue trim, two matching (of course!) hanging hammock chairs on the front porch. A matching blue decorative “hello” hangs next to the door. Empty SOLD lots on either side — it is, for now, a place all its own.

It might not be a model home, but we assume they all are, until proven otherwise. There’s a certain strange sadness that comes over you when you realize the home — the one with the navy siding and white trim and crimson door — that you imagined housed a young couple and toddler and black lab and cozy reading nook, has a “MODEL OPEN” sign in front. You hope that family does move in, or exists in another matching home, the same but different. You hope they use the dock, and pay attention to the alligator signs even though you think they’re silly. You hope they walk at night.

Mary Scott Hardaway, a CP staff writer, loves telling stories, drinking beer, and working alongside her twin sister. She lives on Johns Island with her boyfriend, small cat Lee Lee, and extremely naughty and perfect hound dog, Ruby Sue.

Tami Boyce is a Charleston-based illustrator and graphic designer. Her work can be found at various establishments including Theatre 99, Early Bird Diner, and ZaPow! Gallery in Asheville, NC. To see more of her work, visit

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