SHEPHERD, Mich. -- The kids were home alone. Their dad had stepped out and would be back shortly. But in the few minutes before he returned, their quiet world was upended by a terrifying visit.
It was just before 10 p.m. Wednesday.
Acelin Persyn was sitting in the living room inside her family's small house in Shepherd, a tiny, mid-Michigan town where most people know most everyone else and few lock their doors when they leave.
Acelin, a round-faced 11-year-old, was playing with 2-year-old brother Angus Persyn. James Persyn III, a shy 14-year-old with shaggy hair, was in his bedroom with the TV cranked loud to drown out the noise of his younger siblings in the other room.
Their father, James Persyn Jr., 36, had left to pick up his fiancee, Tiffany Ramon, 28. Her shift had just ended at her family's business only a few miles away.
Suddenly, the children heard frantic banging on their front door and a woman's panicked screams.
"Her voice was, like, she was going to die if I didn't open that door," James said.
He hesitated and looked at his sister, who stood stunned and silent. He could have ignored the woman's screams for help, could have kept this frightening intrusion out of their house and out of their lives.
"A lot of people, maybe most people, would've been like, 'Get the hell off my porch,' " James Jr. said.
Instead, the teenager unlocked the door. The woman charged in, ran to the kitchen and hid.
A senior at Central Michigan University several miles north, the woman was walking to her car in a school parking lot when Eric Ramsey, a 30-year-old ex-convict, approached her with a gun, got into her vehicle, took her to his mother's house and raped her.
The woman was an alarming sight. She had clear packing tape wrapped around her body. There were bruises on her face. She was cradling one of her arms, which she said was broken after she leaped from the vehicle as Ramsey was driving down South Mission.
She saw the little house with its porch light in the darkness, ran to it and begged to be let inside.
"She's like, 'We gotta hide! There's someone out there who just kidnapped me and he's trying to kill me," James said.
Acelin peered out the window. She saw a vehicle moving with menacing slowness up the long, winding driveway.
It was Ramsey.
James locked the front door and ran to the side door to lock it, too. He herded everyone into the bathroom to hide. The injured woman got in the bathtub and cowered. Acelin and Angus joined her.
James went to his bedroom and grabbed the one weapon he has -- a hunting knife. He pulled his Labrador retriever by the collar into the bathroom and closed the door, which has no lock. James turned the lights off, so if Ramsey got inside, he might pass by the bathroom and look for them in another room first.
"Let me in or I'll kill you," Ramsey kept shouting.
There they were -- a rape victim, a dog too friendly to offer much protection and three frightened children, hiding in the dark, convinced they were about to die at the hands of the man trying to get inside. And the only thing that stood between them and him was a 5-foot-8, 142-pound 14-year-old boy holding a small knife.
James handed the victim his cellphone, and she called 911. He then called his father at the family store.
"We need help right now," James told his dad. "There's a man outside our door trying to get in, and I'm really afraid."
James Jr. threw the phone on the counter and ran out without his jacket or his house key. He jumped in his car and headed home, speeding down the dirt roads in the pitch-black country darkness.
As they waited for their dad, Acelin kept calling for her brother.
"I wanted him to come in the bathtub with me and just hug each other and say good-bye," she said. "I didn't know what was going to happen, if we didn't make it, if he actually did make it in here and my dad didn't get home in time."
The pounding and screaming suddenly stopped. The children hoped it meant Ramsey was gone.
Eric Ramsey, 30, of Mount Pleasant, Mich., was killed by police Jan. 17 after he abducted and later raped a Central Michigan University student.(Photo: Courtesy Michigan Department of Corrections))
But he was still outside. And he was trying to burn them alive.
Ramsey grabbed a can of gas from the vehicle, poured it around the base of the house, lit it and drove off.
As James Jr., barreling in his car through the darkness, approached his street, he turned off his headlights. He was hoping to sneak up on the house and catch Ramsey by surprise.
Instead, he found his house on fire.
The kids didn't know it. They only knew the banging and yelling had started again, and they braced themselves.
But this time, it was their dad. He roared up in his car, scrambled out and began throwing his body against the flames to extinguish them. He tried opening the locked doors, but he had no key, so he started trying to break windows to get inside.
At that very moment, a sheriff's deputy pulled up, the first to respond to the 911 call. He saw a man screaming and trying get into the house -- a man who matched the description given in the 911 call.
The deputy drew his gun and pointed it at the hysterical man running toward him.
"I'm the dad! I'm the dad!" James Jr. shouted.
The children finally opened the door at the sight of police cars pulling up to the house.
The deputies interviewed the victim and the kids before the woman was taken away by ambulance.
Suddenly, the house was empty. The quiet from earlier that night returned.
But nobody could sleep. They didn't know whether Ramsey was still out there, hiding in the darkness. They sat close together in the living room.
Finally, police called around 5 a.m. Thursday to let them know Ramsey wouldn't be back. He had been shot and killed.
The family collapsed into sleep.
A couple of days later, they struggled to return to normal.
The siding on the house still had char marks, and the smell of gasoline still hung faintly in the air. James Jr. and his son went back to work bagging soybeans, Ramon went back behind the counter at the family store, and the kids went back to school after taking a day off to catch up on sleep and absorb what had happened.
It'll take some time, Ramon thinks.
"We try to remind them that even though it was a lot, they saved somebody's life," she said.
When James went back to school, people came up to congratulate the 14-year-old boy for the way he protected his family, rising to the occasion with calm courage. Some told him he's a hero, but he downplays that term.
His dad said he merely did the right thing.
"We never put the word 'hero' out there," James Jr. said. "We just kept saying, 'We're proud of you.' "
John Carlisle, Detroit Free Press