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Open House

Posted by cdonegal on December 22, 2012 at 12:55 AM

Gary braked to a stop in his driveway. He turned off the engine and headlights, but before the engine could tick more than twice, he turned his lights on once more. Something looked wrong. Possibly the subtle shift in shadows on his front door. Although one typically is not conscious of memorizing the smallest details, after years of pulling into the same driveway, his eyes had grown accustomed to the subtlest of changes. Now it looked different, but he couldn’t distinguish precisely how.

He doused the lights again and climbed slowly out of the car, sending his family across the street to stay with neighbors while he investigated. “Listen,” he said quietly, “Why don’t you all go over and wish the Dolans a Merry Christmas while I go in and turn the lights on.”

Eager to see what Santa brought, the children murmured dissent; their mother gave Gary a questioning look, but a tacit signal told her to do as he suggested.

Collecting his overnight bag from the floor of the backseat, he approached his house with caution.

The coach light at his door glowed softly in the misty evening. Inside, he could see the living room lamp that turned on automatically at the same time every evening. A second lamp in the den would turn itself on in about 45 minutes. A third, upstairs in the master bedroom, was scheduled to turn itself on and then off again after 45-minutes. He had staggered the lamps so that they did not look quite so automatic. The television was also set to turn on in time for the news, and then off two hours later. Gary believed that his preparations had been very clever. He slowly climbed the front steps, and as he reached the landing he saw that the front door, he saw that it was slightly ajar.

He groaned in recognition. This was not the first time that he had been burgled, not even the first time in the past six months.

He found that his key worked in the second lock, but even as he felt the click, he felt the door begin to push open at his pressure. Before him, the hall closet door was open and he could see that clothes had been thrown to the floor, some still on hangers.

He closed the front door quietly and stepped into the room, ear pricked for the slightest sound. He held his breath, listening. Quietly setting his bag on the floor, he began to move into the living room, sensing that whoever had been there was gone.

With a glance though the darkened dining room into the unlighted kitchen, he climbed the stairs to the second floor and peered into the master bedroom, his bedroom. The first thing he noticed was dresser drawers pulled out and tossed and pushed partially back in. Then, the half-open closet door.

He approached gingerly. The bedroom closet was a replay of the hall closet downstairs: clothes thrown on the floor, box lids askew. The top shelf was in disarray. Oddly, he didn’t see that anything seemed to be missing.

Each of the bedrooms was the same: dresser drawers open and mussed; closets open, clothes thrown to the floor, contents thrown about. And nothing obviously missing.

Returning to the first floor, he passed cautiously through the dining room and kitchen to the basement stairs. At the bottom, he turned on the lights and saw nothing amiss. Moving to the back room, he found that the trash bags he had stored near the back door had been slashed open, the contents spilling onto the floor. Still, nothing seemed missing.

Gary returned to the kitchen, hands on hips as he surveyed the wreckage. Three previous times in the past six months, he had come home to find that he had been burgled. He picked up the phone to call the police—again—when he heard someone at the door.


It was a hot summer night, humid and uncomfortable, but Gary finally had fallen into a fitful sleep. A light breeze gently moved the curtains at his bedroom window. His family had gone to the lake for the weekend, but he had work and stayed at home.

The floorboards creaked. Quietly enough, but sufficient to awaken Gary from his shallow sleep. He remembered clearly and immediately that he should be alone. He turned over and opened one eye. He thought that he caught movement, where the darkness was darker. He moved slightly to use peripheral vision instead of trying to focus straight on. The figure of a man tiptoeing across his bedroom, almost mime-like in his movements slowly took shape. Without conscious thought, Gary threw back the covers and leapt out of bed. The figure turned and fled, Gary close behind in silent chase.

The intruder pounded along the upstairs hallway, Gary almost at his heels. Around the column and down the stairs, ever in silence beyond the sound of pounding feet the two raced. As the figure bounded from the landing and dashed into the dining room, it dawned on Gary that he was unarmed. Moreover, he realized, he had no idea whether the intruder was. He slowed his pace.

In the kitchen the intruder hooked a left to the basement stairs and Gary stopped at the wall phone to dial 911.

“There’s someone in my house,” he shouted.

“Now?” asked the 911 dispatcher.

“Yes! I have him cornered in the basement; I am at the top of the stairs.”

“Is he armed?”

“I…I don’t know. I don’t think so because I chased him into the basement.”

Gary was astonished at the speed of the response. Even as he went to the front of the house, he saw a patrol car pulling up. He lived in a good neighborhood. He was surprised that the police were so near.

When the officer came to the door, gun drawn, Gary directed the officer to the basement stairs. Additional cruisers were pulling quietly to the curb and police were filing in to the house like a trail of armed ants.

“You need to stay out of the way,” the officer told him. Gary went out the back door onto the deck, where he saw strobing lights from additional police cars on the street behind his house. Officers with flashlights were approaching from several directions.

He did not notice that the external basement door was open. It was the way the intruder had broken in. It was the way the intruder left, even as Gary was on the phone with police dispatch.

Nothing seemed to be missing, and Gary felt that he had dodged a bullet. He hoped not literally.


A month later, Gary came home from work and went to deposit his change in his coin bank, a ceramic monk with a fringed tonsure and a coin slot in his back. “Thou shalt not steal” was emblazoned in script across his chest.

He stood with his hand hovering over his dresser…where his monk bank used to be. It wasn’t there. Neither was it on the floor behind or under the dresser. Neither was his jewelry box, filled with cuff links and tie tacks, his college ring and the ruby ring his father had passed on to him from his father. Further search discovered that his cassette recorder and a few other small items also had gone missing.

He called the police and they asked a few questions, took his list of missing property and said that they would be in touch. They both knew that this was the last time they would discuss small potatoes.


The weekend before Christmas, Gary and his family went to visit his parents, planning to return Christmas morning for the children to open their gifts. They tumbled out of the car and scrambled to the front door, excited at the prospect of getting into the house to see what Santa had left. Of course, “Santa” had actually come before they went away, setting out a pile of gifts beneath the tree and extending well into the living room.

No one was more surprised or disappointed than Gary when they rushed into the house to find a few bows and some wrapping paper where the presents had been.

Once again, the basement door, hidden at the bottom of stairs below ground at the back of the house, had been the Achilles’ door. Its frame was shattered and splinters hung from the dead bolt installed after the first time he had been burgled.

It was difficult explaining to the children, and friends whose gifts had disappeared as well, teased him that they would use the same excuse the next year.

He sent the rest of the day with all-purpose cleaner and a roll of paper towels, wiping finger-print powder from the doors, door jambs, light switches and walls.

Ho, ho, ho.


Enough! Gary nailed shut the back door and installed hardware to hold a think plank across it to preclude its being breached again. He also installed timers on several lamps and asked the neighbors to keep an eye on the house when he was away.

It was a few months before the family again ventured away overnight, and Gary felt uneasy about leaving the castle defended. After three burglaries in as many months, he felt under siege. Neighbors reported similar break-ins, although fewer, and the neighborhood had become hyper-vigilant against the onslaught, offering some degree of assurance.

So it was that when they returned home Gary was chagrined to see that the front door was closed but damaged and ajar.

He sent his family across the street for safety and told them to call the police as he gingerly entered and began an inventory of damage and destruction, beginning with the hall closet. The door was open and clothes had been removed and thrown on the ground. Other closets also showed that they had been ransacked and in the basement store room, he found trash bags waiting to go to the curb slit open, their contents spilled onto the floor.

But when he heard people enter, it was not the police; it was his family and the neighbors from across the street who entered silently. His family quietly took seats in the living room as Gary reappeared, his face flushed and veins popping in his forehead.

“They got us again,” he said in exasperation.

“Gary,” his neighbor said, “I am so sorry.”

He looked at her, one eyebrow raised in question.

“I wish that you had told me that you put timers on the lights. When I saw them go on and I knew that you were out of town, I called the police.”

“But…” he glanced toward the ransacked closet in the hallway and back at his neighbor, whose face confirmed her guilt and regret.

“I’m so sorry,” she repeated.

“But, why…?”

He called the police.

“I understand that officers broke in when they had a report of an intruder, but why ransack my closets and rip open the trash bags?” he asked.

“Sir,” the dispatcher replied, “Officers had to check the closets quickly for their own safety. Someone could have hidden behind the clothes, so they dumped them as quickly as possible to be sure that no one was there. As they went through the house, they repeated the procedure in each room.”

“But the trash bags?” he asked. It was as close to a whine as he chose to approach.

“The bags could have contained stolen goods, sir. They wanted to check because if they did contain stolen goods it would indicate that the burglars were still present or planning to return. It was faster to cut the bags than to untie the twists.”

“I see,” he said, deflated. “Thank you.”


Although there was a decline in the number of break-ins in the neighborhood, four or five houses including Gary’s suffered occasional break-ins. It was as if the burglar or burglars knew when they were vulnerable, knew when the houses were unoccupied.

Some months later, Gary’s next-door neighbor’s son called from school. He had forgotten his uniform for gym class and wanted Rick, his father, to bring it to him.

Rick took the suit to the school, about a mile away, and returned quickly. When he entered his living room, he heard a noise in the basement. He went to his gun safe and retrieved and loaded his nine millimeter before investigating.

As he descended the stairs into the basement, he heard someone scrambling near the furnace.

“I have a gun and I am not afraid to use it,” he announced. “Come out of there with your hands where I can see them.”


“I’ll count to three and then it is all on you,” he said.


“No. Wait, I’m coming out. Don’t shoot, man. I ain’t got nuthin’.”

“Keep your hands where I can see them. Make sure they are empty.”

The first thing he saw emerging from the shadows behind his furnace was an enlarged pair of the whites of eyes. The he noticed the trash bag near the basement door.

The man who emerged looked vaguely familiar.

“Upstairs,” Rick said, motioning with his gun.

The man walked dejectedly before him to the kitchen and kept his hands up as Rick called 911.

While they waited for the police—which was not more than two minutes—Rick said. “I know you. At least I’ve seen you.”

Of course he had, as he realized once the police arrived and identified the man. He lived in the house behind a high fence to the rear and between Rick’s and Gary’s houses. With a long record of petty crimes, he was a holdout in the one run-down house in the neighborhood. From his second floor bedroom, he could watch the homes of his more affluent neighbors in the rehabbed homes along the side of the street behind his house, and he could move quickly in and out when he saw everyone leave home. It explained why these houses had been hit so often and without detection.

Rick’s ten-minute trip to the middle school was shorter than the intruder had bargained for and it was the undoing of an almost perfect plan to make money for his drug habit while he punished the people who had gentrified his neighborhood.

And now, his home also is vacant, although it has remained unviolated…other than the workmen renovating it for sale.


From Falls the Shadow and Other Stories, (c) 2012 Craig Lancto

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