Last week I finished an excellent and enlightening nonfiction book titled The Science of Fear: Why We Fear the Things We Shouldn't--and Put Ourselves in Greater Danger. It was like reality tonic, a refreshing purge of knee-jerk, irrational ideas. The book's thesis is that we are programmed by evolution to have a skewed sense of risk that errs on the side of what we perceive as caution. By becoming aware of these inherent biases, we can recognize them in our own behavior and work to compensate for them. I put the book down and went to bed, satisfied that my family and I were quite safe, relatively speaking.
I was awakened a mere twenty minutes later by my dog Mary Jane, shivering at my bedside. This was an odd occurrence; she always sleeps in the chaise lounge in the living room, only getting up to go outside when the baby wakes up for his nighttime feeding. She was poking me with her snout, gesturing with her head toward the hallway. I waved her off but she persisted. I got up with a sigh, thinking maybe she had diarrhea or something. Better to get up and put her out than to have a mess to clean up in the morning. My third dog, tiny little Bailey, squirmed out from under the covers to join us, not wanting to be left out. My first dog, the large, old, and morose Dahlia, stayed put on her bed.
The three of us went down the hallway, Bailey in the lead with Mary Jane on her heels, me straggling behind after a quick glance at the sleeping baby. As Bailey rounded the corner into the darkened kitchen, she recoiled with a volley of high-pitched barks. Mary Jane, her hackles raised, charged into the darkness, also barking. I heard the glass patio door rattle in its frame. I froze in the hallway, stage-whispering, "Shut the fuck up!", thinking only of the baby waking and the ensuing loss of sleep for us both. I wondered if there was an animal on the patio, maybe a raccoon, skunk, or strange cat, foraging for spilled dog food. I peered around the corner and felt a rush of cold air on my face.
The patio door was wide open. Beyond it, cold darkness. My sleep-addled mind reeled. Why was the door open? I looked to my left, into the darkened living room and surprised myself by saying, "Hello?" No reply. I hurried to the back door and closed and locked it. Behind me, the dogs were still growling, pacing the kitchen. I glanced around. Everything looked the same. I walked into the living room, the dogs trailing, and turned on a light. The room was quiet and empty. Everything looked just as it had when I went to bed. I looked at the garage door but couldn't bring myself to look in there.
It couldn't have been a person, I told myself. A person wouldn't have run off when threatened by a ten-pound min-pin/rat terrier wearing a hand-me-down baby sweatshirt. A person would have taken something, or ... Jesus. I hurried down the hall to check on my baby again. He was in his crib, still sleeping soundly despite the dog outburst.
Everything seemed to be in its right place. So why was the fucking door open? My mind leaped to a conclusion. It was my husband, Bill. He was the last one to bed, the last one to let the dogs out and the cats in. I could see it all so clearly. I imagined our cat Big Boy, who is scared of Bill, balking about coming inside. So Bill leaves the door open as he performs some minor task, starting the dishwasher maybe, hoping the cat will dart in while his back is turned. But this dumb version of my husband forgets all about the door, thinking only of resting his beer-soaked bones, flicking off the kitchen light and heading to bed without a second thought.
I stormed into the bedroom and shook him none too gently by the shoulder. "Hey," I said. "Did you leave the back door open?"
His eyes fluttered open and he looked at me, confused.
"The back door, I said. "It was wide open. Did you leave the door open?"
He hates it when I talk to him like that. "No," he said in a wounded tone. He rolled over, his back to me. He knew he hadn't left the door open. His nagging wife was wrong. End of discussion.
I was irritated that he didn't share my alarm. It had to have been him who left the door open. The alternative, that a malicious stranger had been in my house while my family was sleeping, was unacceptable. To acknowledge that would be to open myself up to a great surge of fear. Adrenaline would flood my body, causing my heart to pound, my hands to sweat. I would lie awake in bed all night, on a solitary vigil against an unknown intruder, my ears attuned to every little sound, checking on my baby every few minutes, a prisoner to my imagination. There would be no sleep that night.
I have always wondered if I am prone to denial, if I could alter my perception of reality by refusing to see what was right in front of me. As it turns out, the answer is yes. I am and I can. You see, I just barely get enough sleep as it is, and the subconscious thought of a night of wakeful terror sent the rationalization center of my brain into overdrive. This same persuasive voice had, in the past, convinced me that a Tuesday morning was, in fact, a Saturday, that my alarm had been set in error, and that the sensible thing to do was to roll over and go back to sleep. In that instance, I had overridden it and dragged my sleepy butt into work, thus keeping my horrible job. But as tired as I've been since my baby was born, the thought that my husband had left the door open slid right past my bullshit detector and became a conviction. I tumbled into bed and was asleep within seconds.
My husband woke me up the next morning. "You said the door was open last night, right?"
"Yeah," I said. "Thanks for that."
He didn't take the bait. "I think someone might have been in the house."
Delayed terror from the night before seized me. I sat up. "What? Why?"
"It looks like someone messed with the computer."
"Is anything missing?
"I can't find the digital camera. Was it on the desk?"
I was pretty sure it had been. "Maybe it's on the coffee table."
We walked around the house together, taking inventory, piecing together clues. A likely scenario started to form, a bit of narrative to impose some structure on this bizarre event.
A man, alone, walks down our quiet street at night, around the time when most people have just gone to bed. Normally he would do this kind of work during the day, but he's growing desperate for money. Maybe he's hoping to find something to steal, some cash, a stereo, an iPhone, something he can trade down at the corner, at the duplex where different cars are always pulling up for a few minutes at a time. The guy is peeking in windows and checking yards for tools or yard supplies carelessly left outside.
He opens our neighbor's back gate and tries to peek in the windows, but the blinds are drawn, the locks secure. Nothing to steal there. He heads to our back yard, leaving the neighbor's gate open, and uses his knife to slash the nylon tie keeping the gate closed. He leaves it open for a quick getaway and peers into our kitchen window.
Paydirt. A desktop computer, just sitting there. He quickly and quietly assesses his options. The patio door is old and rickety, kept locked by a metal latch and a wooden bar wedged across the bottom. He uses his knife to jimmy open the lock and, as quietly as possible, rock the door so the bar will slide up, allowing him to maneuver it open.
In the living room, Mary Jane's ears prick up. She is suddenly on alert, nostrils flaring. She hears a frightening, stealthy noise, from the kitchen. She creeps from the chair and slinks to the threshold, where she encounters a horrifying sight. The dark figure of a man, hunched over the desk, messing with the family's things. She darts down the hall to go get Mommy. Mommy will know what to do.
Unaware of the dog's presence, the thief spies a digital camera and slips it into his pocket. He then sizes up the computer on the desk, tossing a framed photo of a black lab and a couple of loose CD's onto the desk chair. He decides to go for the monitor first; it's small, easy to carry, and can be unhooked quickly. He moves a speaker to get easier access, and that's when all hell breaks loose.
A dog barks, a shrill burst of sound. No one could sleep through that, and he's caught, utterly fucked if he doesn't get out now. He bolts out the patio door and across the yard, through the back gate that leads down to the creek. No one will find him back there. It's dark and the footing is treacherous so he half slides, half tumbles down the hill to the creek bed. His clothes are now caked with mud, his hands and knees bruised and abraded from the rocks. He just knows that those people called the cops, why wouldn't they, it was obvious they were being robbed. He hustles to put some distance between himself and the house, constantly looking up for police helicopters, comforting himself that at least it wasn't a total wash. At least he got a digital camera, and that could be traded in for at least one fix.
We'll probably never know more about him than that. There's a remote chance that he'll be caught somewhere else, and that crime will be connected to this one. That's why we called the cops, filed a report, and alerted the neighbors. The immediate danger was past, but whoever this guy is, he's still wandering around out there somewhere, trying to fulfill his deranged needs.
A part of me wanted to overreact, to buy a gun and set a trap, to take advantage of living in Texas and the right to protect the homestead that goes along with it. But that would be an irrational reaction. Instead of imagining all the horrible things that could have happened to me and my family, I'm going to focus on what actually did happen. The precautions I take will be directly proportional to the legitimate risks I face.
To deter future thieves, we put padlocks on the gates, extra locks on the windows, blinds across the kitchen window and patio door. We put up a Beware of Dog sign. Bill trimmed the wooden bar to fit the door better and we started wedging it in higher, making it virtually impossible to open from outside. We now leave the patio light on all night; anyone lurking will be harshly exposed. Eventually we'll get a better patio door, but for now our makeshift security measures will have to do.
I had grown complacent about the actual dangers of living in my neighborhood. There is crime here, after all. And while it doesn't make sense for me to never leave the house for fear that my neighbors might kill me, it also doesn't make sense for me to make it easy for criminals to get into my house.
After the cops left, I contemplated the book I had just read. I had been smug in the knowledge that my own sense of risk was rational and balanced. But I was wrong; I am just as subject to bias as the next person. This time I got lucky, losing only a digital camera. Thanks to the lessons about safety that we took to heart, there will not be a next time.