He didn’t know what to make of the light. Surely a burglar wouldn’t turn on a light and risk attracting attention, but Mitchell couldn’t imagine that he had left the light on when he’d left for work. He stuck to a rigid, predictable routine. Every morning, he went straight from his bedroom to the bathroom to the kitchen and then out through the side door without spending any time in the living room. And he wouldn’t have left a light on after going to bed the night before. He would have noticed the light coming down the hall and in through his cracked bedroom door. He would have gotten up and turned off the light.
So someone had turned on the light in the living room after he’d left for work.
He couldn’t imagine who it might be, but if it was a friend or an innocent mistake, he didn’t want to make an embarrassing scene by calling the police prematurely. He decided to investigate.
Mitchell loosened his neck tie. He took off his suit jacket and laid it on top of his briefcase on the seat next to him. He stepped out of his car and closed the door very softly behind him, pulling up on the handle so that it would latch without his having to slam it shut. The night was clear and sharp but felt warmer than it looked. Hunching his shoulders, Mitchell jogged over to the maple tree on the far side of the driveway and crouched down in its shadow, watching his house for signs of movement. There were none. There was a faint roaring in Mitchell’s ears coming from inside his own head. He could feel his pulse thumping in his neck.
“Flanking maneuver,” he kept thinking. He mouthed it nonsensically to himself as he jogged around the side of the house to his back yard. The kitchen window over the sink didn’t have curtains so Mitchell would be able to peek in and see anything or anyone there was to see. The back yard was dark and damp. The shadows cast by the trees looked like deep black pools of still water. Mitchell stood up against the side of his house next to the kitchen window, the ridges of the new siding pressing into his back. He steeled himself. He turned his head toward the window and then slowly stretched his neck until his eyes were past the edge of the frame and he was looking into his kitchen.
A teenage girl in soccer shorts and a yellow sweatshirt stood in front of Mitchell’s refrigerator, propping the door open with one knee as she poured orange juice from a carton in her right hand into a glass in her left hand.
Mitchell was both indignant and baffled. Why would a teenager break into his home in order to steal his orange juice?
As Mitchell watched the girl raid his fridge, a teenage boy with shoulder-length hair appeared in the doorway leading from the kitchen to the living room and looked right at him. Mitchell and the boy’s eyes met for one long moment and then Mitchell ducked down out of sight, squatting beneath the window and listening intently. He didn’t know whether the kids would make a break for it or try to hurt him or something else, although he wasn’t sure what else there was to do when one’s been caught breaking and entering. He hadn’t noticed a strange car parked nearby so they must have come at some distance on foot. Maybe there was still time to call the police. Looking up, he saw the boy’s figure darken the window.
The girl said something Mitchell couldn’t make out and the boy said, “I just saw him in the window.”
The boy paused while the girl spoke again and then said, “I don’t know, he was spying in on us. When he saw me look at him he ran away, I guess.”
Mitchell smiled to himself at his own cleverness in positioning himself to overhear the boy when the boy thought he was long gone.
“Mom!” shouted the girl, her words audible to Mitchell for the first time. “We think dad’s home!”
After a short interval, Mitchell heard a third voice, a woman’s voice, in the kitchen with the teenagers. “His car’s out front. Where is he?”
“I saw him out the window,” said the boy.
“Outside?” asked the woman. “In the back yard?”
“He was looking in,” said the boy. “He looked scared.”
There was a clicking noise and then a soft scraping as the window opened over Mitchell’s head. “Mitchell!” called the woman’s voice. “Are you out here? Stop hiding!”
Mitchell stayed low, not daring to look up, holding his breath and praying the woman wouldn’t stick her head out the window and spot him. He tried to make sense of what the people who had invaded his home were saying. Why was the woman calling his name? Why had the boy mistaken Mitchell for his father? Why had the woman mistaken his car for her husband’s car?
“No one’s out there,” said the woman.
“I swear I saw him looking in the window,” said the boy.
There was a moment of silence and then the neighbor’s elderly dog, out of sight behind the row of shrubs that divided the yards, gave a short, muffled bark. Hearing the bark, Mitchell remembered how his daughter Nancy, when she was younger, had sampled the dog’s heartworm medication while she was taking care of it during their neighbors’ vacation to the Arctic Circle. And then Mitchell remembered that he had a daughter named Nancy. Then it was as if a dam burst in his mind and memories of his family came roaring back. He remembered his son Mitchell Jr. and his wife Tammy. He remembered their faces and their birthdays and their hobbies and the entire life he shared with them.
He stood up, appearing right in front of his wife’s face at the window, and said, “Surprise,” grinning at her startled expression as she gasped, her hand going to her neck. She let out a breath and said, “I should have seen that coming,” finally letting herself smile. Behind her, Nancy and Mitchell Jr. laughed.
“Come inside,” said Tammy. “You had your fun.” She and Mitchell Jr. went back into the living room.
“Dad,” said Nancy, still standing in front of the open fridge. “Did you remember to drop my library books off for me?”
Mitchell frowned through the window into the kitchen. “Library books?”
“Dad, I gave them to you this morning and told you they were due today! You forgot?”
“I guess I did,” said Mitchell. “I’m sorry, honey.”
“I guess it wasn’t very important to you,” said Nancy, putting the carton of orange juice back into the refrigerator and slamming the door.
“That’s not true,” said Mitchell.
“If it was important to you, you wouldn’t have forgotten,” said Nancy. She turned her back on Mitchell and strode out of the kitchen. A few moments later, Mitchell heard her stomping up the stairs to her room.
Mitchell looked at the empty kitchen. The silent stove, the silent dishwasher, the silent cabinets. He could hear Tammy and Mitchell Jr. watching TV in the living room, commenting on a commercial they both hated. Water was running upstairs which meant Nancy was probably taking an angry shower.
Mitchell stood in his wild back yard and looked into his house. Who were these people he knew so well? And how had they come to belong in his house? And what made them so sure that they knew who Mitchell was? And why, if he knew it would only add to the confusion, did Mitchell still feel a strong impulse to call the police?
Mitchell Jr. came into the kitchen and retrieved a clear plastic bag of carrots from the crisper drawer in the fridge. “Come inside, Dad,” said Mitchell Jr. “You look lost standing out there. You look like a prowler.”
“I’m not an intruder,” said Mitchell. “I know who I am.”
“Good,” said Mitchell Jr. “Now act like it.”