“Owwww… that hurt!” I thought, almost out loud to myself.
Tonight I find myself in some unknown person's upstairs sewing room, wedged under an antique sewing table. The table is draped in a flowing white cloth that drags almost to the floor in the front, providing greater security for my lonely wait. It was a last minute discovery. So was the upside down sewing machine that I just racked my temple against while getting under here.
You might ask just what events led to my current predicament? Did my evening’s adventure start when you went outside to call in the cat? Did you just finish taking the trash to the curb? Maybe it was that or any of the hundreds of other opportunities that provide unabated access to practically everyone’s home everyday. Are you certain that you know each and every person who is in your house when you go to bed at night? When was the last time you looked in the closet in the spare room? How about under the bed? Childish, isn’t it, being afraid of monsters under the bed. The truth is, we’ve all been socialized to believe that there is nothing there. And yes, every time you give an upside down peek from atop your bed, you find that there is nothing under there. What would you do if something really was under your bed, or in the closet? Are you prepared for what you might find? I know I’m not. And I’m not really sure what I would do if I were in your position right now.
I won’t divulge all of my little secrets but I can tell you, I have been in these places. Not for mayhem, but for mischief. Notice, there is no forced entry, after all, you practically invited me in. I’ve seen you lock your car when you go into a convenience store, yet leave your house wide open as you go down to the corner to check the mail. That’s all I need. Just a few precious seconds to steal through an entry and tuck away in any one of the rarely used little spaces of your humble abode. That little creak you heard last night could have been the house settling, or something else. I can also be very patient. Sometimes it may take me two hours to ease my way across a hardwood floor or navigate to the top of the staircase.
Ever since I was a young boy of 10 or 11 I have been playing Hide and Seek as I call it. I know it’s not very original but I don’t care. I’m sure if, or when, I’m caught the press will coin a cute little catch phrase for my actions. It was at that young age that I started spying on my sister and her friends from the sanctity of her bedroom closet. I like to think of it as the equivalent of seeing a Broadway play, watching the drama of strangers' lives unfold in front of you. Only, in my case, the actors are all real people. I can hide almost anywhere for any length of time. Just watching. Let it be known that I’m not a thief! I just wander around strangers’ homes in the middle of the night, stopping off momentarily to capture a glimpse of real life drama. Most of the time the residents are sleeping so there isn’t much drama to capture but it is, all the same, unrehearsed.
I was almost caught once though. It was two years ago and I was with my brother, Jim. One evening after a few too many gin & tonic’s I decided to let him in on my little secret. Jim seemed very intrigued and excited about my tales of covert activity in other people’s homes and demanded I show him what goes on and how I do it. This is a very personal, if not religious, experience I create for myself, but the urge to tell someone had been burning in me for a long time. I wasn’t interested in taking on a partner, I just needed to get it off my chest.
It was well after dark and I had had enough hounding from Jim about Hide and Seek so I told him we’d take a drive and try to find a place. We ended up passing through one of those well-to-do bedroom communities with huge, three story, plastic and aluminum suburban castles. The type where all of the houses look the same, with gardeners and maids coming in twice a week. These homes had very few fences but provide plenty of nooks and crannies to tuck away in. Three streets into the community I spotted an older couple in the back yard of their house. The wooden, carved sign in the front yard proudly displayed that “The Williams Live Here.” We kept driving along and finally parked about a mile up the road in the parking lot of a dentist’s office and walked back. I prefer these little neighborhoods. They’re much more fun due to the measure of stealth that must be employed to navigate through the rest of the community before finally reaching the target. A “spy behind enemy lines” kind of thing. We reached an outcrop of unlit landscaping at the back corner of the Williams’ home for what would be a surprisingly short wait. After only ten minutes, presumably Mr. and Mrs. Williams strolled over to visit their next door neighbors for cocktails or something to that effect.
Jim could hardly contain his excitement and wanted to rush in and ransack the place. It took everything I could do to calm him down while I went systematically through my mental checklist. The first: always find a place to hide, followed closely by planning an escape route. There were no burglar alarms and no sign of pets. I tried to put aside the cries of “woo-hoo!” and “look at this!” from my accomplice as I went about my business.I was very disappointed when next I saw Jim exiting from the kitchen chewing on a piece of cold fried chicken. I knew at any minute someone might come back and we would be caught in a very awkward situation but it didn’t seem to matter to him at all. He was in Disneyland for all he knew and couldn’t grasp the severity of the situation.
“Let’s go see what they’ve got in the drawers upstairs,” Jim said.
“No!” I hissed loudly, trying to contain my voice. “Now come on. We’ve got to find a place to hide.”
I investigated a closet below the stairs in the center of the house that provided enough leg room for an extended stay. And, judging by the winter clothes, it was rarely used. The closet also had two big sliding doors with small louvered openings that allowed in just enough light so that we could see each other, as well as see most of the first floor. I dragged Tim into the closet and there we waited.
“What are we going to do now?” he asked, sitting on the floor with his knees to his chin.
“Nothing,” I replied.
“Nothing? What do you mean nothing? We’re the only ones in the house. You expect me to sit here and wait? Wait for what? Let’s at least go investigate. Let’s go exploring. See what they got.”
There is no thrill in Hide and Seek if you’re the only one in the house and I knew Jim didn’t understand the concept. He just wanted to rob the place. At that moment I knew I’d made a big mistake.
“Okay, let’s go,” I told him.
“Alright! Let’s go!” his excitement mounting.
“No. We’re leaving. Now.”
“What? What’s wrong?” he asked.
“Nothing,” I said. “I just want to leave.”
It was then that we heard the whoosh of a glass sliding door at the back of the dining room. The sound was music to my ears and the adrenaline rush it created sent shivers through my entire body.
“What was that?” Jim asked.
“Just shut up and stay as still as you can,” I said through clenched teeth.
I clamped my hand over Jim’s mouth before he could complete his sentence. He bit the inside of my index finger so hard it was all I could do to keep from crying out or smacking the daylights out of him. I closed my eyes and let out a light “Umpfh!” as I slowly eased my hand away from his mouth. I made an important mental note to myself then. If I ever wanted to try to keep someone from talking, use anything except my bare hand. I still have the scar.
“Honey, I’m gonna go up and read. Don’t stay up too late.” I heard the elder woman's voice exclaim from from the bottom of the stairs next to us.
I could hear the footsteps of Mrs. Williams passing directly over our heads while simultaneously the high pitched arc of a television came whining and crackling to life directly across from our secluded hideout. I knew I could sit here as long as it took for the old man to go to bed. There have been times when I’ve had to stand in the back of a broom closet until three in the morning, leaving the residents none the wiser in the light of day. Jim, however, was another problem.
Forty-five minutes passed and I was very impressed with his resolve to remain still. He sat there like a statue with his arms around his shins for the entire time. Meanwhile, the old man’s plush Recline-O-Lounger lumbered back and forth to a steady, unwavering beat. It was then that I heard a light snore emanate. At first I had thought it was the old man having fallen asleep watching Kelly’s Heroes on TBS but the next snore was definitely right next to me.
“Shit! Shit! Shit! Shit!” was my first and only thought. I had to wake Jim up. Wake him quietly, and now, or there was going to be hell to pay.
I nudged him lightly on the shoulder in an attempt to get him conscious enough to remember where he was. He was sinking deeper but one more tap was all it took. All of a sudden his arms let loose and his right foot kicked the door directly in front of us as he shook his head and looked around. He now knew exactly where he was and the gravity of the situation. I rolled back my eyes and slowly rested my head on the closet wall behind us. Had someone heard? Worst of all, was there a gun in the house? I must admit, there is something to be said for Jim’s preemptive desire to explore. Firearms were always my greatest fear. Much more so than just being caught. That constant fear of death was a reality that only heightened my desire to continue.
I looked up through the slats in the closet door at a motionless chair. The chair rocked forward as the gray haired figure rose erect and sauntered gingerly toward the kitchen. Not once did he look in the direction of the closet. I could tell by his steady gate and focus that we had been discovered. He disappeared around the corner into the kitchen. The fluorescent glow that emanated from beyond the kitchen a few seconds later was a sure sign that we were in trouble. After a few moments the light extinguished.
I watched, listened, for what seemed an eternity. My heart pounded in my chest. Where was the old man? I looked over at Jim. His eyes were wide and as bright as candles. He was barely breathing as the terror welled in him as well. A few times I thought I heard a faint rush of sound but couldn’t be sure. The volume of the television was loud enough to drown out any ambient sounds in the room. In a pinch, my half of the closet door slid open and there was the old man, standing directly above me with a golf club.
“Gotcha, you...!” he stopped mid sentence with a wide eyed expression of surprise.
I don’t know what he expected to find in the closet. A cat, a mouse maybe, but I can guarantee you it wasn’t a grown man huddled on the floor. As soon as the initial shock had passed he began taking short chip shots at my legs through the open doorway. The space was too small to get a long drive in. Apparently he didn’t see Jim because his eyes, and the strokes, were concentrated on me.His voice mumbled something unintelligible and was rather subdued for the situation. It was as if he didn’t want to wake his wife up over such a trivial incident as someone hiding out in the downstairs closet. By now I was curled up like a boxer taking a round of punches in the back corner.
Jim had seen enough after the fourth or fifth stroke. He slid both doors across in front of me and with a giant leap took hold of the club. The man seemed even more surprised to see him. Imagine the expression on a kid’s face the first time he witnesses twenty clowns climbing out of a Volkswagen Beetle. That was the look on the old man’s face. I could tell he was asking himself “just how many more people are in there?” Jim easily wrestled the club free and with one solid blow to the middle of the old man’s forehead the man dropped motionless to the tiled floor. The most amazing realization that came to me was how little noise the entire scuffle had generated. The scene had played out in almost absolute silence. Thank you Kelly’s Heroes. Hunched over, I quickly slid around to the bottom of the stairs and peered up the railing looking for any sign of movement or shadow up top. There was none.
“Let’s get the hell out of here right now!” I whispered as loudly as I could to Tim as we moved into the dining room.
“Okay. I’m right behind you,” he said, still holding the golf club in his left hand.
I walked over and slowly opened the glass sliding door. There it was again. That faint rushing sound I had heard in the closet. The sneaky bastard had gone out through the garage and came back in through the dining room.A light turned on behind me as I was going through the door. I jumped forward, dove to the ground and scrambled around the corner of the house. The light faded and a few seconds later Jim exited nonchalantly through the very same door I had made a parachute leap through. He turned back towards me after shutting the door to reveal a five-iron golf club in one hand and a piece of fried chicken in the other.
I made a point to wake up early the next day and watch the local news. I had to know if Jim and I were now suspects in a murder case. The weather was the same: cold front coming in from... etc., etc. Traffic was the same: bridges backed up to… etc., etc. Finally, the story I had been waiting for.
“And in other news, an apparent robbery attempt was thwarted last night when a man in the Westbridge area fought off would-be robbers entering his home. Mrs. Iris Williams discovered her husband, Frank, unconscious on the floor of their colonial home around 4AM this morning after an apparent scuffle with one of the burglars. Mr. Williams is listed in stable condition at Glennside Medical Center. According to a statement made by Mr. Williams, it was too dark to identify the two intruders. Police are still investigating the incident. We’ll keep you updated.”
I was enormously relieved. I was glad that Mr. Williams was all right, but I was even more excited that my secret had not been exposed. I’m sure that the unfortunate circumstances of an intruder made many people in the Westbridge neighborhood reevaluate their home security and that many are taking extra precautions now to ensure that all of their doors and windows are sealed tightly. I’m also sure that all of these countermeasures provide a grand sense of security for the inhabitants, however, as I mentioned earlier, it doesn’t do any good if I’m already in the house.
My brother, Jim, was eventually arrested for breaking into the dentist’s office that we parked at the night of our close call. As for me, I’ve been crouched under here for about two hours now agonizing about all the pointy parts there are that an upside down sewing machine provides. The lights and shadows I could observe began to fade about two hours ago. Darkness enveloped my space a short time after that. All is now quiet in this unknown theater of silence. Not even crickets can be heard through the insulated suburban fortress. I believe it’s time to go exploring.
Remember, if you hear just a little creak some in the house in the middle of the night, it's probably just the house settling. The chances that me or someone else is playing hide and seek seem most remote when you really think about it.
© Copyright 2016 Robert Fontaine. All rights reserved.