I'm the kind of person who loves being thrilled by a scary book or movie. I like feeling the hairs prickle on the back of my neck and gooseflesh creep along my arms. In the safety of my own living room, or curled up in bed at night, knowing the rest of my family is within shouting distance, I'm as brave as anything. I'll take on lions, and tigers, and bears. I'll tiptoe with the heroine through a darkened, deserted house, with the telephone lines all cut and the poker from the fireplace my only weapon.
This is especially satisfying if I have a big bowl of popcorn beside me, one that I don't have to share with anyone.
Dad says I've got a heck of an imagination. It's about my only personal asset, in a family with brilliant minds and multiple talents. I can't compete with any of them on their own turf. I'm the ugly duckling in a flock of birds of paradise.
Except that I can make up stories, and enjoy the ones other people have made up. Especially the ones calculated to send paralyzing chills through my entire system.
So I always thought I'd be ready for a real adventure, if one ever came along.
I didn't know how stupid an idea that was until it happened.
Dad never really wanted to buy the house in Lofty Cedars Estates. He said all the houses there were too expensive.
Mom said, "I told you, honey. I know we can't swing a new house unless we continue to be a two-income family, but I love being office manager at the clinic. I want to keep on working. I don't mind having to hold down a job in order to meet the payments. Now that the piano is paid for, we'll be able to do more with the money I earn than just have the house. We can put the rest of my salary in the bank, in a college fund for the kids. You know we aren't going to be able to send them to college on our current savings. Not all four of them."
"The houses are ostentatious," Dad countered. "Big, fancy, show-off places. I'm a high school principal, for pete's sake. Not the governor."
"Ken," Mom said patiently, "these are not mansions. They're family homes. They have five bedrooms, three bathrooms. No waiting in line when we're all getting ready for work or school! They have a rec room for the kids as well as a living room for us, where we can listen to our own music and read in peace. Doesn't that sound appealing? Not having to listen to their music?"
Since one of Dad's common complaints was that he didn't like the same kind of music we kids did, he had to admit that would be a plus. "That doesn't take care of ostentatious," he said.
"What's ostentatious?" Wally asked, but nobody paid any attention to him.
"Honey, it doesn't need to be any more ostentatious than we want it to be. They'll let us do our own decorating. We can move our own furniture in. We can use the bedroom sets we already own. We don't have to throw out your old chair, though it would be nice to have it reupholstered if we decide we want to change the colors in the living room."
"There are eight thousand families in this school district. Most of them can't afford a house like the ones in Lofty Cedars. What are they going to say about a principal who thinks he's too good to live like everybody else?"
"There are lots of families already living in Lofty Cedars," I put in. "They're mostly just ordinary working families, like us."
Mom gave me a look that meant, Shut up, Kaci, let me do this my way.
I subsided, and watched my brother Jeff struggling to keep still, too. He really liked Coralee Braden, whose family had just moved into a house three doors down from where they were just building a house Mom wanted.
Dad wouldn't give up. "Lofty Cedars Estates is a stupid name for a housing development." We were all sitting around the dinner table, and he speared another slice of rare roast beef. Mom had chosen her time well, during one of his favorite meals, to bring up the subject of moving. Maybe, though, I thought, she should have waited until we got to the chocolate cake to make sure he was in the best possible mood.
"A stupid name," Mom echoed, momentarily nonplussed. "Why is Lofty Cedars any more stupid than Windy Bluff or Pleasant Acres?"
"Because there aren't any Lofty Cedars, that's why." Dad helped himself to a large scoop of mashed potatoes and ladled brown gravy generously over it while I held my breath.
"Two, Dad," Jodie said. She wanted the new house, too. Her best friend, Marsha, had moved to Phoenix, and she was lonesome. Jodie wanted to make new friends, and she was in the midst of her first crush on a boy, another fifth grader, named Saul Jonas. Saul just happened to live on the first street outside of Lofty Cedars Estates, so she'd have to walk past his house every day coming and going from school. "There's two, remember? Right where you drive into Cedar Lane."
Dad looked up from his plate. "They're ten feet high," he stated. "I wouldn't call that lofty in this part of the country where a lot of cedars get to be eighty or a hundred feet tall."
"You wouldn't want to call them little cedars," Jeff said, forgetting the look I'd just had from Mom. "After all, in just a few years they'll have grown a lot, and before long they'll be lofty."
Mom had had enough. She didn't even bother to squelch Jeff. "The main reason I want to move, Ken," she said in that way she has when she gets serious, "is that I really want to get out of this neighborhood."
"What's wrong with this neighborhood?" Dad wanted to know, getting moderately annoyed at not being able to eat his dinner in peace. "We've lived here for seventeen years, Eve. We've got this house practically paid for!"
"And that's one reason it's feasible to move. We can sell this place and have a good, big down payment on another house. That way the payments won't be all that bad. But the most important thing is what's happening around here. I don't like the way I worry about the kids being out in the evenings, walking to and from friends' houses or a playground. I don't feel safe here anymore. I don't like the way we have to lock our doors every time we go out, and the kids have to carry keys. Mr. Hoskins actually got mugged only a few blocks from here, just a week ago."
"Ed Hoskins is an idiot," Dad said, but his voice had changed a little. "He goes into a bar and shows off a wad of money big enough to choke a billy goat, and then when he's had too much to drink he walks home through a back alley instead of under the streetlights. You really don't feel safe here anymore, Eve?"
"No, honey, I really don't," Mom said, more quietly now.
And that's how we came to buy the house in Lofty Cedars. The house where each of us could have our own room, and be within walking distance of the high school for Jeff, the middle school for me, and the elementary for Wally and Jodie.
Mom admitted, when Dad persisted rather firmly, that we'd still have to lock our doors when we left the house, even in the daytime.
Yet the main thing was that in Lofty Cedars, we'd all be safer. Which goes to show how wrong even the best of parents can be.
Mom was afraid it might take quite a while to sell our old house. But Dad read in the paper that due to the new navy base in Everett, housing was at a premium. Thousands of sailors coming into the area needed homes at a price they could afford, and the article said that the average time it took to sell after putting a house on the market in our county was only fifty-four days. The contractors were building new houses as quickly as they could, but a lot of the navy personnel were already here and desperate to be able to bring their families. A friend from church who was a realtor assured us that selling ours wouldn't be a problem at all. "List it now, and we'll probably have a buyer before school is out for the summer," he told us cheerfully.
We sold it almost too fast, before the house in Lofty Cedars was ready for us. The buyers were a young navy officer and his wife and two little girls, who were moving up from San Diego, and they had friends who had already bought in our neighborhood. Fortunately, they weren't scheduled to move up until fall.
A week after Mom and Dad had accepted their offer, there was a robbery right across the street from our old house.
We had known the Andersons all our lives, and Jeff was good friends with their younger son, Larry. So we knew they were on vacation that week. Mr. Anderson was a history buff and he'd won an all-expense-paid trip to Boston because of a scholarly essay he had submitted to a contest. It was a major prize, so there was a story about it in the Daily Gazette, and the whole family was excited about seeing the Constitution and Paul Revere's house and the Old North Church, where lanterns were hung to warn the patriots that the British were coming. There was going to be a follow-up article when they came home that described everything they'd seen.
So we knew their house was empty. Jeff had agreed to go over once a day to feed their two dogs, which he did right after supper every night.
I was the one who saw the lights. Usually I had to be careful about staying up after Jodie had decided to go to sleep, because she liked it dark. But tonight she was sleeping over with Bethany Wightman, a girl she hoped would be a new best friend. Bethany had moved here only recently and hadn't made many friends yet, so her mother had made a point of meeting Mom and sounding her out about the girls getting together. It was a relief to me that she went and I had our room to myself.
I had been reading kind of late, after everyone else in the family had gone to bed. I got up to get a snack and saw a flicker of light behind the living room drapes across the street.
I stopped and peered more closely out my bedroom window. There it came again, just barely showing where the drapes weren't pulled tightly together.
I put down my sandwich and milk and walked across the hall. I opened the door and called softly, "Jeff? You awake?"
"Huh? Kaci? What's up?"
"Something's going on over at the Andersons'," I said softly, so I wouldn't wake up anyone else.
He sounded groggy. "Something like what?"
"Lights. In the living room."
"I couldn't have left any lights on," Jeff complained, rolling over and sitting up. "I wasn't even in there, just in the kitchen."
"It looked like a flashlight sweeping across the other side of the drapes."
That got him out of bed, and he followed me back to my bedroom. "I don't see anything," he said.
"Wait a minute. There, in the front bedroom upstairs. Did you see it?"
My brother leaned on the windowsill, staring. "Let me put my pants on and get the key. I'll go over and see if something got left on. I never checked upstairs. They were in a hurry to leave for the airport. They could have overlooked a lamp."
"The first light I saw was downstairs, in the living room. Maybe we'd better wake up Dad."
"Mrs. Anderson probably just forgot to turn one lamp off. No need to get Dad out of bed," Jeff said, and headed for his own bedroom.
"Wait a minute," I said. "What if nobody left a light on? What if there's someone in there who doesn't belong there? I told you, the light I saw first was in the living room, and I only saw the flash of it a couple of times. Like someone was moving around."
"I'll be careful," Jeff said, and was gone.
What should I do now? It seemed the height of stupidity, to me, to go barging into a house that was supposed to be empty but might not be. Dad would have a fit if he knew we were even thinking about such a thing.
I turned out my overhead light so I could stand in darkness to observe, and it was then that I noticed the small truck on the street in front of the Anderson place.
The Andersons had flown to Boston, leaving their cars locked in the garage, so there shouldn't have been any vehicles on the street at all. The truck was light colored, about the size of the ones small businesses use to make deliveries. I couldn't tell if anything was printed on the side to identify it or not. No doubt Jeff would notice it when he got there; he was already going down the stairs.
I hesitated, then waited until he emerged from the front door beneath me. "Jeff!" I called softly, leaning out the window. "There's a truck! Check it out!"
He turned and lifted a hand, then crossed the street, stopping momentarily by the rear of the delivery truck.
Memorizing the license number, I decided. He wouldn't have to write it down. He was used to memorizing long pages of concertos and sonatas for his piano competitions; a simple license number would be a piece of cake.
A moment later he looked up at me again, made a circle with his thumb and forefinger, and disappeared around the other side of the truck.
There were no lights that I could see inside the house now. A slight breeze raised the hairs on my bare arms, or was it apprehension? I wished Jeff had called Dad to go over with him. If burglars were in the Anderson house, who knew how safe he was? Of course he wasn't stupid enough to tackle them; he'd stay out of sight, but still...
"Kaci?" Dad's voice from my doorway made me swing away from the window, startled. "What's going on? I thought I heard voices, and then a door closing downstairs. Do you know what time it is? Some of us are trying to sleep."
"I'm sorry, Dad. I saw lights in the Andersons' house, so I woke Jeff up. I wanted him to call you before he went over there, but he said he'd be careful...."
"Was that him I heard leaving the house? Kaci, you both know better than to take chances. Why didn't you wake me up?" In a couple of strides he joined me at the window -- a big, bulky shape beside me in the darkness. "Where did you see the lights?"
I told him. He muttered something under his breath. "Let me get some pants on and I'll go over there myself. And if we don't both come back within five minutes, call the police. That's what they're for."
I stayed at my post, wondering if this was important enough to pray about. Grandma Beth, Dad's mother, said everything was important enough for that, that God had plenty of time and the ability to listen to even the smallest concerns, even to praying for catching a bus. Dad said it would make more sense to start for the bus stop five minutes earlier, but Grandma Beth assured him that when she was already doing her best, it couldn't hurt to pray for help when she needed it. I didn't know if Jeff needed help or not, but if I prayed for his safety and it turned out to be unnecessary, nobody would know except God and me. I had no sooner whispered the words, however, than things started happening down in the street.
The strange truck mostly blocked my view of the Andersons' front door, but I could tell that it opened and three people came out. They were in a hurry. They opened up the back of the truck, put something inside, and one of them climbed in after it. Then another one slammed the door in the back and came around to jump into the driver's seat, and another one scrambled for the opposite door. They took off, leaving the house behind them wide open.
Alarmed, I turned toward the darkened hall, where I heard Dad coming out of his bedroom. He must have pulled his pants on over his pajama bottoms and stuck his feet into shoes without socks, because he'd only been gone a matter of seconds.
"Dad, whoever it was just left!" We heard the squeal of tires as the truck went around the corner. "I don't see Jeff anywhere!"
"Call 9-1-1!" Dad said, and clattered down the stairs without turning on a light.
Copyright © 2000 by Willo Davis Roberts