Smile Politely

A Cautionary Tale from the Heartland

I was running down the street earlier this week, just taking in my surroundings, when I noticed a young girl walking in my direction, about five blocks away. As I got closer to her, I saw her walk up the steps of a house. Then I saw her walk inside the house, without knocking or ringing a doorbell. At first it didn’t seem like a big deal, but the more I thought about it, the more I grew concerned. I guess that when you hear accounts of kidnapping, rape, robbery and assault in this area, it’s hard to believe that someone would feel safe enough to leave their house unlocked.

It is sad to think of our quiet neighborhoods as targetable areas, but they are. I live in a mellow condo association, but I have come home twice to find my doormat out of place. Normally I would assume that the wind or a raccoon might have moved my mat, but my mat weighs ten pounds and has never moved during previous storms, so chances are someone had been looking under my mat to see if I had left a key. Luckily, I’m not that stupid, but plenty of people actually do this. My friend even has a key rock that he hides under a bush, but it’s so obvious that it’s a fake rock. I have told him to rethink this, but his only solution was to get the fake poop key holder for his front porch. I gave up trying to convince him.

I grew up in a bucolic, placid town where people always left their houses unlocked, especially the ones out in the country where I lived. We never thought that anyone would breach our unprotected house, but we were wrong.

I was just about to turn fourteen years old, one August day, and I was planning to go golfing with a friend. I went downstairs to find Mom and to discuss my plans for the day. My mom’s decorating business was located in the basement of our house. I found her working at her desk.

She told me that her assistant, Julie, would be working in our house that day from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. and that I might run into her when I got back home. She told me that if Julie left early, she would just leave the house unlocked for me. I was fine with this. I told her I would see her later and I got picked up by my friend.

We finished our round and waited for his sister to pick us up. It was just past 11 a.m. and it was scorching out. The young girl picked us up and drove to my house. When I got there, no cars were in the driveway. They asked me if it was ok to leave me and I of course said it was, so I gathered my clubs from her hatchback and went inside.

As I walked through our breezeway, I could hear our cockatiel’s cacophony. She normally didn’t do this, so I passed it off, thinking that my bird was just menopausal. I headed inside the house, turned the kitchen light on and then went into the dining room to sit down. I was watching Loopy (the bird) pacing back and forth. She was quite troubled by something, but I didn’t know how to communicate with her on this.

After a couple of minutes of rest, I had to go to the bathroom. I decided to use the little half-bathroom next to my parents’ bedroom. The bathroom was tiny, almost as small as an airplane’s lavatory. It had a a mirror on the wall, above the sink, that faced back into my parents’ chamber.

I went into the bathroom, lifted the seat of the toilet, faced the mirror and turned on the light. Not only did my face appear, but the lineaments of a man standing in my parents bedroom also appeared. He was about twenty-five years of age, with dark hair and mean look on his face. He started walking towards me, so I grabbed the bathroom door, slammed it shut and then locked it. I kept a strong hold on the door. I could sense that he was trying to turn the door handle, but my grip didn’t allow it to move much. He got upset and pounded on the door three times, but never said a word. I didn’t either. I then heard his hands fumbling around the door frame, hoping to find a pinhole key, but he didn’t. I then heard him walking around in the kitchen. I prayed that he wouldn’t see the set of cutlery next to the stove.

For some reason, I thought I heard him walking down the basement steps, so I gently opened the bathroom door and tiptoed to the cordless phone next to the squawking birdcage. I picked up the phone and pressed the button to turn it on, but when the phone beeped, I heard his feet coming up the stairs. I ran through our house to the outside. I then ran around to the back of my house to force our Chow Chow inside, because she didn’t care for strangers. I slid the sliding glass door open, but she backed away and wouldn’t charge inside, so I gave up.

I tried going to my neighbors’ houses, but no one was home. When I came back to ours, I was determined to force our dog inside, but the intruder had locked the sliding glass door on me. I went back to the front of the house and noticed that the back door was open. I figured he had left for the woods behind our house, but I didn’t want to try my luck, so I waited for two hours in the hot sun for my brother to get home. Once he did, we went around with machetes and secured the house.

My mom came home and when I told her what had happened, she of course hugged me and held me for a bit. Once she had calmed down, we did an inventory and didn’t find anything missing, just some stuff out of place. We figured that the intruder had just waited for Julie to leave and then had gone inside to steal, but I came home shortly thereafter and startled him.

However, when we went down to my mother’s studio, there was note on her desk from Julie. It read, “Toni, I tried to use the bathroom down here, but it was locked. I couldn’t find a key for it, but wanted you to know.” Chills scurried along our spines as my brother, my mom and I turned to look at the bathroom door, which was now open. The door had permanent blinds in it that allowed someone from inside the bathroom to see out, by looking down to the floor.

We were freaked out, because we knew that the only way to lock the bathroom door was to do so from the inside. That meant that the entire time Julie was there, this man had remained in the bathroom, possibly watching her. When my mom told Julie this, Julie hesitated to come back to work.

We never found out who the intruder was. A police report was filed, but Jacksonville’s investigative team was too indolent to care, so nothing happened. What did happen was once the word got around, everyone started locking their doors. Our quiet, pastoral neighborhood no longer felt safe.

I always lock my doors. I even make sure that my windows are locked when I leave, too. Maybe I’m just a little paranoid, but I never want to come home to find a stranger in my place ever again. I consider myself to be very lucky to even be alive today. I’m not sure if he would have hurt me, but there was a good chance of it.

I guess I just wanted to encourage our new students to keep their houses secure as they adapt to their new environments. I understand that people want to trust that nothing bad would happen to them, but in today’s society, no chances should be taken. It’s not that we should live in fear of a break-in or some type of assault, but we should be aware that it happens and we should take precautionary measures to make sure it doesn’t happen to us.

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