Josh, my sometimes-roommate, thinks I’m paranoid.
Yes, he agrees that my nice new apartment in central West Chester – the top two floors of a three-story building – is something to show off. No, he doesn’t think that, even with a homeless shelter two blocks away and all kinds of hoodlums roaming the back alley, there’s cause to worry about my safety.
You see, ever since I saw the aftermath of a fatal home invasion as a child back in Philly, I’ve been plagued by thoughts of home insecurity. Particularly in this new place, seldom a night goes by that I don’t get up because I’ve heard some creaking noise or thud somewhere in the house. I check all the rooms from the bathroom in the rear to the kitchen, and then I look in the guest bedroom just to make sure no one came in through the fire escape window. I follow that same routine each time I come home from work or the store.
At the new place, my bedroom door will not lock, or even close completely, for that matter. When I go to bed, I put a box behind the door, just because it will make noise if someone opens the door to come in.
Just recently, I passed a milestone: Even with Josh gone for about 3 weeks, I came home and went straight upstairs to my third-floor bedroom without first checking for intruders. I even played some XBox down in the living room without looking out the kitchen window to make sure no one was walking up the fire escape. No, still not exactly sanity, but it was progress, to be sure.
Fast-forward to last night.
I’m lying in my bedroom. It’s 2:00am. I need to get up for work at 5am. My cell phone is emitting a whiny beep as its battery dies, and I don’t care because no one is calling me this late anyway. I’m drifting in and out of sleep while watching Jackass. Brenda is next to me – the cat, not the girl. She looks over at me quizzically as I alternate between giggling at the TV and snoring.
Somewhere toward the end of Jackass, I hear a faint, low, repetitive noise… “doom…doom…doom…” as if someone is lightly tapping on a metal beam somewhere. Intrigued, I turn down the TV to listen. No, it’s not the vibration that seems to emanate from the foundation of the house whenever a large truck goes by. Listening to a few cars go by confirms that it’s a different sound.
The sound is infrequent, but it doesn’t go away. I begin to feel anxiety, and, realizing I’m not going to sleep this one off without some assurance, I mute the TV and roll out of bed. I walk to just outside my bedroom door, next to the guest room door, and listen intently. No, the sound certainly isn’t within the house, but it also isn’t the neighbors running up and down the stairs. They’re up to something, I tell myself. I’d normally open the door to the guest room and check just to be sure, but this time, satisfied with my answer and the distant nature of the sound, I turn around and amble foggily back to my bedroom.
I fumble around for that cell phone charger and plug the phone in so I’ll have it tomorrow. Then I flop down onto the bed next to Brenda again and watch some more TV. Viva La Bam has just started, and I was never much into that. I switch to that Girls Gone Wild “infomercial” that runs late nights on Comedy Central, and after a few minutes of “info” I turn the TV off. It’s 3:08am. There is no more noise. I drift off to sleep.
The first sound jolts me out of my sleep. The second one confirms my worst nightmare. As I sit bolt upright in the bed, my mind is screaming: “IT’S THE FIRE ESCAPE!!! THE GUEST ROOM WINDOW!!! SOMEONE IS BREAKING IN!!!”
That noise – such a huge blow. I feel that I am in great danger, and trapped, too, in my bedroom. I am in shock, and my higher brain function directs my attention to the sound of more glass breaking away, as if to confirm that “yes, it’s really happening.”
By this point, two or three seconds after the original crash, the adrenaline has fully purged the sleep from my body. I know I must do something before that guest room door opens, while I still have the element of surprise. I jump up from the bed and Brenda jumps up with me. I grab my cell phone and run into the hallway, stopping outside the guest room door. I hear more noises: stumbling inside. I reach for the doorknob, and I make the kind of split-second decision one can only make when faced with a fight-or-flight situation: As my hand touches the doorknob, I think back to the initial sound. See, I had always imagined myself happening upon a prowler outside a window, or confronting some petty thief who got lucky picking a lock. Someone I could scare off or even throttle before the police arrived. But no – whatever busted through that window, brazen and obvious, did not care who was home or what the homebodies would do. I imagine several hoodlums from the nearby slum, climbing in one after another. Or a single person, some junkie, high and desperate, black, with bloodshot eyes and PCP strength, impervious to the pain of the glass beneath his feet.
Indeed, there is something deranged, some swirling menace on the other side of that door. It is violent, and I can neither reason with it nor scare it off. I will open that door and meet it there, in the dark, and my life will change forever, or maybe end, as a result.
I pull my hand away and run. I had stood there for two seconds – one second two long, I think, as I make my way downstairs to the second-floor living room. I look down to see Brenda matching me stride for stride.
I run down the 2nd-floor hallway, wearing nothing and trying to concentrate enough to turn my cell phone on. I stand at the front door and grab some pants from the dryer while the phone “boots up.”
After a seemingly interminable wait, I finally manage to mash “911” and hit Call. I now hear heavy footsteps above, in the third floor hallway. Need to get away. I unlock my apartment’s front door and run downstairs to the front door of the house. I peer outside the door’s glass window: is there some accomplice or lookout on the other side, waiting? I feel the doorknob to make sure it’s locked, deciding to stay put for now.
The operator comes online:
Operator: “911 Emergency, where are you calling from?”
Me: “West Chester!”
Operator: “Do you need fire or ambulance?”
Me: “No, I need police!!”
Operator: “Hold on while I transfer you.”
The phone rings again. Christ. I’m literally a block away from the police station, and I have to go through an operator.
I bang on my downstairs neighbor’s door, but no answer.
Operator: “West Chester police, what is your emergency?”
Me: “Someone’s breaking into my house!”
Operator: “Where is the person now?”
Me: “He’s in the house! He broke a window and he’s in the house right now!”
Operator: “Where are you calling from?”
Me: “WEST CHESTER!!”
Operator: “WHERE in West Chester?”
Just as I fumble out my address, I hear the slow “klop…klop…klop” of the intruder coming downstairs to the second floor. As the dispatcher relays the “B & E” over his radio, I hear the man walking around directly above me. I look up the stairs at my apartment’s front door, 20% of me wanting to get a look at the actor and 80% of me ready to bolt outside the building the instant it opens.
I stop hearing sounds, and think maybe he’s already down the hall, at the apartment door. Unnerved, I unlock the building’s front door and step barefoot onto the icy sidewalk. “I’m outside,” I tell the dispatcher.
Operator: “Where are you going?”
Me: “I left the house.”
Operator: “WHERE are you GOING?”
Me: “I’m walking down the street! I wasn’t going to stay in there. Is there someplace you WANT me to go?”
I look down the street, and three cop cars have parked on the corner. Officers are jogging toward me and more are getting out of their cars. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I surmise that this is standard procedure, parking at a distance, so as to avoid tipping off the perp.
The dispatcher shuts up long enough for me to talk to the officers.
They run past me, looking at me only to ask “Where is he?”
“He’s in the house – 302!” I say, pointing toward my door.
“Can I come in? This ice is killing my feet.” They beckon for me to follow.
The dispatcher keeps me on long enough to get my name and phone number before letting me go.
They barge into my downstairs neighbor’s apartment. He’s in the living room, in his tightey whiteys, and they order him to lock his door and stay inside. I don’t know him, but I slip into his apartment anyway, telling the officers it’s the second floor apartment they want to search. While they draw their guns and go up the stairs, I fall down onto my neighbor’s sofa. He diligently hides a bong while explaining to me that he used to live in that upstairs apartment, and “we’ve never had a problem like this around here before.”
Upstairs, an officer yells “GET DOWN ON THE GROUND,” and there is a commotion of stomping feet. Once it dies down, I thank my host for his hospitality and go upstairs to take a look.
I walk into the apartment, and there’s a guy, face-down on the living room floor, in handcuffs. I move closer. He is a big guy, tall and husky, with combat boots.
“Alright, don’t kick me!!” he yells.
The officers look down at him. “That’s an option,” one of them says.
The guy keeps talking. “I swear, I thought this was my friend’s house!! I was freezing to death outside and I was trying to find my friend’s house!”
I join in…”Well then why didn’t you just knock on the door??”
“Dude, I did try knocking on the door, I was coming from the bar and I tried knocking on the door!”
One of the officers motions for me to come around to the kitchen area. I walk around to see my stove is turned all the way up.
“Did you do this?” he asks me.
“No, it was off.”
The intruder chimes in again: “I did that, I was trying to light a cigarette!!”
The officers start in again. “Well now you’re gonna be charged with breaking and entering.”
“Man, I swear I’ll pay for everything. I thought this was my frat brother of four years’ house and I was freezing to death outside for like an hour and a half!! He lives across from the Rita’s Water Ice on Main Street!!”
As if on cue, the officers and I slowly raise our heads and look out the front window. One of them responds: “Well, there is a Rita’s across the street, but this ain’t Main Street.”
One officer leans in. “You wanna know what the funniest thing about all this is? This is my brother’s house that you broke into.”
Oh yeah, that’s right…the landlord did tell me his brother was a cop.
With that, the suspect seems to sink further down into the carpet. The fight goes out of him and he doesn’t want to hear anymore. “Fine, fine, just take me in then, just take me in.”
While they’re dragging him out, I go back to the third floor to look in the guest room for the first time. The window is completely busted out, and there is glass everywhere. I assure the officers that everything in the room is mine.
Satisfied with their work, the officers clear out. No pictures, no investigating the fire escape, and no patrolling the surrounding area to see who else could’ve been in the area. With a “bye bye,” the last officer closes my door, and it’s just me again in total quiet.
Brenda comes out of her corner, follows me back upstairs and looks into the guest room with me. She notices the window and freezes in her tracks. There it is, a gaping fucking hole waiting for the next person to climb right in out of the darkness. I don’t feel safe standing there.
I take a golf club out of that room and put it in my room. I look at the clock: 3:34am. Then I look around me and realize I need to get the fuck out of there. I throw on some clothes and leave, walking around the building to my car out back. I lock myself inside the car and, while it warms up, look up at my new apartment. I was so glad to get that apartment, and decorate it, and show it off to friends. Now, driving off, I can’t even bear to look at the place, much less sleep there.