Ping Pong Paddles and 3am Fears (urban thriller – the real world edition)

2:30am, the numbers flash at me from the phone in my hand. I sigh, eyes wide open as the familiar ball of anxiety tightens in my stomach. The laundry list of work issues ran through my mind; had I done everything I needed to get ready for the next day? Mentally checking off the things I would need to accomplish to get through the day successfully. Seems to be my new pattern: middle of the night thoughts that slip through my brain on repeat, keeping me awake for hours on end. I deftly unravel my earbuds and slip one into my ear, hoping that familiar old audiobook I’ve listened to a dozen times will break up my anxious musings long enough to grant me the solace of sleep before my alarm goes off.

An hour later, still lost in my own thoughts, calculating how many more hours I could possibly get if I were able to fall asleep in the next fifteen minutes. A familiar whir breaks through the silence of my empty house. I freeze, pull out the single headphone and listen, heart beginning to race. The garage door. 3:30 in the morning and every creature residing in this home is laying on this bed, all asleep except for me. A flicker of confusion and fear flashes in the back of my mind, not fully willing to process what I know to be true: someone else is here.

I shake my partner awake, and demand in a hushed voice, “Did you forget to close the garage door?” I instantly knew that wasn’t the right question, as his bleary eyes squint into consciousness, a hint of annoyance playing at the corners. He doesn’t know that the garage door just finished it’s route, awake just in time for the silence to fill the room again. He thinks I’m just waking him up to hound him. He answers me with a ‘no,’ but starts getting out of bed anyway, perhaps sensing something wrong with the tense way I’m pulling the blankets off myself and beginning to move.

“It just opened, I heard it open,” I babble as I reach for my glasses. He’s immediately moving out of the bedroom and to my little office across the hall; it has a window overlooking our driveway and surrounding street. He doesn’t see anything, not a single person. I don’t know yet if that is a good thing or a bad thing. Are they downstairs? Did they get into the house?

My mind focuses in on the fact that the door between the garage and the house is unlocked- it’s always unlocked, I have never felt the need to close off access to these two places. The garage door itself is always closed and we live in a good neighborhood. We were never worried about security, never thought to lock that single door that can now grant unlimited access to anyone with ill intent.

We move slowly down the stairs, my tough german shepherd in step right beside us, curious why we are roaming as a pack in the middle of the night. For once he had slept through the sounds that forced me out of bed. He has no idea why we are tense, but he stays close to our knees nonetheless, always so good at reading our moods and reacting accordingly. He moves as silently as we do, surprising for the dog who barks bloody murder when he simply sees the reflection of our family cat in any window, confused and unsure how that little Houdini ball of fur manages to be in two places at once.

There is a blue light shining from the living room, casting it’s glow across the bottom of the stairs. Are they already in here, roaming through our possessions and deciding what to take? But if someone were trying to steal it, why would they turn it on? You don’t exactly test the resolution of a screen before stealing it. My mind flashes to a movie we watched the night before- another one of those macho-styles where someone breaks into a home and the dad (naturally a former secret agent of some kind) goes on a killing spree to get revenge for the trespass. The irony is not lost on me as I tell myself we must have forgotten to turn it off when we finished it. We were exhausted, ready for bed. Yes, that’s it- we must have left it on. What else did we forget in our bedtime fog?

The door to our garage is immediately ahead of us, across from the bottom of the stairwell. We creep toward it, eyes glancing around us; but the inside of the bottom floor seems quiet. A panic hits me: what will we do if someone is behind that door? I don’t even have a baseball bat, just a dog that I don’t want getting hurt. Then again, the dog is loud- probably scare off anyone who might still be lurking. Hopefully that would be enough, they would hear that growl, the bark that could wake up half the neighborhood, and they’d run. Before I can even tap my husband’s shoulder, he has the door open, peering inside. I have to give him credit: fear never paralyzes him, always ready to charge ahead when he feels it’s necessary. I follow, not wanting him to face any dangers alone.

But there’s nothing, not a hint of movement to draw your eye. It is still and quiet. The garage door is an open maw to the outside world, the lights, which automatically turn on when the garage door opens, are illuminating the entire space. There is a curtain of darkness just outside the shine of our glaring lights, hiding what does not wish to be seen. We carefully eye the room, moving slowly to get around the disassembled truck we’ve been trying to rebuild. The garage is a mess, but it is the same mess we remember from the night before. My husband silently moves to the far side, to check the nooks and crannies where he have our goodwill boxes and tiny plastic greenhouse stored. Meanwhile I gather the courage and duck down to make sure no one has slipped under the truck. After all, that’s the first place I would hide if I knew I couldn’t get out the door in time.

My heart lurches when I see a dark shape at the far end of the truck; but as my eyes focus I nearly laugh at myself when it recognize an innocent tire with some metal contraption propped up against it. The same metal piece that got caught on my little plastic greenhouse a few hours ago as I’d wheeled the precarious tower to its new home in the corner.

No one is here. The space is empty. Whoever had been here must have run off into that black canvas of night outside our little dwelling. I hit the button to close the door while we look around one more time before going back into the house, locking the door behind us. The garage is no longer the sacred space attached to our home; it is other, dangerous, a battlement that has been breached.

My husband grabs his keys, “I’m going to go check the cars.” And he disappears out the front door. I am still uneasy, as I move about the lower floor, checking each closet and every possible hiding place that a human body could curl into. Just in case. I don’t believe they made it inside, but now is not the time for taking risks and making assumptions. My dog stands at the front window, watching my husband move about outside. I keep my ears trained to the sound of him, ready to move at the slightest hint of alarm.

When he comes back, he moves straight for the garage again, an insistence in his step, “They broke into my car. I must have forgotten to lock it. They were quick, you couldn’t even tell they’d been in there. It wasn’t until I opened the center console and saw the ping pong paddle was gone. Didn’t get much, just that, my headphones, the keys to my roof rack, and the garage door opener.”

My mind catches on the ping pong paddle for some reason, trying to work out why in the world he’d had one sitting in his glove box and who would deem it valuable enough to steal? Did they really skip over the expensive sunglasses to snag the ping pong paddle? A second or two later, the rest of his words soak in. The garage door opener. I trail behind him and numbly ask, “They got it, as in they still have it?”

He’s back in the garage now, up in the air inspecting the little contraption that is responsible for the garage door. I look up how to secure one, which buttons to push to deprogram the remotes. We unplug it for good measure. In the next few hours we will learn new tricks to secure the space: by the time the first rays of sunshine strike the side of our house, the garage will be the safest room in the building. But for now, we still feel uneasy, positive that they will find a magical way of getting back in even with it all disabled.

He wants to drive around, to see if we can spot anything: check the neighbors houses and look for suspicious characters. Personally, I think this is silly- what will we do if we see someone? Hop out of the car in my fuzzy pajamas and mascara smudged eyes to challenge a stranger to a game of ping pong, hoping they whip a paddle out of their pocket and say ‘your on’? No, it’s a silly idea. But I don’t want to stay home alone and he is determined to go on his patrol.

We don’t see anything, the neighbors houses all look secure, there’s just some evening workers at the Home Depot down the street chatting outside their cars when their shift is up. When we pull back into our driveway, he agrees to call the non-emergency line to report it. Not that they’ll be able to do much at this point, but at least it will be on file, in case it happened to others. Or if they come back.

Within five minutes we have two deputies knocking on our door. It’s strange looking out the window to see a sheriff’s SUV parked at the end of our driveway; no lights, it is a quiet affair. They ask a few questions, intrigued more by the engine laying disassembled in our garage- car guys will always find a reason to dive into shop talk. They let us know there is a chance the person will try to come back- they usually test the garage door opener to see if it works, and then wait until no one is home to come back and break in. To me this seems silly- why test it now when there is a risk someone will hear it? If they had simply grabbed it and waited until we were at work to come back and try it, we probably never would have known until they had managed to get away with all the tools and gizmos we store in that space. Sloppy, I critique in my head. The officers indicate they will try to do more patrols, and show us another trick to secure the garage. Then it’s ‘have a good night’ and out the door.

We won’t know until the next morning that there were reports of suspicious activity down the street about twenty minutes after they left our house. We are marked as a ‘burglary’ on the neighborhood crime map. Claim to fame. The next day we’ll get new cameras, suddenly realizing how few there are at our end of the road. We’ll knock on the neighbors’ doors and post in our neighborhood app with that happened- letting them know that if they have any trouble in the future, we have some fancy new cameras that might be able to help. We’ll feel silly as we explain that it all happened because we forgot to hit the lock button on a car door- the routine thrown off after unloading new plants from a coworker. We’ll wait to see if the culprit shows back up, suspicious of any car driving by, and person walking through- are they slowing down? What’s in their pocket? Are they looking at the house? We’ll triple check every door and window at night, looking at our house as an outside might.

It is an interesting thing, when you go from secure to fearful; though I am sitting in my home all alone right now and still feel perfectly safe. But suddenly we have become the people with cameras and safety plans, locking interior doors and peering through our cameras every time it alerts us to a person walking nearby (there are a lot of walkers in our neighborhood, makes me feel a little creepy when I see someone mosey past pushing a stroller). It is an interesting thing when you take the dog for a walk and wonder if the person you are passing just got a new ping pong paddle (seriously, what do they plan on doing with that?) or checking Craigslist and other website to see if anyone is selling a very specific style of headphones.

It is interesting infusing a fearful story with humor, the emotions juxtaposing, reminding me how interrelated they can be. There is that balance between explanation and dramatization. But at the end of the day, it’s the thought that a sacred space is not always sacred, and that a simple careless act, mindlessly forgetting a basic routine- could lead to such awful outcomes. Though we were lucky: I still don’t know what we would have done if someone was still standing in that garage, their heart beating with the fear of seeing us just as ours were pounding from the thought of them. It seems like a useless risk, and I can’t help but wonder what led them to our home that night. What prompted them to take that remote and push that button knowing what the risks could be? With the world being what it is, when you don’t know if you will find the barrel of a gun on the other side of a door: what makes that worth it? What happens in your life to make you think that taking a chance by going into someone’s home is a worthwhile risk? I hope they at least get some use out of the ping pong paddle and find our boring little neighborhood is really just that- a bunch of families with little kids that invest in silly toys more than anything else.

Author: katiebell318

I'm a 28 year old unknown writer who spends her day job working in the courts (rest assured- that place is stranger than any fiction I could write). I love reading, writing, random crafts, baking and hiking. I have a fiance and two fur babies (one kitten and one German Sheppard puppy) who make up my little family. learning to step out of my comfort zone and start checking things off my dusty old bucket list.

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