When the house alarm went off at 3 a.m., Lily was already awake. She couldn’t sleep when the winds came up at night and made the oak trees around her house twist and groan. The storms that had started the day after Christmas were still pummeling Northern California, with several more lined up over the Pacific. After years of drought, the hillsides and highways of the San Francisco Bay Area were especially vulnerable as storm after storm pounded the already waterlogged landscapes. In Lily’s neighborhood in Oakland, the city’s eponymous oak trees were everywhere, and some had already lost their stability and toppled over. By the new year, she’d already spent several uneasy nights listening to the wind screaming through the oak branches, any one of which she knew could break loose in a heartbeat and crash through a window, or worse.
So when the alarm began shrieking, she instantly bolted upright, heart pounding and ears roaring. “Nick?” she said, but too softly for anyone at the front door to hear. Her husband wasn’t due back for two more days, and though it was possible he had come home early, why would he have set off the alarm? And why wouldn’t he have immediately silenced it? Maybe it wasn’t the front door at all, but a thief breaking in through the back door or a window.
Or a murderer.
The unnerving electronic wailing continued, becoming part of the storm noise. Should she turn it off? Should she wait? Was she safer with the clamor? Would the police come, or would the intruder flee?
But no. The children. They were sleeping in the back of the house, but had they already been awakened? Was little Oscar afraid and would he start calling for her? Would Sophie, an adventurous spirit, come to the front of the house and possibly confront a criminal? No, Lily definitely had to silence the alarm. In the dark, afraid to turn on a light, she fumbled for her phone, found the app, and turned off the alarm. The sudden ceasing of that noise just made the other noises, the storm noises, seem louder.
As quietly as she could, Lily crossed the room and hesitated, listening hard, at her bedroom door before emerging into the hallway. Avoiding the creaky places on her elderly hardwood floor, she made her way to the children’s rooms, and put her head inside, first Oscar’s room and then Sophie’s. They were both peacefully asleep in the golden glow of their nightlights. Lily gently closed their doors.
She made her way back past her bedroom to the top of the stairs, and her breath caught as she realized the front door was wide open, swinging a little in the wind. So this is what had triggered the alarm. As each gust came through, it brought freezing rain and debris into the front hallway.
Did she dare? She had to. She couldn’t just leave the house open to the storm. But if she closed it and there was an intruder in the house, how would he react? Was he standing down the hall, eyes on the open door, waiting for someone to appear and be attacked?
But maybe the storm had simply blown the door open? Had she locked the dead bolt last night? She couldn’t remember. Sophie had been in a mood to fight about dinner, TV, and bath-time, and that had made Oscar grumpy. With Oscar on her hip and Sophie (complaining) trudging upstairs ahead of her, they had gone upstairs for baths and bed later than usual. At the last moment, she’d opened the front door to bring in the kids’ rain boots, and then she’d set the alarm and continued up the stairs. Had she not shut the door completely? That was probably the explanation.
In the dark, as silently as she could manage, Lily crept down the stairs. Twelve steps, pausing twelve times. Imagining eyes on her feet, her knees, her hips, her chest, her head as she descended. Softly, very softly. When she reached the bottom, she stopped and slowly, very slowly, put her head around the corner. Were there eyes watching her from the dark? She paused, heart pounding, looking for movement. Nothing except twigs and leaves on the floor, twitching in the wind that still blasted from outdoors.
Before she closed the front door, though, she moved down the hall and crept into every room on that floor, the kitchen, the dining room, the bathroom, the living room. At each room doorway, she stood still in the dark, frozen in place as she listened hard. Was someone lurking in a dark corner, watching her move through the dark? Would they bolt for the front door? Would they attack her?
She heard nothing. She saw nothing. So heart still pounding, she made her way back to the front door and gently closed it, scurrying into a dark corner immediately and waiting, holding her breath, in case an intruder came rushing out of his hiding place when the door closed. Pause. Listen. Nothing.
So she began turning on lights, room by room, every light switch and every lamp, until the ground floor of the house was brightly illuminated. And then she went back through every room, checking closets and the big hallway cupboard. Nobody. The dead bolt at the top of the basement steps was still locked. So was the one leading into the garage, and the one at the back door.
Then, relieved but edgy, and with all the lights still on, she cleaned up the front hall, first the leaves and twigs and then the muddy dirt. At last, she turned off the lights one by one. As she passed the front door, she threw the dead bolt and was turning to go back upstairs when through the front door window, her eyes caught movement across the street.
Something was blowing in the wind, something light colored, and a dark figure was struggling with it. A sudden flash of lightning showed a somehow unfamiliar view. Then another flash and she realized that she could see nothing where there was normally a tree. As she stared out, her eyes adjusting to the dark again, the scene became clear to her. The big oak across the street had crashed down, and was now leaning against her neighbors’ house, continuing to blow and shift. The light-colored fabric was a blanket, and the person grappling with it was Felicia Morales, who had recently been living across the street and caring for her four-year-old grandson.
Felicia seemed to be struggling with the car door while she tried to rein in the flapping blanket, and Lily suddenly realized that partially wrapped in the blanket was Pablo, the four-year-old. She quickly donned Nick’s big yellow raincoat, and slipped her feet into a pair of shoes by the front door. She turned the hall light back on, listened for a moment for her kids, and ran outside, closing the door behind her.
“Felicia!” Lily shouted over the tempest. “Are you all right?”
Felicia turned toward her, and Lily, seeing how shaken the older woman was, instinctively reached out and took Pablo in her arms, wrapping the blanket tighter around him. When Felicia didn’t speak, Lily shouted “Come to my house!” and taking her arm, guided her across the street through the fierce rain, carrying Pablo on her hip. Inside, with the front door closed and bolted behind them, they dripped water on the mat and the hardwood, and stared at each other, mouths open, for a long moment. Then Lily unwrapped Pablo, damp under the soaked blanket, and put him on the floor while she helped Felicia out of her wet coat and took off her own. A few minutes later, wearing dry sweatsuits and sitting close to the gas fireplace, Pablo was quietly eating a cookie and Felicia was calm enough to sip her tea and tell the whole story. She and her grandson had been asleep in his room, which was thankfully on the other side of the house from the fallen tree. They were awakened by a ferocious noise and a jarring impact that shook the house.
“I didn’t know what it was!” said Felicia. “I thought maybe a truck hit the house, or there was an explosion, or we had a big earthquake. My mind was racing.”
She’d called 911, and after determining the tree had already fallen and wasn’t likely to cause damage to another house, they’d told her to go to a safe place and the city would send someone when they could, the next day probably. The house belonged to her daughter and son-in-law, both nurses who were currently working in distant hospitals. She’d called her daughter, who was doing a stint as a traveling nurse in Denver, and she would come home as fast as she could, but that wouldn’t be until at least tomorrow, if she could get a flight. She’d called her son-in-law who was working two hours away, and he was on his way home, but with the storm still raging, he didn’t know what delays he would encounter along the way.
Meanwhile, the tree had shifted again and another piece of the wall crumbled into the living room. “The storm was in the house!” exclaimed Felicia, and Lily could see that she was still shaken. Even with the door closed on Pablo’s room on the other side of the house, Felicia was terrified by the screaming wind and the creaking and groaning of the damaged house. She had decided that it would be safer to wait in the car and had been trying to unlock the car door and get Pablo inside when Lily saw her.
It was a scary story, and as Felicia took a deep breath, Lily glanced up and saw Sophie, silent on the stairs but watching intently, wearing pajamas and fuzzy bear slippers. “Hey, Sweetie,” she said, “Did we wake you up?”
“What happened?” asked Sophie, bright-eyed and curious as usual. Slowly, she came down the stairs, and when she reached the bottom, she scurried over and climbed into the big chair with her mom.
Thinking about ways to explain it without scaring anybody further, Lily paused before she said, “Oh, a big old oak tree fell over in the storm and punched a hole in the house across the street. You know Pablo, Sweetie. It’s his house. This is his grandma, Mrs. Morales. They’re just staying here where it’s warm for a while until they can figure things out.”
Sophie was looking right at Pablo. “Where are your parents?” she asked.
“Working,” said Pablo.
“Oh,” said Sophie, accepting that. Then something occurred to her. “Is an oak tree going to fall over on our house too?” She twisted her head to look Lily hard in the face, and Lily noticed Pablo and Felicia were watching her attentively too.
For a long moment, Lily paused. She didn’t know what to say. She had no idea which trees were most likely to fall, or if their house was suddenly going to be damaged like the one across the street. She realized she was very afraid of that happening. The storm was still roaring outside, driving big branches back and forth with ferocious noise. Nature suddenly seemed like a bigger danger than the intruder she had imagined watching her earlier.
But there were three pairs of eyes on her now, seeking reassurance, and as she sat silently, they all looked worried. She took a deep breath. “Nah,” she said. “We’ll be fine. Our trees aren’t ready to go. They’re solid. Stood the test of time.” She felt like she was babbling, but the others seemed relieved.
Lily got blankets out of the hall closet and made Felicia and Pablo comfortable on the couch. Felicia didn’t want to go back to her room, so Lily made her a little nest with a blanket and a couch pillow, and she curled up and went to sleep. After a while, she heard Oscar’s little voice and went upstairs, changed him, and brought him down to the living room, where he too drifted back to sleep in the big chair with his mom.
As they settled in the cozy living room, lit only by the fireplace, the storm seemed to calm as well, the winds died down, and the rain slowed and stopped. With so many bodies asleep in the room, it began to feel too warm to Lily, and she turned off the fireplace, leaving them in darkness again. Lily could hear the breathing of Felicia and the three children, and for the first time all night, felt a deepening peace herself. She closed her eyes, and had just drifted off to sleep when she was jolted awake by a soft noise in the hallway. A footstep. For a moment, she didn’t know where she was, then remembered what had happened and why she was in the living room chair with Oscar asleep in her lap.
It must be Felicia, she realized, going down the hall to the bathroom. Then another soft, careful footstep, and then another. Not going to the bathroom, then, but coming back. And she was being awfully careful not to be heard, moving so very slowly, with so many pauses.
Suddenly, there was a snore and a snuffle from across the room as the older woman’s body shifted on the couch, and Lily was wide awake. Not Felicia in the hallway. One of the children? Why would they be trying to be quiet?
And then she saw a dark figure, moving slowly. It stopped beyond the living room door and stood still, staring into the room trying to see who was there, just as she was staring back in the darkness, frozen in place, trying to think what to do. The figure was too tall and too purposeful to be one of the children. She willed her eyes to see better, but it was too dark; she could see the figure because it was a different quality of blackness than the hallway, but couldn’t make out any details. But as it started to creep down the hall again, she could tell it was a young person, a teenager, a teenaged boy. He was hunched as though he was trying to be invisible, and somehow she sensed that whoever it was, he just wanted to get away.
She couldn’t defend herself from a chair in the middle of a room full of sleeping children. Unless the dark figure in the hallway entered the living room, she would stay very still and hope he would leave the house. She could feel her phone, heavy in her sweatshirt pocket, but didn’t dare move to get it out. The furtive figure passed from her view, and she heard him at the front door. The dead bolt was quietly unlocked, and then there was a sliding noise as the door opened, and then, very softly, he closed the door behind him and was, presumably, gone.
For a few minutes, Lily sat in the dark room, listening, but she heard nothing between wind gusts. She carefully laid a sleeping Oscar on the chair and moved across the room to put her head around the door, where she could barely make out the front hallway by the porch light. Nobody. Nowhere to hide. He was really gone. She threw the dead bolt for the last time that night.
So there really had been an intruder. All the time she had spent sneaking around in the dark, imagining eyes on her, there actually had been eyes and ears in the dark. A scared teenager. Just a kid. Still, kids do commit crimes, even violent ones. Slowly, she pulled her phone out of her pocket to call 911, hesitating as she thought about the added trauma of having police show up tonight and go through the house searching for another stranger.
Had he broken into the house with bad intent, or had he entered through a conveniently open front door, looking for shelter from the ferocious winds and torrential rains? Through the window in the front door, she looked outdoors to where the rain was beginning to fall again. The gutters were running, the roads were puddled, and the fallen tree across the street seemed to arch its branches in anguish every time a gust of wind caught it.
As she stared out, she realized that she was no longer afraid. She idly wondered where the boy had hidden, and what would have happened if she had found him, but the idea didn’t really frighten her. She imagined his terror, huddled in whatever tiny hiding place he had found, as she methodically searched the house. But now, in her dark home, listening to the breathing of those who were sleeping in the living room, she felt safe. She put her phone back in her pocket and turned to go back to the living room.
Shivering a little, she turned the fireplace back on and settled back in the chair, shifting Oscar so gently he barely woke. The winds were getting fierce again, and tomorrow there would be a lot to do. But right now, in her peaceful house and surrounded by people, Lily quietly waited for the dawn.