The stranger in my home

Standing in the middle of my living room on a Saturday morning, I realized that I had just lost something very important.

Somewhere between midnight and 2 a.m., an unknown person walked through my back parking lot, past my unlocked Jeep, past my roommates’ nicer — but locked — vehicles, into the unlocked back door of my unoccupied house, continuing on past the two espresso machines in the kitchen, past the large speaker in the living room, past my sister’s computer sitting on the dining table, and straight into my sister’s well-lit and open bedroom. Once in my sister’s tiny and disheveled room, the stranger in my home cast his — or her — eyes about, past Ray-Bans and diamonds and dollar bills, until his attention landed on two items: my sister’s favorite beaten up leather purse and my uncharged, crack-in-the-screen iPad. And that’s what he took.

My sister and I felt silly, at first, looking up and down our house for these two items. “They were on my futon, and now I can’t find them anywhere,” my sister explained to me, my mother and our roommates. “Are you sure, positive?” The question reverberated against the walls, reminding us that this did not make any sense, surely we were forgetting something. But after checking my dresser drawers and the floorboards of my car, I managed to convince myself that someone had in fact entered our home and taken only two items, two items with far less monetary value than others lying unprotected in the house.

We called the police, and a friendly forensics detective arrived, taking pictures of the unfamiliar footprints we had found in the mud outside, trying to get fingerprints off the doorknob, walking through the house with us as we explained what we thought had happened. “I know it sounds weird…” I muttered, still uncertain whether the police needed to be involved. “Oh no, it happens, just a crime of opportunity,” he replied, handing me a “victim’s pamphlet” with our case number scrawled at the bottom. “Call me if you need anything,” he said as he left. And I knew then that what I lost had been stolen from me, and that there was very little chance I would ever get it back.

I’ve always felt safe at home. In Gloucester, growing up, I never had a house key; I wouldn’t know what to do with one. Even if my mother wasn’t home when we returned from school, there would always be a dog or several cats standing sentry at the front door. No foreign body would enter these doors, no unfamiliar footstep would cross our beloved threshold. The only time my house was violated by an outside force was in 2003, when Hurricane Isabel flooded our first floor, creek water and gasoline from the neighboring marina creeping a foot up and over the floorboards. We stayed in my house the whole time the storm was raging. The walls shook and my lab Wally whimpered in fear on the couch, but my 12-year-old self did not for a second think that my home would fail me.

But my home in Charlottesville is not my home in Gloucester. My friend’s car was broken into during the summer and quite a bit of money which she’d been saving from work was stolen. I know someone who had things taken from his bedroom in the middle of the day. We’ve received the emails, we’ve been warned, reminded, time and time again. Lock your doors, be vigilant. And I’ve tried to remember the “it can happen to anyone” line, but I think, given recent events in my life, that I must be the kind of person who needs to be taught unwelcome life lessons firsthand.

“And what was the value of those?” the detective asked us, referring to the monetary value of my sister’s purse, of my iPad. We gave him some numbers, and I felt emptied of everything for a moment, defeated. Dollars? What about the valuable documents, books, articles? What about the pictures, the video of Henry when he was a five-week-old puppy stumbling around my apartment? What about the private notes I’d written to myself, reminders on how to live, what to do? I racked my brain; what had I not saved, what had I not preserved via email, what was that one-sentence document I had kept that I wanted to somehow include in my thesis? What was the value of that?

That night, someone committed a “crime of opportunity.” And I hope that it was just a random, unlucky, one-time thing. I know it could have been worse; what if my sister had been sleeping in her bed? Would this person have still walked into her room? What would have happened then?

But, sitting here, typing on the laptop I borrowed from my sister, what happened doesn’t feel random. When I came into my house Saturday evening, rushing upstairs to get ready for the night’s activities, I heard my sister’s muffled sobs coming from her tiny disheveled room. She was talking on the phone with my mother, “I don’t understand why, why?” she cried, attempting to hold the phone and straighten her hair and keep it all together because we were running late and she wanted to look nice and feel normal, but I knew she was starting to crack. She wanted to know why of all things someone had taken her favorite purse, the one that traveled with her to London and back, the one that held only $10 and some receipts.

I want to reclaim my home, I don’t want to have to share my twin bed with my sister, lying awake until five in the morning, because we heard the screen door slam. I’ve lost that feeling I had when I was 12, that feeling of invincibility, of total faith in what a home can do, what it’s supposed to do. And even when I neurotically start to lock my front door and my back door and my bedroom door and every window in my house, I’m not sure if I’m going to get that feeling back.

Mary Scott’s column runs biweekly Wednesdays. She can be reached at

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