Darren parked in the only available parking spot on the street, about two doors down from Chelsea’s house. He cracked the window and lit a joint. He knew that smoking weed in broad daylight was a precarious idea in Chelsea’s neighborhood. But his breakup with Chelsea had been a bad one, and he needed to ease his nerves before walking up to her house. He wouldn’t be here at all if not for the headphones he left on Chelsea’s dresser. They were $200 noise-canceling Bose headphones, and he wanted them back.
A car drove by, and the driver glanced at Darren. Darren hid his joint, nodded at the driver, and quickly looked away.
Don’t even make eye contact, he thought. Then he laughed to himself. He was listening to Tupac’s “All Eyez on Me,” and he thought about turning it up, but didn’t. Didn’t want to draw attention. He was a black man sitting in his car in his white ex-girlfriend’s white neighborhood. He could feel fingers all over the neighborhood itching to dial 911.
Relax. You shouldn’t be smoking weed. Other than that, you’re fine.
He was only smoking because he knew it would bother Chelsea a little bit. He only wanted one or two hits.
As he took a drag, two young men trotted up the front steps of the house across the street from Chelsea’s. Darren gave them a quick, disinterested glance. Then he looked again.
They looked to be in their early twenties, but not college kids. They wore hoodies and cargo pants and Timberlands. One was black, the other was white. Darren had gone to college, but he had grown up in the hood, and had developed an eye for people who, for whatever reason, looked out of place.
He rolled up his window and stubbed out the joint. Turned off his music. Watched the two men. The black dude buried his hands in his hoodie and shuffled his feet, clearly trying not to be seen. The white dude peered into the house’s windows, walked across the porch, and glanced around the side of the house. Neither of them knocked on the door, nor rang the doorbell.
Darren slumped down in his seat. The two men conferred for a moment, then walked back down the front steps and around the back of the house, disappearing behind a row of hedges.
Darren decided that what he had just seen was none of his business. His business was the headphones. Maybe the dudes lived there and were locked out. It didn’t matter. It was his day off, and he wanted to get home.
Since he was a little stoned, a couple of minutes went by and he found himself still staring at the house. A curtain moved in an upstairs window. Darren saw the white guy glance out, look up and down the street, then disappear.
So it’s probably his house, Darren thought. And he’s just a shady motherfucker.
He got out of the car and walked up the sidewalk to Chelsea’s house. They had broken up a week ago, and he hadn’t seen or spoken to her since. His heart pounded as he jogged up the front steps. He rang a doorbell he had rung a thousand times.
A woman walked by with her dog. Darren smiled at her, and she gave him a curt wave.
The door opened, and there stood Chelsea. She looked neither upset nor surprised to see him.
“Hi,” she said.
“I come in peace,” said Darren.
She stared at him for a long moment. “What’s up?”
“I’m not trying to bother you,” he said. “But I believe I left my headphones here. I think they’re on your dresser.”
“Your headphones.” He knew she knew what he was talking about. She looked at him again. “Are you high right now?”
“A little bit.”
“It’s the middle of the afternoon, Darren.”
“It’s my day off. I thought I’d smoke a little herb and listen to some music. That’s when I remembered the headphones.”
She raised her hands and nodded, not in the mood for an argument. “Okay,” she said. “Hold on. I’ll get them.”
She closed the storm door but left the front door open. He was glad she had not invited him in. Didn’t want to risk a replay of their breakup.
He put his hands in his pockets and tried to look casual. Across the street, a young woman and a little girl walked slowly down the sidewalk, the little girl pedaling a bicycle with training wheels. Darren smiled to himself and looked away. But out of the corner of his eye, he saw them stop in front of the house that the two young men had been looking into.
The woman said something to the little girl, then checked the mailbox in front of the house. She retrieved her mail and walked back to the girl. Halfway up the front steps, the girl said something, and the woman crouched to undo the girl’s bicycle helmet.
Darren glanced at the upstairs window of the house, where he had seen the young man look outside. Chelsea was still not back with his headphones, and he wondered if she was deliberately taking her time to make him anxious. He watched the woman and the little girl walk up the front steps to their house, and decided he could not just stand there on the porch.
“Excuse me!” he called out. He hopped down the steps and jogged across the street. He smiled and waved at the woman, who turned and looked at him with a not-quite-friendly expression.
“Hello,” Darren said, stopping at the foot of her front steps.
“Yes?” said the woman. She was white, early thirties, and looked about his age.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” Darren said. “But do you live here?”
The woman placed a hand on the little girl’s shoulder. “Yes,” she said. “We live here.”
Darren didn’t know what to say exactly. “My girlfriend lives across the street,” he said, indicating Chelsea’s house. “I just wanted to tell you…”
She looked minutely relieved, like she was trying to figure out if she recognized him. She looked too young to be a mother to the young men he’d seen, and maybe too old to be their sister.
“Is there anybody in your house right now?” he asked. This could not have sounded stranger, and he wished he had not smoked weed.
“I’m sorry?” the woman said.
“Anybody else home, besides you?”
“My son is home… why?”
“Your son.” Darren smiled. “Okay. I’m sorry. I’m not trying to be nosy. I guess he must have been locked out.”
“What do you mean?”
“I was just sitting in my car a moment ago,” Darren said, for some reason pointing at his car down the street. “And I saw someone looking into your house. He went around the back.”
Darren turned and saw Chelsea walking across the street. She walked up to him and handed him his headphones. “What are you doing?” she asked.
“It’s cool,” Darren said. “I just thought I saw something strange. But I think I was wrong.”
“Did you say my son was locked out?” the young woman asked.
“What’s going on?” Chelsea asked.
“He and his friend must have been locked out,” Darren said to the woman. “They looked in the windows, then went around back.”
“My son is home alone. He’s eight.”
Darren felt cold sweat beneath his armpits. He took two steps toward the house. “Ma’am,” he said, as soberly as he could. “I think there’s someone in your house who shouldn’t be.”
“There’s someone in my fucking house?!” The woman blanched, her voice an inch from panic.
“What is going on?” Chelsea asked.
“I was sitting in my car,” Darren said, glancing between Chelsea and the woman. “And I saw two guys walk up to this house, look in the windows, then walk around back. Then I saw one of them look out of an upstairs window.”
“Oh, my god!” the woman cried. “Tyler!”
She turned and yanked open her front door.
Chelsea bounded up the steps, touched the woman’s arm. “Ma’am,” she whispered. “You shouldn’t go in there if—”
“My son is in there!”
The little girl started crying.
“Do you want us to call the police?” Chelsea asked.
The woman nodded frantically.
“I can take your daughter to my house,” Chelsea said. “I’ll call the cops.”
The woman grabbed the little girl’s hand and thrust it toward Chelsea. Chelsea scooped up the girl and ran back across the street.
“You shouldn’t go in,” Darren said.
“My son is in there!”
“I’ll go with you.”
The woman nodded and hurried inside. Darren trotted up the steps and followed her.
They stopped in the foyer. The house felt warm, occupied.
“Tyler!” the woman yelled.
They heard movement upstairs. Multiple sets of footsteps.
“Oh, my god…”
The woman started running up the stairs.
Darren reached after her. “We should wait for the police—”
“My son is up there!”
She dashed up the stairs. Darren followed, taking the steps two at a time. He had no idea what he would find or do, and was still holding his headphones.
The woman ran down the upstairs hallway to a room at the end of the hall. Darren burst in behind her, slamming into her back. She gasped in surprise.
The two young men stood there in the middle of the room. They had moved a child-sized twin bed away from the wall. A little boy sat on the floor holding an action figure, looking nervous.
“Tyler!” the woman cried.
“Mommy…?” the boy replied.
She turned to the young men. “What the fuck are you doing in my house?”
Darren took a step forward, standing beside her.
The white dude stared at them both for a moment, his reddish eyes sizing them up. He smiled slowly.
“Hi,” he said. “Hey. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you. I used to live here.”
The black dude said nothing. Darren glanced from one of them to the other. He was pretty sure he could take one of them in a fight, but probably not both.
“What are you doing in my house?” the woman shouted.
“I know this probably sounds weird,” the white dude said. “But I lived here. Not too long ago. We moved out last fall. I left something here. In this room. I just came to get it. I didn’t think anyone was home.”
The woman crouched beside her son. “Did they hurt you?” she asked the boy.
The boy shook his head.
“Are you sure?”
She stood, turning to the men. “You can’t just come into my house. I don’t care if you lived here. This is my property, and you can’t be here.”
The black dude leaned toward the white dude. “Let’s go, man,” he whispered.
“I just need to get something,” the white dude said slowly. He pointed toward the wall behind the bed, his eyes locked on the woman. “There’s a false panel in the wall. I left something behind it. I just need to get it, then we’ll go.”
Darren took a step forward. “You need to get the fuck out of here, right now,” said a deep voice, which he realized was his own. His hands curled into fists.
The white dude looked at him uncertainly, glanced at his buddy, and said nothing.
There was a loud knock on the door downstairs. “Police!” Another deep voice. “Is there anyone in the house?”
“We’re upstairs!” the woman shouted.
Darren heard two sets of footsteps ascending the stairs. His heart started pounding. He was still kind of stoned. The cops might see it in his eyes.
The young men stood perfectly still in the room, watching the doorway. Two police officers, a younger white woman, and an older black man strode into the bedroom, hands on their gun belts. Darren instinctively stepped out of the way.
The female officer stepped forward. “We received a call—”
“These two men broke into my house,” the woman said, pointing at them. “I don’t know them. This one says he used to live here.”
“We didn’t break in,” the white guy said. “This little dude let us in.” He grinned at the boy. “Right, my man?”
The boy nodded sheepishly.
“What are you doing here?” the male police officer asked.
“I’m in the wrong house, that’s all,” said the white dude. “My mistake.”
The male officer turned to Darren. “What’s your story?”
“I saw them looking in the house,” Darren said, hoping the officer didn’t notice his bloodshot eyes.
“He lives across the street,” the young woman said.
“My girlfriend lives across the street,” Darren said. “Her name is Chelsea Turner.”
“That’s the person who called 911,” said the female officer.
The young woman pointed at the white dude. “He said he used to live here. He said he left something hidden in the wall, or something.”
Both police officers turned to the white dude.
“Do you live here?” the female officer asked.
“No,” said the young man.
“Were you invited in?”
“No,” the young woman said quickly. “I’ve never seen them before. I don’t know them.”
“I’m just with him,” said the young black dude. “I don’t know what we’re doing here.”
“I’m just in the wrong house,” the white dude said. “It’s just a misunderstanding. Sorry.”
The female officer turned to the young woman. “This is your house, ma’am?”
“Yes,” said the woman. “My name is Abby Dell. My husband and I just bought this house two months ago. We live here.”
“What would you like us to do?” the female officer asked.
“Get them out of my house.”
“Hold on,” said the older officer. He walked over to the white dude, fingering his handcuffs. “What did you say was hidden behind the wall?”
“Nothing,” the young man stammered. “I was wrong. Wrong house.”
“He said there was a false panel,” said Abby Dell.
Darren peered at the wall. His palms were sweating. He wiped them on his shirt. He wondered where Chelsea was.
“I want to see what’s in the wall,” said the older police officer. He turned to Abby, raising his eyebrows for permission to investigate. She nodded at him. “Everybody just stand still,” he said.
He crouched beside the wall, ran his hands over the wallpaper. His finger traced a line in the wall, almost invisible, about four feet square.
“I’ve never seen that before,” Abby said.
The officer turned to the white dude. “What am I gonna find in here?”
The white dude shrugged.
“I don’t know anything about that.”
The officer took a tool off his belt and poked a thin blade into the crack. He leaned in to give himself some leverage, flexed his arms, and popped a dusty square panel out of the wall. He replaced the tool on his belt and took out a flashlight.
Darren leaned forward. He didn’t want to miss the money shot.
The police officer peered around in the hole, frowned, reached in, and pulled out a ten-inch segment of pipe with a wick sticking out of one end. “Oh, shit.”
“What is that?” Abby Dell asked.
“It’s nothing,” the white dude muttered.
“It’s a pipe bomb,” the older cop said.
“What?” Abby cried.
“Everybody out of the house!” the officer shouted. He turned to his partner. “Call the bomb squad.”
“Oh, my god,” Abby said.
“Everybody out now!” bellowed the officer.
“I don’t know what that is,” said the white dude.
Darren took Abby’s arm and gently pulled her from the room. Abby picked up her son and hurried down the hallway. Darren followed her back down the stairs. They sprinted out the front door.
Darren and Chelsea stood on Chelsea’s porch, watching the drama unfold across the street. Twenty police officers descended on the house, including a team in full-body hazmat suits. They cordoned off the street. Afternoon slipped into evening. Abby Dell’s husband arrived, and stood down the block with Abby and their children, staring at their house.
The bomb squad eventually filed out of the house, the leader carrying a box containing what looked like more than fifty pipe bombs.
“Holy shit,” Chelsea whispered.
They watched the police arrest the two young men. An older officer with decorations on his uniform—probably the local precinct captain, Darren figured—approached the Dell family, and spoke with them for a few minutes. Gingerly, the Dells walked back toward their house, but could not quite bring themselves to go in.
“Darren, are you okay?” Chelsea asked.
“Yeah,” Darren said. “You okay?”
They watched Abby Dell, crying on her front yard. Abby’s husband carried their daughter toward his car.
Chelsea took a deep, almost exaggerated breath. “You got your headphones?”
“I’m sorry about the things I said last week.”
“I still think we should break up.”
“Yeah. Me too.”
She squeezed the sleeve of his shirt. “You did a good thing today, D. Probably saved those people’s lives.”
Darren nodded, his heart beating evenly for the first time all afternoon. “You live in a terrifying neighborhood,” he said.
“I’m going to go home, smoke some weed, and listen to music.”
Chelsea gave him the kind of mischievous look she’d given him when they were dating. They waved goodbye to each other, and Chelsea went back into her house.
Darren walked down the block, got in his car, and set his headphones down on the passenger seat.
He turned on the engine, turned up his music, and drove away.
Adam Matson is the author of two collections of short fiction, Sometimes Things Go Horribly Wrong, and Watch City. His fiction has appeared internationally in over thirty publications.