Mark Baxter was determined that he and his wife, Gina, were going to solve the puzzle of their household budget. But he wasn’t too sure about the details yet.
They were both second-year high school teachers at Ambrose E. Burnside High School, in the Indianapolis Public Schools district. They had recently purchased a home. Money was tight.
“We’ll figure this out,” Mark told Gina. He reached across the table, took her hand, and briefly held it.
Laid out on the kitchen table between them were a pile of envelopes, a desktop calculator, and a yellow legal pad.
On the top page of the legal pad, Mark had drawn a vertical line to create two columns. In the left column, he had written the monthly amounts of their two paychecks (take-home pay only; the rest was meaningless). In the right column, he had added up their monthly expenses: the mortgage on the house, payments on their college loans, utilities, groceries…everything.
The total of the left column was only slightly larger than the total of the right column.
That was a problem. They had a very thin margin for error.
He thought of that old phrase “make ends meet”. Their ends were barely meeting.
Maybe they shouldn’t have bought the house, he thought, second-guessing himself for the hundredth time. The house had been his idea, after all. He had believed that it would be a good investment.
He still believed that—provided they could keep up with the mortgage payments.
Mark looked up from the legal pad and saw that Gina wasn’t paying attention. That was another problem. Her brown eyes were fixed on the open doorway between the kitchen and the back hallway of the house. She was twirling a length of her chestnut brown hair between two fingers.
“Earth to Gina,” Mark said gently. He waved his hand in the air, as if attempting to awaken her from a trance. “What’s up, babe?”
Gina had been distracted of late, he’d noticed. This wasn’t the first time. He knew part of the reason, but he suspected that there was something else—something she was keeping from him.
“I thought I heard a noise,” she said. “Like someone rattling the back door.”
Oh, great. Mark thought. Gina was apparently thinking about their intruder again.
Mark didn’t believe in the intruder, and Gina did.
That was yet another problem.
About two weeks ago, Gina expressed the sense—a near certainty, she’d called it—that someone was entering their home during the days, when they were both teaching classes at the high school.
She’d claimed to have noticed items around the house left subtly out of place, as if someone were rifling through them. Doors inside the house left ajar at unfamiliar angles, as if someone had been rummaging through their closets.
Mark had taken his wife’s suspicions seriously—at first.
And so he had checked all the exterior doors and windows, for any sign of a break-in, or any tampering.
He’d found nothing.
Mark also pointed out that the few items they owned that were worth stealing were all still present and accounted for: the laptop they used jointly, the antique brooch that Gina had inherited from her Grandma Tortelli, etc.
Even the cigar box had been left undisturbed. This was an empty Dutch Masters box that they kept atop the dresser in their bedroom. At any given time, it contained between fifty and a hundred dollars of emergency cash.
Any self-respecting thief would have taken the cigar box, Mark said.
But the thief hadn’t taken the cigar box. Nor the laptop nor the antique brooch.
The thief hadn’t taken anything, in fact. They both agreed on that.
Mark therefore concluded that there was no thief.
But now Gina was again worried about the intruder, obviously. The intruder whom Mark was more or less certain didn’t exist.
“Gina,” Mark said, “what exactly did you hear?”
“I heard someone trying to open the back door,” she said.
“Gina,” he began, in his best patient tone, “I don’t think—”
And then Mark heard it, too.