In front of a dark home, a midnight dew began to freeze over the freshly cut lawn. A middle-aged man in tight white underwear tiptoed across the grass, looking over his shoulders. Just a few hours earlier a robber had fled the neighborhood. That a robbery would ever occur in his quiet, suburban neighborhood, the man thought, was mad.
The man scurried up the porch steps, his bare feet leaving wet prints on the concrete. He tapped his foot nervously and then knocked on the door in a quick succession of three. His erratic breath hovered around him in the cold air as he hugged his broad figure for warmth.
He knocked again.
A light from the window on the second floor flicked on and the man looked up. He rubbed his palms together and blew forcefully into his hands, repeatedly stepping from side to side. Footsteps approached the door, and he heard the peephole cover sliding open. The man quickly ran his thumb through the waistband of his underwear, smoothing it out, keeping it firmly underneath his gut.
“Mistah Brue?” a man’s voice called from the other side of the door. He had a Chinese accent.
“It’s Blue,” the man answered. “And yes, it’s me. I’m sorry to wake you, Mr. Wu. Can you open the door? It’s freezing out here.”
A chain lock rustled from inside and the door crept open. Mr. Blue shoved his foot through the opening and barged into the Wus’ foyer. He was hit with an overwhelmingly pungent smell of raw garlic and mothballs.
“I have to use your phone,” Mr. Blue demanded, marching into the kitchen.
Mr. Wu chased after him. He was tall and thin, with long arms and a bowl cut of thick black hair and eyes that were too big for their sockets.
“You are naked in my home,” Mr. Wu proclaimed, looking Mr. Blue up and down. “What are you doing?”
“I’m calling the cops,” Mr. Blue answered, his eyes focused on the phone hanging on the wall.
Mr. Wu made a sudden rush to grab the phone ahead of Mr. Blue.
“You call the police? No. No. You no call police here.”
They wrestled for the phone and Mr. Blue managed to pull it away. He began dialing.
“Mr. Wu, this is an emergency.”
The commotion had reached upstairs, disturbing the rest of the house. Mrs. Wu crept down the staircase. She had on a pink silk robe, her long hair unkempt and grazing down past the small of her back. She peeked into the kitchen. Her two sons, Fai and Huan, followed closely behind her.
The phone started to ring on the other end.
“You give me back my phone and you put clothes on when you come to my home,” said Mr. Wu.
Seeing the situation, Mrs. Wu stepped into the kitchen and started yelling at Mr. Wu in Chinese. He yelled back and they started talking over each other.
A voice materialized on the line: “9-1-1, what is your emergency?”
Mr. Blue put the phone up to his ear. “Hello, yes, I—”
Suddenly the phone slipped from Mr. Blue’s grasp and hit the kitchen floor. Mr. Wu was gripping the phone cord in his hands, and he bent down to pick it up while Mrs. Wu continued to yell. He pulled the phone toward him and tried to hang it up, but Mr. Blue pushed him, sending him sprawling toward the cabinets. Mrs. Wu ran over to her husband, now yelling at Mr. Blue.
Mr. Blue picked up the phone from the floor and placed it against his ear again.
“Hello, 9-1-1? I need to report a crime. My house has been robbed.”
Mr. Wu sat up and rubbed the back of his head while Mr. Blue caught the two boys staring at him through the kitchen walkway.
“Hello, Fai, Huan,” he said, covering his privates with his hand.
The sirens made no sounds, but their lights shone bright enough to pierce the shades of every home on the block. The street outside the Blue residence was a sea of red and blue lapping at the shore of their lawn. The call had drawn the attention of almost every police officer at the local precinct. Neighbors wrapped up in robes and blankets as far as five houses away peered through their windows or stood out on their porches, looking on. It was a cold night in late November. Across the street, the Sulvich family stood huddled together outside their front door. Mr. Sulvich was kicking the screen of the door to quiet their dog, Jenny, who hadn’t stopped barking since the police had shown up.
At the Blue house, Mrs. Blue sat on the porch steps, wrapped in a blanket, her eyes swollen and red. A police officer stood over her, with two other officers behind him, trying to piece the night together.
“I thought we were called in for a robbery,” a thin redheaded officer whispered to the blond officer next to him.
“Keep it down,” the blond officer said, elbowing him. “The mother can hear you.”
A few feet away, near the sidewalk, Mr. Blue, also wrapped in a blanket, spoke with three other policemen.
“So you didn’t see your son at all tonight?” asked a stout, mustached sheriff.
“No. It’s like I said. I got home, my wife told me he was sick and in bed, and I didn’t think anything else of it.”
“You didn’t think to go in to check on him?”
The other policemen looked at one another.
“What about the last time you saw him?” asked another. “Anything unusual?”
“Can you describe him for us?” asked the sheriff. “Any details that could help identify him.”
“I don’t know. He’s got blond hair like his mother. Brown eyes like mine . . . He’s just a kid, you know?”
“Six . . . teen? Yeah, sixteen.”
“I don’t know, about five seven, five eight? Honey,” he called over to Mrs. Blue, pasting a smile on his face, “how tall is he?” She stared ahead, her eyes locked on the ground.
“Uh, you can go with five eight,” Mr. Blue concluded.
“Can you remember anything important or out of the ordinary he may have been talking about recently? Something that could relate to his disappearance?” the sheriff asked.
“Important?” Mr. Blue looked around, as if searching for an answer. He shrugged instead. “I don’t know,” he mumbled.
“What don’t you know?” one of the other policemen persisted.
Mr. Blue stared blankly past the officers and out into the neighbors’ yard across the street. Near the side of the house, he caught the beady eyes of a deer staring back at him. Then the animal turned around and wandered into the backyard, out of view.
“I don’t know the last time we talked.”
The sheriff picked his head up and lowered his notepad while the other policemen shared glances of concern.
“Why don’t you take it from the top? Tell us everything that happened tonight.”
It was a familiar weekday evening at the Blue residence. A draft swept through the home, tightening the stitching of the leather-bound sofas in the living room. The house shuttered as the clock struck nine and the central heating system roared to life, kicking up cobwebs that hung loosely on the ventilation grills. Dinner had been prepared long ago, the first chore crossed off a short list of tasks. A stony layer of mashed potatoes caked the edges of a pot, waiting on the stove for Mr. Blue’s arrival. The potatoes, along with greasy fried chicken and a side of microwaved frozen peas, had become less a tradition and more a convenience. Indifferent toward it all, Mrs. Blue took no care to cover anything in Mr. Blue’s long absence.
Instead she continued her routine in front of the computer screen. A concert of clicks echoed from the downstairs computer room, and the glow of the monitor cast a beacon of light in the otherwise dark home. The monitor was a mosaic of windows from vendors willing to overnight their merchandise to her.
A car door slammed shut outside. In the past, this was Mrs. Blue’s signal to minimize all windows and make herself busy, but lately she had little urge to hide anything. She hovered the mouse over the Buy Now button for a brand-new pair of high-heeled shoes, more excited about her purchase than anything else.
The front door of the house opened and Mr. Blue stepped in. He was immediately greeted by his reflection in the mirror hanging in the foyer. A mess of thinning hair had been kicked up by the howling winds outside, and his own face startled him. His eyes were sunken into their sockets, resting on a permanent line of purple and blue. His face, a mess of crow’s feet and dry spots where the cold had chafed it. But just below that, his tie, made into a perfect Pratt knot, lay nestled between the collar points of his crisp white shirt. He had worn these items for years, yet they still sparkled with the same bright sheen as they had when first purchased. In them, he was a living reminder that the human body spoiled much faster than spun cotton.
He quickly looked away.
“Hello?” Mr. Blue called out into the darkness as he dropped his briefcase just outside the foyer. It hit the floor with a loud thud that reverberated through the house.
A momentary silence seized the air until Mrs. Blue crept out from the computer room, flicking on the nearest light switch to illuminate the space between them.
“You know I hate when you do that,” she said, nodding toward the briefcase.
“Sorry,” Mr. Blue said.
“How was your day?”
“Oh shoot, I forgot about the food.”
She made her way into the kitchen, ignoring Mr. Blue and avoiding eye contact with him. Once there, she placed her hands around the pots on the stove.
“Well, dinner is cold because you’re home so late again.”
Mr. Blue ignored the comment and walked back into the hall to slide the closet door open.
“Shoes inside the closet!” her voice called out from the kitchen.
He let out a grunt and hung his jacket while kicking his shoes inside, and then slid the door closed.
In the kitchen, Mrs. Blue popped open the microwave door and placed a plate of food inside, a paper towel on top. She closed the door, hit a few buttons, and the machine whirred to life. Mr. Blue dragged himself into the kitchen.
“Guess who I saw today?” she asked.
He let out a deep sigh. “Who did you see today?”
“I was on my way home from the supermarket and— Oh my goodness, it was such a cold day today.”
The microwave beeped and Mrs. Blue opened it to check on the food. She pushed her finger into the meat and rolled her eyes, placing the plate back inside.
“Maybe if you came home a little earlier, it wouldn’t be so cold,” she said, scowling.
Mr. Blue opened a drawer next to the dishwasher and pulled out a large white bottle of pills. They rattled inside as he twisted the cap off, and he poured two white capsules into his palm. He threw his head back and swallowed them dry, twisting the cap on and tossing the bottle back into the drawer.
“Did you wash your hands? You look filthy. Go wash yourself, my goodness. And fix your hair.”
“Are you going to finish your story or not?” Mr. Blue asked, patting down his hair.
“So anyways . . .” she started again. “I’m walking out of the supermarket and guess who I see getting into her car?”
“Sandy. Can you believe it? Just shopping during the day, like it’s no big deal.”
“Did she say hi?”
“Oh, of course she did. And of course she was out in her fancy shoes and fake designer bag. Like she has all that time to go out and shop but no time to call? Of course not.”
“You should call her,” Mr. Blue said as he grabbed another white bottle, shook out more pills, and then swallowed them dry.
“Oh really?” Mrs. Blue scoffed. “Call her? Oh, of course, I’ll call her. Sandy! My best friend, Sandy. I can’t wait to see Sandy.”
Inside the microwave, the food started to pop and jump around on the plate.
“I’m not saying you need to be best friends—just say hello.” Mr. Blue pressed his fingers into his temples until he could feel his veins pulsing.
“If you like her so much, how about you call? You tell her how much you want to see her. How about that?”
The popping intensified. Mrs. Blue composed herself and flung the door open, ending the whir of the machine. The contents of the plate sizzled and the skin of the chicken had turned gray, its texture like bark.
She continued to face the microwave, her back to him. “Would you go and change? I need to set the table.”
Without a word, Mr. Blue made his way up the stairs to his bedroom, one heavy footstep after the next.
Two decades of working as a car salesman were taking a toll on him. For years his physical form had been deteriorating from that of a healthy, plum idealist to a pale shade that could barely stand straight. A steady flow of pills helped keep the blood pumping through his veins, but more recently his mental state had begun to decline. Suburbia wasn’t the escape it used to be for Mr. Blue. Home had become a museum, dedicated to displaying a family’s growing obsession with materials and a declining passion for life.
He reached the top of the stairs and made for his bedroom, down the hall. He walked past a closed door, giving it a quick glance before continuing on.
Upon entering the bedroom, he saw that the bathroom door was shut. A piece of plastic yellow tarp stuck out from underneath. Mr. Blue opened the door slowly, the tarp crumpling up against the bottom rail, to find an opened toolbox on the counter, the medicine cabinet leaning against the wall. A thin layer of dust coated the vanity. Near the bathtub, an old pair of work boots and a face mask lay on the floor.
He closed the door again and walked toward his closet. He saw his reflection once more and pulled down his collar, revealing a smear of color unlike his own on his neck. He let out a sigh, relieved that none of it had gotten on the collar.
Lately, it had become very easy to lie to Mrs. Blue. All he needed to tell her was that he had to work late for a special client and wouldn’t be home until much later. And as long as the money kept coming in, the story held up and Mrs. Blue looked the other way. Sometimes it wasn’t love that kept a family together but the willingness to accept things for how they were.
The smell of cigarette smoke wafted into the room and crept into his nostrils and he snapped out of it. From downstairs, he heard the back door slide open and then slide back, stopping shy of closing shut. He rubbed his nose vigorously and opened the closet door.
Mr. Blue took off his pants, and threw them into the hamper, then loosened his tie and unbuttoned his shirt. He pulled the tie through his collar and opened his tie drawer. It was an expensive tie, made of a fine cloth, in a luxurious dark navy blue. A gray logo was embroidered onto it near the very end, a man swinging a polo stick on top of a horse. In the center, a single white stripe for contrast and sophistication. It stood out from his regular assembly line of single-colored ties. It was beautiful. And it was the last time he’d ever see it.
Mrs. Blue sat on the edge of her side of the bed, moisturizing her arms and elbows. The smell of peppermint filled the air. Without warning, the bathroom door swung open and Mr. Blue appeared, startling Mrs. Blue. She glared at him.
“Would it kill you to be a little more gentle?”
“Wipe your feet or you’ll bring dust into the bed,” she said, pointing to a mat on the floor.
Mr. Blue dragged one foot after the other across the mat and then slid under the sheets. The silence was cut by the rough crinkling of the duvet, halting any further conversation.
She pushed her lotion toward the edge of the nightstand and slipped under the sheets as well. An icy, cold cave surrounded them, formed by years of eroding desires. Mr. Blue turned the TV on and flipped to his favorite news channel. The room filled with a dreary glow.
The TV repeated the same monologue as it did every night: death, destruction, disease, corruption. The stories never changed; they just got a little worse each time. But it filled the void that would otherwise be consumed by small talk or a futile effort to agree on something. No matter where they started, they always ended up cutting deeper into their open wounds. Their words were a carousel, and the monologues of misery were always the better option.
“Did you lock the front door before you came up?” Mrs. Blue asked at the commercial.
Mr. Blue hesitated, then said, “Yes.”
“Are you sure? Because if I go downstairs now and check and that door isn’t locked—”
Mr. Blue bit his tongue, pulling the sheets back across his body in a sweeping motion, and then made his way downstairs.
In the darkness, he could barely make out the doorknob, and the faint glow from the top of the stairs did nothing to help. His bare feet touched the cold marble foyer and he felt for the lock. There was an odd draft coming from the house, an emptiness. He thought nothing of it and kept feeling around.
To his surprise, the door was unlocked. He contemplated turning the lock as quietly and gently as possible.
Snap! The sound echoed through the house.
He trudged up the stairs once more. Again, he glanced at the closed door on his way to the bedroom, but continued on. Back under the sheets, he lay down again, keeping a distance from Mrs. Blue. To his surprise, she remained silent.
“He’s been cooped up in his room all night. He’s really not going to come out and say hello?” Mr. Blue asked.
“He came home early today and said he wasn’t feeling well. I checked his forehead, but he didn’t seem hot.”
Mr. Blue sighed. “I worry about him.”
“I know you do,” Mrs. Blue said. “I do too.”
“Sometimes I feel he will never grow up. He just locks himself in that room, doing God knows what, playing games and watching TV, just rotting his brain away. There will come a time when he has to stop. He needs to start living in the real world.”
Mrs. Blue said nothing, only offering a sleepy whisper while Mr. Blue lay there in silence, placing the remote at his side as he began to doze off as well. The dreary glow lulled them to sleep, weighing down their eyelids, slipping them into their respective dreams. And then the TV turned off.
The Blue residence was a house of meticulous detail. The placement of things in each room was of the utmost importance, as if every item was meant to be an exhibit in a museum. If any of those items were to be moved without alerting Mrs. Blue, it was best to do it under the cover of night. The slightest change, the slightest misplacement, would quickly set off her internal security system. Even something as small as an unlocked door.
Around two a.m. was the usual time Mrs. Blue got up to relieve herself. On this night, at 1:07 a.m., she awoke. It was her internal security system trying to tell her something was wrong. She didn’t listen. Just as gently as she’d gotten under the sheets, she slipped out and balanced herself in the darkness. With her eyes adjusted, she thought she could see the outlines of the dresser, the nightstand, and the eight-foot mirror near the walk-in closet. She tiptoed to the bathroom, the floor creaking around the bed, and curled her lip in frustration, cursing the floor under her breath.
Mrs. Blue walked into the bathroom but left the lights off. It was too much for her sensitive eyes, plus right now the bathroom was an eyesore. She stepped out onto the cold tile and carefully squatted onto the icy bowl, moving slowly to get used to the temperature. As she sat there, she looked around the empty bathroom, sliding her feet across the tile. Much like the hardwood in the bedroom, she wanted to rip up the bathroom floor too. In her mind, everything had to go: the sink, the tiles, the old showerhead. She couldn’t wait to replace it all, and she blamed Mr. Blue for the state of the house, for being cheap.
She leaned forward to grab the toilet paper, but the roll was empty. She let out a groan, searching behind the toilet to grab a roll off the standing rack. But the rack was not there.
“Oh my god,” she whispered.
Looking down into the blackness of the bowl, she sat for a minute, continuing to scope out the room. The next place a roll could be was the linen closet in the hallway. There were almost always extra ones there.
Mrs. Blue pulled her underwear up and tiptoed out of the bathroom and into the hallway. She opened the closet and bent down, passing by empty shelves where towels and blankets used to be. Feeling around in the darkness, she stretched her arm to the far corners of the shelf but felt nothing but wood.
“What the hell?” she muttered, standing upright.
She flicked the hallway light switch on. The white light blanketed her and she stood there for a moment, squinting. Through the blur, she thought she saw the towels and blankets exactly where they were supposed to be, but seconds later her vision cleared.
The closet was empty.
Half a dozen shelves filled with Egyptian cotton towels, silk sheets, and plush blankets made from top-brand designers—all gone. Her eyes widened and she thrust her arms into the closet in disbelief, touching every corner of every shelf, hoping her eyes had deceived her. But the closet was still empty, with nothing more than tufts of dust swirling around.
Confusion quickly turned to panic. She stormed into the bedroom, toward her walk-in closet. She flicked on the light switch, and more piercing white light shot back at her. Her closet, filled with an array of purses, scarves, and designer shoes—even her favorite pair with the red soles—was empty. She blinked in rapid succession, thinking it was an illusion of fatigue. But her eyes saw true. The boxes that had adorned the deep shelves, stacked on top of one another, arranged edge to edge, hanging off the sides and lining the corners of every wall, were all gone.
She let out a violent shriek that shook the house and startled Mr. Blue. He leapt from his bed and stumbled to the floor.
“What, what, what?” he yelled.
“My shoes! My dresses! My bags! They’re all gone!”
Mr. Blue got to his feet and looked into the empty closet. He turned to his own closet, opening the sliding doors, and then pulled out his drawers to find them empty.
“What the hell is this?”
Mrs. Blue turned on the remaining lights in the bedroom and ran to knock on the closed door in the hallway.
“Open the door! We’ve been robbed!” she yelled.
There was no answer.
Mr. Blue came rushing out behind her in his underwear, and dashed down the stairs.
Mrs. Blue continued knocking on the door, but there was still no answer. Her mind raced through all the possibilities of where her belongings might have gone. Who stole them? When? How much did they steal?
“What’s going on downstairs?” she yelled from the hallway. She spotted herself in the bathroom mirror across the hall and ran her fingers through her hair, straightening herself. Her satin nightgown draped just above her knees. She yanked it down.
She knocked one more time and then yelled, “Get up!” as she made her way downstairs.
Still, there was no answer at the door.
In the computer room, Mr. Blue was busy opening more drawers, revealing their emptiness. Mrs. Blue ran into the kitchen and opened up all the cupboards. They were empty as well.
“Everything is gone. Everything!” Mrs. Blue yelled. “Oh my God, oh my God,” she kept repeating. “I can’t believe this. . . . I can’t believe . . . All my shoes!”
“Enough about the damn shoes!” Mr. Blue’s voice called out from somewhere in the house.
Together they raced from room to room, cabinet to cabinet, drawer to drawer, finding each one stripped clean. There were no clocks to tell time, no phones to call the police, no keys to lock the doors. The house was empty, no longer a home of any sort.
“Call the cops!” Mrs. Blue yelled. “We have to get the police here right now.”
“How can we call the cops? There’re no phones!” Mr. Blue bellowed. He looked over at the wires sticking out of the telephone port in the kitchen and smacked them.
“What about your cell phone?” Mrs. Blue asked.
“What do you think?” Mr. Blue snapped back. He made for the closet and slid the door open to find his slippers.
“Empty!” he yelled, then turned around toward the front door and headed outside.
“Where are you going?” Mrs. Blue yelled. She chased after him and caught the door before it closed. “Stop! Stop! Where are you going? You can’t leave me here alone. Stop!”
“Calm down!” Mr. Blue shot back at her. “Stop yelling. I’m going to the Wus’ to call the police. What do you want from me?”
“Like that? You’re in your underwear.”
“Why don’t you go inside and crochet me a pair of pants?”
Mr. Blue tiptoed across the lawn and disappeared into the darkness, leaving Mrs. Blue alone on the front porch, calling out for him. She was shaking, unsure of what was rattling her the most—her nerves or the cold.
She stopped calling for Mr. Blue and stood in the quiet darkness. Then, hesitant to do anything without him, she went back inside and shut the door behind her. The house was silent. Every breath echoed through the hall. Every creak of the floorboards sounded like the dying groans of some great beast that had been pierced by a thousand swords and left to bleed. Cabinets and drawers were open and suspended in midair, gateways to nothingness. She was afraid to walk, afraid to step any farther.
She slowly walked to the foot of the staircase and looked up toward the second floor. Then she remembered the door that was closed. The door that was still closed.
Inside the empty house, a team of officers and detectives scoured every room, looking for clues and evidence.
“Picked clean,” one balding detective commented to a younger, taller officer. “Never seen anything like this before.”
“What do you think came first? The robbery or the kidnapping?”
“I don’t have the slightest clue.”
The detective squatted down and shone his flashlight across the dining room floor.
“Look at the wood. Not a scratch. Not so much as a ding. You’d think the thieves would’ve made some marks, emptying out the house so fast,” he said.
The young officer placed his hands on his hips.
“Moving rugs?” he suggested. “They could’ve slid the furniture out of here.”
The detective stood up and flashed his light toward the front door.
“You see that?” he said as they walked over to the front door together. “Five and a half by seven feet. There’s no way one guy, or guys, could’ve fit a dining table, a fridge, a TV”—the detective shone his light toward the different rooms of the house as he called out the objects—“or any of that stuff without so much as a scratch.”
“It’s like it all just . . . disappeared,” the young officer proposed.
The detective raised an eyebrow at him.
Just then, another large police officer stumbled in through the front door, catching his breath.
“Hey! We found something . . . about a quarter mile away . . . Looks like dolly tracks. We’re extending the perimeter!” the officer exclaimed, and practically skipped back outside, clenching the gun holster on his hip.
Many of the policemen inside the house also made a dash for the front door, leaving only a handful of older officers behind. They exchanged excited banter, eager at the possibility of a chase. The detective and the young officer stepped out onto the porch and watched as vehicles began pouring out of the neighborhood, blaring a cacophony of sirens. They gave each other a look and went back inside the house to look for more clues.
“I tell ya,” the detective began, “something feels off about this one.”
“What do you mean?” the young officer asked.
“I just get the feeling that there’s more to this than what we’re seeing.”
“Like what we’re not seeing?” the young officer suggested. The detective raised an eyebrow at him again and moved toward the back of the house.
Outside, it started to rain, and Mr. and Mrs. Blue remained sidelined as the sea of red and blue receded and police cars sped down the block.
What the officers didn’t know was they were already too late. They had begun their chase for a thief who was far beyond their reach, in a place they could never find, not even in their own imaginations.