Vijay unlocked the door and entered his house, his parent’s house actually, and for the first time in his life, he was home alone. He felt a little scared but mostly elated because his parents had finally relented and let him be at home by himself. He had turned thirteen on his recent birthday, clearly old enough to be trusted. He didn’t need someone to watch over him anymore. He wasn’t a child. He was thirteen for crying out loud, practically an adult.
He shut the door behind him letting its heavy edge bang against the frame. The thump reverberated through the empty house. Had his mom been home she would have admonished him for slamming the door, but she was still at work and he could do as he pleased. He liked that. He dropped his backpack on the kitchen counter and immediately rummaged through the refrigerator looking for something to eat.
He found some leftover vegetable samosas stuffed into a plastic container on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator and he smiled. He loved samosas. He took four of them, they were rather large, and placed them on a plate before he heated them in the microwave. As the microwave hummed, he stood in the center of the kitchen and looked around him energized by his new-found independence.
His stomach constricted, partly from hunger, but also from the fact that he was alone in his house for the first time. Only the sound of the microwave cut through the silence that blanketed the house. He looked into the dining room and saw the pale shadows that lingered over the glossy table. He glared at the TV with its gray-black screen eerily reflecting the sofa and the big window behind it. Finally, he looked out into his backyard through the kitchen window before the microwave let him know that his samosas were ready to be devoured.
He sat at the small kitchen table hunched over his plate eating his mid-afternoon snack, his mind racing to determine what he would do first. He thought about walking to his friend Albert’s house down the street, but he remembered Albert was still at band practice after school. He sulked for a moment as he thought of other things to do. He couldn’t be bored on his first day by himself.
Vijay returned the empty plate to the sink and washed the greasy food stains from his hands. As he rubbed the soap into his palms and let the warm water flow over his hands, he looked out of the kitchen window again. The deep blue sky contrasted perfectly with the flowering trees and the warm breeze that ruffled their limbs. He could smell the flowers in bloom even though the windows in the house were shut tightly, an artifact of his walk from the bus stop to his front door. He stared into the endless blue sky when a thought finally took root in his brain. He knew what he wanted to do.
After a quick jaunt up the stairs in his home taking two steps at a time, he slammed himself onto the floor before his bed and reached under it to retrieve one of the best gifts he had ever received, a quad-copter drone. He carefully pulled the drone from under his bed and sat it before his bent legs and switched it on. A dull blue light reflected off the black, ominous body of the drone assuring him that he had battery power. Likewise he flipped the switch on the controller and the small video screen came to life showing a featureless, up-close shot of the carpet in his bedroom. Vijay smiled like a lion that had just spotted some helpless prey.
Outside in his backyard, Vijay placed the copter onto the patio table and stepped away studying the remote before he brought the drone to life. His father had bought the drone for him for his thirteenth birthday. It had been a present that came with a stern warning.
“Do not spy on anyone, Vij. Do you understand?” his father had said. Vijay had responded that he understood, but the curiosity of potential got the best of him. He imagined investigating the lives of the neighbors around him. The pull of the forbidden leered irresistibly at him encouraging him to try it just once. He tucked those thoughts into the back of his mind that day when he and his father went to a nearby park and played with the camera-bearing drone. They took videos of themselves from up in the air and snapped shots of the park from angles that were otherwise inaccessible. His father had been so impressed with the fidelity of the camera and the steadiness of the shots that he downloaded the videos and pictures and put them in the family photo collection. He even posted one shot of himself and Vijay piloting the drone on his Facebook page.
Now, Vijay stood alone in his backyard with nothing but the memory of his father’s warning standing between him and his desire to explore his neighborhood. Without another thought he pushed up the sliding switch on the remote, and the copter whirred to life emitting a low hum as the rotors cut through the air. He leveled his thumb against the left joystick and the drone lifted straight up into the air. He let it settle a good twenty feet above him before he pushed the other joystick and the airship jolted to the right into his next-door neighbor’s yard. The copter zigged and zagged for a moment as Vijay regained familiarity with the controls. After a few moments, he piloted it expertly along the rows of homes down the street from his house.
The steady journey down the line of manicured, fenced backyards dampened his imagination. He had concocted scenarios in his mind of shocking revelations seen from the air and safely relayed to the video screen on his remote, but most of the houses appeared empty save for the occasional pet. The Murphy’s dog lay in one of their patio chairs sleeping comfortably. Another home had a bubbling fountain that glistened in the sun, which caught Vijay’s attention. He hovered over it for a moment even swooping down to get a different view before he became bored and flew off to the next house.
It didn’t take long for Vijay to get bored of the whole endeavor and return the drone to his own backyard where he landed it on the patio table and switched it off. He sighed as he laid the remote on the table next to the copter and disappeared into the house for a drink of water. He stared at his drone from the patio door as he downed the water, and he wondered what he could do next. He swore that being at home alone should be much more exciting than this. It had to be.
He pulled his cell phone from his pocket and checked for any texts. Nothing. Albert was still at practice. He slid it back in his pocket as an idea took hold in his brain. He instantly decided to walk to the park he and his father had used for their maiden drone flight. He felt it would be much more exciting to launch the drone there and explore the surrounding area. He pulled his phone out and texted his mother that he was going to the park. He waited impatiently for a response, but he didn’t give her much time before he was out the door and on his way to the park.
A few minutes later, Vijay arrived at the mouth of the park on the north side closest to his house. It stood largely empty save for a few toddlers gathered on the rather small playground equipment. They played and squealed aimlessly as their mothers ringed them and chatted with each other on the warm spring day. The mothers largely ignored him, and he kept his distance. Young mothers were often wary of teenagers, and they’d certainly be concerned if his drone got too close to one of their precious children.
The park stood in the center of a neighborhood of relatively new houses, a thin strip of green that broke the monotony of similar rectangular houses with fenced backyards. Other than the swath of green space in the midst of the cramped development, it offered few of the amenities of a real park beyond the tiny playground equipment on the southern edge of the field. Kids mostly used it to play baseball or football, depending on the season, and occasionally, parties of neighbors would wheel their propane grills to the clearing and have summer cookouts. Vijay had never paid much heed to the park until he got his drone. He had been too old to have much interest in the playground when his family moved to the community.
The drone whirred to life once again and Vijay stroked the controller until the copter was floating above the park. He looked at the video screen and saw himself standing in a sea of vibrant green as the copter ascended higher and higher. He navigated the drone along the trees lining the park getting a sense of what the field would look like from space. He imagined he was mapping the area, noting the key features that made the park and the neighborhood unique. The drone traveled south from him toward the playground and he could see the children playing on the swings and slide. They appeared even smaller from the aerial vantage point than they did from where he stood. He noticed one of the mothers look his way and he guided the drone away from the kids back toward him.
He pushed the drone higher above the trees and into the backyards of the houses that abutted the park and skimmed along the line that the fences drew through the neighborhood. The drone hovered and Vijay used the joystick to turn it around and scan the neighborhood. He began snapping photos of the area, slowly turning the drone to get a panoramic view. He decided he wanted to compare his pictures to the aerial shots in online maps.
He dropped the drone lower and snapped more intimate photos of the houses and the yards below it. Vijay watched the screen on his remote as he took his pictures, but one photo froze him in his tracks. A man, not entirely visible with the drone camera, stood at his patio door, motionless, but apparently unaware of the drone’s presence as he looked through the glass. Vijay kept the camera pointed toward the man waiting for him to do something, anything that might be interesting.
The man disappeared into the shadows of his living room. Vijay hovered the drone for a moment longer, and started to whisk it to the next house when the man appeared at the door again. Vijay paused and watched. He didn’t really understand why he kept the drone there, but something compelled him to see what the man would do. As if on cue, the man opened his door and stepped out onto his patio looking directly up at the copter.
Vijay froze instantly. He knew at that moment he’d been caught spying on his neighbors, exactly what his father had told him not to do. He had violated his father’s trust in him and he felt immediately ashamed. The act of getting caught had made him very aware of what he had done. The drone hovered in that instant of realization as he stared at the man through the screen on his remote, but before he could pull the lever on the controller to move the drone away, the man raised his arm and leveled a gun at the drone. Vijay didn’t recognize what was happening at first, but by the time he flicked the lever, the man had shot his drone down from its perch in the air.
Vijay heard the shot echo in the air around the park. The house in question was just on the other side of the trees that lined the edge of the green space. He heard a yelp, several actually, in the direction of the children playing in the park. He looked over at them still shocked by what he had seen. The mothers were scampering to gather their kids and leave the park. Vijay stood there watching them frozen in fear. He couldn’t believe what he’d seen.
The camera had gone black once the shot had been fired, but Vijay twisted the levers on the controller hoping that his drone was still functional. He looked above the trees but saw nothing. He flitted through the pictures on the controller screen until he came to the one taken of the man standing at the patio door. He stared at it closely. He didn’t recognize the man. He flipped forward to the next few pictures. He had subconsciously snapped shots of the man’s backyard as he hovered. He had a picture of the man reappearing at the door and stepping out onto his patio, but he didn’t have a picture of the man firing at his drone. He stared at the last picture with the man’s face in clear view. He looked threatening, troubled even.
Vijay glanced down at the playground. The mothers and their children were gone. He was alone in the park. He looked across the street and around him, but there was no one around. Had the gunshot scared everyone off the street? His heart continued to race at what he had seen. He took one last look at the man in the picture and switched the controller off. His drone was gone. He dropped the controller to his side and returned to the sidewalk leading toward his house sullen and despondent. He didn’t know how he was going to explain the loss to his father. He certainly didn’t want to tell him the circumstances under which he lost his toy.
He looked down the street toward the houses that abutted the park. A lone figure cut the horizon at the corner of the street. It stood still as if looking for someone or something, but it was too far away for Vijay to tell if it was the man in his video. A streak of fear shot up his arm and constricted his chest, and he broke into a run back to his house. He looked over his shoulder before he bounded up the steps to his front door. No one was behind him. He felt relieved as he shut and locked the door behind him.
Still shaken from the incident, Vijay squirreled himself away in his bedroom. He hid the controller in a desk drawer and plucked his laptop from his desk. He sat on the bed and surfed the Internet trying to distract himself with some videos on Minecraft strategies, but he really couldn’t focus on the videos. He knew in his heart that he was in the wrong. When he was discovered, and he would be, his father would be furious and his mother would cry. He’d be grounded for a long time. The only bright spot in all of this was that his father was out of town until the weekend, and since his mother always had a hard time being harsh with her only child, he knew he’d have a temporary reprieve until his father returned home.
In the distance he heard a siren, and his heart sank. He knew the man had called the police and it was only a matter of time before they traced the drone back to him. The women in the park had seen him piloting the copter and could easily describe him. He had that distinctive look that was easy to describe given his Irish mother and Indian father. The police would canvas the neighborhood house by house until they eventually reached his. It was only a matter of time.
The tension made him fidget and restless. He paced in his bedroom and when that became too confining, he paced the hallway and downstairs to the living room. He tried to distract himself with the TV, but even the Cartoon Network couldn’t hold his attention. The nervous energy rattled him and every passing car he heard outside sounded like a police cruiser arriving to take him away. Finally, before he expected his mother to arrive home, he spread his homework out on the kitchen table and began working on it, or at least pretending to do so. Maybe, he thought, if his mother saw how diligently he was working on his homework, she wouldn’t believe that he’d been spying on the neighbors that afternoon, or at the very least, she’d be a little forgiving for his one mistake. These thoughts made him work harder.
Eventually, he heard the familiar sound of the garage door opening and he knew his mother was home. He quickly finished the last math problem on his homework and waited for her to walk through the door pretending to be deep in thought. She walked into the kitchen with a grim, worried look on her face. In that moment, he thought she knew what he had done already.
“Oh, thank god, Vijay, you’re here and you’re safe,” she said furtively, visibly shaking. She put her bag down on the counter and hurried toward him hugging his head into her as he sat at the table.
“What’s wrong?” he asked sheepishly, afraid of what she might say.
“Someone was killed down the street. I heard about it on the radio on the way home. Police are all over the neighborhood. I started panicking after I heard it, but there was nothing I could do. I wanted to call you, but my cell phone battery had died. That was the longest drive not knowing if you were safe or scared to death.”
She hugged him again. He felt her body shaking, heard her heart beating rapidly, and listened to her short, clipped breathing. Tears streamed down her face. He inhaled her perfume and sighed a sense of morbid relief. No one would care about his drone incident in light of the death in the neighborhood. He vowed never to do something so stupid again if he escaped this one mistake unscathed. He decided he wouldn’t make any confessions because there was a good chance he was in the clear.
His mother finally calmed down and ran through her typical evening routine with her son minus her husband. Vijay’s father traveled a lot for his job, so his absence wasn’t unusual. They did just fine by themselves. After dinner, she settled in front of the TV and flicked on the local news. Vijay finished the last of his English homework and joined his mother on the couch in front of the TV.
Their neighborhood made the top story on the evening news. Vijay watched the news anchors hand the story off to a reporter at the scene. He immediately recognized the area surrounding the reporter and felt shock at how close the crime was to his own house. The crime occurred near the park he had been at that very afternoon.
“Mark, Joyce,” the reporter began, “police are still on the scene here in the Cherry Hill neighborhood trying to gather clues about what happened in this usually quiet subdivision. Details are sketchy, but we do know that a husband and wife, were found shot to death in their living room this afternoon by their daughter who returned home from school. Police aren’t saying much at this point, but based on interviews at the scene, no one has reported seeing anyone enter or leave the house this afternoon other than the two victims. Some neighbors did say that they heard and reported a single gunshot in the vicinity of the victim’s home before the bodies were discovered, but no one could pinpoint where the gunshot originated from.”
The reference to the single gunshot startled Vijay and he concentrated on the scene around the reporter. The video footage switched to an aerial view as the reporter continued piecing together the story of the murdered couple. Vijay saw the stand of trees that lined the park and the row of houses that shared their backyards with the green belt. The line of the fences looked familiar and he realized that his drone had flown in the very area where the couple had been murdered, but he couldn’t tell if his copter had been in their yard. The yards all looked the same to him. He struggled to remember what he had seen.
“The police are asking anyone who may have been in the area around three or four this afternoon to consider if they saw anything that might be helpful to them in this case and come forward…,” the reporter spoke into the camera. He said more words, but Vijay tuned him out. All he could think about was the man who shot down his drone. Fear seized him. He just knew that the man was the murderer, and he had a picture of him on his camera. He began to shake, so much so that he left the room for fear that his mother would notice how the story rattled him. He’d crumble the moment she asked any questions.
Vijay ran up the stairs to his bedroom. His stomach ached and he felt sick, but he ran to his room anyway and shut the door behind him. He stood before his bedroom window and looked out into the fading light of the evening. The neighborhood gave a false sense of calm and serenity as most people were in their homes having dinner or settling in for the evening. The unusually bare sidewalks gave him pause. Everyone knew the killer still roamed the streets and that had changed typical evening routines. The killer. Vijay shivered.
He flipped on the lamp beside his bed brightening his room in the shadows of the evening. He pulled the remote from his desk drawer and turned it on. He stared intently as the tiny video screen came to life and began to scan the pictures he’d taken earlier. The mental images from the newscast still floated in his mind, so he compared his pictures with what he’d seen on the news.
The news helicopter’s aerial shot of the victims’ house revealed two patio chairs with bright red cushions in the backyard. Those cushions stuck in his mind as if they were familiar, so Vijay studied the pictures on the tiny screen to see if he could spot those same markers. Maybe he was in a different part of the neighborhood and all his worry was for naught. Maybe his mind was just playing tricks on him, a way of making his guilt surge and inflict well-deserved pain on him. A guilty conscious does not go quietly.
None of the backyards he had photographed had red cushions, but when he came upon his first picture of the man behind the patio door, he could see a reflection of red in the glass. The next few photos pulled back from the door as the drone had floated above the fence line. His camera remained fixated on the house until the photo where the man stood below the drone right before he shot it down. Vijay could clearly see one of the red cushions to the man’s right before he raised his gun. Vijay gasped and stared deeply at the picture. He had a picture of the killer. The realization of his conundrum physically shook him. Fear tightened its grip on him shortening his breaths and inflating his heart beats.
To go to the police with the picture would all but ensure he would get into trouble with his father for disobeying him, but to not go would withhold critical evidence that would help the police catch the man who had ruthlessly murdered two of his neighbors. He didn’t know the victims and this somehow made his decision more nuanced, but in his deepest heart, he knew what he had to do. He had to go to the police and suffer the consequences with his father later. It was the right thing to do.
Despite the obvious moral obligation, Vijay debated his decision with himself. A part of him wanted to hit the delete button and forget about it all. The police would eventually catch the killer. They had other means of identifying who had done it. Vijay had seen a lot of episodes of C.S.I. and he knew detectives were whip-smart when it came to catching killers, but he also knew that some killers got away with their crimes, and he felt that the evidence he had would ensure the killer in this case would not walk away. He zoomed in on the man’s face in the picture. He didn’t know the man, but he was clearly identifiable in the photo. Vijay would recognize him if he saw him again.
Despite the dread he felt, Vijay decided to confess to his mother so that she could call the police and turn over the evidence. As he steeled himself for the obvious scorn he would face, the doorbell rang. Maybe the police were already at his house asking questions like they had of other neighbors. He felt relieved to some extent. The guilt that plagued him would melt away once he confessed, and although he’d have to work hard to earn the trust of his parents again, they’d at least feel good about the fact that he did the right thing and helped the police solve a crime. He suddenly felt an odd sense of pride.
He turned off the remote and the screen blipped to black, but he kept it tightly in his left hand as he opened the door to his bedroom and started down the stairs. He could hear voices in the foyer below. A man, authoritative like a police officer, talked seriously with his mother. He slowly made his way down the stairs dreading the confession and the inevitable look of disappointment that his mother would weigh upon him once she understood the magnitude of his disobedience. He hated disappointing his doting mother.
He turned the corner on the stairway landing and took the last few steps into the kitchen. He saw his mother talking to a tall man in a black leather jacket. At first she didn’t notice Vijay, but she glanced over at him mid-sentence and abruptly shifted her train of thought nodding in his direction as she said, “Here’s my son right now.”
The man in the black leather jacket turned with a smile already formed on his face to greet Vijay. He extended his hand as Vijay’s mother smiled uneasily at the introduction, still shaken by what had happened in her neighborhood.
“Nice to meet you, Vijay,” the man said.
Vijay stood back frozen in place refusing to extend his hand. Fear enveloped him and prevented any words from escaping his mouth. His mother reached for him unsure of whether to admonish him for being impolite or to ask him what was wrong. She touched his arm and he flinched as the man who shot down his drone withdrew his hand and pulled a gun from under his jacket.