Issue Forty-Three - Winter 2024

Home Invasion

by Cynthia Stock

The garage door yawned. Its metal maw opened to an empty space sprinkled with dead leaves, cricket carcasses, and a plastic bag of litter box detritus. My husband, Darren, drives a sky-blue Prius C. It was missing. I had expected my husband to be home, checked for a text message, found none. I wrestled with my gym bag; I wrestle with everything these days, bulky bags, tying my shoes, pulling the lid off my Yeti, taking off my sports bra when sweaty. I’ve learned to adapt with age. Overloaded with my bag and a few groceries, I staggered into the house. The cats greeted me with pleading looks. It was time for their mid-morning tuna. I served the furry queens and called Darren. He doesn’t have voice mail set up. No answer.

Just like a prologue to a novel or the calm before the crisis in a movie, my disaster began. A kind, able, purposeful man, Darren turned eighty-two this year. All the concerns voiced about aging political candidates applied, mental acuity, balance issues, fitness. I called Darren again.

“I can’t talk. I’ve been hacked.” Panic and anxiety choked him. Fear and loss of control altered the tone of his speech, the clarity of his diction.

“Where are you?”

“I’m driving to the bank. I’ve got to call him back.” The connection broke.

Call back a “him” with no name while driving? Something was very wrong.

Less than fifteen minutes later, the back door issued its hydraulic huff as Darren pushed his way into the house. The lines in his face had added depth. An ashen pallor replaced his usual pink color. His cane ticked when it hit the kitchen tile. His braced leg followed.

“What have you done?”

“I was searching the internet about my phone becoming obsolete. A square popped up warning me I’d been hacked, not to shut down my computer, and saying my personal information was at risk. There was a number to call. It had the Microsoft icon. This guy told me exactly what to do. Told me I couldn’t, shouldn’t hang up. Told me I shouldn’t tell anyone else.”

Darren epitomized desperate remorse. Brow furrowed. Grim set to his jaw. Eyes squinting from grief. With age, he’d lost weight. His clothes hung like limp flags on the slender poles of his extremities. Bruises in various shades of purple colored his forearms due to lack of body fat. Scabs marked where his skin, fragile as parchment, tore with the slightest pressure. His hands tremored.

“You said you were at the bank.” My calmness surprised me.

“He said I had to pay $13,000 to get my computer back….”

I understood so many things before he finished his story.

“I took the money to a machine to change it to bitcoins. The guy even directed me where to go in the store, had me turn right. It was like he was there. When he told me I needed to get $10,000 more I knew it was a scam.” Cloaked in defeat, Darren was too devastated to even shrug his shoulders, too weak to get angry.

“Why didn’t you call me first?” Anger is my specialty, one I mastered after a few rancorous displays. The first time I lost control I took my favorite VHS tape, Aliens, and smashed it on the floor until it was a jigsaw of black plastic geometric pieces with a slinky brown tape winding through them. Giving free rein to my anger would kill the man I love.

“I knew you were having lunch with a friend. I didn’t want to disturb you.”
Rage, my inner demon that often helps me accomplish many things, roiled in my guts. “You are much more important than she is. Where did you take the money?” A crisis offers revelations, threats to beliefs, realizations about what is important. I was certain of two things. Darren was the most important person in my life. The money didn’t matter.

“I can’t remember.”

Reality check. The revelation hit. The worst part of this crime had nothing to do with money. It exposed a problem that had been lurking within our existence for longer than I cared to admit. Aging, as insidious and tenacious as kudzu, was overtaking our lives.

We began to problem solve. Darren described taking the money to some hole-in-the-wall store with a bitcoin ATM machine. Siri narrowed our search to vape shops. On a 106-degree afternoon, we drove to a store front in a strip mall with bars on the windows and door. This shop didn’t have an ATM.

Exhaustion diminished Darren. We ate a modest, quiet meal and planned to go to the police the next day. His taut face relaxed. A hint of color returned. On the sofa, he stared across the room at nothing. I commiserated with Siri and found another vape shop not too far from our house. I showed Darren a picture.

“That could be it.”

“We’ll go there tomorrow before we go to the police.”

The thought of money never crossed my mind. We had some savings we never touched, our Monopoly money, I called it, because it was there, but didn’t seem real. My mind got stuck in the quagmire of uncertainty. Where had the man I knew gone when he was listening to this criminal on the phone? I read him every article about fraud and scamming. I had averted a hack once by merely hanging up the phone, once by shutting down my computer. I shared a local watchdog’s fraud alerts. Darren had frozen all but one credit card. What happened in the split second when his mind melted down and opened itself to malevolence?

I encouraged Darren to have his usual bourbon and Diet Pepsi. He couldn’t drink it. His color had not quite returned to normal. He sat on the sofa, but didn’t relax. He made the familiar pill rolling gesture with his thumb and forefinger, telling me his nerves were in overdrive. We talked some more, not rehashing details, but strategizing. For the first time, I wondered if I could trust Darren’s decision making. After twenty-five years together, I felt like I had been hit by a truck.

“There’s one more thing we need to talk about. I think I should take you off my bank account.” I expected push back and got none.

“You should.”

His passive agreement hurt more than if he had resisted. I doubted either of us would sleep very well. Darren did not. His mind played a continuous loop of his mistake, his failure, his self-abasement.

My morning workouts are my Xanax. I missed my dose the next day. We sipped coffee until the suspected vape shop opened. It was barely a mile away in a standard strip mall. It was another generic shop of questionable products with protected windows. ATM and Bitcoin logos adorned the window on one side of a door made with wire mesh glass. I parked and watched Darren go in with his step swing stride. The young man behind the counter came out to make sure Darren could navigate the aisle.

Darren came out and lowered himself into the car. He tucked his cane alongside the cupholder. “This is where I left the money.”

I drove to the local police station where I had researched investigative techniques for my first novel.

“I know the station sits on a curve, but I have no idea how to get there,” Darren said.

I took my memory for granted. Perhaps that is how I missed what was happening to Darren’s. The road took us over a small bridge. It passed a few residential streets half a block long, a company owned by our neighbor, and a curve lush with thick shrubs.

We parked in front of the station. Darren climbed the steps; step lift, step lift, rather than using the access ramp. One other person was in the foyer. A person not in uniform sat behind the bullet proof glass. His short gray hair needed shampooing. His ample waist needed exercise. His pleasant smile tamped down my angst.

“How can I help you?”

“We need someone who deals in cybercrime,” I said. I leaned near the oblong hole at the bottom of the glass.

The human face shifts gears if you watch closely enough. I watched an ordinary face change from a look of disdain to one of curiosity. The man grabbed a legal pad and pen.

“I was scammed for $13,000.” Darren blurted it out like a confession.

The man wrote the number down. $13,000 on the top line of the yellow pad.

He issued reassurance. “This happens to the best of people.” He explained the limited local jurisdiction. “This is a federal crime.” Then, he affirmed what we already knew. “It’s not likely you’ll recover your money.”

“Is there anything we can do?”

He provided the federal fraud alert website.

Darren and I went home. I experienced a total body sigh. We had done what we could.

After lunch, Darren went to take a nap. I headed for the bank.

It was hot, oppressive. The bank had no shaded parking spots. I wore a pink t-shirt my son’s band had made for an Alzheimer’s fund raiser. The band’s logo was embedded in an elephant head. “Because an elephant never forgets,” my son had explained when he gifted me the shirt. Only as I wrote this did I see the irony. I pressed the buzzer for entry and walked up to the teller.

The teller was a young man, cordial, tidy. “How may I help you?”

“I need to take my husband off my account,” I said. My voice broke. I handed over the necessary ID and papers. The tears came; they do now as I write. I knew my life was changing forever thanks to a clever cybercriminal executing a modern type of home invasion. To separate Darren from my account felt wrong, but necessary. It presaged a new world view. “Alzheimer’s is a dreadful disease,” I said.

“He might get one more statement with your accounts on it,” the teller explained. He made eye contact with me, the real kind, where our eyes connected in recognition of the human condition.

I walked out into the foyer and rested against the counter with the deposit slips and credit card applications. I cried alone.

After supper, we sat on the sofa. Silence offered some comfort. The cats settled at what seemed like a carefully measured distance away from us. The littlest one did her slow blink that the internet told me signified approval. A cat’s approval, comfort for the devastation caused by a greedy criminal who would never know the extent of the damage he caused.

A seasoned nurse, I had spoken to countless families about critical diagnoses, patient progress or lack of it, survival versus recovery. In those instances, the right words, the right tone, the right amount of touching, the right amount of pause came naturally. I didn’t know how to tell Darren what I thought needed to happen next.

I took his hand and laced my nail-bitten fingers with his bony ones.

“I think you need to go back to the neurologist,” I said. “This decision, it’s not one you would have made three months ago.”

He didn’t argue. We headed toward dark uncertainty, the only constant being we navigated it together.

The following morning, Darren announced as calmly as discussing the weather, “I took the bullets out of the gun. Don’t hide them. I just did that to be safe. Didn’t want any accidents.”

Everything stopped. I didn’t move, didn’t think, just absorbed the blows delivered by those words. Was Darren suicidal because of his decision? Was he angry about going to the neurologist? Was I in danger? I felt danger but did not know for whom.

“Where is the gun?” I dared ask when my mind and body resumed functioning.

“In the headboard where it always is. I know it’s for break-ins, but I don’t want any accidents like we hear about on TV.”

I observed him the rest of the day, not like a partner, but like someone trying to size up and predict the actions of someone who had done something so unpredictable. Darren relaxed. We spent another mundane day in the hell of Texas heat and of one cruel act that created chaos.

I fought to get an appointment with his doctor in less than the usual two to three weeks.

“My husband is an established patient. He’s had some changes that the doctor mentioned might be a cause for concern.”

He gave away $13,000 and wasn’t sure where he took it.

The receptionist droned on with a few more questions. The computer keyboard clicked away. “How about next Wednesday at 8:30?”

I would have taken anything. “Perfect.”


Bitch slap came to mind. I held onto my world by a string, my world being a helium balloon, the string ready to slip through my fingers.

“Thank you,” I said.

On the way to the office, the traffic turned a twenty-minute ride into forty. Our ride took us through an industrial park, several school zones with flashing amber lights, and poorly timed traffic lights typical of urban mismanagement.

“We should have gone to the other place. It is so much shorter.”

“Darren, that place is further down the road on the other side of the freeway. It’s the traffic.” I repeated the same words when he repeated his complaint. I rationalized and blamed stress, not a failing memory.

I parked in a handicapped parking space. “Get the tag out please.” Darren hooked it on the rearview mirror. I watched him struggle to exit the car. He pushed open the door and maneuvered his cane from its spot near the front seat divider. Once he grounded the four-point base, he swung his legs around and rocked to establish enough momentum to stand.

The sight fomented rabid anger in me. I wanted to face off with the man who duped and frightened another human being into irrational behavior. I wanted to spit in his face, smash him with a rock, maim him beyond repair, show him, through my capacity for violence, what he had stolen from me.

The thief stole a vision of my husband. I would never see Darren the same way. Every time he went to do anything, whether it was setting up the morning coffee or giving the cats their 4 p.m. treat, I would be on alert.

My vigilance became a self-fulfilling prophecy. One night I had just gone to bed. A loud noise disturbed my fantasies, stories I write in my head to help me sleep. I threw back the sheet and rushed to the kitchen to find Darren on the floor leaning against my gym bag and a box full of wine.

“The floor’s all wet. My crutches slipped.”

He murmured words of self-deprecation.

I mopped up the floor. I wanted to look away as he struggled to stand, but could not. I needed to be ready to catch him.

The physical aspect was less concerning than the mental. I eavesdropped when he answered phone calls with no caller ID. I surreptitiously followed Darren’s internet activity. He knew my concerns, knew I hovered. We rehearsed answers to the now infamous four-word phone scam.

“Can you hear me?” I’d role play.

“I’m speaking to you,” he’d reply.

In the end, we agreed to not answer calls without caller ID. Sometimes he’d make calls with me sitting beside him and I’d fill in information gaps that presented as pauses in the conversation.

At the doctor’s office, time buffered my anxiety. Once we were taken to the examination room, I sat off to the side. Darren sat on the examination table. The Physician’s Assistant entered armed with her laptop. I remembered her from our last visit.

“Why did you think you needed to come back and see us?”

Because my husband is not who he was six months ago. “It started with a hypertensive crisis from a drug reaction. I think he may have had a small stroke. For a while, his speech was slurred. He has a short fuse and gets frustrated easily, clenches his fists, shoos me away. He has always hated any sort of arguing. And then he fell for a scam.”

Darren let me talk, interjecting his own concern about his memory and problems retrieving words. I watched the Physician’s Assistant perform her physical exam with neuro checks. Darren looked strong, answered her questions. I began to think I over-reacted.

Just as “Can you hear me?” sets up a possible scam, the PA’s next question both affirmed me and brought my world down around me.

“Do you have help at home?”

Do I need help at home? Do you think I need help at home? I need to hear everything is going to be okay.

“No. We’ve not needed any.”

At this point, the PA addressed me more than she did Darren. He slipped into quiet passivity. The PA ordered an MRI and neurocognitive testing.

We left the office in resolute silence. I offered to pick Darren up at the entrance to the building.

“I need the exercise. I’ll walk,” he said, “Just not as fast as you.” Marriage reveals human frailty. Through our decades together, I had learned to slow my pace so Darren and I could walk together.

I don’t remember if it was seventy-two or two hundred and seventy-two steps, but for the time it took to walk to the car, I allowed myself to pretend everything was back to normal.

We settled into the car. The seat belts clicked. I punch started the engine. Cool air fanned my face. Dalt put the blue handicapped sign back in the glove compartment. The car idled. Music from an “oldies” station played on the radio. Cars sped by on the overpass that arched over the parking lot.

“Let’s go home.”

Copyright Cynthia Stock