(Alex Nabaum/For The Washington Post)

Everyone is worried about the man in the house.

His ex-wife, his mother, his father, his neighbors, the psychiatrists he has seen and no longer sees, they are all concerned because he has been alone in the house in suburban Maryland for two years.

No one knows what he is doing. No one knows what he is thinking, what he is eating or how he is surviving. In two years, since his frightened wife took their three young boys and left him there alone, he has not spoken to anyone for more than a few minutes. He has not let anyone beyond the front door, which he has fortified with a new lock, a piece of plastic bolted over the window, and a piece of plywood bolted below that, all of which he has painted a bright shade of yellow. He keeps the living room curtains shut.

The man in the house, a 42-year-old who once earned six figures working on Capitol Hill and was a devoted husband and father, tells his family that he is not sick, even though a psychological evaluation found he had “a schizoaffective disorder, depressive type with persecutory delusions.”

As far as they know, he has stopped taking the psychiatric medication prescribed after he told police that God was speaking through his 3-year-old son. He has quit his job and stopped paying bills. His family doesn’t know what to do.

His mother leaves bags of groceries on the porch. His ex-wife sends text messages, and his responses are increasingly worrying, such as when he refers to his sons as his “suns.” His father is always leaving a version of the same phone message — “Hey, this is dad. Let me know if you want to come out and talk. We love you. We care about you.” — which his son never answers.

Once, the man’s family might have handled the situation by having him involuntarily committed to a psychiatric institution. For decades, it was a routine and simple procedure: If a doctor agreed that the patient had a mental illness, he could be institutionalized even against his will.

The problem was that it was a process with few safeguards, and during much of the 20th century, all kinds of people who didn’t belong — from free-thinking women to gay people, minorities and rebellious children — wound up locked in hospitals where abuse was common and conditions were often bleak.

So the system changed, with one catalyst being a 1975 Supreme Court ruling that effectively restricted involuntary commitment to instances when a person becomes a “danger to self or others,” a phrase that now appears in one form or another in state laws across the country.

But 40 years after that standard was established, some people are asking whether society’s concern for the constitutional rights of people with mental illness has led to their abandonment. At a moment when about one-quarter of the homeless population suffers from severe mental illness, when the number of mentally ill prison inmates is higher than ever and when mass shootings are often followed by stories that the shooter had heard voices, the people asking questions include the family of the man in the house. Their concern is growing every day.

Because he does not think he is sick, voluntary treatment is not an option.

Unless he threatens to harm himself or someone else, or is so sick he cannot keep himself alive, he cannot be deemed dangerous, particularly in Maryland, where commitment laws are among the most stringent in the nation.

And although there are days when he wears bright yellow from head to toe, or all white including sandals he sprayed with white paint, he appears well-groomed and healthy, so he is unlikely to meet even the most lenient legal definition of dangerous.

On day 730 of being alone in the house, he still tends his lawn. The few times he has opened the bright yellow door to get groceries or money from his worried mother, what she could see of the living room appeared clean, if bare — the family photos removed from the walls.

Jennifer now lives in New England. Although she loves her ex-husband, his behavior became too alarming and she decided to take their sons and leave. (Michele McDonald/for The Washington Post)
The ex-wife

The ex-wife of the man in the house — who for privacy reasons is being identified only by her first name, Jennifer — remembers the last time she was in the house before she left.

The furniture was neatly arranged. The stereos, TVs and computers were working. The boys’ rooms were set up with bunk beds, and the kitchen was full of food for a family of five.

That was the day she decided her husband’s behavior had become so alarming that she had to take their sons and leave, and now, 755 days later, Jennifer is in the New England town where she lives, watching from a distance as the boys Skype with their father.

He sits in a chair she does not recognize, saying “my sons, my sons” as the boys play in front of the computer screen. His head is tilted to the side, a half-smile on his face. He looks thinner, she thinks.

On another day, he sends her a text message.

“skyp sun,” he writes. He sends a yellow dot symbol.

What she wishes is that her ex-husband, whom she still loves, could be involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital for however long it takes doctors to figure out what’s wrong, for medications to work, and for him to once again be the person she married.

But because she can’t have him committed, she is doing the only thing she can think of to do. In accordance with the divorce decree, she is selling the house, which she is hoping will force her ex-husband into a situation desperate enough that he might meet the standard for involuntary commitment. For him to get better, she realizes, she and his family have to let him get worse.

“He’ll be homeless . . . ” she says. “And we just have to let it happen.”

She has been watching him deteriorate for three years now, a process she traces to the night he didn’t want to share a glass of wine, which had been their evening ritual since they bought the house and started building their life together.

He wanted to be on the computer instead. He began reading conspiracy theory Web sites. He started saying he was going to jail and taking batteries out of cellphones. Jennifer told herself it was stress and tried to get him to see a counselor, but he wouldn’t.

Then one day a package arrived, and he told her to take the kids outside, and she watched as he put on a biohazard mask and used long-armed tools to open the box, which contained a crank radio he ordered.

He built an eight-foot-high cross and nailed it to a tree in the front yard. He started wearing all yellow or all white. When they visited a relative who had a gun with five bullets mounted on a wall, he said the bullets were a sign that their family of five was going to be killed. Jennifer kept trying to persuade him to see a counselor, but there was nothing else she could do to get him treatment until the day he disappeared with the boys.

On that day, Jennifer called the police, who tracked him to Atlanta, where he reportedly told them that he and his children were going to be killed and that a flock of birds had signaled for him to take the boys south.

She and her father-in-law arranged for a mobile crisis team — mental health workers and police trained for such situations — to meet them back in Maryland, and when he still refused to see a doctor, police were able to invoke the “danger to self or others” standard because of the erratic trip, his delusions about being killed and a small knife found in his possession.

It was the one time he met the threshold of involuntary commitment. He was taken to the emergency room in handcuffs, at which point an array of regulations aimed at protecting his civil liberties kicked in.

Within six hours, a doctor had to certify that he was dangerous. Within 30 hours, the ER had to locate a bed in a psychiatric hospital or release him.

Once he was admitted, he was appointed an attorney and a hearing was scheduled before a judge who would review whether he was still dangerous enough to stay hospitalized. And even then, he still had to consent to taking medication.

After a while, doctors thought he was improving. He acknowledged making “errors in judgment,” according to his medical records, and agreed that his thoughts about the family being killed were “not based in reality.”

After 24 days, doctors found that he was “no longer suicidal or homicidal.” He no longer met the criteria for involuntary commitment, and so he was discharged.

Back home, he went off his medication. He became angry and withdrawn, cursing his wife and family for putting him in the hospital. Then he sent Jennifer an e-mail referring to her in the third person — “She’s hell bent on lying,” it began — which a counselor told her exhibited the kind of dissociative thinking that precedes a potentially violent psychotic break, and she left.

He followed her. He banged on her parents’ door in the middle of the night. She called the police, who saw that he was violating a protective order she had obtained, and took him to jail, which as Jennifer now sees it was his last chance for help.

She said that during his court appearance she begged the judge to order mental health treatment, but a psychiatric evaluation found that he was only delusional, not dangerous, which limited what the judge could do. He was released after four days.

He went back to the house and painted the door yellow.

Jennifer filed for divorce in the New England town, where the judge in the case ordered her husband to have another psychiatric evaluation after he attempted to represent himself. That one found “the presence of schizoaffective disorder,” which led the judge to declare him incompetent and appoint him two legal guardians.

Jennifer thought the ruling could help force another involuntary commitment, but a friend of hers who is a judge in Maryland told her it wouldn’t be enough.

“Everyone says he could become dangerous,” she says. “But not that he is dangerous.”

It wasn’t enough, she realized, that the divorce judge found “by clear and convincing evidence” that her husband “suffers from a profound mental illness which renders him incapable of caring for the children or exercising parenting time with them except in a supervised setting.”

It wasn’t enough that she has notified her kids’ school to call the police if he shows up.

Or that she dreams he kills her, which she shakes off because he has never been violent, but which remains a visceral enough fear that when she sees a black SUV, as she does one day, pulling into a gas station across from her office, she is startled.

“It’s just like his,” she says, squinting at the car.

When she sees a homeless man walking by her office, she thinks that could be her ex-husband, too, and sometimes the sight of him makes her cry.

But none of that was enough, so she is waiting for him to become sicker, so he might become dangerous, so he might get some help. She imagines how it might happen.

“Maybe if he stopped eating and passed out — that’d be an ideal situation,” she says.

“Maybe if he steals food and gets caught, and if he’s in a state of confusion so police officers could see,” she says.

“You hope he tries to kill himself and fails,” she says.

“My goodness,” she says, realizing how horrible that must sound.

Kay has had a long and painful ordeal coping with the mental illness of her son. She put off her retirement indefinitely because she didn’t know how long she would have to support her son. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
The mother

On day 768, the mother of the man in the house, Kay, drives over to see her only son.

She keeps in contact with a psychiatrist who once evaluated him and gives her advice about what to do, and one thing he has been telling her lately is to stop going over there alone. But she is going.

She, too, wishes her son could be committed to a psychiatric facility of some kind, but because that is not possible she texts him that she is bringing groceries.

“Ino.I” he texts back.

The other thing the psychiatrist tells Kay is that she needs to stop bringing food, stop paying for his car and take him off her credit card. He says that she is enabling her son’s delusional behavior and that any support should be conditional on him seeing a doctor. Otherwise, the psychiatrist says, she should cut him off and let him get worse.

Another text: “I no I” he types.

She decides not to go to the house. Instead, she calls her daughter, who is the sister of the man in the house, and a few days later they are talking about what to do.

“Everything has to stop, isn’t that what the doctor said?” the daughter is saying gently.

“Yeah,” the mother says.

She looks pale. She has been getting thinner.

“His thought is it doesn’t give him any incentive to talk to us as long as he knows he’s going to be supported,” the daughter says.

“And my fear is we’re going to push him into a corner, and he’s going to feel desperate,” the mother says. Then she remembers what the doctor said about that. “He said, ‘You don’t know that because you haven’t tried it.’ ”

She is 66 and has put off her retirement indefinitely because she doesn’t know how long she may have to support her son.

“My feeling is we use it to barter with,” the daughter says. “We say that our help is going to be based on him seeing a doctor.”

“I guess,” the mother says.

She is fidgeting with her earring; she is kneading her cheek.

“I think it’d be easier if we saw him,” the daughter says.

The last time her mother saw him was several weeks before, when she was bringing food and he came outside. It was evening, and he would not let her inside, so they sat on the porch. She tried to talk to him, but he took almost every word as having a double meaning. When she said “hi,” he said, “I’m not high.” When she said she didn’t mean it like that, he said, “Do you think I’m stupid?”

He told her that she and his father — they divorced when he was a teenager — were bad parents. He would seem angry, then lost, and then, she thought, close to a realization. He looked at the sky and said, “Don’t you just wish we could go back to when we were a family again?” He talked about being “free.” He said the family was trying to kill him.

The psychiatrist has told her not to take such talk personally, that it’s the illness.

But she always believes there is truth in what her son is saying, however jumbled it might seem, and one thing he has said is that he’s never going back to a hospital. She thinks he’d die rather than go.

During his one involuntary commitment, she had visited him nearly every one of those 24 days. She still regrets how it happened, the handcuffs in the middle of the street. She regrets that he was in a locked ward with patients who she guessed were homeless and an elderly man who walked around naked one day, which she is sure embarrassed her son. She worried that he felt demeaned. She promised him then she’d never do anything to put him back there again.

Only now, almost three years later, she knows he needs help, and she knows that cutting off his financial support might be the only means to that end.

“Me personally, if I saw how bad off he was, it would be easier to be firm that we’re doing it for his own good,” her daughter is saying. “I feel if he’s near the final stages, and we’re only going to make him suffer a short period, it’s easier. If he’s not near the end, and we’re going to make him suffer longer, it’s going to be worse.”

“When you say ‘near the end,’ you mean the point, where — ?” his mother asks.

“Where he’s near his low point,” is all the daughter says, trying not to upset her mother. “We just cut to the chase and force him to that point quicker.”

They go on talking, the mother fidgeting, the daughter gently prodding, and resolve that they will tell him that there will be no money without cooperation.

A few days later, the mother tells him. Then she leaves him $100 for his birthday, and $200 for Christmas, and more groceries on the porch, until her son says if she comes back he will get a restraining order.

A few days later, he sends her a text.

“IIIIIIII” it reads.

Charles has tried to get help for his mentally ill son from anyone he thinks might be able to help, but no one can. It leaves him wondering: If his son can’t get help, how will things end? (Andre Chung/for The Washington Post)
The father

Nine days later, day 802, his 69-year-old father, Charles, is going over to the house.

He is worried like everyone else, and as he pulls into his son’s neighborhood at noon on a Thursday, he is surprised to see him out of the house and in his car, parked by the neighborhood entrance. He seems to be adjusting a GPS device.

Charles honks his horn, parks and walks over. He taps on the window, and as it rolls down, he sees his son for the first time in so many months of trying, months of sitting outside the house, waiting for him to come outside, leaving messages — “Hi, it’s Dad. I’m out here.”

He looks thin, his father thinks, but neat and clean. There are piles of blankets in the back seat and, on top of the car, a wooden cargo box.

Charles asks his son how he is doing, and his son just stares. Charles says they need to talk about a new living arrangement because the house is being sold and tells his son about his own health problems. He says he won’t be around forever.

“We all care. I care. You’re always on my mind,” Charles will recall saying, along with his son’s response.

“I don’t care,” the son says and tells his father that if he doesn’t move, he will call the police. The son says he’s not afraid of the police, and drives off.

And now Charles drives down the hill to his son’s house to see what he can figure out.

“Isn’t that bizarre?” he says, looking at the yellow door.

He notices a yellow “X” spray-painted on the garage door, or maybe it is the number 7. He stares at it.

“All my kids are born on the 7th; maybe it’s related to that,” he says.

He gets out of the car and looks at the yard of dead leaves.

“See, that’s not like him,” he says.

He tries to open the front door but it is locked. He tries to see inside the living room, but the curtains are drawn. He tries to open the wooden fence gate, but it is locked, too. He grabs it, rattles it.

He leaves, and Jennifer calls, and they have the same conversation they always have, which ends the way it always ends.

“Our hands are tied,” he tells her. “What can we do?”

This is one question he lives with, but there are others.

When news broke that a man shot and killed 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard, he wondered, is that my son? When he reads a story about a body pulled from the harbor, he worries, is that going to be him? If his son can’t get help, how will things end?

For two years, he has written his governor, his U.S. senator, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, whoever he can think of to plead for help.

“We are lost in how to help our son who lives alone and we can’t do anything because of existing mental health laws,” he wrote in one letter.

“In light of all the recent tragic issues with mentally ill involved in tragic events, we want to help prevent this situation from occurring with our son,” he wrote in another.

“As soon as his savings are exhausted . . . he will become another nameless, homeless person wandering the streets or in jail!” went another.

“Please help us!!!!!!” was how he ended them all.

Jennifer sits in her car outside the church where she got married. She wishes that her ex-husband could be involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital so he could get better and once again be the person she married. (Michele McDonald/for The Washington Post)
Remembering who he was

Two days after his father sees him, the man in the house is gone.

Jennifer is on the phone with Kay telling her this, saying he left a message on her phone overnight about how he pitied her because her thoughts were being controlled. He said that he was in another state and that he had “a plan.”

So Kay is again driving over to the house. It is dark, and as she winds down the little valley toward his cul-de-sac, she passes houses lit with white Christmas lights until she comes to his, which is dark. She pulls into the driveway and points the headlights at the garage. Dead leaves are piled against it.

“It doesn’t look like he’s loaded anything out of the garage,” she says.

She squints at the first-floor living room windows, but the drapes are drawn. She looks up at the second-floor windows, which are dark. She taps her index finger on the steering wheel and gets out.

She walks across the soggy side yard to the locked wooden gate and looks over the back yard at the picket fence, the stone patio, the grass covered with months of leaves.

“He built this whole fence by himself,” she says. “He built all this.”

She walks to the other side of the house.

“Oh,” she says, seeing a light in a basement window.

She trudges closer through the leaves. She leans on the fence and tries to see inside but can’t. She looks at the back yard again.

“The grass was beautiful,” she says.

She notices that a light is on in a second-floor bathroom window and wonders if he could be inside.

She looks back at the yard and keeps talking about who her son was — a handsome, sensitive, loving person who adored his family, who sent her birthday cards and Mother’s Day cards that she often takes out and reads.

People tell her she needs to take care of herself, to go to a support group for families, and she did go to a meeting once. The topic was acceptance, which was the last thing she wanted to contemplate, and she never went again.

She wants to believe he can recover with the right help, and if that remains impossible, she wants to believe that her sheer devotion can somehow get through to him, and if that can’t happen, she hopes he can be happy in his own world, in some new life, even if that means she never sees him again.

She gets back into her car and drives away past the Christmas lights. She is talking about how her son loved Christmas. She is saying the lights make her sick.

(Alex Nabaum/For The Washington Post)
How to react?

Two weeks later, a neighbor calls Jennifer. Her ex-husband is back in the house. He has returned with a different car.

A few days after that, the neighbor calls again: He’s gone.

And then another call: He’s back in the house, this time with his own car.

And now the neighbor is calling Jennifer again to tell her that her ex-husband’s car isn’t in the driveway, where he always keeps it, but inside the garage. In a panic, Jennifer calls her former sister-in-law, and the sister calls her father and asks him to please go over there now.

So on day 849, Charles is going, thinking of a neighbor who committed suicide in a garage, car running, succumbing to fumes, and also thinking with some guilt about how things reached the point they have.

On the day of his son’s involuntarily commitment, it was Charles who told police, “That’s my son, arrest him,” and it was Charles who heard his son’s reply: “You’ve got to be kidding. There’s nothing wrong.”

And even though he knew how very sick his son was and how badly he needed help, all Charles could think of as his son was handcuffed was how terrible it was. It was terrible seeing him in the hospital, too, which Charles refers to as “zombie land.”

But the most terrible thing of all has been seeing his son decline without any mental health treatment — seeing him lose his wife, lose his kids — and being unable to do anything about it except wait for him to get worse and, now, drive over to the house to see what potentially awful thing has happened.

He reads stories all the time about how people “missed the signs” after some tragedy involving a person with mental illness, only here he is, not missing the signs. Everyone sees the signs, only there’s nothing anyone can do.

He pulls up to his son’s house. No car in the driveway. He pounds on the yellow door. No answer. He goes back to his car and leaves a message.

“Hey, it’s Dad. I’m out front.”

It’s the message he always leaves, but this time the yellow door opens.

His son appears gaunt and disheveled. He is wearing white earphones, wrinkled khakis and a wrinkled button down. He yells for his dad to stay where he is. He yells, “I don’t like you!” and “I don’t want to ruin your life anymore!”

His father yells, “I want to help you!”

His son says he needs $7,000 and starts cursing at his dad, who finally drives off.

“How are we supposed to react to him?” he says later. “Are we supposed to leave him alone? Let him hit rock bottom? Give him money? Is that the right thing? I don’t know.”

On day 851, Charles tries one more thing. He drives to Annapolis, where a growing backlash against the current standards for involuntary commitment has led advocates to press for a bill to change Maryland’s involuntary commitment law, one of the nation’s strictest.

Among the legislation’s provisions that would make involuntary commitment easier is one that would change the wording in the law from requiring that a person “presents” a danger to himself or others to “is reasonably expected, if not hospitalized, to present” a danger.

In a crowded hearing room, the committee hears from a lawyer opposed to the measure, who argues that the language would “enable the roundup of the homeless” and others unable to care for themselves for economic reasons. She says the bill would require the reopening of old psychiatric hospitals and would return the state to “darker days.”

Another opponent says increased hospitalizations would cost at least $40 million. A former patient testifies that she felt “humiliated and powerless” during her own involuntary commitment.

Then the senators hear from a psychiatrist who supports the legislation, who says the changes in the law would apply only to a very narrow spectrum of people who suffer “clear psychotic symptoms anyone would recognize.” They listen to family members who support the changes, too, who describe what happened when they were unable to get loved ones hospitalized.

A 92-year-old woman testifies about the lasting memory of her husband on his knees, begging their son to see a psychiatrist two days before he committed suicide.

A father describes how he was unable to hospitalize his adult son in the days before he tried to poison his mother and how he went on to live under a bridge.

A husband recalls the day he received news that his long-disappeared wife had flown to Europe, swam into the Mediterranean and died of hypothermia.

Then a father testifies about his 42-year-old son, who has lived alone in a house now for 851 days “detached from society,” and who has begun “disappearing for weeks at a time and offering no insight to anyone as to what he is thinking.”

“His disease has taken over how he thinks, feels and acts and has taken over his personal liberty,” he says. “To wait for hospital treatment does no one any good. Everyone suffers.”

The father goes home, and nothing changes. The bill doesn’t pass. His son seems worse. He talks to his priest. He checks the newspaper for names when something horrible happens.

On day 889, word comes that his son has disappeared again.

Clockwise from left: Plants grow inside the house where a man with mental illness lived alone for more than two years. A mug with yellow duct tape left inside the house. The washer and dryer painted with yellow spray paint. A box of circuit boards left inside the house. (Photos by Stephanie McCrummen/The Washington Post)
Remnants of a life

And now Jennifer is standing at the yellow door. Her hands are shaking. She has her old keys and she is trying to get inside the house for the first time since she left.

She slides a key in the deadbolt, which opens. She tries three different keys in the second lock, but he has changed it.

She and a friend who has come with her climb over the locked fence gate, and she yanks at the sliding glass door until the frame bends, but the door won’t open.

On the patio, she sees the frame of her ex-husband’s mountain bike, duct taped and painted white, and she touches it. She walks into the yard and kicks a small pile of blackened charcoal into the dying grass. The neighbor who has been giving her updates comes by.

“I almost didn’t recognize you, you’re so skinny,” he says, hugging her. “He’s gone, right?”

“He’s gone,” she says.

She had monitored his Skype call with the boys a few days earlier. He appeared to be in some kind of shed.

“I think it’s better to come through here,” the friend says, motioning toward a basement window. “He may have something pointed at the front door.”

The friend starts bashing the glass with a brick.

Jennifer yells into the broken window.

“Excuse me! Anyone in there?”

She slips through the window and lands in the laundry room, and for the first time in more than two years, she is inside of the house. She turns on a light.

“Wow,” she says.

The washer and dryer are sprayed with a streak of yellow. The labels on two bottles of Sun soap are covered with yellow duct tape.

She walks upstairs and into the foyer. “Please remove footwear,” she says, reading a handwritten sign taped to the wall, and turns into the living room, where the stuff of their old life is heaped in piles.

“My God.”

There is their leather chair, turned over. There is their couch, all the cushions pulled off. By the fireplace is a crate of wires and circuit boards, a half-disassembled power washer, and the boys’ dissembled bunk beds. There is box of gray and brown bird feathers and a can of charcoal lighter. There is a big red bin, which she opens. It is full of family photos removed from walls and shelves. In a corner is a coffee table with more photos of the boys, and one of a little girl she picks up for a moment — “Who is this?” she says, studying it — and then puts down.

She walks through the dining room, where a desk is sprayed with yellow and scattered with plant care instructions for fruit trees, onions, asparagus and grapes.

She goes into the kitchen, where there are little green plants potted in orange juice cartons by the sliding glass door. There is a mug that says “I love my Dad” only “Dad” has a square of white paper taped over it, and another one with yellow duct tape covering “life is good.”

She opens a cabinet, which is empty except for containers of oatmeal and some nuts.

A soap bottle by the sink has the label scratched off. The stove has cardboard underneath the knobs, covering the heat settings.

On a counter are 20 pale orange pills half disintegrated on a greasy paper towel, and next to the pills are more photos of the boys, and one of the actress Keira Knightley carefully trimmed around the shape of her head with a piece of yellow duct tape on the back.

She turns into the foyer where she began and opens the closet. On the floor is a pair of flip-flops painted white, and hanging is a jacket with the “Nike” label covered with duct tape.

She goes upstairs. More plants in cartons. More dissembled furniture and clothes in piles. In one room, a square is cut out of the ceiling, and yellow duct tape is hanging down.

She goes back downstairs, down into the basement den where they used to share their glass of wine, and where there are now heaps of garbage bags she pulls open. The boys’ clothes. Toys.

There are seven empty cardboard boxes with invoices for a recently purchased solar panel, synergistic nutrition pills and work boots. There is an empty box for a power inverter.

She opens a cabinet that is empty except for two things.

“Huh,” she says, taking out a Coke bottle that she had kept for sentimental reasons, and a sherry carafe that was a favorite wedding present.

“See?” she says. “He knows these are two things that would mean anything to me. He’s not mean.”

She goes outside into the garage, where there are more boxes of wires, more scratched-off labels, more yellow duct tape and stacks of cardboard boxes she starts opening. She pulls out her college clothes, her old backpack now painted yellow.

“Oh my,” she says, and pulls out her wedding dress.

She puts it back and shuts the box.

She circles through the house a few more times, studying the mugs again, the disintegrating pills, the white sandals, the plants, the feathers, the yellow.

She walks into the back yard and stands in front of the tiered garden he planted for her, which is weedy and brown and slopes down into a small valley of grass.

“This was an awesome sledding hill,” she says, and she folds her arms and cries.

That night, she doesn’t sleep.

The next morning, she comes back with a truck to pack up what she wants to salvage, and several friends and neighbors stop by to help.

“He started DNA-swabbing the boys,” she says when they start asking.

“He painted the yellow X on the garage door and then painted the door yellow.”

“You should see the back, my husband made it really nice when he was a healthy, happy person.”

“He’s been alone for two years now.”

“I’m just so sad,” she whispers to a friend.

A real estate agent arrives to discuss selling the house.

“We talked to a judge,” she tells him. “He said as long as he’s not dangerous, there’s nothing we can do.”

Which is what his family finally comes to accept.

His mother calls the psychiatrist to ask if there is anything else to do, and he says no. The psychiatrist says the person he is becoming increasingly worried about is her. She keeps her son on her credit card but decides not to go to the house again. She says she doesn’t want to see it the way it is.

His father doesn’t go either. He stops leaving messages. His blood pressure is spiking.

On day 895, Jennifer finishes packing the truck, hurries through the house one last time and drives straight back home, deciding not to stay another night.

On day 896, the house with the yellow door is empty.

The man who was there stops communicating with his family, except for text messages he sends his ex-wife to arrange calls with his sons, which are becoming less frequent.

The family who loves him, who would do anything for him, stops trying to persuade him to get help. They wish he could be involuntarily committed. He can’t be involuntarily committed. The man in the house is now out of the house and somewhere else on his own.