Maureen lived alone.
Truly alone: not only what people think of as alone, that is to say, living without other humans. Not even alone alone, that is to say, without a dog, cat, or even a goldfish. Maureen lived alone in that she was the only living creature in her apartment. No pets, no plants, no pest problems. Within her Queens studio, Maureen was well and unarguably alone.
That is not to say Maureen was lonely. She worked in an office with a small team of six, two of whom she considered friends. An old college roommate lived just a few blocks away, and a friend from high school had just moved to Hell’s Kitchen. A former coworker from Maureen’s brief time as a Starbucks barista was out in Brooklyn, and though Maureen hadn’t dated anyone seriously since Trent, two years ago, she usually went on a few dates a month, guys she met in bars or online. She was content, and one of the greatest sources of contentment was her empty apartment, the eye in the storm of this crazy city, a peaceful haven all her own where everything was exactly as she liked it.
Maureen wouldn’t say she was obsessive about cleanliness and organization, not exactly, but she was a bit of a neat freak and living in a studio, well, everything had to be in its place. One pair of shoes in the middle of the floor looked like wreckage from a hurricane when you lived in 300 square feet.
It was why she noticed, instantly, when she came home on Friday night, that a spoon was lying on the center of what she generously called her kitchen counter. She’d done the dishes that morning before work, as always, and left it drying in the dish rack with the accompanying cereal bowl. Upon closer inspection, she noted that the spoon was perfectly clean, making its placement all the more incongruous. But it was Friday, and it was late, and one drink at happy hour had turned into three and Maureen simply put the spoon in its drawer and went to bed.
The spoon would have been forgotten about if not for the socks in the middle of the floor the next morning. Even tipsy, Maureen was the sort of person to throw her clothes in the hamper, or at least on a chair, instead of the floor, when she got undressed, but then again, when was the last time she’d had three drinks without dinner?
Saturday she spent in bed, nursing her slight hangover and allowing herself a guilt-free day of R&R: naps, delivery, and an entire season of her favorite sitcom. Sunday she pulled herself together and cleaned the place top to bottom before heading to brunch.
It was the cleaning binge that made her question the toothpaste when she returned. She’d just scrubbed down the entire bathroom, so why would the toothpaste tube be uncapped? For that matter, why was it sitting on the sink in the first place? She always put everything in the medicine cabinet when she cleaned.
This time, there was no alcohol to blame. The spoon and socks had been disconcerting enough to forgo her usual mimosa.
Maureen put away the toothpaste and went to watch more TV, the laugh track a comforting companion.
After the salad bowl, Maureen changed the locks.
Maureen actually enjoyed cooking, but she hadn’t cooked anything more complicated than spaghetti since things had ended with Trent. The breakup had been amicable, but when she thought back on their five year relationship, three years in college and the two following graduation, it wasn’t Trent she grew wistful for, but their monthly dinner parties. The one bedroom they’d shared in Bed Stuy had full size appliances, ample counter space, a dining room table, and even a tiny backyard with rickety outdoor furniture. Impossibly small by suburban standards, but in the city it made the perfect spot for the five to eight people Trent and Maureen hosted the first Friday night of every month. The salad bowl had been a surprise gift on the one year anniversary of the monthly dinner parties from their guests. It was easily the most expensive thing either Maureen or Trent had ever owned, and that included their furniture, but Trent hadn’t protested when Maureen had packed it with her things when moving out, even though she was moving into a studio so small the bowl barely fit on the counter. After all, she’d always done the cooking, and she was the one who had to move. The breakup had been mutual, college sweethearts who realized that they’d grown apart in the real world, but Trent made more money than Maureen. He could afford to pay the rent they’d always split, and Maureen couldn’t.
And so she got the bowl. It was so large it didn’t even fit in her cupboards, and so she’d never even taken it out of the moving box, which lived in the very back of her tiny closet.
Until it didn’t. It sat on her counter, bubble wrap removed, gleaming as if she’d just washed it, instead of letting it gather dust for two solid years.
There was no ambiguity. Spoons, socks, toothbrushes. . .Maureen could brush those off, small things she’d forgotten she’d moved. This, however. . .this was something else.
She didn’t call the police, of course. She wasn’t naive enough to think they’d believe that a salad bowl sitting in her kitchen was irrefutable proof of. . .well, whatever was happening. Instead, she checked the closet, where she noticed that the moving box was exactly as she’d left it when she moved in. In the back corner.
For three weeks after the salad bowl incident, nothing happened. This both reassured and unnerved Maureen. On one hand, it was a relief that there were no more incidents. It felt good to have taken action and stopped a problem that had been making her uncomfortable. On the other hand, if the incidents could stop with a simple lock change, it meant that someone had invaded her space. He—it was, in Maureen’s mind, decidedly a he—had targeted her, broken into her apartment specifically to gaslight her, but to what end? It made Maureen feel dirty to think that he could have been in her apartment while she was, watching her sleep, watching her shower. In spite of the lock changes, Maureen’s affordable, private haven in the city now felt more like a trap.
On the third hand, well. Maureen didn’t have three hands, but then again, a salad bowl couldn’t just be removed from a sealed box either, so on the third hand, Maureen wasn’t sure if whatever it was was just biding its time. This couldn’t be a prank from someone she knew, not only because Maureen trusted those she surrounded herself with, but because no one else had her keys. The locks had been changed when she moved in, ruling out a previous tenant, and even her landlord only had keys to the front door and the top lock, not top and bottom. If he needed to get into the apartment while Maureen was at work, he’d request she leave the bottom lock undone, so he could get in with only the keys he had. Therefore, changing the locks shouldn’t deter a stranger, since he wouldn’t have had access to the original keys in the first place. On the fourth hand. . .Maureen didn’t believe in ghosts, but she just couldn’t come up for an explanation as to how the salad bowl had left the box. She’d opened the box, just to confirm that the bowl left on her counter hadn’t been a replica (though if it had been, it would have begged the disturbing question of how someone could have known the exact salad bowl she hadn’t used in two years), but it was as she’d originally thought: the box was empty save for the bubble wrap and tissue paper that had been protecting the bowl, folded neatly.
Still, three weeks is a long time, and Maureen was surprised with how easily she was able to slip back into her old routine. She was more alert now, assuredly, both in and outside her apartment, and even toyed with the utterly impractical idea of getting a dog, a big one like a pit bull or German shepard. But in the end, Maureen simply decided that she would move when her lease was up, and went about her business.
The morning of the move, Maureen felt silly. It had been four months since the salad bowl incident, long enough now that she was beginning to doubt her own memory. Yes, she was the one who had first thought of the term gaslighting—after all, she was the only person who knew what had happened, being too embarrassed to share the story with any of her friends—but really. It was just a salad bowl, only unique in that it was stupidly overpriced. In fact, she’d sold it, fetching a nice sum. She felt a little guilty, selling a gift, and wistful for those long ago dinner parties with people she rarely saw anymore, but the fact was Maureen didn’t really have the money to move, and the bowl had covered a fair amount of her broker’s fee. All her friends thought she was crazy, paying for brokers and movers and security deposits to move into an apartment that was no bigger and slightly less nice, only a ten minute walk from her current apartment, and now, as she finished packing her things, she kind of agreed with them. This apartment had been good to her.
The movers were late due to a car accident. It was hardly their fault, much less Maureen’s, but apparently they had another job scheduled right after Maureen’s, and they took their frustration out on her, snapping that she should have moved the boxes closer to the door, grumbling when she waited patiently in the apartment and yelling when she tried to help instead. Thoroughly ruffled, and wishing she’d accepted her friend Cynthia’s offer to help, Maureen said she was getting a snack, and hid in a bodega until it looked like the movers had put the last of it in their truck. She quickly slipped inside her soon to be former building to do a final sweep and lock up, but was met halfway up the second flight of stairs by the irate head mover. “We said everything had to be boxed up, lady,” he spat.
“What?” asked Maureen. “It was. I did.”
The mover shook his head in disgust. “We’re leaving now. You can take the rest yourself and meet us with the keys.”
Things had been so quiet that as Maureen ascended the next staircase to her old three story walk up the first thing she thought of was the nasty Yelp review she’d be leaving.
But when she stepped inside what should have been a completely empty space, she saw it. Her blender, sitting on the closed seat of the toilet.
Maureen’s first instinct was to question the movers, but what use would that be? She’d packed everything and left the boxes by the door. They would have had no reason to go inside the bathroom unless they’d wanted to use it, and so would have thought Maureen had simply forgotten to pack the blender, especially as they’d been up and down the stairs the entire time she’d been out, and would have seen if anyone had come inside.
So Maureen picked up the blender, locked up her old apartment, and threw it in the garbage on her way out.
Maureen was an organized person, but she’d never unpacked as quickly or obsessively as she did in her new place. Everything went into carefully labeled containers, stacked just so. It made her look crazy, but it was actually to ensure she wasn’t: when everything had a place, there would be no ambiguity if something was moved by a hand other than hers.
Maureen was struggling, both socially and professionally. Her friends were annoyed that she refused to have them over, and rarely joined them when they went out. But she needed to be the only person in her apartment for the experiment to work, and she hated thinking of what went on while she was away, so she rarely left unless she had to: namely, to make the money she needed to live. But while she was in the office, she worried about what was going on at home. In an attempt to regain her focus, she bought one of those cameras meant to keep an eye on your pet. But then she found herself checking her phone constantly, waiting for a notification that never came, since the camera only began recording when it sensed movement, and there wasn’t any movement. Just like there weren’t any footprints, or broken windows, or jimmied locks.
But there was displacement. No, more than that. Offerings. Because unlike last time, the objects that now appeared on an almost daily basis weren’t hers. Flowers she’d never received. Nail polish she’d never purchased. Sweaters she’d never seen before and trinkets she could never afford.
Another word came to mind. Gifts. And that scared Maureen most of all.
Maureen faked a family emergency in order to get a leave of absence from work. Given her haphazard performance at the office recently, her boss didn’t question her lie, and gave her three paid weeks to get her shit together. The next thing Maureen did was break her lease, throw away everything she owned, and move out of not only Queens, but New York City entirely, holing up in a sublet in Jersey City. It did briefly cross Maureen’s mind that she could flee to her parents’ house in Arizona, but she dismissed the thought almost immediately. Moving hadn’t worked before, so it wasn’t guaranteed to work now, and she couldn’t bring. . . whatever this was down on her parents.
For better or worse, Maureen was in this alone.
And it quickly became clear that it was for worse.
The first morning, when she woke up, the salt shaker, one of the basics Maureen had hastily purchased on the way to her new apartment, had tipped over, spilling almost the entire container into a pile on the floor. Feeling a bit ridiculous, but not ridiculous enough to stop, she threw a bit of it over her shoulder before cleaning up the mess, depositing the shaker in the trash along with the mess.
When she stepped out of the shower, it was the pepper.
And by the end of the week, it was words.
Words written in spilled spices on the counter, in shampoo on floor of the tub, in toothpaste on the mirror. One word, to be specific. “LONELY,” in all capital letters, with a shaky question mark at the end that somehow made it feel all the more menacing. It wasn’t just a proclamation. Whatever it was wanted more from Maureen than she’d already given it. It wanted an answer.
Maureen resisted. She cleaned the messages as soon as they appeared, but the frequency that they started appearing meant that all Maureen was doing was combating the messages. She rarely ate or slept, making the physical toll almost as burdensome as the mental. She was twenty pounds underweight, hysterical from lack of sleep, a weepy mess of the woman she’d once been.
She was broken.
And, yes, she was lonely.
She hadn’t been when this began, which was the point of fury that drove her resistance. But her once full life was driven to this, no job, no contact with friends or family, nothing at all but her and it, and the question that was becoming as tantalizing as it was insidious.
The lowest point, ironically, came from the most natural of causes. Weeks of neglecting her body led to a flu like Maureen had never had before. She absently thought it might even be pneumonia, but she was too weak to get herself to a doctor to check, and she refused to call an ambulance. In the days she’d spent in bed, unable to do more than drag herself to the bathroom every few hours, the messages had accumulated, and now covered almost every surface of her apartment: the walls, the floor, the ceiling. They were in various substances, but Maureen was too feverish and exhausted to pay attention, until the blood.
It was hers. She’d been getting bloody noses the past few nights, waking up to blood spots on her sheets, but now, in the handwriting she now recognized more than her own, “LONELY?” was spelled out in streaky blood on her pillow. This time, though, something was different. The second “l” wasn’t written in blood at all, but instead denoted by a long, thin knife.
Maureen stared at the knife, her breath coming faster and faster, shallow and shallower. Slowly, deliberately, she picked up the knife. Even more slowly, she ran the blade across her left palm. Then she dipped her right forefinger in the pooling blood, and filled in the “l” now missing from the message. Then, underneath it, she wrote, “Yes.”