They always find a way to watch you. No matter what you do, you can’t hide for long. First, They try to spy on you the easy way, with the camera phones and webcams and the televisions with the microphones. Any device that’s got a way of seeing or hearing, you can know for sure that it’s being used as Their eyes or ears. So you smash the devices with a hammer and put them out on the curb with the trash, so all They can see is a fragmented picture of the people walking past on the curb. But the problem is that that’s not enough. You aren’t the only one who has these things; They made phones small enough for everyone to be carrying them around in public, so now They are watching you as a lady calls her husband in the dairy aisle or as a kid plays games on his mom’s phone while they wait for the checkout line. And phones aren’t the only ways that They keep tabs on you in public; every move you make is watched by a dozen hidden cameras, underneath the trash can or inside the street light or high up in a tree. The streets of Manhattan are busy, jam-packed with prying eyes, and the people who walk beside you down the street cast quick, fleeting glances at you, taking note of your speech, your clothes, your twitching eye or fidgeting fingers, and report it all back to Them. So then you decide to never leave your apartment, to wall yourself up in an enclosed space, small and empty because you’re too afraid to go to the furniture store, with no phones or computers or televisions, never speaking for fear that your words will be picked up on through the thin walls by the devices of a neighbor who doesn’t know any better, who thinks you’re paranoid or insane. Still, you have to search the apartment every morning to make sure no cameras were installed in your sleep. And even living like this isn’t safe. Because now you are a target; now They have recognized you as someone who knows the truth, as a deviant, as someone who could rebel or tell others what you know. You are awake; you are harder to watch, harder to control, and therefore you are a threat that must be either constantly monitored or eliminated.
They already know that I am onto Them. Just last week, They made an attempt to eliminate me. When I had heard the knock on the door, I started to panic. It was the police, I was sure of it, and although I hadn’t committed any crimes I knew that wouldn’t stop them from arresting me. I waited, hoping whoever it was would go away, but another knock confirmed their continued presence. Then the person outside my door called, “Pizza delivery!” I looked through the peephole and sure enough, it was not a group of police officers armed with guns, warrants, handcuffs, and a list of false accusations, but merely a teenage boy dressed in a red-and-black uniform, carrying a flat, square cardboard box. He was tall, but thin; there was no way he had the strength to break down my door, and if he attacked me, I could probably take him. He glanced around nervously with innocent green eyes, but I knew better than to trust this impression; They are clever, and besides, I hadn’t ordered a pizza anyway. I watched him through the peephole for what felt like hours but he still just stood there, waiting. I needed him to leave. If I took my eyes off him, even for a second, he would be peering through the crack between the door and the floor or fascinating a microphone to the doorknob. I would have to take my chances and confront him; I couldn’t stand a single second more of him standing right outside my door.
I only opened the door a little, and I stood in the way of the opening so he couldn’t see inside my apartment, or worse, try to come inside. He opened his mouth to speak, but I cut him off. “I didn’t order a pizza,” I said. “Please go away.”
“Are you sure? It says here that the delivery’s for…” He looked down at the receipt taped to the box and read, “Apartment 204 on 17th Street.”
I shook my head. “This isn’t 17th Street. It’s 7th Street. I didn’t order a pizza.”
“Oh, sorry. How far away is 17th Street?” His hand reached for his pocket and he started to bring something out, something small, thin, and rectangular. The small, circular camera on the cell phone flashed when the light touched it, and I slammed the door shut. “Hey, what’re—” he started to say, but I was too fast; I was already turning the lock. I watched him through the peephole. He looked at his phone, sighed, and then put it away. “Hey, listen, by the time I get to the next house this pizza will be cold, so I’m gonna have to get a new one. If you want it, it’s yours.”
“You sure? It’s just going to go to waste otherwise, so—”
“Go away!” Normally, I’m very careful to keep my voice quiet, but in that moment, the anger and the fear overpowered my usual sense of caution. He turned and ran, taking the big cardboard box with him. I am certain that every slice inside was laced with poison.
There is another knock at the door, and my natural state of worry escalates to full-on panic. They are back. Is it the pizza boy again, or someone else? The police? An assassin? Whoever it is, they are dangerous. They will take my privacy, or even my life; I will have no power, no control. I slowly walk towards the door, trying not to make any noise that could indicate that I am home. I look through the peephole. It’s a man with a sky-blue shirt that says he works for Larry’s Heating and Air Conditioning: a repairman. He is carrying a box that is supposed to carry tools but probably carries weapons instead. I can’t open the door again. Even if I only open it a sliver, he can still shoot me or force it open further; he looks much stronger than the boy with the pizza. I have to wait him out. He knocks once again—faster, more impatiently this time. I do not dare to move. I do not even dare to breathe. He mumbles, “Well, if nobody’s home,” and I feel the closest thing I have felt to hope in weeks, but then he reaches into the pocket of his jeans and I am immediately reminded of the delivery boy—the camera. The hallway light flashes against the object he pulls out, but it is not a phone. It’s worse: it’s the landlord’s master key.
They have trapped me. I am a mouse in Their paws now: weak, powerless, and destined to lose. There is no other choice, so I open the door, but just barely, and I stand in the way of the opening again. The repairman stuffs the key back into his pocket when he sees me. “Hi, I’m just here to take a look at the AC. Apparently, some people have been complaining to your landlord about it not working, and it looks like it hasn’t been updated in a few years, so I’m going to be putting in a new one. Can I—” His mouth smiles, but his eyes don’t. “Can I come in?”
“No. My AC works just fine.”
“Well, even if it’s working fine now, I still need to update it. Like I said, it’s an old system, and it’s probably going to break down soon.”
“I don’t need it. I’m fine with the old one. You can go now.” I start to close the door.
“Wait, wait, wait. I’m sorry, buddy, but it’s not really up to you. The landlord paid me to fix all the air conditioners in this building, and I can’t just ignore a part of my job because you want me to. If the AC’s not working, then he might have to lower the price of rent, which, I know, is probably good for you, but it’s bad for him and he’s the one who hired me, so…” His voice trails off but he keeps looking at me, like he’s waiting for something—a predator, lying in wait for me. “Can I come in?”
I don’t know what to do. He has the key. If I slam the door in his face, he’ll just open it back up again with the key. They have backed me into a corner. So I open the door wide enough to allow him inside. Maybe he doesn’t know I’m onto him yet; why would he show up in the repairman costume if he didn’t think I could be tricked? It isn’t a very comforting thought, but it’s the closest thing I have, so when he asks me to lead him to the air conditioning vent, I take him into the kitchen, but I watch him like a hawk as he opens his toolbox and starts to remove the vent cover. I can see the inside of his toolbox; it just looks like a normal bunch of tools, but I know better. A screwdriver can be sharpened, a drill can cut through to the brain. But what I’m especially worried about is what he’s going to do to my air vent; the cover is perfect for concealing a camera or a microphone, and I can’t see his hand anymore after he reaches in. The smallest sleight-of-hand maneuver could place a spying device in that hand, a device that would soon be inside of my own wall.
“It looks like I’m going to have to replace the filters.” He pulls a white sheet out of his toolbox, made of thin, connected fibers. Or small wires made to look like fibers. The panic flares up again, worse than it’s ever been. Here They are, in my apartment, my own private apartment, conquering my freedom, my safety, my peace of mind. The thought of that sheet—a sheet from Them—inside my air vent is too much. If I let Them watch me here, I may as well be giving up, allowing Them complete dominion over me. I will have nothing left that is my own, truly my own—it will all be Theirs. The repairman does not look up as he places the sheet on the vent cover, or as he puts the vent cover against the wall and starts to fasten it back into place. My hands begin to shake; my foot begins to tap uncontrollably against the floor. I see an aluminum kitchen chair in my peripheral vision; I have no other choice. I can’t let Them watch me. I can’t let Them destroy me. I can’t.
I do not feel myself lifting the chair; I do not feel myself slamming it into the back of his head; I do not feel the repairman crumpling from his crouched position to the floor or the cold aluminum slipping out of my grasp. All I feel is the blood coursing through my veins, roaring in my ears, pounding on the walls of my heart to escape. For a moment that is all there is, blood and fear and the instinct to survive, until I hear the thud of the chair legs hitting the kitchen floor. The sound brings clarity, relief; I am no longer in immediate danger. They are gone, at least for now; now, I am in control. I drop to my knees and investigate the repairman. Is he dead, or merely unconscious? It doesn’t matter, not yet. All that matters now is getting rid of whatever device They were trying to install in my home; all else is secondary.
First, I search his pockets. There is the landlord’s key, a wallet containing a few dollars and a photo of a woman with two young children—his family, or fellow agents of Them acting as his family—and a wrinkled M&Ms wrapper. I dig through the toolbox; there are hammers, screwdrivers, wire strippers, pliers, extension cords, and drills, all appearing to be of average size, strength, and sharpness. I tear apart the filters, and the fibers pull apart easily. There does not appear to be any wire inside. They have hidden the camera well. It must be in the air vent. I grab a screwdriver and start turning the one half-fastened screw holding the cover to the wall towards the left.
There is a knock at the door. This one is loud, pounding, impolite. I can feel the blood drain from my face. I try to keep turning the screwdriver, but I am much slower now; my hands are shaking, and the red plastic handle slips out of my hands. I pick it back up, but I can’t get the screwdriver tip to fit back into the screw. My hands won’t do what I tell them to. I am no longer in control; They have come to reclaim power.
The knock sounds again; it is louder, angrier this time. It is accompanied by harsh shouts: “Open up!” and “We know you’re in there!” I don’t have to look through the peephole to know who is out there; it is who I have always feared would come. It is Them, it is Their police. I give up with the screwdriver and try to yank the cover off the wall. With a strong pull, the screw rolls out onto the floor and the cover comes off. I toss it aside; like the repairman, it is secondary.
There is a bang, louder than a knock. The heavy footsteps and unmuffled shouts tell me that the police have broken down the door. I glance at the repairman and I realize that They now have a crime to charge me with. They were watching, They were watching me the whole time.
The footsteps are getting louder, heavier, closer. I think they see me crouched down beside the vent. They are telling me to take my hand out of the vent and to put it above my head, but I can barely hear them. The rushing, pounding blood, pounding like the intruders’ heavy footsteps—it is too much. My hand flops around in the vent, feeling around for a device that does not belong, but my hand feels numb, useless, disconnected. I take my hand out and instead stick my head into the vent; all I see is darkness. They are grabbing me, they are dragging me away, and I cannot struggle; my arms and legs are not mine to move. All I have is my eyes, gazing into the darkness of the vent, fixed on a flashing red light in the back of the duct.
Kiera Zager is a writer from Livonia, Michigan. Her work has appeared in Phaeton Literary Magazine and Route 7 Review.