Emily turned down the heat on her stove and stirred the contents of the sauté pan. Garlic, oregano and tomato simmered and filled the air of her apartment. The scent was delicious, but she turned on the vent fan all the same. She didn’t want the odors to be permanent, a real possibility in a tiny studio apartment like hers. She spent a lot of time doing her best to keep the place tidy, which the small space made easier. Still, she wondered whether there were lingering smells or signs of wear that she could no longer detect, had long ago tuned out. There were no obvious indicators as far as she could tell. Delivery drivers and the building concierge betrayed no sense that anything was amiss.
But of course there was. Emily had not left that tiny apartment in going on six years and had not had any visitors in at least four. It was for that reason she worried whether she was even capable of noticing if her apartment was out of sorts. She tried to remember when that last visitor had come, an unannounced drop-in by her sister, and found the details escaped her. Such a tiny event did not strike her as noteworthy enough to merit being recorded for posterity at the time, but as her world grew smaller and smaller these memories seemed more important.
It was springtime, she thought. I’m sure of that much. There were the first little blossoms poking out of the trees along the street out front. Marcie tried to use that as an excuse to get me to go outside.
Emily bit her lip at the memory and turned down the thermostat. The heat of the kitchen was doing most of the work to keep her warm without any assistance needed. She thought back on that day. The rest of Marcie’s visit had not gone well after the suggestion to get some fresh air, and for that reason it had been the last visit she would make. Her sister didn’t understand. No one did. It was not so simple as just deciding to pull on some shoes and go for a walk. If that were all it took, the last six years would have been very different.
Emily marveled at that. Almost six years. That was a detail she did remember even if she often wished she did not. It was October now, and she had moved into the apartment in early December six years ago. Winter hit early and hard that year so at first her avoidance of going outside felt practical, sensible even. Who wants to be outside when it’s cold and snowy? Emily remembered relishing it at first. She felt as though she was being defiant, protesting the injustice of life on the other side of the windows. That place was corrupt and dangerous, filled with tricksters and criminals. But in here? Here was safe. Here nothing could go wrong. At first the apartment was her sanctuary, her escape. At first.
She thought about her circumstance, how the miracles of modern life made her very existence possible. Time was, you could be afraid to go outside but needed to rely on the kindness of others to come by and make sure you had what you needed. Or, you could isolate yourself from everyone but had to leave from time to time to take care of things. Now you could do both. A blessing and a curse.
Emily worked from home providing tech support to morons who mostly just needed to restart their computers, and she made a few extra dollars programming simple games for mobile phones as well. She interviewed for the support gig over video chat, signed and e-faxed the paperwork, and never met anyone she worked with. The company was based several states away, a good safe distance to assure they never needed to see her. All she needed was a dedicated phone line and speedy internet, and she could be mostly left alone.
Groceries were delivered once a week. Toiletries and other household products could be included in those orders when necessary. At one point she had to go downstairs to collect them, but three years ago she passed out in the hallway before she even made it to the elevator and had gone scrambling back to her apartment. Now the concierge, Anthony, was nice enough to bring them directly to her. Emily even managed to get a bit of exercise by playing yoga video podcasts on her computer. All of the basics covered. What more was there to life, really?
Night was falling outside and Emily went to draw up the blinds to her windows and move the curtains to the side. She kept them both closed during the day. The sunlight shamed her for not going out and enjoying it and for not having anywhere to go in the first place. But at night she liked to look out over the city and watch the lights in all the buildings coming to life as people got home. It made her feel like she was no different than any other resident in the apartments around her. If anyone saw her, they would see nothing more than a single woman in her late 30s scurrying about her apartment, cooking dinner, drinking wine and trying to find something on Netflix. They would see someone normal.
The timer on her stove chirped, a sound like digitized birdsong, and Emily walked back into the kitchen area to silence it. She dipped a wooden spoon into the sauce to taste it. Good but not done. Needed to cook down awhile longer. Emily reset the timer for ten more minutes and poured herself another glass of wine. She walked back over to the large double window and studied the night around her, wishing she had the strength to run out into it and go somewhere. She understood the ridiculousness in how she lived now. That initial defiance that came from refusing to go outside gave way, little by little, to a realization that she was hiding from things. Her fears, her past, her future. All of it. Unfortunately, knowing what the problem was did nothing to help her solve it, and she had long ago strong-armed anyone who might be willing to help her right out of her life.
Her mind replayed this conversation about her situation and what could be done about it most nights, but it never went anywhere different. She swirled her glass and took a large gulp of wine. Sometimes she worried that she drank too much on top of it, but what real consequences did she face from that? A little headache in the morning? Some lethargy? Worth it, she thought. It helped calm her nerves. It helped get her to sleep. It helped her to keep going.
Something flashed at the corner of her vision. Emily looked up and to the right at a building that was about a block away, visible only because it was taller than the ones immediately across the street from hers. Her neighborhood was a mix of old brick buildings, mostly dilapidated warehouses that were slowly being converted to trendy lofts. At nine floors, her building was taller than most, but the one she was looking at now stood at least twelve and her eye had been drawn to the very top floor.
All the lights were out save for a single window. Emily assumed it was that light coming on that she must have noticed, but then she saw movement as well. From the distance it was difficult to tell what was going on, but it looked animated. There were arms gesticulating about. She thought there were at least two, maybe three people up there. Emily spent most of her considerable spare time watching television, favoring the sort of procedural crime dramas that stay on the air for ages, but something worth watching in real life trumped that. Her solitary life had made her something of a voyeur. Over her years of isolation she had seen a couple of domestic arguments and a few exhibitionists, but mostly she saw people doing nothing much of interest. Still, she lived a richer life by living it through others, and a lonely light in a dark building provided great suspense.
Keeping her eyes trained on the window, she carefully drew the sheer curtains enough to make it difficult to see what she was doing from the outside. She had secrets to keep too after all. She squinted as she tried to see what was happening. It looked like an argument of some kind. Still watching the window, Emily reached into a small basket she kept on a shelf just beneath the window ledge and fumbled for the cheap binoculars she used for these little adventures. Finding them at last, she raised them to her eyes.
The effort to find the window in the binoculars was disorienting. They were zoomed in much too far, and Emily found herself staring into the brick facade of the building nearest her own. She pulled the binoculars down again, twisting the zoom lens counterclockwise as she relocated the window with her eyes. She brought the binoculars back up and this time succeeded in finding the right lit window in the right building. But the window was empty now. Her angle was poor and the window was small, and she saw nothing but the glow of a yellow lightbulb just out of view.
Dammit, she cursed to herself. Missed it. Whatever it was.
Thrills in the real world were an uncommon treat for Emily, even as she knew her intrusion into the lives of others was not quite appropriate. She kept the binoculars locked onto the window for another minute in hopes the show was only in intermission before she sighed and gave up.
But then another flash of movement stopped her. A man passed in front of the window for a second and was gone once more. A moment later, the figure returned and stopped there. He stood staring out the window as Emily rushed to refocus. She was pretty sure it was the same person, but hadn’t she also thought there was more than one? It was so hard to tell. She bobbled the binoculars, her excitement making her jittery. Emily took a short, steadying breath and grabbed the binoculars, hurrying to raise them back to the window.
She found it just in time to watch the blade drag across the man’s throat.