That evening, I couldn't seem to settle myself down. The house seemed unusually large and empty, but somehow still far noisier than it should have been with only me occupying it. Every small sound seemed to magnify in my hearing, making me jump and look about rapidly to explain them away to myself. I felt unsettled, unsafe, and far from alone.
It was Whitaker's doing, of course. Until he declared me to be harboring an unknown person in my home, the only time I had felt uneasy being home alone was when I saw him looking in on me. But now, as ridiculous as I knew his words to be, I could not fully push them from my mind. Even my own breathing seemed to be separate from me and rather terrifying until I realized the reason for its proximity in sound was because it was attached to my own body.
I tried the usual methods of sleep aids that most people turn to, everything from Tylenol PM to music to a glass of wine in front of the TV. I remained as watchful and awake as ever, my heart's steady thrum refusing to smooth out and allow me rest. It was for the sake of logical self assurance that I finally gave into my fears and started a slow, thorough search in each room, checking in, behind, and under every possible location that any human being might be able to hide themselves.
I wasn't doing this because Whitaker had any validity to his paranoia, I told myself, even as I moved the couch to peer behind it, squatted to look under the bed, and opened closet doors and rifled through racks of clothing. I was doing this out of defiance, to prove to him that he was wrong. And hopefully, once I could be fully certain that there could be no one else in this house, I would be tired enough to easily go to sleep.
I had completed my search in the bedrooms, the bathrooms, and the living room when I paused in the hallway, looking up towards the flat panel leading up to the attic. Other than the kitchen, it was the only area left unsearched, and it seemed necessary, seldom as I even remembered it existed, to search it as well. I pulled a kitchen chair so it stood beneath the panel and pulled at the short string that would open it and allow me to grasp and pull down the partial stairs leading up to its interior. Flashlight in hand, I pulled myself up and popped head and shoulders into the dark space above. When I shone the light in a quick circle, it illuminated just enough for me to go still with my shock at just how much of the attic's contents had been altered from the last time I ventured inside.
I had entered the attic perhaps twice since buying my home with Darren fifteen years ago, and as far as I knew, Darren and Savannah had entered it even less. The last I was aware of, our attic had contained nothing more than some insulation and a few boxes of odds and ends that were somehow too sentimental to throw away, yet too useless to keep out in the house. But as I turned my head slowly, it was obvious that somehow, without my having any awareness of it, far more items had ended up in the space above my head.
There were pillows and blankets piled up against one wall, arranged in a way that clearly resembled makeshift bedding. They were all immediately recognizable, although I hadn't missed them in their absence. If I had noticed my bedding growing sparse, I would have assumed that Savannah had taken some of it to college with her, or that it had ended up with Darren in the divorce.
But this was far from all that had changed. Scattered about the attic were items that had clearly been used often and recently, items that made the room reminiscent more of a bedroom than a seldom remembered storage area. There were stacks of books near the bedding, again ones recognizable as those I owned, and a stash of hair and cosmetic supplies in another stack. Empty food packages were neatly stacked against one wall, as though in preparation for being recycled- and the sheer quantity of cereal, granola bar, and cookie boxes were staggering. How long would it take for someone to eat that amount of food- and how long had it been going missing from my kitchen, with me taking notice only on occasion?
It was not possible that Darren or Savannah had turned the attic into their private, strange little hide out, complete with sneaked snacks and entertainment. I had bought the book at the top of the stack only three days ago, so short a time ago that I hadn't even noticed its absence. And that meant that there was someone else with me in my house. Someone who had been curled up just a few feet over my head, taking my belongings, and eating my food. Someone using my home as their squat, claiming space as my unseen, uncontributing, and very much unwanted roommate.
With a sharp shudder, Whitaker's declaration came back to me, as unbalanced and paranoid as it had seemed to me then. It all made far more sense to me now.
"You think you live alone, don't you….but you don't. I watch her….I see her, even if you don't bother to look…"
My legs went weak, and I had to grab hold of the ladder rungs and hold on tight, taking several steadying breaths, before I could regain enough sturdiness to keep myself from tumbling off entirely. With badly trembling hands I eased myself down, leaving the attic open in my haste, but what did that matter now? If the woman Whitaker had maintained all along to be in a reality truly did exist and truly had been creeping along without my notice, living within my walls, all I could be certain of now was that she was quick, she was quiet, and she was very good at predicting my movements. I could only know that she was not in the attic at this time, leaving every other inch of my house wide open as a possibility.
It didn't occur to me that the logical thing to do would be to grab a phone, get out of the house, and call the police. Logic has a way of fading in the face of the cold, hard reality of a true danger, and all I could think of was finding the intruder, gaining the knowledge for myself of just where it was that she was hiding from me. With frantic, frenzied movements, I flew into the kitchen, the only room left thus far left unchecked, and began to search even places I knew could not possibly conceal her, such as inside the refrigerator and dishwasher. Under the kitchen table, inside the broom closet, even the oven yielded no trespasser, but when I opened the doors to the space beneath the sink, dark eyes glittered back at me, and slightly yellowed teeth drew back into a smile that was all the more terrifying because of the genuine warmth it held.
"Stacy!" she said, her chin lifting up off its cramped, awkward position against her chest as she turned her head towards me. "You found me."
She blinked, suppressing a yawn. Even in my shock I didn't miss the sickly pallor of skin that seemed to have been shielded from the sun for months or even years, the unhealthy thinness and lack of muscle to her limbs, and the wrinkled, ill fitting state of the clothes she wore- the clothes, I recognized with a jolt, that had once hung within my closet.
"I didn't know it would take you this long. I never thought I was good at anything, but I guess I'm pretty good at hiding."
My life is not noticeably changed, since the day I discovered the woman living without my notice in my house. I still have the same daily schedule, I still drive the same car and work the same job. I still call my daughter every Thursday and overthink her upcoming visits from college, and I still watch more reality TV than is probably good for me. But although my life may seem unchanged to those who know me, to me, my entire view of my world has shifted radically. I have realized now how little control I have in life, how much of other people's actions and intentions fall beneath my notice, and how drastically wrong my conclusions can be. I no longer trust myself as insightful and observant; even at work, I second guess myself to the point of feeling frozen and stiff with doubt. Everyone I once judged as harmless or even friendly now seem vaguely threatening sometimes, simply because there is so much of their thoughts and their lives that I cannot possibly know.
How can a person trust strangers out in public or even acquaintances in their daily lives, when she cannot even trust that she is safe and aware of all activity in her own home?
The woman did not harm me; she didn't make any aggressive gestures towards me, or even raise her voice as she slowly, painfully withdrew herself from her coiled position beneath my sink. But her very presence in my home without my knowledge or permission, and my growing understanding of just how much had been occurring without my knowledge, frightens me far more than anything that she actually did.
Her name was Adair Carson. I recognized her, once she stood and I could see all of her face. She was a former patient of mine, a foster child that had been referred to counseling by social services after repeated truancy, failed foster placements, and threats of suicide. Adair was seventeen at the time I met her, and must be eighteen or older by the time I found her under my sink. She had grown so thin in comparison to the day I first met her that her cheekbones jutted out sharply, emphasizing the bruise-like circles beneath her eyes and the almost translucence of her pale skin. She looked sickly, almost strung out in her unhealthy physical state, but still she smiled up at me, as though genuinely glad to see me, even after going to such effort to hide from me for so long.
"Do you remember me, Stacy?" she asked me, tilting her head to one side so her long, badly tangled hair half covered one eye. "I used to talk to you."
She had, of course, although not for long. Adair's behavior had been erratic enough for her to shift placements twice in the few months that I saw her as my patient, and when she abruptly stopped showing for appointments, my calls to her guardians were left unanswered as well. Her case was closed after a few months of no contact, and although I felt concern for her, of course, there were many more patients every bit as needy whom did consistently show for their appointments. I assumed Adair had been moved to a placement not willing or able to transport her to therapy; that seemed a better hope for her than the possibility of her running away or becoming incarcerated.
I would never have thought that the next time I saw Adair Carson, it would be in the kitchen of my own home, nearly a year after I first met her.
The rest of the evening seems unreal to me when I think of it, and it was more than surreal to me at the time I experienced it. There was an odd serenity about Adair as I confronted her, a calm, resigned acceptance that she had at last been discovered. It wasn't until later that I wondered if she had been hoping, perhaps not quite consciously, that I would find her all along. How often had she appeared just out of the line of my eyesight, making herself visible to Whitaker and any other who glanced through my window? How often had she melted back into shadow, behind furniture, or into an empty room, just before I turned to look?
She offered up her explanation to me of her presence, even before I could gather the words to ask for it. With a weary twitch of a shrug, the young woman so close to my own daughter's age, yet so very far apart from her in experience and appearance, gave me her reasoning in spare, simple words that still haunt me, months after they were spoken.
I don't remember the conversation, it meant so little to me, but to Adair, it was everything. Apparently I told her some of my personal family make up in a session, in the sort of small talk self-disclosure I often use to get to know new patients and ease their comfort with me. When Adair learned that I was divorced and my daughter was going to college very soon, she saw this as an opportunity. She began to follow me, lingering outside my work until I left for the day, gaining a sense of my routine. She found my personal address on the internet- information I had no idea was available to anyone who might look- and began to "hang out" around my neighborhood, hiding in bushes or up in the branches of leafy trees as she got to know the comings and goings of my home. And after she was certain of my usual schedule and had determined that I now lived entirely alone, Adair made her move.
She waited until a day I was chatting with a neighbor on his property, then slipped inside my home through my unlocked front door. From there, she hid herself in closets and under beds, behind doors and under furniture, anywhere that I was unlikely to notice or look. At night, she crept out and took from me what she needed, taking it up to the attic to have with her during the day. She slept, showered, and used the bathroom only when she could be sure I was not home- only when she could move about freely ….for the past seven months. For seven months, another human being housed herself in my home without discovery or much in the way of suspicion.
Without discovery, until Whitaker moved in across the street. All along, he had been right. All along, he had kept watch over what I could not see.
As hard as it is for me to think of this, and as thoroughly unsettled as my life now feels, I cannot forget what Adair said to me when I asked her why. I cannot forget the way her sharpened features grew open, even childlike with the depth of her sadness.
"Because it was a home," she said simply. "And I needed one. I was safe in this home, always. No one could hurt me, if no one knew I was there at all. No one could want me gone, if I didn't take up enough space to exist."
What can a person say to that? How can you acknowledge the poignant legitimacy of her desire, given the intrusive disturbance she inserted in my life?
The police were gentle with her, when they came, and she didn't protest my calling them or their taking her in custody. There was no need for handcuffs or weapons, no dramatic standoffs or reading of rights. Adair went with them willingly, and it occurred to me eventually that perhaps a placement in jail would to her be nearly as desirable as living unnoticed in my home. In jail too, she would be safe from at least some of the threats she faced in so called freedom.
I don't know what's happened to Adair, since the police removed her from my home that night. She was old enough to be considered an adult, but did not seem to have the mental capacity to understand that she had committed a crime. I wonder where she is now, whether she's finally received the help she needs and has found the safe home she wanted so badly, but I don't do the research needed to find out for myself. I'm not sure I want to know the truth.
Officially, I can't diagnose myself, and as hypocritical as it might be, I don't want or believe in seeing a therapist. Not for myself; what could they say for me, that I don't already know? What training could they have that would not equal mine? Nevertheless, I'm familiar enough from observing it in others to see the signs of trauma in myself now, and months later, there's no indication it will taper off. I don't think it would make a difference if I did know Adair's whereabouts; knowing one person's location does nothing to reassure me of anyone else's.
So I lock the doors of my home and my car with compulsive stringency, checking many times before I can reassure myself that they are all secured, all the time. Each room of my house that I enter I immediately lock behind me, even with the outer doors and windows all locked, with new, strong bolts in place. I jump at shifting shadows or unidentified noises, and I lie awake most nights, straining to hear signs of anyone other than myself close by.
I still keep my windows open, the curtains pulled aside, and more often than not, when I look across the street, I still see Whitaker, ever vigilant at his window. But now when I see him, I don't feel irritated or uneasy. Now, I feel just a little bit safer, because one day, he may see again something that I don't. Sometimes, you have to look inside, whether inside your own self or inside your very walls, just to see what there really is to fear. I'm beginning to see now, and that is what scares me the most.