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Us

cellphone sitting on a table

Please note: this story was provided by the author and published as is.

They say ignorance is bliss. And I’ve never believed that more than now. I wish I could go back to the days of believing my life was normal; That the worst things I had to contend with was some furry little critter living in my attic or busy traffic. I wish I could go a day without dreading the thought of opening my phone. But once you put the puzzle together you can’t go back to only seeing the pieces. You’re left with the whole messy picture… forever.

If I had to pinpoint when this started… I guess I’d say three months ago. I mean, maybe there was some stuff before then… my trouble sleeping… the noises… But honestly, I’m questioning everything right now and nothing feels sure, but I can at least point to a specific day three months ago when I first felt the change. And it’s more than just a day. I remember the exact moment, even though at the time it didn’t feel like one of those moments that would change my life forever.

It was a Thursday morning… like… 9:30. I was working from home like everyone because of COVID and I was just taking a mental break – scrolling through stories on Instagram. I don’t even know why I do this – I swear it’s like my own version of self-torture because I just spend the whole time rolling my eyes at the selfies and memes and passing through stories filled with babies wondering when me and my friends actually became old enough to be like full on moms?

After like 10 minutes of this I know I need to get back to work so go to leave the stories section and go back to my main profile – I do it all so fast bc its like muscle memory at this point that I almost miss it… As I am swiping up on my screen to close out the app… I see it. A thin pink and orange circle around my profile picture.

But I knew I hadn’t made any stories. Last night was a Wednesday and I’m living in Indiana in my 30s during a global pandemic. I promise you nothing story worth happened that I’d post about.

I clicked back into the app and watched it fill my screen. And it’s weird… like I distinctly remember this moment of pause. Like I didn’t want to look at my story.

That feeling doesn’t make sense when I say it out loud but it’s like something in me just…. knew.

When I tapped on the picture of my face the screen got dark. I almost would have thought my phone shut off but I could see the white bar at the top of the screen moving from left to right, meaning it was playing. And then, after a few seconds it just closed out.

It was weird – but I just thought maybe I did it from my purse or pocket – like a butt dial. A butt story. I made myself chuckle at butt story which made me immediately wonder if maybe it was me? maybe my friends are mature enough to be adults but I’m still not old enough to be a full on mom.

I deleted the story before turning back to my computer and honestly by like 10:00 I was so deep into emails and zoom calls I almost totally forgot about the story all together.

You know how it goes – life consumes you with all its little details – work – relationships – this freaking rat in my apartment attic that I’ve been trying to get rid of for weeks… – It was so easy to forget that small little Instagram story. It meant nothing then.

But then on Monday… It happened again.

3 of my close friends came over and we had a little Sunday Funday thing the day before and I had posted about it in my story. And don’t even side eye me – you know you re-watch your own stories too – so I was tapping through, reliving the afternoon I had spent with my friends drinking wine and laughing but I was surprised when I got to what I thought would be the end of my story, but there was still one more to tap.

When I clicked on it, it was another dark screen but this time, there was text with it.

Across the bottom it just said “night night”

I… I mean… it’s weird how you process things in your head – like I’m gonna spell out for you what I was thinking but the way I processed it in real time took a fraction of a second.

I knew this wasn’t just a purse post or a butt story. I mean there is auto correct but like the odds are just… no. Not possible. Then I remembered allll the stories before… all the wine before. I must have had way more to drink than I thought and posted this when I was a little tipsy before bed.

Again, I deleted the post and tried to shake it off the same way I had before… but this time it was harder. The entire rest of the day I was just off. There were times where I found myself just staring off into the space behind my computer screen. The words “night night” repeating over and over in my head.

“night night”

I would catch  myself doing it but I never knew how long I had been spacing out and I would try and get back to work only to find myself in the same daze moments later.

“night night”

Throughout my day I had slowly talked myself out of the conclusion my mind had jumped to. I wasn’t drunk. Yes, I’m a lightweight but that also means when I do drink more than a single glass or two of wine I can feel like the effect the next morning. 3 glasses of wine and my head’s just a little fuzzy. Four and I have a headache but it’s nothing 3 Aleve can’t fix. But so tipsy or drunk that I don’t remember something I posted online – that’s a hangover I would have called in sick to work for. But I’m not hung over. I don’t even have a fuzzy head.

I didn’t make that post.

For the rest of the day I was all consumed by those two words. I tried to distract myself by focusing on my work or doing chores around my apartment– but it didn’t matter. Nigh night.

I decided maybe what I needed was to get out of the house – go to the grocery store – see life outside of my apartment. Maybe I had been in isolation too long and I was losing it.

But even an outing didn’t help. As I drove back to my apartment, thoughts flooded my mind. You wouldn’t know this about me but I’m a crazy conspiracy theorist. I think big brother is always watching. There was this documentary I’d seen years ago bout the privacy policies we just agree to without thinking twice. For a solid 3 months after that I wouldn’t sign up for anything new… But that’s the thing about us humans. We have a short memory – things seems important and all-consuming and then a couple days/weeks/months later we somehow go right back to our old habits and push that scary thing out of our minds. We think ignorance is bliss.

But this isn’t bliss. What had I agreed to? Who did I give access to? Could they get to more than just my phone?

I was spiraling deep into a rabbit hole that was feeling like my own episode of The Twilight Zone when I realized I was home again. I don’t even remember stopping in any of the normal intersections or making any of the turns to get to my house, yet there I was in my driveway – safely home through sheer muscle memory.

By the time I put my car into park I’d come up with the one and only logical conclusion for all of this.  I had been hacked. Why someone would hack my account to post a couple weird stories is totally beyond me – maybe it was someone I knew messing with me – I mean for anyone who did know me even a little my password wouldn’t have been hard to guess. It’s just my middle name and the year I was born. Chloe1988  probably took someone all of two seconds to figure out.

Now, I still couldn’t see why one of my friends would do that but really – even a hacker could have figure it out with a little snooping on my profile which up until then hadn’t been private. Maybe whoever hacked it was just testing to see if I noticed before they did something else?… whatever it is hackers do?

I don’t know. I didn’t care. I was going to change my password and just be done with this whole thing.

And so I did. I devised some nonsensical mash up of letters, numbers, and special characters for my new password and went to bed. Or tried to at least. That night my paranoia was at an all time high. I was tossing and turning in my bed- the words “night night” just repeating over in my head.

What if the hacker could change it back somehow? What if I was too late? What if, right now, they were already in all of my accounts wreaking havoc? My mind was full of so many “what if’s” I was up for hours. To make things worse, it was in these late hours of the night where my nocturnal apartment took on life. Echoing through the walls were the rush of water, rattle of an AC, and my paranoid mind turned the faint pitter patter of my four-legged, furry intruder into a maniac serial killer sure to jump from the attic any moment and rip me to shreds.

By 3 am I couldn’t take it anymore. … I know this sounds counterintuitive to some, but I decided to get high to help me fall asleep. Any time I get worked up weed always helps me sleep.

I was out within minutes but when I woke up all my fear and paranoia came rushing back instantly.

I had pulled up my Instagram before I even got out of bed that morning. Like something in me knew the password change wasn’t going to make this go away. I literally felt sick to my stomach when I tapped my picture framed by that orange and pink circle.

Again, the screen was dark and this time the text across the screen read “sleep tight”.

When I read those words it was like my phone was hot lava –  I couldn’t get it out of my hands fast enough. I tossed it across my bed so hard it fell onto the laminate floor and before I even heard it hit the ground, I immediately regretted it.

When I went to pick it up I and literally let out an “oh thank god” when I saw it hadn’t landed on the screen. I picked it up and checked both sides for any damage and a booming expletive shot out when I realized there was a small nick on my camera lens.

I was fuming. Like half the reason we even have smart phones now are for the cameras! Even if my screen worked, I was gonna have to get a new phone. It was the last freaking thing I needed right then

I opened up my camera app and start snapping random pictures around my room and after like three or four I went to my photos to see how bad they actually looked. I opened the most recent picture and it was worse than I thought. With the exception of the top left corner the whole thing was an indistinguishable blur. I kept swiping right to see the other photos like somehow every single one wasn’t going to look the exact same. My blood pressure rose with every swipe and I started to think about how on earth I was going to pay for another thousand-dollar phone … and just like that… my boiling blood turned icy cold. My third swipe opened up a dark image. The image from my story.

It looked a little different than it did on Instagram. I always thought the backdrop on my stories was just like a black background, like if you create your own story. But this was an actual image of something.  I turned up my phones brightness as much as I could but I could only see very faint outlines of something, but the entire image was just a charcoal black, like it had been taken in the dark without any flash.

I got an idea just then that maybe I could edit the photo in one of my apps to make out the picture better. Mostly I use these apps for smoothing out my skin or adding a filter, but I’d played around with them enough to know that I could make photos brighter too.

I selected the photo and went to the ‘shadows’ section of the editing tool pulling the sliding bar all the way to the right. The brighter the image got the grainer it got too but I saw it instantly.

It was my room. My bed. Me.

I could hear my heart beating in my ears. I wanted to cry and scream and run and CRAWL OUT OF MY SKIN all at the same time but all I could do was run to my bathroom and lock myself inside. I sat on the toilet holding my breath with my phone clutched in my hand and my arms wrapped around my knees at my chest.  – I was trying to be still – trying to listen for any sign of anyone else in the apartment but blood was still pumping loudly through my ears and my breathing was hard and fast making every inhale and exhale echo. I waited… and listened…. But I didn’t hear anything but myself.  I couldn’t even process what was happening. It’s like my brain wouldn’t allow me to even THINK the thing it had to have known. The only logical conclusion.

Someone had been in my apartment. While I was sleeping.

I didn’t know what I was supposed to do? I thought about calling the police but no one else is even here – they’re gonna think I’m crazy. That it’s just some dark pictures that I can’t even prove are of me or that I didn’t take myself.

I looked back down at the phone… staring at the photo… listening to that thump in my ears.

That’s when I realized remembered… there had been another picture. The first one that I found on Monday morning. I backed out of the app and hurriedly went back to my recent photos scrolling up to the photos ones I took on Sunday. There it was. The other photo.

I dropped it into the same editing tool and another still grainy image appeared of my room. This time from a different angle because now you could make out the outline of my face above the covers.

I went back to the most recent image, the one from just hours ago, looking for some kind of explanation that wasn’t THIS.

Just then a prompt popped up on my phone. Do you want to add this to the Album ‘You’? I didn’t know what this meant. I know my phone has a feature that will recognize patterns especially in photos. I use it all the time to organize my albums by friends or events. The prompt for the album wasn’t what I didn’t understand it was the Album name. I didn’t have an album called ‘You’.

I backed out of the single photo then out of all of my recent photos and I made a violent swiping motion to zoom past all the albums which I have organized alphabetically.

There it was. The very last one. ‘You.’ I tapped on the black square and the album opened filling my screen with small black squares. I scrolled and scrolled. Feeling bile rise up through my esophagus with each flick of my thumb. These went back… months.

I backed out of the album. I was too afraid to keep looking and I didn’t need to put them in the editing app. I knew exactly what they would be.

I was getting ready to close out the app and call my dad. He lived 2300 miles away and I know he can’t get here but I was terrified and just needed to talk to him- the one person I could trust the most.

Just as I was about to close out of the pictures… another album caught my eye.

“Us”

Just the sight of the album cover threw me in a spin off the toilet and it almost in the same moment I lifted the seat with my free hand and vomited into the bowl.

Coughing and crying I started back down at my phone. At the small album cover.

Without even opening it I could tell what it was. Taken in the dark, with the flash on, were two hands intertwined… my fingers being engulfed by a stranger’s.

I called my dad, who picked up on the second ring – but the second instant I heard his voice I burst into tears.  I tried to get out the words to tell him what was happening. What had been happening for apparently MONTHS but it was all just blubbering in between unintelligible words like ‘Help’ or ‘He’s in my apartment’ – By the time I caught my breath I think my dad was more scared than I was and I kept telling him – no no… I’m fine there is no one with me but someone was here.

My sobbing turned into a steady stream of tears and sniffling as I told my dad exactly what had happened. I was just at the part about editing the photo when ….

I held my breath. My dad’s voice filled the silence with repeated ‘hellos’ and ‘are you there’ that grew more panicked each time he had to ask. I turned down the volume on my phone and whispered into the receiver “hang on.”

It came from my room. My mind was racing trying to place that noise.  Was that from above me? But it sounds like something’s being moved almost like… and that’s when it hits me. The attic.

Just then I sprung up from my place on the bathroom floor and yelled into my phone, HE’S HERE! DAD HE’S IN MY APARTMENT!

I hear my dad shouting for me to get out of there as I reached for the lock on the door.

I sprinted through the living room toward the front door and dropped my phone to the ground as I reached to undo the deadbolt with one hand and the chain latch with the other.

Barefoot and in nothing more than an oversized T-shirt I swung the door open and bound down the hall down the 3 flights of stairs taking them 2 or three at a time. When I got to the bottom I run up to a young mother loading her baby into her a car seat and through tears begged her to call police.

When police finally did come they searched my apartment but said they didn’t find anything. No one in my bedroom. Nothing in the attic. There was no sign anyone had even been in there but me and they said there was nothing they could do.

It was hard to even convince them he had been there because the story was just so… insane! Why would a man break into your home just to take pictures of you? And if you never knew he was there why would he let you know by putting them on your social media for you to find?

I’ve thought about that question a lot since that morning and I think he got tired of just the fantasy. He wanted me to know he was there. Because he WAS there. I know he was. The real questions that stay with me aren’t why but How? How did he find me? How did he get in and out without me noticing or how did he stay there for months?

And how will he find me again?

I mean maybe he won’t try to. That’s what I have to tell myself. The police never found my phone and I think that’s because he took it. He got all to keep all pictures of us. And hopefully that will be enough for him.