Ok, here goes. Writing this out makes me want to barf. 

I was a news reporter right out of college, reporting on dismal topics in dismal towns. After three or four years of this, with the help of a friend, I landed an interview at an ad agency in Cincinnati. I got a job writing speeches and press releases and doing the usual early-pr-career grunt work. After stints in Alaska and West Virginia, Cincy seemed like a metropolis, and I picked a totally refinished first-floor apartment off of Craigslist. It was $400 a month and not in a great part of town, though the landlord assured me it was changing. Besides: in West Virginia, I was living in an old furniture factory for $300 a month and kicking crackheads off the front stoop. This place sounded like paradise.

My huge black dog Dozer and I drive down the street for the first time- a library! A record store! Restaurants! I pull up to my building, a few blocks down from the retail stuff, and it’s… not at all as described. The vestibule for the apartment is caked with grime. But I already have my key and I open the door to find an almost eerily perfect apartment. Everything is brand-new. The main room is in front. White carpet, white walls, a refinished bathroom, a boring but tidy kitchen. Huge windows, high ceilings. In the back is a small bedroom with a door leading out to a tiny, three-step back stoop and a little fenced backyard.

Over the next couple of weeks my friend helps me meet people, including her friend Alan. He’s great; we kind of friend hang out and kind of boyfriend-girlfriend hang out. Who knows. I have to drive around the state a lot for work and he watches Dozer while I’m gone- I always go to his place to pick her up on my way home.

The first time I do this, I come into the back of the apartment with my bags and race to the bathroom to pee.

The seat is up, and I fall right into the toilet. I figure Alan left it up, and unpack, go running with Dozer, etc.

A couple of weeks later, I have to travel again. I leave my keys with Alan so he can pick up Dozer after he gets off work. Same routine: I pick her up two days later and go straight home, in through the back bedroom door.

I go to the bathroom and sit down again; again, I fall right into the toilet. I think: I need to ask Alan not to do this when he picks up Dozer; it’s so weird. I walk out of the other bathroom door and into the main room.

Everything there is covered with a thick layer of dust, as if I’d been gone for years.

It covers my dining room table- the stray coffee cup I’d left there. It’s sunk into my mom’s old velvet couch, on my picture frames, onto every nook and cranny of the huge yellow hutch against the wall. It’s on the windowsills, on every handle of every drawer. Only the inside handle of the front door is perfectly clean. The door is locked.

I realize the white carpet is filled with even more dust- it’s white-on-white so I hadn’t noticed. I get out the vacuum and I fill two bags. I call the (Seattle-based) landlord and say that if he’s renovating other parts of the building they need to chill on the construction dust. He says he’s “short on funds at the moment” and my renovation was and will be the only one.

After that I’m home for a couple of weeks and everything’s… fine. I figure the air ducts burped out some old gross stuff. For my next trip, the usual. I come home with Dozer and the seat’s up. I had teased Alan about it and he’d said: I’ve never used the bathroom in your apartment.

I go out into the main room and the box of pictures from college I’d dragged around for a couple years was on a dining room chair. Every spring break picture of a girl in a bathing suit, some slutty sorority-themed outfit, a towel, anything sexy… they are all arranged neatly in a grid on the dining room table. I can feel my blood rushing in my ears. I walk through every room, look under the bed, open the front hall closet with a pair of kitchen shears in my hand… nothing.

I call Alan, politely, remembering that I don’t know him all that well, not really, and ask him about the pictures. He’d seen nothing like this, he says, and doing such a thing would be “hella creepy.” I’m so afraid that I can hardly hear him. I call the landlord to see who else has keys but he’s not picking up. I call over and over. 

I don’t want to leave Dozer there, I’ve just been super weird to Alan, and I don’t want to sound insane. I’m just… standing in the apartment. I end up taking a picture of the picture grid with my digital camera to prove to myself that it happened, cleaning it up, making a sad dinner, and spending the whole night talking to everyone I can think of on my flip phone (2005 y’all) until I fall asleep. The doors are locked, Dozer’s on the end of the bed, and every light is on.

I’m in the office or at home with Dozer all week. Every time I walk in my apartment I’m terrified, but it’s just her waiting, wagging her tail. I get cool about Alan again- after all, my friends know him, he’s really fun- he just doesn’t seem like the type. Still, the next time I travel, I drop Dozer off at his house and I don’t leave him a key. He insists on coming with me when I go back to the apartment. Sitting neatly in the middle of the back stoop is a small black rectangle. I bend down and pick it up. It’s the remote control for my fancy digital camera I used as a reporter. Under it is a sheet of paper. It’s a printout of PICTURE I TOOK of the grid of swimsuit pictures left on my dining room table.

Alan goes in the house for me. Everything is locked tight, and my camera- the most valuable item I own- is gone. The living room is covered with deep, pillowy dust; the front doorknob is pristine. I don’t clean anything- I leave and go to Alan’s place, where I drink as much as possible. I call the landlord again- he says he has a key in Seattle, and I have a key in Cincinnati, and that’s all he knows of.

I call the non-emergency police, but the police are swamped in 2005 Cincinnati. They tell me a neighbor probably has a copy of my key, that all the Northside landlords are grifters, to get my own deadbolt and keep valuables locked in the trunk of my car. They will take a report if I’m willing to drive to the station.

I buy deadbolts for the front and back doors. I spend as little time in the apartment as possible. I try to break the lease but the landlord won’t let me out and I can’t afford to do anything else. I spend a lot of time with Alan.

On the next trip, I come back to find my toilet seat up and a bunch of my food gone.

On the trip after that, it’s just a day and half so I ask Alan to drop in and check on Dozer, do her walks, keep her company. Nothing happens.

Trip after that: Alan takes Dozer. Everything’s normal. I check the mail, still nothing but junk circulars, same as the past two months. Nothing I order arrives, so I start having things delivered to my office. But this time when I open the front hall closet to put my coat away: there’s the entire past two months of mail. Online orders, packages from my mom and faraway friends, all my bills. They are crushed, opened, ransacked, soaking wet and streaked with dirt. I just… run. Out into the street, on this sunny day, and everything’s normal but I can’t hear, I’m too scared, and slowly I realize the street is busy and my huge dog is out here and I get myself together enough to hold her collar and sit on the curb.

I turn around to face the building. A face at the very top window, in the attic, sinks below view.

Other stuff disappears over time- a collection of coins my dad has given me from the places he’s visited, more food, any drop of alcohol I buy. But nothing ever happens to me. No one breaks in when I’m home, there are no menacing figures at the window, no creepy feelings at night- and the face in the attic starts to feel like a dream. I even go up there- it’s just a bunch of people’s extra stuff in storage. This was some asshole with a key, I decide, and I’m making a good chunk of this up. The longer things are normal, the more it fades. I barely sleep; it makes everything feel even dreamier.

And then, one night, I’m getting dressed cute to go out. I use the blackness of the long windows to check my reflection. I put on my shoes and one turns white. It’s dust again. It’s not all over like before- it’s concentrated around my huge hutch. I get out the vacuum and get to work, teetering in heels, but it’s piled around the side of the hutch, which is hard to move. I turn off the vacuum, brace my legs against the couch, and push the hutch out toward the center of the room.

In the wall is a hole the size of a man.

The dust, of course, had been from the sawing. My company put me up in a hotel after that, until I could move. My landlord let me break the lease. Later, during the process of getting a felony conviction, I learned that two men did all that stuff specifically to scare me, that they sat peeping through the gap at the back of the hutch for months. One lived in the apartment next door. The wall opened into a little pocket between the apartment stairwell and the basement. They hid it with plywood.

My neighbor described it all for me in court, smiling at me. They watched me check myself out in the full-length mirror, cook meals, watch sad movies, flirt with guys on the phone, do sit-ups, talk to Dozer, have the occasional cry, go to the bathroom- everything. They kept a hoard of snacks from my kitchen in the wall to enjoy while they passed the time. My long kitchen knife was found in the wall, plus a boning knife I didn’t recognize- but they didn’t want to come in while Dozer was home, and I was never without her. Every morning on the way to work for six months, I’d driven past a “wanted” billboard featuring one of their faces.

I have never lived alone again.