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Monitor Monitor

                Shauna didn’t discover the surveillance monitor in the basement bedroom of her new house until three weeks after she’d moved in. She had decided to furnish her new rooms one at a time, and the basement bedroom came last. Her furnishing process was to wait until she was in a good mood, then visit the room in question and take in every detail so she could come to appreciate it for the innate qualities it possessed before it was furnished. That way she could furnish it without detracting from those innate qualities. She hated the idea of some lovely, subtle quality of a room being diminished by her choice of couch, end table, or desk, or whatever.

               The basement bedroom was a small cube painted flat white with a rectangular window next to the ceiling leading into a window well on the least-used side of the house, the western side. The window was just wide enough for a human to wriggle through provided that human had something to stand on. The bedroom also had a closet built into the wall, its wooden sliding doors painted the same white as the walls.

               Shauna stood in the middle of the basement bedroom with the overhead light switched on but the ceiling fan switched off. She wore birthday-present leggings and a complimentary company-picnic t-shirt. The coldness of the cement floor crept up through the hard gray carpet which concealed it and into Shauna’s bare feet. Glancing up at the window, Shauna noted the remoteness of the heat-ravaged day it revealed going on outdoors. She was chilly. The basement amplified the impact of the air conditioning; since she’d moved in, Shauna had noticed that when she descended the basement stairs, she could feel incremental temperature drops with each step.

               The basement bedroom was slow to reveal its innate qualities. Maybe, Shauna thought, if she looked inside the closet, she would find some innate qualities of the room in there. And now that it came to mind, Shauna didn’t think she’d ever looked inside this closet before: not when the realtor had given her the tour, not during post-purchase walk-throughs with various inspector types, and not since she’d moved in. Shauna opened the closet door. As a closet, there wasn’t much cause for excitement. There was a shelf running the width of the closet at eye level and, below that, a hanging rod with nothing hanging on it.

But, three feet above the floor, there was a 15-inch monitor built into the back of the closet, installed so that its screen was flush with the drywall. Seeing no cords, Shauna assumed what cords there were must be hidden inside the wall itself. There was a thin frame of plastic around the monitor screen, and along the bottom edge Shauna saw the printed brand name – Zoxyss – and a circular button. She pressed the button.

The screen lit up to reveal a blurred, black-and-white image of a stairwell. On the right side of the screen, Shauna saw stairs coming up to a landing from somewhere below. On the left side of the screen, stairs led up from the landing to somewhere above. The camera was situated so that anyone ascending to the landing would be facing its lens, whereas those ascending from the landing would show its lens their backs. There were no windows that Shauna could see in the stairwell, but harsh light came from a source directly above the camera. Shauna was not wholly convinced that she wasn’t looking at a still image until the head of a woman slowly climbing the stairs appeared onscreen. Shauna watched as the woman made her way up to the landing, paused for a brief break, and then continued upward and out of view. The woman on the stairs was middle-aged and wearing casual clothes. Shauna did not recognize her. She watched the monitor for another minute to see if someone else would enter the frame. When no one did, Shauna turned the monitor off and closed the closet door.

Pausing only to give the bedroom a last look, Shauna turned off the light and walked through the basement and back up the stairs to the ground floor. The surveillance monitor had not inspired any furniture ideas. In fact, Shauna found that it had become an obstacle to furniture ideas. Its presence complicated the basement bedroom in ways which Shauna could not unpack. Unless something came to her during the night – a revelatory dream, a bolt of insight zapping her from her slumber – Shauna would need to consult the home furnishing expert who had taught her everything she knew about furnishing a home: her mother.


“It’s a blank canvas,” said Madge. “You can do whatever you want with it, Shauna. I don’t see what the problem is.” The 31-year age gap between Shauna and her mother meant less and less as the years passed. Shauna appreciated that Madge treated her like a peer, an equal, but that she was still willing to step in and be a mother when Shauna wanted that from her.

“That’s what I was thinking too,” said Shauna. “But then I thought I should check the closet for any innate qualities of the room I might have missed.”

“Buried in the closet?” asked Madge. “Honey, if the inside of a closet clashes with your furniture, you just keep the door closed, you don’t change your whole plan.” She wore black jeans and sandals with straps that divided most of her toes into four groups of two, leaving her little toes in isolation too far apart to console each other unless she crossed her feet. In recent years, she had begun wearing a small backpack most places she went, but she wasn’t wearing it today, and its absence probably meant something about her emotional state, but not necessarily something bad. Just something.

“I know, Mom,” said Shauna. “I only looked in the closet in case an innate quality in there might, I don’t know, reveal something.”

               “But it didn’t,” said Madge.

               “It did,” said Shauna. “It revealed too much. Look.” She slid the closet door open and pointed at the monitor. “Look,” she repeated, but with a slight alteration of tone to account for the monitor’s visibility.

               “What is it?” asked Madge.

               “A monitor,” said Shauna. “Watch.”

               She pressed the power button and the static stairwell shot appeared onscreen.

               “What am I looking at?” asked Madge.

               “There’s a camera in a stairwell somewhere,” said Shauna. “This is video from that camera.”

               “Where is it?” asked Madge.

               “I don’t know,” said Shauna. “Does it look familiar to you?”

               “No,” said Madge, stepping closer to the monitor and bending down with her hands on her knees to look at it more closely. “There aren’t a lot of distinguishing characteristics. You didn’t know this was here?”

               “Not until yesterday,” said Shauna. “I opened the closet and there it was.”

               “You’d never opened the closet before?” asked Madge.

               “No,” said Shauna. “I’d overlooked it.”

               “You should never buy a house without looking in every closet, Honey. What if there had been water damage?”

               “Well, there isn’t,” said Shauna. “There’s just this surveillance monitor.”

               “But why is it…?” Madge trailed off as, on the screen, a man in a jacket and driving cap came up the stairs, paused on the landing to scratch his scalp through his cap, and continued upward.

               “What’s wrong, Mom?” asked Shauna. “Do you know that guy?”

               “No,” said Madge. “I don’t know him.” Her voice shook.

               “What’s wrong?” asked Shauna.

               “I don’t like it,” said Madge. “It’s…disconcerting.”

               “Disconcerting how?” asked Shauna.

               “Why are we watching this?” asked Madge. “Why is this monitor here, Shauna?”

               “I don’t know,” said Shauna. She had certainly found the monitor strange when she’d discovered it the evening before, but it hadn’t occurred to her to be frightened of it.

               “Oh,” said Madge. “Oh, there goes another one.” She pointed a trembling finger at the monitor where a man with dark skin and a bushy beard marched up the stairs and out of view.

               “It must be somewhere nearby,” said Shauna. “Right, Mom? Otherwise, what would the point be? Why monitor a stairwell that’s far away?”

               “I thought this was just going to be a furniture question,” said Madge. “I wasn’t expecting something like this. You didn’t warn me.”

               “But I didn’t know…I didn’t realize it would be so…” Shauna didn’t know what to say.

               “There’s another person on the stairs!” said Madge, notes of hysteria creeping in on the edges of her words. “Turn it off, Shauna!”

               The woman on the screen kept her arms crossed over her chest and her head down as she made her way upward. Her hair hung forward and obscured her face. She moved with heavy steps, the most reluctant ascender yet.

               Shauna obeyed her mother and the monitor went dark while the woman’s legs were still visible in its top left corner. “So,” she said. “That’s kind of my problem. Every idea I have for a futon or a loveseat or whatever just doesn’t feel quite right with that monitor in there.”

               “Take it out,” said Madge. “Get rid of it.”

               “The monitor?”

               “Yes!” said Madge. “It shouldn’t be there, it isn’t right.”

               “I don’t think it’s invading anyone’s privacy,” said Shauna. “It seems like that stairwell is probably a public place.”

               “Why didn’t you check this closet before you bought the house?” asked Madge. “I thought I’d raised you to check all closets of any house you want to buy, Honey.”

               “I’ll just keep it turned off,” said Shauna. “I’ll keep the closet door closed. I’ll put a couch in front of it. Or, if I hang coats in the closet, they’ll cover the monitor. It’ll just look like a normal closet with coats in it.”

               “Tear it out,” said Madge.

               “You’re scaring me,” said Shauna.

               “Good,” said Madge. “I’m trying to.” She turned to leave. “I won’t come over here again as long as that monitor is in this house.”


               When her mother was gone, Shauna could feel the strangeness of the monitor going sour, the mild curiosity it provoked churning and clouding until it became trepidation. In the days that followed, her unease increased, and so too did a feeling of guilt, the source of which she could not discern. She wished she had never found the monitor, never opened the closet at all no matter how Madge had raised her. Still, something within her resisted getting rid of the surveillance monitor even as it became an increasingly disruptive force, and not only to the process of finishing the furnishing. There were times when, in the middle of preparing dinner, Shauna would leave a carrot half-peeled on the counter and head to the basement bedroom closet to turn on the monitor and watch until she saw someone climb the stairs. She would come home from work and, before even removing her high heels, clop down to the basement bedroom closet to turn on the monitor and watch the stairwell. Once, she watched for over an hour before she saw someone climb the stairs. Many times she saw no one, just the empty stairwell, switching the monitor off after a time feeling both relieved and disappointed.

She showed the monitor to guests, turning it on to ask them what they thought, to gauge their reactions. None of them liked it. A friend of a friend who came by to pick up an old chair that didn’t fit in Shauna’s new furnishing plans asked Shauna if she ever saw anyone going down the stairs. Shauna had never thought about that, and the answer, which was “no,” scared her. Shauna’s recently-divorced friend Charlie thought the monitor was supernatural. He said the people on the stairs were dead and that the stairway led, eventually, to heaven. Shauna didn’t buy this explanation at all, but it still scared her. Shauna’s friend Lucinda told her she should contact the house’s previous owner to ask about the monitor. Shauna told her the previous owner had died, that was why the house was for sale. Then Lucinda told her she should contact the previous owner’s surviving family, the realtor, the police, someone who might be able to offer an explanation. But Shauna didn’t want to talk to any of those people about the monitor. Either they would have an explanation for the monitor or they would not, and both possibilities, again, scared her.

A handyman Shauna had hired to replace the railing for the basement stairs, and who never told her his name, said a woman he saw on the monitor looked familiar.

               “She does?” asked Shauna. “Who is she?”

               “I forget her name,” said the handyman. “I think I did some work for her a few years ago. Or tried to.”

               “So she’s from around here?” asked Shauna.

               “She used to be,” said the handyman, scratching his mustache with the claw-end of his hammer. “She could have moved.”

               “Moved where?” asked Shauna.

               “Anywhere,” said the handyman. “Anywhere a person could move.”

               Shauna pressed her palms to the sides of her head. She didn’t enjoy how coarse her hair felt. “What kind of work did you do for her?”

               “All kinds of things,” said the handyman. “But the requests turned to demands, and the demands turned ridiculous. She wanted me to fix things no handyman could fix.”

               “Do you remember specific examples?” asked Shauna. “Any examples?”

               “No,” said the handyman. “None.”

               Shauna didn’t believe him.

               “Do you want me to take this out for you?” asked the handyman. “I don’t think it would be too much trouble. I could patch up the hole. It’d just be a normal closet wall.”

               “I don’t think you should,” said Shauna. “I don’t think I should have you do that.”

               “I can tell you want me to,” said the handyman. His cap was tilted so far back that the flat bill stuck up from his head like a sideways dorsal fin.

               “We shouldn’t, though,” said Shauna. “We shouldn’t.”

               “But what if it were to break?” asked the handyman. “What if something unfortunate were to happen to it?”

               “Something unfortunate?” asked Shauna. “Like what?” On the screen, a woman in exercise clothes trotted up the stairs with her short, curly hair bouncing.

                “Oh, maybe something like this,” said the handyman, and he stepped into the closet, turned away from the monitor, and let his hammer swing casually backward to strike the screen. The monitor went dark as cracks appeared in a jagged web across its entire face.

               Shauna covered her mouth in horror.

               “There,” said the handyman. “No reason to leave it there now.”

               Shauna couldn’t speak. Her hands were in the way, and she couldn’t move her hands.

               “You just want me to take it?” asked the handyman. “Cover up the hole? Make it like it was never there? If you do, then say nothing.”

               Shauna said nothing.

               After the handyman left, Shauna kept finding herself returning to the basement bedroom for a look in the closet, running her fingers over the place where the surveillance monitor had been, the fresh application of paint still slightly sticky to the touch. She tried saying things like, “It’s finally gone” and “I’m free,” but these assertions rang hollow. She couldn’t get her emotions in order. On his way out the door, the handyman had told her she might find herself hating him for the initiative he had taken, but that she would eventually be grateful for his action. But, for now, Shauna felt too confused for hatred or gratitude. The handyman had ripped out all the wires and electric components tucked down inside the wall. The monitor was not coming back. It couldn’t.

               The next day, Shauna felt light. She could focus better at work. She ran some errands, whistling as she shopped. At home, she caught up on a TV series while she ate take-out without once pausing to scamper downstairs to check the monitor. There was no monitor to check! There was nothing to surveil! Well, that wasn’t technically true. Or rather, there was no way for Shauna to know. The people were probably still climbing the stairs, but they could not be surveilled. Not by Shauna. This was the first twinge of what was easily identifiable as pure guilt since the handyman’s visit.

               By bedtime, Shauna was in agony. She had abdicated her responsibility, abandoned her post. Never mind that she had never wanted either. She had inherited them by accident, but what difference did that make? If she didn’t observe the people climbing the stairs, then who would? She hadn’t seen all of them, surely there had been many who had climbed those stairs before she found the monitor, while she was at work, while she was sleeping, while she was occupied with other things, but she had seen some of them, and she could have seen even more. And now she could not. What did it matter if she didn’t know the precise value of surveilling the stairwell and the limited activity thereon? That wasn’t her role. She was supposed to occasionally check the monitor to see if there was anyone going up the stairs, and she had done that for a while, but then she had allowed it to come to and end. And now none of the people climbing the stairs would be seen ever again. She could not undo what had been done. The paint in the basement bedroom closet wall had dried, and the handyman was right, there was no way to tell a surveillance monitor had ever been there.

               Shauna got out of bed and into her car and drove around Multioak looking for buildings that might have a stairwell such as the one she’d seen on the monitor. There were no candidates. She had intended to take notes on her phone so she could come back to investigate the stairwells of the buildings that seemed most likely, but she soon realized that none of the buildings she saw could contain that stairwell. Not that their architectural styles were incongruous, but that stairwell, how it was used, the people going up and never going down, the obscurity of their purposes…why would such a stairwell exist in any hotel or office building or museum or bank or apartment building she could possibly find by driving around Multioak? Shauna drove home with the sensation of a surveillance monitor having been recently pulled out of her leaving a hole in her body the size and shape of a surveillance monitor concealed only by drywall, drywall mud, and paint.


               Weeks passed. It took that long before Shauna told her mother that the surveillance monitor was gone.

Madge came straight over. “How long has it been gone?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” said Shauna. “Weeks.”

“And you still haven’t furnished the basement bedroom?” asked Madge.

“No,” said Shauna. “It still doesn’t…” She didn’t finish her sentence.

“Why did you wait so long to tell me?” asked Madge. “Is it because you didn’t want to admit I was right?” She wore her backpack today. It sagged emptily from her shoulders.

“It isn’t that,” said Shauna.

“You got fixated,” said Madge. “Didn’t you?”

“It wasn’t like that,” said Shauna.

“Then why are you so put out?” asked Madge. “Why isn’t that basement bedroom a functional office by now, a den, a sewing room, even a well-organized storage space?”

“Because, Mom,” said Shauna. “What if someday I climb those stairs and I know in my heart that there’s not even a chance that someone might be watching?”

“Oh, Honey,” said Madge, reaching for her daughter. “That won’t happen.”

“But how do you know?” asked Shauna, accepting her mother’s hug without returning it.

“Because you’ll never climb those stairs,” said Madge. “Never. You’ll never even know where they are. You have nothing to do with them and you never will. It’s only because of a big mistake that you know about them at all. But you’ll forget about them eventually. Soon, even.”

“How?” asked Shauna, finally hugging back. “How will I forget?”

 “Living in a house with every room fully furnished,” said Madge, “will help.”

Discussion Questions

  • Do you love to surveil but hate to be surveilled? Does that make you a hypocrite, or merely human? Or is to be human to be a hypocrite? And how disturbing is it when you see yourself on a surveillance camera and discover your actual standing posture?

  • What are some of the lesser-known places that stairs go up to?

  • Which of your soul’s deep troubles do you perceive to be most susceptible to the healing properties of correct furnishing?