Ten days earlier
In my boxers I stepped out onto the cold flagstones of my porch to retrieve the morning paper, which had landed, inevitably, in the puddle by the broken sprinkler. The apartments across the street, Bel Air in zip code only, reflected the gray clouds in their windows and sliding glass doors, mirroring my mood. L.A.’s winter had made a late entrance as always, slow to rise, shake off its hangover, and put on its face. But it had arrived, tamping the mercury down to the high forties and glazing the leased luxury sedans with dew.
I fished out the dripping paper, mercifully enclosed in plastic, and retreated back inside. Sinking again into the family-room couch, I freed The Times and pulled out the Entertainment section. As I unfolded it, a DVD in a clear case fell out, dropping into my lap.
I stared down at it for a moment. Turned it over. A blank, unmarked disc, the kind you buy in bulk to record onto. Bizarre. Even a touch ominous. I got up, knelt on the throw rug, and slipped the disc into the DVD player. Clicking off the surround sound so as not to wake Ariana, I sat on the floor and stared at the plasma screen, rashly purchased when our bank account was still on a northerly heading.
A few visual hiccups jerked the image, followed by a placid close-up shot of a window framed by plantation shutters, not quite closed. Through the window I could see a brushed-nickel towel rack and a rectangular pedestal sink. At the edge of the frame was an exterior wall, Cape Cod blue. The view took only a second to register --- it was as familiar as my reflection, but, given the context, oddly foreign.
It was our downstairs bathroom, seen from outside, through the window. A faint pulse came to life in the pit of my stomach. Apprehension.
The footage was grainy, looked like digital. The depth of field didn’t show compression, so probably not a zoom. My guess was it had been taken a few feet back from the pane, just far enough not to pick up a reflection. The shot was static, maybe from a tripod. No audio, nothing but perfect silence razoring its way under the skin at the back of my neck. I was transfixed.
Through the window and the half-open bathroom door, a slice of hall was visible. A few seconds passed in a near freeze-frame. Then the door swung in. Me. I entered, visible from neck to knee, the shutters chopping me into slices. In my blue-and-white-striped boxers, I stepped to the toilet and took a leak, my back barely in view. A light bruise came into focus, high on my shoulder blade. I washed my hands at the sink, then brushed my teeth. I exited. The screen went black.
Watching myself, I’d bitten down on the inside of my cheek. Stupidly, I glanced down to determine what pair of boxers I had on today. Plaid flannel. I thought about that bruise; I’d banged my back standing up into an open cabinet door just last week. I was trying to recall which day I’d done it when I heard Ariana clanking around in the kitchen behind me, starting breakfast. Sound carries easily through the wide doorways of our fifties open-plan two-story.
The DVD’s placement --- tucked into the Entertainment section --- struck me as deliberate and pointed. I clicked “play,” watched again. A prank? But it wasn’t funny. It wasn’t much of anything. Except unsettling.
Still gnawing my cheek, I got up and trudged upstairs, past my office with the view of the Millers’ much bigger yard, and into our bedroom. I checked my shoulder blade in the mirror --- same bruise, same location, same size and color. In the back of the walk-in closet, I found the laundry basket. On the top of the mound were my blue-and-white-striped boxers.
I dressed and then went down to the family room again. I pushed aside my blanket and pillow, sat on the couch, and started the DVD once more.
Running time, a minute and forty-one seconds.
Even if it was just a tasteless joke, it was the last thing Ariana and I needed to deal with right now. I didn’t want to upset her, but I also didn’t want to withhold it from her.
Before I could work out what to do, she walked in carrying a breakfast tray. She was showered and dressed, a mariposa lily from her green house shed tucked behind her left ear, the flower a striking contrast with the chestnut waves of hair. Instinctively, I clicked off the TV. Her gaze scanned over, picked up the green light on the DVD. Shifting her grip on the tray, she flicked her thumbnail against her gold wedding band, a nervous tic.
“What are you watching?”
“Just a thing from school,” I said. “Nothing to worry about.”
“Why would I worry?”
A pause as I worked out what to say. I managed only a contrived shrug.
She tilted her head, indicating a thin scab across the knuckles of my left hand. “What happened there, Patrick?”
“Caught it in the car door.”
“Treacherous door lately.” She set the tray down on the coffee table. Poached eggs, toast, orange juice. I paused to take her in. Caramel skin, the mane of almost- black hair, those big dark eyes. At thirty-five, she had a year on me, but her genes kept her looking at least a few younger. Despite her upbringing in the Valley, she was a Mediterranean mutt --- Greek, Italian, Spanish, even a little Turkish thrown in the mix. The best parts of each ethnicity had been distilled into her features. At least that’s how I’d always seen her. When I looked at her, my mind drifted to how things used to be between us --- my hand on her knee as we ate, the warmth of her cheek when she awakened, her head resting in the crook of my arm at the movies. My anger toward her started to weaken, so I focused on the blank screen.
“Thanks,” I said, nodding at the breakfast tray. My low- grade detective work had already put me ten minutes behind schedule. The edginess I was feeling must have been evident, because she gave a frown before withdrawing.
Leaving the food untouched, I got up from the couch and stepped out the front door again. I circled the house to the side facing the Millers’. Of course the wet grass beneath the window showed no marks or matting, and the perp had forgotten to drop a helpful matchbook, cigarette butt, or too-small glove. I sidestepped until I got the perspective right. A sense of foreboding overtook me, and I glanced over one shoulder, then the other, unable to settle my nerves. Gazing back through the slats, I felt a surreal spasm and half expected to watch myself enter the bathroom again, a time warp in striped boxers.
Instead Ariana appeared in the bathroom doorframe, looking out at me. What are you doing? she mouthed.
The ache in my bruised knuckles told me my hands were clenched. I exhaled, relaxed them. “Just checking the fence. It’s sagging.” I pointed at it like an idiot. See, there. Fence.
Smirking, she palmed the slats closed as she set down the toilet seat.
I walked back into the house, returned to the couch, and watched the DVD through a third time. Then I removed the disc and stared at the etched logo. It was the same cheap kind I used to burn shows from TiVo when I wanted to watch them downstairs. Purposefully nondescript.
Ariana passed through, regarded the untouched food on the tray. “I promise I didn’t poison it.”
Grudgingly, I smiled. When I looked up, she’d already headed for the stairs.
I tossed the DVD into the passenger seat of my beater Camry and stood by the open door, listening to the quiet of the garage.
I used to love this house. It was at the summit of Roscomare Road near Mulholland, barely affordable and only because it shared the block with those cracked-stucco apartments and a neighborhood shopping strip. Our side of the street was all houses, and we liked to pretend we lived in a neighborhood rather than on a thoroughfare between neighborhoods. I’d had so much pride in the place when we’d moved in. I’d bought new address numbers, repaired the porch light, torn out the spinsterly rosebushes. Everything done with such care, such optimism.
The sound of steadily passing cars filtered into the dark space around me. I clicked the button to open the garage door and sneaked under it as it went up. Then I circled back through the side gate and past the trash cans. The window overlooking the kitchen sink gave a clear view of the family room, and of Ariana sitting on the arm of the couch. Steam wisped from the coffee mug resting on her pajamaed knee. She held it dutifully, but I knew she wouldn’t drink it. She’d cry until it got cold, and then she’d pour it down the sink. I stood nailed to the ground as always, knowing I ought to go in to her but blocked by what little remaining pride I had left. My wife of eleven years, inside, crying. And me out here, lost in a haze of silent devastation.
After a moment I eased away from the window. The bizarre DVD had pushed my vulnerability up another notch. I didn’t have it in me to punish myself by watching her, not this morning.
Excerpted from THEY'RE WATCHING © Copyright 2011 by Gregg Hurwitz. Reprinted with permission by St. Martin's Press. All rights reserved.