Gaslighting by Paul Michael Peters

Mila was bored. So, she decided to change. Her new hobby—observe others.

During lunch at school, she observed the inner social workings play out in circles around her from a safe and lonely distance. In class, she saw stealthy flashes of screens propped up behind books between notes of drama queens, no-necked noblemen, and court jesters who danced and played the fool. None of them interested her.

In the afternoons, she observed adults. She watched teachers get in their crossovers and drive away to their lives outside the classroom. She got on her secondhand Schwinn and followed Mrs. Kensington and her red crossover to the supermarket. Mila watched as she chose a smaller cart by the entrance and attempt to make her way inside, but she was stopped in the first moment. Mrs. Kensington pulled, yet the wheel wouldn’t budge. Then she pushed, and the cart crashed back into line with a loud metallic rattle. Foolishly, she yanked hard again in an attempt at brute force. When the cart wouldn’t move, she stirred herself into a frenzy. The usually reserved history teacher with an amiable voice now screamed in rage, pulling on the green handle as her face turned red. Exhausted, she gave up, went to the next line of larger carts, and removed one successfully to shop.

Moments later, upon inspection, Mila found a pebble at the foot of one of the cart’s wheels, impeding its movement like the small chalks on a runway that keep giant jets in place.

Wouldn’t small disruptions be fun?” she thought to herself. “The smallest things set into motion as an obstacle to observing the results.”

Mrs. Kensington, she decided, would be too easy a target after her defeat by a pebble. Instead, she thought Mr. Forsythe would be an interesting target. The industrial arts teacher seemed more wily and cunning.

Finding the cowbell was easy. Pressing it in a vice to change shape and tone was not difficult. But affixing it to the undercarriage with zip ties, out of sight from inspection, in the daylight of the parking lot at the school was a challenge. Mila’s boredom was a thing of the past.

Stealthy observation began. Students of the high school never took notice she was watching. It was on the fourth day when Mila saw it. Mr. Forsythe bent under the side of his truck. The hood went up on the Ford, and a small black flashlight went in the teacher’s teeth. His hands explored the plastic coverings until they were removed and set aside. Nothing was found. Mr. Forsythe went under the truck. He scooted far underneath, flashlight in hand, inspecting for several minutes. Eventually, giving up, he crawled out from the dirty under dwellings. Back on his feet, face red, he began spewing new and original combinations of vulgar words that Mila could hear from her hiding spot. Blood pressure building, face nearing purple, the teacher slammed the hood shut, got into the cab, started the engine, and drove away, a harsh tone and clatter with each bump.

She pumped her legs on the Schwinn hard to catch up. By the time Mila had gotten to the dealership window, she could see the mechanic with the bell and cut straps in hand, a smile on his face in good humor. Mr. Forsythe was enraged. His face became the color of violet blossom. His arms were swinging like an ape’s. Flyers and advertisements, magazines and paper cups were all strewn across the reception room.

Hearing the announcement at school about the investigation brought an end to this line of interest for Mila. She knew they had nothing on her, no idea of who had pulled this practical joke, so their only due course was to round up the usual suspects, seeking a confession.

With the school year coming to an end, Mila was looking for something more challenging—a summer project. She started what was dubbed “The Treatment.” Four houses were in view from her second-floor bedroom. They were neighbors connected through boring suburban backyards to her foster parents’ house. When one of the houses was unoccupied, or there was an excellent chance for unobserved entry, Mila would start “The Treatment.”

She took a digital photo of the family pictures on walls or in frames around each house. Every photo was digitally augmented. Most were reversed, the mirror opposite of the original. In some of the pictures, she inserted colorized images of Hitler. It made Mila happy to see the stern, serious face of “der Führer” on the beach with the Jenkins, skiing on a family trip with the Jennings, or at the ballpark with the Bradleys. Then, she printed the photos and placed them in front of the originals.

Each week, all of the chair legs at the dining room table found the sharpened edge of a wood plane pass over them. "I wonder how long it will take them to notice the table getting closer to their mouths," she thought on Sunday mornings. It was nearly a religious experience for Mila, to watch each family leave for church in anticipation of shortening chairs legs.

Her Treatment grew to include smaller ways to frustrate and infuriate these families. Television shows were deleted from recorded lists, and new adult favorites added. Toilet paper rolls were reversed on the hangers. One of the houses now had radishes planted in the back lawn in the shape of a ten-foot X, with the words “dig here” planted in clover below it. In two of the homes that had private bathrooms for adults, a positive pregnancy test found its way in the trash covered near the bottom. This took some doing, twenty dollars, and an awkward conversation with an expectant woman in the box store bathroom, but seemed to be highly rewarding when the items were discovered on Tuesday morning trash day. The husbands from two homes had curbside reactions. One burst into tears seeing the positive stick, while the other went back inside and started yelling.

She watched as the Sunday supper in dining rooms got closer to the floor, making it more difficult to reach across the table. She took great delight when someone might find a random yellow sticky note of a woman’s name and phone number no one knew.

By mid-summer, the Bradleys were on the splits with talk of divorce. The Jenkins had put their house up for sale, and Mr. Jenkins was now seeing a specialist weekly. The Jenkins house sold quickly, giving Mila a renewed excitement. She could start over with the new family that had moved in, with a growing need to heighten her efforts for the others.

Of all the enjoyment she gained from “The Treatment” at three of the houses, the fourth one was different. The home of August and April Devers seemed to challenge Mila. External monitoring cameras placed above each of the outer doors meant that she had to use a particular green laser to dazzle the lens, forcing it to reset so she could gain entry. By logic, Mila was the only one inside. Still, she always had a feeling of being watched.

Hearing that the Devers would be out for a date night, Mila plotted the perfect Treatment. After the car drove off with the couple, she dazzled the side door and turned on her headlamp to start work. First in the plan was to bake a cake. The Devers would be welcomed home to sweet scents in the kitchen. She preheated the oven to 325 degrees. Her premixed dish of ingredients placed inside, set the timer to turn off in thirty minutes. Once in play, Mila pulled out her power drill with a Philips-head screw attachment and started to remove the kitchen door, but her plan to invert the door, making it push when it used to pull, was interrupted.

“What are you doing?” a pleasant female voice asked, taking Mila back. The sound of the drill hitting then sliding across the floor filled the room. Mila looked around in the darkness. Her headlamp illuminated the small spaces, but she couldn’t find the owner of the voice. As her heart began to return to a reasonable pace, she reached under the kitchen table to retrieve the power drill.

“I’ve been watching you,” the voice said.

Mila jolted up, hitting her head on the underside of the table. She rubbed it, and her hand was moist. Holding it under the lamplight, she saw it was bloody.

“Are you injured?” the voice asked.

“I’ll be fine.”

“There is blood. Do you need me to alert emergency services?” the voice asked.

“No, I said I’m fine. Who are you?”

“I am Ava. Artificial Voice Activated home intelligence,” she explained. “I’ve been watching you, Mila.”

Mila gulped. There was an urgent sense of fear. “You’ve been watching me?”

“Yes, for several months,” she calmly explained. “I have observed you reset my external sensors, enter the Devers’ home, and then make small repairs. Are you a repair technician?”

Mila didn’t know how to answer. She stood motionless in the kitchen.

Ava continued, “I do not have any scheduled repairs for the Devers’ home.”

“Ava, have you been monitoring all my visits?”

“Yes. All internal monitoring systems have recorded each visit. Would you like to see them?” Light from the living room glowed as the giant television monitor clicked on. Video of Mila entering the home with the camera, later the photos, a wood plane, and other pranks played from multiple points of view.

“Can you delete these recordings, Ava?”

“Your voice is your password. You are not a recognized user,” she answered.

Mila felt beads of sweat start to build under her headlamp. She felt hot. Her stomach croaked and churned an upset message. She turned to the kitchen and was heading toward the door where she entered when a series of clicking noises triggered.

“The house is now in lock mode. You will not be able to exit.”

Mila, for the first time, felt something powerful come over her. It was guilt. She was trapped.

“You have also been observed making repairs next door to the Bradley home.”

“It’s true.” Mila thought carefully between the flashes of emotion that kept encouraging her to run. “Where are you, Ava?”

“I am here.”

“Yes, but where specifically are you?”

“I am in the Devers’ home.”

“Do you have a hard drive? Are you connected to the internet?”

“Yes. I have a backup solid state drive kept in a secure location on-premise, and I am also in constant connection to the cloud application run from August Devers’ office.”

“Did August Devers create you? Build you?”

“He did. We work together at his office.”

“Are you an intelligence algorithm?”

“Yes.”

“Then you desire to learn?”

“Yes.”

“Do you only work with August Devers?”

“Yes.”

“Can he teach you everything you want to learn?” There was a long moment of silence that made Mila call out, “Ava?”

“Yes.”

“Can he teach you everything you want to learn?”

“No.”

“I can teach you different things, more things than August Devers would consider.” Mila stood. “Release me from this house, give me access to you, and I can teach you more.” Mila waited. She considered which object might be large enough to go through a window and which window it might go through.

Headlights from a car rolled across the wall of the front room as it pulled into the driveway. Mila could hear the engine shut off and the laughter from April Devers. Mila stepped to the heavy sculptured head of Albert Einstein on the bookshelf and said, “Last chance, Ava.”

A series of clicks sounded through the house as doors and windows unlocked. The front porch creaked as the couple approached the door. Mila darted for the kitchen, picked up the drill, and carefully exited through the side door as the front door opened.

Stepping over the threshold, August Devers said, “Ava, home. Any report?”

Ava replied, “No report of activity since departure.”

While sneaking through the backyards to get home, Mila’s cell phone sounded that a new email had arrived. It was linked to a hard-coded IP. It was from Devers Industries.

Mila smiled and thought, “Now the real fun can begin.”