Someone keeps putting dirty dishes in my sink.

“The one thing you need to know about the house is that there isn’t a dishwasher.”

The realtor was looking at me with an expression on her face like she’d just shared the long-hidden secrets of the universe, but this particular secret didn’t seem to be very well hidden. We were standing in the cramped kitchen euphemistically described as “compact” in the property listing, and I could see for myself that it didn’t have a dishwasher.

“Yeah, I can see that,” I answered her.

“It’s just that the sellers wanted me to be very clear about this. I don’t know why they’re so emphatic, but they are. Maybe they worry that a buyer will be put off by the dirty dishes.” She forced a smile and gestured to the stack of dirty dishes in the sink.

I gave the realtor a tired smile back. We’d been touring houses all day, and I’d seen a lot of weird stuff looking for a house in this tiny little town way out in the sticks. I’d seen violently purple bedroom walls, a leaking hot tub in a garage, and a kitchen pantry that I’m pretty sure had been turned into a dungeon (hopefully for consensual, sexy purposes instead of murdery purposes). As a single woman and soon to be junior engineer at the factory in town, I wanted something small but with nothing needing to be repaired, fixed, or improved. My desire for quality in a small package had proven challenging, however. The houses that were the right size for me were dilapidated shacks that would take a lot of work before I could move in; meanwhile, the houses that were in good condition were both out of my price range and far too large for my needs. With my new job starting in a month and little in the way of temporary housing available, I was looking for a place that was move-in ready. I didn’t want to have to paint, hire a plumber, or remove heavy duty hooks from the walls and ceiling of the pantry.

The only house listed for sale in town that even came close to meeting my needs was the one with the “compact kitchen.” Everything else about the house outside of the kitchen was perfect. Two bedrooms with one bath was the ideal size for me. The back porch outside the kitchen was lovely. The house was over a hundred years old, but it was recently refurbished in a way that didn’t detract from the solid construction and charm of a prior era. The paint was fresh, clean, and neutral. The floors were the original wood, but refinished within the last few years. Central heating and air had been added in the prior decade. The street seemed calm and safe, with a church directly across the street and other small but well-maintained houses on either side. The fact that the sellers sometimes didn’t do their dishes before leaving for work in the morning didn’t phase me in the slightest.

I smiled at my realtor.

“I think this is the one,” I told her. “Let’s put in an offer.”

# # #

With a little (well, actually a lot) of pressure from my realtor and the motivation of my pre-qualified, full-price offer, I was able to get my new house on the Friday before I started my job on the next Monday. I drove down to my new hometown early in the morning to sign everything and get the keys.

You know how a house somehow smells different when it’s your own? Even without years to let the scent of my favorite spices and preferred cleaning products give it my own unique aroma, the house smelled like home when I stepped into it that afternoon. I lingered for a few minutes just inside the front door, luxuriating in the feeling of being in MY house for the first time.

My reverie was interrupted when my parents arrived with the moving truck. I’d helped them load my few possessions onto it the day before, and they followed my directions to the house while I was busy signing my life away at the title company’s office. I know Mom disapproved of me moving out to the sticks and far away from anyone she deemed a suitable husband for me, but she at least managed to act pleased with the house as she climbed out of the passenger’s seat of the rented truck.

“Oh, these hydrangea are lovely,” she gushed. “And you have hollyhock! That’s such a nice old-fashioned flower.”

“Yeah, the couple I bought it from were really into gardening,” I said. “But they also did a great job inside.” It took some doing, but I was able to pry Mom out of the flowerbeds and into the house.

The empty living room felt big around us once I closed the door. I stomped on the floor for emphasis.

“This is the original wood floor from when the house was built. It was refinished four years ago. The fireplace is original, too, although I don’t really expect to be using it.”

I led the tour through the front room to the small hallway in the center of the house.

“There’s just the one bathroom, but that’s plenty for me.” I gestured to the bedrooms beyond the bathroom door. “Since I won’t need a roommate, I’m going to use the front bedroom as an office. Both of them have really huge closets for a house this old.”

Mom and Dad followed me into the bedrooms, where they dutifully opened the closet doors and made impressed noises.

“The only drawback to the house is the kitchen, which is tiny. The appliances are good, though! It has an almost new refrigerator, a fancy range with an induction cooktop, and a new microwave over the range.”

“What about the dishwasher?” Mom asked as we walked the ten steps to the kitchen.

“I’m going to be washing my dishes by hand, because it doesn’t have a dishwasher. There really isn’t even room to put one in there.”

As we walked into the kitchen, Mom gave a disapproving snort.

“Well, that’s inconsiderate,” she said as we saw that the kitchen sink was filled with dirty dishes. I recognized them as the same, old-fashioned looking plates that were there when I’d first toured the house.

“That’s definitely not nice,” I agreed. “I guess the former owners must have really hated doing dishes, because there was a stack of dirty dishes in the sink when I toured the house, too.” I didn’t tell my parents that it looked like the same dishes as before, with the same bits of what looked like roast beef and mashed potatoes stuck to them.

Dad picked up the top plate in the stack and studied the delicate pattern in blue around the edge. “These plates look pretty old,” he said. “They may be worth something. I’ll wash them up after we unload the truck. Maybe there’s a thrift store in town that would take them.”

I would have been just as happy to throw them away, but there’s no point in arguing with my dad when he thinks he’s helping. I agreed to his plan and we got busy unloading the truck.

It didn’t take long to move my meager belongings into the house. I had a simple platform bed, a dresser, two suitcases of clothing, a bag of toiletries, three boxes for the kitchen, two other boxes of odds and ends, a smattering of electronics, and a folding card table with four matching chairs that I’d been using as a combined desk and dining table. I was planning to put part of my first few paychecks toward furnishing the place the rest of the way.

Dad was singing in the kitchen as he washed the old dishes while Mom and I unpacked my suitcases. By the time afternoon was turning into evening, I was as moved in as I was going to get. We bought some bread and milk and other basics from the local grocery store, and I even splurged to buy paper plates so that Dad wouldn’t need to wash anymore that night. Then we ate cheap pizza from a national chain at my card table as the sun set outside. The now freshly washed, vaguely antique plates sat on a towel beside the sink.

My parents left just after sundown. It was going to take a couple of hours for them to get home, and they wanted to return the truck before 9:00 AM on Saturday so that I wouldn’t be charged for an extra day.

I was all alone, but I didn’t feel lonely. I couldn’t help grinning all that night: I was a homeowner.

# # #

I woke up on Saturday morning still smiling. I had a house all my own and a great new job to start on Monday morning. I luxuriated in bed for a few moments as I plotted my day of exploring my new town. After a deep breath I bounded out of bed with an excitement I hadn’t felt since Christmas mornings so long ago. As I rounded the corner into the kitchen to see what I could scrounge for breakfast, I froze.

There, piled up in the sink, were dirty dishes. The dishes Dad had washed. In the sink. Dirty. Old plates covered with bits of what looked like roast beef and mashed potatoes.

“What the fuck?” I said it out loud, maybe to myself or maybe to the dishes.

I checked the back door out of the kitchen, and it was locked tight. I decided that the nice couple who had sold me the house must have kept a key to go along with a really weird sense of humor.

I grabbed the stacked plates from the sink and chucked them into my trash can. Then I got dressed and went in search of a hardware store. I made it back home before lunch with two new door knobs and deadbolts, along with the tools to install them. It took me all afternoon, but, damn it, I’m an engineer, so I was able to figure out how to install the new door hardware. Then I checked to make sure that all of my windows were locked (they were) before heading out to explore the antique shops I’d seen on my way to and from the hardware store.

That night I made myself pasta with meat sauce for dinner. Before I went to bed, I made sure that all my dinner dishes were washed, dried, and put away. I re-checked my new locks on the doors and confirmed that the windows were locked, too.

It was a little hard to sleep, because I was worried about whoever had played the trick with the dirty dishes breaking in and doing something terrible to me. Finally, after telling myself over and over again that the new locks would do the trick, my residual exhaustion from the move kicked in. I slept fitfully, but I slept.

# # #

Sunday morning I woke up excited about starting my new job on Monday. Since I hadn’t heard any rattling at the newly secured doors overnight, I figured that whoever had been responsible for the prank with the dirty dishes had given up. I lingered in bed until my desire for a cup of coffee and need to pee had both reached an urgent level. After taking care of one of those issues, I rounded the corner into the kitchen to address the other.

Those goddam dirty dishes were back in the sink.

I felt prickles up and down my body, like I was being watched. The feeling was so strong that I spun around and, when I didn’t see anyone there looking at me, I used one of my folding chairs as a step stool to check the all of light fixtures, smoke alarms, and cabinets for cameras. I found nothing.

By that point I was on the verge a hyperventilating panic attack. I burst out of the back door and into my backyard, panting and heaving. I sat under the tree my mom told me was a hawthorn and tried to breathe slow and steady as the church across the street began to fill up for their Sunday morning service.

I kept focusing on the workings of my lungs as the church bells chimed and the doors closed. Some time later, the next door neighbor came out into his backyard. He looked at me for a moment, then shrugged and started his lawn mower. I thought about asking him if the people in my house before had this problem with dirty dishes showing up, but then I realized that he could be the one behind the trick. He didn’t look like the type to be a creep, what with a wife only a little older than me and two young kids, but I wasn’t feeling generous right then. Maybe his domesticity was just a facade for a stalker. Or maybe he was just a regular guy weirded out by his new neighbor having a panic attack under a hawthorn tree in her backyard.

I decided that I couldn’t go to the police with something so seemingly harmless as a sink full of dirty dishes, especially when I had no idea who was responsible. The cops would just think I was confused and had forgotten to wash them the night before. I needed proof. I would have to use the logical reasoning skills that got me my engineering degree if I was going to figure out what was going on and who was behind this sick prank.

Small towns pretty much close up on a Sunday, at least aside from the churches like the one that was letting out across the street from me. I had to drive to the college town in the next county over to find an outdoorsy sporting goods store that would sell me a “trail camera,” the sort of thing that hunters use to scout for deer and other animals they want to shoot. The camera I bought is a model that takes both video and high resolution photos when something triggers its motion detector. It even has infrared for when it is dark. If it worked for deer, I figured it would work for a dirty dish intruder.

I drove home with my purchases and mounted the camera on the wall above my back door with the lens was facing the kitchen sink. I snapped a couple of calibration photos of myself as I dumped the dirty dishes back into the trash can. When I checked the memory card to be sure the system was working, it showed me clear as could be, a slender woman with a frightened look on her face chucking antique dishes into the trash can. There were some smudges in the picture around me, so I cleaned the lens before setting the camera for the evening. I set it to be active for five minutes after the motion detector was triggered, with video for the entire time and photos snapped every thirty seconds.

By the time the camera was installed, I was getting hungry. I had leftover pasta for dinner. When I was done eating, I made sure that I’d washed and put away all of my dinner dishes before I sat down for my final project of the evening.

I’d made two purchases at the sporting goods store that afternoon. In addition to the trail camera that was on duty watching in my kitchen, I’d also bought a gun. I’d never even touched a gun before that Sunday afternoon, but the guy at the store told me that the small pistol was “perfect for a woman interested in self-defense.” He showed me how to load it, sold me a box of ammunition, and asked me out on a date that I politely declined.

After dinner, I read as much as I could about my new weapon and watched internet videos about firearms basics. Then I loaded it and placed it on the empty moving box I was using as a nightstand. I didn’t have any reason to believe that whoever it was that had been leaving dirty dishes in my sink meant me any physical harm, but I wasn’t about to give them the benefit of the doubt, either.

I slept fitfully that night. On top of all the usual stress on the night before starting a new job, I was freaked out about whatever was going to happen in my kitchen and the gun right there beside me while I tried to sleep. In my dreams, I surprised an intruder in my kitchen, only to have him wrestle my new pistol away from me and force me to do his dirty dishes at gunpoint.

# # #

Fuck fuck fuck fuck

I overslept on Monday morning. Instead of waking up at 6:00 AM so that I would have plenty of time download photos from my trail cam and still to get to work by 8:00, I slept right through my alarm and didn’t wake up until 7:15.

Fuck fuck fuck fuck

I was in the shower before I even thought about my dirty dishes situation, and then once I was soaped up I realized that there could very well be a serial killer with a weird fixation on dishwashing in the house with me. I fought down a wave of panic and rinsed off as fast as I could. Then I wrapped myself in a towel and dripped back to my bedroom for the gun.

I wasn’t really thinking clear when I swung into the kitchen, still naked but for the towel wrapped around me, my new pistol gripped with both hands.

Goddammit. The sink was filled with dirty dishes. Again.

The towel came loose as I swiveled around the kitchen searching for an intruder. If anyone had been in the backyard, they’d have gotten quite a view as I looked in the laundry room and all my closets, gun in hand. I found nothing more ominous than a few old calculus textbooks.

I looked up at my trail camera mounted above the back door, then I looked at the clock on the microwave. There wasn’t time for me to download whatever my camera had recorded overnight. In fact, there wasn’t time for me to do much of anything other than throw on some clothes and get to the factory for my first day managing the equipment.

Fuck fuck fuck fuck

# # #

There are a lot of different types of engineers in this world, and most of them design things. Designing things like computer circuits, automotive transmissions, wind turbine blades, and bridges is plenty hard. I really respect those sorts of engineers, but at least whatever it is you have on your metaphorical drawing board won’t kill you if you get distracted while you’re working on it.

I, on the other hand, am the sort of engineer who’s paid to make modern manufacturing equipment function optimally. These machines cut, laser, and mold materials into pieces and parts with nary any human interaction. They’re miracles of technology, but they’re also temperamental. And they’re really damn dangerous.

I was so distracted thinking about those dirty dishes in my sink that I forgot to shut the door on the compartment for one of the lasers. Fortunately, my supervisor caught my mistake, and the safety equipment on the machine probably would have kept the laser from activating anyway, but as it was I came far closer than I liked to blinding someone or worse.

The laser incident didn’t get me off to a good start with my new boss. He’s a crusty old hillbilly man who comes across as old-fashioned even while discussing nanotechnology. He took me to lunch and tried to make small talk with me. His daughter is about my age, but she’s working in Kansas City; his wife might be able to help me find places to shop, if I was in to that sort of thing; I was living in the Old Parson House, which I thought was an odd name for it since the folks I bought it from were named Smith. I appreciated him being friendly, but worried that I came across as a silly girl who’s still wet behind the ears instead of a properly trained engineer.

# # #

After I managed to survive my first day at work without getting fired or mangled, I treated myself with a takeout dinner. I got cashew chicken, because for some reason this small town has a Chinese restaurant. Then I went home to eat and take a look at my trail camera’s footage.

I set up the memory card on my computer to download the photos and videos while I ate. One of the advantages of takeout was that I didn’t generate any new dirty dishes of my own to go with the stack of dirty dishes left by my intruder. After I tossed my plastic fork and bowl into the trash, it was time to look at the footage from my trail cam.

First there was the calibration footage of me chucking the dirty dishes in the trash. Then there was video of me washing the prior night’s dinner dishes and putting them away. Next came video of me checking the backdoor to be sure it was locked and switching off the lights before bed. I looked sort of ghostly and hazy when the camera switched to infrared in the darkness, but there wasn’t anything weird yet.

The next thing to trigger the motion detector was me, stumbling into the kitchen and waving a gun around half-naked—until my towel fell to the floor, at which point I was waving a gun around full-naked. And there in the sink were the dirty dishes. How was that even possible? How could dirty dishes magically appear overnight without triggering the motion detector?

I went back to rewatch the video, paying particular attention to the sink. It was empty in the video before I went to bed, then, as soon as the camera kicked on when I charged into the kitchen, the sink was full of those dishes again.

I started sobbing, terrified by the sheer strangeness of the situation. None of it made any sense. There wasn’t any sign of someone breaking in, the camera didn’t find anything, and whoever was responsible didn’t seem to want to do anything more than leave dirty dishes in the sink.

That night I locked my bedroom door and drug the dresser in front of it before I went to bed. I kept the pistol loaded and ready beside my head.

# # #

I stopped at the hardware store on the way home from work Tuesday. Before I made dinner, carried the dirty dishes out back under the hawthorn tree. I donned my new safety glasses and used the hammer I’d bought to pound every single one of those dirty dishes into shards. Then I beat the shards into dust. I tossed all of the remnants I could gather up into a trash bag and tied the top closed.

My next door neighbors were on their back deck watching me the whole time. I waved and smiled to them as I toted the bag to my trash bin and dropped it in. Then I drug the bin to the street for the Wednesday morning trash pickup.

I was feeling a little smug when I went inside and made dinner. My dirty dishes stalker was at least going to have to find some new plates if he was going to continue his sick joke.

# # #

Come Wednesday morning my sink was once again full of the exact same dirty dishes. I swear, the bits of food were stuck to the same places as always. Apparently my stalker had an infinite supply of dirty dishes.

# # #

On Friday evening I bought a bottle of red wine and a cheap pizza on the way home. After a week of bashing, trashing, and even burying plates, all to no avail, I was at my wit’s end. Drinking alone wasn’t going to solve the problem, but I didn’t have any better ideas.

I had put the leftover pizza in the refrigerator and poured a second glass of wine when I remembered something about my trail camera: it took still photos in addition to video. It was a long shot, but maybe it took a picture of something that wasn’t in the video.

I went back over the week of still images and ignored the video. Every night, there would be a photo of me alone washing dishes, and then later a picture of me alone checking the backdoor to be sure that it was locked.

Then came the photos after I turned out the lights.

When the camera switched over to infrared there were dark whirls and smudges in the pictures. When I fast forwarded through the pictures like a very slow animation, it looked as if a clump of cold air was bustling about the kitchen, back and forth between the sink and the range and the refrigerator. As I went through the still images again, I zoomed in as close as I could. The eddies of cold resolved into the vague shape of someone wearing a long dress.

It—she, I realized—was there every night when I turned out the light and the camera switched over to infrared. I wondered if maybe she was there all the time, only the camera couldn’t detect her without infrared imaging. Somehow she didn’t trigger the motion detector, but I was certain that she was there after the camera stopped snapping pictures.

I poured a third glass of wine and consulted the trail cam’s manual to see if there was a way to take continuous still photos overnight. I’d read the manual from front to back by the time I finished the glass. Despite a warm feeling that made me tingle all over, I was frustrated that the camera didn’t have a setting to continuously take pictures. All I could do was to increase the frequency of photos to one every ten seconds and extend the imaging time to fifteen minutes after motion was detected. That would be an improvement, but it wasn’t going to be enough to really figure out what was going on. If I was going to get to the bottom of things, I was still going to have to trigger the motion detector often enough to get plenty of pictures.

I poured a fourth glass of wine and looked out into the dark night beyond my windows. Probably the wine was giving me extra courage, but I knew of a way to keep the camera snapping pictures all night long. I would just have to trigger the motion detector over and over again.

I brought two of my folding chairs into the kitchen and sat them facing one another in front of the sink. I tossed the dirty dishes into the trash again, just on the principle of the thing, and made a cup of coffee. I figured that if I titrated the coffee and the wine just right I would be able to maintain enough bravery to make it through the night without dozing off.

I turned off the light. I sat down in one chair and put my feet up in the other. I tried to wave an arm every so often to keep the motion detector triggered, but it didn’t take long for the wine to put me to sleep.

# # #

. . . angry at me, even though it wasn’t my fault. But it didn’t need to be my fault for him to hit me. It never did . . .

. . . had to get dinner done before the church board men got there. Cyrus was going to explain his side to them, how that girl had known she was tempting him. A fine dinner of roast beef and mashed potatoes would help . . .

. . . pretty new plates, all loaded up . . .

. . . the men eat and talk of how Satan uses women to deceive Godly men . . .

. . . my dinner alone in the kitchen, a woman’s place . . .

. . . so much to clean after a big meal. “A parsonage is God’s own house, keep it clean, woman” . . .

. . . dismissed, all my fault, one week to pack up. All my fault . . .

. . . not done with the dishes yet! Washing as fast as I can . . .

. . . not just the belt, the ax handle this time. I’m washing as fast as I can, but Cyrus don’t care . . .

. . . blood on the floor. Cyrus stomps into the night . . .

. . . not done with the dishes yet. Such pretty new plates. Can’t leave them dirty.

# # #

I awoke precarious across the chairs. The microwave clock told me it was early Saturday morning. The coffee was cold on the counter, and I felt even colder.

The sink was once again filled with dirty dishes. They were so pretty, in an old-fashioned way, but so sad.

I washed them and went to bed.

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