Treehouses – Matt Rowan

It started with just one treehouse. “For the boy,” our neighbor Darren O’Donnell had said, tersely. Trees surrounded his home, though, and each one was sturdy enough to support a treehouse. We figured things had gotten away from him, from Darren, in terms of logic and excess and all of that. Soon every tree that surrounded Darren’s home had a treehouse. At least one. Some of the larger trees had more than one. One tree even had three.

But, really, that was ok — the many treehouses seeming to dangle precipitously in the trees — until we noticed he was wiring each one with electricity and using them as mini-surveillance stations. From his various perches, he was observing us individually on a live feed or recording video of our activities for later viewing. He had high-quality cameras and good vantage points from which to take in the entirety of the neighborhood. His own personal panorama was available to him on every screen, transmitted through all those lenses, all sorts of realities streaming out of obscurity and into Darren’s light. He must have felt a great deal of control, accessing all our realities.

At first, I could see him up in one of the treehouses, sipping coffee and nodding his head, watching me on a camera. I held up a sign that said: “Stop watching me. I know that’s what you’re doing.” It was clear by his reaction, a subtle but apparent flinching, that Darren hadn’t expected the sign. But after betraying his initial unease, he attempted to affect a nonchalant attitude, or apathetic — disinterested, at least. He looked out the treehouse window, a circular porthole-like opening, the one I’d been watching him through. He drew some curtains, red and velvety. I pictured him in there returning to his coffee and his nodding at me. I pictured him mouthing the words “Checkmate.” He was a real jerk.

Not long after that, I caught Darren outside his treehouses, on the sidewalk, where he seemed less powerful and more willing to deign to speak to me. He skirted my questioning at first. But I wore him down, and he finally said, face puffy and chest heaving, “You think I’m crazy for making all these treehouses to watch you and everyone else in, but I think you’re crazy for pleasuring yourself at an awkward angle in a corner of your room you apparently think I can’t see you in. I think that’s crazy.” I made more of an effort to find privacy in my home after that. I’d been violated, but I justified it (saying, “Real privacy is a thing of the past, just look at the internet and the possibility of immediate viral fame or infamy.”), like so many things. I tried to pretend.

The trouble might have been, at least, that Darren’s surveillance was producing the rare but noticeably positive effect. There was the example of the milkman our neighborhood was visited by, or what might more accurately be referred to his menace. People in our neighborhood didn’t really need their milk delivered. It’s an outmoded practice. Yet every week, like clockwork, there it’d be, new milk right at all of our doorsteps. Some of my neighbors were inclined to try it. Maybe it was good. Maybe it was a gift come from a Good Samaritan. It was free, after all. So went their thinking.

That’s not what Darren’s video revealed. It revealed a creepy creep skinny guy with bottles of milk strapped to his legs and arms and around his waist. Other than the bottles of milk, black dress shoes and the white briefs that “concealed” a comically large penis, he was naked. He delivered his milk under the cover of night, like a real pervert.

“When I saw it, I spit out my coffee all over my monitor,” Darren said. “Not because I ever used any of that milk in my coffee or anything but because it was a really pretty unsettling thing to see. I thought you all should know.”

“I always thought the milk was a little bit on the warm side,” Fred said.

“Isn’t it warm when it’s fresh, like out of the cow?” Arnold said, trying to justify his thinking it was okay to drink, having already drank probably gallons of the stuff.

“It should have been pasteurized. I don’t think whatever that guy was dropping off was pasteurized. I hate to say it, but Darren did us a solid this time,” I said. I was magnanimous. Darren had caught something that was a real public health concern. It was actually good he’d been there, watching.

The police were able to arrest the milkman, and normalcy for the most part returned to the neighborhood — well, as much as normalcy can return to a neighborhood under the constant surveillance of an individual in its midst.

I did ask the police about Darren’s treehouses, but they said there wasn’t much that could be done, where the law was concerned. He’d gotten the required paperwork filled out and turned in. As far as they were concerned, there was nothing actionable about his cameras, even if they did agree he had a lot of them. “We don’t know for a verifiable fact that he’s spying on anyone, wish we could help.” The police actually seemed relieved that their hands were tied. They seemed ready to leave our mostly sleepy neighborhood and all its tedium.

I obsessed over what other things Darren might know about me, those many things I couldn’t hide. I worried I did things I wasn’t even aware of and had no easy way of stopping. I worried constantly. I was a wreck.

Fact was, Darren couldn’t possibly have seen much. Especially once everyone got wind of his doings and the entire neighborhood went to great lengths to keep him and his watchful eye out of their private lives, me included. Me especially, honestly. I know it’s crazy and I probably should have confronted him again instead of giving in to his harassment, but I boarded up my windows facing Darren’s home. No sooner did I finish hammering the last nail than I learned I’d gotten to him. He called me on the phone, speaking in a muffled voice, even though he wasn’t attempting to hide his identity (I believe he said, upon my answering, “Hey, Darren here” in his muffled way). He wanted me to know my efforts were in vain; he was watching me right then, seeing me on my phone talking to him “like an old idiot.” I told him that I wasn’t old, for one, and that these were the kinds of calls the police would probably find actionable, if begrudgingly. He said, pouting, “Whatever. Doesn’t matter. Sleep with one eye open. Don’t get too comfortable.”

But for all of his lack of eloquence, Darren was nobody’s fool. There was a bigger purpose to his neighborhood surveillance, one I hadn’t considered, as I’d all the while underestimated what he was capable of. I had no idea who the real Darren was, and I never paused to consider his goals might be anything beyond general paranoia or voyeurism or niche perversity. I didn’t consider the possible implications of someone’s building a network of surveillance.

I was enjoying a perusal of social media’s happenings, articles and words of the day and the usual thing. Then I noticed that Arnold had joined a group called “Darren Thoughts.” My first instinct, maybe hope, was that this was a page dedicated to solving or at least trashing Darren. It was actually a group run by Darren and had a picture that incorporated the second floor of his actual house and the surrounding many treehouses (each connected to one another and his actual house by a series of ladders and rope bridges) as its avatar. I shuddered, feeling he’d found a means back inside my private life. He had a series of posts on the page, which were mainly updates about the status of the neighborhood at important hours of the day, like noon and midnight. But some of them were more detailed, more intimate and descriptive. He meant to explain his project, why it existed, which was there to understand in his blog updates. The oldest I could find, dated at the outset of his surveillance:

Hello Neighborhood, i don’t really know any of you do i? i don’t think it’s crazy to want to know you better but how can anyone, really. Not through the internet. Tried that. This is messed up, here. Deleted personal account and i’m not doing that again. Only posting in this group i made, as admin.

In another update, he wrote:

Found who was delivering milk. It was a strange milkman who i called the authorities about. Shouldn’t be a problem anymore, but let me tell you about a weird thing. He was the most real of the people i’ve observed, and i’ve seen people shyly trying to hide from me at their most intimate. you’d think maybe then they would let their guard down and a ‘real you’ out, to shine, to be apparent. they don’t know who’s real inside. they don’t understnad themselves, even. That’s what i’m thinking. the milkman, off-kilter, yes, but was who he was and showed it. he made it simple by delivering milk door to door in the cover of night. Night vision allowed me to see him and all his quirks of mannerism, picking his nose freely, not being embarrassed at all. i think the only reason he delivered milk during at night and not during the day was that went against his natural desires, not because at night the dark would keep him from being found out. He might have done his delivering whenever, if that was what he’d wanted.

Weirdest of all, I don’t think he was really actually trying to do anything harmful. I think in his own way of thinking he was actually doing something good.

And then the last one I read:

I threatened a neighbor today, but it was only to get a reaction. Still, feel bad. Wish i hadn’t. Want to say sorry. i’m saying sorry right now, right here. don’t know any better place than the worst place possible to apologize, here online.

Darren was trying to view us as we were, not as we pretended to be. He believed, rightly, that we were all entirely false in our lives outside his surveillance. He knew we were false most of the time, whether anyone was with us or not. He knew I’d lied to myself, pretended it wasn’t so.

I caught up to him again, though he’d gone to some effort to avoid running into me. I had become a bit of the amateur surveiller myself, tracking some of his comings and goings from a crude lookout I’d assembled in the bushes of my own yard. With patience, and through binoculars, I saw that he’d begun exiting his actual house through the back door and clinging to the garages in alleyways to prevent his being seen, and again being accosted by me or anyone else who might do the same.

Next, I hid in a garbage can, emerging when he was close enough that I could lunge and grab his coat.

But he escaped my lunging and raced down the street, looking back maybe once or twice but otherwise traveling full speed ahead in his work clothes. It was both visceral and ungainly, what I was really seeing.

There was a package on my stoop when I finally returned home. I opened it and inside was a tiny model of one of Darren’s treehouses.

Darren had written a card, which read: i live for those moments when people forget. When they let their guard down, and i can see clearly beyond it. It’s kind of like sleeping, no matter how hard you fight it, struggle to stay awake and conscious, eventually it gets you. And that’s when i see.

Darren had covered his own home in tinted windows. Lights never seemed to be on behind them. It was as though his home had been abandoned, like no one was watching. This was a recent and disconcerting development.

I was outside, laying in my hammock, when I noticed an odd shape in one of my trees. The leaves were thick and sturdy, concealing whatever it was. I climbed and parted branches, which revealed a new treehouse. I banged on it. I thought I might have heard movement inside. There was no door, only windows, tinted. Black. Impenetrable black, and I couldn’t get through them. I couldn’t see anything.

It was the first of many. The treehouses seemed to be following me, and I no longer knew who was behind them, inside them, responsible. It was Darren, or maybe it wasn’t. How could he be responsible for so many, I wondered. How could there be so many? Everywhere.

The treehouses grew legs, grew tall, were ubiquitous. And they wanted to watch me, for whatever reason. And I always felt false and phony. I woke up one night to one standing over me, or maybe I’d been dreaming. The dream felt false, though, like I really hadn’t been dreaming at all.

Treehouses, everywhere, high as skyscrapers, watching as I was myself inside a skyscraper, working. People veiled behind tinted windows, windows that watched.