The Year of Ennui -- fiction by Oliver Walters-Clift
If you were to create a graph of social interest in Eloise Clark, it would look something like this: The first blips would appear about August when a few articles popped up about her upcoming spectacle, dubbed “The Year of Ennui.” When it began, only a minuscule fraction of the population tuned in to watch her, but that bar would slowly rise as more and more people gained interest in simply watching someone go about a life uninterrupted by the troubles that fill their day to day. But the real spike in interest would be today. It is a year after she departed, and almost every news source reports that Eloise Clark didn’t consent or even know that 8,160 hours of footage showing her life is online. She had no idea of the cult of personality that had formed around her.
When Eloise applied for the job (if you would call it that), it was mainly out of boredom. An ad popped up in her newsfeed: “New media company ‘Lobos Inc.’ will pay one lucky person to do NOTHING for a year! Do you have what it takes??” She had always dreamed of seeing her name in a headline, and this seemed like her best chance. So she responded to a quick survey, never expecting to think of it again, but here she was: that one lucky person. Her instructions were clear: she was to live alone, have no contact with the outside world, and basically, take it easy. The only requirement was to share a short blog post every day to journal her experience.
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The cabin she was to live in was set back in the woods. A simple A-frame with a living space in the front, and a bathroom and bedroom in the back. The logs forming it were rough cut, but not yet weathered. Its yellow porch lamp already had a couple of dead moths in it, yet thankfully it still cast a warm, comforting glow across the solid blue door.
To get to the place, the van took a winding road down the side of the mountain. The driver passed the small dirt road leading to the cabin, only realizing when his phone chirped at him “recalculating…” It seemed like a perfect place to be alone. After this, it was strict that no one comes onto the property and she doesn’t leave. A year of this would be enough for her to forget what it was like outside, something that Lobos hopes will interest the public enough for them to read her blog and drive traffic to their website.
The cabin had yet to be stocked. Though furnished, it didn’t have the clutter to truly be called home yet. The driver got out, but Eloise sat inside the car and turned on the radio one last time. The station was running a fundraiser, but this would be her last time hearing about the outside world for 365 days. After a few seconds, she turned it off: she had no need for it now.
● ● ●
Welcome to the first day of my new life. I think today was the start of something great. The trip down was seamless, and my cabin was even nicer than I expected. I’m already starting to settle in and envision the year in front of me. I have lots of plans and ideas for entertainment, and I will update you all as needed. I’m currently sitting under my blanket, holding a cup of Sleepytime tea. I had pasta tonight because I didn’t have much time for anything else, and I’m starting to think life without a schedule may be better than expected. I will update you tomorrow (and every day after).
In the first week, the leaves seemed to be prepping for the spectacle to come, and so was Eloise. Her mind felt busier than it ever had been out in the greater world. She made plans for the future feverishly in her journal, seized by the idea of a year without consequence. She already was feeling a sense of peace with the fact that she may simply have a lot of time doing nothing.
Invigorated by the brisk fall wind, she headed out on the drive to pick up the first of the weekly food drops. She had filled out a preference chart before the stay, sharing that she was vegetarian, had a peanut allergy, and the like. Lobos said they would take it from there. She trudged up the long drive, trying to imagine what she would be doing now if she was still living her life. Probably driving to work listening to a podcast. Or some other benign task.
Just then she saw something. Something in the trees had reflected the sun in just the right way to blind her for an instant. She took a step back and there it was again. Conscious of her solitary state, she took a few fast steps to the edge of the woods to try and see what it was. No luck. She tried to retrace her steps to no avail. She shook off her brief moment of agitation and walked on; must have been a trick of the light.
When she reached the cache, she unlocked it, a bit of jimmying was needed to open up the padlock, but after a moment of panic, she found it was pleasantly full. Crusty bread, jars of jam, fresh vegetables, and fruit would sustain her along with the shelf-stable staples in the cabin. The food was already bagged into canvas totes she would place into the cache again later this week to be refilled. She hefted the bags and walked back, only stopping a moment to check the trees again for the glimmer of light. Even after getting home and shaking off the feeling of being out in the frigid air, she couldn’t quite shake the other feeling that something was amiss.
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After that came almost a whole month of monotony: baking practically every type of cookie from her tattered copy of Betty Crocker, watching the birds fight at the feeder, or spying minnows in small pools in the surrounding woods. Her new life as a hermit seemed to be settling into feeling normal.
She was lying on the small sofa, a fire snapped next to her, the flames famished, searching the air for more fuel. The cabin had begun to warm up nicely, Eloise had kicked off her shoes and the sun was about to set. She lolled her head back, closed her eyes, and her mind settled to darkness.
She had no dreams that evening, her mind as blank as the sky outside. A new moon coincided with a cloudy night to create a truly lightless world. In the city, a new moon means nothing, but in the woods, it’s equivalent to a city-wide blackout. No street lights to bounce off the pavement and illuminate the trees, no porch lights to walk up to. Only a black that swallows everything else up.
This is what Eloise woke to. A blanket of darkness with one tiny hole in it. An orange light showed directly above her. It was dark enough that the light looked like a solitary star, hanging in space. Eloise sat up, her neck now craned back so she could train her eyes on the light. She now stood up slowly, her bare feet stepping up onto the arm of the sofa. She reached up toward the light, just like they always said not to in the movies. On her tiptoes, her fingers just reached the planks forming the roof. She could detect a small space that felt different than the rest, smoother than wood, it must have been plastic. She pushed up and something fell onto her face. She screamed, jumping down and running quickly to flick on the light switch, bathing the room in blinding yellow. A small open cavity in the ceiling was revealed and below it a device that had fallen out. Flipping the device over, she found the lens of a camera.
The next morning, she had a clearer head. She was furious: Why hadn’t Lobos told her about a hidden camera? And more importantly, why was it there to begin with? Although her contract was long and wordy, she had done her best to scan it for anything like this. After investigating last night, she discovered that the camera's plug had somehow gotten dislodged and that the glow was a low battery signal. The camera was small and lacked a screen -- the kind you only buy to watch people.
Eloise spiraled all day: Did Lobos place the camera? Why else would it have been there? Why did they feel the need to watch her without her knowledge?
She considered using the walkie to demand answers, but her instructions had been to only use it in an emergency. They had been clear that her contract would be terminated after using the walkie. And that meant she no longer could live here, no longer live in a place that was starting to feel like home.
She scrunched up her nose and let out a frustrated “arhhh!” She had been trying to talk to herself a bit each day to stay in practice, but the sound of her own voice still startled her. “What am I even doing here?” she let out, relaxing the muscles of her face and rubbing one of her temples with her hand, the other hanging limply down by her side.
● ● ●
That day the food drop-off included two things of note. First: a picnic basket covered with red gingham that appeared to be stuffed to the brim. Second: a small slip of paper lying at the bottom of the food bin. She sat her bags down on the gravel to grab the paper, and stood on tiptoe to reach down and grab it. As she was back upright, she read:
It appears you have deactivated one of our cameras. As it seems you may not remember, we have attached section 12b. Highlighted is the portion delineating your agreement to be recorded. Remember, safety is our priority.
Not only had Lobos been watching her, they knew that she had found the camera. And this was somehow part of her contract? Turning over the paper, sure enough, she could see the agreement of recording devices in the cabin. Was this truly the original contract she had signed? If so, why had Lobos hidden this detail in the fine print? And why hide the camera?
On her way back to the cabin, the same glint from the trees caught her eyes. This time, with more and more of the leaves gone, she could see the camera strapped to the tree trunk, angled just so as to catch her walking up and down the drive. She broke into a run for the cabin. It would make a great story wouldn’t it: an evil corporation, an innocent young woman being taken advantage of, and of course the recordings to back it all up. She still didn’t know what the big fuss was about keeping it all a secret. Now that she knew she was being watched, the least she could do was put on a show.
Oliver Walters-Clift is a high school senior living in Raleigh North Carolina. He has been homeschooled his whole life and is excited to start at North Carolina State University in the fall, majoring in horticulture. In his free time, Oliver loves to play tennis, cook, and read.