Sarah slammed the refrigerator door shut and tightly gripped the edge of the kitchen counter, waiting till she stopped seeing red. She was dumbfounded. Who was so desperately, ridiculously hungry that they’d grab anything they saw in a communal fridge without caring whether it belonged to someone else? This wasn’t the first time someone had done so.
First, when she’d had an upset stomach, and had to subsist for a few days on white bread and white rice, she had brought home a packet of soft mini-naans as part of her restricted diet. The next morning, very much looking forward to her simple breakfast, she opened the fridge only to find that the entire packet had vanished without a trace. She briefly considered posting a passive-aggressive GroupMe message: “Hey, did anyone happen to accidentally take a packet of naan from the first floor fridge?” But she decided against it. That wasn’t her style. Still, it would’ve felt good to jab at someone’s guilty conscience.
A few weeks later, during Ramadan, she’d packed an Ozzi box with breakfast treats for her pre-dawn sahur the next morning: a scone, some fruit, a cinnamon roll. That morning, she’d woken up at 4:30 a.m., and in the translucent green box sitting on the fridge’s middle shelf, there was no scone. Everything else seemed untouched, but she couldn’t fathom the level of audacity it took to reach into someone else’s Ozzi and steal a part of their breakfast.
The next week, when she brought some date granola energy bites from home, she took a bright yellow sticky note and wrote in clear capital letters: “PLEASE DON’T EAT w/o ASKING” with a very pathetic sad face as an additional emotional appeal. She didn’t really know why she added “w/o ASKING” – she just felt like she had to be polite, even to a thief.
Last week, everything had been going well. She counted just enough granola bites so that she could have two a day. Then, on Thursday, she checked the box and there were only three left instead of four. Had she miscalculated? She highly doubted it. For a moment, she started doubting her own sanity. For all she knew, maybe she walked and ate in her sleep, and that’s where all her food was disappearing.
A few days ago, she could’ve sworn someone nibbled on the soggy biscuit that she was saving for a rainy day.
But tonight was the last straw. Her mother had packed her two generous pieces of banana bread before Sarah had left home on Sunday. Now, there was only one half-a-bite-sized chunk remaining. She could see teeth marks gouged into the side of the fudgy chocolate morsel. Disgusted, she tossed the whole chocolate-smeared plastic tupperware into the garbage, lid and all, not in the mood to wash and reuse, or to even recycle.
On her way back to her room, Sarah reached for her phone and started typing out a GroupMe message on the Chapin group chat: “Whoever ate my banana bread, I hope you enjoyed it.” No emojis to lighten the tone. No exclamation points. Her thumb hesitated for a moment before sending, poised over the send button, and then descended with a decisive jab.
The next morning, Sarah woke to sunlight slanting through the closed blinds. Her roommate Hannah must’ve slipped into the room late at night and had already left for her morning classes. Sarah glanced at her phone and saw a new private text message from an unknown number:
“Hi! My friend told me about your bad experiences with your dorm fridge. I’d be happy to write up your story for North By Northwestern. I think res. college exec. boards need to prioritize prevention of this kind of stuff, and I think getting your story out there would be a great first step to raise awareness. Let me know if you’re interested!”
She didn’t pause to consider who this person was or how they’d gotten her number. Instead, she sent a quick reply: “I’m down. When/where do you want to meet?”
Then she threw back her covers, swung her legs over the side of her bed, sat down at her desk, opened her laptop, and began to type.
- Schedule interview with mystery journalist
- Text Chapin RAs
- Email Chapin Faculty Chair, Associate Chair, and Assistant Chair
- Attend the next Chapin exec. meeting and push for a Chapin-wide meeting on communal fridge etiquette
- Reach out to Southwest Area leadership and RCB to organize a seminar on communal kitchen etiquette
- Create petition to put security cameras in the Chapin kitchen
- Enlist private detective to use fingerprinting technology to track down the culprit after future heists
By the time she completed her list of action items, the mystery journalist had texted back a rather cryptic 4-word message: “Chapin attic. 5 minutes.”
After scrambling to change out of her pajamas and pull on a hijab, Sarah huffed her way up two flights of creaky wooden stairs. She had never been to the Chapin attic. She wasn’t even sure it existed. And if it did exist, she wasn’t sure students were allowed up there. But she didn’t let any of that stop her. She was on a mission.
Once Sarah reached the third floor landing, she could see another flight of stairs leading to a closed door. She climbed the stairs, two at a time, grasped the doorknob and turned it. It was locked. There was nowhere for her to swipe her WildCard. Feeling silly, she raised a fist and knocked. Nothing happened. She pulled out her phone to re-read the message in case she had misinterpreted it, but she could no longer find that text message thread. iMessage had somehow swallowed it up.
Sarah blinked. Were her eyes playing tricks on her? Maybe it was time to grab a bite to eat. If she could no longer contact the mystery journalist, there was no point in waiting around to meet them. As she turned to climb down the stairs, a gust of wind swept through the locked doorway and struck her squarely on the back before passing through her body as well. Sarah lost her footing and tumbled down the steps to the third floor landing. She staggered to her feet, shivering, even though the gust of wind had been surprisingly warm. Now the aroma of freshly baked naan, scones and banana bread wafted toward Sarah’s nostrils. Her head spun and her mouth watered. Maybe she was just really hungry. She had delayed breakfast long enough. All she had to do was climb down the stairs, slowly and carefully and then head to Allison.
On the first floor, however, the scent of freshly baked bread was even more intense. It seemed to be coming from the direction of the kitchen.
“Come and find me!” a voice sang from the lounge that opened up into the War Room (Chapin’s idiosyncratic name for the library where exec. meetings are held and where people hang out to study). Sarah stepped into the lounge, steadying herself by scanning the familiar hexagon-shaped seats and piano. Then a girl’s round, smiling face peeked out between the hardwood panels of the bifold door that separated the lounge from the War Room.
Sarah backpedaled before blurting, “Who are you?” For some reason, the next thing it occurred to her to ask was, “Where’s your WildCard?”
The girl let out a silvery laugh. “Ghosts don’t need WildCards, silly. We can float through just about any barrier.”
“You don’t float,” Sarah muttered. “You barreled into me and knocked me down the stairs.”
“You’re right; that sort of gave me away, didn’t it?” the girl said.
“You mean you haven’t guessed who I am?” the girl said, sticking out her lower lip in a comic pout. When Sarah didn’t reply, the girl laughed again.
“I’m your thief,” said the girl simply. She stepped fully into the room, twirled around and took a deep bow.
“What do you mean?”
“Wow, you are slow today,” said the girl. She suddenly produced a tray of goodies: a packet of naan, a blueberry scone, a granola energy bite, a soggy biscuit and two generous pieces of banana bread. Then the tray vanished.
Sarah’s jaw dropped. “It was you!”
“Yes, that’s what I’ve been trying to tell you,” the girl said, rolling her eyes.
Sarah sighed. She felt like she was dealing with a naughty younger sibling. Though the culprit was infuriatingly forthcoming about claiming responsibility, extracting the rest of the confession threatened to be a painful process. “Why did you do it? Didn’t you see my sticky note?”
“Yes, I thought the sad face was adorable.”
“But did you read the sticky note?”
“So why did you still do it?”
“Eat my food without asking!”
“I did ask,” the girl said.
“Alright, who did you ask?” Sarah said, trying and failing to sound patient.
“You, of course, silly.”
“No, you didn’t,” Sarah said impatiently.
“I did,” the girl insisted. Then she flashed a mischievous grin, clearly delighted by Sarah’s confusion. “You just didn’t say ‘yes.’ I still asked! Besides, it’s not like you needed any of this to survive, did you?” she said, gesturing to the tray in her hands.
“Did you need it to survive? Couldn’t you find food somewhere else?”
“Technically, I don’t need food to survive. In my dimension, everything is insubstantial. But food sure tastes good. So I slip into your dimension, and raid the Chapin kitchens every once in a while – all three of them. Yours is the farthest from my attic hideout, but you always have the best stuff.” She paused, as if expecting me to thank her for the compliment. I ignored the hint, so she continued, “People usually aren’t as obsessed with missing food as you are. They just accept it as a fact of life. You on the other hand...” the girl looked at Sarah with something close to respect, “...you took it very seriously. It was incredibly entertaining. All your plans for interviews, emails, meetings…”
“You’ve been spying on me?” Sarah said incredulously. “First you steal my food and then you spy on me?”
The girl shrugged. “I wanted to see how far you’d go. I wanted to see if you’d take the bait. And you did!”
Something clicked for Sarah. “You sent those texts. You set me up.”
The girl bowed again, looking infuriatingly smug. “Did I mention I’m good at impersonating random people via text messages and promptly erasing all evidence that ghostly communication took place?”
Sarah didn’t have enough energy to be properly outraged. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She was confused and she was hungry, her mind racing in circles like a cat chasing its tail. How was she going to prosecute a ghost for theft? What if she was just hallucinating because she hadn’t had breakfast yet? Where had the aroma of baked goods come from? How did all the stolen food items just appear and disappear? Then a single thought floated to the surface of the murk in her mind, startling her with its clarity. Eyes still squeezed shut, she said, “If you and your dimension are insubstantial, then where did my food really go?”
She opened her eyes. The room was empty.
Thumbnail image by Amaya Mikolič-Berrios / North by Northwestern