When No One is Watching is a fictional novel by Alyssa Cole. My cousin told me this genre is called existential horror. That seems right, as the book reminded me of the movie Get Out.
The story is set in Gifford Place in Brooklyn (a fictional place) and told from two perspectives, Theo’s and Sydney’s. Sydney grew up in this community and has recently returned here to her childhood home after her divorce. Theo is a recent transplant to the community as it becomes gentrified.
Read on for the spoils
A Neighborhood Tour
Sydney and Theo first meet on a tour of the neighborhood. Sydney is taking the tour out of curiosity. Theo is with his girlfriend Kim, checking out the neighborhood they plan to join.
Disappointed that no Black people have been considered important enough to factor into a tour of the historically Black neighborhood, Sydney interjects to add some information to the tour. When she confronts the tour guide about the omission, the guide tells her maybe she should start her own tour.
Now Sydney, encouraged by her mother, is creating her own tour. There is an upcoming community block party, and she plans to present the first demo there.
Kim and Theo Move In
Kim and Theo move into the house opposite Sydney. By then, Theo is unemployed after being caught stealing at his high-powered job. He also lied on his resume to get the job. His relationship with Kim has fallen apart. They continue to live in the apartment they bought together, effectively turning the two floors into two apartments. Theo is in the upstairs apartment, unemployed and drinking heavily. He sometimes watches Sydney as she moves around her house.
Sydney lives alone after her mother got sick and had to be moved. She’s rented the upstairs to her friend Drea.
Them and Us
As White people move into Gifford Place, they make the situation into one of them and us. While there is one community app, the newcomers have their own app as well to discuss their Black neighbors. We later find out that there is more happening in that chat as well.
Sydney and Theo meet again at the bodega when Kim tries to cut the line in front of Sydney and then gets mad and says she feels threatened when Sydney calls her on it. Their third meeting is at Mr. Perkins’ place at the block party planning meeting. He is the only White person that shows up. Given that he’s unemployed, he has some time and volunteers to help Sydney with her research for the tour.
When he returns home, he finds Kim entertaining some neighbors. They want to know what the community is planning against them and don’t believe Theo that the meeting was only to plan the block party.
The community changes quickly after VerenTech Pharmaceuticals gets permission to open up an opioid research center in the old Gifford Hospital. More Black people move out as White people move in. Even Abdul, the bodega owner, is replaced suddenly one day. As time goes on, Theo finds himself having to choose between them and us, while also fighting his own prejudices and preconceived biases. This happens in the bodega, as he goes for a run in the neighborhood and encounters a Black man he assumes is high on drugs, at the gym when a VerenTech employee tries to recruit him. He’s slowly putting the pieces together that something might be wrong.
Sydney knows something is wrong. Her friend got her some documents on VerenTech illicitly and has been missing since then, not responding to any messages even though it looks like she is typing. Her neighbor Mr. Perkins disappears one day without saying goodbye to anyone. People who want to get her house keeps calling her or showing up at her door. A man shows up with policemen to claim the community garden, a space that her mom had gotten a deed for from the city. The police accompany him, and he destroys the garden before putting a padlock on the gate.
Sydney and Theo Team Up
Theo shows up at Sydney’s worried about her once he hears about the garden. She breaks down and tells him everything, about her mother dying and being buried in the garden. She couldn’t tell anyone because her mother had been cheated out of her house by an unscrupulous company. They provided funds to help her pay her medical bills, but the amount owed ballooned. Suddenly, they owned her house and while she could live in it while she was alive, they would own it when she died. She’s been trying to get help to fight them, but had no success.
Sydney finally speaks out loud about the strange, scary things that had been happening to her and around her. She had been threatened by an ex-cop Uber driver that she could not find in her app. A white man had come to her door claiming to be from a utility company. She found a check made out to Drea from the same housing company that owned her mother’s place and Drea had gone missing. Theo himself had seen how the new bodega owner, Tony, toyed with Sydney, trying to cheat her out of $10 of her change, pretending she had paid with a $10 instead of $20. Tony would likely have gotten away with it too if Theo hadn’t been there and challenged him.
Theo gave Sydney the benefit of the doubt. He went to the garden at night to try to move her mother’s body before the new owner found it, but the body was gone.
The Plot Thickens
Theo and Sydney share what they found out about VerenTech. They have a constellation of companies including a realty and a bank. They put the pieces together and realize that VerenTech is may have been planning something involving Gifford Place for years, and everything is coming to a head. Now Black people are being killed and their property stolen. VerenTech has the power and police connections to watch a new family move into Mr. Perkins place beside her own. They even had his dog, claiming they got it from the pound. That last detail really cinched that something was wrong. Theo took Sydney to Kim’s apartment. (I’m not sure why they didn’t just go to hers.)
While Theo was making tea, Sydney heard the ping of an iPad (that’s why?). She read the messages and saw that something big, called Rejuvenation, was planned during the parade at the block party. Also, Kim was communicating with a man about getting rid of her. Seeing Theo on his phone in the kitchen while he made tea and finding a card from VerenTech in his gym bag confirmed her worst fears. She left with the gym bag (which contained her evidence) and hurried home. She went into her mother’s old room and found her gun, ignoring the pings from her phone. Then she saw Theo gesturing wildly to her from his window across the way (why didn’t he come over?) and mostly ignored him.
Theo finally got to her with his elaborate gestures and frightened face, and she answered the phone. He explained that someone was in her house, and he was not involved in the plot. She believed him and as she heard noises, she went into the closet and locked the door from the inside. The closet had a door into the servant’s passage. She went down the stairs and found Drea there. Rigor mortis had set in, and Sydney had to pry the phone from her hand. The last message was to her, saying sorry, and I love you; it was never sent.
Continuing down the stairs, Sydney finds Theo at the bottom holding a Crate and Barrel knife and holding the iPad. They have a moment to clear up some of the misunderstandings, including a confession from Theo that he has been robbing rich people in the surrounding neighborhoods and had told his fence about the “empty” garden lot in the neighborhood when he asked for leads on real estate. Then they hear someone else coming down the stairs. Theo and Sydney attack him together. Theo replies to Kim using the iPad, confirming that both himself and Sydney are dead.
When they go outside, there are people around. They heard the racket and gunshot inside the house. Suddenly the lights go out in the community but stay on at the old hospital, the new VerenTech research center. As people turn on the phone flashlight, they see lights coming from the edge of the neighborhood. It’s from some police officers.
The police send a smoke bomb and when someone sends it back at them, that’s all they need to attack. Theo and Sydney help one of the older ladies to go home. One of the old timers in the community tells them to get inside but they head towards the light at the hospital. Unable to get there above ground because of the police, they tried to find one of the rumored underground tunnels used by “The Mole People”. Sydney’s suspicions of where one might be, based on local community lore, are correct. They enter the tunnel through a manhole beside the bottega. A policeman about to attack them falls down the stairs and breaks his neck in the process.
As they enter the tunnels, the first people they encounter are people that they know. The woman was supposed to be helping Sydney’s mother get her house back and William Bilford, a real estate agent buying houses in the neighborhood, They kill them and go through the next corridors. As go past some rooms, Sydney sees her friends and neighbors locked up in rooms as test subjects. My Perkins and many of the people whose houses were taken over as well as others who disappeared are imprisoned here.
After killing more aides, Sydney and Theo take a pass and let the captives out of the rooms before continuing on to the banquet. Kim and her father are presenting as many other people listen to how they have the police, media, and government on their side. They have been part of producing opioids and creating the opioid crisis, and now will also be part of its cure. Their plans to take over the community and use its inhabitants as test subjects, avoiding many regulations that way, are almost complete.
Theo enters the room first to confront them. Realizing that he’s unlikely to face any real justice, Sydney kills Kim’s dad. When Kim comes towards them with a gun of her own, Sydney tries to shoot her, but is out of bullets. Theo is shaking and Kim tries to play on their relationship, but he manages to pull the trigger. From that point, a shooting showdown begins. Sydney recognizes the fake Uber driver, Drew. He’s hurt, but she spares him.
After the shooting stops, Theo and Sydney head back the way they came. All the people they had rescued are locked back up and there are 3 people in the hallway. The one in charge instructs the other two to “prime them”. (Why didn’t they shoot? How quickly are the two people moving that they suddenly feel a prick in their shoulder? Did someone approach them from the back? Why didn’t they shoot?)
The Ending of When No One is Watching
Sydney and Theo are strapped down, but before they could be injected, both of the two employees (captors) die of food poisoning. Ms. Gracie and Mr. Sweeney, old timers from the community, are their rescuers. They knew something was up and had been working against it all along. They had even moved Sydney’s mother’s body from where she’d buried her in the garden. Ms. Candace had tried to keep Sydney out of it by telling her to go home during the blackout; they already had a plan in place to poison the people at the banquet. (A lot of this part wasn’t clear to me).
To clean up the evidence from the killings, the rescuers set fire to the old medical center. The fire would remove the evidence. They literally burn it all down.
Theo and Sydney wake up together on the pullout in Candace’s guest room. They are about to have breakfast with the rest of the rescue group. They turn off the radio as the announcer finishes the report that there was a transformer fire and no foul play is suspected. VerenTech stock is down, and they are pulling out of Brooklyn. The group discusses other communities facing the same nightmare, a private forum that Jamal’s been part of with conversations of the same kinds of events he experienced. Before they take on the next fight, they find a moment to eat together. Sydney feels safer with her mother’s gun tucked into her waistband.
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