Lottie had been alone in that vast, polished house for hours when the thud of the deadbolt pierced the silence.
“Olivia, turn on the lights,” she ordered. The sun had just dipped out of sight, so she could not see whether Adam stood on the front porch, perhaps having returned early from work, but hesitating before re-entering the gray atmosphere that had filled the foyer since he left.
The lights remained off.
“Oh-liv-ee-ah. Turn on the lights,” she repeated. In a house this expensive, the smart technology should have lasted longer than eight months.
The foyer and front porch were still dark.
“Dammit, Olivia!” Lottie stomped to the door, preparing to find her husband on the other side. She naively hoped to see him holding a bouquet of flowers or maybe some wine, a salve for the tension she stored between her shoulder blades. She turned the knob, but the door didn’t budge.
It hadn’t been the door unlocking that startled her, as she assumed. It had been the lock sliding into place. She turned the deadbolt back, but the moment her hand reached the doorknob—thud—the bolt slammed back into the frame.
“Olivia, unlock the door,” she commanded. Nothing happened.
The sidelight revealed an empty porch and empty driveway. Adam hadn’t returned after all.
“I lost my job.” Lottie dumped her phone and purse on the counter in front of Adam’s half-empty takeout bag. A tube of rose lipstick rolled out and she let it clatter to the floor.
Adam lowered his fork. His eyes rounded the room, briefly landing on the framed watercolor she had purchased last week, non-returnable, before meeting her gaze. His expression was placid, but his shoulders were tense. “What did you do?”
Lottie blinked. “You think I was fired?”
He shrugged, turning his attention back to his dinner. Lottie could see his mind turning the news over and over behind unwavering eyes. Her salary as a sales manager had been essential to securing ownership of this house. When he was hesitant about the size of the monthly payment, she had repeatedly touted her end-of-year bonus and growth potential, assuring him she could carry their lavish lifestyle on her own if he were to lose his contract position at the factory.
“I was laid off, along with twenty percent of the company,” she said. She watched him chew his salad and quietly put down his fork.
Finally, he swallowed. “What about Olivia?”
Olivia would draw their next house payment directly from their bank account in three weeks. If the money wasn’t there, she could immediately evict them.
“She doesn’t care, as long as we pay her on time.” Lottie instinctively glanced upwards as if to see if Olivia had any input.
“Well now she knows about it.” He tossed his fork into the sink and slid off the barstool without expression. “That’s the difference between owing money to a bank and owing money to Olivia.”
Lottie leaned her full weight against the counter and bowed her head. Paying Olivia had been more attractive than an old-fashioned mortgage from the bank; Olivia didn’t require a credit check or a down payment, and dealing with her was extremely convenient. On the other hand, a bank couldn’t field their phone calls or physically bar them from entering if they came up short on a payment—but Lottie had never seriously considered that a possibility, and her confidence had persuaded Adam.
“She would know tomorrow anyway,” she sighed. Olivia kept tabs on their bank accounts, where they received paychecks in real time after every hour worked.
She pressed her fingers into her temples and tilted her head towards him. “Can you pick up any overtime this month?”
Adam stared at the kitchen appliances with crossed arms, lost in concentration. “I guess I have no choice.”
Lottie’s throat tightened. She reached toward the wall to flip the lights on manually, then frowned. This was the first time the voice recognition technology had failed, and she realized she didn’t know where the manual switches were placed. She slapped her hand around the walls but found nothing. Peering into every corner of the foyer, then the kitchen, she saw only smooth drywall.
“Olivia! Can you hear me?”
Olivia did not reply, but the Floorby growled to life and left its socket in the corner of the kitchen. The autonomous vacuum usually meandered the house every hour or so, removing crumbs and spills from the expensive hardwood floors. Something was odd about the way the Floorby moved this time, though, with a little more speed than usual. Its stiff tongues flicked the floor an inch ahead of its body, tasting every object in its path to decide whether to drive it under its black head toward its mouth.
Lottie’s face flushed with frustration. Did Olivia really have to malfunction tonight, of all nights? She needed a breath of fresh summer air. It wasn’t just her emotions making her feel hot, she realized. Inexplicably, the temperature inside the house was rising to match the sticky summer climate outdoors. She made her way toward the tall windows that bordered the back side of the living room, their sleek steel frames cradling dozens of glass panes, and pushed on the lock at the top of a window. Olivia forced it back into place in the same way as the door.
The Floorby abruptly turned in her direction. She hopped aside to avoid it, but it lurched after her feet and snagged the toe of her slipper. It slid off her foot and straight into the powerful mouth on the Floorby’s underside. A metallic groan and a spray of purple fleece escaped from under the vacuum as it devoured the slipper with urgency.
Lottie screamed. She jumped onto the sofa as the Floorby finished its snack and curled her toes into the cushions. It prowled the baseboards beneath the window, moving back and forth across the spot where her feet had been, scavenging for more.
“Olivia, turn off the Floorby!” Desperation pitched her voice too high, but her cry was futile.
The little vacuum continued to act as it pleased, arching its body into the air to reveal a tangle of vibrating tubes and agitated teeth on its underside.
Her stomach churned. The air around her face clamped down over her nose and mouth like a sweaty palm, threatening to suffocate her. She grabbed a thick book of landscape photography from the coffee table and heaved its glossy spine against the nearest window. The glass trembled at the impact. She braced her legs against the back of the sofa and rammed the book into the window a second time, then a third, and finally… crunch. Bits of glass tumbled to the floor, leaving a single pane empty. Only a cat could fit through an opening that size. Even if she broke every pane, she could not possibly fit through the steel frames.
She leaned over the back of the sofa and pressed her face to the open panel. Hot air assaulted her neck from the vent on the floor, wrapping itself around her flushed face.
The sticky heat of the outdoors felt like a welcome breeze compared to the stifling atmosphere inside, and she sucked in the air like a fish lying in a puddle of water.
Earlier that afternoon, the bold numbers on the screen in the living room were burned into Lottie’s vision. She had locked Adam’s bank there to keep track of his progress.
She spent the morning watching the total update every hour, inching closer to the amount Olivia would withdraw at midnight. The display hadn’t changed since he arrived home from his morning shift and sank into bed.
When she finally heard him trudge down the stairs again to get ready for his final shift of the month, she exhaled and closed her eyes. Her shoulders hadn’t fully relaxed since she lost her job, but this shift would finally bring his earnings into the green.
He slumped into the room wearing a wrinkled uniform. “I don’t feel great,” he sighed.
She pouted sympathetically, hoping to hide her impatience. “This crazy hustle will be over in just a few hours.”
He rolled his eyes. “No, it won’t.”
Confused, she looked at the calendar.
“A new billing cycle starts tomorrow,” he explained. “I’ll have to pick up overtime all month just to make ends meet.”
Lottie hadn’t let herself think beyond this month. “I’ll get a job,” she soothed.
“That’s easy to say, but what if you don’t?”
She couldn’t think of an appropriate response, something to assuage his fear so he would go to work and finish this shift. They could address the new month with clear eyes tomorrow, she thought.
“We don’t even need a house this big,” he continued. “We hardly use half the space. And we have a wine dispenser. Why do we need a wine dispenser?”
She clenched her jaw. The wine dispenser had been Adam’s early anniversary gift to her when they moved in. Did he not remember? Mist rose to her eyes, but she didn’t let it accumulate.
“Exactly,” said Adam. He turned toward the front door. “My shift starts in twenty minutes.”
Her energy waned and she sunk into the couch, her sweaty back forming a damp outline on the linen weave. Crouching like a gargoyle on the sofa, she noticed the bank statement pinned to the home screen on the kitchen wall. It still hadn’t changed. Another thing glitching.
A buzz sounded from the kitchen counter. She didn’t even bother asking Olivia who texted. But what if it was Adam? It was getting late, and she expected him to be home by now. She needed to talk to him, tell him that she was stuck inside this maniacal house.
She eyed the Floorby keeping guard between the sofa and the kitchen. It swayed side to side in front of her, like a video game character awaiting its next move. The book she used to break the window lay on the couch next to her. She grabbed it and dangled it off the couch by the front cover, letting its pages tickle the floor. The Floorby pitched forward and sucked a clump of pages into its gears. Lottie flipped the book over the top of the Floorby’s body, pulling the vacuum onto its back. It was stuck there spinning its tongues like a frantic bug.
She leaped over the spectacle and grabbed her phone from the counter, swiping a sweaty finger to open the text. It was from Adam: Didn’t go to work.
Her face stiffened. She glanced at the time: 10:15 pm. The clock hadn’t frozen, and neither had the bank statement. He would have to work three hours before midnight to make the payment. They were out of time.
Another buzz. Adam’s second text read: Got us a room at the extended stay. Meet me when you can.
The device powered off. She frantically pressed the power button, but the screen remained dark.
“Your device has been disconnected,” said Olivia.
“Olivia, no!” Lottie slammed her fist into the wall, accidentally cracking the drywall. A small piece fell to the floor, exposing a tangle of wires between the joists. She grabbed the rough edge of the hole she made and pulled off a larger chunk. Red and yellow wires ran up, across, and through the walls like blood vessels criss-crossing a skeleton. Energy pulsed through them, carrying information from every part of the house to Olivia’s brain, wherever that was. A yellow foil label was affixed to one of the wires. WARNING was typed in large letters, followed by several lines of tiny print. She squinted at it and made out a few words: Power current… will be liable for loss of… and any persons therein…
She didn’t have time to finish reading the label before a click-click-click pulled her attention to the stovetop. The knobs controlling all four burners were turned slightly to the right, allowing the gas to escape without a spark to light the flames.
“Olivia!” Lotttie shrieked, rushing to turn off the gas. She hit the knobs back into an upright position, but they simply turned themselves on again without hesitation. Unwilling to give up, she continued to correct them, while they continued to undo her work, like a dangerous version of whack-a-mole.
A clunk sounded from the living room. The Floorby had managed to right itself and was making a beeline toward the stove where she stood.
Her eyes jumped to the hole in the wall with the wires peeking out. She didn’t know for sure where they led, but if she could break Olivia’s connection to anything in the house, it might afford her an escape. She rounded the kitchen island on the opposite side of the Floorby, barely getting out of its way in time, and nearly slammed into the wall. She reached her hand in and without thinking, she grabbed a fistful of wires and yanked.
A screech rang out in every room. The Floorby, the stove, the screen on the wall—they all emitted a blood-curdling alarm. Her fingers were locked shut on the wires, which felt surprisingly fragile yet carried a heavy current. She tugged and several wires snapped. She tried to tug again but her efforts were wasted on a dead, stiff arm. The feeling spread to her shoulder and torso, then through the rest of her body. Finally, the shrieking stopped and the power shut off.
Chris was a seasoned realtor, but he had never seen a listing quite this impressive. He guided his client down the front hall, pointing out the immaculate tile inlay in the foyer that drew the eye toward a sparkling, creamy kitchen. Like many foreclosures, the house bore some damage—a broken window, a smashed piece of drywall, and several scratches in the hardwood—but it came fully furnished, which was an unusual perk. The furniture was left over from the previous owners, who had been evicted without notice. Chris encountered this situation more often since buyers took loans from the homes themselves instead of the bank.
“It’s outfitted with smart technology, Ines,” he explained to his client. “Almost everything you can think of is voice-activated.”
Ines’ eyes widened. “Play music,” she tried.
“You have to address the smart assistant first. I’ll demonstrate: Lottie, play jazz music.”
A molasses tune seeped in through hidden speakers.
“Lottie, turn it up,” said Ines. The saxophone got louder. Her eyes glowed with excitement.
It seemed like an easy sale, but something about the aura of the house made Chris uneasy. Fortunately, Ines seemed not to notice.
“Could you see yourself living with a smart assistant?” he asked.
She smiled. “Absolutely.”
“If you like her, it might be convenient for you to take a loan from her instead of the bank.” Without blinking, Chris launched into his spiel about the pros and cons of traditional mortgages versus these new age ones that were all the rage with the younger buyers.
Ines nodded along. “I’d like to take a loan from her.”
“Good. Let’s go back to my office and discuss next steps.”
Before they walked out, she turned and looked at the ceiling. “Lottie, turn off the lights.”
Noelle is an emerging writer in Monrovia, Maryland, where she lives with her husband and daughter. She holds a BA in journalism from the University of Maryland, and her fiction has appeared in The Red Jacket and Riggwelter.
© 2021, Noelle Schwarzenberg