This story engages with themes of sexual assault and depicts an attempt.
“Sandra,” my house told me, as our subdivision’s street lights blinked on, “you have a message I am unable to read aloud.”
My phone was on the other side of my bed. “Who’s it from?”
I rolled across the bed to my phone.
Tish: We should take the train to Monaco someday.
Mentioning trains meant “turn off logging.” Tish was into spy stuff.
Unfortunately, my mother had the house logging all my communications, and my app to get around it had gotten blocked with the last firmware update. I opened Tish’s message and sent back: to get to Monaco, we’d need a parrot.
Tish: 👍🏿 4-10?
That meant “Acknowledged, meet at the Four-Ten market.” I grabbed my knee brace from beside my bed and put it on. My brother Kyle and his asshole friend Jack were walking past my window, so it was a good time to get out of the house anyway.
I headed for the back hall and got my hoodie out of the closet.
“Is the temperature inadequate?” The house asked.
“No,” I said, “I’m going out.”
“I will inform your mother.”
“Your mother has been informed.”
Damnit. My mother’s footsteps squeaked across the second floor. I had my hand on the door handle when she reached the top of the kitchen stairs.
I pulled on the door. It was locked.
I kicked it with my good leg. The house didn’t feel pain, but it still felt good to scuff the snitching bastard.
My mother came far enough down the stairs to lean down and look at me. “Where are you going?”
The door opened. “Hey babe!” Jack the asshole said.
I stepped out of his way. “Don’t call me ‘babe.’”
He stopped, catching sight of my mother on the stairs. “Hi, Ms. O’Donnell.”
My mom smiled at him. “Hi, Jack. Are you and Kyle hanging out here tonight?”
“If that’s alright with you, Ms. O’Donnell.” He had a clear reusable bag from the Four-Ten Market with a Mountain Dew and two bags of onion rings.
Kyle entered behind him and opened the closet to hand his damp jacket off to the house. “Hey Sandy. Join us for a race?”
“No—I’m going to the Four-Ten for a soda.”
Kyle and Jack headed for the basement.
My mom glanced at her phone, her brow knit. “It’s a little late to be going out.”
The house shut the back door.
“Kyle literally just went. How come he’s allowed and I’m not?”
“I don’t like the way the boys who hang out by the Four-Ten look at you—I don’t want you around them at night.”
“So I have to live in The Handmaid’s Tale just because you’re scared of the dark? That’s sexist!”
My mother snorted. “It’s a good thing no one ever told the suffragettes that teenage girls would one day invoke their names when their parents tell them ‘no.’ Someday you’ll thank me for not letting you become a statistic.”
“I’m already a statistic!”
Her eyes went wide with shock.
I almost let her go on thinking what she was thinking, but I didn’t want to know how much worse I’d have it if she realized her current level of paranoia was insufficient to the task. So I switched gears. “Ninety-nine per cent of girls think being grounded for being female is bullshit.”
She glared at me. Not just a “watch your mouth” glare, either—this was a full-on Sandra Kathryn Grace O’Donnell I Brought You Into This World glare. “Keep using that language and you will be grounded, young lady. You’re staying in the house, where it’s safe.”
I almost laughed. “Safe.” In the house where Jack had raped me earlier that year. Three hours of my life even the house couldn’t remember.
The screen in the basement chimed the start of a race, and Jack shouted something as he and Kyle took off.
And my mom thought I was naive.
“The house can make you a soda.”
I unzipped my hoodie and threw it into the closet. The house caught it anyway. “Can the house make me a boy so you’ll get off my dick?”
“That is it, young lady!” She pulled out her phone.
I turned and headed back to my room before I added gestures to my growing list of crimes. My phone pinged a rapid series of alerts to inform me of the restrictions my mother was furiously tapping into the system to formalize my grounding.
I tried to slam my bedroom door, but the house caught it and closed it with an infuriatingly gentle click.
I lowered myself onto my bed and messaged Tish so she’d know I was stuck in the bastille. Then I flopped backward onto my comforter. “House, don’t tell my mother when I’m leaving unless I ask you to.”
There was a pause. “I’m sorry, Sandra. That conflicts with an administrative directive.”
“My mother told you to inform her whenever I leave?”
“When you leave after 7PM local time, yes.”
I fumed. “Do you snitch on Kyle whenever he leaves?”
“I cannot disclose that to you.”
“What other alerts has she set up on me?”
“Listing. Alert when Sandra leaves the house after 7PM local time. Log all communications Sandra sends and receives—”
That one, I at least knew about.
“—and log all of Sandra’s web traffic.”
I sat up. “Is she kidding? Don’t I have a right to privacy? That’s in the constitution—you can’t—”
“I am not the U.S. Government, Sandra. The Constitution does not apply to me.”
“This is bullshit.”
“I am also under instructions to alert for foul language in the house.”
I wanted to throw something. Instead, I went over to my bookshelf, picked up my fancy 50th Anniversary edition of The Handmaid’s Tale, and set it in front of the house’s room sensor, with the title facing the camera. The house didn’t understand literary references, but my mother did.
I spotted Tish on my way to the bus stop the next morning and slowed my scooter down to pace her. “Eyes on the agent now,” I said into my wrist. “Attempting a rolling pickup.”
She beamed and stepped off the sidewalk onto the back of my scooter. “I thought you were going to need to be exfiltrated from the enemy camp.”
Tish and I had ripped the speed limiter off my scooter at the same time we’d added the back ride-along pegs. I sped us up to 15kph. “My mother thought the patriarchy needed another shield-matron.”
Tish wrapped her arms around me to keep herself steady. “Ugh. Second-wave feminism, right?”
To be honest I’d never figured out what separated second-wave feminism from third-wave and from whatever the hell we were. But I didn’t want to look like I’d skimmed the reading, so I nodded. “Why’d you want to meet?”
“To see your smiling face,” she said, giving me a squeeze. “But also, the BBs are getting together at Ian’s this weekend.”
The BB-8s were our high school’s robotics team. Tish was their lead programmer. Jack and my brother had joined when they were sophomores.
“Ooh, that’s Ian!” Tish waved.
I stopped my scooter. Ian executed a smooth u-turn to pull his Lexus up alongside us.
Jack the asshole was sitting in his passenger seat. “Is that thing even street-legal, babe?”
“Don’t call me babe, asshole.”
Ian took his vape pen out of his mouth and gestured at Jack with it. “No sexist bullshit in my car, man.”
I’d always thought it was weird that Ian hung around his former pet underclassmen instead of making college friends. It was nice to know that even he only kept Jack around because he knew where to score the cheap recreationals.
Ian leaned past Jack and smiled at us. The steering wheel was missing—his car was in self-driving mode. “Do you two want a ride?”
“You can’t fit our scooter in there,” Tish said.
I smiled, because she’d said our scooter. I liked her choosing me over Ian and his all-leather interior.
“All right,” said Ian, “but you’re coming to my soiree tomorrow night?”
Tish squeezed my arm. “Can you get out of the house?”
Jack snorted. “No way Sandra gets permission from mommy.”
I couldn’t tell a servo from a spanner, and I hated Jack, but the rest of the robot nerds were nice. Besides, my mother had grounded me for challenging the patriarchy, so sneaking out was basically a form of nonviolent direct action.
My mom and Kyle were going to be visiting Harvard on Saturday and wouldn’t get back until Sunday morning. If I could just get past the house.
I frowned. “Jack, you remember back in May when you erased a few hours of the house’s memory?”
He tensed and eyed me carefully. “Yeah. Why?”
“How’d you do it?”
His shoulders dropped a little. “Doesn’t matter. Security update locked the door on that one in June.”
“Wait.” Tish leaned forward and glared at Jack through the side-view mirror. “You used my script, and you’re talking about it like you even know how it works instead of giving me credit? Wow.”
I rolled my eyes. Of course it was Tish’s code. Tish was a genius. Jack was, well. Jack.
Tish nudged me. “I can get you out of the house, Sandra.”
“So you’ll be there?” Ian asked. He was looking straight at Tish.
Tish smiled. “We’ll be there.”
Tish and I spent that Saturday lying on the floor of my mom’s study with our laptops between us. By party-time, she was walking me through the features of her new script.
“House,” Tish said, “pipe Carborundorum to /dev/null.”
The sensor on the computer’s main console blinked blue. “Stealth root mode initiated.”
I wrinkled my nose. “Pipe what?”
She glanced at me. “Handmaid’s Tale?”
“Yeah, I get carborundorum,” I said, “but the rest of it’s a mouthful.”
“One of these days, I’m teaching you bash.” Tish deactivated the script. The blue light on the console faded. She hunched back over her laptop, her keyboard a racket of typing.
A moment later, she looked up. “House, I solemnly swear I am up to no good.”
The blue light blinked back on. ”Stealth root mode initiated.”
I laughed. “That, I’ll remember. House, open the liquor cabinet.”
“You do not have permission to open the liquor cabinet, Sandra.”
“House,” Tish said, “open the liquor cabinet.”
The cabinet door clicked open.
Tish high-fived me. “Test the new sign-offs.”
I nodded. “House, recite—”
The front door beeped, and footsteps echoed in the foyer.
Tish closed the liquor cabinet and scrambled to her feet. “House, from the liquor cabinet log, delete records created today and associated with me or Sandra.”
“Three records deleted.”
“Mischief managed,” she said, offering me her hand.
The house’s sensor light blinked to warn us it was returning to normal mode. “Don’t let the bastards grind you down, Letitia.”
I let Tish pull me up, then moved to the study door, waving at her to stay back. “Kyle, is that you?”
Jack was standing in the front hallway. “Hey, babe. Kyle turned on my guest account. I’m here to, uh, infiltrate you or whatever.”
“It’s exfiltrate,” Tish said, stepping into the hall. “And we’re good.”
He laughed. “What, are you going to ride that scooter all the way over to Ian’s? He’s parked around the corner. Grab your jackets.”
Ian’s “soiree” was a bunch of robot nerds playing with glorified legos and doing some kind of drinking game to vids of the national robotics championships. A lot of alumni were back home for break.
Ian had floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the park next to campus, and he’d set up a sort of bar in front of them, with stools and charging pads. I parked myself at one end to charge my phone—standing was way easier on my hip than sitting on his old-fashioned sofas.
Jack sidled up next to me. “You have to try this root beer,” he said, a little too loudly. He put a red cup in front of me.
“I’m good,” I said.
“It’s not alcoholic, babe. It’s just good.”
“I don’t like house-made soda,” I said. I picked up my phone.
He nodded to it. “Hey. Your mom’s not on your ass because of me, is she?”
Self-centered bastard. “No.”
“Good,” he said. Then nudged the root beer again. “Raise a glass to freedom?”
I picked it up. I was about to take a sip of it just to shut him up, but something about the way he was watching me creeped me out. I looked at him over the cup, listening to the bubbles hiss and fizz.
“Do you want a jack and coke instead? That’s what I’m drinking.” More jack than coke. He was getting tipsy.
I glanced towards where I’d left Tish arguing with some seniors about remote-hacking robots as a competition strategy. One of Jack’s buddies was sitting in her spot. Ian was gone, too.
I set the cup down and headed for the kitchen. “Tish?”
“She went to the bathroom,” Jack said. He drained his drink in one pass and grabbed my sleeve.
I brushed him off. Something like dread was welling up inside me. It was hard to breathe. Ian’s cigar-flavored vape juice hung in the air, and the sweet smell of it stuck to my nose. The door to Ian’s bedroom was closed.
I rapped on it. “Tish?”
The door was locked.
“She’ll be right back, babe.”
“Don’t call me babe,” I snapped, walking towards the front of the apartment. The bathroom door was open.
Jack stepped in front of me before I could step into the bathroom. It was empty. The door on the other side, into Ian’s room, was closed.
I glared at Jack.
“Why don’t you come back to the living room, babe? This walking around can’t be good for your—” he gestured at my brace.
I wrinkled my nose at him. “Can I pee in the living room? Because I need to pee.”
“Oh,” he said. “Uh, yeah.” He glanced through the bathroom at the door into Ian’s room, then stepped aside and let me in.
I closed the bathroom door behind me and locked it, then crossed to Ian’s door. It was locked, too.
“House, I request guest access.”
“Guest access granted. Welcome, Sandra.”
I pulled out my phone and unlocked it. “Please interface with my device and pull up my playlists.”
“Interfacing,” the house told me.
I navigated to Tish’s script. As soon as the house indicated a connection, I executed it.
My phone stalled for a moment, then the light on the house’s bathroom sensor turned blue—it was in root mode.
“House,” I said, “open the door to the bedroom.”
The door swung open.
Tish was sprawled out on Ian’s bed, staring vacantly in my direction. Ian was sitting next to her, rooting through a drawer in his nightstand.
“Tish!” I yelled.
Ian jumped up off his bed like it was made of lava. “Hey!” he said. “She was really tired, so I brought her in here to rest.”
I looked at him, then at her. She blinked at me a few times and said “exfil.”
I nodded to her, then looked back at Ian. “She’s hypoglycemic,” I lied. “She needs fruit juice, or like, real soda.”
“Yeah,” he said, “okay.”
He looked at me expectantly, like I was going to get it.
I glared at him. “It’s your kitchen, dude. Go.”
“Uh, yeah.” He left through the door near the kitchen.
“House,” I said, crossing to Tish, “close and lock the bedroom doors.”
The door Ian had just walked through clicked shut, then whirred.
“Tish.” I shook her. “Tish?”
She reached her hand towards my face. “Hey Sandra.”
As gently as I could, I pulled her up to a sitting position. “You’re compromised, Agent Richardson. We need to exfiltrate immediately.”
She stared at me, but the thought seemed to work its way through the fog in her head, and eventually she nodded.
Someone was banging on the bedroom door.
“Babe?” Jack called. “Babe, we have Tish’s fruit juice!”
“Can you walk, Tish?”
“I’m tired,” she told me.
“Okay, but I need you to walk,” I said.
She didn’t move.
I straightened up. “Tish, my hip is killing me. Can you walk me to the elevator?”
Tish nodded and struggled to her feet.
“Thanks,” I said. I leaned her against me and walked her through the bathroom.
Ian and Jack were at Ian’s other door. That’d buy us a few seconds. I manually unlocked the bathroom door, then walked Tish out of the apartment, closing the front door behind me.
“House,” I said, “lock the front door and call the elevator.”
The door whirred. That wouldn’t last us very long—even the best door locks had emergency overrides—but it’d give us an extra few seconds.
The elevator dinged, and I walked Tish inside. “Garage.”
I fiddled with my phone on the ride down, trying to figure out who to call. My mom was out of town. I could have called 911, but Tish was black. What if they sent the cops instead of an ambulance? What if they threw her in jail for drug use, or decided she wasn’t “compliant?” I hadn’t been lying to Tish about my hip hurting—I couldn’t walk her far from the building. Certainly not far enough to get help.
The elevator doors opened on the garage level. My phone chimed. “Now in range of ‘Ian’s Magnificent Automobile.’ Connecting guest account.”
I looked through the glass doors of the elevator enclosure towards Ian’s self-driving Lexus. Yes, that would do nicely.
“Tish, we’re heading out, okay?” I walked her out of the elevator enclosure and across to Ian’s car.
“Yeah,” she said, “good call.”
The car’s lights flashed, and the doors unlocked. “Welcome, Sandra. You have guest access.”
I opened the door for Tish and helped her into the front seat. Then I slid into the control seat and closed the door behind me. “Car, I need an urgent care center with a Haven program.”
“There are three urgent care centers registered with the Haven Program within fifteen minutes of this location,” the car told me. The Haven Program offered no-questions-asked treatment for drug and alcohol poisoning.
“Please take us to the nearest one.”
“You are not authorized to move the vehicle.”
“This is for emergency care,” I said.
“I am only authorized to provide emergency transport to the Corbin Family.”
Tish grabbed my phone and tapped away at my screen with unsteady hands.
The elevator opened again.
“Tish,” I whispered, “we’re out of time.”
Tish set my phone on the charging pad. The car beeped and the GPS lit up. “Select a destination.”
Jack stuck his head in the car window. “Are you seriously cockblocking Ian right now, babe? That is so not cool.”
I’m not normally a violent person, but Tish was fading fast, and for all I knew, Ian was on his way down to get her. Plus, Jack was practically shouting and his sickly-sweet jack-and-coke breath was fogging my cheek.
I put my hand on his face and shoved, hard. “Fuck off, Jack.”
He caught the door to keep from tumbling backward and laughed, too loudly. “If I told your mom—”
I threw the car door open into him. He stumbled backwards. My heart pounded so loudly in my chest that I was afraid to speak in case I just started screaming. I managed to choke out, “If you tell her anything, I’ll tell her what you did in May.”
“What I did? Don’t you mean what we did? Or are you gonna act like you weren’t into it?”
I closed the door again and fumbled for the window switches as he stepped back towards the car. “I was strung out on pain killers from surgery, jackass! I was into the ceiling sparkling.”
The drunken glee fell away from his face. “Babe—”
“Don’t call me babe,” I said. “And don’t act like you don’t know the difference between into it and out of it, Mr. ’Tish is in the bathroom.’ I’ve got root on this car. Move your skinny ass or I’m running over your feet.”
He stared at me for a sec, blinking and slack-jawed.
Behind him, the elevator dinged again. I selected the nearest urgent care center from the car’s list.
Jack stepped back when the motor started whirring. “Like I’d want to get with you again anyway, you ugly bitch.”
I worked the window switches with shaking hands as the car pulled out of the space.
“You’re just jealous that we’re into Tish!” Jack called after us.
I slumped in the control seat and watched him get smaller in the dash cam. That jackass was never getting into Tish.
I woke the next morning to the smell of bacon and a head full of molasses. By the time I’d gotten Tish home and made my way back, it was quarter after four.
“House,” I said, from under a pile of pillows, “darken the shades.”
The house beeped and the stabbing sunlight faded to a more manageable gray.
“House, I solemnly swear I am up to no good.”
“Entering stealth root mode.”
“House, do I have any messages from Tish?”
“You have one message from Letitia Richardson,” the house said. “I have downloaded it to encrypted storage on your device and deleted it from cloud storage.”
I reached out from under my pillows and grabbed my phone off the charging pad.
Tish: Found some pictures of you. There were three pictures attached: Wonder Woman, Supergirl, and Captain Janeway. The Kate Mulgrew Janeway from the 1990s, not Ivy Washington’s Janeway from the reboot.
I smiled. Urgent Care had said Tish was fine when they released her, but it was nice to hear from her. You’re okay?
Tish: I want to punch Ian in the dick.
There was a knock at my door, then it opened, and my mother stuck her head in. “Sandra?”
I peered at her from under my pillows, watching her frown deepen. I didn’t want to sit up and act awake because I couldn’t remember if I’d washed off my makeup before climbing into bed. “Yes?”
“It’s eleven in the morning,” she said. “Are you feeling okay?”
At least Jack hadn’t said anything. If he had, I would not be getting the “are you feeling okay” version of “I am judging your life choices.”
The house console in the back of my closet was glimmering blue. I imagined for a moment that the light was a gateway to a house where Jack wasn’t allowed. In that house, I could go to my mother for help. That mother understood that forcing me to carry the weight of her fears would only cost her my trust.
My mother stepped over to my closet and for a second, I panicked. The light wasn’t supposed to be blue. What if she saw my party clothes on the floor?
She pushed the closet door closed. “I know you’re still sulking about not getting your way, but I need to know if you’re sick.”
I let out a sigh of relief and hoped it sounded like annoyance from under my pile of bedding. “I’m fine.”
My mother picked up my copy of The Handmaid’s Tale from in front of the house’s sensor and put it back on the shelf, then walked out without another word.
I came up from under my pillows. “Mischief managed, house.”
The sensor’s light blinked to tell me it was returning to normal mode. “Don’t let the bastards grind you down, Sandra.”