By Nina Laurin
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A woman who is the only one who knows.
It’s another bright, sunny day in Venture, Illinois, the sort of place where dreams come true and families can get a fresh start. Cecelia Holmes deserves it after the home invasion that shattered her previous life. Now everything seems perfect – her high-security SmartHome, her doting husband, her sweet daughter.
Until she begins to feel spied on. Her husband doesn’t believe her. Her neighbors ignore her. So when she discovers a shocking secret about the prior occupant of their house, she feels that she has no one to turn to. And now Cecelia must face her fears alone…
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As I make my way downstairs, I hear the coffee machine whir to life. Even before the smell of expensive, exotic beans reaches me halfway up the stairs, I know it's making one long double espresso and one skim latte. The former for me, the latter for Scott.
It's only one of the many perks. When I went to take my shower, all I had to do was touch the sensor-laden handle. Detecting my signature, the water blasted from the showerhead at a precise pressure and temperature. No more cringing while the stream warms up, goose bumps racing up my arms and legs. Like the water, the floor is heated, exact to one-tenth of a degree.
As soon as I left the bathroom and Scott went in, more sensors detected the change, and imperceptibly, the air shifted. Silent, invisible fans started up in all corners of the bathroom, drawing the humidity out and cooling the air to the perfect breezy temperature he prefers.
Now I drop two sliced bagels into the toaster. One will come out barely warmed, and the other browned to a crisp and slathered with butter. It's nice not having to think about it but it also anchors one in one's habits, good or not-so-good. Lately, the tap in the bar has been pouring cocktails the second Scott comes through the front door at 6:30.
I don't have to worry about waking Taryn. At exactly 7:35, the curtains of her room upstairs will open and the tablet by her bed will flicker on, distracting her with morning cartoons while I prepare her oatmeal and come to get her.
Right now, I'm deliberately stalling. I want this moment with Scott, nice and quiet, without oatmeal flying in all directions and boisterous requests for the Pop-Tarts Taryn knows she's not going to get. She will be absorbed in her shows or interactive games or whatever the AI decides best fits her mood this morning. She won't notice if I take fifteen minutes longer.
I feel a brief flash of guilt that dissolves as soon as I pick up my coffee and breathe in the luxurious smell. Scott is coming down the stairs, his own tablet in hand. He gets his cup from the machine, deposits a quick kiss on my cheek as he passes me, and sits down at the counter.
"Where's Taryn?" he asks.
I tell him she's still upstairs.
"But I want to say bye to her before I go to work." He looks a tiny bit vexed. I've become more attuned to shifts in his moods since we moved here, and I fear that he might have become more aware of mine as well. "And won't she be late for day care?"
I feel my face color slightly. Yes, she will be a few minutes late. I can't see the harm, although I know it's motivated by pure selfishness.
Scott misinterprets the blushing. "She's refusing to go again?"
"No," I reassure him with a laugh. "If anything, she likes it there a bit too much. The other day, she asked me if she could stay in the overtime group. Can you believe it? That's because all her friends do. I think she doesn't like that they're playing and…I don't know, bonding? Without her there."
Scott shakes his head and chuckles in turn. "It's good that she's making friends though. Maybe you can leave her in the overtime group once or twice a week so she doesn't feel left out."
"That's not a bad idea."
Deep down, I'm a tiny bit horrified by the suggestion. I know exactly why Taryn is one of the few children at the local day care to get picked up on time. Other parents work long hours to pay for living in SmartBlock. Many work right there at IntelTech, which gives employees discounts, but not quite as nice as the deal we got, since we got to be part of the trial program. I get the luxury to be a housewife—if you can call it that, considering that machines and futuristic gadgets do everything for me.
As if in response to my thoughts, the moment I set my empty coffee cup on the designated metal stripe on the counter, its surface opens up seamlessly and swallows up the cup, which will be washed and dried somewhere deep in the bowels of a concealed dishwasher. All designed to save time on busy mornings. For people who are hurrying to be somewhere. Who have something to do.
"Doesn't it make you feel kind of useless?" Scott jokes.
My laugh comes too soon, before he even finishes the question that's supposed to be rhetorical, I'm sure. It's sharp, tinny, and hollow.
He finishes his coffee, stuffs the last of his undertoasted plain bagel into his mouth, and the dishes disappear in turn. When he gets up to leave, it's exactly five minutes past eight. The house has memorized how long we take to do each and every insignificant task: eat a bagel, four minutes; check the news, five minutes thirty seconds; kiss your wife goodbye, three seconds; put on shoes, fifteen seconds. In the garage, I know his car has already begun to purr with its silent electric engine. Everything here is electric, sustainable, green.
I tap the screen of my own tablet as soon as he's out of sight. There's an alert reminding me that Taryn has been up for twenty-two minutes now, and in three minutes and thirty seconds, she will be officially late for day care but I sweep it impatiently aside.
I tap the icons and swipe until the security camera footage fills the tablet screen. On it, I watch the electric car pull out of the garage, into yet another bright, perfect day in bright, perfect Venture, IL, the place where dreams come true. That's what the brochure said.
You don't know the half of it.
THREE MONTHS EARLIER
"So what do you do, Cecelia?"
I hadn't expected the question, seemingly innocuous. Although I probably should have. I blink.
"I'm looking for work, actually," I say. "I used to work freelance but then I went on maternity leave, and with a toddler at home—"
"Understandable." The woman who insisted we call her Clarisse gives a small nod and smiles. The smile is like a rictus because of the vast amount of plastic surgery I'm sure helped sculpt her face. I give up guessing how old she actually is. Fifty-five? Sixty? More? Clarisse seems like one of those women who find me pitiful. To give up a career and independence, all for a child, how pedestrian, tut-tut. Well, we can't all have high-ranking positions in major corporations. Billions of dollars in contracts with Chicago, Minneapolis, Cleveland, Toronto, wasn't that what she said? Everyone wants a piece of IntelTech and its products, SmartBlock and SmartHome, trademark registered, all rights reserved.
"Well, I'm happy to say you're exactly what we're looking for. A young, modern family. Modern values. Focused above all on self-fulfillment and deriving satisfaction from your life, experiences over possessions. This is exactly what SmartHomes are about. Experiences."
It sounds to me like it's the opposite. The cost of a SmartHome starts at nine hundred ninety-nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine dollars, for the most basic two-bedroom model.
"The concept behind the design is to reduce the amount of time you waste on trivial things every day," Clarisse says. Her gaze travels from me to Scott and back. "Have you ever wondered how many seconds, minutes, hours you spend every day on boring, useless things? Like waiting in line, setting alarm clocks, waiting for the bus. Time that adds up. Hours, days, whole years. Wouldn't you rather spend that time enjoying life?"
She doesn't wait for an answer. "Of course you would. So would anyone. That's where SmartBlock comes in. You may not have noticed but you—along with most people in most major cities, actually—have already used our technologies. Improved bus and subway services, for instance. Reduced waiting times, not to mention reduced traffic and nonexistent emissions, all thanks to an automated system that evaluates the volume of passengers and responds in real time by increasing or reducing the number of available transport units. I could go on but I'm not here to bore you…"
Did I look bored? I must have. I did zone out for a few seconds. Her voice has that quality, polite and pleasant but also bland.
"And now we're experimenting with entire neighborhoods that are custom-built and adjusted to the needs of the residents. The logical extension of that is the SmartHome technology, which you will be testing. If you're interested, of course."
I chance a sideways glance at my husband, who is listening raptly, and I just know it. My heart sinks, and my stomach knots. He's already decided. There won't be any talking him out of it from this point on.
But I'll be damned if I'm not going to try.
The tablet beeps with another reminder. The episode of Taryn's favorite interactive cartoon has ended. Would I like to play another? In other words, technology is reminding me, in its usual passive-aggressive way, what a terrible and neglectful parent I am. I tap No, and as I set the tablet down on the counter, I find myself wincing, already bracing myself for what I know is coming. And she doesn't make me wait. I hear the high-pitched whine from upstairs with to-the-second precision. Right now my daughter is stabbing her chubby fingers into the screen, frustrated when it doesn't yield to her demand. Until finally I hear the usual war cry of "Mommy!"
"Coming," I say, too softly for her to hear. I guess it's meant for me, not her. As I start up the stairs, I throw a longing glance over my shoulder at the tablet, sitting peacefully on the kitchen counter where I left it, its screen dark. I could buy myself another twenty-two minutes of peace right now, play another episode. What happened to my best intentions? I won't have a child raised by screens. I did not go through all the anguish and trouble, the crushing depression, empty hopes, to plunk my precious baby in front of an iPad so I can have an extra quarter of an hour of me time.
Taryn is sitting in her crib, glaring at me, frustration written plain on her round face. "Another," she says petulantly before I'm even in the door. "Now."
"Good morning, sweetheart," I say on autopilot. She looks from me to the screen that's holding her favorite characters captive, frozen in midmotion at my mercy.
"Another," she repeats. Changing her strategy in that endearingly unsubtle way only a three-year-old can manage, she gives me a beseeching smile. "Please, Mommy. Just one more?"
"It's time to eat breakfast," I say, and reach to pick her up. She wiggles away. "And then it's time to go to day care. Don't you want to play with all your friends?"
She responds with a pout. When I reach into the crib and pick her up, she lets out a high-pitched scream right into my ear.
"Taryn," I mutter, wondering once again if I'm talking to me or to her. "Calm down. You love day care, remember? And besides, you have to go."
"Why?" She wiggles and kicks and flails her arms. I barely flinch away as her open palm hits me in the eye.
"Because," I snap. Ignoring her protests, I carry her downstairs, all the while dodging furious kicks and tiny fists, wondering if we're both going to go tumbling down the stairs. For someone so small, she's surprisingly heavy, like that little chubby body has bones made of lead. Finally, I manage to install her in her high chair. The microwave beeps, alerting me that her oatmeal is ready. Just as I turn to get it, she stops screeching and lets out a long, angry huff.
"You're home," she says, suddenly calm. "I stay home too."
I freeze, the bowl of oatmeal burning my hand. It's not what she just said; it's how she said it. With a meanness that's almost shocking, coming from someone so small and adorable. She is cute as a button, and even at this early age, it already makes a difference. She's a natural leader, her teacher at day care tells me. The other children just want to follow her in everything she does.
And frankly, why can't she stay at home? What do I tell her? The same thing I told Scott and the teachers? That it's time she learns to socialize? That I need time to focus on housework and my own projects? That's a crock of shit. The truth is that I just need a break from my own child. Every self-help book would say it's perfectly normal, that I'm a modern woman who deserves time for myself, et cetera. But it never occurred to me that Taryn might ever pick up on that. To be honest, I didn't think she was smart enough. Yet.
"Eat your breakfast," I say sharply, and set the plastic bowl in front of her with a clack. My fingertips are burning. Steam rises from the bowl in thick billows. The oatmeal is not the temperature I preset the microwave to. It's piping hot.
With alarm, I reach out to take the bowl but she's already grabbed her spoon and scooped an oversize glob of oatmeal. Taryn, I start to say. Too late. She raises it to her mouth, her gaze on my face, and I have time to see the hint of a malicious glimmer in her eyes as she stuffs the boiling-hot oatmeal into her mouth.
The oatmeal goes flying all over the counter, her chin, and her shirt, followed by a wail I'm sure they can hear down the street. As I pick her up, making soothing sounds, my thoughts are in a jumble. Now she's going to think I did it on purpose gives way to Now everyone is going to think I did it on purpose to They're going to think I'm a bad mother. I'm not sure what bothers me most.
Once Taryn has been soothed and cleaned up, she becomes placid and docile, as if she'd already spent all her angry energy. There's still a reddish spot on her upper lip that I can't look at without my heart clenching. But she lets me dress her, pack up her things, and take her to day care, all without a word of objection. I'm in a fog the whole time, and by the time I park my car in the garage and go into the house, I'm so exhausted it's hard to believe I still have the whole day ahead of me. So many blissful hours of quiet. I should be happy but I'm just listless.
"Run a bath," I say to the tablet. With pleasure, Cecelia, chimes the alert. Upstairs, I can hear the hum of water. Relieved, I kick off my shoes and set off in search of my book. I read paperback books, which Scott doesn't cease to make fun of. Once upon a time—before everything went wrong—I was a freelance graphic designer who settled into a career of making covers for ebooks. I made quite a good living off it too. I was good at it, and it was easy and reasonably lucrative—even considering Scott made more than enough money for the both of us. But I liked the work, I liked keeping busy. I liked making beautiful things. I was just branching out into branding and websites when the renovations of our old house began, and I abandoned the idea. And then, after the whole nightmare happened, the ebook covers fell by the wayside too. Now my own website, which used to have hundreds of hits a day, has been reduced to one static page with the brief message that says it all: coversbycece.com is undergoing reconstruction—check back here for more news.
But even when ebooks were my bread and butter, I never could quite get in on the trend. I gave it a try but I missed the weight and texture of paper and the distraction-free experience a good old-fashioned paperback provides. You can't click over to Facebook or Twitter like you do when you're reading on a tablet or phone. And you don't have hundreds of other books at your disposal, available at the tap of a fingertip. I always thought that somehow cheapens the experience.
At the moment, I'm finishing up one of those Scandinavian mystery-thrillers that delight in their own gruesomeness. You'd think I wouldn't be able to so much as touch them, after what happened just over a year ago, but on the contrary, I find them oddly comforting.
Right now, though, my copy is nowhere to be found. Which is annoying because I was pages away from finding out who the culprit was and how the damaged female detective's love triangle finally worked out.
"Your bath is ready, Cecelia," announces a pleasant voice, accompanied by a faraway chime from the tablet. The house knows what room I'm in at all times, of course, due to advanced motion-detecting technology combined with the input from the identity chip. It would be great if it could also locate my paperback. With a groan, I grab a decoration magazine from a side table in the hall and head to the bathroom.
The house is true to its word, as always. The bathtub is full, topped with a shimmering heap of foam. The scent of lavender and eucalyptus pleasantly tickles my nostrils as I throw off my clothes. Magazine in hand—it's an old issue that I know by heart but it'll do—I swing my leg over the edge of the tub and lower it into the water.
The shock races up my nerves, from my toes to my spine. It's so sharp and sudden that I give a start, instinctively yank my foot out of the water, and lose my balance. My behind hits the ceramic, and my teeth clack. The whole thing takes less than a blink. I sit on the floor, numb with shock, trying to comprehend what just happened.
"Saya?" I yell out.
Recognizing the voice command of its name, the house's system beeps on. The pleasant electronic voice sounds from the speakers in the ceiling. "Yes?"
But my words have deserted me. "The—the water," I stammer. I stare at my foot, my toes a painful crimson, still throbbing.
"I'm sorry, Lydia," says the voice. "Would you like to change your temperature settings?"
"Yes," I snarl, relieved that finally, someone—something—decided to work with me. "Change them to—"
I stop midsentence. "What did you just call me?"
Three months earlier
"What is your problem, Cece?" Scott struggles to keep his voice to a loud whisper. He doesn't want to make a scene here, in the waiting room. We were supposed to have "a few minutes of privacy to talk it over," as Clarisse put it, but this place hardly feels private. I think of all the hidden cameras and microphones that could be spying on us right this second. "Isn't this what you wanted?"
"What? To live in Big Brother's guest room?"
He groans and rolls his eyes. Just like I thought, he doesn't understand.
"This is what you wanted. This is what we need. Think of how secure it's going to be. No one can come within a mile of the place without being seen and recorded. And should anything happen, it'll call an ambulance…think of that! Think of Taryn!"
"They want to microchip us like purebred cats," I snap back.
"All that information will be private. You heard her—they have the country's top cybersecurity experts on payroll. The only way the information will ever be used is for our benefit."
"Do you even hear yourself?"
He gives a laugh, shifting his strategy—putting on the charming, boyish smile, just like in the early days when we used to affectionately tease each other, not snipe at each other at the first opportunity. "For God's sake, Cece," he says. "You think we're not spied on now? Your phone knows more about you than I do."
I sulk because it's hard to disagree with that.
"Face it, the time of privacy is over whether we like it or not," he says. "Unless you want to just leave it all behind and go live off the land deep in the Appalachians somewhere."
I can't help but shrug.
"That's what I thought. And you say you hate being spied on but I don't see you deleting your Facebook and Instagram. Or throwing your GPS out the car window. Only instead of selling our information to corporations for money, this place will use it to better our lives. Sounds like an improvement to me."
I can only shake my head. I know he's winning the argument, and I have nothing to say. Nothing I can put into words.
"And anyway, this is a trial. We can't afford to be early adopters. At least not yet, not until I get the promotion. Because yes, people like us pay millions of dollars to live there. Are they all idiots too?"
"I never thought you were an idiot," I point out. Just gullible.
"Worst that can happen, we live there for a couple of years—we're not going to sell the house yet—and then we can leave! At the very least, it's a break from the same old. A change of scenery. Isn't that what you wanted?"
Here we are again, with whatever it was I said I wanted.
For God's sake, what I wanted…what I really wanted was to simply be out of the house where a man tried to kill me.
I run my fingertip over the thin skin on my outer wrist, right below the wrist bone. You can't tell—there's no scar and not even a mark—but this is where the microchip is embedded. A microchip that, according to the brochure, "thousands of sensors all over the house will detect and react to your unique DNA signature."
I don't see why they couldn't have gone with facial recognition or any similar technology instead but, according to Clarisse, the DNA signature offers superior possibilities. The chip is powered by my own body heat, and, apart from identifying me flawlessly to every feature of the SmartHome and SmartBlock, it also takes my vital signs and will activate a call for help if it picks up on any distress. For instance, if I have a heart attack in the middle of the day with no one to see me and I can't get to the phone, the chip will transmit a distress signal to the central command system, which will call an ambulance, sending the data along for good measure. Not wasting a single second to get you the help you need, the brochure read.
Think of what it'll mean for Taryn, Scott said. No more panic in the middle of the night because of a rash or a fever—the chip knows best when the situation is urgent and makes the decision for us. He presented it as a good thing.
But I balked at the idea of microchipping my child, sticking that needle into the perfect, creamy skin on her chubby arm. It feels wrong, I told Scott. It feels like despoiling her. Taking away her integrity somehow.
He rolled his eyes and said I get it from my mom. Which made my face flush with embarrassment and put a definitive end to the argument, like he knew it would.
Whenever he thinks I'm acting "crazy"—his term—all he has to do is insinuate that I'm turning into Therese. It never fails. Whether it's me suggesting—just suggesting, in passing—that we have Taryn baptized, to expressing concern that having five mobile devices for three people, two phones, and three tablets, might be less than healthy—it always means I'm turning into my mother and will inevitably go off the deep end. And this was before the SmartHome project was even on our radar.
So Scott won the argument. On the same afternoon we were handed the keys to the house, we were officially given our chips. The needle has a built-in anesthetic that kicks in with surprising speed, and I barely felt a pinch. I was so worried that Taryn would throw a tantrum when she saw the needle, with tears and wailing, and I wouldn't be able to go through with it. But Taryn was too busy looking around the office, twisting her neck this way and that, her brown eyes the size of saucers, and she didn't even see the technician approaching her with the needle, cooing soothingly. When she pressed the device against Taryn's arm, there was just a soft hiss that lasted for half a second, and then it was done. Taryn blinked, bewildered, wondering whether she should cry but there was already nothing to cry about. She got a little plush teddy bear for her good behavior, a logo of IntelTech on its belly, and that was the end of that.
Now, she would be safe at all times, Clarisse said—the house's sensors would know if she got out of her playpen, if she toddled too close to any stairs or kitchen appliances, if she took a fall. Both Scott and I would get instant alerts on all our devices.
Clarisse shook our hands. We were in.
At my request, the house obediently changes the temperature settings for the bath but I'm no longer in the mood. I drain the tub, go downstairs, and get on my laptop.
There's an app we installed on all our computers and devices that lets us access the SmartHome portal to report any bugs and malfunctions, among other things. I think that trying to boil me alive counts as a bug. Plus, this is part of the reason for the trial—to help them improve the system. At the price of some occasional boiled toes and burnt palates, I guess. I click on the app impatiently, and it loads in the blink of an eye. I click Report a problem.
The house's operating system is named Saya. Each house on the street has its own: The one to the right has Sandy and the one on the left has Sophia. Always women's names, and the default voices are soft and pleasant.
Any malfunctions with Saya? Let us know! prompts the page.
I enter the date and time. Microwave oven setting malfunction, I type in. Bath temperature malfunction. The system registers both.
Used the wrong name, I type, then backspace. Did it actually use the wrong name? I can't be sure. Maybe I misheard. My ears were ringing from the impact. While temperature screwups merely caused annoyance, this one makes me nervous. So much for the unique DNA signature. Who on earth would Lydia be, anyway? We were the first to live in this particular model, Clarisse said. And if "Lydia"—if that's what I actually heard—is real, why would she take her bath at eighty degrees Celsius?
- "Laurin crafts a Rebecca for a new generation, tapping into the old fears of domestic security, predecessor anxiety, and adding in a dash of high-tech paranoia. This is domestic suspense taken to a logical, terrifying extreme."—CrimeReads.com
- "[A] chilling novel of psychological suspense... Readers will keep turning the pages as the secrets of Venture's residents come out, along with potential motives for murder. Laurin is an accomplished storyteller."—Publishers Weekly
- "This addicting thriller rachets up the suspense until the very last page."—Woman's World on The Starter Wife
- "Laurin, with her knack for psychological suspense, here portrays the effects of obsession in chilling detail as the facts of Claire's life are revealed. A spine-tingler."—Booklist on The Starter Wife
- "The Starter Wife reminded me of the powerful novel Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins."—The Missourian
- "Nina Laurin's psychological suspense thrill ride will have you ripping through its pages at warp speed as you dig for the truth about a fateful event that drove two twin siblings apart."—PopSugar.com on What My Sister Knew
- "An intense psychological thriller that has a surprise twist... Laurin provides an insightful look at how secrets can shatter a bond between twins."—Publishers Weekly on What My Sister Knew
- "A twisty, mind-bending thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat as she probes the bond and secrets between twins."—USA Today on What My Sister Knew
- "From the very first page, Girl Last Seen jettisons the reader into the life of a crime victim trying to outrun her past. Fast-paced and hard-edged, it is a heart-stopping thriller that had me guessing to the very end."—Heather Gudenkauf, New York Times bestselling author of The Weight of Silence and Not a Sound
- "Every good thriller has a shocking plot twist. Girl Last Seen has many. Author Nina Laurin's eerie novel will stay with you for days, months, even years to come."—HelloGiggles.com
- On Sale
- Jun 23, 2020
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Grand Central Publishing