A Woman Alone by Nina Laurin: New Excerpt

A house with the darkest of secrets. . . A woman who is the only one who knows. Read on for a new excerpt of Nina Laurin’s latest psychological thriller, A Woman Alone—available now from Grand Central Publishing.

CHAPTER THREE

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?

I decide to forget about it for the time being. The important thing was the temperature, and that’s taken care of. I’m so sorry you experienced this inconvenience, the page informs me. Please accept our sincere apologies on behalf of SmartHome.

This does little to mellow me out. “Saya,” I say out loud.

“Yes, Cecelia?”

“Can you find me some vegan recipes, please?”

Number one item on my to-do list is to prepare for the party tonight. Party is a bit of a strong word for what’s going to be more of a pretentious dinner.

“Of course, Cecelia. Today’s most popular vegan recipes are uploading to your tablet.”

Scott’s colleague’s wife is a militant organic-vegan who

I suspect actually has some form of an eating disorder. So although she’ll be the only vegan at the table of six, no dead animal flesh must come within a mile of the kitchen.

“Never mind,” I say after a moment’s thought. “Find me some vegan caterers who are available for tonight.”

“Of course, Cecelia.”

Of course.

*   *   *

As usual, Saya—and the last-minute caterer found by Saya—doesn’t let me down. All the food is in place, waiting for its time in the vast downstairs refrigerator. Only a couple of items need to be heated up beforehand. The menu is basically different combinations of various rabbit foods, profoundly unappetizing.

Not that I’m all that hungry to begin with. Little work to do means little energy expenditure. Taryn has been picked up and is safely absorbed in her tablet, in one of the many educational games I downloaded on it. It makes me feel less bad that the games are educational. She’s not just out of my hair for an evening—she’s also learning about the fauna of African veldts or something like that.

Scott shows up pretty much at the same time as the guests. Which is not a surprise—since another handy app on my phone sends me a notification when he leaves work and when he’s approaching the house. But still, it’s a small annoyance.

Scott’s coworker is Kyle, and his wife, the rail-thin, red-lipsticked vegan, is Emma. The other couple was invited, I’m guessing, for my benefit: one of Scott’s old friends from his previous job and his wife, Mia, who I used to get along with quite well. I alienated most of my real friends over the last few years, the dark years of the fertility struggle. And the few who remained dropped off after all the drama went down.

I can’t blame them. No, that’s not true. I totally blame them, even though it’s hardly their fault. They just never were the type of friends to stick around in dark times. More the fair-weather kind, far more common these days, more suited for wine-soaked girls’ nights and shopping sprees. That’s who I surrounded myself with because that’s who was available. In the age of smartphones and apps, there’s no need to stick around for someone’s moping. Why bother when a brand-new partner in crime to sip wine with is just a tap of a fingertip away?

Lounging in the living room while Scott goes to make drinks and uncork bottles of wine, Emma the vegan and Mia politely admire the house, like they’re supposed to. I say I wish I could take the credit but everything was here when we moved in. Emma runs her hand appreciatively along the lacquered surface of the hardwood coffee table, tracing the whorls in the exotic wood frozen forever beneath the thick layer of gloss.

“Good materials,” she says. “Hard to find these days. Everyone cuts corners where they can.”

I think of the tree that had once been, a magnificent exotic species from South America or maybe Africa, sawed into neat slices meant to adorn rich people’s houses. That doesn’t seem to bother her, for all the posturing about ecological footprints and animal rights.  Then again,  if her five-hundred-dollar pumps aren’t genuine leather, I’m willing to eat them.

But you don’t point these things out. Not in this crowd.

“Yes,”  Mia chimes in.  “My sister had a  house built to measure last year. Cost a ton of money. Imagine her surprise when she dropped in on the contractors to find them painting her walls with six-dollar-a-gallon paint.”

Emma commiserates, while I wonder what I could possibly talk to them about. Scott tops off Emma’s wineglass and gives me a meaningful look. Or maybe it just seems meaningful, because the conversation is now about swapping renovation horror stories. Not a direction I like at all. My face grows warmer. I fidget on my chair.

He gets it and comes to my aid. “Food, anyone?”

The women are annoyed at the interruption but the husbands eagerly agree so we move to the dining room.

As we sit down to the rabbit-food feast I set out on the dining room table, I can tell the drinks are starting to kick in. Everyone visibly relaxes, and the slight air of formality slides off them as they tuck unselfconsciously into their appetizers. I excuse myself before picking up my tablet and remotely starting the preheat of the main course, some kind of tofu curry.

“Lucky, lucky you,” Mia says to me. “You must get everything done in the blink of an eye with all this tech around.”

“I won’t lie,” I say with a chuckle. “There are advantages.”

“She’s being coy,” Scott says. His face is a bit flushed, and I wonder how many times he’s refilled his wineglass. “She loves it here. Who wouldn’t?”

Later, once the main course has been eaten (or, in Emma’s case, picked at and left mostly intact) and the third or fourth bottle of wine has been opened, I realize I’m actually having a good time. I’m relaxed in my comfortable chair. The lights appear to have dimmed—I don’t remember presetting that but it’s nice. It smooths the edges of everything.

Emma, who’s not nearly as discriminating with alcohol as she is with food—I suspect two of the three or four bottles of wine ended up in her glass—has finally let loose and is telling a story about one of her friends’ Botox disaster. Scott is talking to Emma’s husband about work. I’m getting lulled into it all when a discreet notification chimes on the screen of my phone.

“Sorry,” I say, and I really am sorry to have to get up. “I have to put Taryn to bed.”

“Wow,” says Emma, interrupting her story, “I hardly even noticed you had a kid!” Her face is flushed from the wine, and nobody, least of all her, seems to notice the tactlessness of her little slip. “It’s the robot nanny?”

“Entertainment center,” Scott corrects.

“One hell of an entertainment center. We should get one for Jason,” Mia chimes in, howling with laughter. “Oh, he’s just hell on wheels. Taryn is cute now—wait till she’s five!”

I excuse myself, letting them continue that train of thought. Upstairs, the credits of the latest educational cartoon episode are rolling on the tablet screen as my daughter blinks sleepily at it.

At once, I’m overcome with tenderness. Maybe it’s the wine amplifying my emotions but I just want to pick her up and cuddle with her on top of her tiny bed. All this, I think to myself as I reach out and switch the screen off with a tap, all this is for her. So she’ll grow up with every possible comfort and every possible opportunity. So that she’s safe at all times, sheltered from the scary parts of life—at least for now. I’m not dumb. I know it can’t go on like this forever, with her hidden inside this cozy digital cocoon. Kids grow up and venture out into the world, and she will too. In time.

For now, I’ll do everything I can do.

As soon as the screen goes dark, Taryn lets out a high-pitched squeal of protest that splits the silence and makes me wince in spite of myself. Shredding my peaceful little mind-image.

“It’s sleepy time, Taryn,” I coo automatically as I reach to pick her up. She swats violently at my hands, trying to bat them away. Her face is quickly turning red—a sign that a tantrum is coming.

“Taryn,” I say, with a soft but present note of warning.

“No!” she shrieks. “No sleep!”

Her eyes are red and shiny, and her upper lip is already glistening with snot. She wiggles with all her might when I finally pick her up. Her small but pointy little foot connects with just the right spot under my ribs, making me hiss and stifle a bad word.

A headache throbs in the back of my head. Maybe I had enough wine after all. When did she become this bad? She was such a sweet baby. She slept through the night at a mere three or four months and was always smiling, eager to be picked up.

Shame floods my face with heat, followed quickly by anger. Anger I have no outlet for because there’s no one left to be angry at, except myself. That’s what the child psychologist said. I thought Taryn was too young to understand but he said she could still pick up on subconscious cues. Detect my distress and fear, sense my lingering trauma for weeks and months afterward. Is that why she’s acting out? Because I, her mother, the person responsible for taking care of her and making her happy and safe, had failed?

At least her screen is consistently there, present, unrelentingly cheerful and entertaining, not sneaking away into corners to cry ten times a day. And Scott was absent then and he’s absent now—his solution was to throw money at the problem, and this house is just the culmination of it. No wonder she prefers the screen.

By the time I get Taryn to sleep—it feels like it’s been hours, although it can’t have been more than thirty minutes or so—the headache has evolved into a migraine, and all I want to do is follow her example and hit the hay. The room is dimly lit by Taryn’s moon-shaped night-light, and the only sound is her soft, little snore, which I used to find so adorable. Of course, once she was in bed and tucked under the ethereally soft blankets, she passed out almost instantly without further argument.

I come to the window and lean my forehead on the cool glass pane, closing my eyes. When I open them, I see what I first think is a reflection in the glass, a glimmer of light.

I blink but it’s still there, and I realize it’s not reflected in the window but outside of it.

I take a tiny step back and look across the dark expanse of our backyard. Right now it’s an empty space. We had big plans, if we decided to stay on board and buy the place, to build a gazebo or a swing set for Taryn or plant a lush garden. For the time being, I planned to at least bring in some flower boxes, to plant lilies and other low-maintenance plants to dress up the acid-green expanse of empty lawn. But I’ve put it off and put it off, and now it’s nearing fall and it’s too late.

The lawn eventually ends with  a  fence,  and behind it looms the neighboring house. It’s not like ours—the designers have no doubt decided to avoid the trap of having rows of identical buildings, which the target clientele would consider tacky and suburban. So instead, each street is an assorted set of houses that nonetheless complement each other, with variety to suit tastes and price ranges.

The house out back is bigger and starkly square and modern in contrast to our more traditional-looking abode with its slanted roof. The wall facing us is made up of floor-to-ceiling windows, all of them one-way glass, of course. But in that moment, it had let something through. Just the glimmer of our terrace light when it caught on the round shape of a lens.

 

CHAPTER FOUR

I come back downstairs, unnerved and stone-cold sober. Even my headache has somewhat faded into the background. I linger in the door, observing the scene. My husband is topping off Mia’s glass, while Mia’s husband, Eric, is telling something to Emma in a hushed voice, which makes her giggle drunkenly. They don’t notice me at first.

Scott is the first one to look up. “Taryn is sleeping?”

“Yeah,” I say.

He nods at my glass, which he—or someone else—has refilled, pretty much to the brim. Since those giant glasses fit half a bottle each, you’re only supposed to splash wine into the bottom, to let it breathe. But right now it’s welcome.

“Thanks,” I say, and take a generous sip. He looks at me expectantly,  and I sit down,  hovering on the edge of the chair. I look over the faces around the table—wine-warmed, content faces—and realize there’s no good way to blurt, By the way, honey, someone is taking pictures of our daughter’s bedroom window from the house next door.

“We have to go home,” Eric is saying, slurring his words. Mia groans theatrically, stretching her arms over her head.

“No,” she pouts.

“You know I have to get up tomorrow. We all do.”

“Except Cecelia,” Emma chimes in.

“Yeah,” Mia picks up with a giggle. “Except Cecelia.” Scott and I exchange a glance.

“You’re tipsy,” Scott says to Mia’s husband, to break up the tension and shift the subject. “You’re not going to drive like that, are you?”

“Well, I’m not going to walk like that, am I?” the man says, which elicits another burst of laughter from Emma. “Weren’t you supposed to be the designated driver, honey?”

Mia looks embarrassed. “Oops.”

Oh no. We’re going to have to offer to let them stay over. We have no excuse not to. We have three unoccupied rooms in the house and a fold-out couch in the basement. The thought of having to make Emma organic-vegan-fair-trade breakfast tomorrow while attempting to make small talk with the husbands through my hangover at six a.m. doesn’t appeal to me in the slightest.

Scott saves the situation. “I’ll call you guys taxis,”  he says. “Hey, Saya!”

Everyone goes quiet with a sort of reverence as the electronic voice springs awake. “Yes, Scott?”

“Can you call two taxis for my friends, please?”

“Of course, Scott.” She proceeds to list the plate numbers and inform us all that the information has been sent to Kyle’s and Mia’s phones.

Mia shakes her head in disbelief, checking the screen. “Wow, Cece. I’m so freaking jealous, you have no idea.”

I’m not sure how I’m supposed to react or what she expects from me. So I decide to laugh it off. “Well, if you don’t care about your privacy at all, I guess you could say I’m lucky.”

Instead of laughing, she gives me a blank look. The tension grows, visible only to me.

Her husband saves the day. “Well, I’ll bet the crime rate in this part of town is really low, though, huh?”

Everyone dutifully laughs at that.

“Won’t people just come up with new ways to get away with it?” Emma asks. “Don’t they always?”

The laughter dies down, giving way to an awkward silence. “I suppose,” I say.

“Oh, you girls have no idea,” Kyle exclaims. “The lengths people will go to, it’s nuts. Just last week I was dealing with a client’s wife who tried to squirrel away assets before the divorce. Her scheme would put Bernie Madoff to shame, I tell you.”

But we never find out what the scheme was because, in that moment, the phones ping, and Saya’s voice informs us the taxis are here.

The door barely had time to close behind our guests, leaving Scott and me alone at last, in the silence that felt heavy somehow, filled with the barely perceptible buzzing of the electronics in the background. The headache that had been scratching behind my eyes takes over, filling my entire skull. Too much wine.

“Thank God,” I mutter, pressing the heels of my hands over my eyes.

“Thank God?” Scott echoes. “You’ve been looking forward to it all week. You always say we never see anyone anymore.”

“I’m just tired,” I snap back.

“You couldn’t get them out of the house quickly enough,” my husband points out.

“All the noise made it impossible to put Taryn to sleep,” I say. I don’t know why I feel the need to justify myself. What I really want to add is, And it’s not like you ever have to deal with Taryn’s temper tantrums.

“Nonsense. The rooms are all soundproofed. It’s what you wanted,” he says pointedly. This is becoming a regular refrain in our household: This is what you wanted, Cecelia. Its all for you. As if it’s my fault that I couldn’t sleep anymore in the old place, that I never ever felt truly safe.

But I can’t just blurt this all out, throwing it in his face. I want to sleep, not start another argument.  My bones ache with fatigue. Maybe I won’t even need the sleeping pills tonight.

I still take them, just in case. It’s happened in the past: I assumed I was exhausted enough to pass out naturally only to end up staring into the dark ceiling at three in the morning, my bones humming with fatigue but my mind restless, racing around and around in circles, unable to relax against all logic.

Downstairs, Scott finishes piling the dishes into the dishwasher. Through the open door, I hear the soft beep of commands and then the gentle whir of the machine springing to life. I listen to his steps as he climbs the stairs, the rush of the faucet in the adjacent bathroom as he brushes his teeth. And finally, I can feel his presence next to me as he climbs into bed. The mattress barely moves, not even a vibration to disturb my sleep. But I haven’t drifted off yet. The sleeping pills are only starting to act.

“Scott,” I find myself murmuring. As if I need to reassure myself that it’s really him and not some stranger who took his place.

“Yeah?”

“What do you know about the neighbors?”

“The neighbors?”

“The house behind ours. Do you know who lives there?”

“How would I know that?” he says and gives a soft snort, as if it were a truly ridiculous thing to ask.

People used to know their neighbors, didn’t they? They used to have neighborhood associations and block parties and things like that. Welcome baskets full of homemade muffins and what have you. In this sleek bedroom with its windows that black out at a set time like screens switching off, with its lights that gradually fade to sepia before dimming out to help with relaxation, with the hidden speakers gently humming with white noise, such things seem not even retro but antiquated. What would anyone need homemade muffins for, anyway, when you can order them from a bakery and have them at your door in minutes?

“I was just wondering,” I murmur. The urge to sleep is stronger than me, pulling me under fast. “Maybe I should go introduce myself, or something.”

“Why would you do that?”

“I don’t know, Scott.” The amusement in his tone that he doesn’t try to hide annoys me, momentarily tugging me back out of dreamland. “Because it’s civil?”

“There’s no point,” he says, again with that little derisive snort.

“Why not?”

“They’re either early adopters or testers, like us, which means they’ve been selected by IntelTech. And that place does background checks like it’s hiring for the FBI.”

He is right, of course. Everyone on the block has been preselected and carefully vetted, says Clarisse’s voice in my head, clearly like she’s standing right there over my bed. I took it to mean everyone was thoroughly background-checked but of course, that’s not what it really means. Kind of classist, some of my old friends would say. Did it really not cross my mind until now? Of course it did. I just didn’t care and decided not to think about it too much. Because in my mind, it would mean that it’s safe.

I am safe.

I close my eyes, and in that moment, the image in my head becomes softer, less real. Did I see a lens? Or did I mistake something for a lens, some techy gizmo? There’s no reason for it after all. Why would someone be spying on my daughter? On me. On us.

“Anyway,” Scott says. He puts his arm around me, which takes me by surprise. It takes me a heartbeat or two to relax into it. “Why don’t you look them up? There’s probably some kind of app for that too.”

I pick up my phone blindly from the nightstand—how long has it been since it was farther than arm’s reach at any moment?—and check the screen. As if by serendipity, that’s when it gives a short buzz.

“Will you put that away?” Scott groans into his pillow. “You can check tomorrow. Anything interesting?”

“Just an email.”

I swipe left and delete the message without reading.

 

Copyright © 2020 by Nina Laurin.

Author Photo Credit Maude Michaude

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About A Woman Alone by Nina Laurin:

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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