Sweat poured down Mark’s forehead. The floor just in front of his feet had been whisked away and replaced by a grid of tiles bearing jumbled letters. He dared not step on the wrong ones.
“The word of the day is ‘koala’,” said Susan, who stood on the other side of the grid. “You’re going to need to make your way to my side by stepping on the letters K-O-A-L-A, in that order, without triggering any others. Do not step on any other letters.”
Mark searched for K. It was one row deep, almost directly in front of him. He took a deep breath and lifted his right foot off solid ground. Mark slowly pivoted his leg until it hung in the air directly over the K tile. His heart pounding, he brought his foot down and braced for impact.
Seconds passed. Mark was still alive.
“Oh, good, koala wasn’t yesterday’s word!” Susan said gleefully.
Mark shot her a desperate glance, and her mouth clamped shut. She looked away from him meekly as she said, “Now O.”
With all of his weight now resting on the K tile, Mark lifted his left foot up from the safety of regular, non-lethal ground and placed it on the O tile, which was a slightly uncomfortable distance from the K tile.
The A tile had a smaller surface area than its two predecessors, as all the tiles from the fourth row onwards had red glowing borders that Susan breathlessly warned Mark not to touch. Soon he stood on tip-toes on the A and L tiles.
“Your feet are a lot bigger than anyone in my family’s,” Susan said. “Just try to reach the next A, it’s the last one!”
“Can’t I just jump it?” Mark asked. “I got the furthest at long jump in our last school athletics day.”
Susan grimaced. “If you don’t complete the word of the day, bad stuff happens.”
Mark grunted. “Fine.”
Mark focused on the A tile at the edge of the grid. His right foot lifted and swept forward. He balanced precariously on tip-toes for all of a split second, and then his foot came down on A.
Smoke rose from the side of his right shoe. Mark’s eyes went wide. He’d touched the border.
It took all his strength and presence of mind to suppress the urge to panic, but Mark bit his lip, lifted his left foot, held out his arms and tumbled forward onto the safe ground.
Susan was at his side in an instant, asking if he was alright. Mark pulled himself out of the heap he lay in and into a sitting position, scrambling madly away from where the floor was now sliding back over the tiles.
“I’ll need some new shoes,” he said, looking at the gash that was now melted into the side of his right shoe.
“I’m really sorry,” said Susan, helping Mark up. “But please, next time listen when I tell you to be quiet for the voice sensors.”
“Don’t worry, I will.”
Mark and Susan stood in the hall for a few moments, Mark looking around at the pictures of Susan’s family on the walls and the tasteful décor, and Susan examining the carpet.
“Welcome to my home,” she said. “Let’s go watch some TV.”
“The living room’s just through here, but just wait a moment before you go through.”
Mark stood before the doorless frame, looking into the room beyond. The enormous television Susan had promised dominated the far wall, and the rest of the room was done up with couches and shelves. It all looked ordinary enough.
Susan had put her schoolbag down on the floor and was rummaging through it. She produced a pink spray can of what looked like women’s deodorant. After taking a moment to shake it up theatrically, she aimed it at the doorframe.
“On two, I’m going to start spraying this,” she said. “On three, you need to run.”
Mark poised himself for running, keeping his eyes fixed on the television.
“One.” Susan’s index finger rested on the spray can’s trigger.
“Two.” The air filled with the sickeningly sweet scent of some flower Mark didn’t care about the name of. Susan frantically swept the can up and down, left and right, trying to fill the air in the archway with the smell.
Mark dove forward. He was in the living room. No alarms went off.
Susan stepped through the arch and stood beside Mark, beaming. “I really prefer roll-on, but I’ve been getting the spray version for months for just such an occasion. Glad it worked!”
Mark decided not to ask her how rigorously she’d tested any of her various security circumventions, and the two proceeded to the large, soft couch in front of the TV. Susan grabbed the remote, which had more buttons than a coat store, and in the blink of a fifty-inch screen, Mark forgot all about how many times he’d nearly died that day.
Two episodes, half a movie and a few ad breaks later, there was a whirring sound from the behind them.
Susan grabbed Mark’s arm and forced him into eye-contact. “Stay completely still,” she said. “Whatever you do, just don’t move for the next five minutes or so.”
The whirring got louder.
Mark sat frozen in place as the whirring came closer and closer. His breathing grew shallower and shallower until he was holding in a deep breath waiting for the danger to pass.
But the whirring noise continued to close in. Susan darted up from the couch to confront –
A little robotic vacuum cleaner. With a purple heart decal on its back. It was looping around in little circles, cleaning the carpet.
“Don’t be fooled,” Susan said tersely. “And don’t move.”
Despite the strong urge to aww at the cute little gizmo, Mark remained still. He’d learnt by now to heed Susan’s every warning while in her death-trap of a house.
Moving silently, Susan got behind the robot, crouched down, and then lifted it off the ground. Before the vacuum cleaner could so much as whirr in protest, Susan had dashed out of the living room and down the hall.
Mark let out a long sigh of relief. His tensed muscles had only started to relax when Susan was suddenly back in the room, sans vacuum cleaner.
“I put it in the basement,” she said, sitting back down on the couch. “That thing’s like a Dalek – totally thwarted by a staircase.”
Now that the danger had passed, Mark chuckled. “I find it really hard to believe something that small and cute-looking can be even nearly as dangerous as you’re making it out to be, even in this house.”
Susan just stared past him. “I had a lot of friends at my old school,” she said to no-one in particular.
“You know how I’m a bit of a loner, always sitting by myself at lunch?” Susan asked.
Mark wasn’t quite sure how to respond. “You uh… you’re pretty new at our school, I just figured you hadn’t made many friends yet.”
“It’s not safe to.” Susan’s low whisper sent chills up Mark’s spine. “I had lots of friends at my old school – I was in a band – I’d show you a picture but it’s in my room and I don’t want you to die looking at the braces I used to wear –“
“Woah, slow down, what are you trying to say?”
“Just that the last time I had friends over, they found out first-hand what that vacuum cleaner can do. There was an accident.” Susan paused. “And that’s why I had to change schools.”
“But I’m much more careful these days!” Susan said cheerfully, suddenly smiling. “Now, let’s watch some more TV!”
“So I guess my dad’s just really into this security stuff because of his job and all, and because I’m his only daughter he really wants to protect me. And my mom feels the same. She and my dad both really want me to be safe, and sometimes the way they do it makes me really angry, but ultimately I guess I appreciate it because there must be so many other kids out there who have the most horrible stuff happen to them because there’s not enough security around them.”
The volume on the TV had been turned all the way down. The news was on. There had been floods in some remote part of the world, and Mark and Susan would occasionally glance at the images of displaced families and ruined homes as they flashed by.
“Did something happen to make them this security conscious?” Mark asked.
“Something like what?”
“Y’know… something bad.”
Susan’s eyes clouded over with thought for a moment. “I don’t… think… so. I seem to remember there being less security when I was little, but I probably just didn’t notice it as much. Or maybe it was because I had a nanny who would look after me while my parents were both working.”
Susan smiled brightly. “Yeah. Most of my earliest memories are of playing with her. She was young, I suppose, and very pretty. She lived with us I think. There’s – there’s a photo of her and me over there.”
Mark’s eyes followed Susan’s pointing finger to a picture frame on an end table next to his side of the couch. The picture showed a very young, very wide-smiling Susan being held up by a girl who couldn’t have been older than seventeen. She had the same wavy blonde hair as Susan.
“I don’t know what happened to her,” Susan said. “My parents never talk about her, even though we have this picture here. I can’t even remember what her name was.”
“That’s a shame,” Mark said flatly. “Hey – weather’s on – looks like it’ll be a nice sunny day tomorrow!”
Susan followed the change of topic. “Ooh, ooh! It’ll be a great day to go to the beach, don’t you think?”
The next morning, Susan woke up to a text message informing her that she had a new voicemail message. She dialled her voicemail number and let the message play. It was from Mark.
“Hey, Susan. I had fun at your house yesterday, and I know you were really keen on going to the beach today, but I just don’t know if…”
The message was polite and reasonable. Mark had work to do – he had tests to study for, and really so did Susan. But there was a quality to his voice that Susan had heard in many others. A quality that let her know that although they’d still talk in the hallway on Monday morning, and although he’d certainly reply to her text messages, he wouldn’t be making a new date for their beach visit. And he certainly wouldn’t be coming back to her house.
Susan replaced her phone on her bedside table. She blinked her eyes a few times and lay in bed thinking.