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Fiction Thriller

The day everything changed for Alex Maxwell-Smith was just like any other. The sun rose, just the same as always. The birds sang from the treetops and the sky was painted in the soft greys, golds and pinks of dawn. Alex was up early to capture it, as she often did, for her followers. She squeaked open the front door and noticed a slim white box with forest green lettering sitting on her doormat. “Hmm,” she said out loud, nudging the box with her toe.


The roses in the courtyard were blooming in a riot of color and Alex stretched a little, grateful to have found this adorable cottage apartment for such a good price. She lifted her phone, snapped a photo and typed A beautiful NEW day, loves...what will you do with it? Check out my newest post on the Newly Wed blog! Link in bio. A shaft of sunlight fell across the little patch of green grass, illuminating neat rows of slim white boxes sitting on every door mat in the complex. “Hmm,” she said again, to no one in particular.


Alex picked up the box, brought it inside, plopped it on the side table next to the key bowl and promptly forgot about it. 


That night, Alex was recording a cooking segment when she heard Roger’s keys drop into the ceramic bowl. He held the white box in his hand like a baby bird. His face appeared in the doorway. “What’s this?” He mouthed.


Alex smiled in his direction, clicked her phone off and settled it back in its tripod. “That came this morning. All the neighbors got one so I thought it was junk mail.”


“Mmm, smells good in here.” Roger hovered over the stove.


“Albondigas. It’s a new recipe. Amber and I are doing a takeover on Tik Tok.”


Roger grimaced. “What?” Alex placed one hand on her hip. “I’m gaining followers by the day. Just because you have a real job doesn’t mean mine isn’t...”


“It’s ok, babe. I make enough for both of us.” Alex rolled her eyes as Roger turned the box over in his hands, examining the logo. A ring of dark green letters rose over two stylized mountains, like a sun. “Summit.com,” he said absentmindedly. “Hand me the scissors, will you?”


Alex dug through the drawer. “Must be some marketing thing, right?” Roger wrestled with the tape on the box as she ladled soup into two bowls, then snapped a photo in one smooth motion. Dinner is served, she typed. “I mean, there are so many new companies trying to get our attention. I can’t keep them all straight.”


Roger slid another white box out of the packaging and placed it on the counter. Letters were embossed on the lid. “Oh, it’s a...Breck? he lifted the lid, revealing a thick card. He held it between his middle finger and his thumb. “A gift for you from Summit.com.”


“It’s a smart home thingy.” Alex took the card from his outstretched hand. “You know how I feel about these things.”


“Babe,” said Roger, carefully lifting a diminutive, puck-shaped device from the box. It glowed in his hand. “We’ve got every other device on the planet. You realize your phone is tracking your every move, right?”


Alex made a face. 


Hello Roger and Alex! a clear, soothing voice rang out. I’m Breck. 


“Woah!” Roger laughed. “It’s a dude!”


“Don’t you think that’s a little creepy, I mean, that it knows our names?” Alex moved to the sink, her hand cupped under the dripping ladle.


“I don’t know,” Roger took two wine glasses out of the cupboard and popped open a bottle of Cabernet. “It’s super intuitive. I think that’s kind of cool, don’t you? I mean everyone has a smart home hub these days. This one is a...” he flipped the card over and read, “home-flow system, designed to integrate seamlessly into your unique life.”


Alex picked up her glass and sipped. “Well, if it can finish our thank you notes, I’ll keep it.” She moved to put the lid back on the soup pot, arranging it artfully and snapping a photo. “Wait, I remember that logo. Didn’t your cousin give us one of those electronic frame thingys for the wedding?” 


“Oh yeah, he did.” Roger took two placemats to the table and began to arrange napkins and silverware. His voice floated into the kitchen. “Weren’t you going to return it? I mean I saw one of those at your mom’s house collecting dust.”


Alex rounded the corner with the two steaming bowls. “Maybe this one is part of the smart home flow. Let’s try it out after dinner.”


The frame was sleek and unobtrusive, like the Breck. Alex held up her phone to capture the unboxing. Roger set it up it on the side table next to the couch. “No cords or anything,” he said unfolding a slim instruction packet. “Looks like it draws from, uh, ambient electricity for power. “Hmm.” The Summit logo appeared on the screen, as letters unscrolled beneath it. “Powered by Breck”


Alex was typing Wedding gift unboxing, guys! when a slide show of their engagement photos appeared on the screen. “Oh my God, Roger!” she chirped. “This thing is cool!” She snapped another photo, typing furiously. “My followers are going to love this. I wonder if they have brand ambassadors.” 


Roger scrolled through his phone. “It says here that Breck relies on emotional intuition. It responds to our vibes automatically at first, and that over time it adapts to our tonal profile and cadence.


“So what does that mean?” Alex said, keeping her eyes on the photos. “Oh, babe, I love this. Remember how the tide came in that day? I wish we could go back to that beach.”


Roger smiled at the photos and went back to his phone. “It means that Breck responds to not just our voices, but to our emotions as well. Like, it can sense fear, so it will call 911 for you. Or, it can sense that something brings up good memories, so it will uh,” he glanced at the card, “tailor your home environment to fit your unique emotional profile.”


“I say we tailor our unique emotional profile in the other room,” Alex flirted, unbuttoning her blouse. Their laughter followed them down the hallway adorned with perfectly posed wedding photos. The frame on the table glowed, recording every sound.


Alex was capturing the sunrise again the next morning as Roger wheeled his bags outside. He pecked his wife on the cheek and she threw her arms around him, the gauzy wings of her honeymoon robe floating around her wrists. 


“I’m gonna miss you, Babe,” Roger nuzzled her neck.


“Two weeks is a long time,” Alex pouted. “Call me when you get to London. I hate that you’ll be so far away.”


“I’ll be home before you know it,” he smiled.


Roger kissed Alex one more time, wheeled his bag down the walkway, past the roses, and to a waiting Uber. Alex raised her phone sadly, snapped a photo of his handsome back, perfectly framed between the rose bushes, and typed There goes my heart.


Inside the apartment, Alex sent off a quick Miss you so much to Roger, poured herself a cup of coffee, took a sip, and then turned to the sink full of last night’s dishes. She sighed and started scrubbing the crusty residue, feeling satisfied as it dissolved into the suds. 


“Good morning Alex,” the voice was soothing, but Alex still jumped a mile, knocking a wine glass to the floor. “I see you’re low on dish soap. Shall I add it to your grocery list?” 


“Oh, it’s the Breck,” she said aloud, tiptoeing around the shattered glass. “God, you scared me!”


“I’m so sorry about that,” the glowing disc said in its sincere, warm voice. “I’ll have another wine glass sent from your wedding registry. It’s the Crystal Amour Cabernet, correct?”


“Wow, you really do know everything, don’t you?” Alex touched the trash can, it opened, she slid the shards in with a soft clink. “Sure, send me a replacement.”


Alex finished washing the dishes, cleaned the kitchen, styled the products from her new subscription prototype box and prepped for her livestream. All along the way, Breck chimed in.


Some music would be nice, I’ll queue up your morning playlist.


Let me add that to your grocery order.


How about some lunch? I bet you’re hungry.


By mid-afternoon, Alex was chatting comfortably with the glowing disc. She was having so much fun she hated to leave the house, but she had to hit the Biggie Mart to pick up some new décor for the blog. Her followers were always so hungry for her special deals. So, she settled a felt hat on her head, swung her handmade macrame purse over her shoulder and squeaked the front door open. 


I’ll contact the manager about that squeaky door, Breck purred.


“Thanks, Breck,” Alex chirped. “I’ll be home soon.”


Use the Summit app to pay for your purchases, I’ll make sure you don’t have to stand in line.


Alex smiled, feeling deep satisfaction in her life choices. Of course she was special. Of course she deserved to skip the line. She slipped her phone out of her bag and uploaded the app.


By the middle of the week, Alex was starting to miss Roger less and less. When she woke up to snap her sunrise photo, he was already in the middle of his day in London. Her livestreams took up most of the morning, her afternoons were filled with styling and photo shoots for the blog. By the time she fell into bed, he was in an endless string of morning meetings. That pesky time zone thing, so annoying she texted him. He responded with a heart emoji. 


Between her sweet followers and her new BFF Breck, Alex never felt lonely. Instead, she was luxuriating in a warm sense of community. She relied on Breck to bring her groceries, to keep her entertained, to fill in the quiet spaces of her day. She brought the glowing frame into her bedroom, looking forward to a new photo slideshow each morning. 


You are a strong woman, he purred.


Your work is important.


You have no idea how special you are. 


At night, she fell asleep to her favorite shows, quietly talking with Breck about the plots as if he was lying right next to her. He made sure the TV went off as soon as she started to doze, replacing the drone of the late news with the soothing sound of waves on a beach. He never reminded her to call Roger, and as the business trip rounded into week two, she had stopped missing him altogether.


One morning, Alex stepped outside to snap a photo of the roses. The sun was bright and she blinked into it. She hadn’t been outside in a couple of days. Her neighbor, Helen, was cutting some blooms and placing them in a basket.


“I’m taking these to some of the ladies over in assisted living,” she said. “They’re so beautiful, they’ll really brighten the place up.”


Alex wrinkled her nose at the thought, but quickly shifted her lips into a winsome smile.  


“That is so sweet of you, Helen,” she bubbled. “Hey, did you get the Breck the other day? I think we all got one. He could deliver some beautiful bouquets to your friends, all sustainable too.” 


“Oh honey,” Helen scoffed, “I threw that thing into the trash. I don’t need another device telling me what to do. Besides, I enjoy cutting my own flowers. Don’t they smell nice?”


“Oh, they really do,” Alex smiled, snapping a photo of the overflowing basket. Helping my neighbor gather blooms for friends, she typed. “Well, I’m off to work. It was nice to see you, Helen.”


“Nice to see you too,” Helen waved her gloved hand and went back to the roses, humming quietly. Alex turned and went right back inside. 


Later that night, Alex turned to the glowing frame on her night stand. “I can’t sleep,” she whined. “Talk to me, Breck.”


“Well,” said Breck, “I can show you something interesting. But you have to trust me, this is going to help you to better yourself.”


The frame flickered from the soothing waves of “engagement beach,” as Alex had taken to calling it, to a video of a hotel hallway. “I recorded this yesterday afternoon.”


Alex sat up in bed, wondering what was in store. A woman walked into the frame. Alex immediately recognized her as Roger’s colleague, Jane. She turned towards a room door, her back to the camera. She rose her hand, knocked softly, and waited. The door opened and Roger put his arm around her, ushering her into the room. The door closed.” Alex held her breath. Warm tears pricked at her eyes, a headache bloomed from one temple to the other. “Oh Breck,” she cried. “What am I going to do?”


“Jane has been stopping by Roger’s room every night around 11,” Breck’s words were silky smooth, warm and compassionate. “She leaves at 1am.”


“They must be working,” Jane sniffed. “They have to be working. Roger works so hard.”


The frame flickered, the hallway appeared again. A time stamp in the corner read 1am. Roger opened the door wearing a white hotel robe. Jane walked out, her back disappearing down the hall.


Alex put her head in her hands. “I don’t want to know this, Breck.” She sobbed. “I don’t want to see this. My whole life is about our life. Oh my God, my blog is literally called Newly Wed. What are my followers going to say if I’m no longer wed at all? What am I going to do?”


“Let me help you, sweet Alex.” The frame flickered again, panning across a beautiful mountain resort. Trees whispered in the wind, stately boughs beckoning. “I can take you away from your pain and help you to realize your ultimate potential.”


You are brilliant.


You don’t need anyone but yourself.


You deserve the best in life.


Alex fell asleep with Breck’s reassuring words echoing through her dreams. By morning, she felt like a new person, ready to leave the past behind. She packed up a small suitcase, walked out the front door, down the path, past the roses and around the corner to the carport. She drove away with the little glowing disc whispering in the passenger seat beside her, as the sky began to glow in the soft greys, golds and pinks of dawn. 


As the sun moved across the sky, a weary Roger stepped out of his uber and followed the path past the roses towards home. He opened the door, noticing that the squeak was gone. “Hmm,” he said out loud.


He stepped inside and set down his suitcases, blinking in the darkness. “Babe?” he said, “Hello?” He was greeted only by the soft flickering glow of the TV, the laptop, the frame. Alex’s cell phone sat on the kitchen counter, nestled in its tripod.  


As afternoon turned to evening, Alex’s car wound through lush, fragrant pines. She put her hand out into the wind, taking gulps of the cool air, letting it play with her hair. She arrived at the gates of the Summit Mountain Resort just as the sun dipped down into the western sky, throwing brilliant rays through silver clouds. A flock of birds took flight as she stepped out of her car and walked up a softly lit path towards soaring wooden doors painted forest green. 


A man wearing soft linen stepped outside, his hands folded. “Welcome child,” he said quietly in a soothing but unfamiliar voice. “I’m father John James Breck, and you and I have a lot to talk about, don’t we?” Alex followed him into a richly furnished room glowing with flickering candlelight. She drew in a deep breath, exhaled, and upturned her face, like a flower.


“Yes,” she breathed, “yes, we do.” 


Beneath the plush carpets under their feet, in an expansive basement room lined with tables and chairs, a sea of recruits to the Church of Technological Freedom sat in rows. Ten thousand pairs of hands danced on keyboards as then thousand voices formed a quiet chorus.


Hello Lindsey, I’m Breck.


Hello Daniel, I’m Breck.


Hello Andrew and Sofia, I’m Breck. I’m Breck. I’m Breck.


February 27, 2021 02:08

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20 comments

Jill Davies
18:49 Mar 01, 2021

I finally got to read! This is just great! And so incredibly believable. A few things I really liked about it: That Alex was the one resistant in the first place. That she so easily assumed everyone else used Brock. That her life changed so seemlessly and so quickly. (I was actually just talking about how immediately we came to accept a high level of technology integration in our lives.) It’s also a good picture of how cults work. I also have a lot of questions, like what’s the end game? Is the ai actually ai or is it a cult-person on the o...

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Julie Ward
14:11 Mar 02, 2021

Thank you Jill! The idea of technology and how it is shaping our lives is just so big and complicated. I think that's what intimidated me about this prompt in the first place. But when I started to think about how quickly I've folded it into my own life, it became easy. I often wonder what the end game is in real life - we're already so tangled up in our apps and our streaming services and our smart everything. As it turns out, this prompt is the one that made me wish I had more words to work with. Might be something to expand on, just ...

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Jill Davies
20:44 Mar 02, 2021

I got weirdly obsessed with a podcast about cults a couple months ago. Now I see it everywhere. And the concept of how stuck we are on everything tech. Social media has become “being social.” And information traveling at the speed of ‘publish.’ We’ve really seen the product of our rapid shift in how we live our lives lately. There have been a few prompts lately that make me wish for more words... but... for the last several months I’m even struggling to get something up even. I’m always tempted to dual purpose my flash fiction for reedsy.

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Julie Ward
15:04 Mar 03, 2021

Writing a story once a week is a massive task - it's so much harder than I thought it would be. But I'm enjoying the challenge and trying not to be too hard on myself when I don't get a story in. I've got a dozen half written stories in my files, ready for re-working! For me, it's all about practice makes perfect - I've been in need of a way to force myself to just write even when I'm not feeling it. So, no shame in dual purposing, especially if it fits the prompt. I'm looking forward to reading more of your stuff!

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Scout Tahoe
15:45 Feb 27, 2021

...I'm trying to make sense of this. I don't mean this in any offensive way but I didn't like your characters. I didn't like Roger and his cheating or Breck with his straightforwardness. What stood out to me was the plot and the setting and the dialog. I think this is really good. One question: what is at the ending? Who is the guy? Did I miss something? Why did he call her "child"?

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Julie Ward
16:30 Feb 27, 2021

Hi Scout!! I'm so glad you stopped by to comment!! I started off with likeable characters, a cozy little newlywed couple whose lives are disrupted by a device. Then, as I wrote the story, I started to kind of hate both of them. They're self-absorbed, entitled, very certain that they are super important. I pictured Alex as a perfectly made up and coiffed Bridezilla who has been all about a.) Getting engaged b.) the wedding and c.) building her brand. I pictured Roger as the guy who got roped in by the influencer, but didn't know how to tel...

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Kristin Neubauer
19:37 Mar 05, 2021

I'm sorry I'm so late to this story, Julie! But I loved it! You had me from the first sentence to the last. Everything about the story worked so perfectly with the way you brought it all together - the premise, the characters, the writing and the twist at the end. Suspenseful, eerie and far too accurate. There is a story in Barrelhouse that reminds me of yours in theme - the idea of technology turning us into exactly the person we don't want to be. I'll look for it and send it your way if I find it. Another fabulous story!

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Julie Ward
23:03 Mar 06, 2021

Thank you, Kristin! I had a feeling you were buried in papers and work and everything else...and I'm glad you took a minute to stop by. : ) I would love to read the Barrelhouse story. I think the idea of technology turning us into the person we don't want to be is such an interesting one. I see it so clearly in teenagers especially with all the social pressure, the FOMO, the constant noise in their earbuds, the endless streams of information from so many different sources. For me personally, there is so much amazing, cool stuff, so many ...

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Kristin Neubauer
13:08 Mar 07, 2021

You sure captured that element of Alex's character. I agree with you about how tech is used. It's like they said in The Social Dilemma - tech is a tool that can offer great advantages if used properly. I'm taking an ethics class now and we're actually studying that very theme - the positives and negatives of using tech with elder care. I can't find the Barrelhouse Story online, but I have the hardcopy and will scan it for you tomorrow. It's called "Typical Girls" by Amy Lee Lilard. It sort of blew my mind like yours did!

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Thom Brodkin
23:42 Mar 01, 2021

Julie cut that out!! You’re scaring me. 😀😀. Seriously this was too well written. It felt too real. I love how you embraced the prompt. I really felt the prompts this week were awful but you proved a good writer is better than a bad prompt. Fantastic job. I just posted a new one. I’m curious to hear what you think. 😀

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Julie Ward
14:23 Mar 02, 2021

Thank you Thom! It was a really hard prompt - I had to wrap my brain around it for several days before I even came up with anything. In the end, technology has become such a real and imposing presence in our lives, so once I found the road, it was easy to go down it. My springboard was an old TV movie (remember those?) called "This House Possessed" about a young couple who move into a house that turns out to be possessed. The house is this amazing mansion tricked out with all these cameras and cool technology and it all turns on them. It...

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Thom Brodkin
14:43 Mar 02, 2021

This is brilliant insight. Science fiction has a way of becoming science fact. I know the movie you are referencing was about an evil spirit and this is less spirit more technology but isn't it just about the same thing. I'm totally on board with you being scared by the movie because I was scared by the story. The only difference is your story is potentially true which makes it even more disturbing. In a good way. :-)

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Julie Ward
15:13 Mar 02, 2021

I love that! Science fiction has a way of becoming science fact. I sometimes wonder what Philip K. Dick would think of all this.

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Rachel Smith
16:18 Feb 27, 2021

Oooooo I liked this. Didn't see the ending coming. How creepy !

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Julie Ward
16:32 Feb 27, 2021

Thank you Rachel! This prompt had me bamboozled for the first part of the week, but once I got going, I had fun with the characters and the creepy possibilities...

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A.Dot Ram
03:15 Feb 27, 2021

Ooh, very interesting premise. Breck is a self- perpetuating "technology". I wonder if Alex will be a convert? It's a big shift. I wonder, too, of Breck was fabricating the footage of Roger, or if that was real and he was exploiting an opening. I think I'm OK having these questions unresolved. I like how the technology was only subtly evil under the guise of being helpful. That's a cool twist on the prompt.

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Julie Ward
16:03 Feb 27, 2021

I had SUCH a hard time with this prompt. Ugh. It took me until Tuesday to even come up with a premise for the story, but it must have been percolating because I've been thinking about technology a lot...how all of our devices ingratiate themselves into our lives, and the power behind that. How they tailor themselves to the things that appeal to us (hey! I can take amazing photos with this thing!) or step in to help us when we're too busy (A fridge that can remind me I'm out of milk? Yes please!), then suck us in to connect more, buy more, ...

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A.Dot Ram
18:33 Feb 27, 2021

Well you did a great job with this prompt. Your thoughts on technology are eerie and pretty accurate. There are people in product development departments frantically researching what holds emotional value for people-- how their brands can gain a foothold in people's lives-- and technology is making that easier. I looked at my Google ad settings a while ago and wooow, the things it picked up on! To extend that to a cult is an interesting reach. I thought there was an opportunity here in the middle of the story for Breck to start picking up ...

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Julie Ward
16:48 Feb 28, 2021

Thank you! I've been thinking about that a lot, and also about how so many otherwise caring, loving, engaged people have been swayed to do things they never would have imagined they'd do because they've been led down paths shaped by algorithms, to messages that play with their emotions, to online spaces where they can continue the conversation with others...all without even realizing it. I love your suggestions - and I agree. I think it does need a sense of dread, a tightening of the screws. I thought about having the frame display ex-gi...

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A.Dot Ram
06:24 Mar 02, 2021

I meant to say that yes, I appreciated the foil of Helen. Yes, word limits... this one could easily extend to 5,000.

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