Contest #235 shortlist ⭐️


Speculative Contemporary Fiction

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

My parole officer said I’d hardly notice the system. Once I grew accustomed to the minor physical intrusions—the dual ankle monitors, the belt with no buckle, and the generic smart watch—it would be smooth sailing for the next month. My only task was to stay on the straight and narrow. She never said what was considered “antisocial behavior,” or clarified what form the “nudges” would take.

The judge had said something about “diversion” when he imposed the system, but I couldn't bear listening to his full justification. My ears buzzed. Fury simmered up and sizzled my skin. In the other trial, Ricky's trial, the judge wouldn’t even let the prosecutor call me the victim. I was merely a “witness,” a ghost who watched from a safe distance and took corporeal form in the dramatis personae of the courthouse. In my trial, my lawyer argued about self-defense. An expert rambled on about “battered woman syndrome,” like I had a fatal disease. Ultimately, a jury of my peers decided that not only was I not a victim, I was also guilty. Never mind that I sat at the defendant's table with yellowing bruises around my eyes and a fat scab on my lip. My guilt was foreordained, from the moment the police arrived at the house and told me I had the right to remain silent. It made no difference that so much blood had pooled in my mouth that I couldn't have spoken if I tried.

As it turned out, the “nudges” were neither subtle nor infrequent. During my second night back at home, a rumbling about my midsection roused me from fitful sleep. At first, I thought maybe I had lost a vibrator long ago in the sheets. I fumbled around my state-issued belt for some off switch, even though I knew there would be none. In vain, I thought I might shimmy the belt over my hips and off. A sudden jolt stung my abdomen, like a concentrated period cramp. Clutching my gut, I waited for it to strike again.

The watch beeped. On its face, an angry red exclamation mark and text glowed against a white background.


“I was sleeping,” I hissed. They couldn't seriously punish me for doing nothing.

In the morning, I called my parole officer. She picked up on the fifth ring.

“Vanessa? Didn’t expect to hear from you so soon.”

“Hi, Cheryl, I think something might be wrong with the devices. Maybe I need a replacement?”

“How so?”

“Last night, the belt—it shocked me. And the watch said something about insufficient activity.”

“Oh yeah, that happens sometimes.” I could sense her itching to hang up.

“But I was just sleeping. What’s wrong with that?”

“Look, it’s the system’s way of making sure you haven’t gotten the devices off. If it doesn't sense movement for a while, it sends a nudge.”

“But there’s no way I could take them off.”

“Yeah.” Don't go trying, Cheryl's tone implied.

“There's no way to turn off these nudges?”

“Have a nice day, Vanessa.” She hung up, leaving me stewing.

During my first week back home, I only stepped outside to check the mail and pick up the groceries I had delivered. An itch to test out the system, to seek reassurance of my autonomy, pestered me. The judge had promised I was not under house arrest. The system, with its nettlesome nudges, would determine the precise bounds of where I could roam. I needed confirmation that I was not a true prisoner. Ricky sat in a cell. Maybe he had to walk around with handcuffs or shackles on his ankles. I could sleep in my own bed. I could walk out the door.

With no particular destination, I ventured out of my house, where I was assuredly not under arrest. Decked out in large sunglasses and a baseball cap, I imagined I was a celebrity ducking the paparazzi, and not a battered woman recovering from the side effects of her curious syndrome. For about fifteen minutes, I walked without any beeps, vibrations, or shocks.

The first nudge came when I approached a convenience store. My ankle bracelets seemed to double in weight. Under the new burden, my stride shrank. I checked my watch, but there was no warning message. The store's windows revealed more hints as to why the system was fighting against my movement. From the lottery posters and neon beer logos, to the “We Accept EBT” sticker, it seemed the state had deemed this store a little den of sin. I wondered what would happen if I could step closer to the store. Without warning, my right ankle snapped to the side of the left, as if two thick magnets had rushed to latch onto each other. The sudden yank left me windmilling my arms to catch my balance. Once steadied, I bent over and tugged at the ankle monitors. They would not disconnect. I dropped down to sit on the sidewalk, then scooted backwards on my hands and butt like an unbalanced crab. After scuttling a few feet away, the ankle monitors stopped clinging to each other, and I could stand again. Not keen on setting off another surprise lockdown, I traced my path back home.

Over time, I noted the cross-streets of problem locations and learned routes I could stroll without the nuisance of the system. But one day, during a walk along one such state-approved path, my watch and belt rumbled. The ankle bracelets sank with newfound weight. I glanced around, worried I'd made an absentminded deviation. I recognized the fake tombstones on the lawn of the house that had put out Halloween decorations early. Nothing in the vicinity should have triggered a nudge. Chalking it up to a technical error, I kept walking, but the vibrations persisted. My steps slowed to a slog, and the watch beeped.


Stay 250 FT away from victim

On instinct, my head snapped up to search my surroundings. He couldn't be here, I told myself. It had to be a mistake. There was still over a month of his sentence left. I waited, watching for curtains to rustle or a door to open. Nothing. He's not here, I reassured myself as I inched back. Eyes darting side to side, I repeated the facts. He is in prison. He does not live on this street. He is not a victim.

I crept backwards, afraid that any sudden movement would call Ricky out of the shadows. Even after I was locked away at home, my hands trembled while I dialed Cheryl.

“I was just about to call you,” she began before I could speak, “It seems you might have forgotten the terms of the protective order.”

“Is Ricky out already?” I demanded.

“I'm not permitted to disclose any information about the victim.” Cheryl paused before asking, “Were you looking for him?”

“The last thing I want is to see him. I just want to know if he's been released early.”

“Again, I can't tell you any details about the victim.”

“But he's not the victim! He's the one who went to prison!”

“It's too late for all that,” she sighed. “All you have to do is comply with this order. It's not that hard.”

“He beat me,” I cried.

“The only person who can influence whether the nudges appear is you, Vanessa.”

I hung up without a word and stormed over to my laptop. I found my way to the inmate search on the state prison website and put in Ricky's name. There were no results. The website noted several reasons for the dead end: The inmate may be in another state prison. The inmate may be registered under a different name. The inmate's sentence may be completed.

I ordered a doorbell camera. I installed extra locks. I kept the curtains drawn and taped cardboard over the glass panes in the doors. The security measures also protected me from myself. More than once before, I'd been foolish and cowed enough to let him back in. Remember what made you set us up in the first place, the locks told me. Hold the line. I no longer went for walks. I hunkered down and spent slow days with my ears perked up, alert for danger. At night, I fell into restless sleep with the doorbell camera feed open on my phone.

Following one of these late-night vigils, only an hour after I slipped into forgiving unconsciousness, the system nudged me. My wrist and waist vibrated, and I flopped around in response. Most likely, it was the “inactivity” nudge I'd grown used to. But even after confirming that I remained locked into the system, the nudge did not subside. I blinked at the white light of the watch.


Stay 250 FT away from victim

I shot up, then ripped away the covers in search of my phone. The doorbell view was at the ready, but the screen was black. Of all the times for it to break, I thought with a groan. Heavy breathing wafted from the speaker. Someone was there. He had covered the camera, but he was there.

I swung my legs off the bed. The ankle monitors tugged me to the ground with their heft. I said a silent prayer to the system; please, for once, don't fuck me over. I tried to tiptoe despite my virtual fetters. A few steps elicited creaks from the old wood floors. The devices rumbled on at discordant speeds.

“I know you're there,” Ricky whispered. I couldn't discern whether I was hearing him through my phone's speaker, or simply the walls of the cramped ranch. I dropped to my hands and knees and crawled toward the bathroom door. A slow, polite knock sounded. I paused in wait, and I knew he was doing the same outside. A quick tap-tap-tap followed.

“Vanessa, babe, are you home?” Ricky crooned. I crawled on, head down, even though my limbs shook with the force of the system.

“Vanessa, are you going to open the door for me?” I was nearly at the threshold to the bathroom when the system zapped me. I yelped, more in surprise than pain.

“What are you waiting for? Open up!” He hammered persistently, and I counted each thud. I hoisted myself up and clung, shaking, to the wall. He stopped after 33 blows. In the quiet, I slipped my phone out of my pocket and opened the doorbell feed. In his flareup of rage, he had uncovered the lens.

“Baby, please,” he whined, “let me in.” He sounded contrite, but the grainy camera revealed no hint of distress. While he pleaded, he was stone-faced. A chill of revulsion rippled down my spine, stronger than the buzzing system strapped to me. I needed a way out.

I shuffled into the hall. Only one door separated us now. I felt naked. Ricky resumed knocking. The thuds reverberated through my body, striking a match of anxiety with each blow. Still, I had cover for the sound of my movement. If I wanted to run, I had to do it now.

I pushed off my left foot and struggled to swing my right foot forward. It slammed down as if iron-laden. Fighting the resistance, I dragged my left foot ahead. The floorboards must have melted into quicksand. I swam through solid air. Suddenly, a shockwave stronger than any I'd experienced before sailed through me. I toppled forward while my feet remained cemented in the same spot. The impact knocked the wind out of me. In reply to the thump of my body against ground, Ricky slammed on the door. I writhed and gaped like a dying fish.

“What the fuck are you doing? Open the goddamn door.”

Inches from my head, the watch beeped. PROTECTIVE ORDER, it proclaimed. I swatted its nagging face. A new alert appeared: FLIGHT RISK.

With a deep gasp for air, I started to army crawl. Some magnetic force kept my ankles locked together. For a fleeting moment, I fancied myself a mermaid wriggling away from a pirate, back to the embrace of the sea. Bang. I gained a foot. Bang. Another shock stilled me, and I curled into a ball. Bang. My watch trilled.

“Vanessa?” A tinny voice reached my ringing ears. A woman's voice.


“I've been notified of a protective order violation and a subsequent flight risk alert,” Cheryl stated, like she was reading off a script.

“Ricky,” I choked out, still struggling to catch my breath. “He's here.”

“Why are you near the victim?”

“He's trying to break in.” Bang. Bang. Bang. Surely she could hear him pounding at the door.

“Why are you attempting to flee?”

“He'll kill me,” I moaned hoarsely.

“The police will be there soon.” As if her words reached Ricky, silence fell on his side of the door. I bit my cheek and grunted as another shock hit me, but I struggled onward.

“Stay where you are,” Cheryl ordered.

I fixed my gaze on the back door. The copper tang filtering into my mouth was an afterthought. I just needed to clear the kitchen. It couldn't be more than one or two lengths of my body. I put one elbow before the other and rocked my hips. I hefted the mass below my knees. Yet again, a bolt of electricity shook me out of form.

I shrieked in exasperation at the watch, “Stop doing that to me!”

“You're only doing it to yourself. Nothing would happen if you just stayed put,” Cheryl snapped.

Panting, I heaved forward. The exit was almost within arm's reach. As I reached for the doorknob, the watch glinted mockingly. FLIGHT RISK. PROTECTIVE ORDER. Stay away. Stay put. He's the victim. You're guilty.

The knob rattled before I could touch it. I caught my breath. It shook again. There was a soft scraping sound. Ricky was trying to pick the lock. I was so fixated on his efforts, the erratic clicks and fumbles, that the next shock caught me off guard. Reflex caused my hand to smack the floor. The doorknob stilled.

“Vanessa,” he said tightly, only inches away, “Are you going to open this door?”

“No,” I retorted through gritted teeth.

“You fucking bitch.” He punctuated his shout with a sharp thwack on the door. I heard him stomping, and I skittered back as far as I could manage. His thundering footfall warned of the impending impact.

The door shuddered under his weight when he slammed into it. He wound up again, and upon the second hit, I heard glass crunch between his body and the cardboard I'd taped up. He crashed in again, and again, grunting and heaving. I saw the first crack and screamed. The wood splintered. He roared as he started kicking in the door.

“Help me!” I shouted into the watch.

“Police are almost there. How can they get in?”

“Back door!"

Ricky snaked a hand through the gap in the door. He fingered the lock from the inside. It gave, and he pushed. The chain lock above held, but he quickly sorted out the extra barrier. He slammed open the mangled door.

“Tell them to hurry.” I started blubbering pleas, to Cheryl, to the system, to Ricky, so inconsolable I was past words.

“You don't have to make everything so difficult, you know,” Ricky snarled as he marched over, his left sleeve ripped and bloodied. He lunged and tackled me. My chin bounced off the ground just before he yanked my head back by a fistful of hair. Outside, sirens drew near. Ricky slapped a wide hand around my neck.

“Why'd you have to fuck everything up?” Spittle hit my ear as he spoke. He squeezed my throat tighter. “Were you trying to ruin my life?” He jerked my hair. “Is that what you wanted?” Tears pricked my eyes. I listened for doors slamming in the driveway. “Answer me.”

I could only let out a rattling moan. He clenched my neck. My throat burned and throbbed, but I managed to choke out, “No.” My opposition seemed to stun him for a moment, before he dug into my throat with renewed vigor. Stars dotted my eyes, and a faint hiss from my throat tapered off into silence. I gave up my resistance when footfalls on the back porch reached my ears. I hated that I gave up early.

Ricky's hands released their grasp; his weight lifted off me. I coughed and blinked furiously as rough hands hoisted me up to standing. The system had stopped rumbling, but my ankles were still stuck. Someone held my arms behind my back.

Ricky stood across the room. Looking only mildly perturbed, he gestured toward me while he murmured to a cop. As my head cleared and I gulped down air, I saw he was not handcuffed.

“He attacked me,” I said, shaky and hoarse. “He was choking me.”

Another officer stared at me with practiced indifference, then nodded at the person behind me. Cool metal encircled my wrists.

“Ma'am, you are under arrest for violating a protective order and breaching the terms of your parole.”

“Please, you have to believe me. He was going to kill me,” I called out, fighting against my breaking voice. “Look at the door! He broke in!”

Under the din I created, a cop droned on. You have the right to remain silent.

“I didn't do anything,” I shrieked.

Anything you say can and will be used against you.

Ricky let a small smirk slip through his mask of concern. The police tugged me along.

I was a flight risk. I never could be trusted with the privilege to come and go as I pleased. Trying to run had always been my downfall. 

January 31, 2024 22:07

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Story Time
06:16 Feb 14, 2024

I thought the story was provocative and thrilling. It had a real urgency to it that's so hard to sustain and yet you did it tremendously.


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Myranda Marie
18:39 Feb 10, 2024

Well done! Congrats!


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Kathryn Kahn
16:37 Feb 10, 2024

Congratulations on being shortlisted!


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Alexis Araneta
14:53 Feb 10, 2024

Welcome to Reedsy and congratulations on the shortlist. I love how gripping the story is. Amazing job.


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Philip Ebuluofor
08:19 Feb 10, 2024

They are like that everywhere. Once on special duty, they work backward. Congrats.


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Mary Bendickson
18:21 Feb 09, 2024

Captivating. Congrats on the shortlist. How could they put the blame on her?


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Trudy Jas
17:18 Feb 09, 2024

Congratulations! It's a gripping story.


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