This story is by Jo Winwood and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I believe the fridge started the whole mess. Although it’s just as likely to be the oven. Living in a home run by AI was so easy at first. I set the parameters and the appliances did their stuff quietly in the background. The thermostat switched the heating on thirty minutes before I came home in the evening, even remembering to adjust the temperature according to local forecasts. When the seasons changed they turned the heating off and switched the air conditioning on. So efficient, better than when I lived at home and Dad had to be nagged to service the boiler or air conditioner each season. The oven warmed my evening meal, the cleaner swept and dusted the rooms, the lights cycled on and off at random as a security measure. All seamless and effortless.
The fridge monitored the food, checked what was on offer and in season at the market and ordered when I ran short. Each week I gave it a meal plan for the next seven days and everything was waiting for me when I was ready to prepare my meals. All beautiful and simple, no drama at all.
Until Debbie came into my life.
I met Debbie on the underground between Victoria and Sloane Square. I say ’met her’; she rammed her wheeled suitcase into the back of my leg, pitching me forward into the lap of a large angry Albanian. She apologised so sweetly to both of us that he gave up his seat for her—despite ignoring the pregnant woman who looked daggers at him all the way from Mansion House. I swayed next to her as she chatted about the holiday she’d just been on, the delay getting her case at the airport, how far she had to drag it at the other end as she’d spent her taxi fare on a glossy magazine. By the time she paused for breath and we reached Ladbroke Grove I was falling for her and volunteered to escort her and her heavy suitcase all the way to her flat.
Things moved pretty fast for me after that evening. I quickly found I needed to see her every day, missed her chatter when we were apart and six wonderful months later we got married. I began the process of making my home into our home. I linked her mobile devices to the network and showed her how she could use the AI appliances to run the household. She was a reluctant student, preferring her own way of doing things and worried about what being so connected might mean. I pointed out that we’d never run out of milk with my system and I confess that I laughed when she said she liked running out of milk because then she could chat to Hitesh.
‘Who’s Hitesh? We don’t know anyone called Hitesh, do we?’
‘Oh Mason. Hitesh runs the corner shop. His family’s from West Bengal but he was born in Fulham. He’s a season ticket holder at Craven Cottage, we chat about Bollywood movies and he tells me all about cricket.’
I smiled as she chatted away about popping to the corner shop and other errands she ran which wouldn’t be necessary if the network did everything for her. I could see that she was anxious but sadly I didn’t take her concerns seriously. I thought she was just being ‘girly’ about technology.
The day before our honeymoon I added her brother Malachi to the network as an emergency contact, setting the network to ‘holiday’ which would pause deliveries and put the system to sleep for a week. We arrived at our hotel late at night, switched our phones from airplane mode and there were several panicked messages from Malachi about ‘the bloody house’. Debbie called him back and he answered immediately.
‘Malachi, calm down. Take some deep breaths, let me put Mason on.’
She held out the phone, her hand shaking. I rolled my eyes and took the phone.
‘Mal, what’s up?’
An avalanche of words poured out and all I could make out was that he thought the house was stalking him.
‘Mal, calm down. It’s only a house, it can’t stalk you.’
‘It’s been sending me messages about all sorts of stuff. Wanting authentication for everything, lights, heat, shopping, downloading! It’s driving me nuts, Mason. Take me off the network, I can’t deal with it all.’
I rolled my eyes at Debbie and grinned. I’d already decided that they were both Luddites and would need educating on the benefits and joys of AI.
‘OK Mal, I’ll do a reboot and that should fix it. But trust me, the house isn’t stalking you. It doesn’t even know that you exist except as a random set of digits.’
I rebooted the system, Malachi sent Debbie a thumbs up emoji and we started to enjoy our honeymoon. Debbie insisted on texting Malachi each morning to check on the house but there were no more problems… or perceived problems. I thought that the issue was likely to be Malachi rather than the network but then I’d known the network longer than my new brother-in-law.
We returned from our honeymoon refreshed and tanned. Being married to Debbie had been blissful so far but I suspected that the grim reality of everyday life would rub some of the shine off things. And boy, was I right. Almost from the start Debbie hated everything about the AI in the house. She refused to engage with any of it and, in my opinion, tried to sabotage it at every turn. She’d go out shopping without consulting the network and we’d end up with multiples of things like strawberries and lettuce, things that perish quickly. I tried talking to her about the efficiency of the AI system but she only saw problems.
‘I don’t see how a computer can know what I want to eat on Tuesday or if I’ll suddenly decide to do laundry on a Friday rather than a Monday. It’s like the damn thing wants to be your wife. If you ever get a sex-bot I’ll be totally redundant!’
At this point she burst into tears, locked herself in the bathroom and I whispered to the network to unlock the bathroom door. I pulled the door open and saw her sitting on the side of the bath, hands over her eyes while the bath slowly filled with water and the dispenser poured bath oil into the tub.
‘I don’t want a sodding bath but the computer thinks I should have one!’ she wailed.
I turned, walked out and logged into the system. I deleted the bath app and stared at the blinking cursor. How was I to make the network happy as well as my wife? I loved the AI and how it made my life so simple. But Debbie hated it. And by default I felt she hated me for making her live with it.
A week later I left on a work trip. Debbie refused to talk about the AI system and shut down completely if I mentioned it. She accused me of being selfish, I called her an ignoramus which made her cry again, once the network told her what it meant. As I got ready for my trip away she leaned on the door frame, watching as I altered the parameters on the network to account for only one person living in the house.
‘I’m sorry, Debbie, so sorry you feel left out. I hope that living with the AI while I’m away will show you how much it can enrich our lives. It’s all programmed, no need for you to do anything. I’ll see you in a few days.’
She turned her cheek for my goodbye kiss but there was no warmth. I left with a heavy heart.
Each day the house sent me a message: ‘the food in the fridge is at its expiry date, should it be re-ordered?’, ‘the hot water hadn’t been used for two days, should the boiler be turned off?’. I sent Debbie a text: ‘Everything OK? AI and me are worried.’ I put a heart after the message so she’d know I was joking about the AI. There was no answer. I cancelled the remaining meetings and booked an earlier train home.
When I opened the door everything seemed normal but I knew. I heard the kettle click on and the fridge hummed quietly. In the kitchen the fridge’s display was illuminated.
‘Welcome home, Mason. Your wife has left the spare keys on the bedside table. She hopes your AI makes you happy.’
The house had returned to its bachelor state, a meal for one revolved in the microwave and I was alone.