In today's story, Vacation Mode, Hal is fascinated by his neighbors' smart home
Today's prompt was based on my state of mind, since the story was written right before I left for a beach vacation! I'm home now and very glad I had a chance to spend a week with an ocean view and the sound of waves lulling me to sleep each night.
As always, the story was written from the prompt, with no planning and very little editing. If you enjoy today's story, please share it with your friends and leave a review for Freely Written. Thank you!
More about Susan Quilty
Susan Quilty mainly writes novels, including two standalone novels and her current YA series: The Psychic Traveler Society. Susan's short stories for Freely Written are created during quick writing breaks and shared as a way to practice her narration skills before she dives into recording audio versions of her novels.
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Below is the transcript for Season 1, Episode 98 of Freely Written, a podcast by author Susan Quilty:
Welcome to Freely Written where a simple prompt leads to a little unplanned fiction.
[Light piano music]
Hi, friends! I’m Susan Quilty and today’s prompt is Vacation Mode.
While I will be home by the time this episode airs, I wrote the story the day before leaving for a beach getaway. I was a little reluctant to sit down and write, feeling like I was already in vacation mode, hence the prompt.
The day before a vacation is always a little weird for me. There’s so much anticipation while packing and checking over plans. My mind is already on the road, but I still have to go about my normal routine for the rest of the day. Maybe that’s why I tend to be a last-minute packer and often throw clothes in a bag right before leaving.
Anyway, my wandering mind is clearly in vacation mode, making for an interesting writing session. Or maybe that’s a good thing for freewriting.
As always, this story was written with my usual Freely Written process, which is to sit down with the prompt and write whatever comes to mind, with no planning and very little editing. Then record the story and share it with you.
On to the story:
“I’m telling you, Hal, Mike and Gina are not home!”
Penny crossed her arms and glared at her husband. They’d been having this ridiculous argument for five minutes and her patience had long left the conversation.
“I saw two different lights go on last night,” Hal insisted. “One in their living room and one in their bedroom. Different lights than the night before. And I saw their TV was on when I took Charlie for a walk.”
“You’re looking in their windows?” Penny scowled, raising an eyebrow.
“Well, I didn’t look in on purpose,” Hal clarified. “You just can’t help but notice the TV when you’re walking by. Or, well, the flicker from it on the opposite wall. You know, in the front room?”
“Let me get this straight,” Penny said with heavy sarcasm. “You think our friends lied to us about being out of town so they wouldn’t have to come to your retirement party. And they’re now hiding out in their house, hoping you don’t notice their lights and TV going on and off. Do you think they’re watching out for you and ducking behind the curtains, too?”
“Well, no.” Hal shrugged. “Not ducking behind curtains.”
Penny took a bag of spinach and a box of cherry tomatoes out of the refrigerator, set them on the counter and continued rummaging for salad ingredients.
“The house is on vacation mode,” she said, her voice muffled as she reached for some cucumbers at the back of the crisper drawer.
“The house is on what?” Hal took two big salad bowls out of the cabinet.
“Vacation mode,” Penny said, bringing the rest of their lunch to the counter. “They have one of those smart house tech things. Gina told me all about it. Set in on vacation mode and it randomly turns on lights and the TV to make it look like people are home.”
“Oh.” Hal took out a cutting board and started slicing cucumbers.
“Our friends are not avoiding your retirement party,” Penny added more gently. “They’re happy for you and would be here if they could. They said they’ll take us to dinner when they get back, right?”
“Yeah,” Hal agreed grudgingly. “I just don’t know if we should even be having this party. I mean, it’s kind of…” He trailed off and Penny frowned, this time with worry.
She filled each bowl with spinach, then drained a can of black olives. Hal had dreamed of retirement for years, but now that it was here, he slipped in and out of dark moods. Penny had suggested plans for his retirement—travel, gardening, painting—but nothing had captured his interest.
They continued to layer ingredients into their salad bowls. Then, Hal fetched the olive oil from the counter by the stove, while Penny pulled the balsamic vinegar from the pantry. After dressing the salads, Hal brought them to the small kitchen table.
“Vacation mode,” he mused, spearing a tomato with his fork. “That’s pretty handy, I guess.”
“I guess,” Penny agreed. She sprinkled pepper on her salad, then offered the shaker to Hal.
“I don’t know about all the high-tech stuff though,” Hal went on uneasily. “It seems like a lot of extra stuff to keep up with when we already have things like those plug in light timers.”
“Yep,” Penny agreed half-heartedly. She was still wondering what their days would be like after Hal’s last day at work. Would Hal sit around the house all day, repeating his shopworn complaints about technology and unleashed neighborhood dogs while she tried to work from her own at-home office?
“Can you imagine what those smart house things will be like in another decade or so?” Hal laughed to himself, sifting through his salad for another bite of cucumber.
“I haven’t thought about it,” Penny told him mindlessly.
“Think about it now,” Hal suggested with a light in his eyes. “We already have robot vacuums and robot cat litter boxes. What if we have a whole army of house robots by then? And what do they do when a house is on vacation mode?”
“I don’t know. Shut off?” Penny guessed. “Or maybe keep going so you come home to a clean house.”
“Or what if they switch to security mode?” Hal put down his fork as his whole face lit up. “Think about it, Pen, you go on vacation mode and have a bunch of house robots that turn into a security force. They make it look like you’re home, but if anyone does try to break in, they go all ninja robocop on them!”
“So, what? The robots kill anyone who breaks in?” Penny shook her head. “That could go very wrong.”
“No, not kill them but maybe detain them. Lock all the outside doors and call the police.” Hal thought it over while Penny calmly ate her salad.
After a brief pause, he chuckled and said, “And what if the owners messed up and didn’t get out of their house before vacation mode kicked on? Can you imagine?”
Hal leaned back in his chair and ran his hands through his thinning hair. He grinned like a young boy and laughed again, clearly picturing the whole scenario play out.
“The robots would lock the house down, to protect it, right?” He said quickly, trying to share his vision with Penny. “And the owners have like a special password they’re supposed to say to disarm them, but the system is new, and they forgot the password. So, the robots chase them around the house to keep them from leaving while they call the police.”
“Wouldn’t the police just come and disarm it?” Penny asked, but Hal rapidly shook his head.
“No, see the police are decentralized by then and automated, too. So, the robots are sort of like deputies meant to keep the peace until the few remaining police officers can get there.”
He was warming up to the idea, his lunch forgotten.
“Okay,” Penny responded slowly. “So, couldn’t the owners call for help from the security company or something? I would guess people will still have phones.”
“Maybe there are lasers,” Hal suggested, his eyes shifting from side to side as he imagined the possibilities. “You know, like those red or green lasers that come on in bank heist movies? They come on in vacation mode and zap anyone who crosses, so the owners can’t get to their phones that are across the room.
“Or wait!” Hal interrupted himself as Penny continued eating. “Phones would probably be embedded in people’s bodies by then. So maybe instead, the house has some kind of shield to block outgoing calls when it’s in vacation mode. To keep the robbers from calling anyone.”
“Hmm, maybe,” Penny said mildly, cocking her head to one side. She hadn’t seen Hal so animated in a long time.
“I don’t have it all worked out yet,” Hal said, picking up his fork and stabbing several layers of spinach and sliced vegetables. “But the story practically writes itself.”
Penny placed her napkin on the table and walked over to the computer that sat on a built-in desk at one side of the kitchen.
“What are you doing?” Hal asked, seeing that her salad was only half-finished.
“Looking up creative writing classes,” Penny told him with a smile. “I think we just found something for you to do in retirement.”
“Writing, huh?” Hal rubbed his chin and imagined going to the premiere of Vacation Mode, his blockbuster movie.
For the first time in weeks, he was back to feeling excited about retirement.
Thanks for taking this story break with me. If you enjoyed it, please share this episode and others with your friends. You can also leave a review for Freely Written wherever you listen to podcasts and connect with me on social media or through my website: SusanQuilty.com Links are in the show notes.
Until next time, try a little free writing of your own. Let go of any planning and see where your imagination takes you.
[Light piano music]