Zoe had survived her thirteen years never having left the house. As her home had no windows, she had a machine that provided the vitamin D benefits of sunlight. She was not unfortunate however. She had a swimming pool, a library, and a fantastic bedroom with every gadget she could possibly ask for.
Sometimes her father Frank would show her photographs of the outside world which she would stare at night after night and ask a thousand questions come morning. She watched a lot of films and television, but always found the characters difficult to relate to. Most of them had friends, and all of them had a life outside their homes. It made her envious and sometimes angry. But her father would remind her that she must be kept inside, that this was the only way to ensure her safety. That if Frank had not boarded the house so securely, she would have been killed by now.
Frank entered the living room on a Sunday afternoon and sat down with his newspaper. He smiled at Zoe, who was reading the first Harry Potter book.
“Surely you have tired of those stories by now?” he said.
Zoe smiled at him sleepily, “If you just read the books you would understand.”
Frank, a tall blonde, speckled forty five year old man had promised to spend more time with his daughter, but often was too busy at his office. As Zoe had no other friends or family to spend time with, she took his absences to heart.
“I heard him again last night,” said Zoe, putting her book down. “He was scratching on my bedroom walls. I could hear his claws climb up to the ceiling. I could hear him breathing. I felt like he was watching me.”
Frank put his glasses down and knelt before Zoe. He held her hand firmly in both of his. “Nothing is going to catch you Zoe,” he said gently. “Perhaps he is trying yes. But you are perfectly safe in this house. Its very important that you stay in here, its absolutely out of the question for you to leave. Do you understand me?”
Zoe smiled. His eyes were sincere. He had never let any harm come to her. She leant towards him and hugged him tightly while he stroked her long red hair. She did trust him, yet she had never felt the creature’s presence as much as she had in the last few weeks.
Later that day, Zoe went to the learning room. The learning room was where she received all her education, which was fed to her through a robotic speaking screen. Today was exploration day, which was her most feared day. She sat in her usual grey chair and Frank came in and strapped wired patches to her head. Her hands were fastened by metal cuffs to the armrests. From films she had seen, she knew this resembled an electric chair. But Frank never harmed her, and if Zoe ever communicated that she was very frightened, he would switch off the machine immediately.
“So just close your eyes when you’re ready Zoe.”
Its ok, Zoe told herself. This isn’t real. She could feel her heart rate raising, but she tried to breathe and told herself she was safe. She closed her eyes and after a moments blackness, saw a range of electric bright colours. “What do you see?”
“I’m in a tunnel. I’m walking forward.”
Frank let her experience this for a moment, before he spoke again. “Is there a fork where you can change directions?”
“Yes,” she replied.
“Go down the path on the right.”
Zoe did so, but she was reluctant. This path was darker, almost too dark to see where she was going. “I smell burning wood,” she said, “Some kind of bonfire….” Zoe visioned herself walking faster. “I can hear it. The panting. The creature is closing in on me…”
Frank turned the machine off. He removed the equipment that was attached to Zoe’s head and freed her hands from the cuffs.
Zoe’s hairline and forehead were damp with sweat. Her fingers were trembling and her eyes were watering.
“It will get easier,” he said, wiping a tear away from her cheek. “You understand that none of that is real. It is just to measure how well you would handle the creature’s presence.”
Zoe held him tightly when he leant in to give her a hug, feeling her tears dampening his shirt shoulders. “Ok Zoe. I have to go to the office. You know what helps, write down everything you remember. Are you going to be alright?”
Zoe let go and wiped her face. “You won’t be late will you?”
“No, I promise.”
She sat down and stared at the wall after Frank had left her. Every time he went to work, Zoe had a little routine of activities she liked to do. She would go swimming, only for a couple of laps, and then float on her back until she got bored of the sight of the blue ceiling. She would read some graphic novel or watch a few episodes of whatever television program she was enjoying at the time. And a few hours before his return, she would do her homework. Today, she had to write a report of what she saw when she was connected to the creature. Sometimes she found it easier to draw what she had seen.
But as her pen touched the page, she felt a strange sensation of air on her shoulder, almost like someone was breathing on her very closely. Zoe spun around. There was nothing there. But the moment she looked down at her paper, the lights turned off. And then on again. Zoe froze. She considered running, but where would she run to? She wasn’t allowed to leave the house as the creature would surely kill her. But what if it were to find its way in? The lights had never done that before and Frank always assured her that the house was secure. But what if he was wrong? Perhaps there was something he missed.
“Frank?” she knew it was unlikely, he wasn’t due in from work for a few hours and he never came home early. But if it was him who was messing with the light switch, there would be nothing to worry about. “Was that you Frank?” she said weakly.
Zoe picked up her old baseball bat from childhood that she never used, and held it tightly in her hands, and crept very slowly and quietly out of the learning room.
The hall, which had a marble white floor with a crimson rug and an impressive chandelier looked the same. The only sound was coming from Frank’s grandfather clock near the entrance. Zoe had never been further than the clock which was only inches from the door. The door was large and black. Zoe had occasionally seen glimpses of the outside world when Frank came in from work. But Zoe was so curious about this that Frank stopped allowing her to wait by the door, and as a result she hadn’t seen the outside world for years. But she could still remember the miracle that was the pale blue sky. The wonder at the delicacy of a tree branch in winter.