Robyn didn’t know what made her love the idea of a secret room so much, but it was what made her overlook the repairs needed in the kitchen, and the pool she hated and feared by turns. The realtor hadn’t even mentioned the room before they arrived at the house, so she was shocked by it when the door at the back of the master bedroom closet swung open to reveal a chamber currently taken over by the sellers’ daughters’ Harry Potter collection. Welcome to Hogwarts. They’re using this as their cupboard under the stairs, but it might make a nice panic room if you made a few simple upgrades, or a crafting room if you like that sort of thing. The realtor wandered off, leaving Robyn and Jason to marvel at the spacious room: it was large for a secret room, cavernous almost, split leveled, with a raised section and cupboards beneath.
Robyn knew then that they’d buy the house, but it took Jason another few weeks to see the error of his ways. He was surprised that she’d changed her mind so quickly about the suburbs. She’d been dead set against moving outside the loop, but when she saw this house, something just clicked. Her abrupt about-face gave him pause, and he claimed – on more than one occasion – that she was making an irrationally emotional decision. But in the end, she had won, and they’d bought the house in the Energy Corridor with the heavy mustard-colored front door and the avocado green appliances and the secret room.
Robyn closed the door to the refrigerator and chuckled to herself, thinking how grateful Jason must be that she had insisted on that stupid secret room. What will you do with it? Give it to the kids? No. They don’t need a secret room. You don’t need a secret room, Robyn. Maybe I do. Oh please. Are you going to start scrapbooking? Because if you’re going to start scrapboooking, then we might get divorced. I’m not going to start scrapbooking. I just think it’s cool.
She made her way upstairs with the tray of food, pushed into her bedroom and to the back of the closet, then quietly tapped. Shave and a haircut. No reply. No bits. Never any bits. Anyone who included the bits was an enemy, and Jason and Brad knew what to do if they ever heard any bits. Get ready. Get ready for the fight of your life. A slow sliding sound signaled Robyn that the bolt had been undone from the inside, and she could open the door.
How are my boys? We’re fine, hon. How’re things out there. Oh you know. They didn’t. They probably never would know what it was like out there. They had been in the secret room since it began. How had it begun? No one seemed to remember. There was a meme going around that it all started when a guy told a woman to smile one too many times and then… snap. It happened quickly, that was certain. Robyn remembered one morning, driving to work and hearing that men on the New York subway had been attacked. That day went normally enough. Murder and mayhem. All standard fare. But then the next day, it was everywhere. By the time Robyn had arrived at Stratford to pick up Brad, the monitor in the carpool lane – Ms. Feugelsang – had looked over her glasses at Robyn, nodded curtly, and tilted her head ever so slightly toward Brad. Robyn didn’t understand it at as it had happened. If he had done something, why didn’t she just say so? But by the time she got home, she’d already made up her mind and she’d packed Brad and Jason in the secret room with their video games and enough snacks to keep them full for long enough for her to figure things out.
It hadn’t taken long for her to figure out that there was nothing to figure out. The prisons had been emptied, only because they had mostly held men. And when none of the men arrived at work the next day, and the women met to collaboratively decide who should fill which vacancy, Robyn realized that this wasn’t going away, and this wasn’t something she could just ignore.
That second night, she finally got around to watching Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu, laughing while the silence of the house buzzed in her ears. She wondered if the guys could hear her laughing in their secret room. She imagined, momentarily, that they could hear her laughing and she stopped. They’d think she’d lost it. All they knew was that it wasn’t safe to come out. And suddenly she’s laughing. They’d unbolt the door. And then who knows? There hadn’t been any sort of a concerted effort yet to root out any remaining men. No door to door sweeps. It seemed almost unnecessary. They were just gone. Every woman seemed to just sort of take care of her own problem, and there it was. Done. But that didn’t mean they couldn’t start to be more organized about it. And if Jason and Brad thought she’d lost her mind, they would definitely venture out of their safe place to make sure she was okay. And then they would definitely be killed. She bit the pillow for the next two episodes so that she wouldn’t accidentally cackle.
Maybe Brad wouldn’t be killed. He was young. And she’d heard of young ones being taken to prisons to be trained, to be broken. Certainly some of them could be useful, the gays certainly. The docile. Brad wasn’t gay or docile. He was just Brad, born with an opinion on any subject and willing to defend the opinion in the face of all reason. He was like one of those heads on Easter Island, solid and weathered and standing there thousands of years later saying, “Actually…” Yeah, he’d definitely be killed. But perhaps Jason would make it through. He was tender. He was funny. And hell, he was tall and that couldn’t hurt. Right? I mean, if they were looking for positive traits to pass on to the next generation, height had to have some value. There was a murmur on the internet about a movement to salvage a few of the more valuable men for breeding, and maybe Jason would make decent breeding stock. Suddenly, she thought about a nature special she’d watched years ago. Something about a Russian experiment to domesticate the fox, to make the fur trade a little bit easier to manage. The scientists had put foxes in cages and approached the cage to measure the reaction of the fox. When a fox hissed or jumped at the approach of the human, it was eliminated from the experiment. The remaining foxes were bred to one another to produce more docile offspring. Hilariously, once the fox was domesticated, its coat turned ruddy brown. Apparently, the gene for flight was tied directly to the gene for red fur. So while the Russians had managed to make fully docile foxes, they’d also managed to make truly drab, utilitarian fur coats. The experiment was abandoned.
Maybe this experiment would be abandoned eventually, and Robyn could let them out of their secret room. For now, they had to stay where they were, for their own good. Robyn dozed as the autoplay feature froze Elisabeth Moss on screen, mouth open in what could have been a scream or a yawn, depending on your perspective.
The Monday after everything changed, Robyn got up, got showered and dressed, and made her way downstairs without thinking about Jason and Brad at all. She was in the car, driving down the block to work when she first thought of them, and she reversed back into the house at an almost reckless speed. Would anyone have seen her? Would anyone have cared if they had seen her? Certainly it was suspicious behavior, and she immediately came up with a lie to tell if someone ever asked her about what she’d done that morning. It was food poisoning. I just got behind the wheel and, well, when you’ve gotta go you’ve gotta go, and thank god I was still near home. She ran up the stairs. Shave and a haircut. Sliding sound. Open. She threw in some buttered toast. Gotta run. Love you two. Sorry. Bye. And then she was back out the door, on the way to work, on the way to her new job. She was over communications now. She’d always thought that she’d be great at communications – everyone was always saying she had a way with words – and now she’d finally get a chance to prove it. She’d stayed up most of the night before working on press releases detailing the new organizational chart, explaining the qualifications and skills of each of the women in charge of the major areas. Around 3:45am, she’d come up with what she hoped would be a brilliant talking point. She had asked each of the women to give her their Ginger Rogers moment. The moment when they had to do everything Fred Astair did, but backward and in high heels. They’d risen to the task, naturally, and she had a list that brought tears to her own eyes by 5am.
Robyn was making dinner when the doorbell rang, making her jump and drop a handful of green beans on the floor. She scooped them up, rinsed them off in the sink, and shook them to rid them of water before carrying them to the door for dramatic effect. Whoever had come to call needed to know that she was doing something incredibly normal or Jason and Brad might be in danger. It was Mary, from across the street. How are you? I’m good, and you? Well. Yeah. I mean, it’s a big change, but I really think it’s doing some good you know? Yeah, me too. I mean, I don’t want to get too personal. I’m not sure how you did things with Jason and Brad, but with Peter and Gabriel and Matthew it was just so simple. I just, you know. And then it was over. And now Claire and I are just sort of making a plan for what comes next for us. She’s almost done at UT. Most of her professors are gone. I mean, it’s the School of Engineering. So I’m not sure what they thought was going to happen. But they’ve got replacements, and she should be able to finish up on time. She looked at me last night and she cried. You know? She said, “Mom. I was really afriad to be an engineer.” And now she isn’t. This is just so– sorry, were you making dinner? Yeah, sorry, I just needed to get these cooking. Oh of course! No problem. Listen, just let me know if there’s anything you need. We’re all sort of looking out for each other now, right?
The door closed and locked, and Robyn walked back to the kitchen and looked at the dinner she was cooking. It was too big for one person. Seven pork cutlets. A pound of sauteed green beans and tomatoes. Anyone who saw this would know she was cooking for more than one person. Meal prep. She was doing meal prep. It was her new system. Some diet, the Houston Diet, the diet that could help you lose weight and feel young and love your body for you, not for your nagging husband. She finished the dinner and brought it upstairs to Jason and Brad. Shave and a hair cut. Slow slide. And the room opened up before her, dark except for the electric glow of the television. Jason and Brad were sitting there in front of the TV. Smells great, hon. Yeah mom. Of course we’re starving, so hunger is the best sauce, right? Thanks guys. I just put it together. Hope you like it. How are things out there. Not good. You know. We don’t. I know you don’t. But I just… I’m just not… I just don’t think… You’re not ready to hear about it. We are. We are. No. No, you’re not. I’m not trying to keep things. I’m not trying to hide this from you. I’m just. I’m sorry. It’s complex. Is it complex, though? They’re killing men out there, right? That’s it. That’s it. No, that’s not it. Is there more? Are they killing women? No. So that’s it. No, it isn’t. Look, they’re trying to remake the world into something better. She hesitated. And it’s working. Wait, do you approve of this, this insanity? No. Well, no not entirely. Not complet… Yes. I do. I support it. It’s working. Jason looked at Robyn for a long time. And what about us? What happens to us? Do we just rot in here playing Madden? God mom, why do you have to be such a bitch? Robyn set the tray down. She backed out of the room, as tears streamed down her face. They wouldn’t have noticed. The number of times she’d sniffed aggressively and blamed allergies proved that. She closed the door and bolted it from the outside.
Siri, set a timer for three hours. That’s how long it would take for the poison to take effect.