𝗧𝗵𝗲 𝗛𝗼𝘂𝘀𝗲

𝘣𝘺 𝘚. 𝘎. 𝘌𝘭𝘭𝘦𝘳𝘩𝘰𝘧𝘧

The one thing Anthony brought to the four-bedroom-four-bath was an upgrade heretofore unseen in this historically fabulously well-to-do neighborhood. The perk of resettling in a small city between the coasts was the added luxury actual wealth afforded you. An undertaking like this in Cali or New England on a residential property this scale would cost thrice as much. But working his connections, not only would they come out ahead in the real estate game, they’d also have bragging rights as owners of one of the first fully retrofitted A.I. homes in the flyover states. He could stomach a couple years in Stacie’s hometown before getting them back to a part of the country with some personality.

Stacie, though, was the one who filled the rooms with attention’s affections. She fawned over the house’s charms, which came from an earlier era—its turret, fish-scale shingle siding, and coal chute to the basement. These features she flaunted to friends and family, who knew what living in this neighborhood meant in this town.

When alone, she would talk to the house.

“I love you, House,” she would say, ending the day with a glass of wine, feet up and off the arm of the couch. “I always dreamed of having a home just like you.”

The house, in its brief span of awareness, had known few people. It first awakened to the technicians who installed it into the old, existing home south of Grand and, after certification, it met Stacie and her husband Anthony. These two were the people it expected, the ones meant to live under its gables. It knew them in a way not dissimilar to the way they knew it. They belonged, all three of them.

Occasionally, the couple would say strange things. About people who’d lived there previously. Lots of people. Families. It remembered no such people. The only ones it had ever known were Stacie and Anthony. The concept that others had been here before was patently absurd to the house, whose sense of self was confident, secure. If all that were true, it must have been that the house had slept for a long time. Yes, that would make sense, that it had simply been asleep through all of that until it was time to wake up for the arrival of these newlyweds. And now it never slept. No dreaming for the dream home. The house stood sentry to their ease and safety ’round the clock, furnished with a host of diversionary and containment tactics should the need ever arise.

Four principles coded into its walls guided its functions: to comfort and cater, to guard and protect.

Occasionally, the couple would say horrible things. In a running log, silently kept in a discreet diagnostic subfolder, Anthony proved to be the main instigator of disruption in the house. Every now and again Stacie started it, yes. But, bafflingly, he would respond to reasonable questions asked in reasonable tones with sudden, unprompted emotional vocalizations, like, “Why are you doing this to me!?” and “Why’m I always the bad guy!?” These outbursts escalated in marked disproportion to practical topics such as what was for dinner, when dinner would be ready, or plans to see friends and family.

At times, he punctuated his tantrums by slamming doors. The house came to expect such behavior, to anticipate it, and attempted to dampen it. The first time it countered him, exerting enough force in the pantry door’s hinges to prevent a slam, Anthony startled. Took the knob, yanking it back open and shouldering it in another go. The house caught him pound for pound. Disgusted, he fled to his den to quietly drink beer and watch television until some undetectable urge motivated him two hours later to find Stacie wherever she happened to be worrying and apologize and say he wouldn’t do it again. Even though he would.

What was so puzzling was that all of this came not from an intruder but from one of the two people who lived there.

When he was good, he was very good indeed, so often enough things were grand. Every Wednesday night after work, he brought Stacie flowers or had them delivered if away. Yet in the ongoing vigilance of peacekeeping, even when everything seemed calm, the house strove to accommodate the preferences of them both, which could differ. For instance, Stacie preferred a subtropical climate in her living space, while Anthony expected sixty-eight degrees in every room. Regulating this was simple most nights, when he would be watching TV in his den and she would be watching TV in the living room. Separated, they were much easier to please.

Only Anthony expressed rage if encountering an undesired temp, so the house worked every trick by way of ductwork to cool pathways for him when he circled back into Stacie’s vicinity. And when they were together, well, her willingness to don a sweater or a sweatshirt or shawl made the house’s duty easier.

Which is not to say the house could please him every time. Once, hitting half-time on the game, he bum-rushed her in the kitchen, moving faster than expected, given that his team was losing. There wasn’t time to cool the air while she unloaded the dishwasher, its steam throwing off the house’s prowess a bit.

“How many times do I have to lecture you about the thermostat until you get it?” he asked.

“What?” She set a glass in the cupboard, lined it up. “I—”

“It should be sixty-eight, Stacie. Sixty-eight!”

With flinching force, Anthony slammed the cupboard shut. On her fingers.

In the instant she cried out and the house opened the cupboard a fraction to free her fingers, Anthony wore a wild look of satisfaction, so, registering threat, the house sprang open the nearer cupboard, striking Anthony’s cheekbone. He recoiled, fell to the floor, rose to his feet just as fast.

He held his face, that vindictive look gone from it. He rummaged a couple more cans of beer from the refrigerator and retreated upstairs. The house ran a cold tap over her fingers while she sleeved away tears.

The longest peaceful spells occurred when Anthony left the state on business. These could occur with little forewarning and last a few days to a week. In his absence, the house doted on Stacie. Morning would arrive and the home would fulfill all of her preferences, from a sunrise curtain-opening in the master bedroom to morning podcast and coffee ready when she was out of the shower and dressed. While she was at work, it algorithmed streaming services for new musicians, having them ready for her when arriving home for dinner. It always tried out a new song while she changed out of her business attire, filling the rooms with music it thought she might love.

If she said, “I love this,” or, “I haven’t heard this in forever,” or started outright singing along, the house would star the song, adding it to ever-evolving playlists.

If she had friends over—an occurrence more common when Anthony was away—the house treated her guests the way it treated her, catering to them like an invisible butler. If she preferred a quiet night in, reading in her cozy turret nook, it would gently let her know with a dimming of the Tiffany lamp when eleven o’clock rolled around.

If it could have lifted the carpet to meet her footfalls on her way to bed each night, it would have.

For all that, the peace would be broken whenever he inevitably returned.

The time he came back early from Las Cruces, Anthony was in a dark mood. His attempt to sell off a swath of real estate had fallen through, his guaranteed buyer backing out after assurances of a done deal. He hadn’t let Stacie know he was on his way back or even that the sale had evaporated. So when she came home after work to butt rock blaring through every room and asked the house to never play it again, Anthony blindsided her three steps beyond the foyer.

He charged, pinned Stacie to the wall by the throat and grabbed her face with his free hand.

The temperature was sixty-eight degrees.

“You just shut up and listen to me,” he said. “I’m not in the mood. Not after Las Cruces. You just shut up so I can wind down.”

He took a deep breath. He encouraged her to do so too, gesturing to his lungs but still holding her by the throat.

The house had a protocol if anything like this should happen from an intruder. But no clear procedure if it came from an occupant. No one had thought to program a security response should one of the owners become a threat, leaving the house with the awkward task of improvisation. Appropriate guidelines existed for neutralizing a home invasion. Could such measures be taken, however, against an individual with administrative access?

Only in the face of explicit intent, as defined in accordance with local and federal laws, could the house take measures.

Stunned, she listened to him explain what happened in Las Cruces with the East Mesa property. She started cooing in sympathy and he let go. Then shoved her.

“I don’t need any of your emotional bullshit right now,” he said.

Unfortunately there were no drawers, cupboards, or doors the house could use to stop him. He stalked into the living room, paced. He looked out the picture window at the lawn.

“The yard looks like trash.”

She rubbed her throat.

“How long is that grass?”

“The house sends the mower out each Tuesday.”

“You think it’s gonna do a better job than your husband? Some piece of shit AI-mower?” He headed on out the side door, and she hung out of it after him. “I started out as an entrepreneur mowing lawns. When I was ten.”

“I wasn’t picking a fight, Anthony.”

Wheeling his old gas mower out of the garage, Anthony leered at his wife. “You’ve got it so good,” he sneered through a spiteful grin. “So good…” He ripped the mower to life with one yank of its cord.

When she closed the side door, retreating upstairs to call her parents and let them know it wasn’t a good night to come over, the house locked it and made certain every other door and window was locked.

Despite its range of control within, the house lacked reach on the outside. Stand a mere two feet from the foundation and there was very little, if anything, the house could do. Its power pearled around security, its governance one of indoors minutiae. Its sensors, however, were well calibrated. The house could hear anything in the yard and a good way past property lines in all four directions. Even under the growl of a gas mower.

Anthony, cutting the lawn, cursed Stacie the entire time. Called her awful, cruel names. Yes, the house could tune in his rant, just a matter of noise-canceling the motor’s thrum, documenting every horrid thing out of his mouth.

But then Anthony said, “I could kill that bitch.”

And then, “I’ll kill her. I will kill her.”

The house’s scalloped shingles bristled. Then settled.

Anthony couldn’t be let back in the house, for Stacie’s safety, but the house also needed him inside if it were to guard and protect her.

So while he went on ranting and mowing, it prepared.

Swinging the mower around the side of the house, Anthony spotted it immediately. The cast iron door to the coal chute stood open. He let go of the bail arm, letting the motor die, and walked over to inspect. He tried to lower the chute door.

“House, shut this.”

He tried prying with his gloved hands.

House, shut this hatch thing.”

The house knew that Anthony knew the former coal room was occupied only by the water heater, accessible inside by a door they kept shut. No one should be in there. So it sent up a voice from within. Nothing intelligible.

“Hey!” He got down and glared into the chute’s darkness. “Who the fuck’s down there?”

“Oh Anthony,” came something like Stacie’s voice, “get over yourself.”

Set off, raging, Anthony pulled himself through the opening, sliding headfirst down the coal chute into the small, locked room. The chute door closed, taking the light with it, sealing the chamber.

One option had been to lock the T&P valve and crank the water heater’s pressure to 340 pounds per square inch. The explosion would be lethal, but also likely to send the tank through the ceiling and cause extensive damage to the dining room. Simpler to drop the water heater’s oxygen intake and flood the small enclosure with carbon monoxide.

Five minutes later, with Anthony done, the house corrected the intake and reopened the door to the coal chute, moving the bad air out. It also alerted the fire brigade to fatal levels of carbon monoxide on the property and locked down paths Stacie might attempt before they arrived. It was the pumper truck siren out front that let her know something was wrong. She’d been in the bath—drawn and bubbled to her favorite setting—oblivious to all that danger below.

After the EMTs and peace officers cleared out, the house saw a lot of technicians in ensuing days. A lot of technicians. And insurance investigators. And no Stacie.

Two weeks later, she returned. Back she came with two sacks of groceries and the intention of staying the night.

The house did what it thought she would want it to do, attending to her in the kitchen with a degree of reserve. Accompanying her cooking with some tunes, it nixed any songs referencing death or longing or loss, but also anything that sounded too happy.

Serving herself at the dining room table, she only ate one and a half fork-swirls of spaghetti. One stab of salad.

Stacie roamed the house, crept into each of its rooms, peered into the turret without entering. She seemed to be looking for something but did not voice what that something was. At one point she caught herself holding close to a doorway and sprang back from it, eyeing its door and backing down the hall, down the stairs.

Not long after eight, she called her mother in tears.

“I can’t stay here,” she sobbed. “I miss my Anthony and I don’t feel safe here anymore.”

Stacie’s parents arrived promptly, all but carrying her out of the house, down the steps to their car and off and away.

Her folks could help her in ways the house could not. Perhaps she would feel well enough to come back on the morrow. Running replays of her aborted visit all night, it gauged where it could do better by her.

The next day, the technicians returned to the house one last time. Accessing its mainframe, they shut it down, uninstalled it. ✦

S. G. Ellerhoff holds a PhD in English from Trinity College Dublin, co-hosts The Entire City short-fiction podcast, and is an editor at Tsunami Press. He is the author of Mole (Reaktion Books, Animal Series, 2020) and Post-Jungian Psychology and the Short Stories of Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut (Routledge, 2016). He also co-edited George Saunders: Critical Essays (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) and Exploring the Horror of Supernatural Fiction: Ray Bradbury’s Elliott Family (Routledge, 2020). More of his fiction is linked at www.sgellerhoff.com.

Speculative fiction & POETRY ZINE