Dead house
Alejandro Madruga
Originally published in the anthology “Polvo en el viento” [“Dust in the wind”]
(Argentina 1999)
(Translation: Daniel W. Koon)


        He moves restlessly inside the room; outside it begins to rain; he knows what that means, how well he knows; he raises his eyes and waits. Outside, the rain beats against the old wood, the roof sadly complains; he waits, moment by moment…The rain lashes out furiously against the flimsy roof which begins to let thick drops inside. He runs to find buckets, and the chase for leaks has begun; after flipping the bed, there is no place left to sit without getting wet: the water has him cornered. It is the mattress’s turn, what remains of it, and he sits on a corner of the bed to ponder the thin streams of water which separate and fall, very close, close enough to splatter his feet. He watches the puddles form, the house is flooding; it is not worth flipping the bed again, there is no way out. His tired gaze stops at the torn walls; he smiles unhappily, he could cry, there is already so much water scattered around, and all he can do is smile.
       
        “Eleven hours! I’ve slept eleven hours.”
        He got to his feet and left the passageway, the lights lit as he passed, he brought his hand to his forehead.
        “Would you like something, sir?” asked a voice from within the house.
        “Nothing, leave me alone.”
        “Sorry,” the voice replied.
        He stopped in the kitchen. It was clean, sparkling. He looked at the ceiling, a drop of water could never fall from it, covered as it was in a sensitive material containing a network of smart sensors controlled by an AI system that learned through interaction with the human owner. It was fire-proof and burglar-proof. And if entering the house weren’t a heroic challenge, exiting it, let alone reaching the owner, was totally impossible. The house was his guardian. It was blessed with a diagnostic system which checked whether he was suffering a fever or even a bad mood, as in this instant, during which nothing in the world would force it to bother him; now it had to keep its silence and wait.
        He walked into the center and made a special gesture; the house understood, immediately it opened a compartment and out came a simple meal; it knew his tastes very well. He brought the snack to his lips and his hand remained suspended in the air, he could not erase that nightmare from his mind. How could such an idea occur to him, a house getting damp; that was ridiculous, he laughed quietly to himself, but not too quietly for the house’s acute sensors to miss. He bit into the snack. “Who was that man? Why am I sleeping longer and longer?” He sensed that the dream was someone else’s reality, someone in some other part of the world, some forgotten world, where someone lived this subhuman life and radiated his desperation into the air, and somehow, through some unknown channel, he had tuned it in; he had received someone else’s reality. “Another me?” The idea scared him. He could not be in two places at once, it was absurd. It had to be a nightmare. But that world was so real that when he woke an unease and an anxiety remained with him that lasted for hours, and what really bothered him were those additional memories, which he was certain he had not dreamed, like the impression of having spent several hours in a line under the hot sun in order to get food, as well as the long wait to get a bus, or the discussions with a woman, who must have been his wife, who was always demanding something from him, or the fights between those people who seemed to be her family, he couldn’t be sure, just as he couldn’t be sure of the reason for the viciousness of the fights; and much to his dismay those feelings remained, dwelling in his memories; stored in his brain like a reflection of the other life.
        The house very unobtrusively brought in music from his workroom. It was nine o’clock and he had to sit and write. He advanced mechanically to the room. He found it all prepared, the last sheets on which he had been working, the computer turned on, a cup of fresh-brewed coffee, his pipe ready. He smiled with satisfaction. The house always knew what needed to be done.
        He sat before the computer to write the novel, he called up the GaboCAS program, which he still hadn’t mastered, he had always preferred the PoeCAS system. But for the novel he was writing, this software had several advantages. The plot was not easy, and it was getting more and more complicated, he began to analyze the different scripts which the computer was offering him, he altered some variables, introduced changes in the conclusion, assigned new functions to the characters, created new scenes for them and finally brought the story to a conclusion. But he did not like the result. After going online, he checked the InfoCAS library to see how other authors had dealt with this theme. Result: this story was not the least bit original. He started over again, changing characters and plot. Now the ideas fit better, and he soon finished the story.
        More than four hours had passed and he was hungry. He needed only to make a gesture and the house would do the rest. After several hours of work; nothing better than a good lunch and the house knew it. His robot prepared the table, its mechanical arms waved about serving, placing plates here and there. Today he had been in a bad mood, which meant that he would be very hungry, and since the house knew, it prepared a succulent feast: two huge steaks, fruit salad, lots of French fries, fine sweets, ham croquette, ice cream. He sat at the table, filled with an immense hunger.
        “Where are the rice and beans?”
        The house stopped dead in its tracks. Even he was surprised. He never ate beans. This certainly had something to do with that man who was living that miserable life in that lifeless house. He felt hunger, an ancient hunger, as though it had been hours, days since he had eaten and he longed for a plate of rice and beans, which was absurd. How could he be so attached to that man? How was it possible that he suffered his privations, his disappointments as if they were his own? And worse yet, his dreams were getting longer by the day. He used to sleep for only six hours at night, since his nightmares had begun his dreams had gotten longer as well; every day he slept a little more. Last night it had reached eleven hours, he was convinced that the nightmares were related to the length of his dream: it was the nightmares which got longer, which made him spend more time sleeping. And if the nightmares kept getting longer? And if he ended up sleeping 12, 13, 14 hours? Over half the day. Half of his life! A light unease crept over him. He hadn’t thought of that. And if his sleeping time continued to increase, if it got longer day by day, until it reached 24 hours? He felt faint and he felt a strange queasiness in his stomach. He couldn’t eat, he looked at his juicy steak, considered his fries, the dish with the fruit. He felt a lump in his stomach, something which rose almost to his throat and made him nauseous. Some drops of sweat ran down his forehead, his temperature dropped quickly. The worried house removed the plates.
        “Would you like me to connect the diagnostic system?”
        “No, the problem is not in my body.”
        The house observed him intently.
        “Can I do anything for you?”
        “No thanks, nothing.”
        The house kept watching him, taking his temperature, analyzing his breathing, analyzing each drop of moisture he sweated.
        The hours ticked by slowly and surely: outside, it grew dark; inside, the house kept observing him; awaiting an order, a request… Although he was sleepy, he was also afraid; afraid of that other life; it was an absurd fear, but he couldn’t free himself from doubt: And if I don’t wake up? If I remain forever in that diabolical world, continuing to live that miserable life? That single idea filled him with horror.
        “It is absurd, he thought, the nightmare could not last all day long, I’m simply dreaming too much. There is no sense in worrying about it. This is my real life, that other one is simply a nightmare. A nightmare real enough to frighten me: I can smell the dankness of the house, sense every detail, and the worst is that I feel like I’ve always been there. I am an idiot, all nightmares are like that.”
        Drowsiness came over him.
        “I want different music.”
        The house understood and immediately put different music on, happier music, livelier music. The house always knew what needed to be done.
        “Coffee, good strong coffee.”
        The order was placed, and immediately he was served a cup of coffee. Now the house waited.
        “I have to control myself… I can’t let a nightmare beat me.” He wiped his forehead, it was sweating.
        The house cooled the air further and also lowered the volume of the music; the light became brighter.
        “I do not want to return to that horrible house, I do not want…” He felt a chill run through his body.
        The house reduced the cold and also lowered the volume and served him another cup of coffee.
        He felt alone, sick. He thought of calling his lover, he looked at the phone. The house began to dial the number.
        “No, leave it!” he yelled.
        The house stopped dialing.
        “Forgive me, I thought that was what you wanted.”
        “No, you weren’t wrong, it’s just that everything is different today.”
        The house remained silent, it knew that that was equivalent to a confession, and a house may not tell, simply wait.
        He got up and began to pace from one side to the other, while he repeated, “Eleven hours, eleven hours… Why does it always have to be the same nightmare, the same…”
        The house stopped the music and kept silent. After so many years of weighing his gestures, of analyzing his state of mind, for the first time it did not know what to do, and so it just waited.
        “I am obsessed with that nightmare and it’s destroying my nerves, I have to relax, remain calm. I just have to go to bed and focus on only pleasant thoughts; like when I was young and… I can’t remember a thing, I’m too sleepy… When I was a boy I always wanted a… I just can’t think, my eyes are getting heavy… Better to go to sleep. To sleep quietly, relaxed; in a deep sleep without any dreams.”
        He entered his room, the bed was neat, everything prepared as he liked it. He fell heavily on the bed. The house understood and played a gentle song and sent a light breeze over his body. He soon fell asleep and the house turned off all the lights and dedicated itself to guarding over his sleep. Now nothing could wake him, the house took care of everything -- stopping all phone calls, locking the door, maintaining the temperature, stifling any sound -- nothing could perturb his sleep. The house would take care of anything that arose.
       
        Meanwhile in the other house; a house without light, the blackouts would last as long as five hours; a man, tired, crumbled up the page which he had just written.
        “I can’t write today either, I’ll never finish this novel, never.”
        All is dark, immensely dark; in that impoverished house, where he is no more than an intruder who thinks he is a writer. And in those instants when the house overpowers him, he feels his spirit buckling like those old walls which can no longer support the weight of that discolored ceiling. But the most agonizing times are when it rains; it is then that the thick drops fall onto his soul, ripping open his chest and filling his lungs with water and leaving him with the legacy of that cough which he cannot shake, it is his destiny to live imprisoned in that house, which smells of abandonment, which tastes of death.
        The bed remains damp from the last cloudburst. A mosquito buzzes near his ear, he scratches his right hand, while his feet shift constantly, the mosquitoes show no mercy. He feels that this is not his life: a sensation which grows steadily. At first it was a light feeling, fleeting; an unease that lasted only a few minutes and then was gone; but lately the feeling lasts for hours; it is a sense of not fitting in, of restlessness; as if this life were alien. As if this vacant house, in which he lived like a day laborer, insisted on making his life impossible.
        He advances to the middle of the darkness, trips over some broken shoes that creak under the pressure of his foot. He coughs, he’s had this cough for months now and can’t shake it because he has no medicine. He places his hand on the damp wall. His eyes begin to adapt to the dark. He remembers his hunger, plops himself onto a single damaged chair which creaks unhappily, folds his hands and brings them to his chest, supporting his chin on his knuckles. Within his head he hears voices, he is alone among those people, strange people. That is not his life, for some unknown and unfair reason, he has been placed there. He will have to wake up any minute now. He coughs again and blows his nose. The voices travel through the house, one of the voices calls him by name. He simply waits: those dark hours must pass, something must happen to pull him out of this nightmare. He pleads. He leans forward and rests his elbows on his knees, while he hides his head in his hands.
        “Are you there?” the voice asks.
        He covers both ears with his hands; he opens his mouth and screams a silent scream that no one hears.
        “Are you there?” once again the voice.
        Silence, silence. Someone is suffering the disillusionment of a life ignored, someone is screaming a desperate scream from a forgotten world; someone, someone is collapsing in a dead house.
       
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