Pam locked her eyes on his. “I knew you would. I knew we would. This makes it all worth it.”
A forklift driver smiled at them as he passed, trundling a giant spool of wire through corridors of stacked feedbags. He disappeared into the high dark bay of the feedlot.
by Jason Palmer
Dale looked up through the ribbed Lucite dome of Asteroid Cintas II,
his eyes lit from within by thoughts of a bright future. “I never
thought,” he said, “I’d own a purebred house.”
Pam locked her eyes on his. “I knew you would. I knew we would.
This makes it all worth it.”
A forklift driver smiled at them as he passed, trundling a giant
spool of wire through corridors of stacked feedbags. He disappeared
into the high dark bay of the feedlot.
Dale and Pam shivered with excitement when a giant discomfitted
humph came from the bay. They smiled into each other’s eyes. “Do you
think they’re working on ours?” She said.
Dale waited a loaded moment to answer, slowly, “I think so. I think so.”
Someone said, “Y’all got that male?”
A salesman. “Yes,” said Dale, cradling Pam’s waist, “we want a little
The salesman came around a stack of grain bags. “Can’t say I
blame you. People buy females, they know the payoff for breeding is
good, but some don’t realize it’s a long road. These ain’t chickens.”
He stuck out his hand. “I’m Stu Armstrong.”
They shook. Armstrong tipped his hat at Pam, and another massive humph
beyond the lighted part of the warehouse made him look up. “Uh-oh,” he
said, grinning, “I think they’ve started on your boy.”
They all looked at each other in suspense.
Armstrong said, “What say we go and watch them wire him up?”
Pam clapped her hands in excitement, and they crossed the
warehouse to stand in the entrance to the vast dim bay. Beyond the
boundary of the bonecrete floor and overhead lights, the soaring dome
gave perspective to the universe.
There was a vast hiss from pressurization and a thickening of the
hair smell of B vitamins.
Dale and Pam held hands while a gantry with bubble tires entered
from the vacuum plains outside. Upon it stood something pink, bipedal,
and male, forty feet tall. A humanoid, mongoloid mountain that looked
one quarter armadillo.
Armstrong waved to some of the workmen, signaling, “Customer
here, customer!” and a few waved back.
The giant standing on the gantry didn’t move except to chew,
rolling cud lazily in its mouth. It had a hayseed sort of look except
for the bulging forehead. The workmen used long gaff hooks to bring it
baying down into a painful crouch, then held the hooks firmly until it
adjusted. It began chewing again, though its big human eyes looked
Dale and Pam looked on in fascination. Armstrong watched them.
“Yep,” he said, “purebred, perfect health, and one hundred percent
aye-daptated. One big atmosphere suit for the family.”
The slow workmen barked at one another, throwing loops of wire
over the creature and catching them on the other side. A steel cable
went over the back of the neck, keeping it bowed down. Tight loops
bound the ankles to the thighs and the arms to the wrists like chicken
wings, and it made Dale vaguely hungry. He glanced at Pam wondering if
she shared the thought, but her face was covered in a little girl’s
wonder and happiness.
The creature’s stomach was brought between it’s knees, the chin
to rest on the stomach. A faux Georgian porch was hung on a steel band
over the eyes and secured with a giant padlock at the back of the
“Is it all done?” asked Pam.
“Oh, no ma’am,” said Armstrong. “We still have to gouge and
cauter and clean. I just thought you might like to see this part. I
imagine, if it was my first house, I’d want to see everything having
to do with it, top to bottom, except the gouging. All the moaning and
baying and the mess, kind of turns people off. That’s why we’re full
service. We Do The Dirty Work, that’s our motto.”
“We’ll remember you, Mr. Armstrong,” said Pam, her hand over
Dale’s heart, “the man who sold us our first house.”
Two months later
Dale got out of work and piloted his cruiser across the Valley of
the Shadow with two fingers on the stick. His breath turned to ferns
of ice on the front glass, and he listened to the treads popping icy
pebbles along the floor of the impact crater. The coolers burped to
life as the temperature topped 220 Fahrenheit in the sun.
Then he was home.
Home puffed and sweated in the heat.
Dale bounced across a short patch of asteroidal plane and stepped
through the wet membrane of the belly door, then set down his helmet
stood a moment in the entryway. The white and red Christmas tree
lights in the living room soothed him.
Pam called from another room. “Honey?”
He sighed. “Yes?”
“The house was just very shifty. Just a minute ago. Will you do something?”
Relieved. “Oh, okay.” This he could handle. He set the helmet on
a peg near the door and shuffled down the hall to an unadorned closet.
Opening the door, he turned on a naked fluorescent light by pulling a
chain, and picked up his worn cricket paddle.
He crunched his fingers against the electrical tape on the handle.
Dale closed the door and rolled his shoulders, then took a first
cursory whack at the loose, hanging scrotum that took up most of the
closet. The yielding bulk was flaccid, and the exertion felt good. He
hit it again, much harder, and an angry sound burned in the walls.
Dale liked the reality of the closet. It disclosed the grit of
the iron spars and utility pipes structuring the house’s sore flesh
into the familiar residential geometries. A man’s realm.
He stripped off his atmosphere suit a bit at a time, working his
hits in. A sleeve, whack! The other sleeve, smush! He finally emerged
with the top half of the suit hanging from his waist and his t-shirt
all sweated up, having banged away at the house’s balls until the
angry shudders turned to pleading and placating ones.
He found Pam crouching over little Tommy in his bath. “What,” he
asked, “got it worked up?”
“Tommy, were you sticking pins in the walls again?”
Tommy grinned and clapped his hands together in a puff of bath
bubbles, and Dale forgot why he’d been upset.
“How are we doing?” Dale asked Pam that night as she scanned
their accounts. He lay behind her in bed, stroking her hair; in a
moment she’d become annoyed by his absent-minded fascination with her.
“Okay. But the repair expenses have been pretty bad, lately. It’s
a lot more expensive now that we need a catheter man instead of a
plumber and a doctor instead of a carpenter.”
“Even though we skipped the anesthesia?”
“And did you ask that antibiotics wholesaler about lobotomy?”
“He doesn’t recommend it. He says people who lobotomize wind up
with random fits and all kinds of craziness.”
He stopped tracing the curve of her spine. “It is a willful
house,” he said, and his eyes became flat and shining.
She half turned toward him as she took out an earring. “Did you
hear it trying to sniff around the Ybarri’s place next door?”
“But the Ybarri’s-“
“What if our house is gay?”
He laughed and pulled her across him, tickling her so she kicked
and wiggled. “A gay house!”
Four months later
“I’m beginning to wonder,” said Pam through the com in her
atmosphere suit, “what we’re going to do.”
They looked out across Divine Redeemer’s Landing, really just a
few rows of houses squatting side by side on a plain with views of the
nebula. It was a yellowish nebula, not one of the depressing blue
ones. They held hands and the bubbles of their helmets touched.
“I know,” Dale said.
“The feed is the worst. It gets more expensive every week.”
He spread his hands. “It’s a buyer’s market, right now. Things
will bounce back after the war.”
“I hope so. Then maybe we can get a nice greenhouse, instead. I
could get tired of all that meat.”
Dale’s head snapped toward her. He hated the way she always
thought one step beyond what they could possibly accomplish, but
didn’t let it get to him this time. They couldn’t afford another row,
no matter how nice it was making up. Things felt…thin.
He changed the subject. “How has it been, lately, the house?”
“How do you think? Trying to walk around, fidgeting all day. The
plaster’s cracked in Tommy’s room again. If it gets an arm or a leg
free, we’ll be kicked out of the neighborhood.”
“I’ll take care of it.”
“It doesn’t do much good anymore, Dale. Especially with you
wailing away in there any time you get stressed.”
Her tone was withering, and he watched her, his answer to the cold
distances of the galaxy. The spectral light made her look suddenly
chiseled and independent and even hawklike.
Dale thought he suddenly perceived how little they knew each other,
and he glimpsed a stark white fear.
Six months of war later
Pam kept shaking her head whenever he looked at her. He opened all the
kitchen drawers until he found the fileting knife.
“Don’t do it,” she said. “We’ll lose twenty percent of the house’s
value. What if the war is over tomorrow?”
“What if it isn’t? We have to see if we can stomach it.”
He took the knife into the hall closet. The walls shook and
shivered as he carved out a good-sized steak, and he gritted his teeth
against the irregular splurts of blood. Finished, he jabbed a big hypo
of clotting factor into the twitching wall and left it hanging there.
When he came out, Pam and Tommy were holding onto the arms of
their chairs, making him smile.
Dale slabbed the meat onto a gas-fired grill and rubbed his hands
over the little blue flame, feeling a bit touched in the head. The
savor of sizzling meat brought Tommy into the kitchen, wide-eyed in
his underwear. “Is that part of our house?” he said. There was the
usual troubled, philosophical bent to the boy’s question.
“Not anymore, buddy.”
Candles burned in the dark dining room, and above their fickle
light Pam’s face looked thin and ashen. Dale stared out the window as
they said grace, looking toward the Consortium for some sign of life
in that seemingly bright but war-torn cluster.
“What have you heard on the post?” asked Pam, chewing and
slurring her words.
He just shook his head.
Tommy, excited, said, “Are we going to be the last people left in
the whole universe?”
Dale stopped chewing.
The silence was complete except for the clankor of Tommy’s
eating. Only the boy remained dignified and confident, and after a
moment Pam began imitating him—literally copying him—in an exhausted
way that Dale found repulsive and threatening.
Dale peeled the plaster away from the skinwalls all over the
house and piled the furniture in the middle of the rooms. “We cut off
what we need,” he said, “and hold out as long as we can.”
Pam held up a large plunger full of blue fluid. “We only have
1200 cc’s of Worm Begone left.”
“Alright. Then we stop the daily doses and shock the system when
things start getting ugly.”
“And there’s no chance,” said Pam, “the others will find food on-“
“Citris? Oh, they’ve got grain on Citris. And the first thing
those people will do is fire their rockets at any refugees they see.
They’re trying to hold out, same as us.”
Pam sagged. “We can’t reach Civix or the Inners?”
“Not directly.” He leaned close to her and whispered, “The war’s
spread. We’re safe here—“ he led her by the arm to a membranous
window. “—but you see that?”
“The Folk Rocks?” Pinpoints of yellow and pink light ringed by
invisibly small, arable planets.
His nostrils flared. “Now? It’s a tomb.”
She nodded in defeat. When he kissed the side of her nose, it was cold.
Tommy clambered over the pile of furniture at the center of the room,
looking the miniature philosopher, never smiling.
Dale couldn’t stop his nostrils flaring. He slapped the angry red
endothelium of the house’s bare interior. “Now, who’s hungry?”
“What do we feed the house?”
They fed the house bushels of the thumblike white worms that hung
wriggling out of the infected walls like earthworms in a fresh grave.
Pam added chaff and vitamin B to make them taste more like grain, but
Dale still had to clamp the house’s nose shut with a ratchet cable to
make it swallow. They waited a month, then shot it full of Worm
Begone, and the worms went away for a while.
“They’re gone,” Pam marveled.
He was still as she hugged him. During the last month they’d
worked elbow to elbow together as they’d never done before, remaking
their life into something that could survive the war. The previous
night Dale had sat across from his wife at their empty table and told
her that he’d never loved her this way before, not even when they were
first married. They’d slept packed together limb in limb like blind
baby mice, sheltered and guarded in each other.
He told her the truth: “No. They’ll be back, and it will be worse than before.”
When she sat down and began to cry just as suddenly as she’d been
overjoyed, he sat at her feet in a pool of the limpid pus that slicked
He’d have to mop again soon; if he let it dry, it crusted over like egg yoke.
The house grew thinner.
On a short, hot night in the asteroidal summer, Pam whispered,
“What was that?”
He’d sensed her laying awake for the longest time, but finally
they both must have slipped off. He flicked a thumb-sized worm off the
edge of the bed. “What was what?”
A rustling sound as the house slithered.
He sat up, listening, and the house canted and nearly tipped him
over. Tommy screamed from his room, and Dale brought him in to sleep
between them with the worms and ooze. He found it terrible to watch
the moans coming from Tommy’s sleeping, emotionless face while the
slitherings and the leanings carried on throughout the night.
At some point Pam said, “What is it?” but fell into exhausted
sleep before Dale could tell her he didn’t know.
Tommy actually pitched a fit the next morning. “Daddy don’t go
outside Daddy don’t go!” He seemed to gargle his tears, and Dale
didn’t like the broken way his face looked. The Spacewalk classes had
helped before the war, but now he’d begun regressing and closing off.
“I’ll be back, buddy, I just need to see what’s making that
noise.” He put on his helmet and slipped through the passive membrane,
Next door on the Ybarri’s side was nothing but a giant set of
footprints that walked off into the silty asteroidal distance, taking
the baby steps that the housemasters’ special shackles permitted. On
the other side was a collapsed wreck, giant bones showing through the
papery skin like the masts of a stove-in sailing ship.
Dale bounced around to the back, looking up and down the bruised
and lacerated hulk of his wretched, willful house. He hated it, hated
its giant, stupid buttcrack and scabby elbows, the tufted hair that
grew along its spine.
Then he saw it. The right wrist, folded down against the forearm,
glistened with red and black blood. The bone showed against the
gouging wire. The arm twitched back and forth as he watched, sawing
itself with wire. The house had become so thin that the arm nearly fit
through, and soon it might get free like a double-jointed person
slipping out of a straight jacket. Dale could sense the pain, and the
He’d bought the mouth brace with the quarter-ton spring for this very
reason when he’d thought of the house’s teeth.
He didn’t tell Pam about the arm. Instead Dale shut himself in
the closet and unleashed a storm of violence. He leaned against the
sweating, swaying testicles digging his fingers into them when his
strength ran out.
Dale used the exposed bones like railings to avoid slipping in the
slick rivers of pus. He placed the fileting knife against a raw red
strip of meat, expecting the house to twist dryly away from him again,
but it didn’t move.
Was it asleep?
It never occurred to him that the house might simply be distracted.
Then it tipped to the left rather ponderously, deep and slow.
In the kitchen, Pam started screaming.
Dale threw down the knife and bolted down the stairs. He saw Pam with
her rump backed against the edge of the dining room table, cradling
Tommy in her arms and screaming, seemingly at him. He tried to run to
her and tripped.
He hit the floor hard but uninjured. He looked to his left and thought
he saw a giant snake, something like a huge red boa constrictor,
moving toward his family. His eyes flew wide and a cold revulsion made
him scurry back.
Dale gained his feet and saw it just as the wrist flexed and the palm
spun and opened. The long fingers flapped in anticipation, and Pam’s
scream turned to a ripping, horrible sound. Her eyes looked about to
pop out, and a ragged girl-child rose to replace the woman in her
face, sunken-eyed and savage.
The long arm had come in through the belly door membrane. Dale stomped
on it, crushing down with his heel, once, twice, six times. The arm
retreated a little but more in surprise than pain, then plunged toward
his family again.
Pam screamed his name, Tommy screamed Daddy, and it was like a
nightmare. The complete lonesomeness of his responsibility seemed to
press on Dale’s head like a vice. For a moment his mind slid into a
helpless swirl of stars and screams.
Then he jumped over the arm and grabbed the cattle prod. The arm leapt
when stung, flying into the ceiling and bringing a rain of plaster. He
hit it again and had to duck as it swept sideways sending light
fixtures and pictures to the floor. Pam scurried beneath the table
with Tommy and held a chair in front of her like a hysterical lion
The house howled and leaned forward, cracking more plaster, trying to
get its arm through the door up to the shoulder. Blood dripped
everywhere. Dale shocked it half a dozen times, then stabbed the prod
right into the flesh like a spear.
The arm ripped out of the house like a length of anchor chain.
She sat on the edge of Tommy’s bed, upstairs, staring straight ahead.
He snapped his fingers in front of her face.
“Please talk to me.”
He looked over his shoulder. Something moved over the exterior of
the house. It whispered along the skin like a vampire bat, then
pressed against the house’s back like a face in a cake. Knuckles.
Pam’s face tightened and so did her grip on Tommy, who sucked his
thumb on her lap. Mother and son had become one, but not Dale; he
seemed to dance all around them.
“It can’t get to us up here. It can’t come up the stairs. Not all
the way up.”
Pam’s ragged new girl-face face was ghostly in the dim bedroom.
The candles and portable lights had run out weeks before.
Finally her eyes fixed on his. “They’re all dead, Dale. No one’s coming.”
He sat and stroked Tommy’s forehead with one finger, sensing the
furious youthful rationalizing going on in there.
They lay in darkness on Tommy’s bed, listening to the thick sound
of worms dropping from the ceiling like ripe fruit, listening to them
writhe beneath the acrid mist that wavered on the floor with a
They could make all the worm mush they wanted now, but couldn’t
feed the house: there could be no more going outside with the arm
Dale considered a run in a hub ship, and maybe they could find a
friendly rock not too far away. But they’d probably wind up starving
just the same, only adrift and in mindless horror.
Dale gave up on sleep and went to check the barrier blocking the front
door. The boards with nails pounded through them hadn’t been
disturbed. Nevertheless, he looked over his shoulder as he baked pies
out of diseased matter and connective tissue, smoking them in battered
tins to cover a taste too vile even for real hunger.
He brought their breakfast upstairs, hoping Pam didn’t notice how he
had to duck into the room.
The house was getting smaller.
He set a big reeking pie on a bed tray where Pam and Tommy sat with
their legs under the blanket, and that was when the house blasted
through the barrier over the front door sending boards clattering all
over the living room, howling with rage as the nails bit its knuckles.
“No!” Pam snarled.
The house swayed drunkenly left and forward, plaster dust rained, and
there was a sound like a German shepherd rampaging up the stairs.
In a corner of the doorway, Dale saw the tip of a big red finger.
He gaped at it. The house tilted further over, and as the shrunken
room canted, most of the hand came into view.
It wrapped around the doorframe and ripped off a chunk of the
wall. The fingers scuttled on the floor.
Dale pried Pam’s fingers from his shoulders. He went stonily to
the corner of the room and picked up the twenty-pound sledge he’d set
against the nightstand. He raised it over his shoulder and smashed in
the last knuckle of the longest finger.
He heard Tommy crying, distantly.
The hand flopped around like a giant bird and then whipped away down the stairs.
They abandoned everyplace except the two bedrooms. Dale placed
colored tape along the floor to show the limits of the house’s reach,
instructing Tommy never to cross it.
While foraging, he sometimes passed the unmarked closet where the
house’s blackly gangrenous testicles hung, hearing the faint creak of
the metal ring that kept them locked in there, softly pendulating.
Soon they would simply lie on the floor, a symbol of his lost control.
They moved Tommy’s bed to the corner of the room to keep the maximum
distance from the pattering fingers when they came in the night.
After keeping a long silence, Tommy said, “Why does the house hate us?”
“It doesn’t hate us, buddy. It’s just hungry, like us.”
Tommy’s eyes widened in expanding horror as he interpreted this, and
Dale cursed himself. He stroked his son’s hair until he fell asleep,
Pam curled in his other arm and the sledgehammer handle laid across
“What’s that sound?” asked Pam in darkness.
“What time is it?”
“What’s that? Listen.”
A woody scraping sound like fingernails on a coffin lid.
Dale was grateful for the darkness as he frowned. “It’s nothing,” he said.
“Dale,” she said, her voice rising in hysterical crescendo, “The bed
is moving across THE FLOOR!”
It was. Just a few millimeters at a time as the house shrunk and the
walls compacted. The bed was moving across the floor, toward the
But what amazed him was the way Pam had sprung up on all fours,
covering not only his son but himself as well.
Dale’s lines of tape retreated in concentric rings, day by day, until
they reached the foot of the bed. But he didn’t get angry or panicked.
He’d had a realization.
It was the house that mattered first and foremost. Its skin was all
that held in their precious scrap of atmosphere, and it must be
protected as one of them.
He was impressed by the flat hate he encountered in Pam’s eyes as he
shared this revelation.
Alone, he baked more worm pies and tried throwing them out the
front door, through the membrane, but they only grew into a pile on
the doorstep: starved as it was, the incensed house preferred to hunt
It blew great hollow farts all night, and its bloated, gassy
belly seemed to be the only thing that kept it from reaching them. The
arm that reached inside grew thinner and harder until it was all rage
They woke up one morning with the comforter and bedspread gone,
along with the footboard. They huddled in the corner, where the
ceiling was now too low to sit straight up.
Dale had a sense of being in a creature’s body as he ventured out for
food now, could trace the T lines of the torso and the sprocketed
shoulders. He could hear a racing heartbeat through the thin walls in
the stair. By the bedside, he now kept an electric saw.
When she did not experience one of her bursts of protectiveness, Pam
seemed shellshocked; the repetitive horror of hungry snatching fingers
left her looking like a gawping, saucer-eyed rabbit, scratching
against the sheets with rabbit feet as she tried to back away.
During an afternoon raid, though they lay in a shivering bunch in
the corner, Dale had felt the reaching fingers brush the hair of his
That night he woke to screaming, right in his ear.
The title bout had come.
Dale flew to a crouch on the bed and felt a great shifting beside
him in the darkness. He grabbed the nearest human limb and out of
blind instinct pulled it toward the far corner of the bed, away from
To maximize his friction against the bed, Dale lay flat as he
pulled. He found the slick-wood-feeling finger of the house that had
curled around his son’s leg and with both hands began to pry it off.
He forgot that the footboard was gone and tried to brace his feet
against it, and a great wrench from the house brought him and Tommy
flopping to the floor, their legs sticking out into the hall.
The savage girl-Pam, the rabbit-Pam, rushed forward and threw
herself across Tommy, bracing her hands on the walls. The fingers
grabbed her ankle, and she lunged back toward the bed with a grunt.
Dale moved numbly toward the electric saw.
Pam had grabbed a leg of the bed and was being dragged with it
back into the hall.
Dale knelt with the electric saw and brought it whining to life
over his head. The house’s arm pulsed against his thighs. His eyes
grew and shrank with uncertainty.
“Dale!” Pam screamed. Tommy walked white-faced toward him like a
child zombie with his thumb in his mouth.
He could bring down the saw and end this nightmare, but a new one
With no way to stop the blood, the house would almost certainly die.
Yet if he didn’t do it, the probing arm could reach them everywhere, now.
He also couldn’t sledge the fingers without shattering Pam’s leg.
She would probably get an infection in the worm-ridden house, and die.
That left option number three.
He stole a moment to watch his family, imagined them calm and loving,
and stored the picture away.
Then he knelt beside the entangling fingers like a doctor. He
calmly pried off one finger – it took all his strength – and replaced
it around his own ankle, where it took hold with insane strength.
He pried off another, smaller finger and did the same thing.
After three fingers, he heard Pam grunt and drop to the floor.
She’d been racked between the tug of the house and her grip on the
bed, wedged in the doorway. “Oh!” she cried, revolted, and sacked
Tommy to the floor.
Dale began sliding across the landing on his bottom. He took hold
of the doorframe as he passed it, knowing it would do no good. The
fingers of the house seemed to know whom they grasped.
Pam turned to him with Tommy’s face clamped against her breast,
and Dale tried to smile. Her eyes went wide.
He studied her with a stunning clarity of vision as the big hot palm
pressed against his back and two fingers clamped over his shoulders
like a safety restraint. He watched her expression change from shock
to horror to soul-wrenching loss as he floated backwards above the
stairs, Tommy dripping into the crook of her arm, her small breasts
hanging over him.
The boy only briefly turned, the stoicism of his ruined childhood and
his mother’s care already in his face.
Dale’s hands were wrenched from the doorframe with a stopless
ease. He supposed he screamed, and maybe it was long and loud as the
great arm lifted him through the air, but a sequestered part of his
mind watched passively. The stairs and carpet passed beneath his
Then Pam was chasing him, her eyes so wild they looked slanted and
cartoonish in her face. They grew with nearness until the back of his
head collided with the transom, leaving him lolling.
The last thing he saw before the vacuum snuffed out his consciousness
entirely was like a single slanted frame out of an ancient movie reel.
He saw the house’s face. The crazed, bloodshot eyes, slanted downward
with fury and hunger, the nose still belted down on one side with his
ratchet cable, and finally the jaw, hanging and dislocated where the
quarter ton spring had slid out of true and shot the joint apart. The
swollen gums and missing teeth, the black gullet.
Dale barely heard the roar, not of hunger, but of outrage and ultimate triumph.
He had once lain beside Pam on a soft evening before making love. For
a moment they had breathed into each other’s mouths, quaking little
breaths. As he entered the squishing cave of the house’s mouth, it was
her breath he smelled. Once his flesh mingled with the house’s, and
Pam put her knife to the walls, it would be her devouring him. He was
quite aware of that.
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He found the bones while hunting madly for escape. A lot of bones. There had been other Georges before him. Many Georges.