An uncanny episode of original fiction this week on the Drabblecast– we bring you, “The Tenant” by Sarah E. Stevens.
Cover created by Bo Kaier in concert with the midjourney text-to-image AI (and unidentifiable, scraped contributors).
We hope to experience your enjoyment.
by Sarah E. Stevens
Vanessa agreed, of course. They needed the money desperately. People rented out rooms in their apartments all the time, right? Renting space in your head wasn’t much different, or at least, that’s what she and Ray tried to tell each other. They both knew he should be the one to sign the contract. Her job paid better, plus Raven wouldn’t handle her absence well. No matter how much equal coparenting they did, Raven was definitely a mama’s girl.
They negotiated to give the Tenant twenty percent of the time. And, no, they didn’t need a regular schedule. They could be flexible, since it paid so much better. Ray would take a leave of absence from his job for the year–it was a state-sanctioned reason, after all. Vanessa stifled her anger about the stark contrast between the government’s long-standing refusal to implement parental leave and their immediate placating of incorporeal aliens. If only parents had advanced quantum technology to trade.
Just twenty percent of just one year would give them enough money to pay for rent, school through 8th grade, food, and utilities. Her whole salary could go into savings this year.
Yes. They were in agreement. It all made sense at the time, even though Vanessa felt a flutter of dread when Ray took pen in hand to sign.
But how bad could it be?
Vanessa walked in the front door feeling equal parts anticipation and dread.
“Hello?” she called.
“Mom!” Raven ran out from her room, black ponytail bobbing in her wake. She hurtled into Vanessa’s body for a fierce hug. From that, Vanessa knew.
“Is your dad here?”
“No. The Tenant’s in the living room, though.”
“Nope. I would have called you. Dad was here when I first got home. He got me a snack and I did my homework. All of it! Then the Tenant came and turned on the TV.”
Nine years old and she coped so well. Vanessa kissed the top of Raven’s head with an exaggerated “mwah” sound. “Well, how about you and I cook some dinner? Maybe your dad will be back in time.”
Raven linked hands with her mom as they walked through the living room en route to the kitchen.
“Hi,” Vanessa said to the Tenant. She always greeted him. Talked to him, even. It seemed weird not to, even though it was almost weirder to interact.
The Tenant turned to look at the two of them. His eyes didn’t look quite focused, but he gave what passed for a smile. He was learning, then.
“Hi,” he said in a small voice.
“We’re making dinner now. If you’re staying that long.”
“Dinner,” he repeated. “Dinner?”
“Nothing fancy. Spaghetti, probably. Garlic bread. Raven, do you want salad or green beans?”
“Salad,” said the Tenant.
“Well, salad it is, then.” Vanessa wasn’t sure if the Tenant repeated the girl’s words or if he really wanted salad–did he know what salad was? Had he eaten salad yet? Or was he just practicing his speech?
Maybe he’d leave before dinner was ready.
God, she hoped he’d leave.
“What did we have for dinner?” Ray asked. “It still smells good in here.”
Vanessa turned around from the kitchen sink with soapy hands.
“You’re here!” She crossed the room to give him a kiss. Ray hugged her and she squeezed back with her arms while keeping her wet hands away. “Hi, sweetheart. I’m glad you’re back.”
“Spaghetti, garlic bread, and salad,” she said. “Raven’s taking a quick shower. Maybe we can all read together tonight?”
“I’d like that.” Ray patted his stomach. “I must have eaten a lot.”
They smiled at each other before Vanessa moved back to finish the dishes. Even the kitchen lights seemed brighter now that the house was whole again.
“Vanessa, can I talk to you for a minute?” Carlos stood next to her desk.
“Sure, what’s up?”
Carlos glanced around and fidgeted in his pocket before lowering his voice to speak. “You and Ray have a contract, right?”
“Yes.” She drew out the word, not sure where he was going. She did not want to talk about this at work.
“It’s not that bad, is it?”
She looked at him. “Are you…thinking about it?”
He leaned closer before answering. “We can’t afford to send Maddie and Ruth to school next year.”
“Don’t do it. It’s not worth it. Believe me, Carlos.”
“But if the girls don’t even finish middle school… You know as well as I do what kind of jobs they’ll get shunted into.”
Vanessa did know. Carlos’s girls were gorgeous. They’d make a decent living and maybe when they were too old to entertain, they’d be hired as womb-mothers. And, even later when their looks were gone, nannies. To rich, kind families if they were lucky.
“Find some other way,” she said.
“Nothing pays as well.”
“Do you… Do you and Deondra have both your kidneys?” She flushed with embarrassment at the question. Talking about money always did that to her.
“Yes. But you know that won’t pay for school for two girls. Even if we both sold.”
“How much time were you thinking? And which one of you?”
“Deondra. She insists. Ten percent, but we can’t do flexible. She needs to work, so it has to be evenings or weekends.”
“Just think about it more, Carlos. Ten percent is almost seventeen hours. All on evenings and weekends? Think about your time together as a family–let’s call it five hours on weeknights and fourteen waking hours each weekend. That’s only fifty-three hours. She loses seventeen out of fifty-three. You and the girls lose her.”
Vanessa hated how quickly the math came to her, hated that she’d spent so much time calculating the same things.
“Seventeen hours a week for one year? To pay for several years of school for both girls? That’s worth it.” Carlos spread his hands wide. “Vanessa, how else could we get the money?”
She had no answer.
“What does it feel like?” she asked Ray that night as they lay curled up like spoons.
She felt boneless with joy in the afterglow of such a great evening. The Tenant hadn’t come at all. Her little family had eaten dinner together and played a card game. She’d read to Raven for over half an hour. Ray sat with them on the sofa, his shoulder pressed against hers. This was all she needed.
Ten months. Ten more months til the contract ended.
She felt Ray shrug.
“It doesn’t feel like anything, actually,” he said.
“Where do you go?”
“Nowhere. I don’t know. I’m there, but I’m not. Mostly, it’s just like swiss cheese. Giant holes where I wonder what happened.”
She twisted back to look at him. “Is it scary?”
Vanessa remembered her mom’s stories about the old days, before the Tenants came and allied with the government. School was free and people chose their own careers. The government helped the sick and the poor with medicines and food. She sat on her mom’s lap and soaked up those stories alongside tales of Santa Claus, talking wolves, and magic wardrobes.
They all seemed equally fanciful.
The stories petered out as Vanessa grew, as if even her mother stopped believing them.
By the time Vanessa entered middle school, people stopped muttering about “deals with the devil” and accepted the Tenants as inevitable. After all, they’d probably been around for a lot longer than anyone knew, influencing things in secret. They just stopped hiding. And they did bring advances, even if Vanessa had never been able to afford a quantcar and wouldn’t ever travel in space. The government kept saying electricity would be even more expensive without Tenant technology.
Hope and anxiety twisted in Vanessa’s stomach as she walked down the hall toward their apartment, then sank into numbness as she heard Raven and the Tenant talking. She closed the front door behind her.
“Hi,” she said.
“Hi Mom!” Raven called. “C’mere. The Tenant wants to know about grocery shopping.”
What a difference a few months made.
She put a smile on her face and walked into the living room. She gave Raven a big hug before turning to the Tenant.
“So you’d like to learn about grocery shopping?” she said.
“Yes, please.” He smiled at her and she had to avert her gaze. She hated seeing him look so normal.
“Can you take me grocery shopping?” he asked.
“I can’t take you right now, because we need to have dinner and Raven needs to go to bed early so she’s fresh for school.”
“How much sleep does Raven need? Is this the same for all children? At what age does it change?”
“She needs at least nine hours. Don’t you have access to that data?”
The Tenant shook his head. “Data is not the same as understanding. What happens if she does not sleep?”
“If she doesn’t get enough sleep, she gets cranky and moody. It affects her behavior and it makes life more difficult for me, too. Plus, her brain can’t learn as well without sleep.”
“Does this brain get enough sleep?” The Tenant asked.
She gritted her teeth. “Yes.”
“What happens when Raven doesn’t want to go to sleep? How do you convince her?”
Vanessa shook her head in frustration and tried to explain the process of parenting–setting boundaries and expectations, rewarding good behavior, enacting consequences. The Tenant frowned, but listened carefully.
“Are you annoyed right now?” The Tenant asked.
“Not…” Vanessa took a deep breath and regrouped. “Not annoyed, exactly. It’s just hard to explain how families work.”
The Tenant nodded. “That is why I am here. Not all things can be understood from books.”
Raven had lost interest in the conversation and left the room, but she came back now, carrying her favorite baby doll. “Mom? I’m hungry.”
“Okay, sweetie. I’ll start dinner.”
“And you will teach me grocery shopping? How you choose the foods and your budget? How you interact with others in the store?” The Tenant’s voice stopped Vanessa on her way into the kitchen.
“Yes. The next time you’re here on a weekend, I’ll take you.” She gritted her teeth. She did not want the Tenant around on the weekend. She did not want to take the Tenant grocery shopping. The only thing worse than dealing with him in the house was taking him around in public, where not everyone knew.
“I will watch the news now,” the Tenant said, dismissing them both from his presence.
She and Raven went into the kitchen. She stared into the cabinet as if deciding what to cook.
What was she teaching him? What would he do with this “understanding” he added to his data? Once he was ready, would he work with the government? Or scientists? Where would he go next?
Vanessa dropped her glass and it shattered on the tiles. Raven jerked away when water splashed all over her.
“Mom? Are you okay?”
A drop of blood welled on the side of Vanessa’s bare foot, but she didn’t feel any pain. Just numbness and a racing heart.
“I’m fine,” Vanessa spoke carefully. “Raven, sweetie. That’s not your dad.”
Raven frowned. “I know, sorry. It’s just… I need to call him something. And I forgot.”
“It’s important not to forget.”
“Okay, Mom. I’m sorry.”
Vanessa felt the Tenant watching her as she swept the broken glass and dumped it carefully into the recycling chute. She mopped up the water with a towel. She spent a long time scouring the floor for tiny shards to make sure Raven wouldn’t step on any glass splinters. As long as she focused on the floor, she didn’t have to look at the Tenant.
“Yeah?” Vanessa looked at Carlos and frowned. “Are you okay?”
“You know I’m not okay.”
“You look like you haven’t slept all week.”
“I’ve slept. It’s just… Do you have lots of nightmares?” Carlos asked. His voice sounded hoarse, like he might be holding back tears.
Vanessa felt her own eyes flood and blinked furiously. She felt suddenly, irrationally angry. “I have a lot of work to do. Did you need something?”
“I guess not.”
But he didn’t leave. He just stood there. Vanessa turned her back to him and pretended to be busy.
“Why do you think they do this?” Carlos asked.
“How would I know? They do it to learn. Carlos, I need to work.”
“But what are they learning?”
“Okay, sorry. I just wanted to talk to someone who understands.”
“Talking makes it worse,” said Vanessa. “Just endure. We need to endure.”
They had a fantastic evening, the three of them. Ray cooked dinner, followed by a movie with the whole family snuggled together on the couch. Raven went to bed like a dream, only needing one extra tuck-in and kiss. She and Ray stripped naked, fell into bed, and had glorious sex.
They lay snuggled together when Ray returned.
Vanessa felt his whole body stiffen in shock the instant before he recoiled from her. Her heart pounded. She rolled over and looked at him.
“Did you… did we…?” Ray said.
They stared at each other.
“I feel like I’m going to throw up,” said Ray.
“Me too. I’m so sorry. I didn’t know. I thought you were here.”
“How could you not know?”
Vanessa’s throat burned with bile. “I don’t know. I’m sorry.”
Ray flung an arm across his face. “I can’t take this anymore.”
“When did you… When did he… What’s the last thing you remember?”
“Lunch,” he said.
“Vanessa, I just want it to stop.”
“I know. I know.” She wrapped her arms around him and held him while he cried, his tears running down her neck. Her own eyes stayed dry and open, staring at the ceiling while she murmured all the right things. It would be over soon. Life would get back to normal. This would never happen again. She loved him.
All the while, a small voice screamed inside her head.
Maybe this would never be over and maybe she’d never know the difference.