Empty Houses

All in all, it looked like a model home: too clean and tidy for anyone to actually live there.

Not that anyone did, anymore.

Inspector Ian Garret was a man most at home in empty houses. He made a habit of arriving for searches in the grey time before dawn, when the streets were empty and even the birds still slept. If asked, Ian would say he arrived early to avoid traffic, but his true motive was the hungry joy he felt when standing alone in someone else’s living room, listening to the sound of his breathing as it was swallowed by the house’s stillness. It was a transgressive kind of pleasure, that of being somewhere he was not supposed to be, and Ian guarded it fiercely, clinging to the minutes he spent alone as another man might have clung to hundred-dollar bills.

Thus, when he found a police car parked outside the Robinson house, Ian was understandably annoyed.

The Robinson house was nestled in the middle of a verdant suburban street, its creamy white facade blending in with the pastel greys and blues of the houses surrounding it. The hedges separating its yard from those nearby were trimmed into flowing humps, and the walk leading to the front door from the sidewalk was made of trapezoidal chunks of slate. The flowerbeds under the front windows showed the first tentative signs of greenery peeking from their soil, and drops of dew glistened on the house’s eaves. All in all, it looked like a model home: too clean and tidy for anyone to actually live there.

Not that anyone did, anymore.

The front door swung open at Ian’s touch, revealing a tile-lined entry hall with rough stucco walls. A navy-blue police windbreaker hung on the coat pegs built into the wall on the left. Glaring at it, Ian removed his raincoat and hung it on the peg farthest from the windbreaker, acutely conscious of how childish the gesture was.

It wasn’t childish, a part of him insisted. Why was the officer here this early, anyway? 

After a quick glance into the kitchen, which was a wide expanse of white plastic and gleaming chrome, Ian swept into the carpeted expanse of the living room, where a young, brown-haired police officer sat drowsing on a black leather sofa. The soft scuff of Ian’s shoes on the carpet roused the officer, who blinked dully, then shot to his feet. Ian watched, not without amusement, as he wobbled unsteadily from leg to leg and extended his hand. “Inspector Garret, sir! I’m Keith Jadorowski. Pleased to meet you.”

“Likewise,” Ian murmured dryly as Jadorowski’s fingers clenched around his, grinding his knuckles together.

Jadorowski released Ian’s bruised fingers and frowned as he checked his watch. “What are you doing here so early, sir?” he asked, giving Ian a look of mixed suspicion and doubt. “It’s not even five o’clock.”

“I might ask you the same question, officer Jadorowski,” Ian replied. “What were you doing here? Sleeping on duty?”

An angry flush spread across Jadorowski’s cheeks. “The Robinsons were friends of my family, Inspector. I asked my sergeant if I could stay here until morning and assist with the inspection, and he agreed.”

“Ah,” Ian said after a moment. “I see.”

This could make things very uncomfortable indeed.

illustration by Indrapramit Das

Nothing downstairs was out of order, which in itself made Ian suspicious. There were no dishes in the sink or dishwasher, no pots or pans left on the stove or in the drying rack. All the food in the refrigerator was organized in neat rows, with the necks and sides of bottles wiped clean; the fruits and vegetables were wrapped in individual plastic bags inside the crisper. Even the dining table and placemats were immaculate, their wood and white cotton unstained. 

The breaking point, though, was the toaster. It was the upright kind, with slots where you pushed the toast down in between the heating coils. And there were no burnt crumbs in it at all.

“Officer Jadorowski,” Ian asked as he peered down into the toaster’s slots, “did the Robinsons ever eat toast?”

“They had it for breakfast sometimes. Why do you ask?”

“Take a look,” Ian said, straightening up and gesturing at the toaster. “I find it unlikely that even the most devoted champion of cleanliness would clean their toaster so thoroughly as to remove all crumbs from it.”

Jadorowski glanced into the toaster and shrugged. “So what? That doesn’t prove anything. It could be a new toaster.”

Ian sighed. “It could be. Do you want to look for a receipt? On second thought, don’t bother. Look here.” He lifted the toaster and pointed to a series of scratches in the plastic around where a screw held the toaster’s shell together. “Who do you know who takes their toaster apart to clean it?”

Jadorowski gave Ian a nasty look. “Glenda Robinson, apparently. Are people not allowed to take apart their toasters to clean them?”

“No, officer,” Ian said patiently. “It’s not that they aren’t allowed to. It’s that they don’t.”

Jadorowski held Ian’s gaze for a moment, then looked down at the kitchen floor. “Look,” he said, his voice thick with anger. “Glenda and James Robinson were nice people, and Ellen and Suzie were good kids. They didn’t deserve to get hauled off to an internment camp because people accused them of being part of some kind of alien conspiracy.”

Ian raised an eyebrow. “Were they really hauled off?” he asked, as neutrally as he could. “Did they resist in any way?”

“No, damn it!” Jadorowski’s nostrils flared, and his cheeks were flushed bright red. “Just Ellen; she handcuffed herself to the banister with a pair of toy handcuffs. They had to use bolt-cutters to get through the chain.” He exhaled sharply, through gritted teeth. “I told you, they were nice people. They weren’t the type to resist arrest.” 

Ian’s dubious expression earned him a fierce glare.

“Do you have trouble grasping the concept of ‘nice people’?” Jadorowski demanded.

“Yes,” Ian said mildly. “Actually, I do.” He paused, then added, “I don’t believe in them.”

Jadorowski wasn’t talking to Ian by the time they made it to the staircase.

The toy handcuff ring on the banister support was made of grey injection-molded plastic. The mechanism of its lock was jammed by a piece of pink chewing gum, and only two links of the steel chain which had once connected the cuff to its twin remained. Glancing down at the carpet below, Ian spotted two metallic glints: the remnants of the bolt-cut link.

There might yet be hope for the Robinson children.

“You’re wasting your time, you know,” Jadorowski said bitterly as Ian started up the stairs again. “They had a horde of technicians go through here earlier, with God knows how many instruments and detectors, and they came up empty. There aren’t any aliens in this house.”

“Do you know why there are Inspectors, Jadorowski?” Ian asked as he stepped onto the second floor landing. He didn’t wait for a reply.

“It’s simple, really. For all that the techs love their gear, the Worms always find ways to get around it.”

Jadorowski was silent as Ian peered into a bedroom decorated with posters of unicorns and pegasi frolicking in the clouds. Ian noted the height of the ceiling and the width of the room, then walked back out into the hall. The next bedroom was decorated with posters of the latest popular digital pet.

After a minute, Jadorowski spoke. “If Inspectors are so much better than the techs, how come they don’t send Inspectors in first?”

“Oh,” Ian said, glancing into what was clearly the master bedroom, furnished with a four-poster bed, “we aren’t particularly better.” He paused, sniffed the air, and glanced down the landing, laying out the second floor in his mind: guest bedroom on the left, behind the stairs; bathroom at the far end of the landing; Ellen’s room on the far right, then Suzie’s room, then the master bedroom behind him. “We just have different methods. Pay attention to different things.”

“Like what?”

“Well, for one thing, the techs have to worry about keeping the house’s resale value up,” Ian said, stepping into the master bedroom and opening the closet doors. Dozens of perfectly pressed shirts, slacks, blouses and skirts were pushed to the side as he began tapping on the back wall with his fist. “They’re state employees; auctioned houses help pay their salaries. That’s not a primary concern for Inspectors. Neither,” he added as he tossed the first fistful of jackets on the floor, “is keeping the contents of the house in saleable condition.”

“So what are your concerns?” Jadorowski’s voice was heavy with sarcasm.

“Killing Worms,” Ian replied evenly, with a smile.

The Worms were hiding in a concealed storage space off the master bath, nestled behind the master bedroom’s closet. As always, it was their shielding which betrayed them. Ian shook his head as he sounded out the room’s outline by tapping on the bathroom wall. The materials they used to deceive scanning equipment were largely soundproof, giving the walls of their hideout a duller resonance than the other walls in the house.

Ian sighed as he straightened up. “Could you get me a sledgehammer, Jadorowski?” he said. “You did bring one, didn’t you?”

“It’s in the car,” Jadorowski said. “I’ll be right back.”

Ian pursed his lips and stared intently at the bathroom’s floral wallpaper as Jadorowski headed down the hall. The Worms were there, all right — Jadorowski would never have been so cooperative on his own. By concentrating, Ian could feel warmth tingling in his sinuses, taste sickly-sweet milk through his skin. The synaesthetic moment passed, and Ian smiled tightly as he drew his Beretta and racked its slide, chambering a hollow-point bullet. Some people might have been calmed or given a feeling of safety and peace by the short-circuiting of their senses, but he felt only a familiar vertiginous nausea that verged on anticipation. It was the reason he was an Inspector.

Part of the reason, anyway.

Ian thumbed the safety on his gun and placed it beside the sink as Jadorowski tromped his way back up the stairs and into the bathroom, a steel-headed sledgehammer in his right hand. “Here,” he said, leaning it against the wall. Ian watched as Jadorowski opened his mouth as if to ask a question, then blinked and closed it, looking confused. The frustrated look in his eyes took a few moments to die, but after less than a minute, a vapid smile spread across Jadorowski’s face.

“Could you step out into the hall?” Ian asked, and Jadorowski complied, the glaze in his eyes fading slightly as he walked through the master bedroom.

Picking up the hammer, Ian hefted it and touched its head to the section of wall that was his target, then swung it back and smashed it through plaster and wood with a deafening crash. Ignoring Jadorowski’s shout of surprise, Ian swung again and again, widening the hole and tearing aside the layers of gauzy material that had disguised the aliens’ hideaway from radar and sonic scanning. A wave of humid air swept over him, thick with the briny scent of Worm, and Ian tore the hole wider, ripping away wood and plaster until he could see his adversaries.

The Worms were a mottled silvery colour, their damp surfaces glistening with oily rainbows. Ian counted three of them, one swelling with eggs, its squat lozenge of a body bloated and pulsing as thousands of offspring grew inside it. A tsunami of warmth and sleepy satiation washed over him as the Worms squirmed away from the light, sloshing through the shallow water of an inflatable plastic wading pool decorated with neon yellow seahorses and verdant strands of kelp. It took all of Ian’s concentration to keep from smashing his toes with the sledgehammer as he turned back for his gun.

Jadorowski was standing before the sink, jaw slack and eyes glazed over. Ian hadn’t heard him enter. Deliberately, Ian picked up his Beretta and sighted in on the closest Worm, gritting his teeth and bracing his wrist as synaesthesia overwhelmed him again. The flavour of white exploded in his mouth; the sound of a dove’s wings fluttered across his skin; he smelled cinnamon-flavoured silence, and saw endless, all-consuming love, which dissolved into flashing safety.

“You’ll have to do better than that,” Ian said. His voice was damp gravel on his tongue as he pulled the trigger.

After Jadorowski had thrown up in the sink for the second time, Ian hooked one of the dying Worms with the head of the sledgehammer and flipped it onto the bathroom floor. His hollow-point rounds had flared on impact, tearing raw-edged tunnels through the alien’s watery flesh, and greenish liquid leaked out onto the tiles, billowing and dispersing in the water that had spilled from the punctured wading pool.

“Look at it,” Ian said, pulling Jadorowski upright by his collar and pushing him towards the Worm’s slowly deflating body. “Just look. This is what made Glenda and James Robinson such nice people.” He bared his teeth in a tight, cruel smile. “Is it pretty, officer? Do you want to caress it and let it lay its eggs in you?”

“Shut up,” Jadorowski said weakly. Ian stepped around him towards the Worm, continuing as if he hadn’t spoken.

“How did you feel when they reached out to you?” Ian asked mildly, his shoes splashing in the water. “Calm? Safe? At peace with the universe?” He lifted his right shoe above the Worm, held it there for a moment, and brought it down, grinding oily silver flesh into pulp. Clouds of a green so thick it was almost black jetted into the water. “Remember that feeling. It would’ve lobotomized you and made you into this thing’s slave.”

“Shut up,” Jadorowski said again, louder and angrier.

“No,” Ian said, pausing in smearing the Worm across the floor to meet Jadorowski’s gaze. “I won’t shut up. Because I want you to remember this when you think about the Robinsons and how unfair it is that they’re in an internment camp.” He stomped on the Worm again. “I want you to remember why it is you need people like me.”

“You’re a monster.” Jadorowski’s voice was rough and angry.

“A necessary monster,” Ian said, smiling. “You couldn’t do my job.”

The smile stayed on his face as Jadorowski spun on his heel and stalked out into the hall, slamming the bedroom’s door behind him. Cattle, Ian thought. That’s what Jadorowski would be if the Worms got hold of him again. Well-socialized cattle. He resisted the urge to whistle as the front door slammed.

After wiping off his shoes on the master bedroom’s carpet, Ian walked downstairs to the entry hall and listened to the silence, his breath echoing back to him off distant walls. It was too bad Jadorowski had been there when he arrived; he had no baseline to compare the silence to, no knowledge of how the house had sounded before he changed its resonance by rooting out the Worms. Ian sighed resignedly and listened to the echoes of his sigh as they came back to him, swiftly fading into nothingness. The acoustics of the Robinson house pleased him. It was a pity he had to leave so soon, but the disposal and repair crews would be anxious to start fixing the place up for resale.

Another nice family would be moving in any day.

Alec Austin is a graduate of Clarion West and Viable Paradise, and was Junot Diaz’s TA at MIT. He has sold stories to Daily Science Fiction and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, and a poem to Stone Telling. He works as a video game designer.

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