Empty Houses

This story was originally written around 2007,  when I was 19, and was published in the summer of 2010.  It was the first short story I ever sold, originally available on the website for the horror zine Dark Recesses, which appears to have gone under and then resurfaced with new management. The story is no longer there (the site was totally redesigned), so I’m reposting it here for posterity.  I’ve turned to writing scholarship and criticism more generally, but my fictive impulses still find their outlet on this blog and, obviously, my Twine games.

Empty Houses
by Michael Lutz

The house high on the hill was new, state-of-the-art it was once called, a behemoth of glass walls and cool white stone, and it was in immaculate condition. Every morning Argus stepped out of his closet and offered a cheerful greeting to the Housemind, which did not have the capacity to respond, but Argus said hello anyway.

On Mondays he mowed the lawn.

On Tuesdays he inspected the basement and cleaned the walls.

On Wednesdays he washed windows.

On Thursdays he went to town, for though he’d been told not to bother buying or preparing food he hadn’t been ordered to stop his weekly sojourns. He now walked a mile and a half down the hill to Sweetgum Street, stood for a few moments as if admiring the minivan that had been smashed into the light pole there since June, and returned home.

Friday mornings were spent in the attic running diagnostics on the Housemind while Friday afternoons were occupied with making unanswered telephone calls to neighbors who hadn’t visited recently.

Weekends were for inspection of the house’s interior: changing bedclothes, dusting the places the Housemind’s tiny drones could not reach, making sure the canned foodstuffs left in the pantry were not souring.

Every day after making a final once-over of the house and its grounds, Argus bid the Housemind goodnight and stepped into his closest at ten o’clock, leaving the empty house to bask beneath the blackened and pock-marked moon.

*

One day in September three men, a woman, and a small girl came down the dusty yellow road, heading toward town. They were each dressed in rags and coats. Two of the men pushed shopping carts piled high with cans, boxes, plastic bottles, and a half-dozen or so coloring books. A large bearded fellow led the way, cradling a shotgun in his arms expectantly. One of the men pushing the carts also had a shotgun hanging at his side, but the other man and the woman carried only pistols. It happened that this day in the lonesome September was a Monday. Argus was mowing the lawn as the party appeared over the hill. The leader, when he first saw the glitter of sunlight on Argus’s head, shouted something and swung his shotgun to the ready. The young woman cringed, pulled the child to her. The small girl jingled like a set of keys due to a band of bells looped around her neck on pink string.

The other two men readied their firearms. Argus recognized the signs of danger and did what was appropriate: his hands came off the handle of the mower and reached out, empty, alongside his head.

“Christ, Burt,” said the second man with a shotgun, stepping around the leader to get a better look. “He’s just a tinman.”

Burt grunted, the haggard growth of beard on his face rippling like the pelt of a snarling cat.

“He’s mowing the goddamn lawn, Burt. I’m near blind and even I can see that,” the other man said, fingering the rim of a pair of cracked spectacles resting across his nose. “And you know as well as I do that it doesn’t affect mechs, the only thing they got to worry about is being smashed up by the caravans. And besides, what’s buckshot gonna do at this distance?”

The bespectacled man dropped his shotgun and stepped forward to stand between Burt’s barrel and Argus. “We don’t mean to hurt you,” he called, squinting through the cracks in his glasses.

“Thank you, sir,” Argus replied.

“That means you can put your arms down.”

“Of course.”

“Keep on doing your work. We’ll talk more when we get down there, yeah?”

“If you wish so, sir.”

*

“Hello,” Argus said to the group as they drew abreast of him. He stopped the mower and bowed his head. “My name is Argus of the Allendale family. I am sorry to say Mr. Allendale is not in right now. In accordance with the Mandate, the family has vacated the premises until further notice. If you should like to leave a message, I will be more than happy to relay it to Mr. Allendale upon his return.”

The bespectacled man wiped a dirty hand across his brow. “We don’t know your Allendale. We’re travelers, you might say, all from out east. My name’s Jack, from Ohio. This is Burt from Illinois, then Ray from Vermont.” The men nodded.

“And then,” Jack continued, “the pretty young lady is Judy and her cousin Terry, who we picked up on our way through Kansas.”

“If you will pardon me,” Argus interrupted, “while I am most pleased to meet all of you, if you have no business with Mr. Allendale, I will have to say goodbye and get back to my chores. If you are solicitors I should have you know that even if you choose to leave a message Mr. Allendale will not respond.”

Jack returned his attention to the tinman. “Look, I’m sorry, we’re not salesmen. Or anything much, really. We’re just trying to make our way out to Seattle. They say there’s still people there. Not like the caravans… and sure as hell not like the walkers.”

Argus cocked his head to show puzzlement. “I am sorry. I do not understand.”

Jack’s eyes widened as he and his fellow travelers exchanged looks. “You don’t know?”

“I do not know what? I am sorry. I do not understand. If you wish to leave a message for the Allendales I will be happy to relay it to them.”

“Of course he doesn’t know,” sighed Burt. “He’s a goddamn tinman, Jack. He’s not gonna be any use.”

“When did… when did the Allendales leave, Argus?” Jack asked.

“The eighteenth of April, in accordance with the Government Mandate. The sabbatical is indefinite.”

Terry, who until now had been studying the tinman with a mixture of deep interest and deeper unease, turned to Judy. “He’s been alone all this time?”

“It’s all right,” Judy said, hugging the girl. “I’m sure Argus’s been okay with being alone, haven’t you, Argus?”

“I am performing optimally.”

“Argus,” Jack said, “you have to listen and understand something. You know about what happened, right? In New York? And DC?”

“Of course,” Argus chirruped. “What would you like to know? I am sorry I cannot provide live news feeds, those servers appear to be down.”

“Argus, those places are gone. There’s nothing there, it’s all burnt up. Hell, even… haven’t you looked up at the moon? You don’t know anything about that, Argus?”

“I am sorry,” said the tinman. “I do not understand. Would you like to leave a message for Mr. Allendale?”

Jack sighed. “Listen, Argus, if you can help us in any way–”

“I would be happy to aid you in any manner that does not infringe on my present orders.”

“Right, of course. Now, Argus, if we left could you come with us?”

“It is my duty to tend to the house while the family is away.”

“Could you give us any weapons or supplies or–”

“If you would like Mr. Allendale’s business card I may fetch one presently.”

“No, Argus, what I mean is, if you have any weapons, any guns or bullets — or any food…”

“Food will not be served until the Allendales return. If you wish to make a dinner date, please tell me which day of the week you prefer, as well as any favorite dishes or allerg–”

“Goddammit, Jack,” said Burt, “if we need the food we can just go into the house and take it. He can’t hurt us. They programmed that into them.”

Argus swiveled his head, his crystal eyes shining, to look at Burt. “You are threatening force, sir. I will warn you once more, after which if you do not vacate the premises I shall summon the authorities.”

Burt laughed. “Authorities? What authority you know of that’s left?”

“I am afraid I don’t understand. If you continue to threaten–”

“Shut the hell up!” Burt snarled.

Terry jumped, her necklace of bells jingling as she wrapped her arm around Judy’s waist. Her cousin bent down, embracing the child and whispering to her while Ray looked on with empathy.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Jack asked Burt, Argus forgotten for the moment.

“I’m trying to make sure we live long enough to make it over the damn mountains, Jack. It seems one of us is gonna have to–”

“You’re making sure we live, Burt? Cause last I remember, it was us who made sure you lived. Remember St. Louis?” Though he was the smaller man, Jack spoke sternly. He held Burt’s eyes with his own for a long moment, waiting, and then–

Burt looked away, chuffing.

“Argus,” Jack said, “we understand if you can’t help us. You do what you have to do.”

“Of course, sir.”

“But listen… there’s something behind us. Things behind us. We managed to outrun them because they’re not very fast, but they can track you, they just smell something and have to follow. They — they used to be people, but not anymore. I don’t mean like the caravans… Jesus, I don’t know if this makes any sense to you.” He cleared his throat.

“They’ll look like people, Argus, and I don’t think they’ll hurt you because of what you are, but they’re still dangerous for normal folks like us. So if you can somehow tell the difference between us and… whatever they are… you could…”

“I could what, sir?”

The man’s mouth tightened. “Destroy them.”

Argus paused. “I see, sir. Would you like to leave a message for the Allendales?”

Jack let out a long stream of breath. “Sorry, Argus. We’ll be leaving now,” he said.

“Goodbye sirs, miss, and little miss. Please return when the Allendales are here to receive you.”

Jack had only taken two steps when he stopped, his attention caught by something in the distance. “Argus?”

“Sir?”

“Who lives across the road there, in that old house by the pond?”

“The Clemms, sir.”

“You mean they’re… inside?”

“I imagine not, sir, due to the Mandate. But to be honest they have no Housemind for me to communicate with so I am uncertain. They haven’t answered any calls lately.”

“I see. Goodbye, Argus.”

“Have a pleasant walk.”

*

At seven o’clock, just as the sun was beginning to set and the western horizon to glow over the mountains, there was a rapid knock at the door. Argus, who had been cleaning the dust from the crystal, placed a wineglass delicately on the kitchen counter, dried his hands, and went to answer. “Hello,” he began while opening the door, “my name is Argus. I am sorry to say Mr. Allendale is not–”

“Argus,” said Jack, “we need your help.”

Beside him was Ray, hand clutched to his chest and the sleeve of his ragged jacket stained a deep crimson. Behind him stood Burt, looking as dour as always, and further away Judy attempted to soothe a wailing Terry.

“What is the injury?” said Argus.

“A bite, a possum bite.”

“I am qualified to give first aid and dress wounds. Please, come in.” Argus stepped aside, holding one hand out to welcome them.

*

“If I start to go, promise you’ll shoot me.”

“You’re not gonna start doing anything.”

“There was something wrong with that possum, Jack.”

“It was starving, that’s all.”

Ray hissed through clenched teeth as Argus poured disinfectant over the shallow but bleeding gash on the back of his hand, the liquid sizzling as it dribbled down the sink. Jack leaned in the doorway to the spacious bathroom. “Is it gonna be okay, Argus?”

“It appears superficial. I would still recommend seeing a doctor as soon as possible, however. There is a clinic in town. The Medicmind there tells me there is a free appointment slot as early as tomorrow morning. If you like I can make a res–”

“That’s unnecessary, Argus, but thanks. We’ll get to a doctor… at our next stop.”

“Of course. And the next time you and your friends go out hunting, please be sure to remember that opossums often ‘play dead,’ when they appear to be dead when in fact–”

“I think I learned my lesson, Argus, really,” Ray insisted.

“The bleeding has slowed. Excellent. Please, just a few moments more.” Argus patted Ray’s wound dry and wrapped it in clean white bandages. “Change the dressing daily and be sure to apply disinfectant,” he said, releasing the young man’s hand.

“All right, yeah, no problem,” said Burt, who had been watching silently from behind Jack. “Let’s just get out of here.”

The four of them walked to the front room, where Judy and Terry were looking at pictures hanging on the wall. Every few seconds the pictures changed or switched places in their frames. Some were loops, like the one of Mr. Allendale and his son standing together on the beach, laughing and holding a fat catfish between them. “Do you think they’re still together?” asked Terry.

Judy chewed her lip and was saved from answering as Argus, Ray, Jack, and Burt entered. “Oh, hey,” she said, “what’s the diagnosis?”

“He’ll live,” Burt said, and Ray gave an uncertain frown.

“Well,” sighed Jack, “we’ve been a bother for far too long. Even though it’s late, we’d best be on our way.”

“It was a pleasure having you here.” Argus escorted them to the front door and waved goodbye as the travelers walked out into the night, the sound of Terry’s bells growing fainter as they disappeared into the dark.

*

The following night the alarm went off. Wake up, the Housemind shouted in Argus’s closet, wake up wake up in the pantry wake up wake up.

Soon he was in the pantry holding the intruder by the neck. “Hello again, sir. You are on private property,” Argus said. “The Housemind informs me you have broken the lock on the back door. The local Crimemind has been contacted and the authorities are on their way. Until then I shall restrain you, but please remember that I will not injure you.”

“Go to hell,” Burt growled, the mane of his beard bushed up around his face by Argus’s silver hand. “Go to hell, you mindless piece of–”

“This conversation is being recorded. It may be used as evide–”

Burt swung one leg out, hooking it around the back of Argus’s knee, but the tinman did not even waver. “There are no police coming! Not anymore!” Burt shouted.

“I will detain you while we wait,” Argus told the man, his fingers looped about the man’s neck like a steel collar.

Two hours later, Burt was sobbing, his neck chafing and his fingers sore from clawing at Argus’s hand. “Please, I just — I wasn’t gonna do anything, honestly, I just wanna get back to the others… let me go, please…” His beard, puffed up in a mane around his head, was becoming damp with sweat and tears.

“I was ordered not to tolerate trespassers. If the authorities do not arrive I have the option of presenting you myself.” So Argus wrenched Burt’s arms behind his back and they walked out of the house and all the way down the hill to Sweetgum Street, past the minivan smashed into the light post, past the old grocery store and its sickening stench of rotted vegetables, right up to the municipal building and into the sheriff’s office. They passed through a side office where, in an ergonomic chair, was perched a uniformed skeleton, its head thrown back and a revolver still clutched in one withered hand. A dark brown butterfly was unfurled across the wall behind it.

Burt tried his best to vomit at the scene but Argus was unaffected. He saw only that the station was deserted for the time being, so he fished the keys out of the desk with his free hand and unlocked one of the two cells in the back. Again Burt begged to be let go: “Please, the others don’t know where I went. In the morning they’ll be worried about me.”

“They may come to the Allendale residence searching for you, at which time I will gladly redirect them here, explaining that you broke the law and therefore are obligated to meet with the police.”

“But the police aren’t here! You saw that thing in the office…”

“I do not understand. You will remain here until the police arrive. I will return daily to meet with you. If the authorities are not here, I will act as your caretaker until they arrive, at which point you will be transferred officially into their custody. If your friends have any objections I will advise them to wait as well.”

“There’s no one coming, Argus!”

“The authorities have been contacted and are on their way. I will return home now and visit you again tomorrow.”

Argus was good to his word. The next day he came to the station again, saw that Burt was asleep in his cell, and prepared lunch from the stocks at the empty house on the hill. When the man finally awoke he did not speak, but only accepted the food and ate in morose silence. No one came for him, and for the next two weeks Argus’s routine was expanded. He walked to the station and fixed Burt’s meals in between sets of chores at the house.

Once Burt asked if he could watch television to alleviate his boredom, and Argus complied. There was a small portable set on a rolling cart in a cabinet down the hall, but after Argus went through the trouble of wheeling it down and plugging it in Burt was dismayed to see that no channels were broadcasting save one, a skewed view of an empty news desk. The scene, though live according to the logo in the corner of the screen, was completely still and silent. “Shall you watch this?” asked Argus.

“No,” Burt whispered. “No. Turn it off. Take it away.”

“As you wish.”

*

At the beginning of the third week they came, an unsmiling throng that rushed down the hill toward the town. They shuffled and stumbled over the lawn of the empty house, each one moving with mysterious purpose, drawn by a force beyond an outsider’s perception. They staggered past Argus without even seeming to notice him. One might bump into his polished metal chest every so often, to which he offered a polite “Pardon me,” but they never replied. He couldn’t quite understand why no one responded to his medical advice when he commented on a gash across the forehead or the obvious fracture of an arm or leg.

Many of them had swarmed the municipal building, he discovered later. It was a hassle pressing through to get inside, but soon he made his way to the solitary cell. He found an entire silent horde pressed up to the bars, their arms flailing madly within the bars’ confines. “Please, ladies and gentlemen, move,” he said, pushing them out of the way.

Burt was gone. Something had been splattered across the floor and the walkers at the bars were scooping up handfuls and shoving it into their mouths. Argus returned with a mop to clean up the mess but when he unlocked the cell door the strangers poured past him, swarming the mess, and no matter how much Argus complained they refused to move. When the throng finally fell back there was very little left for him to clean up.

*

The walking throng thinned over the months but did not stop. The weather grew colder; there came a hard snow. Drifts were up to fifteen or twenty feet, and though the house on the hill stood far above the worst of it Argus could not go to town even if he were ordered. In dips between the drifts, pallid green fingers poked out of the snow, frozen in curls. The Clemms’ old home across the road collapsed with a shriek near the end of December. A family of mice took refuge against the cold in the basement of the house on the hill, which kept Argus busy for some time.

Spring came, and with spring came the thaw. The ice on the small pond by the Clemm house thinned and cracked. The curled fingers reaching out of the snow drifts blackened and dripped away, leaving only white bones; there was a rancid stink that, though it did not bother Argus, triggered a latent process in the Housemind across the way, and soon the house on the hill was puffed full of an artificial floral scent.

Then the snow melted in earnest and flooded down into the Clemms’ pond. There was so much runoff the pond grew higher until it was more akin to a lake. It enveloped the ruins of the Clemm home and carried them down the hill, whisking away the skeletal corpse of an opossum that had lain on the kitchen floor since the prior September.

Argus came out when the ground was clear and began his chores, raking away dead leaves and branches and whatever bones hadn’t slipped away in the thaw. He bleached the stone walls, cleared the gutters, and polished the windows. The house had been empty for a year.

*

The third group of travelers came in early August, heading east. Through the house’s expansive back windows Argus saw them as they entered town: a wagon piled high with bags and pulled by a team of horses, followed by smaller but similar wagons carrying weary-looking women and men. Many held their arms protectively around young children, at least one of whom jingled when she moved — though perhaps that was only the sound of the chains binding the legs of these riders to their wagons.

The entire procession was surrounded by two-dozen or more men on horseback, all carrying guns. From his vantage point Argus watched as the menagerie stopped at the old grocery store. Several men smashed the windows before ducking inside and emerging with plastic sacks fattened by cans. The bags were piled onto the wagons before the procession began to move again and the men on horseback spoke to one another, pointing up the hill. Argus saw the gestures, and even though the distance was enough to make him indiscernible to the people below, he thought they were greeting him.

He waved in return as the caravan shifted direction, moving up the hill.

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