“I used to live next door to a house rented out to college students, and while they were actually mostly very nice, the near-nightly, all-summer-long, ’til 3am outdoor bonfire & bongo parties when I had infant twins trying to sleep definitely was not my favorite thing about being neighbors. This story was written one of those nights.”
House Party Blues
by Suzanne Palmer
He settles into the house like a new layer of skin, this fresh shell with room to grow and thrive, for a little while. He makes the pipes in the walls sing with his own heartbeat, dresses himself in the wallpaper, clothes himself in rug and woodwork, adorns himself with knicknacks and old family photos full of forced, unconvincing smiles. A husband, a wife, arms around each other, but space evident between.
The husband: beginnings of a beard in one, clean-shaven elsewhere, eyes dark, smile thin. Nowhere does it say wife-beater, but so he is, and those memories taste of beer and blood.
The wife: always in something floral, often long-sleeved, even at the beach, at the park. Leaning towards her husband, as if to try to draw him in turn towards her. That age-old myth told to women: if you love him enough, if you are a good enough wife, he will stop hitting you. He is surprised by the fury in her now; after all she put up with, the bruises and black eyes and broken bones, she never got to see her husband redeemed, her own sacrifices cashed in at last, and she is enraged.
No children; it made taking the house easier. It is not a place stained by laughter or joy.
The house is at the end of a cul-de-sac, only one house close by, and that across a wide swath of over-mowed lawn and obscured by hedges and brush. As he had slid beneath the neighborhood seeking a refuge, tendrils moving through the earth, tasting the edges of thoughts, he had found no sign of competing kin, no enemy awareness. He had found home.
There is a newspaper on the front door mat, damp from the rain. He brings it in, holds it in front of the husband’s eyes, has him read it to him. The man’s swollen tongue chokes on the words, but his mind is compliant, empty. (The bullies always do break easily.) Stock market swings, late-night car crashes, concerned citizens, failing schools. Nothing new, nothing threatening, no undertones of awareness. The wife still fights him, so he lays her in the basement, still and cold in the dust, to find either resignation or decay, whichever comes first.
Spreading wisps, like fine cobwebs, across the roof, he draws in warmth from the last dregs of the day, feeling his presence consolidate and spread through the structure of the house as if post and joist are artery and vein. By the time the moon rises his senses have reached as far away as the neighbors, their distant faint tremors little more than the impermanent skittering of mice feet in a forgotten attic. He leaves the husband slumped on the couch and settles into a contended doze, enjoying having a home again at last.
The sun rises, and a few of the more dull-minded birds come back again to the trees around the house. Their dawn warbling is tinged with a vague anxiety that no casual ear could pick out. A cat slinks through the old, rough-barked rhododendrons, then, spooked, tail fat, flees across the street and stares back at the house with animosity and fear. It will not visit again. A mailman passes mid-morning, then all is quiet.
Late in the afternoon, still lethargic from the move and occupation, still laden with the beginnings of his slow feast, he becomes aware of commotion next door.
Many people, young by the taste of them, spread out on the lawn and porch of the run-down house, loud and laughing and unafraid. More cars arrive, mechanical blights on his organic sense-field, spewing toxins into the air. Around them, a circumference of irritation grows. He rouses the man, dangling the possibility of television later to bring some color back into him, and walks him to the window, looks out through his human eyes. It is not a family group, he speaks in the man’s mind.
The man works his mouth for a while before he coughs back out, “Students. Rental.”
He does not understand, but he can taste the contempt in the man’s mind like copper and bile, feel the resentment of lives not yet squandered, a price not yet paid too dear. It irks him, who is older than this man’s entire species, that this little man can count so much meaningful difference in a handful of years. So he takes the man back to the couch and leaves him there again in the punitive blank glare of the inert TV.
The students, rental are bright spots in the aether, but pristinely unaware; what substantial attention they draw to themselves from the neighborhood is attention drawn away from this house he has claimed, and he can see some benefit and no immediate threat of harm. He withdraws his senses and falls into a wary doze to wait for night, so very like the cat now sprawling on a porch across the street, near-perfect contentment spoiled only by the one narrowed, yellow eye it has fixed intently upon the house.
Dozing and dreaming, his thoughts slip back to the old times and his long-lost brethren, the sharp-edged memories of tooth and claw competition balanced against memories of belonging, of not being alone in the world. It has been centuries since he has encountered the dissipate shell of his very last brother, a mad, angry, unseeeing thing reduced to one small alley and its host of rats. Once, he himself filled an entire town, a stone and wood and flesh nest in the foothills of some brutal mountain range, delighting in his own power and wealth of substance, wasting his human capital in profligate exercises of self-amusement. So much smaller now, more compact, more subtle and careful of his resources, he thinks to himself: I have grown.
He is healthy, solid, strong. The pulse of his own being courses through this wooden frame, an insistent and rhythmic beat that seems not entirely his own.
Not his own. He rouses, hearing the drums through the man on the couch, less distinctly through the woman lying in the cellar below. “Party,” the man murmurs, sweat-soaked brow furrowed, bloated and blackening fingers curling spasmodically together. Then his face falls, defeat written in pallid hue, and he seems about to weep. “Bongos.”
He withdraws from the man, seeking out towards the drums, and finds some scent in the air, something with the unmistakable tang of ritual magic, the vision quest.
Rafters creak and the foundation groans as he draws back, fear taking a sudden hold on him. The man on the couch whines, his eyes rolling back until only the whites show. The woman in the basement spits and arches in the dust, thrashing with splayed fingers around her as if seeking a handhold or a weapon.
The cat, from the far porch, has slunk off somewhere out of both sight and sense.
How has he missed it, that these students are adepts? What magic are they attempting to weave? Is he the target, his arrival noticed after all, despite his care? Or has he missed something else nearby, something hidden?
A gutter falls loose at one corner, suddenly rusty, and dangles across a window. He forces himself to calm, re-center, regroup his senses around his perimeter.
…No, he tells himself, the rhythm of the drums is all wrong, lacking in power and coherent focus, and the consciousnesses falling under the thrall of the magic herb not expanding but contracting into themselves, little spiral eddies of dissolute ego. What, he thinks, borrowing a phrase and memory from his human components, the hell?
The doorbell rings, like a shot to his nerve-centers, unanticipated. He’d been watching the students so closely he’s failed to notice one of the other neighbors — the house with the cat — has approached, and is standing on his own porch, shuffling from foot to foot, irritated, anxious, angry, staring over at the party next door.
He can pull judgment from the woman’s mind, still mentally thrashing down in the basement: Linda. Nosy. Always up in people’s business. He can also read there the hope that, when no one answers the bell, she will assume the worst and call for help, that someone will come save them. She is still holding out hope for her husband, who has not thought once about his wife since he first slipped into the man’s mind.
Best to try to shoo this neighbor away, then.
Rousing the man, he cleans him up, pulling what parts of him had started to fall loose back in, sealing his skin back over, making sure his shirt was buttoned straight. The man doesn’t look well, doesn’t move smoothly, but he has done this bit of puppetry before, knows the right words. He rides him to the door, and opens it just before the neighbor can ring the bell again.
“Robert,” the neighbor says. One corner of her mouth twitches up as she peers around his shoulder into the house; the neighbor doesn’t like him. Then she looks at him more fully on, in the yellowish, bug-splattered light of the crooked porch bulb, and takes a half-step back. “Are you okay?”
“Flu,” he says, the man’s mouth and tongue slurring the words, but making them.
“Is Cath in?”
“Sleeping,” he says.
Doubt in her face. “With that racket?”
“Flu,” he answers.
“Oh,” the woman Nosy Linda says, and he sees the acceptance of that comfortable untruth settle and stick. “I don’t know about you two, but I’ve had more than enough of this. All summer long!”
She glares at him, waiting for agreement.
“Yes,” he manages to say.
She makes a little sound of exasperation and throws her hands up. “Well? Should one of us call the cops? They did nothing last time. As if anyone in their right minds can’t tell exactly what they’re smoking over there.”
Her mind is bare of defense, laid out like a buffet of spoiled food; cops are police, police are authority, authority is danger. “No,” he says, and has to work on the words. “I will go.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” the woman Nosy Linda says. “You want to get in another fight with them? And you look like death warmed over. I’ll just call.”
Most authority was just as unseeing, unknowing as the rest of the sheep they imagined themselves herding, but word would seep through, here and there, and eventually find a listening ear. He wants to be long gone from this place, his touch upon it faded and unreadable, before anyone comes hunting.
He touches Nosy Linda’s arm, and she jumps. Her face pales. “I will go,” he repeats
She backs off the porch, rattled, not sure why. “Fine, Robert. When those stoners beat the shit out of you, maybe the cops can finally find something to arrest them for.”
He watches her scurry back across the circle to her house. Death warmed over, she’d said. He likes that, will have to remember it. These creatures, with their shallow, moment-in-the-sun lives, are still capable of enough insight for wit; it is what makes them more than just food.
Husband Robert — what remains of him — tries to lift one hand, one salutatory finger in defiant gesture, but manages no more than a faint tremble and low grunt. The deterioration has been sped up by the activity at the door. One lung puckers up and falls flat, tiny bleeders appear under skin and mid-entrail, leeching energy and life faster and faster into the whorl of his appetite. Riding him over the threshold, out of his immediate embrace, would be catastrophic to the body’s remaining integrity. Flu will be insufficient.
He shuts the door quickly, before Robert can fall out and apart. The insistent, discordant drums, rhythm off and unpredictable, thunder through the house as if to infect and corrupt his own pulse.
One last effort moves the Husband Robert to a corner, where he curls the man as gently as he can upon the floor, builds a glassy shell around him, and lets the remaining substance of the man fall completely into the hungry void.
There is still the woman, Wife Cath.
Her hours in the basement have not dimmed her fury, but he pulls her to her feet and walks her up the stairs. Her eyes fall on the glassy shell in the corner, and he can feel the grief like bittersweet spice, the loss of the husband she still thought capable of redemption. He was beyond saving, he tells her, but she does not believe, until he opens to her the faint strains of Robert’s mind and memories still left within him.
“Bastard,” she says. Then, “Get out of my house.”
Willpower, indeed! His incorporation of her is slow, where Robert melted too easily at his touch; the years of him have bred steel into her.
It does not happen that way, he tells her. I am the house, the house is me. As are you, now, simply a part.
“You could leave if you wanted,” she says.
That is true, but irrelevant. Instead, he says, “We have a task.”
Across the street, he can feel Nosy Linda’s attention wavering between the party and his house, impatient for conflict. He sets himself in Wife Cath’s mind and releases his hold on her body. Immediately she lunges for the door, bone-white fingers splayed toward the knob, nearly touching before he reasserts control and brings her crashing down onto the worn, dusty carpeting. None of that.
Locked down deep in her own body, she can’t respond, but the defiance in her is a hot coal. The neglected and overgrown shrubs beside the house wilt, their leaves crackling towards brown, and tree roots brushing the foundation shrivel back and away. It would be the work of moments to drain enough life to chill that heat at her core, but then she would not be in a condition to walk out of the house. He will have to ride her, and he hates that, hates being outside his shell of wood and brick and nail and bone. He had planned for a leisurely stay at this house, a feast and a comfortable slumber, a few snacks for the road as relatives and investigators and realtors and strangers trickled through. Now, he thinks, having his next destination planned sooner rather than later would be prudent.
We go, he tells Wife Cath, raising her to her feet. He wraps his essence around her, sinking tentacles deep into her body. When he lets go, she seems whole, almost unblemished. They walk to the door, open it, and he steps her out onto the front steps. What little tug he might have felt he writes off to the odd sensation of being now in two pieces: here on the porch, back in the house. It discomfits him.
Across the short stretch of yard, the incessant, off-rhythm beat of the drums drives one nail after another into his calm, and he walks the woman quickly, down the sidewalk and up the drive of the student rental.
Cars are parked everywhere, packing the driveway and scattered on the lawn to no clear plan or order. People mill in the side yard, noisy and unlistening, bottles in hand. The smoke-filled air is motionless and cloying. Thunderous music and shouting and laughter pour out of the house like a thick syrup, swamping everything in its path, the beat faltering then swelling as each new, unknown, untrustworthy inspiration sets in.
A young man with disordered, yellowish hair, his vitality like an aura around him, lounges against the sagging porch, a girl pressing herself against his hip. “What’s the matter?” he calls out, as he walked Cath closer, “your asshole husband too busy to come over and threaten to shoot us himself?” He stubs something out on the porch rail, tosses it into the bushes. The herb in the air and in his blood foul his brain, but he has drawn the attention of others on the porch.
“We don’t have a gun,” Wife Cath says, the words truthful if not true. He lets her glimpse the gun anyway, see where it has been hidden all these years, see the care it has gotten, the almost sexual caress of the oiled, gunmetal barrel. All those times after a beating when he’d said, I should just blow your stupid ugly face off takes on new importance, and if he’d let her — he doesn’t — she would have started shaking, would have cried out, may have collapsed to her knees.
Instead he fills her with all Husband Robert’s ugly, violent daydreams, his contempt at her for being so weak as to still love him, wondering where her edge is and if he’ll ever push her over it, his naked, raw need to try. Wife Cath is stunned and broken, and he envelops her mind and soul fully now, has driven her compliant at last. Standing her straight, he controls the words. “Flu,” he says, almost having to yell to be heard. “Please, quiet.”
“Oh, please, is it?” the woman says, wrapping one arm loosely around the waist of the young man. Her hair is the wrong color, her clothes too tight for her frame, and a tiny fleck of death, like dust deep in her lungs, is starting to breathe and stretch and grow. She holds a cigarette to her lips, lazily blows smoke back out a half breath later. “That’s new. What do you think, Doug?”
“It’s Phizz’s birthday.”
“Aw, but she said please.”
“True, Trix,” the Man Doug says. “So I guess that’s no, then. Sorry. Tell your husband I said hello.”
“Police,” he/she suggests.
Doug plucks the cigarette from his woman’s fingers, takes a deep pull, and hands it back. His body sends out waves of alcohol-fueled sweat — tainted, stupid meat. “Fuck off,” he says. “You’re trespassing.”
“Asshole,” Wife Cath says, without his consent. She is fighting him again. He can feel the hate seething behind her eyes shining anew, and stronger.
Wife Cath has opened her mouth, wide. The Man Doug turns pale and stumbles back up a step, nearly falling, nearly knocking Woman Trix over. She’s showing him the tentacles, he realizes, too late. Woman Trix also sees, and screams. Her noise is lost in the din of the party behind them.
He draws in energy, feels the small, most-innocent things swarming in the summer air around the light die and drop. Things are ruined now. His house-self is detaching, seeking out the hidden lines under the earth, finding the way to escape.
“Monster!” Woman Trix is screaming. Her brain is churning on little more than instinct and primal terror.
Authority will come, and if that word is passed on, it will reach the ears of those who hunt. He needs to buy time. He touches the Man Doug, draws him in, steps over the small gristly puddle remaining to reach through skin and bone and take Trix’s mind and its sad meat package as one. There is screaming, but no longer from her.
He/she lets the body fall; best morsel taken, the rest will go to waste, but there is no help for that now. To his astonishment, he feels Wife Cath’s surprising satisfaction that the two deaths had been deserved, and overdue.
From behind the house, the drums continue uncoordinated, unabated.
His house-self has found a small cottage, on a forlorn and toxic lake, whose owners have not returned yet for the summer. A window is broken, and a man is inside, roughly and methodically stripping out all the copper from the walls. It is a small shell, but it will serve as temporary refuge, respite, and refreshment. The energy path leading there is circuitous but clear; he need only finish the unpleasantness next door, separate himself from house and woman, and go.
The part of him that rides Wife Cath steps towards the partiers, some of whom are oblivious, some of whom are backing away staring at the blood on his/her hands. The herb has dulled them, made them doubt their witness, and he catches two more while they stand and gape and gibber.
A siren whine peaks, at last, above the din. He/she turns and sees Nosy Linda in the driveway, framed by a cacophony of angry blue lights. Too close!
The neighbor sees Wife Cath, and rushes forward. It takes a mere flicker of a thought to pull the blood in through his/her skin, assimilate and redistribute it, before Nosy Linda reaches hers.
“Cath!” Nosy Linda shouts, over the incessant drums. Then she sees the body of Woman Trix, the remains of other gutted partiers, and shrieks. “Oh Jesus!” the woman screams, and grabs him/her and pulls her away. “Oh Jesus, oh jesus! Did Richard do this?”
He is ready to consume her too, to shut her up if nothing more, and flee if he can, but Wife Cath is there wrestling control from him. “He had a knife,” Wife Cath hisses. There is a madness in her, something snapped and broken and wild. “He ran away!”
Wife Cath points at the woods.
“We have to get you away from here!” Nosy Linda says. She is half-pleading, half-crying. She pulls him/her back away from the student, rental, just in time for two police cars to pull in, in front of them.
The first officer gets out, does not yet seem impressed or worried. “Back there!” Nosy Linda yells, and points.
He looks to his partner, who has just gotten out of the cruiser to stand beside him. They are bored, irritated. The partner is thinking of violence, imagining himself with his nightstick beating people to the rhythm of the drums. “Okay, time to shut a party down,” he says.
“They’re dead!” Nosy Linda wails, and bursts into loud tears.
This is not what the officers are expecting to hear. Nightstick Officer moves his hand to his gun. “Ma’am,” he says, “what exac–”
A stoned girl, trying to run but having difficulties with balance, comes down the driveway and nearly collides with Officer Partner. Her eyes are wide, pupils like black holes boring into her skull. She has blood on her hands. “Hey,” she says. “Something’s wrong with Trix. I tried to get her up but she won’t move.”
“Uh…” The officer says. He is entirely unprepared to deal with this. His mind is racing in panicked circles.
“My friend’s husband, he went crazy and he stabbed some of these stoner party losers,” Nosy Linda shouts. “He ran off into the woods! He wasn’t acting himself, like he was on drugs, and I think he drugged my friend here too.”
The explanation seems to solidify the officer’s thoughts, and he turns to his partner. “Call backup and have them stand by. Tell them we may need an ambulance and possibly a K9 team. I’m going to go check this out.” Looking at the two women, he starts to say, “You two, stay here–” but Nosy Linda is having none of that.
“This woman just witnessed horror,” she says. “I’m taking her back across the street to my house — that’s my house right there,” she points, “and we’re going wait there for you, when you’re ready to talk to us.”
She spins Wife Cath around, slipping an arm through her elbow. “Let’s get you some coffee,” she says. “Black, I think, and lots of it.”
He sees an advantage in not arguing; Nosy Linda is successfully extracting him from the kill zone under Authority’s nose. From her house, he should be able to pull his fragmented self back together and slip away. Wife Cath is not fighting him, in this; her thoughts are murky, but he can read her craving for distance from the party that more than matched his own. It will be over soon, he tells her.
Nosy Linda hauls Wife Cath by the arm through her front door, slamming and throwing the deadbolt behind them. Her cat lets out an ear-piercing yowl and flees the room, his tail a puffed-out standard of terror behind him. “Oh my Jesus, Cath,” she says, standing on tiptoe to peer out the thin window at the top of the door. “I’ve told you a million times that one day he was going to snap and kill someone. I just thought it was going to be you. No offense.”
“You’ve been a good friend,” Wife Cath says, and again the words are her own, snuck out under his guard, spoken soothingly but with a bite of fury, barely held back, that is also entirely hers.
His house-body is fully disengaged now, seeping through the cracks in the foundation back down into the deeper earth.
“Of course I’m your friend,” Nosy Linda says, still peering out the window as more police cars arrived, and an ambulance. There are more sirens coming, some close enough to hear, others just echoes he can feel on the approaching road. “I stood by you, even after everything, didn’t I? Good old Linda, next door. Well, I guess now you understand how difficult that’s been.”
Wife Cath begins to raise an arm, and he grabs for full control again, but she is slippery inside his grasp and the arm keeps moving, until she has put her hand on Nosy Linda’s shoulder. Nosy Linda turns. “There’s something,” she manages to say, “I need to tell you…”
“Cath…” Nosy Linda says, her face wrinkling into a sad smile. “I–”
“Not you,” Wife Cath spits out, “you gossipy, judgmental, self-righteous prune of a woman. You.”
He knows she means him. Distended, he can’t draw on his full strength, but he wraps himself around Wife Cath, like a smothering blanket, like walls and shingles and brick, and contracts, trying to crush her back down into nothingness. She is like stone, hard and cold, and they are locked together for moments as Nosy Linda draws back, her face a comical O of outrage.
He can feel Wife Cath smiling. “I will not,” she says, “be a victim.”
It is a shock as she digs at him from within, getting purchase where none should be gotten, and turns them both inside out. She, for a brief impossible moment, contains him. And she rides him, just as he’d ridden her, her fingers tightening on Linda’s shoulder as she uses him to draw the life out of her, repairing herself, fixing the entropy of his presence within her. Nosy Linda squeaks, tries to pull away, and tumbles to her knees, as he fights to be free, finding the cracks and tricks she does not know yet about how to be a monster.
He frees himself just as she lets go of Nosy Linda. The woman is still alive, but drained, weak, stripped. They balance there, in equal control of Wife Cath’s body, himself diminished, herself almost glowing with stolen life. How did you–? he asks her.
“My whole life has been learning from monsters,” she says, “now get out.”
He does not know if he could take her again. He is damaged and weak, and most of him is in the soil, moving away. He has never been defeated by a host before, never been evicted, and it burns, even as does some admiration.
He will not be taken by surprise again.
Letting go, he floods out of Wife Cath, leaving her the gift of Husband Robert’s other moments, though few, of heartfelt tenderness and affection, and the terrible fear that resonated through all his waking moments that, someday, he would lose her.
Wife Cath is on the phone, and he catches 911, and friend, and stroke, as he spreads down through the floorboards, around the crawlspace beneath the house, through the tiny ways and paths, some physical, some psychic, that breach all mortal structures.
The rest of him is waiting, as well as a cabin in the wood and its welcome sanctuary, and time to consider and understand. He takes the bongo player on his way, just for a snack on the road.
About the Author
Suzanne Palmer is a writer, artist, and professional linux administrator who lives in western Massachusetts. Previous work of hers has appeared in Asimov’s and Analog. Her story “Ten Poems for the Mossums, One for the Man” was a Eugie Award finalist, and her Clarkesworld story “The Secret Life of Bots” won the 2018 Hugo Award for Best Novelette.