The House That Was Not

At news time, the scientists are standing in a group on the sidewalk in front of the nonexistent house, daring each other to go knock on the door.

The wind picked up, threading through his hair, and Carlos squinted at the House That Was Not. The house, thankfully, did not squint back. It had suddenly occurred to him that he might actually have to worry about that. He resolved to be more careful in the future.

On the other hand, Intern Lewis seemed to have no such qualms. From the corner of his eye Carlos saw him kneel down to pick up a pebble, the hem of his lab coat dragging in the dust. He straightened up, rolled his shoulders, and then let the pebble fly.

It soared through the air in broad arc, high over the scraggly desert-grass lawn and newly-poured sidewalk, and hit the roof of the house just beyond. Or it would have, had the shingles been real. The pebble dropped through the roof, and Carlos swore he heard it hit dirt.

For a second or two he just frowned at the house, which was stubbornly refusing to exist, then pulled up the “record” function on his phone.

“4:43 PM. Intern Lewis still throwing rocks at the house. House still … I don’t know. Phasing out of reality, or something.” He hit pause, stared at the house again. “Thinking about commandeering one of the backhoes from the housing development for further experiments. Or just to drive a backhoe.”

The phone burbled at him. It had been a phone when he got to Night Vale, at least, but he wasn’t sure if it was one anymore. He would swear he could hear it breathing when he held it up to his ear, and lately the only way he’d been able to get it to charge was to leave it in the fridge overnight. In the morning the battery would be full, the fridge stained with a mysterious purple fluid, and against all reason the phone would be hot to the touch. Sometimes, it purred.

And he still couldn’t figure out how to change the stock ringtone.

Carlos sighed and locked the phone. Lewis was throwing dirt clods at the windows, now, and Lacy had gone right up to the sidewalk in front of the house and seemed to be trying to stare it down.

Interns were useless.

It was a nice area for new housing, at least. Desert Creek promised to be the envy of the town, or so said the sign on the road leading into the neighborhood. (It also said, in very small, very carefully-set type, right at the bottom, “IT IS GROWING. IT IS A CANCER BENEATH THE STREETS. THE LIGHTS HAVE CHANGED. IT SPREADS THROUGH THE FLIGHTS OF BIRDS. THERE IS NOWHERE LEFT TO RUN.”) It even had a little creek running through it, true to its name, and if he listened Carlos could just hear it rushing quietly along behind the cul-de-sac they were in.

He wasn’t. Listening, that is. Instead, his frown had morphed into a sort of scowl and was growing darker and more perturbed the longer he looked at the House That Wasn’t. He tapped his fingers against his phone, and jumped when a dulcet voice crept from the tinny speakers.

…Carlos told us that we are, by far, the most scientifically interesting community in the US, and he had come to study just what is going around here. He grinned, and everything about him was perfect, and I fell in love instantly…”

Oh, God. Carlos fumbled with the phone, trying to silence the bizarrely affectionate overtures of Night Vale’s only radio personality before Lewis heard it. This wasn’t even the first time it had happened. Every time the disc jockey began to wax poetic about him (and his hair), Carlos’ phone had picked it up. By this point it wasn’t even acting like a radio; he had heard that particular line at least four times, now. Sometimes it would describe things that hadn’t even happened yet. Carlos feared for the poor barber who was apparently going to be giving him a bad haircut soon—the jockey’s tone had said so much more than his words.

The phone went quiet, finally, but not before it had attracted Lewis’ attention. He was strolling toward him now, grinning like an idiot. “We’ve only been here a week, man, how’d you do that? Have you even met the guy?”

Carlos grunted.

“Oh, come on. I think it’s cute.”

“You know interns used to be scared of me?”

“Yeah, but I also know you’re just a teddy bear.” Lewis rocked back on his heels, hands in pockets, and waited while Carlos pretended to scribble field notes on the back of his hand. Hopefully today the letters wouldn’t rearrange themselves into coupons for Big Rico’s Pizza. “I’m only technically an intern anymore anyway. Hey, Carlos.”

“For the love of God. What?”

“Dare you to go ring the doorbell.”

The doorbell. Carlos glanced first at Lewis, and then at the house. Lacy was now trying to see in through the shuttered windows. “You first.”

“That is not even how dares work.”

“I double-dog-dare you.”

Ooooh, damn!” said the phone. Carlos glared at it, and Lewis laughed. “Fine,” he said, still chuckling. “Maybe I will.”

He turned and headed toward the house. Carlos, wondering what he’d gotten himself into, scrambled after. He was never going to get used to this.

Lacy was waiting for them. “You can touch it,” she said as they approached. “Inanimate stuff just goes right through it, but you can touch it. It feels like … it’s kind of organic-feeling, even the windows.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” said Carlos, for probably the tenth time that day. Lacy shrugged at him. “Hhhgh. Okay, so—“

“You gonna do it?” Lewis interrupted.

“This isn’t grade school, Lewis!”

Lewis laughed again. He had a big laugh, one that echoed. “What, you chicken?” Lacy gave them a curious look, and Lewis jerked his thumb toward Carlos. “Dared him to knock on the door.”

“You said ring the doorbell. Anyway I dared you back.”

“You can ding-dong-ditch if you want, I don’t care.”

“I want in,” Lacy said, eyes lighting up. “But we need stakes.”

This was rapidly spiraling out of control. Carlos watched in a forlorn kind of silence as the interns debated suitable rewards and punishments for something that was quickly escalating into a deranged game of one-upsmanship, involving pressure washers and telephone poles.

His phone rang. Blinking, he answered it. “Hello?”

“Don’t do it,” said a frail little voice.

“…What?”

“Check the clocks. Don’t check the clocks. One of those. But I don’t remember which.”

“Clo—who is this? How’d you get this number?” The interns were staring at him.

The phone line was quiet for a time, filtering through nothing but static and faint breathing. Then there was a series of loud shuffling sounds, as if the phone was being passed to someone else. “Sorry,” said a new voice, a woman’s, “he does that sometimes.”

“…Oh, well—”

“But you really should do what he says. Or shouldn’t. I wasn’t really paying attention.”

Before he could say anything else, she hung up.

Carlos stared at the phone in his hand for a solid ten seconds before looking back up at Lacy and Lewis. They were giving him peculiar looks, and Lacy was sucking on her lip piercing. “…Who was that?” she ventured after a second.

“I don’t …” Carlos trailed off, suddenly distracted. “… where did the house go?”

The interns turned to look where he was staring, at the empty dirt lot where the House That Was Not had been just a minute ago. Beyond it he could see the dry creek bed, which was curious, because he could definitely still hear the sound of running water.

Lewis looked back at him after a few seconds, one brow raised. “What house?”