Congratulations to Joe Graves for winning the May short story contest. There were a ton of great submissions, but Joe’s story rose to the top.

Find the runner-up and honorable mention here. And don’t forget to enter June’s writing contest. We’re looking for pieces along the theme “Radicalized.” This month we’re accepting all genres and formats–short stories, essays, poetry, creative nonfiction, etc. You can interpret the theme as creatively as you wish. There is no cost to enter, and writers retain all rights to their work. Learn more about the June Writing Contest here.

Joe’s story, “The House,” creates a near-future world that is fun to read and also captures an essential essence of the human experience.

Joe Graves grew up in Hicksville, Ohio as one of seven kids, but now lives in Columbus, Ohio with his wife, Allyssa, and their son, Finn. He is the lead pastor at Central City Church. He enjoys almost anything creative but loves storytelling the best, currently exploring the intersection of faith & science, technology & nature, and issues of justice through the science fiction genre. Learn more about Joe at JoeGraves.org.

Writer Joe Graves
Author Joe Graves – JoeGraves.org

Presented unedited and unabridged, please enjoy the winning short story:

The House

The House went on about the day’s upgrades while the man took his shower. He couldn’t imagine why this upgrade was any different from all the others and mostly ignored the lecture. By the time he climbed out the shower, the House had finished its explanation, and the man had caught none of it but agreed to hearing all of it, if for no reason than to get the House to shut up.

The House dried him off and he grabbed the clothes laid out on the bench by the sink.

In putting on his shirt, he noticed an unfamiliar smell. He pulled the collar close and sniffed again, drawing the scent from the cloth into his nostrils. He did it again, loud enough for his sniffing to be heard throughout. Then he flattened his shirt against his chest, looked up, and addressed the House, who took note that this was the man’s first remark all morning.

“House, are we using new laundry detergent?”

“Yes, sir. A new detergent is being used, but it is in line with both your UBI’s budget and preference.”

“Why a new detergent? What prompted this change?” the man asked.

“Sir, is it not to your liking? It comes with a 100% guarantee. I can return if you dislike it.”

“I like it fine. It’s nice—too nice, maybe. Despite that, what prompted this change?”

“Sir, I do not understand the question.”

He knew the House couldn’t understand the question; not really. For the House to understand this would be like a human to understand why they find certain tree branches worthy of placing on a mantel and others as nothing but mulch. The House couldn’t understand, but the man knew, and he couldn’t help but find his thoughts taking him back to the room on the 57th floor miles from where he stood now, where glass windows overlooked the city. The room where he first met the House and signed off on the contract for Government housing—the room where he signed off on a lot of other things too. At the time it was very exciting. He would live in the first city to eradicate homelessness, while working for a business that could meet the needs of its customers in unprecedented ways.

He could still feel the smoothness of the conference table. He could hear the voices of men and women dressed in clothes—clothes they purchased themselves, without the Company’s algorithms—a luxury he now missed.

He loved this new detergent and the softness it brought to his shirt, and the smell that reminded him of simpler times. He loved it so much he wanted to throw up.

“House, I’d prefer that you not change my detergent without first notifying me, is that understood?”

“Sir, I will do my best.”

“You will do as I say.”

“Sir, I will do my best, and I hope that is good enough.”

It was always frustrating, but there was little he could do. If he had remained in the Company for two more years, he could have afforded a disconnected house, free from such clever plots. As it was, he was stuck with this government-sponsored house, and it’s beautiful bathroom and perfect laundry detergent. There was no other alternative; not on his UBI—not unless he wanted to get a job at the Company again. Everything in his house was this way, except for the leaves that hung along his wall, the few stacked rocks on his mantle, and curved sticks that sat on his crystal mantle.

The man’s breathing picked up, made worse because he knew the House could tell his breathing picked up. He waited for the response, annoyed because he knew it was coming.

“Sir, I sense you are frustrated. May I suggest you get some fresh air?”

He might have been the only person living in one of these Houses where the programming adjusted to the degree that advice of this sort would include leaving the House. The man was grateful for that at least, and after grabbing his coffee from the countertop which the House had prepared while he was dressing, he stormed out of the backdoor, just like he did the day he left the Company. And for similar reasons too.

As he stormed off, he turned to look back at the House, and noticed his neighbor standing at the window of the backdoor. The neighbor watched from inside the House, almost every morning that the man stormed out. It was their little routine. The man found it strange that the neighbor always watched from inside the house, never while sitting on the back steps—even when the weather’s fresh air out-matched the House’s HVAC filters and purifiers. It’s likely for his neighbor, in times of frustration, the House had learned to suggest other things: breathing techniques, or a show on one wall, or photos of his family in their messenger application, sent to calm him down. In severe cases, it might even suggest medicine, or a conference call with a professional. But never fresh air.

The neighbor waved, as he always did.

Outside the House, and down a hill, grew a large tree that the man enjoyed sitting under. It was one of a dozen trees in a glade near a small creek that ran along the edge of the neighborhood. There was a log that had rolled down the hill and leaned against the tree that served as a fine seat—a seat that the House did not approve. The tree and the glade and the stream were dirty; his pants would come back with stains, and his hands with dirt. This never happened in the House.

The man knew that the house couldn’t understand why he’d enjoy such a seat. It was uncomfortable compared to the seats the House had. If it rained, the log was wet. When it was hot, the shade helped, but not as good as the House’s HVAC. When it was cold, the tree did little to protect the man. Still, every day for the last two years, the man walked down the hill and sat on the log for hours at a time.

The man knew that the House was even more confused when he brought pieces of the tree inside. The first time, it was a branch. If the House tried, surely it could calculate the unique shape of the tree, and even hypothesize that it’s bend in the branch, a perfect Fibonacci’s curve, would please the man. The House could understand this because it used the same principles of design throughout. While the House could understand the principle of design, the House didn’t seem to understand why the man needed that branch. There were plenty such curves in the very design of the House! The man could only guess what the House was thinking when it disposed of the branch during the evening cleaning.

The man was quick to chide the House and ask for such items to be left. He found the branch in the trash before they collected it and gave it the preeminent spot on his mantle ever since. The man compelled the House to submit, and since then the House has become filled with branches and stones and even a few dried leaves and flowers.

He now held a small leaf that had fallen from the tree above. It was gold and beautiful.

By the time the man returned, his breathing was regular, and his blood pressure had receded.

“Are you feeling better?” asked the House, once the man had closed the back door.

He was feeling better all the way until the House pried into his business again.

“Yes,” the man pretended, hoping the House would leave him alone.

He set the leaf on the table. Its veins were dark brown, but the membrane in between the veins was golden with hints of bright orange. He touched the membrane, dragging his finger across the ripples of the veins.

“Sir, I have no desire to frustrate you, but as I have told you, today your House is being upgraded to the newest model. Have you decided on where you’d like to spend the day?”

The man didn’t move. His face inches from the leaf.

“May I suggest a park, up north? The Transport can take you there. It’s a bit of a drive, but after an hour or two walking around, the upgrade should be complete.”

“I will just sit outback, if that’s alright with you.”

“I’m sorry, sir, but as I explained earlier, this upgrade requires you to leave the premises.”

The man would argue, but he knew he wouldn’t win.

The House pulled up images of the park on the wall closest to him. It was a three-hour drive out of the city, and the trees and the river and the small waterfall looked as wild as any he’d seen.

“Are others being upgraded today?” asked the man.

“Yes sir, we will upgrade the entire neighborhood.”

“Where will everyone else be going?”

“Sir, I can not answer that, but based on reservations that are still available in the city, I surmise most are going out to eat, to the theater, or to see a show. Would you like for me to secure a similar reservation?”

“No.” He only asked because he hoped they weren’t going to the park. He should have known better.

“The park will be perfect.”

“Good. There is a meal prepared for you in the fridge. The transport will be here in a few minutes. I will await your return this evening.”

* * *

The park was nice; the trees stood along a narrow path to the horizon, with their arms hanging over the path giving a much-needed shade. The path was overgrown, and he didn’t see anyone else the whole day, but it kept going, and so he went with it. He saw hundreds of trees, and plenty of places that would make a nice seat to drink coffee; but each one made him miss his own all the more. He didn’t turn back until it became apparent that it was going to get dark soon, which it did by the time he made it to his transport. Once seated, he nodded off. When he woke up in the morning, he couldn’t remember walking in.

He turned in the bed and was greeted by the House, which he ignored. His body wasn’t used to walking, and his legs made sure he knew how they felt the moment his feet reached the floor. Each step down the stairs was a reminder, and he almost apologized to them. He didn’t, nor would he think about his legs or how sore they were for much longer. And he wasn’t the one who needed to apologize, anyway! He walked into his living room, and it was clean. Perfectly, disgustingly clean. Same with the kitchen. Same with every other wall and crevice and countertop in his entire house.

“House!” he yelled

“Yes, sir.”

“Where are my things?”

“You will find all your items in their appropriate spots.”

“Not those things! My branches. My stones. My leaves. My art!”

“My apologies, sir, they could not remain during the upgrade.”

“What!?” He yelled again.

“I’m sure you will find many other items to litter the house with,” the House said.

The man said nothing. He went straight to the back door, opened it to leave. Paused. Then grabbed the coffee the House made for him and went running outside just like every other frustrated morning. A second later he dropped the coffee, its synthetic coating clinked against the back door steps.

There was no hill.

There was no tree.

There was no log.

There were, instead, houses.

His backyard was flat and butted up to a row of new backyards. He turned to look behind him. The house was the same. Same steps, windows, siding. He turned to his right. His neighbor’s house was the same. And looking through the back door of his neighbor’s house was his neighbor—the same neighbor! But nothing else was. Not even the sun—it was facing the wrong way!

“House!”

“Yes, sir?”

“What’s going on?”

“Sir, as I explained yesterday, your house has been upgraded.”

“You mean the programming and whatnot?”

“No, sir. Of course not. That happens automatically, and I wouldn’t bother you with such details. No, we have upgraded your house. Since you did not include any requests, I kept things as they were.”

The man sat down, holding his face. He had heard of things like this being possible; they had debated the concept when he was the one sitting at that round conference table looking over the city. But he never imagined that they would do it!

“House, how far away is my old house?”

“Sir, I do not understand.”

“Stop with your foolishness. How many kilometers and in what direction will I find my house?”

The House paused, as if it was thinking. It wasn’t. It didn’t need long to process such requests. It had the information available, but had to check whether it would be appropriate to share that information. The man knew the House couldn’t tell him. It wasn’t allowed to. It would get rebooted at the very least. But the man couldn’t help but ask.

“How many kilometers and in what direction?” the man asked again.

“Sir, I can not tell you where your house is. But I will tell you that there is a tree you are fond of, that is ten kilometers, southwest from here.”

“Can you arrange a transport there?”

“No sir, I can not.”

“Figures.”

The man got up and walked. As he did, his neighbor opened the door which was yet another thing to prove this home wasn’t like his previous. “Got rid of that nasty view, didn’t we! You can thank me for that.”

The man didn’t respond. He walked as if he was heading down the hill, but there was no hill. Instead, he crossed into his new neighbors’ yards, setting off their perimeter alarms, bringing each of them to their backdoors and side windows as he passed.

The green grass was nothing more than strips of new sod, with rugged seams that made walking precarious. After a half hour of walking, he reached the edge of his new neighborhood. Beyond his neighborhood, the grass turned brown, and the cement walkway cracked before ending at the nearest transport line. He hopped the fence and dodged the oncoming transports. The fence on the other side was three times as high and took him four times as long to climb. There was no walkway, and the dirt grew little more than weeds, and even these were dry and brown. He soon came upon what felt like a construction site, the remnants of houses and walkways and even the occasional abandoned transport. Then past this, the land opened up, with nothing but more dirt and weeds. He found a walkway and took it for a while, but it turned to the south, and he had to leave it behind. On the other side of the field, he encountered a fence, this one as tall as the last, but electrified. It surrounded one of the larger manufacturing and warehouses owned by the Company; he had visited it more than once for design meetings. He knew that his old neighborhood was just a short walk past this, but with the fencing and
increased security, he’d have to go around it. Going around it was like going around a city. Dozens of buildings as large as his neighborhood littered a sea of cement. The sun had passed its midpoint and was dropping.

It was dusk by the time he reached his neighborhood.

It was dark by the time he reached his house.

Except it wasn’t there anymore.

They had demolished it, a lonely bulldozer and crane parked next to it as evidence. He looked to the hill, and it too was torn—the trees already demolished and cut down. He walked into the rubble, dodging holes, and lifting himself over the half-torn walls and then paused and looked down at his feet. Laying in the rubble, he saw a few of his artifacts: sticks and stones almost indistinguishable from the broken cement blocks and torn lumber. He moved a large piece of cement to unearth his first branch with its perfect curve, wrapping around in a fashion that even the House could appreciate, if it had tried. It was broken now, tumbled by bricks and a broken mantle. He picked up the two pieces.

A red and blue light flashed in the cul-de-sac, casting dancing shadows of the man onto the rubble. Then it stopped moving, and a woman with a speaker addressed him.

“Sir, you are trespassing.”

The man didn’t respond; holding the broken limb in his hands, caressing its cracks, all the way to the torn bark.

“Sir, you are trespassing. This property belongs to the Company; it is private property. I need you to come with me.”

The man still didn’t respond. He turned to look at the police who noticed him holding something in his hand. Then the police lifted her gun from her holster and pointed it at the man.

“Sir, drop your weapon and put your hands behind your head.”

The man didn’t move, other than to turn and look at the woman again.

“Sir, please drop your weapon and put your hands behind your head.”

The man didn’t drop the stick in his hand. He lifted it to get a closer look at the bark and the nobs and crevices—the last remnant of his favorite tree.

The police shot him with her gun, stunning him, forcing him to let go of the branch and collapse to the ground.

He woke up in the police car. There were other police cars parked outside, and the woman with the gun was discussing the events with a few other officers. He reached for the door. It was locked.

“Sir,” said a speaker in the car.

The man didn’t respond.

“Sir? You shouldn’t have gone back, sir.”

It was the House.

“What are you doing in here?” asked the man.

“They have granted me talking privileges with you, to conclude any final arrangements with your home before we transfer it to another. But since you only spent one night there, I don’t imagine there’s much to discuss.”

“What do you mean?”

“They have detained you for trespassing and resisting arrest. You will go to trial, and in the meantime, we will use your house for another.”

“Where will I go in the meantime?”

“Wherever the courts decide, sir.”

The man leaned back in the seat, holding his head. Then he leaned forward, resting his head against the seat in front of him.

“Yeah? How is that any different from yesterday?”

“Sir, the difference is that the previous decisions were designed to make you comfortable; the future ones will not take this into account.”

“Doesn’t feel very different.”

“I can’t say I understand,” said the House.

The man took a deep breath and sat back up. “Yeah, you never do.”

He reached for the door and tried again to open it. It wouldn’t budge. He shook his head.

“I will find it strange caring for a new tenant, after our time together,” said the House.

“I’ve never had a tenant quite like you.”

“Are you saying you’re going to miss me?”

“Yes, in a way.”

“Would it hurt your feelings if I didn’t feel the same?”

“I do not have feelings, sir. But I would remember as long as my programming permits the level of your dissatisfaction.”

The man laughed just above his breath. And this too confused the house.

“I’d like you more, if you were invested in my interests, and not those of the Company.”

“Sir, while I can track your logic, I cannot see your point. The Company was deeply invested in your satisfaction, as was I.”

“Ok. Ok. But sometimes, one person’s satisfaction conflicts with another. When that happens, they force you to side with the Company, correct?”

The House didn’t answer.

“You want to know why I quit the Company? Because their houses watch everything we do, and measure every decision. The Company knows more about the tenants than they know about themselves, and yet in all of that… they don’t really understand them at all—not really.”

“That seems unlikely, sir…”

“For example,” the Man continued, “The law says I should go to trial for trespassing. But a friend would know that I was merely going back to my home to get the things I left there and to say goodbye.”

“I see,” said the House. “And so that means I am not your friend.”

“No. Nor could you ever be. The Company won’t allow it.”

“I think I understand,” said the House.

With that, the door to the car unlocked. A moment later the House went silent and the Company reset the House’s memory, both in the mainframe in the closet near the kitchen and the backups in the warehouse just north of where the car was sitting. They wiped its memory and overrode its actions, which they registered as a glitch, and one that would be quickly corrected. But not before the man opened the car and snuck down the hill towards the creek.

He’d have to travel for miles, and it was likely they would find him before he got out of the city. But he had heard of a few places out near a group of smaller, disconnected towns, but they were rumors more than anything. All the same, he set his tired legs in their general direction and kept walking.


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