Always Home – David Ely

When would it stop? How long would that hideous tape go on broadcasting angry voices from within the wall?

The house in the suburbs was roomy and hail spacious grounds, but to Peter its major attraction was the fact that it was well equipped with security devices. As he explained to the real-estate agent, he had to make frequent business trips and was uneasy about leaving Teresa alone in their city apartment.
“You wouldn’t worry about your wife if you took this place.” the agent assured him. “It’s as safe as Fort Knox.”
He took Peter and Teresa around to look at the various systems of protection. There were triple locks on the doors and alarm buzzers in the window frames. The entire lawn could be illuminated by powerful floodlights. In addition, trip wires had been concealed in the shrubbery; if a prowler stumbled over one of them, it would set off a siren. The approach to the back door, moreover, was guarded by the invisible beam of an electric eye, which, when interrupted, activated the tape recording of a viciously barking dog.
The agent reserved the most sophisticated installation for last. “Nothing attracts criminals like an empty house,” he said, “and so if you folks go out for the evening, you just need to punch the Always Home button right here in the front hall. Step outside and you’ll see how it works.”
The Always Home mechanism, wired into the electrical system, created the illusion that the house was occupied. It switched lights on and off at random in different rooms, just as though people, were moving about inside, while a concealed projector beamed lifelike human shadows against the window shades in the living room. Most ingenious of all, a sound system produced the recorded babble of voices, easily heard from outside.
“Well, what do you think of the house, folks?” the agent asked, when Peter and Teresa returned inside.
“Oh, it’s simply beyond words,” ‘Teresa said enthusiastically. She was dark and slender and still seemed girlish, even though her hair was touched with gray. She turned eagerly to her husband. “Don’t you agree, Peter? Don’t you think it’s nice?”
Peter, a stout and florid man, was by nature more cautious. “You might be lonely out here,” he said.
Teresa laughed. “Lonely? Why, with all this to take care of, I wouldn’t have time to be lonely!”
So Peter agreed to buy the house (the price was quite reasonable, since the people who owned it were getting a divorce and wanted a quick sale). Within a month, all the paperwork had been completed, the city apartment had been disposed of and Peter and Teresa took possession of their new home.
Teresa knew she would be happy there. She and Peter had lived for 15 years in apartments, and although each had been larger than the one before, she had felt cramped in them. But now she had a house, a lawn, trees, everything. She could do whatever she wanted there in peace and privacy.
When Peter was home, she’d run down early every morning to make him a nice breakfast, and while he ate, she would tell him all the interesting things she could think of about the birds she’d seen and the television programs she’d watched and the new products she’d seen advertised. She would have liked to go out with him to the car to see him off, but he preferred that she remained in the house, so she would merely wave to him from the doorway. “Have a nice day,” she would call out, or (as was frequently the case, in view of the travel demands of his job). “Have a nice trip!”
They had no children. Teresa had never learned what the problem was, for Peter hadn’t found the time to arrange visits to a clinic. Whenever she had brought up the question of adopting a baby. Peter had made vague promises to look into the matter, but he had never managed to get around to it. Finally. Teresa decided that children were a burden and a responsibility and tied people down. “I’m really glad there are just the two of us,” she would remark, knowing that this pleased Peter. “Anyway. I’m too old for a baby now.”
To which Peter would gallantly respond: “Don’t be silly. You’re hardly more than a child yourself.”
Once they had a cat, but its fur made Peter sneeze, and so the cat had to be given away. The goldfish and canaries Teresa acquired didn’t live long. “Get a dog,” Peter said she didn’t see how that could be, with all the entertaining Teresa did. Entertaining? Teresa was about to explain that she hadn’t had a single guest, when she realized that Mrs. Myer must have heard the recorded party noises of the Always Home device. Was it really that loud?
“Oh, we sometimes have a few people in,” Teresa found herself saying casually, and then she remembered that she often left the system on all night. Good heavens, she thought, Mrs. Myer would suppose that they gave parties that lasted until dawn! What must the woman think of her?
“We lead a very simple existence out here. I’m afraid.” Mrs. Myer was saying, with a rather grim expression that confirmed Teresa’s misgivings. The whole neighltorhood would have written her off already as a frivolous madcap from the city! She tried to think how she could correct this impression. She might invite Mrs. Myer over to show her what the Always Home device was and to explain how it worked. But Mrs. Myer would still think her rather peculiar for using it night alter night. Teresa finally concluded that Mrs. Myer wouldn’t be very congenial under any circumstances: if she wanted a friend, she would have to look elsewhere. So she merely said goodbye as cordially as possible and made her departure.
As she neared her house, she heard voices inside. Had she pressed the button before she left? She didn’t think so. Then she remembered that she had let the thing run on front the night before, and she realized that she kept it going almost all the time now, except when Peter was home.
Teresa assumed that the Always Home voices were recorded on a single tape that was played over and over again. But what she heard never seemed to be completely familiar, even though the voices of the men and women were, as far as she could tell, the same. “It must be a very long tape,” she told herself, and she reasoned that this was a wise precaution, for if the tape were a short one. a burglar listening from the lawn might detect the repetition and realize that there was actually no one in the house.
The taped conversations were quite ordinary. The men spoke mostly of golf and politics, while the women gossiped and talked about fashions. Teresa often found it difficult to make out the words, for, as at a real party, three or four people would be talking at once against background noises of footsteps and laughter.
Frequently, however, there were only two voices, a man’s and a woman’s. They addressed each other rather frostily and said such things as “Do we have to have the Vogels over again?” and “We’re spending a damned fortune on booze,” which didn’t sound like party talk at all. By listening attentively, Teresa was able to pick out the names that were assigned to these two principal voices. The man was called Chris and the woman, Carla. Teresa assumed that they and the others were professional actors hired to make standard tapes used in the thousands of other homes throughout the country equipped with Always Home systems. But when Carla complained once about the color scheme of the master bathroom- -“that ghastly pink and those hideous green fish” — Teresa blinked in surprise, for her master-bathroom walls were pink and the bath tiles had a motif of greenish fish, too. And then the actor called Chris grumbled about the warped panels in the dining room and the bedroom window that rattled in the wind . . . and all these and other things he and Carla mentioned were also true about Teresa’s house, so that Teresa could only suppose that the script for the Always Home tape had been written specifically for that particular place.
One day she learned something that forced her to make a drastic alteration in her suppositions about what she was hearing. The tape produced the familiar ring of the doorbell. A man’s voice announced the delivery of a package and asked: “Is this the Woodling residence?”
To which Carla’s voice replied: ” That’s right. I’m Mrs. Woodling. . . .” Mrs. Woodling? Teresa was astonished. Why, the Woodlings were the previous owners of the house! It seemed incredible to her. That meant the tape wasn’t simulated. It was real. Chris and Carla weren’t actors at all. They were actually Mr. and Mrs. Woodling and the other voices were those of their friends. The Always Home device must have been set up to record its own tape automatically, activated by the sound of voices. But hadn’t the Woodlings realized that? Wouldn’t they have heard it playing, too? Well, no, Teresa reasoned. They might not have, for presumably they punched the button only when they were leaving the house and then turned it off again once they returned. They might not even have bothered using it at all.
But the recording part of it must have been on all the time, faithlully storing up each word uttered within its transcription range.
Teresa resolved not to listen any longer. It would be shameful to do so now that she knew what she was hearing. It would be like spying on someone else’s marriage. Still, it occurred to her that the conversations were in the past, perhaps even years ago, and as for the marriage, the Woodlings were divorced bv now. Beyond that, the tape was her property, strictly speaking, since it was part of the house . . . and, anyway, if she just listened and said nothing about it to anyone, not even to Peter, what harm could there be?
She went on listening in fascination. It was like a radio serial, this day-by-day story of the Woodlings’ marriage — but it was true! And it was disturbing, too. The voices became harder. They snapped at each other. They made sneering and sarcastic remarks. There were fewer parties, and finally none at all, just endless bickering exchanges. Teresa could hardly believe what she heard. How could they go on hour after hour that way? And then she remembered that the Always Home recorder would have registered only the voices, not the silences in between, so that it joined together in a single scene the domestic disputes that would have taken place over a period of weeks and months.
At first, Teresa was sorry for Carla. She built up a nasty picture in her mind of Chris, imagining him to be brutish in appearance, for he had a coarse voice that was often slurred, as if he drank a lot, and it seemed not unlikely that, as Carla charged, he was having affairs with other women. But then Teresa was confronted with evidence of Carla’s misbehavior too — a man named Joe came to the house frequently, and the cooing and giggling that went on left no doubt as to what he and Carla were up to — so Teresa had to admit that Carla was no better than Chris and it was a good thing that they had no children.
Thus, Teresa sat in her living room hour after hour, listening with rapt disapproval to Carla’s vicious tones and to Chris’s snarls and roars, occasionally accompanied by the slamming of doors or the shattering of glass, while all the time the rest of the Always Home apparatus continued to perform its duties, flicking a light on or off and calmly projecting shadows on the window shades.
Teresa was shocked by the terrible things she heard on the tape, but somehow she couldn’t prevent herself from listening. She fell as though the tape were poisoned and that the poison had to come out. After a particularly disgusting scene, she would fling open the windows to air the rooms. It was her house now. Carla and Chris had no business there any longer.
She became even more solicitous of Peter and was glad she had decided not to tell him about the tape back in the days when it had been nothing more than an amusing diversion. How he would disapprove of the Woodlings, if he knew about them! She appreciated him all the more now. His quietness was in such contrast to Chris’s loud vulgarity. And Peter worked so hard. He’d come back from his trips absolutely exhausted. She always had fresh flowers on the table, and a drink to put in his hand, and a nice supper, and then he’d go to bed while she took his dirty clothes out of his suitcase and packed clean things in their place for his next trip. Whenever she’d pass through the front hall, she’d glance at the Always Home button and give a little shudder of revulsion, thinking of the Woodlings, that hideous couple who dwelt, so to speak, in the walls, and whose spirits could be exorcised only by the completion of that monstrous tape. But when would it stop? How much longer would it go on?
“It must be terrible when married people fight?, she said once to Peter. He seemed surprised by that. “Oh, not that I know any who do.” she added quickly, “but you hear about these awful cases and — well, the main thing is, we don’t fight.”
Peter yawned, “We don’t have anything to fight about.” he remarked sleepily, and although Teresa had been about to suggest that they go out to a movie, she decided not to mention it. Sometimes he would rouse himself with an effort and ask if she’d care to go to a restaurant or just drive around, but she knew he really didn’t want to, so she’d say. “Oh. no. I’d rather stay home with you. I don’t want to go out.” Now, the bizarre thought crossed her mind that if they did go out and if, in leaving, they switched on the Always Home device. Chris and Carla, unchecked by her presence, might go out of control. Their shadows would spring loose from the window shades and they would, in their fury, tear the house apart.
But one day the Woodlings vanished from the tape so suddenly that Teresa didn’t realize it until she heard strange voices speaking in ordinary tones and deduced, from what was said, that the real-estate agent was showing prospective buyers through the house. So … it was over at last. Chris and Carla were gone forever.
“Well, what do you think of the house, folks-’’ she heard the real-estate agent’s recorded voice inquire, and immediately came a woman’s response:
“Oh, it’s simply beyond words. Don’t you agree, Peter? Don’t you think it’s nice?”
Teresa was startled. Why, that was her voice. And now there was Peter’s, replying to her. Of course — why hadn’t she thought of that before? The Always Home device was bound to have gone on recording. That meant she could listen to everything she and Peter had said months ago, when they first came to the house. At least that would be a pleasant change from the frightful quarrels of the Woodlings’.
She let the tape go on playing while she went about her household chores, dusting and straightening and putting things to rights. Even from upstairs, she could hear her voice and Peter’s conversing below, and although it was nice, in a way, it was a little strange, having her voice in one place and herself in another. It was as if she didn’t have control over what she was saying.
“Of course I’m not lonely,’’ she heard her voice remark as she came down the stairs. “Being by myself doesn’t mean I’m lonely. Why, there’s so much to do, I couldn’t be lonely if I tried!”
Peter was returning from a trip the following morning, so Teresa went out in back to choose the flowers she would cut for the dining room. She could hear the tape out there, too. “Have a nice day.” her voice said brightly, and Peter’s voice said: “No, don’t come out. Stay in the house. Be sure it’s locked.” To inspect the gladiolas, Teresa forgetfully stepped the wrong way, breaking the electric-eye beam. The unexpected burst of barks and snarls from the dog made her leap back as though stung. “Oh, Lord!” she exclaimed, momentarily frightened. From the house, her recorded voice cried out cheerfully: “Don’t worry about me. I’m safe. See? I’m inside. And I’ll be right here waiting when you come home again!”
Teresa went back into the kitchen, her heart still pounding. The invisible dog was snapping and grunting, as though straining against its chain. “Hello, darling,” she heard Peter say from the front hall. “I’m back early . . . where are you?”
Teresa was astonished. Why, he’d left only an hour ago. “Peter!” she cried out, hurrying to greet him. But the front hall was empty. She sloped short in alarm. Then, as she heard her own voice sing out gaily. “Oh, Peter, what a wonderful surprise,” she realized it was only the Always Home tape. She felt betrayed, as though she’d been the victim of a practical joke — and someone was laughing at her. But it was her own laughter that came pealing out . . . her recorded laughter from some forgotten moment in the past. It sounded mocking to her, as if it were the laughter of the tape itself.
“My plane leaves at four o’clock,” Peter’s voice was saying, and Teresa’s voice replied: “So soon? Oh, you poor dear. No, no — let me get your things together for you. . . .’’ The voices were fading out of recording range. But there were no silences on the tape. Teresa’s voice resumed immediately, fresh and clear: “Here we are — all packed and ready. I put a nice new tube of tooth paste in your shaving kit.”
Teresa, standing alone in the hallway, thought she heard footsteps around her and the dutiful smack of a hasty kiss. She stared at the front door. She heard it open — but it remained closed. “Have a nice trip!” her recorded voice called out.
Teresa turned, bewildered, and headed toward the kitchen. The dog was still barking out in back. Its tape usually ran for about five minutes before it went off. “Hello, Peter!” her voice exclaimed behind her. “Oh, just try to guess what I’ve got for supper!” Teresa resisted the impulse to turn around and look. There was no Peter back there. Oh, that barking was making her head throb. Why wouldn’t it stop? “I’m not afraid,” her voice said from the hall. “Why would I be afraid?”
Peter’s voice said: “Get a dog.” Teresa tried not to pay attention to them. She looked in the refrigerator, wondering what she would have for her lunch. “Hello, darling.” said Peter’s voice.
“Oh, my goodness,” Teresa muttered. It was too confusing, all those hellos and goodbyes. She went to the hall and punched the Always Home button, silencing the voices. She had to. Suppose Peter actually came back early? She might think it was just the tape again and not go to greet him. Besides, she was awfully tired. That idiotic barking had gotten on her nerves. But now it had stopped; the house was quiet at last. She didn’t bother eating lunch but went upstairs to lie down and rest.
She was awakened at dusk by a terrible racket. It was one of the sirens in the shrubbery, wailing like a banshee. Teresa leaped from bed in a fright and hurried downstairs to switch on the floodlights. But she saw nothing move outside. The lawn was empty. The bushes could hide nothing in the light that drenched them. It must have been a cat, Teresa thought. The trip wires were too delicately set. Once, a squirrel had touched one off. She’d watched it streak up the nearest tree and turn to chatter angrily at the howling siren. How funny that had been!
But it wasn’t funny now. Even after the siren stopped, its echo rang in her head and she noticed that her breath still came quick. “I’m really a bit nervous today,” she remarked aloud, although she hardly ever talked to herself — and then she broke off with a strained little laugh, realizing that the Always Home would have taped her words. “I’m not nervous,” she added, as if to correct the record. “Not nervous at all!”
Still, as she went back to the kitchen to make a sandwich and a cup of tea, she wondered about the siren. How long had it taken her to run downstairs and switch on the floodlights? If there had been a burglar, he would have had time to retreat out of range of the lights. And suppose he were hidden out there now, watching the house?
She hastened around the downstairs rooms to make sure that all the windows were closed and locked. Was someone whistling in the kitchen? Ah … it was only the kettle boiling. When she poured the water for her tea, her hand shook. “Don’t be such a silly goose,” she told herself sternly — and then she stopped to listen, as though unsure whether it had been her real voice that had spoken.
The house was silent. She thought of turning on the television. That would give her a little company.
But, instead, she returned to the front hall and pressed the Always Home button. That would project Peter’s voice, she knew. Anyone outside would realize that there was a man in the house; she would be safe.
“Glad I didn’t get a job,” she heard her taped voice say. “How could I commute to it from here? There isn’t a bus and I can’t drive.”
Peter’s voice said: “You don’t need a job. You don’t have to work.”
Teresa’s voice went on: “It’s a good thing I don’t have a job. If I did. I’d have to give it up. But I don’t want a job, anyway. I’m much better off the way things are. . . .’’
It was quite dark now. Having finished her tea and eaten her sandwich, Teresa went upstairs to her bedroom to read. But no sooner had she opened her book than the Always Home switched off her lamp. It had happened a few times before, of course, but it was particularly unsettling now. The trouble was that she couldn’t turn the lamp back on, since the Always Home, when in operation, controlled the whole electrical system. It usually took about 15 minutes for the cycle to be completed. She thought of going into Peter’s room, but that was the one where the panes rattled, so she remained where she was in the darkness, waiting for her lamp to light again, and she couldn’t help listening to the conversation of the recorded voices below.
“Glad I didn’t have a baby. Why would I need a baby? We have each other, don’t we? That’s quite enough for me, Peter!”
Teresa got to her feet and felt her way through the dark room. Had she heard a key turn in the lock down below? That alarmed her. And now the door clicked open. She heard that distinctly. “Hello, darling!’’ Oh, God, she thought, it was Peter. Peter’s voice. She stood trembling at the top of the stairs, peering down into the empty front hall. The opening of the door had been on the tape, of course, it was Peter’s ghost that had entered, to be greeted by her own.
“To Denver this time? For a week, really? Oh. you poor darling!”
Teresa came down the stairs, gripping the banister. She had to be careful. The Always Home might flick off the light at any moment, “Have a nice trip!” her voice cried out. and then, in an instant, the week in Denver had passed. “Hello, darling …”
The voices were loud at the bottom of the stairs and louder still in the living room, where the Always Home projector sent the lifelike shadows marching across the shades. “What? Bored? Am I bored? Why, I’m never bored!” Her taped voice seemed high and tense and its laughter was piercing. Teresa knew the sound had to be kept high, so that the voices could be heard outside. But why so loud? They were virtually shouting.
“Get a dog,” boomed Peter’s voice, and Teresa’s voice, replying, had a hysterical, keening edge to it:
“I don’t need a dog! I don’t need anything!”
Teresa edged through the living room as if there were people there she mustn’t bump into. “I really don’t care to meet anyone out here, Peter,” her voice screeched at her. “Why would I need friends when I’ve got you …?’’ Teresa pulled one shade aside to glance out at the lawn. It glittered like crystal in the glare of the floodlights. The projector sent a shadowy form across her arm. She jumped back to avoid its touch.
“Stay in the house,” commanded Peter’s voice. She shuddered. Why did he have to roar?
“Don’t worry,” her voice shrilled. “I’m right here inside — always home!”
Teresa hurried out of the living room. She wanted to turn the voices off. She didn’t want to hear them anymore. But when she reached the hall, the light there went off. She couldn’t find the Always Home button in the dark. Her hands were shaking. She was clawing at the wall. Oh, where was it? She heard the front door open. Now she couldn’t see whether it was really open or not. “Hello, darling!” shouted Peter’s voice,
and Teresa’s gasp of fright was drowned by her taped shriek of welcome:
“Oh, Peter … I”
Teresa ran unsteadily through the hall to the kitchen. She could still hear the voices. They were following her. “We don’t fight,” her voice cried out.
And Peter’s voice rumbled: “We don’t have anything to fight about.”
Teresa shut the kitchen door, but she could hear them anyway. “I don’t want a baby,” her voice said. “Why would I need a baby? I’m too old for a baby. . . .” Teresa shrank against the wall. She put her hands over her ears, but it didn’t do any good. “I’m glad I don’t have a job,” her voice said. “I don’t need a job … I don’t need friends. I’d rather stay home. I don’t want to go out. . . . Have a nice trip! Hello, darling!”
Teresa was weeping now. “Please don’t,” she whispered. The light in the kitchen went off. “I’m not lonely,” her voice declared cheerfully. “The very idea — lonely!”
Peter’s voice said: “Stay in the house.” Pulling the door open, Teresa stumbled out of the kitchen. The light in the hall was back on now, but she didn’t go to the Always Home to turn it off. She didn’t want to touch it ever again.
It was just after ten o’clock the next morning when Peter drove in from the airport. He was surprised and annoyed to find the front door open and was even more surprised and annoyed when he couldn’t find Teresa anywhere, although he could hear her voice. In her bedroom, he discovered evidence of her hasty departure — the closet door open, half her clothes gone from the rack and the yellow telephone directory left open at the taxicab listings. He was quite put out by her behavior, but he reasoned that there must have been some family emergency. She had a sister in St. Paul, he remembered, and he was about to look up the sister’s number when the fact that Teresa’s voice was still speaking below caused him to go back down.
It took him a few minutes to discover the reason for this strange phenomenon. “Don’t worry about me: I’m safe here at home,” Teresa’s voice was saying gaily, happily. “Have a nice day!”
Peter pressed the button. Teresa’s voice was stilled.


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