It had patched the windows as well as it could, but the house was still cold. It looked through one of the snow-stippled panes at the houses across the street, the warm yellow of their usual lights now augmented by tiny twinkling sparks of all colours.
It did not sob. It had no organ nor orifice to make such a noise. After a few minutes regarding the view, it crept into the darkness of the top floor hallway. It did not sleep, but it would rest there in the dimness and let its mind wander in a way which might be called dreaming.
The first dream was always a replaying of its earliest memory. It was a jumble, the perspective swinging. There was that moment of watching the shape rising up out of the open-topped iron vessel, surging toward him like a tsunami, the barest hint of regret for his free use of the electrical probe. Then the empty iron vessel was behind it, relative to motion as it had no set front or back, inchoate fury suddenly extinguishing in an ocean of regret. In absorbing the creator, it had become sentient, and in the moment of sentience, it had found morality; killing another thinking creature in the very instant it realized how wrong the act was.
These scenes had finished playing in its quiescent imagination, to be replaced with the recurrent bittersweet fantasy of being outdoors, under the summer sun and greeted by the people of the neighbourhood, when a sound brought its attention back to the present moment. The creak of a foot upon the floor down in the living room.
It gathered itself into an upright cylinder, a shape it had used to menace intruders out of the house before now. They had been teens, mostly, slipping in on a mutual dare in small groups, or come in pairs in hopes of an uninterrupted assignation. All had fled before the terrible thing which had wobbled toward them, not quite transparent in the beams of the flashlights, exuding tendrils to grope at them. The worst had been the two men who had kicked in the back door, plotting a drug lab as they stood in the kitchen. They had not been easily frightened, and the one probably lost an eye to the corrosive secretions he had caused to spatter with swipes of a long knife.
Erect, it poured down the stairs, and it saw a silvery light in the living room unlike the hard flashlight beams of previous intruders. It loomed into the door, slapping a tentacle against the wall. The man standing in the middle of the room watched its entry with a smile on his broad, jovial face. “Good evening,” he said.
It lurched forward, stretching up to graze the ceiling. The man was very tall, so tall he would have to duck through a doorway, and broad as well, but it towered over him, and it slowly stretched out three more limbs until it nearly touched the walls on either side.
The man stood, entirely untroubled. “I have come to speak to you,” he said. “I’m sure you have a moment or two free.”
It stopped, quivering horribly. In its entire conscious existence, no one had spoken directly to it. There had been screams, of course, but nothing like this. Combined with the expression of utterly benign amusement the man wore, this direct address confused it badly, even more than the question of what source was giving out the delicate light which filled the room, an intimate effulgence without glare or shadow.
“I hope you don’t think me rude, just walking in like this. It is the way of my people.” The man clasped his hands for a moment, took in a great breath, and somehow his smile grew. “I want to give you a gift.”
It subsided slightly, its uppermost part just barely higher than the man’s head. It generally thought in images, but from the digested language of the creator came Why?
“Because you are without.” It retreated, shocked that its reaction had been understood. “Because I find you in want, and it is my nature to respond.”
What would you give me? What is there that one such as I could want or need?
The man laughed, a great booming that seemed to start below his feet and ended by sifting dust from the cracks in the ceiling. “What does any thinking being wish for?”
It collapsed into a slightly flattened ball, as close to a natural shape as it had. The answer passed through it as a cascade of sensations, imagined rather than remembered, drawn from the stolen experience of the creator. Warmth. Companions. Love.
“Yes, indeed,” the man said. He clapped his big hands together once, and the light in the room trembled. “Now, I cannot carry these things in a sack. But I can, perhaps, arrange an opportunity. If you want it.”
I do not deserve it. I destroyed the creator.
“Oh?” The man laughed again, a mere chuckle this time. “Was he indeed so blameless, that you have to do penance without end? Consider him carefully, for none know him so well as you and I.”
It caught only for a moment on the last two words, already dredging up the dead man’s memories. This was a pain it had avoided after some early efforts; as soon as it had become aware of the creator’s wife and child, it had barred that door of its mind. Now, feeling as if this stranger’s presence were a bulwark, it delved.
After a minute, it closed that door again. It was only the last of its creator’s sins. He had been, perhaps somewhat indirectly, responsible for the deaths of the remembered wife and child, and others besides. He had been an avid, gleeful vivisectionist. He had planned to use his final creation in a demented scheme of vengeance against people who had no idea of their supposed transgression.
“There you go,” the man said. “You were no more than the mechanism of natural justice. Now, do you want your gift?”
Please. It slithered toward the man, gently taking the fur-trimmed hem of his long robe in a tendril. Please.
The man put his hands on his knees, bent to bring his face close to it. “With great joy.”
There was another tremor in the light. “Like many gifts, this one is delicate and unique. Misuse it, or lose it, and you may never have another.” The man straightened, and his expression changed a little, a sternness informing his eyes. “Look to see me here no more.”
He turned, his robe swirling out in a great bell. As it settled, the light left the room, and it found itself suddenly alone. It hardly had time to register the change before there was a knock at the back door. It flowed through the dining room and into the kitchen, flattening as it went.
“Hello?” The voice of a man, much higher pitched than the strange visitor’s, and not at all attenuated. It saw that the door was open a crack, and that the elements of the barricade it had build after routing the drug dealers– chairs, table, the stove– all back where they had been the last time the creator used any of them. It should not have been possible, not the way it had set them in place with its resins, not without a single sound. But there they all were, and now the door was swinging open.
“Hello?” The man was slight, and he cringed smaller as the hinges creaked. “Is anyone there?”
“This is a bad idea, Luis.” The voice in the darkness behind him was a woman’s. “What it they’re just out?”
Luis took a step forward. He was in a defensive crouch, clearly nervous. It could set him into headlong flight with just a sound, no need to rear up as a spectral shape. If not for the previous visitor, it would have shaken one of the kitchen chairs.
“The place is abandoned. There’s dust all over.” He took another step. Two more and he would put a foot in its leading edge. “Come on in.”
“This is a bad idea,” she said again, stepping forward enough for it to see her. She was small, too, but her silhouette was lopsided, a great bulge on one side. It understood a moment later, when part of that bulge detached and said, “Mommy, I’m cold.”
Luis turned to face the others. Without knowing, he used up half the distance between it and himself. “Yolanda, bring the kids inside. We’ll freeze if we try to stay in the car again tonight.”
Yolanda hesitated. From under the blanket she wore like a vast shawl came the chirp of a baby deciding if it was ready to cry, and it seemed to be the final argument to pull her across the threshold. Luis stepped toward her, beckoning.
Soundlessly, it drew its substance back, out of the kitchen, through the living room and as Luis braced one of the chairs under the back door it seeped into the fabric of the house, extending itself between joists and behind plaster. It listened to them carefully investigating the house, heard the quiet exclamations as they discovered with unexpected ease some candles and a lighter. It pushed open the linen cupboard on the upper landing when Luis was looking into the bathroom, but restrained itself from pushing the thickest wool blankets onto the floor.
Presently, the family slept on long-neglected but sound furniture, warmed by a fire laid by the creator but never kindled. When it was sure they would not wake, it descended into the basement. It was not certain how it would entice one of them down in the morning, but it had hours to consider options.
In consuming the creator, it had gained a measure of his cunning, and its plans bore fruit. It showed the family the bounty of his long-nurtured avarice, including the title papers of the house. It chased off burglars. It kept the cupboards free of mice and ants. It did a thousand secret favours each year, and was repaid in the ephemeral coin of smiles.
Over the course of years, it assimilated the family as completely as it had its creator. Not one of them ever felt a thing, and long before the third child left the home, it was so free in its spirit that on fine summer days, between sun-up and the waking of the household, it crept from the fabric of the house and frolicked in the back yard.
“Nothing in the World is so Irresistibly Contagious” ©2019 Dirck de Lint.