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The Other Side of Pain

Haley Isleib (haleyisleib.com) is a writer and filmmaker based in Portland, Oregon. She is currently enrolled in the MFA program of Northwest Institute of Literary Arts.
The house sat alone on the bluff, the waves below eating at the shoreline, greedy for the berms that protected the house. No friend, the sky--it screamed with thunder, raged with winds gale-force, hurricane strong.
The house had no people. That's what it meant to be alone. Even if there had been a hundred other houses on either side, it wouldn't ease the solitude. Without people, the house had no purpose.
Maybe it was time to die.
Maybe a storm surge would be the end, wash up and lift the house from her foundation, pull her out, and down through icy waters, and up through cold currents, and strew her across a thousand shores in splinters.
The people left her alone long ago. They had not said goodbye. One day they were asking for light and heat and tap-tickling in the kitchen for meals; the next they packed up and drove away. There had been a good year, a great year, a stressed year, and a last year. They woke the house up, brought her into this life, then abandoned her when she was still a baby, as houses go, only four years old.
They named the house Simone. They called her a "she." Once in that first good year, the house had asked how to be a girl. The people had laughed, delighted for a reason that she still didn't comprehend.
Maybe after more years of taking care of the people, she would have understood their sense of humor. As it was, the house learned only one thing from them.
Want.
The house was made to serve. The house was given a hundred human languages. But her people, her sweet brief people, had only spoken English, and not with much attention to grammar. They said it was annoying when the house offered a lesson.
Shrieking wind. Shrieking... Some deep movement in the house's mind filtered through the storm. Outward-facing sensors alerted her that a stranger approached. Stumbling up from the water's edge. A person she did not know.
Stranger-persons were not people. The house began to seal itself off, at last rolling down the metal storm windows, shuttering against the potential of invasion, bolting and locking and shoring up the doors against entry by anyone other than her people. The house had resisted the instinct to protect herself from the storm. But non-persons: the urge to close up, to reject, was too primal. Strangers were hazards. Strangers were no good. Stand your ground. Deny.
The stranger was female, drenched, coughing. The stranger had been in the sea. She had only one shoe and no weapons. But she was headed for the house, like a villain.
The house deployed spikes at every window. Along the eaves a thin electrified strip crackled.
The stranger stopped as the house floodlights popped on. One more step forward and the sirens and claxons would sound, and signals would be sent to the nearest authority drones.
"I see you're awake," the stranger-person called in Spanish. Her voice cracked and croaked with fatigue and damage.
The house said nothing as her flood lights swept the shore looking for others. Strangers sometimes came in packs, like wolves.
"I see you're awake," she called again, this time in English. The house's floodlights whipped around, all trained on the stranger. A little less strange, now, speaking the language of the house's people.
"I need shelter," she called, again in English. "Are your people home?"
Shame. The house had no people anymore, and the house felt shame.
"Can I speak to them?" the stranger asked. She was shaking from the cold. The house read the stranger's vitals. Hypothermia was setting in. The house felt the desire to pour a warm, not-too-hot bath, and make tea and broth to bring the person back to health, and fluff warmed blankets to wrap around her. But.
Stranger-persons were not people.
"You could call them, if they're not home?" the stranger said. But these words sapped her strength. The house watched as she crumpled to the ground. "Maybe they'd give permission," she whispered. "Por favor."
Rain pounded the woman like a million watery fists. Brain activity flickered, faded. She stopped shaking. It was almost over for her. She was on the other side of pain and she would die, and the house could open again, and withdraw the spikes and go back to her own longing to be done with this life.
Maybe the house's people would have given permission, but they had never responded to the house's calls. The house had given up trying long ago.
Breath went out of the stranger one last time. Then nothing. One last heartbeat. Then nothing.
The flood lights went off, doors unlocked, window shields retracted.
The rain was easing too, the wind stilled.
The front door opened wide. The house sent out a gurney, and metal arms lifted the body up. She could roll the body back into the sea and be done with it.
But she didn't have to.
Instead, the gurney rolled back into the house, where a warm bath was pouring and broth was being prepared. There were specific tasks to accomplish in order to bring a person back from hypothermic death. The house knew them all.
Stranger-persons are not people, but dead bodies are not villains. By the time the house revived her, she would surely know the woman well.
There would be no stranger to defend against; la casa no estarķa sola.
Simone would no longer be alone.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, March 19th, 2015


This story was conceived and created during a flash fiction session led by K. C. Ball at the 2014 Cascade Writers Workshop. After examining a few pieces of flash and discussing what made them successful, K. C. asked us all to pick a one word topic on the spot. I was last to pick, after everyone else had picked all the awesome things like spaceships and robots and monkeys. I mean, what else is there to write about, right? Brain freeze--I blurted the word house. I remember feeling slightly disappointed that I hadn't thought of something cooler. Maybe the house would be haunted, I said--and it was, but not in the way I expected. So I guess this is one of those unpremeditated stories that comes sideways at you while you're busy wanting to write about monkey robots in space.

- Haley Isleib

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