In the House, Another

by Joseph Whitehill

Fantasy & Science Fiction, 1960; 6th Annual Edition: The Year's Best S-F, ed. Judith Merril

The Other had remained unseen in the house for hours. Hunching its dorsal structure and tilting its hairy skull sideways, it peered out into the dining room through the crack in the kitchen door. Its dark motionless eyes were fixed on the back of the man finishing his supper. Unaware of its presence, the man pushed back his chair, belched lightly, and stood up. The Other shuddered in disgust at the obscenity. The man stirred the boxer at his feet until it awoke and yawned with wet curled tongue, and stretched itself to its feet. The man took a scrap from his plate and tossed it to his dog, gathered his pipe and tobacco pouch from the sideboard, and, with the stiff walk of a full man, ambled out of sight into the living room. At his whistle, the dog followed. Though its neighborhood reputation was one of vicious aggression toward strangers, the dog, too, seemed unaware of the presence of the Other in the house.

The Other remained in the kitchen, slumped in frustration against the refrigerator. Patience. There was time enough. No need yet to advance upon this man they called the Thinker. The Other crossed its freckled forepaws over its thorax, distorting the two spongy bags hanging there. This distortion was habitual, and went unmarked. The Other waited, its conchoidal hearing organs alert to the sounds from the living room. All were homely sounds; the thump of another log added to the fire... the ringing rapping of the Thinker's pipe on the metal ash tray... his sensual groan as he settled into the big deep chair before the fire... the scratching of the match and the spasmodic wheezy gurgling of the pipe as the Thinker drew it alive.

...Wait... wait. Not now. Later. Plenty of time. The Other sensed the first diffusion of the powerful tar esters of the tobacco smoke. Its sensitive olfactory neuro-termini rebelled, and its triangular proboscis twitched involuntarily.

The Thinker began to think. Mechanically, his hand sought out the dog's occiput, and he soothed both himself and the dog with his symbiotic scratching. Required, said his brain, a stable amplifier capable of measurement of unipotential electrostatic charges of minimal magnitudeˇ For purposes of discussion, assume a design point of five microvolt D.C. registration....

Twenty minutes passed. The dog had fallen asleep again, and the Thinker's pipe required relighting. He ignored it. Direct amplification is out of the question, because random grid bias variation alone may reach five hundred microvolts.

The Other moved quietly into the dining room, walking with a liquid lateral sway. It looked around the arched opening of the living room and gazed intently at the immobile form sunk in the chair. Dancing firelight played over his strong hard face, softening it almost to a boy's. The dog raised its head and looked at the Other, clinging there to the door jamb, then dropped his muzzle again between his forepaws. The Thinker did not stir. Thus, a comparator must be devised which will convert applied D.C, potential into a proportional A.C. signal....

An inchoate wave of hunger swept over the observing Other. Its red claws indented the soft wood of the door jamb and in a somatic wrench of restraint, it turned and climbed the stairs. In its climbing it made a distinctly audible swishing sound, and under its weight a loose stair tread skirled loudly. In the living room, the sleeping dog's ear flicked at the sound of the squeaking board, but the Thinker thought on.

He was a skilled concentrator, with his brain an obedient assistant. His ears had heard the sounds of the moving Other, but their alerting message had been silenced at his thalamic switchboard. The ratiocination must not be intruded upon. Currently available D.C. to A.C. converters are either synchronous switches or synchronously exited capacity diaphrams....

Upstairs, the Other moved wraithlike through the rooms, looking, touching, searching. It encountered a chair draped with the Thinker's soiled linen. It clawed among the linen in an aimless fashion, grasping pieces at random and elevating them to its eye level. It found a stocking and rammed its clawed forepaw into the opening all the way down to the toe, then held up the encased limb and swiveled it, looking at it from all sides with blank, unblinking eyes. It inspected a hole in the heel of the sock through which it could see its own skin color against the white of the sock. Enraged, it ripped off the sock, turning it inside out, and flung it onto the dresser. In futile irritation, it moved jerkily about the room, eyes flickering over the furniture and passing on. All these things around it were possessions of the Thinker downstairs. He had sat in each chair here, he had slept in that bed... his presence impinged on the Other's consciousness even up here where it had gone to lie in wait. He must come soon. This hunger could not be allayed so for long. It was becoming a crying, keening thing, imperious, and insatiable by such titillating hints of the real man, warm and soft, as lay all around it.

As if to torture itself, the Other swayed into the bathroom and began examining the personal toilet articles of the Thinker. It held up a razor and tossed it idly in one paw. With its prehensile claws, it opened the shaving lotion and sniffed. It swirled the badger brush around in the wooden shaving bowl to see the lather rise. Why does he not come?

An hour passed. The winter night chill crept into the house, drawing tight the strands of tense silence.

Feedback of at least a hundred db will be required to stabilize the amplifier's A.C. gain characteristic.... The Thinker's pipe had burned down to a bitter dottle in the bottom of the bowl. The fitful firelight cast only occasional candle-bright glimpses of the room where he sat. The dog snored gently and stirred in its deep sleep. Electromagnetic excitation of the moving diaphram requires objectionably large quantities of A.C. fundamental energy....

At last the Other could wait no longer. It descended the stairs with haste and entered the living room. Its claw found the switch of the living room light, but it hesitated.

Its incarnadine labia gaped and it spoke.

"Dear, aren't you ever coming to bed?"

Copyright 1960 Joseph Whitehill. Reprinted with permission of the author.