A house doesn't make a home.
|John Anderton stood in front of the row of houses, staring upwards at their identical grey cement walls, their symmetrically placed windows, their matching pitch-black doors. He had slept in one of those for every single night of his adulthood, but to him they had always seemed cold, hostile and unwelcoming. He stared at them with sceptical eyes, unconvinced by their appearance. He didn’t trust them. And he certainly did not trust the Key.
He took a step towards the door (a door, chosen at random, what difference could it make), pushed forward by the burning stares of his neighbours on his back. They were nothing but an illusion, of course. There were no neighbours anymore, since no one lived in the same house for more than a day. Humanity had completed their transition from social, allying creatures to solitary, independent beings. In his hands, John held the catalyst for this alteration of life; the thing that had singlehandedly destroyed thousands of years of human traditions, thoughts and sentiments.
He looked down at the thick slab of cold metal in his hand, the end of it rhythmically pulsating green. It was inelegant and graceless, almost vulgar, but it fitted like a Tetris block in the hole next to the door. There was a familiar beep of recognition; the pulsation of colour became yellow. Processing.
John had often wondered what type of metamorphosis the house’s interior went under in this moment. The newspapers did not speak of it, and what type of monstrous device the scientists had developed was left free to his imagination. Sometimes he wondered if technology had any part at all in the buildings’ mutation. Maybe there were builders, who waited, with interminable patience, for the signal from the Key to appear, before constructing the house, with inhuman speed and precision. What happened when the light turned red, thought John. Did they stay or did they go, and if so did they have Keys too? Who built their houses? In his nightmares, he sensed them sleeping under his bed, listening.
Parallel to his thoughts, the light turned red; the masterpiece was complete, once again. John left the Key there, and stepped inside.
His home was still there, the same as always. He walked inside the living room, mistakenly stepping on a creaky board, which creaked as always. He sat down on the sofa slowly and sceptically, almost expecting it to vanish beneath him, but it was soft and solid under his weight. As always.
Nothing had changed; this was definitely still his house. The air was still impregnated from the stir-fry he had had the night before, the carpet was still stained in the same, identical place. The boxes that he had left by the stairs in the morning were still there, waiting to be carried to the loft.
But somehow it made him uneasy, this seamless reproduction of a home that the scientists had created. It was impeccable and flawless to perfection; in all his life, John had never found a glitch, a mistake. The same data that was stored in his Key when he left for work in the mornings was effortlessly restored in another building when he returned in the afternoon. That is how the system worked, and had done so now for more than fifty years.
There’s something missing, John decided, something vital. He was sure of it now, he felt that the answer was close, but still it eluded him by a centimetre. Too much time has passed, he thought, I have forgotten things which were previously unforgettable.
He stood up, weary and tired, and ambled to the bathroom, kicking the door open, reluctant to open as it always was. Running cold water over his face, he glanced up at himself in the mirror. And suddenly the idea became clear, clear as the water splashing in the basin. All his thoughts, fears, qualms and suspicions about the world he lived, which previously seemed incomprehensible and perplexing, his feeling of uneasiness, of awkwardness inside his own house, his sensing that he was the only one afflicted with this syndrome alone; they were all now beautifully translated and deciphered into an intelligible thought, one which fitted so perfectly within the jigsaw of his mind that he felt the need to say it out loud, to make sure it was not an illusion.
‘This is my house,’ he said, so loudly in the empty building that it startled him, ‘but not my home’.
It was unquestionable, undeniable. The entire house was programmed to make him feel at home, from the faultlessly replicated smells, objects and even the windows, which instead of showing the bleak and austere repetitiveness of the street, were designed to show a floral view of the park he previously lived next to. The scientists had tried to imitate the atmosphere and ambiance of what houses had been before the Key, but it was incomplete and could never be whole, for, John now realized, it was missing the essence of human life. It omitted the pleasure of coming back to the same home every evening, the human warmth of having a family waiting for you. It misinterpreted the importance of the identity of objects, the deep affection that humans develop for inanimate objects that makes a home unique for its inhabitants, and is dependent upon continuity. A home becomes a home over time and the houses of his days could never hope to be more than edifices of cement. This house, thought John, looking around him with new eyes, is nothing more than a shell, a fruitless interpretation of my home.
His home. It had been a long time since the system had forced him to evict the house, but he still remembered it perfectly. He recalled its interior, its furniture chosen with care, its walls lovingly decorated with wallpaper, paintings and photographs of a life that had taken him so long to forget. He remembered being woken up gently by the sunlight which in the mornings gradually illuminated his room, getting out of a familiar bed, one which held so many memories. John looked around himself now. There was a kind of absence, of emptiness, which, oxymoronically, was palpable. There was a silence which was only half filled by turning the radio to its loudest volume. ‘Its not the same,’ John murmured, ‘when you know its different’.
A strange sensation flowed through his body, twisting his stomach, obstructing his throat. It had been a long time too, since he had experiencing homesickness, and now a nostalgic longing for his old home filled his soul. He had to check.
Before he knew what he was doing, John was pulling on his coat and leaving the house. Reflexively, he took his Key with him, imagining the windows behind him darken, and what had previously been his house transform back into an empty shell, dark and tenebrous. This image sickened him to the point of shuddering in fear and revolt, but he kept on walking, marching towards his goal. Home.
John’s trepidation and excitement evaporated when he reached his previous house. Now filled with anxiety, John checked the street plate again. 26 Draycott Avenue. This was definitely where it should be, the address was correct; the house was the third from the right, facing the park. But it had changed. In fact, it looked exactly like the house that he had just left. Three windows, grey in colour, and a pitch-black door, identical to every other house in the street. And a red light.
John stared at the light as he realized what it meant. His dreams and hopes shattered, he was overcome by a melancholic sadness so powerful that it took the breath from his lungs, and made him double over as if winded. His home had been transformed, and someone was living in it.
He struggled over to the first floor window, desperate for a look inside. He saw the living room, different from any house he’d ever been in, and caught sight of a laughing young couple, hugged together on the sofa, watching TV. In his house.
In that moment, John felt more alone than he had ever been in his life. How could these people laugh and smile when humanities’ greatest tradition and ritual, the notion of having a stable roof over one’s head, of having a house which was permanent and unchanging, of having a home which one loved and cherished, and was unique and irreplaceable; all of these things which together knitted the complex fabric that made humans human, where all gone, destroyed by the slab of metal which now rested in his pocket. ‘Am I the only one who thinks like this?’ John wondered fearfully, ‘who believes that the identity of objects is important?’ Was it really conceivable that a string of the fabric of humanity, destroyed by the introduction of the Key, had survived in him, and him alone? It was all clear to him now again, why he felt different, why he feared that other people would realize this and search him out, not because they were evil, but simply perceptive. He wondered if there were other people like him out there, survivors strewn across the globe.
John looked at the couple again, and sadly comprehended the fact that his generation would be the last in the history of humanity to understand concepts like these. After him, all those moments of human compassion, love and empathy would be gone forever, lost in time, like tears in rain.
Suddenly, a searing jealousy and envy overtook John. He backed away from the window in anger, furious at the couples’ joy. They were in his house, and they laughed while he was torn apart from inside. Why couldn’t they understand that life like this was wrong? Who did they think they were?
His face contorted itself in a distorted grin that anyone watching would have described as positively wicked. His fingers slowly closed around the Key next to the door.
‘Home sweet home’, he whispered. Then he pulled.