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Fiction Friday: In the House That Jack Built, Chapter 2

Chapter 2: This is the Horse and the Hound and the Horn

He had considered going straight to the Kings’, do not pass go (even as he thought it he heard her say, as she skipped his top hat to jail, “bypassing go just goes to show that being old and slightly taller does not assure two hundred dollars”), but instead directed the driver through a maze of trivial destinations – to the florist, to buy tulips, to the clothiers, to buy a better hat, to the drugstore, to buy antacids. His mother’s present care facility had already closed to visitors earlier in the afternoon. He scheduled an appointment for the following day with her doctor and an administrator. When the cab finally pulled up to the great gates of the King estate, daylight hours had long been exhausted.

“Want me to take you all the way up?” said the cab driver.

“They won’t let you past the gate,” said the soldier.

“Why not?”

“It’s a house rule.”

“That’s an asshole rule,” said the cab driver.

“It turns out, when they’re your gates, you can make any asshole rule you want,” said the soldier.

The driver, perhaps feeling solicitous after an afternoon of fare accrual, helped the soldier unload the his things – black Tumi suitcase, catalogue case, orchid – onto the drive in front of the imposing wrought-iron, and left. The crystallized air shimmered and sparked, almost corporeal before the lanterns on the gate’s black masts. It assimilated his blood, slowing his heart, and hardening his toes within his custom but uninsulated Italian shoes. He closed his coat and pushed the buzzer. Though he had grown up in Illinois, he had thought he had shaken the snow from his core through years of west coast living. When he travelled, he isolated himself from the elements, moving from airport, to limousine, to office building, back to limousine, to hotel, in an unfaltering dance that allowed him to take the fewest possible unchoreographed steps into unregulated climate. It felt like controlling the weather. But as the soldier faced the king’s long driveway, he knew that the chill had been merely lying dormant, hibernating in his bone marrow, for as he stood here now, black coat over black coat spanning his shoulders, he felt the ice flowing from the betraying tips of his toes, through to the ends of his prematurely gray hair, and it felt like home.

The large, wrought-iron gates swung open, cued by an invisible hand inside the great house. He remembered biking past these gates as a boy. Sometimes, on non-piano days, days when the gate was closed to him instead of open, he would peer through the bars at the great house beyond, thinking about the next time he would walk up that driveway, thinking about the day his mother wouldn’t have to teach piano to children who weren’t interested, thinking about the day his was the invisible hand. It was a long time ago. He strode up the driveway. Somewhere, behind him, the gates swung silently shut.

A woman opened the door. She looked to be somewhere between sixty and ancient, the flesh that had once given her form shape having withered away over many years until all that remained was the architectural structure of her bones. Her features had a pinched and brittle quality about them, a result of the staggering defeat dealt her by her own reproductive system decades earlier. Some wounds, he knew, fractured the soul into cubist pieces that could never be put aright. As he entered, she reached one hand forward to take his coat, or his bag. She wore a gray wool dress. “I can handle it, Matilda,” he said.

“So you are the gentleman arranged by Mr. King,” she said.

“I am,” he said.

“Let me carry something,” she said. “It’s my job.” He tried to hand her the plant. She placed her hand instead upon the telescoping handle of the Tumi, the blue veins marbling her skeletal fingers.

“You brought tulips,” she said.

“People bring things when they impose.”

“You always had a good memory, but I doubt it will do you any good,” said Matilda. She picked up the catalogue case. “Come along. They’re expecting you.”

“Does Henry still manage the garden in the spring?” he asked.

“Henry died seven years ago,” she said.

Matilda lead him through the entryway, with its vaulted ceiling and flanking staircases, up the marble stairs, down a hall, up another set of stairs, down another, longer hall. As he followed Matilda’s practiced silence across the solitude of the third floor, he listened for the expected irritants – the bickering of younger King daughters, the chatter of cable television, the seismic thump of the stereo – but heard nothing, save the song of the house itself, the occasional creaks and groans of a living thing internalizing an intruder.

The house had undergone remodel upon remodel as each wife stamped out the vestiges of the last through interior décor. In externals, the hallway was almost unrecognizable. The grand plaster, once steel blue, had been painted mocha. Bland neo-modern art hung from the picture molding. A stone gazelle graced the second atrium. Still, the place felt dusty with familiarity, a misty residue that thickened the air the further he burrowed into the mansion. He knew this hall as he knew his own bones. Even his thawing feet retained the memory, deep within their many muscles. This was the hall with the practice room.

Matilda nodded to the door as she trudged past. He watched her disappear into the deepening shadows of the northwest wing¸ her perfect march unmarred by a careless dotted quarter, or the grace note of a staggered step. If he must be separated from his laptop and wallet, he supposed himself fortunate that they were in the capable hands of Matilda.

An ancient gnome figurine propped open the practice room door. The door had not worked properly in at least twenty years. After a doorknob failure trapped two-year-old Charlotte inside the room, Henry had removed the latch, and left the fixing to abler hands. No one had bothered with it, or the room, since. Perhaps the wives were daunted by the cost of updating the ancient floor to ceiling windows. Or, more likely, for the Mrs. Kings were an increasingly determined and well-funded lot, they were stymied by the piano. Moving a third floor piano was no small undertaking, but once dislodged, where would it go? Katherine and Jane King were unlikely to approve the Baldwin’s complete removal, as it had been a gift from their deceased mother. The formal living room, on the other hand, already housed the imposing Bosendorfer. So, here it stayed, and here they were, together again, and in some small, unsettling way, it was like nothing had changed at all. He felt the cool kiss of childhood waft through the permeable old windows and feather across his neck. He smothered the chill with his palm, but its shadow lingered with a bruising ache.

He counted four, four King daughters, stationed throughout the room. The two youngest wore uniforms, green and blue plaid skirts with navy sweaters. The older of the uniforms, a teenager, wore a headset, and stared at a textbook in her lap. From the look on her face, she was reading but not retaining. The younger girl, maybe twelve, who knows, maybe older, maybe younger, he didn’t meet many young girls, huddled cross-legged in a nearby corner, contemplating a workbook, her porcelain-doll brow furrowed in concentration. A mid-sized shaggy dog of indeterminate breeding lay by her feet. The dog blinked solemnly at him, but did not deign to rise. By the far window, at an old rolltop, sat a woman, her computer screen opened to a full document of text, tidy stacks of books surrounding her, but she did not look at any of them. She gazed out the window at the snow, her dirty blonde curls forcibly contained at the nape of her neck. The soldier could not see her face, but he did not need to. Even as a little girl, Jane had been an antique, all rounded edges and soft features and pastel colors, like something out of a Seurat. When she turned around, finally, to study the intruder, she did so with the same careful consideration she had used as a child. Every fundamental, from her round face, to her golden Saxon complexion, were intact. She smiled, slightly, a reflex, before placing a hand across her throat, where, he knew, an amber cameo hung, as though in shielding the eyes of the relief she was protecting her own thoughts. It was a familiar movement. Jane had been clutching that cameo since the day she received it.

He followed her gaze as she glanced at the window seat. Case files and print-outs and reference books covered the chair and the occupant’s lap, spilling over onto the floor into dunes of data detritus. She did not look up, but stared at the document beneath her fingers, highlighter in one hand, pen tucked behind her ear. She was ephemerally slight, so slight it was uncomfortable to look at her. Her dark hair fell from her ponytail and across her eyes. Her skin was pale, with an icy translucence, as though she had been kissed by the snow queen. She had always liked that story. He remembered once, her mother…the thought leapt forth, unbidden. The walls of his mind folded inward, suffocating the memory before it could build. It sighed and sank, comatose, into the wasteland of his selective past.

Jane said, “Katie, he’s here.”

Kate whipped her head upward. Her face was an architectural ruin, her skin sallow and clinging to her bones, colored only by blue welts under red rimmed eyes. Only base infrastructure remained. She studied him across a landscape of cheekbone masonry and petrified jaw, her skull little more than a fortress for eyes grown less like the Great Lakes than a tsunami sea.

“Look at what the cat dragged in,” said Kate.

“Lana, Madeleine, this is Thomas Blake. He is…” he could see Jane searching for an appropriate introduction, “He is a business associate of father’s.”

He had the attention of the entire room. “They told me someone called ahead.”

“The office contacted us this morning. They said you’d be here for some unexpected personal business.”

“I apologize for the imposition.”

“We understand completely. Sometimes things come up,” said Jane. “Please don’t feel badly on our account.”

“Don’t worry,” said Kate. “Feeling bad isn’t in his repertoire.”

“It’s not,” he said.

“There, you see?” said Kate. “We are free to feel inconvenienced.” She inclined her head. She still had the square jaw and the delicate chin, but both were overshadowed by emaciation and cheekbones. Finally, she said, “It’s been a long time. Surely you didn’t come here, at all this distance, over all these years, to stand stupidly in a doorway. You have something on your mind. Let’s have it.”

“You have a dog,” he said.

“That’s what’s on your mind,” she said.

Jane said, “His name is Boris. He’s really very nice, once you get past how he looks. Madeleine found him somewhere, and he doesn’t seem to want to leave.”

“Kate said I could keep him,” said the littlest King.

“That’s true. I did say that,” said Kate.

“I assume Mr. King doesn’t know about Boris,” said the soldier.

“We hide him when he comes around, which, let’s face it, isn’t very often, and you know Matilda. She’s a wizard with a vacuum cleaner.” Kate twisted the pen in her hands, once, twice, three times. Finally, she said, “That’s an unusual tie.”

The tie. “I always wear it when I travel,” he said. He had put himself on the defensive with his own tie.

“Force of habit, I guess,” she said. She smiled a little, one corner of her mouth leading the other. It was a familiar movement. He had seen it many times before. In fact, he had seen it earlier today.

“The associate,” he said. “You gave me directions to the billing department.”

“Fifteen years ago you would never have forgotten where the billing department was.”

“Fifteen years ago, the billing department was located on the seventeenth floor.”

“And yet you forgot my face,” she said.

“There is nothing familiar left about your face,” he said. “You have gutted it.”

“I’ve aged, that’s all. It happens to everyone. It’s even, and I’m sorry to be the one to have to tell you this, but it’s even happened to you. What do you think, Jane?” she said. “What’s the statute of limitations on memory? Do we forgive him for forgetting us after ten years? After twenty?”

“I would never have mistaken Grey,” he said. “You look exactly the same, Jane.”

“Probably taller,” said Jane. She smiled, but placed a careful hand on Kate’s arm. It was unnecessary. Kate seemed fossilized, the full force of her considerable attention fixed upon him. It was a scrutiny inherited from her father. When produced by the king, its focus was a dangerous place to be.

“What’s a Grey?” said Lana.

“I’m a Grey,” Jane said.

“I don’t get it.”

“It’s because her eyes are gray, I bet,” said Madeleine.

“It’s because of Lady Jane Grey,” said Kate. “You know.” Clearly, Lana did not know. Kate said, “Our mother was Eleanor, and in her infinite wisdom, she named us Jane and Katherine. I imagine she thought it was funny.”

“Also, my eyes are gray,” said Jane.

“I still don’t get it,” said Lana.

“How much are we paying that school?” said Kate.

“They are all the names of famous queens,” said Jane. “You remember. The Nine Days Queen. Catherine of Aragon. We reviewed Eleanor of Aquataine for your midterm just two weeks ago.”

“No, they are the names of ill-fated queens,” said Kate. “No Elizabeths or Victorias here. Although I suppose Jane’s takes the cake.”

“Yes, but aren’t they all ill-fated?” said Jane. “Being queen seems to be a thankless business.”

“Why do you keep standing in the hall?” said Lana.

“He brought tulips,” said Matilda from behind him. She was back, this time with his suitcase.

“Did you?” said Jane. “Look, Kate, he brought tulips.”

“I see it,” said Kate.

No one moved, except for Lana, who snapped her gum. The soldier took the tulips. He strode across the threshold and placed the flowers on a dusty stack of music on the piano. Even now, he could not bring himself to set something like a plant directly on a piano. “Thank you for your hospitality. I need someone to show me to my room.”

Everyone looked at Kate. “Of course,” said Kate.

He followed her down the long hall towards its inevitable conclusion. Wall sconces lit the passage with soft atmospheric light, but the hall was more hidden than revealed by them. Shadows wrinkled the plaster, the crevices growing longer and deeper the further the little party burrowed into the King residence, until all he could see of Kate, only a few feet before him, was the obscured outline of her back. With each step, his discomfort grew. He had ventured down this passage only a handful of times. The door at its end never opened, certainly not to an outsider, certainly not to a man. It was the girls’ suite.

Once upon a time, little Katie had told him that all the girls’ rooms opened into a circular foyer. “It’s a drawing room,” Katie had told him, “so we get communal and develop better.” He remembered this striking him as a both a funny thing for a six-year-old to say, and a funny thing to have. His mother’s house barely had a living room. Judith had not seen the humor. “Money lets you indulge in any sort of idiocy you want,” she said. “If that woman really wanted more together time, she’d sacrifice some square footage instead of add to it.”

As he now followed Kate through the suite door, he saw that it still adhered to its original concept. Five doors opened in a circle around a common area, decorated by the most recent ex-wife with baroque wall-papered accent wall, a rococo chandelier, and beige carpet. In the center stood a delicate table flanked by five antique, nearly non-functional chairs, for the girls to get uncomfortably communal, he supposed. At the center of the table squatted a large, low floral arrangement of fake ferns and five silk begonias. The arrangement looked homey and inappropriate, give the surroundings, but the soldier admired its symmetry.

“There’s a guest room or three in the east wing of the second floor,” said the soldier.

“My father wants you to stay here.”   Kate opened one of the doors. It had a pink, pink bedspread, neo-punk posters on the walls, stuffed bunnies in the corner. “This is Charlotte’s room, of course. And now it is yours.”

Charlotte had always liked the color pink, in the way she did everything, compulsively and completely. “No,” he said.

“Don’t like the color? I imagine it grows on you,” said Kate.


“If you are concerned about supervision, my father’s eye is the eye of God. He sees all. As I am sure you have learned.”

“You are an adult woman living in her father’s house,” said the soldier. “At least the pretense of respect is in order.”

“I likened him to God,” said Kate. “Surely that’s sufficient respect, even for my father.”

“Do you ever plan to move out? People often do, when they reach adulthood.”

“Do they?” she said, but she flushed as she said it. “You’ve been at King Rosencrantz your entire career. When are you going to trade in your knee pads for an equity cut?”

“I have an equity cut.”


“I didn’t ask to be sent here,” he said.

“We know you didn’t, Thomas,” said Jane.

“We certainly do,” said Kate.

He picked up his suitcase. “I’m going to the Hilton.”

“Now there’s a thought,” said Kate.

“Kate, stop this,” said Jane. “You will only get him in trouble.”

“We wouldn’t want to get him in trouble,” said Kate, but the hard edges of her consonants softened. Perhaps it was compassion. It was no insignificant thing to be in trouble with the king. It occurred to him, as it had not before in their nearly thirty year acquaintance, that perhaps no one understood this better than a king daughter. She shoved her hands into her pockets, a little boy gesture, and raised an eyebrow in Jane’s direction. Jane shook her head. Kate sighed. “This was not my idea. I don’t go in for torture. You know how it is.”

“I do,” he said.

“But you are welcome to take the matter up with him.”

“Not necessary,” he said.

“I didn’t think so,” she said. He set the suitcase back down. It sucked light valiantly, but barely made a dent on the fuchsia ecosystem. “Dinner is at seven. We are having chicken cacciatore.”

“I used to like chicken cacciatore,” he said.

“I know,” she said.


Dinner was punctual and silent. The table was long and narrow, with several extra seats. Kate assumed one head of the table. Opposite her stood an unoccupied chair, complete with empty place setting. When the soldier moved to sit there, Lana pulled the chair from his hand.

“That’s for father,” she said.

“He’s not coming,” he said.

“You never know,” said Lana.

The soldier sat in the remaining empty chair. The king did not come to dinner. The soldier was unsurprised. According to the king’s well-updated online calendar, he was in Washington D.C.

The soldier ate little. He remembered once being invited to share this dish with Kate and Charlotte, while Jane finished her lesson upstairs. He had eaten three heaping plates. It was like going to a restaurant, he remembered thinking, but then he had little point of comparison. Judith favored drive-through windows that produced French fries on command. He liked French fries, and the price was right, but the Kings had a chef, and at the time it seemed plausible that he might never again have the opportunity to eat restaurant quality food. Kate had teased him about it for a month afterwards – she would call child services, she said, for clearly his mother was starving him. Were his recall less dependable, he might have questioned this memory now, as he strove to steel his stomach against the onslaught of tomato acid. He forced the utensil into his mouth, and chewed. He lifted his eyes from the plate to discover Kate watching him. She did not eat, but stirred the contents of her plate with her fork. He remembered her mother, the king’s first and favorite wife, long and lithe and ethereal, a surgeon who dabbled in a little of everything, a little music, a little dance, a little art. He had thought her magnificent. So had the king. He remembered the rumors, suddenly, as he sat here, watching Kate stir her food while she surveyed her father’s table from her mother’s seat, old whisperings about how the first Mrs. King refused to eat, had, indeed, wasted to her death, and he wondered, suddenly, whether Kate may have adopted even this of her mother’s, her peculiar sickness of starvation.

The girls retired immediately. Jane returned to the practice room, where her work was stationed, as did Kate, each girl – no, each woman, he reminded himself – resuming the same position she had held when he had first discovered them, or rediscovered them, earlier that afternoon. Lana and Madeleine retreated to their rooms, and closed their doors, and did not reemerge. The soldier did the same.

Charlotte’s room appeared to be as she left it, down to the pile of unmatched socks on the floor of the closet, as though she had one evening walked into her bathroom to take a shower and slipped down the drain. The king’s day secretary in Chicago had told him that Charlotte had been attending the University of Chicago but living at home, because Mr. King thought it best that she have her sisters present for guidance. He looked around the room and saw nothing to indicate either Kate or Jane had had a hand in shaping it, or its owner. He tried to find an open drawer or shelf upon which to station his few belongings, but every dresser, nook, or open space in Charlotte’s room was crammed with Charlotte’s things – little stuffed animals, pastel chalks, miniature clay sculptures, crystal orbs – and he was forced to convert his suitcase into a shelving unit of its own.

At nine o’clock, Kate knocked at his door. “I hear you enjoy wine,” she said, and gestured to the glass in her hand. She held a bottle in the other, with a distinctive label. The Kings owned a vineyard in a far-off state. The king did not, to the soldier’s knowledge, ever drink, but enjoyed conquering in all of its forms, even if that form involved exacting control over a grape he never consumed. “Although I remember that you did not care for alcohol, I am told you have since acquired a taste.”

“I have.”

“What’s changed?”

“I’m older,” he said. She did not pursue the issue. She handed him the glass. He drank it. The wine was good, of course, but it hardly mattered.  When he looked up, she was watching him.

“What?” he said.

“I didn’t say anything,” she said.

“You want to.”

“I always want to. It’s a character flaw.” She sat down on the edge of the pink bed. “Let’s get this over with.”

“Fine,” he said. “Tell me about Charlotte.”

“You’re going to have to be more specific.”

“What do you think happened to her?”

Kate shrugged a little, a stiff, uncomfortable motion. She dropped her burning eyes to the shag carpeting, and he felt relieved that he no longer had to look at them. “Poor Charlotte,” she said. “She has never learned to live in the world. She wants to save whales. She wants peace in the Middle East. She wants to stop global warming, and I don’t know what else. She sits in here and wishes, and hurts. Lana has skin like a lizard, but Charlotte’s so permeable. An elephant dies, and she bleeds. A child starves and she starves too. It is hard to protect someone who has no defenses at all, who absorbs everything. And believes everything. You remember the sandman episode.”

An image flickered before his mind’s eye of little Charlotte, standing on the open sill of her third story bedroom window, shifting between chubby toddler feet, and waving a bag of sand into the setting sun. How was the sun to dream, she said, without sand? “Yes, I remember,” he said.

“I think one of the gardeners gave her the idea,” said Kate. “Nothing’s changed. Absolutely nothing has changed.”

“So your theory is she has run off to join Green Peace.”

“Or she’s in Peru building houses with Habitat for Humanity. Or she’s in a war zone somewhere with the Peace Corps. Or maybe she read a story on her way to class about the disappearing arctic, and has been riding the same train for a week, unable to face the idea of a world without a polar cap.”

“Have you checked the trains?”

“Of course,”

“Where is her mother?”

“She is not chasing down her mother.”

“You seem pretty sure.”

“Some dreams are too broken to be rebuilt,” said Kate. She poured more wine into his glass, giving him a clear look at the label.  A unicorn and a lion rested in harmony amongst grape vines and snow. “So what do you dream?” she said.

“I don’t,” he said.

“Everyone does,” said Kate.

“Not me,” he said.

She looked at the bottle in her hands. It was nearly empty. When she considered him again, her gaze was inscrutable. “Perhaps you don’t.” She set the bottle on the ground at the foot of the bed. “I should go.”

“Yes,” he said. “Go.”

“Don’t wander too far at night, Thomas. Sometimes we remember to set the alarm.”

“No one calls me Thomas anymore,” he said.

“What do they call you?”

“Mr. Blake.”

“Of course they do,” she said. She closed the door behind herself. He lifted the glass of wine, the imprint of her fingers still upon it, and finished what he’d started. He always did.


Twenty minutes later, while reviewing the papers on Charlotte’s desk, school syllabi and old assignments, in search of some information about her life, he found himself suddenly and completely weary. The exhaustion sat, not in his joints and muscles, which were normally the weakest link, but somewhere, foggy, within his electric brain. Perhaps it was the cold. Winter seeped through Charlotte’s old windows (it appeared Charlotte did not merit double panes) like water through a sieve. He was not accustomed to it as once he had been. He went into the bathroom and dunked his head beneath the faucet. The muddiness persisted, resting heavily across his forehead. He would busy himself until the feeling passed.

He surveyed the room for a place to store his suitcase. The closet, he already knew, was completely filled with Charlotte debris. He lifted the bedskirt. Charlotte had consumed even the space beneath her bed, stacking boxes upon boxes in the space there.   He pulled one box out, an old FedEx number. Inside, he found several pairs of shoes. The shoes were tattered – holes in the soles and toes, broken heels and straps, dirty ribbons and loose beads. Party shoes, perhaps, or dancing shoes. He was no expert on women’s footwear. The fog thickened. He shook his head, once, twice, three times, trying to clear it, but it continued its inexorable descent, weighing his lids and slowing his hands. He barely managed to push the box back under the bed before collapsing on top of Charlotte’s pink comforter.



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