Read Set This House in Order Online

Authors: Matt Ruff

Tags: #Mystery, #Science Fiction, #Psychology, #Contemporary

Set This House in Order

SET THIS HOUSE IN ORDER

A Romance of Souls

MATT RUFF

For Michael, Daniel, J.B., Scooter, and the rest of the gang

I am all the daughters of my father's house, and all the brothers too…

—William Shakespeare,
Twelfth Night

Contents

1

I met Penny Driver two months after my twenty-eighth birthday…

2

I worked at the Reality Factory on East Bridge Street.

3

There are actually two bridges on Bridge Street. The west…

4

Mouse is lying in a strange bed, in a strange…

5

Mouse isn't exactly sure how she lost her last job.

6

Today's list includes a set of directions for finding the…

7

The first two e-mails were waiting for me when I…

8

A fine drizzle was falling the next morning as I…

9

I guess it's not all that surprising that I would…

10

The envelope from the English Society of International Correspondents is…

11

When she first spots Andy Gage in front of the…

12

Three days later Mouse is in another cluttered sitting room…

13

Julie was jealous of Penny.

14

I was coming out of Magic Mouse Toys when I…

15

I woke the next morning wondering for the second time…

16

Mouse's first meeting with Dr. Eddington is scheduled for 7:30…

17

Mouse was in her first semester at the University of…

18

Now, driving towards Autumn Creek, a few car lengths behind…

19

I was rocking back and forth in the dark.

20

As they follow the truck across Washington state, Maledicta and…

21

“—and that's the last thing I remember,” Penny concluded. “The…

22

Andrew said that while he was inside, it would look…

23

We couldn't get the door open.

24

After checking out of the motel and getting some lunch,…

25

“You thought our mother died when Andy Gage was very…

26

Officer Cahill doesn't get it.

27

The replacement coffee table that Andy Gage's mother had bought…

28

“My father was wrong,” Andrew tells her. “He said I…

29

Later that night, after the rescue team had dug him…

30

Surprised?

 

My father called me out.

I was twenty-six years old when I first came out of the lake, which puzzles some people, who wonder how I could have an age without having a past. But I get puzzled, too: most people I know can't remember being born, and what's more, it doesn't bother them that they can't remember. My good friend Julie Sivik once told me that her earliest memory was a scene from her second-birthday party, when she stood on a chair to blow out the candles on her cake. It's all a blank before that, she said, but she didn't seem upset by it, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to be missing two years of her life.

I remember everything, from the first moment: the sound of my name in the dark; the shock of the water; the tangle of the weeds at the bottom of the lake where I opened my eyes. The water is black down there, but I could see sunlight on the surface far above me, and I floated towards it, drawn up by my father's voice.

My father waited for me on the lakebank with Adam and Jake and Aunt Sam. Behind them stood the house, with Seferis up in the pulpit keeping an eye on the body; and from the windows overlooking the lake, and from the edges of the forest, I could feel the others watching me, too shy to show themselves. Gideon must have been watching too, from Coventry, but I didn't know about him then.

I suppose I should explain about the house. Aunt Sam says that a good storyteller only reveals important information a little at a time, to keep the audience interested, but I'm afraid if I don't explain it all now you'll get confused, which is worse than not being interested. So just bear with me, and I promise to try not to bore you later.

The house, along with the lake, the forest, and Coventry, are all in Andy
Gage's head, or what would have been Andy Gage's head if he had lived. Andy Gage was born in 1965 and murdered not long after by his stepfather, a very evil man named Horace Rollins. It was no ordinary murder: though the torture and abuse that killed him were real, Andy Gage's death wasn't. Only his soul actually died, and when it died, it broke in pieces. Then the pieces became souls in their own right, coinheritors of Andy Gage's life.

There was no house back then, just a dark room in Andy Gage's head where the souls all lived. In the center of the room was a column of bright light, and any soul that entered or was pulled into the light found itself outside, in Andy Gage's body, with no memory of how it had gotten there or what had happened since the last time it was out. As you can imagine, this was a frightening and terrible existence, made more terrible by the continuing depredations of the stepfather. Of the seven original souls who descended from Andy Gage, five were later murdered themselves, broken into still more pieces, and even the two survivors were forced to splinter in order to cope. By the time they got free of Horace Rollins, there were over a hundred souls in Andy Gage's head.

That was when the real struggle began. Over many years, the two surviving original souls—Aaron, who is my father, and Gideon, my father's brother—pieced together enough of a sense of continuity to figure out what had happened to them. With the help of a good doctor named Danielle Grey, my father worked to establish order. In place of the dark room, he constructed a geography in Andy Gage's head, a sunlit countryside where the souls could see and talk to one another. He created the house, so they'd have a place to live; the forest, so they'd have somewhere to be alone; and the pumpkin field, so the dead could be decently buried. Gideon, who was selfish, wanted no part of any of this, and did everything he could to wreck the geography, until my father was forced to exile him to Coventry.

The effort required to complete the house exhausted my father, and left him with little enthusiasm for dealing with the outside world. But somebody had to run the body; and so, on the day the last shingle was nailed in place, my father went down to the lake and called my name.

Something else that puzzles me about other people is that a lot of them don't know their purpose in life. This usually does bother them—more than not being able to remember being born, anyway—but I can't even imagine it. Part of knowing who I am is knowing why I am, and I've always known who I am, from the first moment.

My name is Andrew Gage. I was twenty-six years old when I first came out of the lake. I was born with my father's strength, but not his weariness; his persistence, but not his pain. I was called to finish the job that my father had begun: a job that he had chosen, but that I was made for.

I met Penny Driver two months after my twenty-eighth birthday—or two months after my second birthday, depending on how you want to count it.

Jake was up first that morning, as he is most mornings, barreling out of his room around sunrise, thundering down the stairs to the common room, the clamor of his progress setting off a chain reaction of wakings among the other souls in the house. Jake is five years old, and has been since 1973, when he was born from the wreckage of a dead soul named Jacob; he is a
mature
five, but still basically a little kid, and not very good about respecting other people's need for quiet.

Jake's stomping roused Aunt Sam, who started up cursing; and Aunt Sam's cursing woke Adam, who has the room next to hers; and Adam, who
is
old enough to respect other people's need for quiet, but often chooses not to, let out a series of war whoops until my father banged on the wall and told him to knock it off. By then, everyone was awake.

I might have tried to ignore it. Unlike the others, I don't sleep in the house, I sleep in the body, and when you're in the body, even the loudest house-noises are just echoes in Andy Gage's head that can be tuned out at will—unless they come from the pulpit. But Adam knows this, of course, and whenever I do try to oversleep, he's out on the pulpit in no time, crowing like a rooster until I take the hint. Some days I make him crow himself hoarse, just to remind him who's boss; but on this particular morning, my eyes were open as soon as Jake hit the stairs.

The room where I slept—where the body slept—was in a renovated Victorian in Autumn Creek, Washington, twenty-five miles east of Seattle. The Victorian belonged to Mrs. Alice Winslow, who had first taken my father on as a boarder back in 1992, before I even existed.

We rented part of the first floor. The space was large but cluttered, clut
ter being an inevitable side effect of multiplicity, even if you make an effort to keep real-world possessions to a minimum. Just lying there in bed, and without even turning my head, I could see: Aunt Sam's easel, brushes, and paints, and two blank canvases; Adam's skateboard; Jake's stuffed panda; Seferis's kendo sword; my books; my father's books; Jake's little shelf of books; Adam's
Playboy
collection; Aunt Sam's stack of art prints; a color television with remote that used to be my father's but now belonged to me; a VCR that was three-fifths mine, three-tenths Adam's, and one-tenth Jake's (long story); a CD player that was one-half mine, one-quarter my father's, one-eighth Aunt Sam's, and one-sixteenth apiece Adam's and Jake's (longer story); a rack of CDs and videotapes of various ownerships; and a wheeled hamper of dirty clothes that no one wanted to lay claim to, but was mostly mine.

That's what I could see without even looking around; and besides the bedroom, there was a sitting room, a big walk-in closet, a full bathroom that was full in more ways than one, and the kitchen that we shared with Mrs. Winslow. The kitchen wasn't so cluttered, though; Mrs. Winslow cooked most of our meals for us, and strictly limited our personal food storage to one shelf in the refrigerator and two shelves in the pantry.

I got us out of bed and into the bathroom to start the morning ritual. Teeth came first. Jake really enjoys brushing for some reason, so I let him do it, stepping back into the pulpit and giving him the body. I stayed alert. Jake, as I've mentioned, is a child; but Andy Gage's body is adult and five-foot-seven, and hangs on Jake's soul like a suit of clothes many sizes too big. He moves clumsily in it, and often misjudges the distance between his extremities and the rest of the world; and as we've only got the one skull between us, if he bends over to get a dropped toothpaste cap and bashes his head on the corner of the sink, it is a group tragedy. So I kept a close eye on him.

This morning there were no accidents. He did his usual thorough job of brushing: side to side, up and down, getting every tooth, even the tricky ones in back. I wish he could handle the flossing as well, but that's a little too dexterous for him.

I took the body back and had a quick squat on the toilet. This is my job most mornings, though my father occasionally asks to do it—the pleasure of a good shit, he says, being one of the few things he misses from outside. Adam also volunteers sometimes, usually just after the latest
Playboy
has arrived; but I generally don't indulge him more than once or twice a month, as it upsets the others.

After the toilet came exercise. I stretched out on the bath mat beside the
tub and let Seferis run through his routine: two hundred sit-ups followed by two hundred push-ups, the last hundred evenly divided between the right and left arms. I came back from the pulpit to muscle burn and a lather of sweat, but I didn't complain. The body's stomach is as flat as a washboard, and I can lift heavy things.

Next I gave Adam and Aunt Sam two minutes each under the shower, starting with Aunt Sam. They used to alternate who went first, but Aunt Sam likes the water a lot warmer than Adam does, and Adam was always “forgetting” to adjust the temperature control before handing off the body, so now every day it's Aunt Sam, then Adam, then me—and Adam knows if he gives me ice water or an eyeful of soap suds, he'll lose his shower privileges for a week.

When my turn came I washed up quickly (the others rarely bother to do any real scrubbing), rinsed and toweled off, and went back into the bedroom to get dressed. My father came out on the pulpit to help me pick clothes. Away from home I have control of the body full-time, so daytime wardrobe really ought to be my responsibility alone, but Aunt Sam says I was born with no fashion sense, and I think my father feels guilty about that.

“Not that shirt,” he suggested, after I'd laid my initial selection on the bed.

“Does it clash with the pants?” I asked him, trying to remember the rule. “I thought blue jeans went with everything.”

“They do go with everything,” my father said. “But some clothes clash with everything, even blue jeans.”

“You think it's ugly?” I held up the shirt and examined it more critically. It was a bright yellow plaid, with red and green checks. I'd gotten it along with a bunch of other bargains at a spring clearance sale, and I thought it looked cheerful.

“I
know
it's ugly,” my father said. “If you really like it, you can wear it around here, but I wouldn't recommend it for public viewing.”

I hesitated. I did like the shirt, and I hate having to give things up just because of what other people might think. But I also really want other people to think well of me.

“It's your choice,” my father said patiently.

“All right,” I said, still reluctant. “I'll wear something else.”

We finished dressing. I put my watch on last, and checked it against the clock on the nightstand beside my bed. 7:07
A.M.
, the clock said,
MON APR
21. My watch agreed about the day and date, but not about the time.

“Two minutes off,” my father observed.

I gave a little shrug. “The watch runs slow,” I reminded him.

“You should get it repaired, then.”

“I don't need to get it repaired. It's fine the way it is.”

“You should fix the VCR clock, too.”

This was a longstanding bone of contention between us. My father used to own dozens of clocks, as protection against missing time; but I was less concerned with that, never having lost so much as a second as far as I knew, and had cut back to one clock per room. We'd fought about that decision, and about my failure to keep the remaining clocks perfectly synchronized. My casual attitude towards the VCR clock in particular drove my father crazy: after a power outage or an accidental unplugging, it might flash 12:00:00 for days before I bothered to reset it.

“It's really not that important,” I said, more harshly than I intended to. I was still disappointed about the shirt. “I'll get around to it.”

My father didn't answer, but I could tell he was frustrated: when I wouldn't look directly at the VCR, I could feel him trying to use the body's peripheral vision.

“I
will
get around to it,” I insisted, and left the bedroom. I passed through the sitting room—whose own clock was a scandalous minute ahead of the one on the nightstand—and went down the side hallway to the kitchen, where Mrs. Winslow had breakfast waiting.

“Good morning, Andrew,” Mrs. Winslow said, before I'd spoken a word. She always knew. Most mornings it was me at first, but even if I'd given the body to someone else, Mrs. Winslow would have known, without being told. She was like Adam in that sense, an almost magical reader of persons. “Did you sleep well?”

“I did, thank you.” Ordinarily it's polite to repeat the question back, but Mrs. Winslow was a chronic insomniac. She slept less well than anyone I knew, except for Seferis, who doesn't sleep at all.

She'd been up since five at least, and had started cooking when she'd heard the shower. It was a measure of both her kindness and her affection for us that she was willing to do this; like everything else in the morning, breakfast is a shared activity, and no small effort to prepare. I sat down not to one meal but to a hybrid of several, each serving carefully proportioned, starting with half a plate of scrambled eggs and a mug of coffee for me. I ate my fill, then let the others take the body, each soul greeting Mrs. Winslow in turn.

“Good morning, my dear,” Aunt Sam said grandly. Aunt Sam's breakfast
portion consisted of a cup of herbal tea and a slice of wheat toast with mint jelly; she used to smoke half a cigarette, too, but my father made her give it up in exchange for a little extra time outside. She sipped at the tea and nibbled daintily at her toast until Adam got impatient and started clearing his throat from the pulpit.

“Good morning, gorgeous,” said Adam with mock flirtatiousness. Adam likes to pretend he is a great ladies' man. In reality, women between the ages of twelve and sixty make him nervous, and if Mrs. Winslow's hair hadn't been gray, I doubt he'd have had the courage to be so fresh with her. As he devoured his breakfast—half an English muffin and a bacon strip—he gave her his idea of a seductive wink; but when Mrs. Winslow winked back, Adam startled, sucked bacon down the wrong pipe, and ended in a fit of coughing.

“Good morning, Mrs. Winslow,” Jake said, his high voice raspy from Adam's choking fit. He dug awkwardly into the little bowl of Cheerios she set out for him. She poured him a tiny glass of orange juice, too, and he reached too quickly for it. The glass (which was really made of plastic; this had happened before) went flying.

Jake froze. If he'd been with anyone but Mrs. Winslow, he would have fled the body altogether. As it was, he hunched up, fists clenched and muscles tense, bracing for a smash across the knuckles or a punch in the face. Mrs. Winslow was careful not to react too suddenly; she pretended not to even notice at first, then said, very casually: “Oh dear, I must have put that too close to the edge of the table.” She got up slowly, crossed to the sink, and wet a rag to mop up the spill.

“I'm sorry, Mrs. Winslow!” Jake blurted. “I—”

“Jake dear,” Mrs. Winslow said, wiping the tabletop, “you do know that Florida is a
huge
state, don't you? They have
lots
of orange juice there; plenty more where this came from.” She refilled his glass, handing it directly to him this time; he took it gingerly in both hands. “There,” Mrs. Winslow said. “No harm done. It only
looks
like gold.” Jake giggled, but he didn't really relax until he was back inside the house.

Seferis only nodded good morning. His breakfast was the simplest of all: a small plate of salted radishes, which he popped into his mouth one at a time and crunched like candy. Mrs. Winslow had started in on her own breakfast by then, warmed-over biscuits with marmalade. When the lid stuck on the marmalade jar, she offered it to Seferis.

Seferis's size ratio to the body is the inverse of Jake's: his soul is nine feet tall, and crammed into Andy Gage's modest frame he radiates energy and
strength. He got the jar lid off with a simple twist of thumb and forefinger, a trick I couldn't have managed even using the same muscles.

“Efcharisto,”
Mrs. Winslow said, as Seferis handed the jar back to her with a flourish.

“Parakalo,”
Seferis replied, and crunched another radish.

When the last of the food had been consumed, Mrs. Winslow switched on the little black-and-white TV on the kitchen counter, and poured a fresh mug of coffee for my father, who came out to visit with her for a while. They liked to watch the news together. Mrs. Winslow used to watch with her husband, and I guess my father's company brought that back for her in some way; likewise, sitting with Mrs. Winslow gave my father a sense of the normal family life he'd always wished for. But this morning was less pleasant than most. The lead news item at the bottom of the hour was an update on the Lodge camping tragedy; it upset my father even more than the VCR clock, and blackened Mrs. Winslow's mood as well.

Maybe you remember the Lodge story; it never received as much national coverage as it might have, because of another similar case in the news at the same time, but people did hear about it. Warren Lodge was a groundskeeper from Tacoma who'd gone camping in Olympic National Park with his two daughters. Two days after the start of the camping trip, the state police spotted Mr. Lodge's jeep weaving between the lanes on Route 101 and pulled him over. Mr. Lodge, who appeared delirious and had a deep scratch across his scalp, claimed that a cougar had invaded the campsite and attacked him, knocking him unconscious. When he came to, he found his daughters' tent slashed to ribbons, their sleeping bags torn and bloody; the girls themselves—Amy, twelve, and Elizabeth, ten—were nowhere to be found, although he'd searched for many hours.

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