Set This House in Order — sample chapters

The following excerpt from Set This House in Order is copyright 2003 by Matt Ruff:

Prologue

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.

Chapter One

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, clutter 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.

It could have been true. Cougar attacks are not uncommon in the Pacific Northwest, and Mr. Lodge looked strong enough to survive a wrestling match with a big cat, if he got lucky. But watching him on TV—the day after the police pulled him over, he called a press conference to plead for volunteers to help search for his girls—I felt a growing sense of unease. Mr. Lodge’s story could have been true, but something about the way he told it was wrong. It was Adam, looking out from the pulpit into Mr. Lodge’s tear-stained face, who first put my intuition into words:  “He’s the cougar.”

Ever since then—almost a full week, now—we’d been waiting for the police to reach the same conclusion. So far there hadn’t been a whisper of a suspicion in public, although Adam said the cops had to be thinking about it, unless they were totally incompetent. My father, meanwhile, had pledged that if Mr. Lodge weren’t arrested soon, he was going to call the Mason County DA’s office himself, or have me do it.

“Do you really think he killed them?” Mrs. Winslow asked now, as the newscast replayed Mr. Lodge’s plea for volunteers; the update was just a rehash of previous reports, with an added note that the searchers had all but abandoned hope of finding the girls alive.

My father nodded. “He killed them, all right. And that’s not all he did to them.”

Mrs. Winslow was quiet for a moment. Then she said: “Do you think he’s insane? To kill his own children?”

“Crazy people don’t try to hide their crimes,” my father said. “He knows what he did was wrong, but he doesn’t want to face the consequences. That’s not insane. That’s selfish.”

Selfish: my father’s worst epithet. Mrs. Winslow didn’t ask the obvious next question, the one I always wondered about, which was Why? Even granting a total disregard for the welfare of others, what would make someone want to do to another human being what Mr. Lodge had done to his own daughters? Mrs. Winslow didn’t ask that question, because she knew my father didn’t have an answer, though he’d spent most of his life searching for one. She didn’t ask any other questions, either, only sat there in angry silence as my father finished his coffee and the newscast turned to other matters. Soon it was time for us to leave for work; my father kissed Mrs. Winslow on the cheek and gave me back the body.

There was a family portrait that hung in the Victorian’s entrance foyer: a younger, darker-haired Mrs. Winslow with her late husband and her two sons, all of them standing on the front lawn of the Victorian back before it was renovated. I always slowed down a little going past that photo, ever since my father had told me the story of what happened; today I actually stopped, until Mrs. Winslow came up behind me and steered me forward out the front door.

Outside, the sky was unseasonably clear, the only visible clouds huddled in a group around Mount Winter to the east. Mrs. Winslow handed me a bag lunch (one complete meal; lunch isn’t shared). She wished me a good day, then took a seat in the swing chair on the porch to wait for the morning mail. The postman wasn’t due for another few hours yet, but she’d wait just the same, just as she always waited, bundling up in an old quilt if it got too cold.

“Will you be all right, Mrs. Winslow?” I asked before leaving. “Do you need anything?”

“I’ll be fine, Andrew. Just come home safe, that’s all I need.”

“Don’t worry,” I told her. “If anyone tries anything, I’ll have them outnumbered.” This is an old multiple’s joke, usually good for a polite smile at least, but today Mrs. Winslow only patted my arm and said: “Go on, then. Don’t make yourselves late.”

I started down the front walk. At the sidewalk I turned back to look; Mrs. Winslow had picked up a magazine and was reading, or pretending to read. She looked very small against the side of the Victorian, very small and very alone—really alone, in a way I could only imagine. I wondered what that must be like, and whether it was easier or harder than always having other souls for company.

“Don’t worry about her,” Adam said from the pulpit. “She’ll be fine.”

“I think the newscast really bothered her.”

“It didn’t bother her,” Adam mocked me. “It pissed her off. And it should. You want to worry, worry about people who don’t get mad, hearing about a thing like that.”

I waved to Mrs. Winslow one last time and made myself start walking. When we were down the block and the Victorian was out of sight behind us, I said: “Do you think they’ll catch him? Warren Lodge, I mean.”

“I hope so,” said Adam. “I hope he gets punished, whether they catch him or not.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s just a thing that happens sometimes. Sometimes people think they’ve gotten away with something, think they’ve fooled everybody, only it turns out they haven’t. They get punished after all.”

“How?” I asked. “By who?”

But Adam didn’t want to talk about it anymore. “We’ll just hope a policeman gets him,” he said. Then he went back in the house, and didn’t come out again until we were almost at the Factory.

Chapter Two

I worked at the Reality Factory on East Bridge Street. My boss there, Julie Sivik, was also the first real friend I ever made on my own.

When my father first called me out, he was working as a restocker for Bit Warehouse, a big computer outlet store just off Interstate 90 between Autumn Creek and Seattle. The original plan was that I would take over for him there, just as I took over all the other aspects of running the body, but it didn’t work out. Being an effective restocker means knowing where things go, knowing where to find them again after they’ve gone, and—because of Bit Warehouse’s “Ask Anybody” customer service policy—knowing what they’re actually used for once they’re found. After three years on the job, my father had all that knowledge, but I didn’t.

This is one of those metaphysical issues that people who aren’t multiple have a hard time grasping. Obviously, in creating me, my father had given me a great deal of practical knowledge. I came out of the lake knowing how to speak. I had a concept of the world and at least some of what was in it. I knew what dogs, snowflakes, and ferryboats were before I ever saw a real dog, snowflake, or ferryboat. So it may seem natural to ask, if my father could give me all that, why couldn’t he also give me the know-how to be a champion restocker? For that matter, why couldn’t he give me Aunt Sam’s understanding of French, Seferis’s martial-arts prowess, and Adam’s knack for lie-detecting?

I wish I knew, because there are times when all of those skills would come in handy. Of course I can always have Aunt Sam translate for me, Seferis stands ready to defend the body at a moment’s notice, and Adam hangs out in the pulpit calling bullshit on people whether I ask him to or not, but none of that is quite as good as having the abilities myself. For one thing, help from other souls isn’t free—they expect favors in return, and not all of their wishes are easy to grant. It would be much simpler, and cheaper, if I could just borrow their talents somehow.

The reason why such borrowing isn’t possible, my father thinks, has to do with the difference between information and experience. If you’d asked me on the day I was born to tell you what rain is, I’d have given you the dictionary definition. Ask me today and I’ll still give you the dictionary definition—but as I’m giving it, I’ll think of that moment on overcast mornings when you have to decide whether an umbrella is worth taking with you (the answer, in these parts, usually being yes). Or I’ll think of the upside-down world reflected in puddles, or the awful tacky feeling of a drenched wool sweater, or the smell of wet leaves in Lake Sammamish State Park. Experience hasn’t changed the form of my answer much, but the meaning of my answer has been utterly transformed.

Memory makes the difference. There are facts that everyone knows, but memories, and the feelings they evoke, are unique to individual souls. Memories can be described, but can never truly be shared; and knowledge that is bound up in especially strong memories can’t be shared either. Like Aunt Sam’s knowledge of French: it’s more than just grammar and vocabulary, it’s the memory of her high school teacher Mr. Canivet, the first adult she ever knew who didn’t betray her in some way, who always treated her kindly and never hurt her. I never met Mr. Canivet, and can’t love him the way Aunt Sam does. Any feelings I have about him are purely secondhand, and the things Aunt Sam learned from him will always be secondhand to me too.

My father’s job experience had the same sort of proprietary quality. It couldn’t be shared; it had to be acquired personally. We tried coaching for a few weeks—my father guiding me step by step from the pulpit, answering a thousand questions about RAM chips and SCSI ports and null-modem cables—but there was just too much to learn in too short a time. Given six months we might have managed it, but by the end of the third week my father’s work-performance rating—my work-performance rating—had deteriorated to the point where we were in danger of being fired.

Of course it didn’t help that my father hadn’t told his coworkers about me; I still think he would have done better to be open about the fact that he was training a replacement. But two involuntary commitments had left him reluctant to reveal his multiplicity to people, and while he’d risked trusting Mrs. Winslow, nobody at Bit Warehouse knew. Not knowing, they were mystified when Andy Gage started acting like a whole other person—one who was constantly distracted and had trouble with even the simplest tasks. Mr. Weeks, my supervisor, was especially concerned; after I accidentally reformatted the hard drive on the Warehouse’s main inventory computer, he wondered aloud whether I’d been using drugs.

“We could try telling him the truth,” I suggested. “We could tell everybody the truth.”

“Not everybody would understand,” my father replied. “It’s a complicated truth, and people don’t like complications. Especially people in authority. You’ll learn.”

You’ll learn. That was my father’s stock response whenever I asked a question that only experience could answer. I heard it a lot in those days, and it was frustrating, for him as well as for me. He’d thought that the hard part was over once he got the house built; turning things over to me was supposed to be easy. But he was still learning from experience, too.

One thing we’d both learned was that I couldn’t just step into my father’s old life. I had to create my own: find my own job, choose my own friends—and make my own decisions about who to trust.

I went to Mr. Weeks’s office and told him I was quitting. He nodded, as if he’d been expecting this, and said that he hoped I’d consider getting professional substance-abuse counseling. I told him I would think about it—another stock response I’d picked up from my father—and went back out on the Warehouse floor to finish out the day. That was when I met Julie Sivik.

When she found me I was up on a ladder in Aisle 7, rearranging boxes on the overstock shelf. Even though I’d given my notice I was still interested in learning about computers, and my father and I were having a pretty involved discussion about graphical user interfaces, so Julie had to say “Excuse me” several times to get my attention.

“Hello,” I said, when I finally noticed her. I slid down the ladder and brushed my hands on my shirt. “Can I help you?”

At first glance she was a little intimidating. She was a couple of inches taller than I was, with broader shoulders. She wore a brown leather jacket over a black T-shirt and dark jeans; her hair was dark too, very straight and severe, collar-length. And she had an annoyed look on her face, like she’d already decided I must be dense. I’d seen that look on other customers’ faces, but Julie was better at expressing annoyance than most people, as if something in her features allowed for clearer transmission of impatience.

“I’m looking for some tax-preparation software,” she said, holding up a short stack of shrink-wrapped boxes. “I was wondering which of these you’d recommend.”

“Ask her what she wants to use it for,” my father said, and I relayed the question: “What do you want to use it for?”

Julie looked at me as if I were very, very dense. “For preparing my taxes,” she said. “Obviously.”

“Personal income tax or small business?” my father said.

“Personal income tax or small business?” I asked.

“Oh…” Julie’s expression softened. “That makes a difference?”

“Well…” I began, and then paused while my father filled me in. “Well,” I continued, “if all you’re looking for is a program that can fill out a 1040, then I’d probably suggest that one.” I pointed to the box at the top of the stack. “Because…because it’s the least expensive, very basic but with a good tutorial, as long as you don’t need any specialized forms…On the other hand, if you’re self-employed or running a small business, you’ll probably need something more sophisticated…You’re not a farmer, are you?” Even as I asked this question, following my father’s prompting, I wondered what was so special about farmer’s taxes. But Julie wasn’t in agriculture, so I never got a chance to find out.

“But I am starting my own business,” she said. “And I’ve also got to fill out a personal 1040 for last year, so I guess what I need is—”

“Wait,” I interrupted her, holding up a finger. My father was saying something else now.

“Wait?” said Julie.

“Just a second…”

The annoyed look resurfaced on Julie’s face. “What the hell am I waiting on?” she demanded.

“My father,” I told her.

“Your father?”

“Oh great,” said Adam, who’d joined my father in the pulpit. “This should be entertaining.”

“Your father?” Julie repeated.

“Yes, my father.”

She made a show of checking to see if there was someone standing behind me, first leaning sideways, then going up on tiptoe to peer over the top of my head. “Where?” she finally said.

“In the pulpit,” I told her, after a quick backward glance of my own.

“Pulpit?”

“It’s a sort of balcony, on the front of the house. In my head.”

“What are you, schizophrenic?” Julie said.

“No, I’m a multiple personality. Schizophrenia is different.”

“A multiple personality. You have other personalities sharing your body.”

“Other souls.” Remembering what my father had told me, I added: “It’s a complicated truth.”

“I’ll just bet it is.” It was at this moment, Julie later confided in me, that she decided I must be sincere or one of the best liars she’d ever met—either of which was interesting. “What was that you said about a house?”

She ended up asking me out for a drink after I got off work, and I was so excited I said yes without checking with my father first. But he was glad to see me taking some initiative, and Adam officially pronounced Julie safe: “She’s not an ax murderer, anyway…although she’s probably wondering if you’re one.”

So at quarter past eight that evening I met Julie in the parking lot outside the Warehouse. Usually I depended on public buses to get around, but Julie had her own car, and offered to pick me up. When she found out I lived in Autumn Creek, she suggested a bar on Bridge Street that was only a few blocks from Mrs. Winslow’s. “My own place is right around the corner,” Julie added.

The car was a 1957 Cadillac Sedan de Ville, “a minor classic,” Julie said, which she’d bought from her uncle and was planning to sell for a profit once she got it fixed up.

“What’s wrong with it?”

“Pretty much everything.” Julie recited a list of the car’s defects and Adam pointed out a few more that she didn’t mention; as we drove out of the parking lot, something hanging off the undercarriage banged against the pavement, leaving a trail of sparks in the Cadillac’s wake. “It needs some serious work.”

“Won’t that cost a lot of money?”

“Some of the replacement parts will. But I figure I can handle most of the labor myself…Can you roll down your window a second? We need to make a right-turn signal here.”

Maybe to get away from the subject of car repairs, Julie started telling me about herself. She was twenty-four, and came originally from Rhode Island, though she’d lived in a lot of different places since leaving home at sixteen. She’d attended Boston University for a couple of years, and had majored successively in physics, engineering, and computer science before dropping out without completing a degree; since then, she’d worked as a lab technician, a machinist, a gas-station attendant, a museum tour guide, a set designer for a low-budget horror film, a fire spotter, a short-order cook, a blackjack dealer, a sign painter for the Eugene, Oregon, Department of Public Works, and, most recently, an assistant to a physical therapist in Seattle. “Never a farmer, though,” she said, and grinned.

Anyway, she continued, since things had gone sour with the physical therapy job she’d decided it was time to stop screwing around and put her life in order, get serious about a career. With the help of the same uncle who’d sold her the Cadillac, she’d secured a small business loan and taken out a lease on a building in Autumn Creek, where she planned to set up a computer software design company.

“What kind of software are you going to design?”

“Virtual-reality software,” Julie said. She looked at me as if I was supposed to know what that meant, but I’d never heard the expression before.

“What’s virtual reality?”

“You work at Bit Warehouse and you don’t know what virtual reality is?”

“I haven’t worked there very long.”

“Gee, I guess not.”

“So what is it?”

Instead of answering, she changed the subject again—or at least I thought she did: “Tell me about the house in your head.”

We were at the Bridge Street bar by then, sitting in a booth near the jukebox. Julie had ordered us a Saturday Night Special, which I found out too late was a gallon-sized pitcher of dark beer. Drinking alcohol was against my father’s rules, and I’d meant to ask for a soda, but rather than admit the mistake I let Julie fill my glass and then left it untouched as we went on talking.

I told her about the house: about the dark room in Andy Gage’s head, and my father’s struggle to create a geography there. I wasn’t as clear as I would have liked; it was my first time telling a story to someone, and I was nervous, unsure which details to include or what order to put them in. It also didn’t help that I had a critic. My father had left the pulpit to give me some privacy, but Adam was still up there. He thought I was being far too candid with this stranger.

“But why shouldn’t I be? You said yourself she’s not dangerous.”

“I said she’s not an ax murderer. That doesn’t mean it’s OK to tell her everything about us.”

“I’m not—”

“So Horace Rollins is your father?” Julie asked, not realizing she was interrupting.

The question startled me. “Not my father,” I told her. “Andy Gage’s father. Andy Gage’s stepfather. He’s no relation to me at all. No relation to Andy Gage either, really.”

“Your real father died?”

“Andy Gage’s father,” I corrected her. “Silas Gage. He drowned.”

“Andy Gage’s father…So when you talk about your father, you don’t mean Silas Gage, and you don’t mean Horace Rollins, you mean another personality. Another ‘soul.’”

“Aaron,” I said, nodding. “My father.”

“The one who called you out of the lake…who created you.”

“Right.”

“And when exactly was that?” Julie wanted to know. “That you were called out?”

I’d been hoping she wouldn’t ask that. Contrary to Adam’s accusation, there were a number of things I’d consciously avoided telling Julie. In most cases these omissions were instinctive, and I couldn’t have explained the reasoning behind them at the time. But I knew perfectly well why I’d been vague about my birthdate: I was embarrassed. Julie had so much life experience, and I had so little, I was afraid she wouldn’t want to be friends once she found out how immature I really was. But there was no helping it now.

“A month ago,” I admitted. “I came out of the lake a month ago. I know I probably seem really naive—”

“Wait,” Julie said. “You’re a month old?”

“No,” I said, confused. “I’m twenty-six years old. I was born a month ago.”

Julie shook her head. “How can both of those things be true?”

“They just are,” I told her. “What’s the problem?”

“So it’s your physical body that’s twenty-six?”

“No, the body is twenty-nine.”

“Then what part of you is twenty-six?”

“My soul.”

Julie shook her head again. I went to Adam for help.

“All right…Adam says, because your body and your soul have always been joined together, they’re basically reflections of each other. They’re like twins.”

“You mean they look the same? Souls have an appearance?”

“Of course.”

Julie laughed. “So my soul has crooked teeth?”

“I guess,” I said, glancing at her mouth. “If your body does. And it’s got the same-color eyes, and the same build, and the same voice—and the same age. But for us, it’s not like that. None of us is in the body all the time, so there’s not that same connection. Adam says—”

“Who’s Adam?”

“My cousin.”

“This is another soul? Like your father?”

“Yes.”

“And how old is Adam?”

“Adam is fifteen.”

“Has he always been fifteen, or has he gotten older?”

“He’s gotten a little older,” I said.

“How much is a little?”

“Well, it’s hard to say exactly. It depends on how much time he’s spent outside. Adam used to steal time in the body, the same as the others; if you added up all that stolen time, plus the time he’s been allowed out since my father took over and started building the house, that would tell you how much older he’s gotten. My father thinks it’s about a year, but Adam won’t say.”

“He doesn’t want your father to know how much time he really stole,” Julie guessed.

“He doesn’t want to have to explain what he did with it,” I told her.

“Souls only age when they’re in control of the body?”

“Of course.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. That’s just the way it works.”

“What does Adam say about it?”

“Adam says…Adam says it’s the same reason you don’t get better at poker unless you play for real money. I’m sorry, I don’t know what that means.”

“That’s OK,” said Julie. “I think I do.”

She picked up the pitcher to pour herself some more beer, and noticed that my glass was still full. “What’s wrong?” she said. “You don’t like stout?”

“I don’t drink, actually,” I confessed, feeling caught out. “House rule.”

“You sure?” She held up the pitcher, which still had more than half the gallon in it. “If I finish this myself, you may have to carry me out of here.”

“I’m sorry. I should have said something.”

“No, it’s all right. I should have asked.” Julie gestured in the direction of the bar. “Do you want something else?”

“No, really, I’m fine.”

“Suit yourself…” She refilled her own glass, then said: “So tell me something about your soul.”

“What do you want to know?”

“Well, what do you really look like? If I could see your soul and compare it to what I see now, what would be different?”

“Oh,” I said. “Not that much, actually. I look a lot like my father, and my father looks more like Andy Gage than any other soul except…well, it’s a very close resemblance.”

“But there are differences?”

“A few. My hair’s darker, and my face is thinner—it’s put together a little differently, too.”

“What else?”

“Well, scars.” I pointed to a jagged line above Andy Gage’s right eye. “Jake—he’s another one of my cousins—Jake did this one time when he had the body. He tripped and fell against the edge of a glass table. Jake’s soul has the same scar, but mine doesn’t, because—”

“Because it didn’t happen to you.”

“Right.”

“What about this one?” Julie touched a spot on the body’s left palm, just above the ball of the thumb. Her fingers were cool and damp from the beer glass, and felt good in a way I hadn’t experienced before. But when I realized what she was talking about, I pulled the hand away from her.

“That’s just something my father did once,” I said. “He stuck himself on a bill spike.” I think Julie could tell there was more to the story than that, but she didn’t press me on it.

“Any other differences?” she asked.

“Just some little things. Nothing major.”

In the pulpit, Adam let out a snort. “Sure, nothing major. Nothing except—”

“Adam!” I warned.

“What?” said Julie.

“It’s nothing,” I told her. “Adam just said something very rude, is all.”

She leaned forward, curious. “What did he say?”

“It’s nothing, really. Just Adam being a pest.”

“Has he been listening to us this whole time?”

I nodded. “Listening and commenting. It’s what he does.”

“Can I talk to him?”

It was an innocent request, and, as I eventually learned, a common one. Like a lot of Julie’s other questions, though, it caught me by surprise; instead of recognizing that she was simply curious about Adam, my first thought was that she didn’t want to talk to me anymore.

“What did I do wrong?” I asked Adam.

“You didn’t do anything wrong. She’s not mad—she just wants to see a trick.”

“A trick?”

“A magic trick.”

“You want to see a magic trick?” I asked Julie, confused again.

“What?” said Julie.

“Here,” Adam offered, “I’ll show you what I mean. Just let me have the body for a second…”

I should have refused; even a month out of the lake, I knew better than to trust Adam’s generosity. But he sounded so self-assured, and I was so at a loss, that I stepped back into the pulpit and let him take over.

Now it was Julie’s turn to be startled. People who have never seen a switch before often expect some dramatic physical transformation, like a werewolf sprouting hair and fangs under a full moon. In reality it’s much more subtle—the body doesn’t change, just the body language, which can actually be a lot more unsettling. I’m naturally a little shy, and though I try to keep eye contact for courtesy’s sake, I have what Aunt Sam calls “a politely unintrusive gaze.” Adam, of course, is the opposite of unintrusive. The first thing he did when he took the body from me was flash Julie his crudest adolescent leer. I could tell by the way she reacted: she stopped smiling and shifted back defensively in her seat. It was my first hint that I’d just made a big mistake.

“Hello, Julie,” said Adam, in a silky voice that even spooked me a little. “Watch closely.” He lifted up his right arm and waggled it in the air. “Nothing up this sleeve…” He did the same with his left arm. “…and nothing up this one.” He lowered his arms and brought them together, hands clasping around the sides of the beer pitcher. “Watch…”

“Oh no,” I said. “Adam! No!”

The beer: of course: it was the beer that he wanted. Alcohol is against the rules of the house, but Adam doesn’t care about the rules—he is Gideon’s son, after all. And he loves drinking, even more than he loves Playboy.

As he brought the pitcher to his lips I tried to wrest the body back from him, but he was determined to hang on until he finished. He didn’t need to hold me off for long. Blitz-drinking is one of Adam’s most refined “talents”: he just threw his head back, and the stout in the pitcher slid out of sight like rainwater washing down a drainpipe, with no pause for swallowing.

“Aaaaaaahhhh—” Adam slammed the empty pitcher down on the table. He drained the glasses next, grabbing Julie’s in one fist and mine in the other, tossing them back as if they were no more than thimble-sized, and ending with a flourish: “TA-DAAAA!!!” Then he leaned forward across the table, opened his mouth and belched explosively, right in Julie’s face.

And that was all. Cackling hysterically at his joke, Adam fled the body and ran back into the house, leaving me to deal with the aftermath.

Julie looked as though she’d been slapped: she sat bolt upright, palms flat and rigid against the edge of the table as if frozen in the act of pushing away. From inside the house I could hear my father roaring in fury, and beneath the roar a door slam as Adam, still cackling, barricaded himself in his room, but that was all very distant. The immediate universe was made up of Julie and her wide-eyed expression of shock.

I jerked back in my own seat and my hands flew up to my mouth, as if I could somehow cram Adam’s belch back inside. I would have given a lot to be able to abandon the body myself just then, to push it and the whole situation off on another soul; but that wasn’t allowed. I could call on Seferis to handle physical threats, but coping with embarrassment was my own responsibility—even when it wasn’t my fault. House rule.

“I’m so sorry…” The words came rushing out, muffled by the hands still pressed to my mouth. “I’m so sorry, Julie—”

Julie blinked and came back to life. “That was Adam?” she asked me.

I nodded. “That was Adam.”

“You were right,” she said. “He is a teenager.”

The evening ended pretty soon after that. I kept apologizing, even as Julie insisted that she hadn’t been offended. “I’m just a little stunned, is all.” But she seemed more than stunned; she seemed wary and withdrawn. She didn’t ask me any more questions, and the conversation fumbled to a standstill.

I started to feel strange, light-headed and nauseous. Adam had taken as much of the drunk with him as he could, to savor it in private, but there’s enough alcohol in a half gallon of stout to make two souls woozy. Julie saw my eyes glazing over and said: “I think it’s time for you to go home.”

“No,” I said, head weaving side to side, “I’m fine, really, I just—” But Julie had already slipped out of the booth and gone to settle the tab. I stared at a bit of foam on the lip of the beer pitcher until she came back. “Come on,” she said, prodding me in the shoulder. “I’ll take you home.”

Her fingers didn’t feel so nice this time; when I looked up, her expression was unsmiling and cold. “I can walk home,” I suggested.

“I wouldn’t count on it.”

“Are you sure you can drive?”

Julie let out a terse bark of a laugh. “Yeah, I think so,” she said. “I only had the one glass, remember?”

It was a very short ride, but by the time we reached Mrs. Winslow’s I was starting to nod out. “Is this it?” Julie asked, nudging me awake. “You said 39 Temple Street, right?”

I swung my head up. We were parked in front of a Victorian, but it took a moment to be sure it was the right Victorian. “I think this is it,” I said. “But it looks funny. Everything looks funny…”

“Go inside,” Julie commanded. “Go to bed.”

“All right…” But before getting out of the car, I tried to apologize one more time. Julie cut me off: “Go to bed, Andrew.”

“All right,” I said. “All right.” I tugged at the door handle; the latch seemed stuck, so I shoved hard and the door swung open with a screech, scuffing off paint in a broad streak against the curb.

Julie let out a hiss. Then I started to apologize again, and she said: “Just get out of the car. Just get out, and let me shut the door.”

I got out. With my weight out of the front seat, the right side of the Cadillac bounded up a little, lifting the edge of the door from the curb; but when Julie slid over to pull the door closed it sank down again. Cursing, she tried to scoot her butt as far to the left as possible without letting go of the door handle.

“Maybe I should do this,” I said.

“I’ve got it!” Julie snapped. With a last curse, she gave up the delicate approach and yanked the door shut, scraping off another layer of paint. There was a loud click as she slapped the door button down.

“Good night!” I called to her. “Thanks for inviting me out!” If she said good-night back I didn’t hear it; as I bent down to the passenger window to wave good-bye, Julie revved the Cadillac’s engine and pulled away. Just up the street she hit a pothole, generating another huge shower of sparks; this time it sounded like something had actually fallen off the car’s undercarriage, but Julie never even slowed down.

I woke up the next morning with a splitting headache. A present from Adam: though he’d taken half the drunk, he left me the whole hangover. It felt like the house was on fire.

To make things worse, my father was angry with me: “You shouldn’t have given Adam the body.”

“Well I wouldn’t have,” I said, “if I’d known he was going to behave that way.”

“How he behaved is beside the point. Running the body is supposed to be your job.”

“But Julie asked to speak to Adam!”

“And that’s why you gave up control? Because Julie asked you to?”

“Well…”

“Well?” my father demanded.

“I was confused…I didn’t really understand what Julie wanted, and Adam said he did, so—”

“No,” my father said. “That’s no good, Andrew. You’re in charge of the body—but you won’t stay in charge, if you give Adam the idea he can come out whenever you’re confused. From now on, when we’re out in public, I don’t want you giving up the body for any reason other than a life-and-death emergency. Understood?”

“Understood,” I said. “But…”

“Andrew—”

“But what if somebody asks to speak to Adam, and I’m not confused about it, but I just don’t want to be rude? What do I do then?”

“If somebody needs to speak to Adam, you come talk to me about it first. And then I’ll make sure Adam behaves.”

He decided not to punish me, figuring the hangover was punishment enough. The hangover, and also the consequences of my mistake—once my head started to clear, it dawned on me that Julie and I hadn’t exchanged phone numbers, so I had no way of getting in touch with her. She did know my address, and for a few days I held out hope that she might drop by, but after a week with no visit I reluctantly concluded that Adam had scared her off.

Then about a week after that I was walking on Bridge Street when some tourists stopped to ask me for directions. They were French Canadians who didn’t speak English very well, and I ended up calling Aunt Sam out to the pulpit to help translate. It was a laborious process—Aunt Sam would tell me what the tourists had said, and I would tell her what I wanted to say back, and she would give me the French, and I would try to repeat it out loud. After the tourists finally drove off, I turned and found Julie Sivik standing beside me, smiling and shaking her head.

“Amazing,” she said. “Like watching someone receive a satellite transmission. So who’s the French-speaker in the family? Your cousin Adam again?”

“No,” I said, “my Aunt Samantha—really she’s my cousin too, but we call her Aunt Sam because she’s older.” I went on: “Adam’s still being punished for what he did in the bar.”

“Punished? How?”

“Well, for a while after he drank the beer he wouldn’t come out of his room, so my father locked him in for three days. He’s got the run of the house again now, but he still can’t come out on the pulpit for another week.”

“Sounds pretty harsh,” Julie said, but there was an undertone of approval in her voice.

“What Adam did to you was very rude,” I said. “And I was wrong too, to just let him out without warning you.”

“Yeah, well, I was kind of freaked out by that,” Julie admitted. “I was also pissed about the car…”

“I’d be happy to pay for repainting the door,” I offered.

“Nah, it’s no big deal…The paint job wasn’t so great to begin with, to be honest.”

“No, really, let me pay for it…Or at least, let me pay you back, once I start my new job.”

“New job?” Julie said. “That’s right, I heard you were looking for work.”

“Heard from who?”

“Your old boss. I was out at Bit Warehouse the other day and I asked for you, but the manager told me you’d quit.”

“You asked for me? Really?”

“Yeah, well…once I calmed down, I felt kind of bad about just dumping you in front of your place that night. I had to pick up some things at the Warehouse anyway, so I thought I’d see how you were. But you were gone. So what’s the new job?”

“I haven’t actually found one yet,” I said. “I’m having a little problem with references.”

Julie nodded. “Yeah, the guy I talked to at the Warehouse mentioned something about a drug problem.” She raised an eyebrow. “Adam again?”

“Not exactly…It’s kind of a long story.”

“Another ‘complicated truth’?” Julie grinned. “What kind of work are you looking for?”

I shrugged. “Anything, really. As long as it’s something I can learn on the job.”

“Any objections to working with computers again?”

“No…except that I still don’t know that much about them. Why?”

“Just a thought,” Julie said. “My lease starts today—my commercial lease, the one for the business I’m starting?—and I was actually just on my way down to check the place out. I could use an extra pair of hands while I’m setting things up…and who knows, there might even be a long-term position in it for you.”

“I don’t see how,” I said. “I mean, I’ll be happy to help you get your office set up, but I honestly don’t know anything about virtual reality.”

“Oh, but you do, though. You know more about it than anyone I’ve ever met.”

“I don’t know anything about it!” I protested. “I don’t even know what it is. You never told me.”

“Put it this way: it’s a lot like what you’ve got in your head.”

“You mean it’s like the house? But that can’t be right. The house isn’t real.”

“Well, neither is virtual reality.”

“I don’t understand.”

“That’s OK,” Julie said, smiling at my confusion. “You’ll learn.” And then she surprised me again, by linking her arm in mine as if we were old friends and the incident in the bar had never happened. “Walk with me. I’ll explain my master plan along the way.”

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