Girl in Mansion
Perched on top of a hill, the 21,000-square-foot, four-story home with thirty-two entrances has so many twists, turns, and corridors that the girl gets lost for days, crying inside expansive rooms, moving from fireplace to fireplace while eating dust bunnies, insects, and leaves from windowsills. Because the house has fifty-five rooms, thirty-eight beds, and twelve bathrooms, seven televisions are far too few.
She knows she will never get out when the mansion’s owner tells her to tie a string to her wrist so she can find her way back to the living room. Night and day, she walks, attached to a giant ball of string, unspooling.
“Where am I?” she asks.
The mansion’s owner tells her to talk to the architect’s grandson, also an architect, like his father before him.
“Well, for one thing,” the architect says, “you’re in a starter mansion.”
“What?” she asks.
“Never mind,” says the owner. “Just pay attention to what the architect says.”
“This home was built in 1911 of bricks divided by hand-hewn timbers,” says the architect, “the mortar squashed out when the bricks were laid and wasn't wiped.”
“Remember this,” says the owner.
“This method of not wiping the oozing mortar and letting the ooze dry for dramatic effect,” says the architect, “is called ‘waterfall mortar.’”
“Waterfall mortar,” she whispers, liking the sound of those words.
“Think on it, girl,” the owner says with a smile as he lights a Cuban cigar. “How could a secretion, emission, excretion, something that is basically a white discharge from bricks, create something as beautiful and poetic as a permanent waterfall on walls?”
“Amazing,” she whispers, trying to appreciate it because she is just starting to understand she is a part of it now.
Later, she realizes the entire mansion is this way, its designers having found ways to create beauty out of accidents, terrible in other contexts, away from the mansion. Wealth, she realizes, transforms everything.
“The effect makes the house look even older than it is,” the owner says, encouraging her to follow, to stroke the waterfall mortar as they walk.
“More than a hundred years old?” she whispers, attempting to understand the structure that is her new home, a place she will never leave. “But don’t you find it’s hard to imagine what happens to all that time, since houses don’t age like people?”
That’s when the owner tells her something she didn’t want to know, something she will never forget.
“If you want to see time, to really see it in a way you’ll understand, go back to my gallery of girls. To see the first girls, the girls of 1911-1920. I have a girl for every year. You’re the girl of 2017.”
“Where are they all?” she asks, untangling her string, realizing she must be careful with her body now that she’s an object to be displayed in the mansion gallery for centuries, if all goes according to plan.
The architect leads her into the gallery. Near the front, most girls are her age, but as she goes farther into the long gallery, the girls get older and older and older until she begins to realize not all of them are alive.
The girls in glass cases are exquisitely preserved, but the owner is careful not to call these cases coffins. She understands without words that this is a dollhouse, and that if she calls it a cemetery, the owner will ball his soft hands into fists and tighten thin lips.
“In Japan,” says the owner, “people rent hotel rooms to hold coffins before cremation. So many people are dying so much of the time. There isn’t enough fire to burn all those bodies, so the dead wait in hotels, and the living wait, too.”
The girl steps out of the string, which rings her ankles. When she wobbles the owner takes her elbow to steady her. “Japan,” she whispers, understanding that he needs her to sound impressed, which she would be if she weren’t tangled in string. “Have you been there?”
His smile flickers. “I’ve been everywhere. It’s very dangerous outside the mansion. Girls go unprotected, wolves and knives and rubble. Even the snow is sharp in the outliers. Everything you need, everything you could ever want is right here, waiting.”
The girl knows waiting, just as she knows the owner is also the architect, and his father before him, and his father’s father. The long line of architect-owners with their gallery of girls, mansions lined with ornate frames, pastel women holding little dogs, girls in short skirts and soft shoes, pale hair and blue eyes, seasides and high tides, prairies and poppies, forests filled with stags and foxes, doors walled off with velvet ropes.
At the end of the longest hall in the mansion, the girl sees a glint.
The owner-architect crooks his finger. “Come here,” he says. “You have a beautiful smile.”
She follows him. They walk forever. Photos of girls turn to sketches to glass boxes filled with torn fabric and locks of hair.
“Oh my,” she murmurs, for something to say. She read a novel once where the heroine said “Oh my” on every page. Her mind is also tangled in string, and tightening.
He walks ahead of her, so fast she runs to catch up. Running feels uncomfortable because her loose skirt has turned tight, leather or something like it, cinched at the waist and the knee. She can barely breathe. Walking turns to hobbling and then she’s crawling down the longest hall in the world. She’s sorry she said yes to the ride when he pulled up beside her outside Discount Grocery Express, where her car had broken down in the parking lot and both paper bags split, cans of soup rolling down the asphalt slope.
“Do you want a ride?” he asked, and she said yes. It seemed simple; besides, saying no was a thing she wasn’t good at, was a word she never used, so yes, of course, and now gritty cherry-scented soap in the bathroom from the cracked dispenser, dirty tile on the floor where she crawls to the toilet and throws up in the bowl.
“Are you alright in there?” asks the owner-architect, knocking.
She knows what glints at the end of the hall. “You’ll be the last one,” he said. “So you’re saving all the others. Don’t you want to help other girls?”
She wants to help other girls, really she does. She was always a helper, wanted to be a nurse or a pre-school teacher.
The girl gets up and wipes vomit off her chin. Washes her hands in the rusty sink. She figures this rest stop is halfway across the country from Discount Grocery Express. They’ve been in his car for at least three days, hours ticking by on the dashboard clock.
“Hurry up, Doll.” The doorknob rattles.
Above the sink is a mirror which covers a wall. She sees her fist as she punches glass, blood on her knuckles, as she faces the wall behind the mirror and knows she’ll do anything to get through to the other side.