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The House That Jack Built

By WilliamJMeyer All Rights Reserved ©

Romance / Fantasy

Blurb

Inside every man is a secret. Inside every secret is a lie. When a man's mysterious past threatens to consume him, he must choose between deceiving his wife—and losing her for all time. A short story.

The House That Jack Built

This is the gardener, sowing his corn–

The knife slipped and Jack nicked the skin just beneath a knuckle.

“Sssnnn,” he winced, hissing at his finger, angry that it could know pain. He threw the knife against the wall.

The deep brown blood dripped like molasses.

There, in the choppy, wind-beat North Atlantic, just off center on an olive-sienna island, in the middle of an unassuming valley, in the center of a field of autumnal grass–

The house that Jack built.

Just a box, really, opened at the back for easy access. Three floors sized just right for the miniature grandfather clock, the miniscule hobbyhorse, and a handful of bureaus whose drawers would never open.

A female doll sat in the upper right bedroom. Her male companion, similarly dressed but for his blue ascot, was bent at his semi-articulated hips. The couples’ legs remained straight at the knees, molded and locked into position.

Their bodies were plastic, but they had real faces.

Jack had cut out his and Liz’s heads from photographs and glued them over the anonymous plastic grins. He also tied human-sized rings around the dolls’ necks.

Jack pulled the jeep over to the side of the road. He fretted over whether or not Liz would guess his meaning. Would she understand that his proposal was, though jokey, also dead serious?

“Not dead,” Jack thought. The jeep rolled to a stop. “Happily-ever-after shouldn’t begin so morbidly.” He snorted and laughed as he turned off the engine.

“What?” asked Liz. She put a hand on his knee.

“Oh, nothing,” Jack shrugged.

She pushed him hard in the arm.

“I hate it when you do that,” she bared her teeth and shook her head.

A taste of winter played in the air as Jack and Liz walked down into the valley, hand-in-hand.

Jack focused on the sensation of her skin–soft and warm as her hand fitted inside his. He knew nothing better than to touch her, simply to touch her.

“Hey, check it out!” Liz nodded into the field.

There, nestled down in the browning nadir, was a tiny house.

Liz put a lock of hair behind her ear. She squinted. The toy house looked broken from this distance.

“Hmm?” Jack feigned ignorance. He fixed his eyes on a passing cloud.

Liz pulled on his arm, but Jack’s feet were too assuredly rooted for him to be moved.

“C’mon!” Liz insisted. She took a few cautious steps into the field.

“I’m not going out there!” Jack teased.

“Fine!” Liz sensed a game. “I’ll go myself!” she declared.

Jack grinned through thin lips as Liz trotted eagerly into the dewy and pale grass. He watched with satisfaction as she bounded over the heather and knelt before the tiny building. Liz grinned. Her eye, round like a harvest moon, dark and rich like thick amber, loomed large in the triangular attic window.

“Oh gosh, oh gosh, oh gosh,” she thought. “This is it, this is it. And this is it!” She nearly squealed. “I do,” she muttered, much too low for anyone to hear, and still looking into the toy window.

She had seen the rings.

Liz scrambled around the back of the house and yanked the dolls from their home.

Jack thought he had heard something in the forest. He turned away from her grin, startled. But it was too far, and he could only see a push of leaves under the direction of the wind. He cleared his throat. He could have sworn a bear grumbled nearby.

He laughed under his breath and walked over to the dollhouse.

Liz stood up and faced Jack. They stared at one another from either side of the house, their posture rigid. Finally, Liz broke into a laugh birthed of joy.

Jack held his breath.

Liz shook the rings that dangled from the doll’s necks and laughed again. She nodded. Then, she screamed.

“Yes!”

Liz stretched over the house and threw her arms around Jack. He shivered. Jack closed his eyes and smelled her perfume. He held her as close as the house allowed.

Something in the woods stepped on a twig, and Jack opened his eyes.

“How can she not hear its labored breathing?” he wondered. He thought he saw the glint of angry eyes floating between the trees.

“Honey, I–” Jack stammered. “I should tell you something before we get married.”

He pulled away.

Liz squinted. “What is it?”

“I–I,” Jack bit his lower lip.

“The forest could gobble her up in the next moment,” he warned himself, “Or the ground beneath her open into a chasm. Or the sky,” he panicked, “the sky could–”

“Yes?” Liz asked, her voice tender.

Jack looked down and smiled. “I’m very happy.”

“I am, too,” said Liz. “Together forever.”

The declaration was solemn, and it caught Jack off-guard. He scowled for a moment but recovered. He pursed his lips and furrowed his brow. It was a comical face of delight.

They hugged again as the sun went down. The sky turned pink and indigo. Fireflies danced all around them.

Jack could feel the dolls behind his back.

They were making out.

In only a few months, the house–the tall and wide house, the life-sized house, the real house–rose out of thin air.

In contrast to the dollhouse, this one seemed to brood in the valley.

That kept the rooster, that crowed in the morn...

One spring morning, a month after they moved in, Jack and Liz stood on a porch that circled their new three-story home. Jack kissed Liz deeply. As Jack turned away, Liz playfully slapped him on the butt. Then she went skipping back inside the house.

Jack watched for a moment, and then took long strides to find his garden and its crooked rows. To Jack’s hopeful eyes, the irregular mounds of dirt suggested future carrots and possible squash.

He reasserted his tool belt and adjusted his many spades. Jack double-checked the seed packets. He tightened his slightly ridiculous cherry-red suspenders before padding down the hill to an unworked stretch of earth.

The tomatoes were bite-sized like green bubble-gum. The corn, uncertain and shy.

Jack sat on the ground. He set his weed bucket beside him. He jammed his spade into loose dirt.

“Not all plants are created equal,” he said with a smirk. Jack pulled out a weed and dropped it into its spacious tomb, a temporary stop on its way to a mulch afterlife.

He saw the dirt on his wedding ring.

“Jack,” he admonished, shaking his head. He pulled off the ring, blew the dirt off, and set it down on a rock.

The crisp call of metal on stone reached into the forest, and the now familiar labored breathing answered. Cold and spiteful.

But Jack, already absorbed in reverie, did not hear it. His eyes remained closed, a fistful of earth nestled in his palm. Jack ran two fingers through the dirt. A subtle sigh escaped his lips. The hairs on the back of his neck bristled when a deep shadow fell on them, but still Jack’s thoughts lingered on the past. He ignored the slight chill.

The shadow withdrew. His skin grew warm again.

That waked the maiden, pretty but forlorn–

Jack exhaled and clapped his hands together to disperse the dirt and leave the daydream behind. He rubbed his chin for a moment, before turning to the empty rock beside him.

His ring was gone.

He heard the growl and then–

A light fog trickled out from between the trees. The thing stood at the edge of the forest, not twenty paces away. In the center of several curls of gray, a cluster of eyes blinked, and beneath them–what looked like a group of oversized worms wriggled in the air.

Jack fell over backwards. He drew a deep breath.

The upper bulk of the creature leaned toward Jack, unwilling to leave the dappled light of the thick canopy.

A wink of gold floated in the creature’s undulating clutches, and it caught Jack’s eye. His stolen ring.

A low gurgle drizzled from the thing. The noise painfully became a laugh. The creature gathered inward, and its tentacles licked the air like lazy flames. It bellowed once more, turned, and fled into the shadows of the oaks, tall and silent.

Jack snatched his thinnest spade and ran after the ephemeral thief.

The forest was dank.

Whenever Jack slowed his chase, a chortling laughter suggested a new direction to follow. But he needed no guide. He knew exactly where the creature was headed.

Seven rivers later, Jack unwillingly approached the cave.

“Never again,” he said through gritted teeth, so angry that he bit his tongue. “I said–never again.”

Yet there he stood, one foot in the blue and green forest, the other just inside the violet darkness. The cave seemed to be waiting. Jack jumped when a centipede suddenly skittered across his foot.

The broken laughter taunted him from inside. Jack briefly considered giving up his wedding ring, then chastised himself just as quickly. He examined the moss around the mouth of the cave. Jack watched the minuscule and emerald cilia sway under a slow passage of humid air that escaped the tall and slender entrance. He put a tentative hand on the jade moss. It moistened his fingers. He knew in that moment that he had already made his choice.

Into the tunnel.

The soft glow of the stalactites lit Jack’s way. He followed the occasional sparkle of an underground stream beneath the mountain. He crawled through a dreary cavity and emerged in a misty valley. A hazel waterfall roared. Blue swirling fog hung low over hidden waters. A birdless sky billowed clouds both pink and ruddy. Every color was kissed by an eternal sunset.

Another world, and Jack was home.

He steadied his footing as he crossed the land bridge that stretched into oblivion. The gentle curve of the root-embedded rock spread out to greet a plateau, something of an island, a mass of airborne stone not yet ready to slip into the patient abyss. And yet its edges crumbled at Jack’s touch.

Jack stood behind the thief. It had been dark and colorless before, but in this world it was golden. The creature curled ’round and collected its pulpy tendrils. Finally, it spoke.

“U vertelde niet haar, Sindre.”

Jack bristled at the sound of his true name, spoken now in his former tongue.

“You lie to her!” continued the faceless creature. “You lie to yourself.”

The wormy tentacles enveloped Jack, tapering into thin hooks of purple and black. He flinched under their writhing touch.

The voice spoke again. “U bent niet, Sindre veranderd. You cannot change.”

Jack let his response crawl over his teeth. “I won’t tell her. I can’t! She would leave me!”

“Then you will live in torment,” the thief proclaimed.

Jack lifted his tiny spade like a weapon. “I’ll fight it,” he said. His temper was even.

The mist fumed. A dark red tendril uncurled to reveal its stolen prize. “Take your trinket,” said the thing. “It has no meaning here.”

Jack snatched the ring. He angrily thrust it back into place on his finger.

The thief backed away, and its undulating appendages retreated.

“The fixed world will forever beckon,” the creature assured Jack.

Jack shook his head, making his own promise. “I’ll never turn back,” he said.

His tormentor was not convinced.

The sickly laugh returned as the towering form lifted another snaking tendril. The thing pointed at Jack’s right hand. “The signs have already begun!” The deep bass of its voice echoed through the other world.

Jack felt a slight itch. He fought hard to ignore it. But the flesh of his palm burned and he could not stop from dropping the spade. It tumbled into the low fog. He never heard the distant splash. Jack lifted his hand.

A red-black eczema spread in fits, like spilled ink crawling over his skin.

Jack cried out, but the misty valley smothered his plea.

That married the man, all tattered and torn–

That lived a lie, since the day he was born–

Liz stumbled down the stairs. Her art portfolio slipped out from between her fingers. She hurried to gather the giant folder again while pretending to pause at the foot of the stair to admire her own painting that hung there. With a quick hand she falsely straightened a watercolor of lilacs and summer grasses.

Then with a swift tug on her smart black jacket, Liz hauled her portfolio into the kitchen.

Jack sat at the breakfast nook. He seemed to be preoccupied with his dirty nails.

“Forgot to wash your hands?” Liz asked, but before Jack could answer, she was already opening a muffin bag and thinking of her final exam later that day. Tzara and Duchamp.

Jack hid his right hand behind his back as Liz fetched the butter and the jam from the fridge. She closed the refrigerator door and Jack looked at the group of photos posted there. Two magnets held young Liz against the brushed metal door. It was a place of honor, high above the other photos, dominating memories of birthday parties and trips to the zoo.

The thirteen-year-old Liz pranced in a white dress, in the woods, some woods, near a ravine. Clearly by her frilly garment she should have been at someone’s First Communion. Perhaps her own. This young Liz held a worn and wooden paint box under one arm, and in the other–a crude watercolor of a tree.

Behind her, nearly cropped out of the photo, the unmoving object of her naïve affections.

The tree itself.

Jack heard a twig snap.

Someone had tied a swing–just a rope and a plank–to the tree’s lowest branch. Young Liz giggled–she sat beaming on her swing–her hands folded graciously in her lap, her hair up, and fastened with a bow.

Jack grinned.

Birds alighted in the rich leaves of the tree, the swing rocked slowly under Liz’s buoyant weight, and the daggers of the sun flashed and ebbed.

Summer had arrived.

Suddenly Jack stood beside Liz in the photo, the couple ageless and formless. All around them bloomed the bounty of their love: a verdant expanse of budding flowers and distant blue mountains. Jack wished he really was beside her in the photo, man and wife in that imagined time and immaterial place, where words need not be spoken, and the pain of his flesh could be forgotten.

“Ah,” he reminded himself, “but then you could not run your fingers through her hair, or gently brush her cheek.”

He felt the burn of his wound and yelled inside, “But how can I ever touch her again?”

The world contracted, and there came a great rushing sound as though someone had reached into Jack’s subconscious and found nothing but a vacuum.

“You sure loved that old tree,” he mused aloud.

Liz opened a jar and set a butter knife lengthwise across its top. “Yeah, he was great.”

Jack laughed. “He?”

“All sorts of beautiful trees up here on your dad’s property,” said Liz. She leaned on the counter and stared out the kitchen window.

The immaculate view gave her heart a flutter. She marveled at the gold and green light that stretched from forest to sky.

She turned back to Jack.

“But my dad always warned me, ‘Stay out of those woods!’ Lots of strange things up here,” she grinned. “Pop claimed some people went in, and never came out!”

“I’m glad you didn’t vanish,” Jack mustered. He glanced at the photo. “Did your mother take the picture?”

“Yeah, when pop was away we snuck up here. Just a bit north of this house, with sandwiches and stuff.”

“Did you keep the painting?” Jack nodded at the smear of the watercolor tree in the photo.

“No,” Liz shrugged, pouring herself some coffee. “I gave it to the tree. In thanks.”

“Thanks for what?” wondered Jack.

“Y’know, being beautiful,” she shrugged again and poured cream into her mug.

Jack absently scratched the side of his nose as he smiled.

Liz continued, “But y’know, something did disappear. Mmm hmm. My tree. Last time I went up there. He was gone. Just vanished. Not even a stump to remember him by.”

Jack guffawed.

Liz sipped her coffee before walking over to him. “I kept thinking, maybe he just up and walked away.” Liz watched the steam rise over her mug.

“C’mon!” cried Jack.

Liz crossed her arms. “Coulda been magic. You don’t know.”

“Aahhh,” Jack lifted his chin and looked down his nose. “Magic!”

Liz set the coffee down and looked him square in the eyes. “Don’t you want to believe?”

The muffins popped up, black and brittle.

Liz turned to see a dark gray fume swirl over the toaster–it soiled the air.

That called the dog–

It was a day later when Liz returned from the grocery store with a paper bag in each arm. She clenched her key chain between her teeth. A dangling toy kitten hung against her chin.

“Jaaaaack?” she mumbled, without dropping her keys. Joy sparkled in her eyes.

Liz spat the keys out and they clinked on the floor. “Guess who I saw at the store? Jack?”

She turned the corner from the front hall and entered the kitchen.

Jack sat by the dishwasher in a pool of his own blood.

The blood ran burgundy, graced with a dollop of amber. The morning light caught it just so.

Jack quickly sat up against the kitchen cabinets when Liz burst into the room. His back dug into the hard wooden knob that was mounted on the drawer behind him.

A string of spittle hung from his neck, and his claret eyes squinted under the influence of tears. His right arm, attached at the shoulder like a prop, had recently suffered a wide gash from elbow to wrist. The flesh peeled back, exposing a pink and flaky undergrowth.

Liz dropped the groceries. The milk splashed and spread across the hardwood floor toward the pool of blood. She ran to Jack and kneeled at his side. She wiped the corner of his eyes.

“I’m–I’m sorry,” Jack mumbled. “I didn’t want you to see.” He glanced at his arm.

The lesion that ripped his arm revealed a different Jack–no, a different thing–a thing that was growing just under the surface. No, not growing. Festering. Waiting.

Liz looked at Jack’s arm. “See what,” she said.

Jack furrowed his brow in confusion. “I didn’t want you to know.”

“But honey,” said Liz, shaking her head. “You can tell me anything.”

Jack reached up but didn’t touch her. He kept his trembling hand hovering beside her cheek.

“No,” he said. “No, I can’t.”

That kissed his wife, he could not forewarn–

With the onset of autumn, the color drained from Jack’s face, and his shoulders sloped, and his irritability came into full flower.

That hoped and prayed, night, day, and morn–

Liz often spied Jack crumpled in his dying garden, now overwrought with brown and red weeds, his spindly fingers burrowed inside the cold earth.

That worried the cat–

On that final morning, Liz tramped merrily into the bedroom, still brushing her teeth.

“Up and at ’em!” she called.

The lump under the sheets did not stir.

“Get up, lazy bones!” She frowned and edged toward the head of the bed. “Are you hibernating?” Liz asked. “Are you dead?” she snorted.

Liz threw back the sheets.

There was a mess under there. But what was it? Breadcrumbs? Scales of skin?

Something rustled behind her. Liz spun around and faced a pair of glinting eyes. They blinked from inside the closet. She peered at the twin spots of light as she leaned toward the darkness.

The sunrise crested behind her. The light of dawn cut through the window and spilled over her shoulders. The skittish and lithe figure before her backed away deeper into the shadows.

“Jack?” asked Liz.

“Don’t look at me!” Jack snarled.

“What’s wrong, honey?”

Jack cleared his throat. The sound rose up like a gurgling brook. The words swirled with urgency–gathering speed, they tumbled out of him.

“Beneath my gentle leaves you grew into a stunning woman with such a loving heart I had to be with you always.”

His eyes positively glowed and his sharp teeth caught the nervous morning light.

“I walk’d west of the sun for your touch. I walk’d east of the moon for your kiss!”

Jack’s fervor urged him forward and he almost stepped out of the darkness, but Liz’s admonishment stayed his approach.

“What are you talking about?” she demanded.

Slowly, rigidly, Jack lifted a crinkled and filthy wedge of paper.

Ten years ago, just along the bottom, a little girl had written “Liz,” and then painted a heart, and then the name “Mr. Tree.”

Jack held the coarse rendering between a tight cluster of twigs.

Liz took the toothbrush out of her mouth. “Where did you get that?” Her voice was a whisper.

“You gave it to me,” Jack answered.

Liz turned away, dazed.

“But it was all for nothing,” Jack mumbled. “I can’t stay.”

“Why not?” Liz wondered.

Jack growled. He thrust his transformed face out of the darkness. “Look at me!” he shouted.

His teeth: gnarled and yellow. His brow: ridged with the texture of crumbling bark. His neck: a trunk in the making. Jack’s arms and fingers hung low at his side, dour branches drooping under the profound weight of grief.

Liz blinked.

“Don’t you see?” Jack insisted.

Liz saw her husband, standing bare-naked in the closet. He seemed to be faintly glowing with the salmon light of dawn.

“I see,” she answered.

Jack furrowed his brow.

“I see what I’ve always seen,” she contrived.

He lifted his head, curious.

“A tender soul of great beauty.”

The words bit deeply into Jack, sharper than any perjury.

“No!” he shouted. “You don’t understand! I’ve lost you! I’ve lost you because of this!” He thrust the twigs of his right hand up in the air. He swiftly curled them into a fist. The effort summoned a great pain, for his hand creaked like a stiff oak bent by a virulent storm. Jack growled again.

“I’ve lost you because of what I am!” he cried.

Jack’s body heaved out of the closet and lifted him up, nearly to the ceiling. His chest and arms were covered in bark. His long pinkish legs struck forward like lightning strikes. Jack shattered the bedroom wall. An avalanche of wood and plaster fell around him. With giant strides he fled into the forest.

Liz awoke as if from a fantasy. She gaped at the hole and then at the sight of her retreating husband. She blinked rapidly, as if her eyes were catching up to the light of the new day.

She lifted her hand toward the hole, wishing she could conjure another life, one where Jack would return, completely human, smiling, bursting with love–and the house, too, would reform, heal, and be whole.

But when nothing happened, Liz jumped through the wall and gave chase.

The trail of crushed foliage led Liz through both glen and dell. She crossed seven rivers, glimpsing the violent stride of her husband as he forced his way into the narrow mossy maw. Liz pursued, carefully picking her way into the cave and through its smothering void.

That ate the rat–

Jack stood before the towering, golden tree. Its hungry, wormy fingers quivered. Around him, a diffused sun bathed the sequestered valley in a violet haze.

“You were right, father,” Jack hung his head. New, leafy branches sprouted at the back of his neck. “I don’t belong in the walking world.”

“Anderen hebben, Sindre geprobeerd,” said the tree. “Zij allen hebben ontbroken.”

Jack took a deep breath and realized it might be his last. “But I thought for us, for me, it would be different. When I found her, it was like–” He lifted his bark-crusted chin and looked mournfully at his father. “It was like finding myself.”

“Their kind is rootless,” said the golden tree. “She is unworthy of your love.”

Jack protested. “No, father!”

There was a moment of utter silence, and then a terrible bellow filled the valley.

“You built that house from our flesh!” cried the tree. A sallow light streamed from its leaves.

Jack turned away and shielded his eyes. When he looked again, splotches of emerald and gold blotted the rising sun. His father, the king.

Jack stepped back. He humbly bowed. “Forgive me,” he pleaded.

“I do,” his father answered. “You were right to return.”

“I had no choice,” said Jack.

“You had a choice,” Liz called.

Jack turned to face her. Liz’s face, livid and tear-stained, trembled, for she was ripe with fear.

“Leave!” Jack cried, bending low. “Forget me!”

Liz shook her head. She stepped forward.

Jack lifted a branch. He tried to dissuade her.

“But I cannot stay in the walking world. Any more than you can stay here. Goodbye. I will never forg–”

Liz dashed forward and put a hand to Jack’s cracked, dry lips. Then she kissed him.

It wasn’t like it used to be. The soft touch was no longer his. But the love that drew their lips together, that still lived.

“No,” Jack whispered. He shouted. “You’ll become like me. Trapped! Ugly! Gnarled! Unmoving!”

She threw her arms around the rankled bark flesh of her husband. Jack discovered his limbs curling around her.

That hid inside–

As deep as the lie–

The bark crawled with renewed vigor across Jack. His legs could no longer move. He spread over Liz like a coat of one thousand splinters.

He pierced her skin.

Liz flinched and gritted her teeth again and again.

“Together. Forever,” she murmured–and spoke no more.

Sindre returned. The tree she had once known. He grew swiftly, tall and princely. His trunk encompassed Liz until only the fingers of her left hand remained in the open air, finding their way through a slivered crack in her husband’s wooden flesh. The color of her faded wedding band was nearly lost against her husband’s tawny hide. Her fingers wriggled once, then twice–then stopped moving.

Elsewhere, in another world, in the center of a field of autumnal grass, the first flake of winter intruded. From the heavens it fell: wafting down on a chilled breeze. It floated over the center of an unassuming valley. There it fluttered, just off center on that olive-sienna island, nestled in the choppy, wind-beat North Atlantic.

The snowflake curled ’round and came to rest on the roof of an empty house.

Empty, except for a plastic bride and groom.

This is the house that Jack built.

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