Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Wednesday Fiction: "Taylor House" (Chapter 2)

Asher House was made of brick and cast iron, and had seen more than a century of sun and wind and rain. It was one of the few houses to survive the 1900 hurricane with minimal damage. Though the buildings and streets around it changed with the times, Asher House remained unmoved, appearing just as it did when it was first constructed. This sense of stubborn antiquity had appealed to Linus Taylor, so he purchased Asher House in 1947, and moved in with his young bride. Asher House became Taylor House, but over the years few people in Galveston could tell any difference.

Though it didn't look very large from the street, Taylor House was cavernous and dim. The main entrance hall had a high ceiling and unlit candle chandeliers. The tiled floor was checkered, the doors were mahogany. The only light in the main hall came from open doors on the east side of the building.

In the first of these sunlit rooms, Mr. Salvador, Linus Taylor's attorney, held the reading of the will. Taylor's four children were in attendance. Linus Jr. sat to Salvador's left, accompanied by his wife Stacey. Howard Taylor stood behind his older brother, leaning against a bookshelf and chewing his fingernails. Linus' older daughter Janet sat to Salvador's right, straight as a board, hands folded properly in her lap. Marie, Daniel, and Louis sat on folding chairs behind Janet. A tall man with a wrinkled face stood near the door, wearing a brown suit and a scowl.

"You know why we are here," began Salvador, with a Colombian accent. "I was Mr. Taylor's legal counsel and personal estate attorney. I was also privileged to be his friend. My own loss at this time is great enough; I can only imagine yours. Allow me to offer you my condolences." Linus Jr. nodded. Janet stiffened and narrowed her eyes. Marie sighed, and looked to the floor.

"As per Mr. Taylor's instructions, I will read the document in its entirety, and then answer any questions you may have. Please save all discussion until the end."

Salvador removed a manilla folder from his briefcase, and from it, a small stack of paper. He read, "I, Linus Richard Taylor, a resident of Galveston, Texas, being of sound and disposing mind and memory and over the age of eighteen (18) years, and not being actuated by any duress, menace, fraud, mistake, or undue influence, do make, publish, and declare this to be my last Will, hereby expressly revoking all Wills and Codicils previously made by me."

Louis didn't want to stick around for the entire ordeal, so he quietly rose and turned to excuse himself. When he reached the door, he made eye contact with the man in the brown suit. The man's look was inquisitive and dismissive at the same time. Louis felt like this strange man had instantly sized him up, and found him lacking. Though his initial impulse was to look away immediately, Louis returned the man's stare for several seconds. Finally, as if coming to a decision, the man nodded once, and turned to face the lawyer. Louis took the opportunity and slipped out the door into the great hall.

The quiet of the hall seemed to echo. The few rays of sunlight sliced across the grim, shadowy room, highlighting a million particles of dust that waltzed between the ceiling and the tile. Each soft step Louis took resounded off the walls. He walked over to the staircase and ran his hand along the smooth, worn banister. When it ended with a flourish, he tapped it with his palm and walked past to the wall opposite the room he just left. There were two dark doors with brass handles. He quietly tried the first one. It gave, and the door opened.

The curtains were drawn across the three picture windows, but they were of light material and allowed the day to enter, to some degree. What the light revealed made Louis gasp a little. Thousands, tens of thousands of books lined more than a dozen floor-to-ceiling shelves. Some appeared ancient, others were brand-new. There were tables with stacks of books. There were all sorts of papers, stacked and scattered, covering a large wooden desk at the far end of the room. There were stacks of newspapers along the wall, the farthest of them yellowed with time.

Directly across from the door was what appeared to be some sore of case, with a black velvet drape over it. It was rectangular at the base, but the covered top of the box was slanted downward toward the front. It reminded Louis of a pulpit. It was the first object in this creaky, old house that was covered or kept hidden. Louis walked over and placed a hand on the inky drape. It was soft and cold. He closed his fingers, gathering up a handful of material, and began to pull, when he heard the distinct sound of a throat being cleared. Loudly.

He dropped the drape and spun around. The man in the brown suit was glaring at him. "Sorry," stammered Louis, "I was just looking around and was curious about what's under the cover."

The man's look softened a trace. "And you are?" The "r" rolled slightly.

"Louis. Louis Fielder. Papa--I mean, Linus--Taylor was my grandfather. My mom's dad."

"Ah, right." A more pronounced rolled-"r".

Enboldened by the fact that the man wasn't yelling or dragging him away, Louis asked, "And who are you, sir?"

"I'm sent to bid you return to the study. Your presence is required for the next section of the will."

"Why? Am I getting something?"

The man looked past Louis. "I can't say, sir. Please come at once."

"Okay. Thank you." Louis walked toward the door, side-stepping a small table in the middle of the room. The man entered also, passing on the opposite side of the table. Louis paused, and said, "Sorry about sneaking around. It's just been so long since I've been here. I don't remember the library being so...full."

"His great love at the end of his life was his books." The man hesitated. "He was a good man, your grandfather."

"Thank you," Louis replied. As he left the room, he turned to close the door, and saw the man realigning the velvet cover as it was before, smoothing away any small wrinkles.

Louis walked across the great hall to the door of the study, opened it quietly, and entered. Uncle Howard was the first to notice. "He's back," Howard said, and spit a pinky nail fragment to the floor at his feet. Louis felt himself flushing as he took his seat next to his mother.

She leaned over and whispered, "Where did you go, sweetie? We've been waiting."

"Just looking around. I don't know why you need me."

His mother said, "I'm not sure, but Mister Salazar here insisted."

The lawyer interrupted, "Salvador, madame, if you please. Mr. Taylor's instructions were that all family members would be present for the last part of the will."

Linus Jr. coughed and said, "Okay, well, we're all here, so let's get on with it."

"Very well, Mr. Taylor. For this last portion of the will, the late Mr. Taylor added a handwritten note to be read before officially reading the will. I will read this aloud at this time." From underneath the stack of papers, Salvador pulled a sheet of notebook paper and an envelope. He adjusted his glasses, and read from the sheet.

" 'Dear Children and Grandson: As you have just been informed, I have divided up my stock holdings and other financial assets into four shares. I tried my best to give each of my children what I thought would do you the most good in your lives. For this last bit of business, I am trying to do the same. I have tried to be fair to each of you, to give you what you needed. Please honor my memory by allowing this to stand, with no squabbling or infighting.

" 'But because I know you, and I'm pretty sure that at least two of you won't let this alone, I've instructed Salvador to legally render void the share of any of my heirs who attempt to undermine my wishes. That person's share will be divided equally among the others. So don't try to screw me on this. I have you covered.' "

Janet turned pale, her pink pursed lips offering the only color on her face. Linus Jr. rolled his eyes and heaved a sigh. "He never changed. I can't believe he'd do this. He never trusted any of us."

Howard chuckled. "Uh-oh, look's like Daddy's little man had his feelings hurt. Being the favorite just isn't good enough, is it?"

"Shut up, Howie! You're lucky to be getting anything at all, the way you treated him."

"What, because I didn't kiss his ass like you did, I'm now the bad son?"

Salvador grabbed a nearby paperweight and slammed it three times into the desk, scarring its polished finish. "Gentlemen, this is neither the time nor the place. Mr. Taylor has made his wishes clear, and these wishes will be honored. Now. To continue."

" 'I'm sure you're all anxious to hear the rest, to hear who I'm leaving all of my worldly possessions to. I hope you're not disappointed. I, Linus Taylor, hereby will, bequeath, and leave Taylor House, its land, and its contents, to my grandson, Louis G. Fielder, if he will have them. There are terms and conditions to this arrangement, which are detailed in a letter to be given to Louis, and may be explained or clarified by Salvador, at his behest. May you enjoy it, boy.' "

There was ten seconds of stunned silence. It slowly dawned on each of Linus Taylor's children that they wouldn't get any of his material goods. Linus Jr. nostrils flared, as his grip on the arms of his chair tightened. Stacey swooned a bit, and laid her head on Linus Jr.'s shoulder. Howard glared at Louis, and began gnawing on his thumbnail. Janet continued to face Salvador, but her posture became even more rigid, and she began to shake a bit, as if flexing ever muscle in her body. Daniel and Marie were stunned, and looked at each other and their son with disbelief mixed with joy.

Louis stared at Salvador. He kept expecting the lawyer to laugh and cry out, "Just kidding!" But he did not. He smiled back at Louis, then rose, walked over to him, and held out the envelope. "For you. From your grandfather. Congratulations, Louis."

Louis held the envelope in his hand for what felt like a lifetime. His eyes glanced over the shaky script that defined his grandfather's last years. He had seen that delicate handwriting in his last birthday card. Below the printed greeting, Linus had written, "May your dreams become your history, boy. Do not dare settle for the fate of ordinary men. Happy Birthday. Papa Taylor." The same shaky hand had now written him a letter from beyond the grave, had given him a mansion with a giant library. Louis couldn't begin to comprehend it. The envelope grew heavy in his hand.

"Well, open it, son," prodded his father. Louis blinked, as if coming out of a daydream, and then sat up, and opened the envelope, removing the three pages inside.

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