Artania - The Pharaoh's Cry
The air was more antiseptic than usual that spring morning. Coughing on bleach fumes, Bartholomew Borax III rolled out of bed and put on his monogrammed robe. That's when he noticed the strange noise.
He cocked his head. It sounded nothing like the usual sloshing mops or whirring vacuum cleaners. When Bartholomew opened his bedroom door and poked his head into the long hallway, a muffled wail met his ears.
Pulling last night's precious sketch from under his pillow, Bartholomew gazed at it for a moment. There three generations painted side-by-side. Although impossible, it was a dream he'd had many times. It would have been amazing, Grandfather, Father, and me, all bound in color.
Last night, he'd finally escaped prying eyes long enough for his hands to race over the page. While his pencil scratched furiously, the impossible took shape, and for a while, he lived in the dream.
Sighing, Bartholomew tucked the sketch in his pocket and patted it flat. With the forbidden art safe from snoops, he tiptoed down the winding staircase to the front parlor.
There at the arched doorway, he froze, unable to believe his eyes. It was normal to see Mother sitting stiffly in the wing-backed chair, platinum blonde hair in a tight bun with the veins pulsing in her forehead. But fat tears rolling down Hygenette Borax's pale cheeks?
No way. He'd seen her disgusted more times than he could count, yet crying? Never. Much too messy.
After eight rhythmic hiccups, she daintily dabbed each eye with a lace handkerchief, gave one long sniff, and rang the little bell on the marble table next to her.
Bartholomew felt a rush wind as Yvette blew past, curtsying three times. Like a white flag, Mother waved her hanky so the maid could drop it in a basket and signal to the butler who always stood at attention in the hall. He strode in with a silver tray containing one neatly folded handkerchief and bowing at the waist, held it out for Mrs. Borax.
“Mother, what is it?” Bartholomew's voice was barely a whisper.
Mother snatched the hanky in her quivering hands. “It's your… grandfather. He has… he has… he has… passed on!” she sobbed, hiccupping again.
“Grandfather Alabaster?” Bartholomew gasped.
“No, silly boy. Grandfather Borax. He… had a… stroke. And we… have… to,” hiccup, hiccup, “go soon.”
Bartholomew's private tutor, Mr. White, entered and stared sadly at his student, broccoli green eyes popping more like a fish than ever.
“Is it true?” Bartholomew asked. But he didn't need an answer. Mother's pale face told him everything.
“I'm afraid so,” Mr. White said.
“Not Grandfather! He was so… so wonderful.” He paused remembering.
Bartholomew's grandfather, Bartholomew the First, had been merrier than a hundred Christmases. Every summer, he would visit and tell stories that made the boy laugh until his stomach hurt. Bartholomew loved hearing over and again how he had turned one small factory into one of the largest bleach companies in the world.
“I used my wits and a trick or two,” he would say, slapping his knee. “The competition never saw it comin'!”
Next, he'd pat whoever was closest on the back, which was usually Mother. With a wan smile, she'd endure the back slaps then quietly excuse herself. Bartholomew knew she was off to bathe and change; hands on her clean dress would never do. Bartholomew smiled at the memory.
“Tell him the worst of it,” Mother said.
“Well, you see…” Mr. White cleared his throat again. “…your grandfather put a strange provision in his will. In order for your mother to… hmm…hmm… inherit the business, you must… hmm… move to his house in California and live there until you are twenty-one.”
“If only your father were here, he'd know what to do!”
Bartholomew shrugged uncomfortably, not wanting to imagine how life might have been different if Father were here. If he had survived the accident. That terrible day just weeks before Bartholomew was born when Father had hit his head and drowned in a mud puddle. He'd been jogging on a wooded path, and reports said that he must have tripped right in front of the boulder that knocked him unconscious as he fell face down in the puddle.
Bartholomew heard in whispers how that accident had forever changed something in Mother, turning her from a smiling bride into the germaphobe who kept hand sanitizer on every table and made Bartholomew bathe six times a day.
“And that house is disgusting. So fil-thy!” Mrs. Borax wailed, burying her face in her hanky.
Mr. White walked stiffly forward to pat his hiccupping employer on the back. Bartholomew was surprised that for once, she didn't rush off for a shower.
He nodded solemnly. “May I be excused?”
“Of course, Master Borax. I understand you wanting to be alone.”
He felt numb. He'd never get to hear one of Grandfather's stories again. The wild-haired man used to straighten his bent form and wink before starting in on a giggly story. Bartholomew loved Grandfather's elfin face and the way his eyes crinkled in the corners when he was spinning a tale or pranking someone. He often sketched the man and even soap-sculpted a pretty good likeness the summer before.
But on the other hand, the idea of moving intrigued Bartholomew. Homeschooled and lonely, he had long dreamed of escaping Mother's antiseptic mansion. Hygenette loathed travel so much that he had been to Grandfather Borax's house just once when he was six for Grandmother's funeral.
They'd had their own train car designed just for the journey. Of course, Mother first had it stripped to the walls, repainted, and carpeted, along with installing brand new plastic seats, tables, and shining bathroom fixtures. But renovations weren't enough. Next, she ordered their maid army to attack with an enough disinfectant to make a bleach bomb.
The trip may have been the same old take-a-bath-prison, but the Borax mansion in Santa Barbara had been too wonderful.
Real trees and shrubs surrounded the estate, not the plastic ones Bartholomew was used to. And the rooms! All kinds of fantastic things filled them: old photos, knick-knacks, and souvenirs from Grandfather's travels around the world. Every one was a different color, from vibrant orange in the kitchen to humming violet in the downstairs bath. A study with deep wood paneling that hinted at secret passageways held an insect collection, telescope, and star charts. Grandfather's own oil paintings and outrageously designed furniture gave Bartholomew a thousand ways to feed his imagination.