Read an Excerpt
In My Blood
“Stop that racket!” my older sister Ava commanded in the sharp, deep, stinging loud whisper only she could produce, after she had poked her head inside my bedroom door. Her words reverberated just under my breasts and shook my spine as if they had originated inside me and not inside her. Whenever she spoke to me like this, it sent a chill through my chest and into my heart. It was as if I had just gulped and swallowed a cup of ice water. Even my lips felt numb.
Minutes ago, our housekeeper and nanny, Mrs. Fennel, had ordered our thirteen-year-old sister, Marla, out of my room to go clean up her own. Cleanliness and neatness were as important in our house as they were supposed to be in a hospital. There was always a demand for tidiness and freshness that gave every home we lived in the appearance of being just created.
For us, time froze. We had new things, but we were taught that nothing became worn or out of style if it was cared for well. I grew up to understand that for the Patio family, days, months, years weren’t locked up in some old chest and left to be forgotten. Nothing fell back or away or died in our world. It was as though everything Daddy touched became immortal. Memories swirled about us with the dazzle of colorful butterflies caught in rays of sunshine. Every one was precious and special. One of Daddy’s favorite expressions was, “It’s so old that it’s new.” That was because so many of the things we possessed people hadn’t seen for some time, whether they were windup clocks and oil lamps or Victrolas and quill fountain pens.
We didn’t relegate the antiques to some attic cemetery, either. Nothing was put away to sleep under a blanket of dust. A hundred-year-old music box sat side-by-side with an MP3 player. Daddy still had his Gibson and Davis piano, built in 1818.
“The piano’s old, but the notes are new,” he would say when I played it. “Life,” Daddy told me, “simply means reinventing yourself every day. Every day is your birthday, Lorelei.” He told that to Marla and Ava and our older sister, Brianna. He said it was something he constantly told himself.
We held on to the past, cherished it, but we certainly didn’t dwell in it. The here and now and the future were always paramount. Maybe that was why, unlike other families, we had no family albums. There was little or no nostalgia. There were especially no early pictures of Daddy or Mrs. Fennel anywhere in our home and, of course, no videos of family events. Daddy never looked back at a time in history and said, “It was better then” or “I’d rather be alive then.” There were individual things that were better, perhaps, but “Every generation, every age, has something to offer us, something to cherish,” he said. “When you stop looking forward to the future, you begin to dig your own grave.”
Although we were given new clothing and shoes regularly, we never threw anything out or gave anything away. That certainly wasn’t because we were poor. We were far from it. The fact was, there was always a younger Patio daughter to assume some of what had belonged to the younger daughter before her.
And so my younger sister, Marla, had inherited many of my old things, some of which I had inherited from Ava. Most of them were barely worn. I grew out of them quickly, almost overnight. I took good care of everything I had, but Marla could be very sloppy, leaving a blouse on a chair, a skirt on the floor, or shoes in the doorway, which was the thing Mrs. Fennel hated the most.
Most of the time, Mrs. Fennel moved through the house as if she were on radar. No one could travel more confidently through the darkness. She seemed very proud of that, proud of all the things she could do and did efficiently, effectively, and gracefully, so stumbling over something one of us carelessly left in her way infuriated her.
Mrs. Fennel didn’t have to raise her voice above a whisper to indicate her displeasure, either, and that indication was enough to move a herd of elephants. It was as if the air were filled with static and your ears were drowning in heartbeats that resembled the sound of thundering wild beasts.
Marla didn’t dare protest or even appear upset when Mrs. Fennel came looking for her in my room. She avoided Mrs. Fennel’s eyes just the way any of us would and hurried to her room, chanting, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” It was as if she were trying to memorize it.
Mrs. Fennel hated that word. “Don’t tell me you’re sorry,” she would say. “Sorry doesn’t mend fences well. Something broken, something ruined, can’t be restored to what it was with an ‘I’m sorry.’”
I certainly wasn’t going to say “I’m sorry” to Ava. I had just inserted my iPod into the player, speaker, and charger, and it had barely begun to play. I had it so low I didn’t think I needed to listen on my earphones, so I was genuinely surprised when she burst in on me. She frightened me, but as soon as I settled down, I was more annoyed than afraid. She looked half-asleep, even though it was nearly noon. Of course, I knew why.
Almost always, whenever Ava slept this late or took naps, so did Daddy. My recollections of my oldest sister, Brianna, were the same. Anyone would wonder how she could have heard anything through our walls when she fell into that comalike sleep, but what amazed me about both my sisters and my father was the sensitivity of their hearing. I really believed my father and my sisters when they were older could hear a pin drop, even when they slept deeply. It was as if they had a sixth sense, especially for danger. Would I inherit the same power? I hadn’t yet.
In movies and on television, when someone’s dog suddenly growls or barks, the person pauses to listen and doesn’t hear anything but always in a dire whisper asks the dog, “What is it, boy? What’s out there?” Usually, it turns out to be something evil.
I had seen Daddy do that many times. He would suddenly stop reading or looking at something and listen harder. His ears didn’t go up, and he didn’t growl, but his face changed into a dark, concerned expression. His eyes grew beady, and he moved his nostrils as though he were sniffing for some threatening scent. It was not fear, exactly. I had never seen him afraid of anything. I suppose it was more like suddenly being extra cautious.
Once, even though none of us was saying anything, he held up his hand and said, “Quiet.” It was as if we were thinking too loudly.
My heart began to pound. Brianna’s face mimicked his, and everyone froze. After a moment or so, Daddy nodded, relieved and satisfied, and returned to what he was reading. Brianna looked relieved and satisfied, too. I looked at Ava to see if she wanted an explanation as much as I did, but she didn’t, or if she did, she was too frightened to ask. Ava was seven then, and I was four. Marla had not yet been born and brought to live with us.
If I asked what was wrong, why everyone looked so worried, Ava and Brianna would glance at me and then look to Daddy, who would simply shake his head and return to what he was reading.
Even at that young age, being so in the dark at times when it concerned my family made me feel like a total outsider, a visitor rather than another daughter. Eventually, I realized that something or someone was always pursuing us. I didn’t know what or who it was yet, but, like all the information I was given, it would come when Daddy thought I was ready for it to come.
There were secrets sleeping in every shadow, secrets cloaked in whispers, and secrets implied in glances. Sometimes I thought they were like mold in the walls. Not that we celebrated it, but I dreamed of a Christmas with packages of secrets under the tree, all addressed to me. All I had to do was open each one, and I’d learn the answers.
“Creepers, Ava,” I said now in a mild protest, “I can barely hear the music.”
“Stop thinking of only yourself,” she snapped. Her eyes suddenly came alive, lost their sleepiness, and were luminous. It was as if matches had ignited behind them. Even her cheeks turned crimson. Ava could never be ugly, but more and more lately, I saw movements and incremental changes in her features that made them harder whenever she was upset.
“Yes, you are. I don’t know why no one else sees how selfish you can be. I was never that selfish when I was your age. You don’t think of our family first. You think of yourself first.”
I shook my head. Tears filled my eyes. In this house, there was no greater sin than selfishness. “That’s not true!” I protested loudly.
Her eyes widened again. “Quiet, you fool. If you wake Daddy…”
“Okay, okay,” I said, and shut off the iPod. I never had woken Daddy. None of us had, but the threat of his and Mrs. Fennel’s anger should I do so was quite enough to make me tremble.
Daddy would have to sleep nearly the entire day at least once a month. Most of the time on those days, he didn’t even come to dinner. When I was much younger and asked Mrs. Fennel about it, my nanny cryptically replied, “Digestion.” She would say nothing more, and one look from her told me not to ask any more questions about it. She hated my questions anyway.
One time, she snapped at me and said, “Your questions buzz around my ears like annoying flies.” She waved her hand near her head as if they were really there.
Brianna would be just as disturbed with my questions and either ignore me or say, “Stop pestering me. You’ll know when you know. Try to be more like Ava. Be patient.”
Despite how much Brianna watched over me when I was very young, I never had a close relationship with her. I thought I was closer to Ava, although getting close to her wasn’t easy, either. With Brianna, at least I could blame it on age. She was too many years older than I was.
One day, she simply was no longer home. The way Mrs. Fennel, Daddy, and Ava behaved led me to believe there was nothing bad about her leaving even though it was so sudden, at least for me. On the contrary, they were pleased, happy for her. Of course, I wondered where she had gone and when she would return.
“She won’t return. She has gone to fulfill her destiny,” Mrs. Fennel told me.
When I asked Daddy why Brianna wouldn’t return, he said, “Mrs. Fennel has already told you, Lorelei. There is nothing more for you to know right now. Just be as happy for her as we are.”
How could I be happy for her if I didn’t know where she was or what she was doing? What did that mean, “fulfill her destiny”? Would I have the same destiny to fulfill? And at the same age? Would Ava? Where Brianna was remained a mystery even to this day and, like other questions, was still not to be pursued, even though it was always on the tip of my tongue to ask. Less than a year later, Marla was brought to live with us, and I had a little sister to help watch, but my curiosity about Brianna’s whereabouts never stopped. I wondered aloud about her often in front of Mrs. Fennel, who simply glared silently at me.
“You nag Mrs. Fennel at your own peril,” Ava once said. “She has the patience of a trapped rattlesnake.”
Right now, Ava herself resembled some sort of angry snake glaring back at me from the doorway, her head poised like a cobra’s ready to strike. I sat back and folded my arms under my breasts. I was what anyone would call a late bloomer. My figure didn’t really fill out until I was sixteen. Before that, I looked more like a twelve-year-old. I knew that was why most boys in my classes had barely given me a glance, that and the boring grandma clothes I was made to wear, mostly loose-fitting, in drab colors, with the ugliest shoes. I was sure I wobbled when I walked.
Strangely, enough, boys, and girls as well, assumed I came from a fanatically religious family, a family of Puritans. This was why I wore such clothes and no makeup and no earrings or bracelets. In their minds, it explained why I didn’t participate in clubs and games or go to dances. Surely, they thought trying to be friends with me would be a total waste of time. I could see it in their faces. To them, my whole life was a waste of time.
Recently, however, I had become very aware of my figure. Just as I had been told to give some of my clothes to Marla, Ava was now told to give some of her newer outfits to me, and these outfits revealed how I had blossomed. Lately, especially in the past week, I was even more self-conscious because of it, especially when boys now had that Hello, what have you been hiding beneath those grandma outfits? look. One boy, Tommy Holmes, asked me if I had been drinking our gardener’s Miracle-Gro.
“Maybe it’s plastic surgery,” Ruta Lee suggested coyly, her face ripe with envy. If anyone needed plastic surgery, she did, with her long, pointed nose and doggy ears.
I said nothing, so she went ahead to spread the rumor like creamy peanut butter through the school. I could see the story smeared over the faces of my classmates. Ironically, it enhanced the interest some boys had in me. Had I had breast enhancement, something done to make my buttocks more curvaceous, my waist so small? Almost overnight, my baby face had morphed into a stunning cover girl’s face, including a magazine model’s complexion. Ruta began to regret her mocking. She would glare angrily at me in the hallways and classroom but had nowhere near the fire in her eyes that burned in Ava’s right now.
“What is it, Ava? What else do you want from me?” I was sure she could stare down a charging tiger. “I turned it off!”
She smirked and then relaxed and brushed her silky black hair away from her face. It was shoulder length and never looked dull or dirty. My dark brown hair always felt coarse compared with hers, and I thought it was too curly. Maybe I felt that way because Daddy enjoyed stroking Ava’s hair and rarely stroked mine. Lately, when I complained about my hair to Mrs. Fennel, she threatened to take out the ironing board and iron every strand.
“If you keep moaning about it, I swear I will do it when you sleep,” she warned, “and if I burn some of it and you become bald, that will be on your head. Literally.”
And that was that.
Mrs. Fennel, who had been with my father for centuries, it seemed, always spoke with staccato efficiency. When someone said, “That woman doesn’t waste her breath,” he or she was surely referring to Mrs. Fennel. Often she went all day without saying more than a dozen words, but she could speak pages with a look, an expression. Even as a toddler, I always knew when my questions were foolish to her and not worth her answering. Ava said Mrs. Fennel was a surgeon. She could cut the waste out of any day. She never said or did anything without purpose or meaning. She had the best IWPB—important words per breath—of anyone.
“You should be grateful she has been your nanny,” Ava told me once after I complained about something Mrs. Fennel had said to me. “I’m grateful she has been mine.”
“I am!” I claimed, even though in my heart, I didn’t mean it. I dreamed instead of having a real mother.
“Spoiled,” Ava muttered, under her breath but loudly enough for me to hear. “She lets you get away with too much. She never let me get away with that much.”
I tried to be grateful, to appreciate all Mrs. Fennel did for me, but it was never easy. As an infant, I was forbidden to cry too much or too long, and I quickly realized that crying didn’t get me anything anyway. Mrs. Fennel was never physically rough with me. She never struck me or spanked me; she didn’t have to do that. Her stern looks, with those gold-tinted black eyes that were like laser beams cutting through me, were far more than enough to get me to swallow back a wail or a sob.
Tall and thin, with a hardness in her arms and body that had me believing she was made of iron until I saw her naked once, Mrs. Fennel radiated a firmness and confidence that gave me, Marla, Ava, and, I’m sure, Brianna, a sense of security. As long as she was there, nothing could harm us. Even germs feared her. No one ever got sick.
And yet she was so feminine at times, so concerned about our appearance, our looks, that I felt as if she had the power to sculpt us into beauties. She had bath oils (her own mixtures) that kept our skin smooth and soft, shampoos with one of her magical ingredients that, despite my unhappiness with my own hair, really did keep it soft and healthy compared with the hair of the other girls in my classes, and of course, she cooked and prepared the healthiest things for us to eat, which were mostly from her own herbal recipes. To this day, I don’t know what she gave me to eat as baby food, but whatever it was, it was homemade. There was always a gentle tug of war between her and Daddy, who tried to give us something sweet or decadent from time to time when we were younger.
“Don’t corrupt them. There’s time enough for that,” Mrs. Fennel might say, and that was that. Daddy would back off. Someday, I thought, I would know why Mrs. Fennel, who was supposedly our housekeeper and nanny, had such power over Daddy, who was supposedly her employer. Either jokingly or maybe because she knew more than I did, Ava once said, “She’s Daddy’s mother. He got his good looks from her.”
Despite her hard, sculptured features, Mrs. Fennel did look as if she might have been beautiful once. Her gray hair was still long and soft. She didn’t have any of those age spots elderly people develop, and her wrinkles weren’t deep or long. Sometimes they seemed to be gone anyway. It was as if she could have days of returning to her twenties or her teen years. It gave me pause to wonder about her past. Until now, at least, she especially didn’t like me or Marla asking her too many personal questions, and she wasn’t one to volunteer personal information. Maybe she really was Daddy’s mother and he had inherited his good looks from her. In our house, beauty seemed to be a fruit you could pluck when it was time to pluck it.
Ava was very attractive and very sexy. She could suck the eyes out of admiring men, young or old. I could hear them practically panting as we walked by, Ava seemingly floating, her head up, her eyes forward. She looked oblivious, as indifferent as some goddess might be, even though she was far from it. She always gave me the impression that she expected nothing less than admiration, even idolization. Walking with her was almost a sexual experience because of the way she flaunted herself. In their virtual-reality worlds, the men who saw her were already in the throes of heavy lovemaking.
Would I ever have Ava’s self-confidence? Her arrogance? I knew I was expected to have it. I couldn’t be my father’s daughter if I didn’t.
Ava stood there in her soft silk nightgown, her ample bosom firm, her neck curved smoothly into her shoulders. Even when she had just awakened, her complexion was vibrant. As long as I could remember, she had never had a skin blemish and certainly not a pimple. Even though she did use it, she really didn’t need to put on lipstick. Her lips were naturally a rich ruby. She never went to a doctor or a dentist; none of us did, for that matter. When I asked Mrs. Fennel why none of us ever needed any sort of medical attention, she simply said, “Good genes.”
Good genes? How could that be? From what I understood, I didn’t share those genes, and neither did Marla, but we didn’t go to a doctor or a dentist, either. Ava said it was because of the foods and drinks Mrs. Fennel prepared for us. She said Mrs. Fennel was better than any doctor or dentist. That was nice, of course. Who wanted to go to a doctor or a dentist? But it wasn’t enough of an explanation for me. Why had Mrs. Fennel told me it was genes? What did she know about our genes?
Like Marla’s, my origin was a mystery. All I really knew was that I had been plucked out of an orphanage, just as she was. Whenever I tried to find out anything specific about myself, I was always told not to think about it.
“Don’t dwell on what makes you different and apart from this family. If you do, you’ll be disowned,” Mrs. Fennel warned.
I certainly didn’t want that to happen, but my curiosity about myself seemed only natural, and my classmates often asked me personal questions. I ignored them or simply said I didn’t know, which most of the time was true, but it was always uncomfortable to say it.
“How could you not know that?” they would ask, astonished.
Meg Logan smirked and said, “You’re just a big mystery wrapped up in a secret. Enjoy yourself, but keep away from us. You’re like someone with Alzheimer’s.”
That was painful to hear and did make me feel foolish. Why couldn’t Mrs. Fennel or Daddy help me with some of these questions so I wouldn’t look like such a freak in school? Goodness knows, I didn’t want to feel different or in any way alienated from my father and my sisters. If anything, I wanted to be just like Ava. I was always trying to imitate her walk, the way she held her head, even her smile.
Was it wrong for me to be in such awe of my own older sister? Was it natural?
Right now, a quick movement in her eyes told me she saw how I perused her body the way some art student might gaze upon a statue in a museum.
“What else do I want from you? I want you to stop behaving like some lovesick teenager.”
“You’re not?” She stared a moment and then shook her head and smiled. “Okay, what’s your problem today, little sister? The boy you have a thing for at school won’t look your way?”
“I don’t have any problems, and I don’t have any thing for any boys in my school,” I said, realizing too late how defensive I sounded.
She laughed skeptically, sat on the edge of my four-poster dark walnut bed, and then threw herself back on my oversize pillow. We rarely had what I would call a close sister-to-sister conversation, from what I understood those conversations were like when I saw them on television or heard girls in my class talk about their older sisters. Ava had stepped too quickly into the surrogate mother’s role Brianna had played, but maybe, now that I was older, she would be different, I thought. Her life was different. Why wouldn’t mine be as well?
At Daddy’s suggestion, Ava was attending classes at UCLA in Westwood, California, but she didn’t seem to have any real interest in them. She did it because it was something Daddy told her to do. It was the way we were all raised. When Daddy spoke, everything stopped. Even the earth paused in its spinning.
We had been living in Brentwood, on a side street just off Sunset Boulevard, for three years now. It was quite rural, with surrounding woods and acreage. The nearest house was far enough away for us to feel as if we had no neighbors. Daddy liked to move every few years. I had gone to school in three different states since first grade: upstate New York; Nashville, Tennessee; and now California. We always attended private schools that Daddy carefully chose, no matter how expensive they were.
Daddy was wealthy through inheritance but also because of what Mrs. Fennel said were brilliant investments through the years. Praising Daddy was at least one thing Mrs. Fennel would do frequently and fully. It was practically the only subject that interested her enough to talk about: Daddy’s wonderful qualities. She did sound like a proud mother. According to her, there was no one stronger, no one smarter, no one more successful than my daddy. A day rarely passed without her telling us how lucky we were to have him and how important it was for us to please him.
She didn’t have to do much persuading. Daddy really was the most charming, traveled, and educated man I had ever seen or heard. He was elegant and handsome in a very aristocratic way. People who met him for the first time believed he was from a European royal family. There was something Old World about him, in his demeanor, his manners, his way of speaking and eating. I often thought he could be a prince. I believed that someday, he might very well inherit a throne or be called back to occupy a castle in some exotic country. In my daydreams, I saw myself being treated like a little princess because of Daddy. The sapphire ring he wore on his right pinkie was set in gold and looked like the sort of ring a king might wear for his subjects to kiss, the way Catholics kiss the ring of a bishop. Ava wore a smaller, feminine version on her pinkie, and I recalled Brianna had one, too.
Daddy had friends everywhere, and all of them seemed highly educated and wealthy. I was to call some of them Uncle or Aunt when they visited, and they always brought gifts for all of us. Some were as young-looking as Daddy, but some looked more like Mrs. Fennel. What I observed and was proud to see was how deferential they were to Daddy, no matter how old they appeared. They did treat him as if he was royalty and they were his loyal subjects. Occasionally, one or more of these uncles and aunts were upset when they arrived and then were quickly ushered into a room away from any of us. Only Mrs. Fennel was permitted to be there. Regardless of how upset our guests might have been when they arrived, they left smiling and confident again.
It didn’t surprise me. No matter what time of the day it was or what he was doing at the time, Daddy never seemed flustered. It was as if there was nothing in this world that could surprise him. He had a calm, even demeanor that impressed anyone he met and put him or her at ease almost immediately. No one, except maybe Mrs. Fennel, knew his exact age, not even Ava or Brianna. He really did seem to possess the wisdom of a man centuries old, even though it was difficult to believe he was more than forty-five or fifty.
When was he born? Where was he born? Who were his parents? Those were questions I thought Mrs. Fennel would never answer. I asked Daddy how old he was, of course, but he only smiled and said, “Guess,” or “You tell me, and that will be my age.”
When I asked him where he was born, he said he’d been too young to remember. He always joked but never revealed anything.
Ava didn’t seem to care, and when I asked her what she thought, she looked at me as if it were a question that had never occurred to her. How could that be? I wondered. What made her so different from me? At times, she took on that expression Daddy had, that far-off look that made me feel as if he didn’t know I was there.
As far as I knew, Ava was the only one of us who was Daddy’s natural child. She claimed it was something she had learned only recently, and, contrary to how I would feel if I learned such a wonderful thing, she seemed angry when she learned that Daddy had fallen in love with someone and married her. It was as if love were a disease, Daddy had been infected, and she was the result. She made it sound as if she were a scar.
“What’s wrong with falling in love?” I asked her when she complained.
“Love is poison for us,” she replied, and would say no more about it, no matter how many times I asked.
If it had been responsible for my being Daddy’s natural daughter, I thought, I wouldn’t call it poison.
At times, Ava looked so much like Daddy that it was as if she were cloned. Rarely, if ever, did Daddy talk about Ava’s mother, and Ava hated to talk about her. She would get furious with me if I made the smallest reference to her. All I knew was what I had gleaned from Mrs. Fennel and the tidbits Daddy revealed. Her name was Sophia. I was told she had died in childbirth.
“Were there any pictures of your mother?” I asked her once.
“If there were, I don’t care to see them,” she told me.
“Aren’t you even a little curious about her?”
“No!” she said, practically shouting back at me. “Stop talking about her. For all I know or care, I was hatched, understand? Not born. You can consider me half an orphan.”
How could she be even half an orphan? She at least knew who her mother was and who her father was, although Daddy was as real in my mind and in my affections as any daddy could be. Why was she so bitter about her mother, treating her as someone who had tricked or corrupted Daddy? How had he met her, anyway? What made her so different from other women he had known? Why couldn’t anyone talk about it? Why did we all have to swim in so much mystery? Sometimes I thought I would surely drown in it. I was barely keeping my head above water with the little bits of information Mrs. Fennel threw in my direction from time to time as it was. I felt like some caged animal kept moments away from starvation.
Ava had one of those Mrs. Fennel impatient and annoyed expressions on her face right now.
“Come off it, Lorelei. Stop giving me that innocent look. You don’t lie here in your room and just listen to your music,” she continued, lying on my bed and looking up at the ceiling. “You lie here and fantasize about sex with one or another of the boys in your school, fantasize about wonderful kisses, their tongues on your tongue, their lips moving down your neck as they slowly undress you,” she said softly, with such an erotic feeling I felt myself tingle.
She turned on her side to look at me. Her breasts ballooned, and her eyes brightened impishly. How could any man resist her, resist those inviting lips? Would I ever have her power? It both excited and frightened me to think I would.
“Please. Don’t bother denying it. I can practically hear your dreams through the wall, and I know the reason you’re so flushed sometimes. It comes washing down over you, doesn’t it? You feel like you might drown in your own sex, like your heart might burst because it’s beating so hard and so fast, and all that simply from images, thoughts. You can’t even begin to imagine what the real thing will do.”
I nodded. No sense lying to her. It was that way exactly. Satisfied with my confession, she smiled again and lay back to look at the ceiling.
“Don’t forget, I was your age, too, and went through exactly what you’re experiencing. I will admit that I was doing it when I was younger than you, but it was the same, so stop trying to deny it.”
“I didn’t say I don’t imagine myself with any of the boys. I said I don’t have a crush on any of them. There’s no one I would die to be with, Ava. I swear!”
“Crush? Do you teenagers still use that term? I don’t care what you call it. You have it, this longing. Sometimes your body aches because of it.”
She grinned like a cat and then turned back to look up at the ceiling again. The way she stared at it made me wonder if she saw something on it. I glanced at it, too. Daddy was asleep right above us. Was that what she was thinking? Was she saying these things to me knowing he could hear her? Daddy could hear us in his sleep, even if we spoke as softly as we were now. He once told me he didn’t sleep. He drifted in the darkness, floated like an astronaut in outer space.
“Let me tell you something, little sister. Don’t be so eager to give it away,” she warned, clearly referring to my virginity.
“No sense denying you want to, Lorelei. Daddy senses it, too. He’s worried you might be at it like a rabbit and put us all in some danger.”
I gasped. What had I possibly done to give him that impression? “Did he really tell you that?”
“Of course. He tells me everything he thinks about you and discusses every change he notices, no matter how small it might seem to be.”
I expected that because she was older, Daddy would confide in her about things before he would confide in me, but not such an intimate thing about me. I always thought Daddy and I had a very special, honest relationship.
“You must always tell me exactly what you’re feeling, Lorelei,” Daddy once told me, “and I will do the same with you.”
I was deeply disappointed, but I didn’t complain. Even the smallest suggestion of dissatisfaction with Daddy or the smallest criticism of him could bring down thunder and lightning from either Mrs. Fennel or one of my older sisters. For them, that was blasphemy. Just as worshippers could be excommunicated from any religion, any of us could be excommunicated from this family. No one came right out and said such a thing, not even Mrs. Fennel, but I felt it. I had been plucked out of nowhere and could be dropped back into it, dropped into a world without any family, without any daddy, much less any mother.
Sometimes, maybe because of books I read or movies I saw, I tried to imagine how hard and lonely it must be for those foundlings who never find a family to take them into their lives. How cold it must be to have an institution for a home and paid bureaucrats substituting as relatives. I had no doubt that any of them would gladly trade places with me, no matter what the obligations and rules were here. Here there was at least a real home, where there was at least a daddy to show you real love and affection. I knew that as much as I needed Daddy, as much as we all needed him, he needed us, and that was too precious to surrender.
After a moment, I asked Ava, “How old were you when you did it with a boy for the first time? You said you had all these feelings when you were younger than I am.”
She looked at me again, more of a coy smile on her lips now. “Who said I have even had a first time?”
She laughed. “Look at you. See how you’re surprised? Aren’t you more interesting, exciting, if men are not sure?”
“I don’t know. I really don’t know much about men and what they think or how they think,” I admitted.
She lost her humor quickly. “Well, I’m telling you that you are more mysterious and that it is important. It is always the obvious girls who are the most uninteresting. It is essential to have a cloak of mystery about you, Lorelei, especially since you’re one of us. You would think you would know that yourself by now, but I keep forgetting how immature you are sometimes.”
“I’m not immature.” I pouted for a moment and then added, “If I am, it’s because I’m not permitted to do anything, to experience anything, when it comes to the opposite sex. I haven’t been out on a date or even to a party, have I? Well, have I? Girls much younger than I am have been out on dates and gone to parties. Some of the kids in my class think I must have done something really terrible to be so restricted or that we’re religious nutcases.”
She laughed and then said, “Who cares what they think?”
“I do. It’s hard, Ava. Don’t tell me it wasn’t hard for you, too.”
She looked at me with an uncharacteristic softness for a moment. I knew that meant she was going to tell me something important. “Well, Daddy agrees with you about all that. He thinks you’re just about ready to go out with me, but he’s worried. He doesn’t think you’re as instinctively prepared as Brianna and I were. He wants me to start to teach you things you need to know, prepare you, and show you how to be more attractive, more sophisticated, and especially more cautious.”
“We will go on some dry runs first so I can observe you in action and you can observe me and learn something. Consider it on-the-job training,” she added out of the corner of her mouth. Then she sighed so deeply I thought her chest would crack. “Your sexual education is my newest obligation, but it’s something I always knew would come.”
“You sound upset about it. Didn’t Brianna do the same for you? Was she upset about having to do it?”
“That was different.”
“I just told you. I was instinctively better prepared.”
“Well, maybe I am, too. It’s not fair to think I’m not without giving me an opportunity to demonstrate whether I am,” I protested.
“Daddy said you weren’t. Are you questioning Daddy’s judgment?”
“No. Of course not, but—”
She sat up quickly, brushed back her hair again, and got off the bed. “I have to get some more sleep,” she said.
“Where were you last night?”
“I just wondered where you go to… I mean, what sort of man—”
“You will know when you know,” she said.
“You weren’t back until very late this time,” I blurted before she could walk out.
“What, were you waiting up, spying on me to see if I was successful? You thought I was taking too long? You’re judging me now?”
“No, I just…”
“Just were waiting up.” She relaxed and thought a moment. “Maybe Daddy’s right. Maybe you are ready. I was doing the same sorts of things, spying on Brianna, and thinking the same sorts of things when I was ready. That’s why it’s important you don’t mess up with some teenage romance. You know what would happen to you if you ever got pregnant, Lorelei. You know how useless you would be to Daddy, even to yourself,” she said sharply, her face reddening with an anticipation of anger.
“For the last time, Ava, I’m not having any teenage romance, and I’m not trying to have one!”
“Lower your voice.”
“Well, I’m not, Ava.”
“Uh-huh,” she said, nodding with suspicious eyes. She could be so infuriating. She nodded at my iPod. “Use your earphones.”
She left, closing my door quietly.
I put on the earphones, but I didn’t play any music. Instead, I listened to my memories of the night before.
I had lied to her. I did spy on her, because it did seem to be taking her longer. I waited by the window in my bedroom that looked out on our driveway and saw her drive up with the young man beside her. The moonlight illuminated the front of the house just enough for me to make him out. He looked tall, with wide shoulders, like a UCLA football player, but I knew he couldn’t be that. Daddy wouldn’t let her bring anyone from her college here, not as long as we lived so close.
All the lights were out in the house. She had probably told him there was no one home. I was sure Mrs. Fennel was watching through a slightly opened curtain. I went to my closed door and put my ear against it. I heard the young man’s laughter and then hers. He sounded so happy, probably thinking himself lucky to be making it with a girl as beautiful as Ava. It sounded to me as if they had paused just inside the entryway and were kissing. She wanted him to be excited. She wanted his heart to pound, his blood to rush through his veins.
Then I heard them going up the stairs. There was more laughter, although their voices were muffled now. Ava sounded silly, actually. I opened my door slightly and listened. I was very interested in what she would be telling him at that moment. Instead, there was a long silence. Suddenly, I could hear the surprise in his voice, and then the door to Daddy’s room slammed shut.
The young man had time to scream only once.
© 2010 Vanda General Partnership