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When I was just fourteen years old, my world began to sink in and collapse like a punctured balloon. Whatever happiness I enjoyed slowly leaked out and disappeared. It took me a while to notice and realize it. I was just like someone who, gazing at his car one day, saw that he had a flat tire. When did that begin to happen? he might wonder. I knew when it had begun to happen for me.
One night at dinner a week after my birthday, Daddy put down his knife and fork, folded his hands, and cleared his throat. Cassie and I believed that whatever he was about to say had nothing whatsoever to do with his business or his finances. There was a rule at our table that none of that would be discussed at dinner. And that was true even if Daddy had something wonderful about the business to announce to us, such as a large increase in the profits of one of our stores or our stores beating out the famous chain stores nearby. Whatever the good business news was, he wouldn't say a word about it until after dinner or maybe not until breakfast the following day. For some reason, breakfast was not as sacred a meal as dinner. Of course, dinner was more elegant, with our expensive china and silverware, linen napkins, and the imported tablecloth that Mother had bought on one of their European trips.
My responsibility was to set the table, light the candles in the gold candle holders, and after dinner put everything away or in the dishwasher and washing machine. Cassie helped Mother prepare the food, and I helped both of them serve it. Mother was an excellent cook, always coming up with new and interesting recipes, and Cassie was a quick study. She could replicate almost anything Mother had made a day after she had made it. Twice when Mother was sick with the flu, Cassie "leaped to the helm," as Daddy would say, and created dinners that were as wonderful as what Mother made. Even I had to admit it, although Cassie was far more interested in Daddy's opinion.
At the beginning of dinner, we were to lower our heads while Daddy recited a prayer, but Cassie never lowered her head. I knew both of my parents were aware of it, just as they were in church, but neither forced her to do it. It suggested to me that maybe they were as afraid of her as I was, which, of course, made no sense. How could parents be afraid of their own daughter?
"Your mother and I have an announcement to make," Daddy began this particular evening, and then he stroked his perfectly trimmed and groomed rust-brown goatee. It was a gesture that was always followed by a very serious pronouncement. Another sign was the way his emerald-green eyes brightened. At forty-eight, he was by anyone's measure still a very handsome man, with a perfectly proportioned straight nose and firm lips. He kept his hair a little longer than most businessmen his age, but it was always trim and neatly brushed. Even though he didn't work outdoors, he had a robust complexion, and because he was six feet two inches tall with wide shoulders, he looked fit and strong. Mother always said that when he was wearing jeans and a short-sleeved shirt instead of his suit, he looked like a lumberjack.
His father had named him Teddy after Teddy Roosevelt and, according to family history, made sure he understood that he had to be as courageous, as loyal to the truth and to what was right, and as strong in body and mind. He was fond of telling Daddy, "Charge up that hill! And no matter what, never surrender!"
Daddy's pausing made what he was about to tell us even more important. I held my breath and glanced at Cassie, who sat with a smirk on her lips. She looked as if she knew what he was about to say and already did not approve.
"Your mother," Daddy continued, reaching to his right to take her hand, "is pregnant."
I know my mouth widened with surprise, and I was sure my eyes swelled, but Cassie's smirk only grew deeper. She leaned slightly forward, folding her hands on the table the way Daddy folded his before a serious pronouncement.
"Is that wise at your age, Mother?" she asked very calmly. "You're forty-two."
"Women in their forties are having children. Your mother is in perfect health, Cassie, and Dr. Moffet is very optimistic about her having a healthy and successful pregnancy," Daddy replied before Mother could.
"Of course, Dr. Moffet would say that. We're good customers."
Daddy sat back, displeased with her, which was very unusual to see.
"Doctors don't have customers, Cassie. They have patients, and a good doctor is not motivated by profit the way a businessman should be."
"Then there are no good doctors," Cassie said.
Cassie never backed down from what she said or believed. When she was very little and she was reprimanded or forbidden to do something, she would hold her breath until her face reddened so that Mother would relent or to get Daddy to compromise. She once went two days without eating a morsel because she was in a sulk.
"I was hoping you girls would be as happy about this as we are," Mother said, battling back the disappointment I could see she felt.
"I am," I said, perhaps too quickly.
Cassie glared at me for a moment and then formed her smile mask. "Of course, we're happy, but naturally, we're worried, too, Mother."
"Don't be," Mother said firmly. "I'll be fine. It will all be fine."
"We hope so," Cassie said, but the way she said it made it clear that she was full of skepticism. She always managed to speak for me, saying "we" whenever she was going to offer an opinion about something that could have an effect on us both.
"In any case," Daddy continued, "I would like both of you to take this into consideration and do whatever you can to make things easier for your mother during the next seven months. I know you both already do quite a lot, but..."
"Then you are already two months pregnant?" Cassie asked quickly.
"Yes, Cassie, I am."
"Why didn't you tell us earlier?" she followed sharply, her eyes narrowing. "There are so many ways to confirm a pregnancy earlier."
I suddenly felt as if the table had been spun around, and Cassie was the mother and Mother was the daughter. When Mother didn't answer, Cassie continued, "Why didn't you let us know you were both thinking of having another child?"
Mother looked at Daddy. They both seemed flustered.
"We weren't...it wasn't something we were sure we...what difference does that make?" Daddy shouted. "We're telling you how things are now."
"Obviously," Cassie replied. "But why didn't you decide to do this years ago?"
"The truth is, Cassie, I've been trying to get pregnant for some time now. I've been to see fertility doctors and specialists, and finally, something has worked," Mother told her softly. She smiled. "With the two of you young adult women now, things will actually be much easier. You can help me take good care of the new baby, be like two little nannies. When you're able and free, of course," she added.
"Why shouldn't we be able and free?" Cassie retorted.
"Oh, you both will have your own busy lives, I'm sure. Actually, I'm not worried about it. It's a good time for me. I look forward to it," Mother added. She smiled at Daddy and took his hand again. "Of course, we're hoping...we'll soon know whether or not...if..."
"If it's a boy," Daddy said, smiling. He turned to Mother, and they looked at each other as if they were alone and both twenty years younger.
"We've already decided we will name him Asa. Nothing would please your father more," she told us.
They continued to look at each other with such love and gratitude that it brought tears to my eyes. I glanced at Cassie. She looked as if she would set the house on fire. She jerked her eyes toward me and I looked down quickly. Later, she told me our parents had no idea what they were getting themselves into, what they were getting us all into.
"I don't understand," I said. "Why do you say that?"
"This world we're in will be turned topsy-turvy," she said, "so get ready to stand on your head."
Then she marched off to her room and shut the door.
Which reminded me of Cassie's Third Commandment: Don't ever do anything to make her unhappy.
However, Cassie wasn't wrong. No matter what I thought about her and what I think about her now, she really wasn't wrong very often. Our house and our lives did start to change, but I didn't think they went topsy-turvy. On the contrary, to me, it was as if a brand-new sunlight was streaming in through our windows, lighting up the dullest corners, brightening colors, and making furniture and artifacts sparkle. I think Mother thought that, too, because she went about the grand house as if she were seeing it for the first time. During the next two months, she changed the arrangement of some furniture and worked harder at polishing and vacuuming and having Cassie and me polish and vacuum. She had window cleaners and rug cleaners, painters doing touch-ups. She bought new lamps and even some new kitchen appliances, and took more interest in our landscaping.
"Why is all of this suddenly so important? She acts as if the new Messiah is coming," Cassie muttered.
I nodded, not because I, too, saw it as being over the top but because I saw it as wonderful. Cassie looked at my face and added, "She's being ridiculous, behaving like some newlywed. If all of these things had to be done, why weren't they done for us as well?"
"Maybe they were," I dared to suggest. She pursed her lips and pulled back her head. "I mean, right before you were born and then right before I was."
"Nothing was changed then, Semantha. Daddy used to think this house was as sacred as a church. You know how he feels about our family's history. Most of it is exactly as it has been for nearly eighty years. No new bride, no matter how she was supposedly loved, would dare interfere with that. We are the Heavenstones!" she declared, as if that explained everything.
"Oh," I said.
Of course, I thought then, Why is Daddy permitting her to do all of this now? But I didn't dare ask. I didn't have to ask. Cassie was prepared to give me an explanation.
"Men," she continued in one of her loud whispers, "can suddenly become boys so easily and quickly that it would make your head spin. Their wisdom evaporates," she added with such confidence. It was as if she really was older than our parents, growing up so quickly that she had passed them by years ago. "They get so infatuated with their women that they'll fall over themselves trying to please them. Women are stronger when it comes to that sort of thing," she said, nodding. "You don't see as many making fools of themselves when they're older. There are some who do, of course, but not as often as men."
How do you know all this? I wanted to ask her. You never go out on a date. You've never had a boyfriend or, as far as I know, even had a crush on a boy. Did you learn it all from books? I didn't ask these questions, because I was sure she would see it as some disagreement, and I didn't want to do anything that would bring unhappiness into our home right now. Even I, who didn't know half as much as Cassie knew about the emotional and physical changes a woman goes through when she is pregnant, could see that Mother was often on the verge of tears for what looked to be no real reason whatsoever.
"We simply have to hope Daddy comes to his senses and reins in this wastefulness and unnecessary expense," Cassie concluded, but everything went contrary to what she hoped, especially when Mother and Daddy were told there was no questions about it: she was going to have a boy.
When they came home that day, it was as if they had won the biggest lottery. Daddy was practically floating, and Mother's face was so radiant she really did look twenty years younger. They talked about having a party to celebrate but agreed to be cautious and wait.
However, they now decided they were going to renovate one of the upstairs bedrooms to create Asa's nursery. Not only were carpenters, electricians, and plumbers brought in, but Mother decided, with Daddy's approval, of course, to hire an interior decorator.
"An interior decorator for a baby's nursery!" Cassie cried when she heard about it. She came rushing into my bedroom one Saturday morning to tell me.
I was seated at my vanity table, brushing my hair and thinking about Kent Pearson, who was in all of my ninth-grade classes except home economics. We had been classmates since the seventh grade, but suddenly, one day, when I looked at him, I saw him differently. He seemed to have become this handsome young man behind my back. He caught me looking at him with interest and blushed, but since that day, he had begun to pay more attention to me, finding every opportunity he could to talk or walk with me.
This caused me to wonder more deeply what it was that actually happened between a boy and a girl. Was it something magical, mysterious, or was it, as Cassie would probably say, simply the burst of hormones? If that were true, however, I'd have feelings like this for almost any boy, but I didn't. I thought only of Kent, dreamed only of Kent, and was excited to be only with Kent. Were we too young to have experienced love at first sight, even though it wasn't really our first sighting of each other?
"Did you hear what I said?" Cassie continued. She stood beside me with her arms folded under her breasts, her shoulders back.
Although Cassie was only two years older than I, she was nearly five inches taller and had what I had heard referred to as a full figure. She wasn't at all matronly-looking, even though she often acted as if there was not even a foot left in her journey to maturity. However, no one simply seeing her would think of her as anything but a pretty teenage girl. She didn't spend as much time on her hair and makeup, nor did she care as much for what was in fashion, as I did, but she never looked unkempt, and she did have our mother's perfect facial features, with the same exotic speckled green-blue eyes and light brown hair that glistened golden in the sunlight. She kept her hair shorter than mine and Mother's and wasn't fond of wearing earrings. She didn't want to pierce her ears, but when she heard Daddy compliment Mother on a pair of pierced earrings, she went ahead and had hers pierced and now always wore earrings.
"What? What? How can you sit there for hours and look at yourself? The way you brush your hair makes me think you're in some kind of a trance."
"I'm not sitting here for hours. Mother brushes hers this way and this much every day."
"Whatever. That's hardly important. Didn't you hear me? I said they've hired an interior decorator for the nursery. All they really have to do is put a crib and some other things in the bedroom, but now they're going to change the wallpaper, the floor, maybe even the ceiling, and definitely all the lighting fixtures. I heard them say that they may even replace the windows to make the room brighter! That means busting out walls!"
I nodded. I didn't know what to say. It all sounded fine with me.
"You know how much all that will cost? They'll spend more money on this nursery than most people spend redoing a whole house. Before our brother is even born, they're doting on him, spoiling him. You can just imagine what's going to happen when he is born."
I couldn't help but wonder if this was the sibling rivalry Mother had told me Cassie had had when I was born. If it was that, why didn't I have it, too?
"They're both so happy about it," I said.
She stared at me and then shook her head. "Listen to me, Semantha. Read my lips if you have to, but listen. Sure, they're happy now," she said, "but wait until they have to go through all that parents go through with infants, waking up all hours of the night, changing diapers, fighting baby rashes, worrying over every possible infant illness, doctor visits, on and on and on."
"They went through it with us," I reminded her.
"Are you a total zero, Semantha? They were both sixteen years younger then. They're so used to their own time and interests now, especially Mother. She, especially, will be overwhelmed. What it means is I'm going to have to do more, and so will you.
"Don't you realize what the age difference between Asa and us will be?" she continued so intensely that I could see the veins in her temples. "By the time he's ten, we'll both be well into our twenties, maybe going to graduate school or married. Why, people might even think he's my son and not my brother. They could even think it of you!"
"Oh, yes. I never thought of that," I said, and she calmed a little.
"In any case, who will be here to help raise him?" she added, nodding.
"They won't need us for that by then, will they?"
"Of course, they will. It's harder when children get older. You know what Daddy says: little children, little problems, big children...understand?"
I nodded, again not looking sufficiently upset for her.
"Okay. Just wait," she said. "You'll see."
She paused and looked at me in the mirror and squinted as if it was a window and not a mirror and she was looking at someone else some distance away.
"There's something different about you these days. What is it?" she demanded.
I raised my eyebrows and shrugged. "What?"
"I don't know. You're acting flighty, like you're always thinking about something else. I see the way you float through the halls and up and down the stairs like you're in some kind of a movie hearing your own theme music." She paused and narrowed her eyes again. "Are you interested in some boy? Is that it? Do you think you're in love? Well?"
"No," I said weakly. She smirked.
"Who is it? C'mon, out with it," she said. "Who is this love of your life?"
"I'm not in love."
"Semantha Heavenstone. This is your sister, Cassie, who's talking and to whom you're talking. You know we're too close for you to hide any secrets very long from me. Your forehead's like a neon sign flashing your thoughts. Well? Who?"
"Kent Pearson has been paying a lot of attention to me lately," I confessed. Just as she said, it was impossible for me to hide things from her.
"Kent Pearson," she repeated, chewing over her knowledge of him. "Yes, I know who he is. He has an older brother a year ahead of me, Brody. He's a very poor student. I heard he might not even graduate. As I recall, the Pearsons aren't very well off, either, so there's no money for tutors."
"Kent's very smart," I said. "He won't need a tutor."
"Um...be careful," she said. "Don't give him the impression that you like him too much."
"You might as well get used to the idea, Semantha. There will be many boys after you, hoping to get into this family and this wealth. That means you have to be extra, extra cautious."
"Is that why you don't have a boyfriend?" I asked, maybe too quickly.
"I haven't seen or heard anyone worthy of my interest yet," she replied without skipping a beat.
I wanted to ask her more about the boys in her class and the classes above hers. How could there be absolutely no one worth her interest? There were many boys from well-to-do families, families as respectable as ours, but before we could continue the discussion, we heard Mother calling on the intercom to tell us Uncle Perry had arrived.
"Great," Cassie said, dropping the corners of her lips. "He's here."
She was not nearly as fond of Uncle Perry as I was, and he knew it. I knew he was flamboyant and quite different from Daddy, but I enjoyed him, enjoyed what Mother called his joie de vivre. I couldn't remember a time when he had been unhappy or depressed. He always dressed in bright colors and wore glittering gold rings, bracelets, and necklaces. He often teased Daddy about his stuffy clothing, calling him too conservative, boring. Daddy merely shook his head, as if any comments Uncle Perry made were simply full of air.
I had to agree that he took after their mother more in his looks than he did their father. He was good-looking but in a pretty-boy sort of way, concerned about his complexion (he went to tanning salons), his hair (never out of style), and his nails (always manicured). He had eyelashes any woman would envy, a nose a little too small and dainty for a man, and thinner lips than Daddy's. Cassie and I had visited him in his townhouse in Lexington only twice, but both times, we were impressed with how neat and organized everything was. He paid great attention to the slightest detail. When Cassie looked at something such as a vase or a small statue and put it down just a few inches from where it had been, he immediately returned it to that place.
The second visit had occurred only a little more than a year ago, but when we left, Cassie leaned over in the limousine hired to take us and whispered, "I don't think he lives alone."
"What does that mean?"
"When I was in his bathroom, I looked in the cabinet and saw two different toothbrushes and different men's colognes. There were other clues," she added.
"Men's colognes? Don't you mean perfume if it's someone else?"
She smirked. "Hardly. Uncle Perry is gay, Semantha."
My face was surely awash in astonishment. That had never occurred to me, and I had never heard either Daddy or Mother say such a thing, even suggest it.
"Why do you think he has never brought a girlfriend to our house or even mentioned someone? Why is he still unmarried?"
"I thought he was simply a bachelor."
"Christmas trees, Semantha, you're so naive for your age, especially nowadays. Sometimes I wonder if Mother faked your birth and you were left on the doorstep. I suppose you've never noticed his pierced ear."
"He doesn't always wear it when he comes to our house, but next time we see him somewhere else, look at his right ear. The left is not pierced. Duh."
I shook my head, still amazed. "Wouldn't Daddy be upset?"
"Who says he isn't? He has simply chosen to ignore it, and Uncle Perry has the sense not to flaunt his homosexuality in Daddy's presence. It's a forbidden topic in our house, so don't dare mention it. You'd only upset Daddy."
"No, I would never..."
I remember thinking how slow I really was in comparison to Cassie. Was it simply her two additional years of age? Maybe I really had been left on the doorstep.
Regardless of what she had told me, I couldn't be any less warm to Uncle Perry. I thought he was truly a very creative man. He was in charge of the Heavenstone Department Stores' publicity and promotion as well as designing an entire line of Heavenstone fashions for both men and women and, lately, even children. The line was very successful.
We both went downstairs to join him, Daddy, and Mother. He had come for lunch but had also brought a portfolio of new fashion ideas for teenage girls and wanted our opinions. The three of them were in the living room, and Uncle Perry had his portfolio opened on the large glass coffee table. Mother was looking down at it, and Daddy was sitting in his favorite easy chair, puffing on his meerschaum pipe, which had been his father's.
Uncle Perry was wearing a bright blue blazer and light blue slacks with blue boat shoes. He wore a cravat and looked as if he had just stepped off the cover of a fashion magazine himself. The moment we entered, he brightened, but I felt he was looking mainly at me.
"Ah, the infamous Heavenstone sisters," he declared. Mother laughed. "Just in time, girls. I'd love for you to peruse my new creations. Your father has yet to groan or moan, which usually means I'm right on track or, as he would say, still in the black."
"Lucky is all you are," Daddy said.
"What difference does it make if the bottom line is where you want it, Teddy?"
Now Daddy grunted.
We both looked at the portfolio. Uncle Perry stepped back, and Cassie began to turn the pages. I thought everything looked terrific and couldn't wait for some of it.
"They look sloppy to me," Cassie said coldly.
"Sloppy is in, Cassie. You should know that better than I," Uncle Perry said, turning his attention to me. "Besides, it's not really sloppy. It looks like it's sloppy, but everything is coordinated, all the layered clothing, the shoes, the hats."
I nodded. "The girls in my class would love it all," I said. He beamed.
"She's right. The girls in her class would," Cassie said.
"Well, they are the ones with the discretionary income, according to our marketing analysis, Cassie," Uncle Perry said softly.
"I wouldn't buy them."
Uncle Perry held his smile, but I could see the pain in his eyes.
Cassie looked at Daddy and added, "But I don't follow the flock, so I'm not really a good judge when it comes to what will and won't sell. I'm sure all this will do fine."
"Thank you, Cassie. That's almost a compliment," Uncle Perry said, and Mother laughed.
Cassie was not one to blush or redden, but she did this time. It made my heart thump. Would she say something nasty? Uncle Perry turned back to me.
"In two months, you can start wearing some of this, Sam."
Sam was the nickname Uncle Perry had given me from the very first day he learned my name was Semantha. Mother thought it was cute. Daddy never told him not to call me that. In fact, I sometimes felt he wished he had come up with it first. Cassie hated it. Now that she had exposed Uncle Perry's sexual preferences, she would whisper later on, "He likes to turn everything into his way of seeing the world. Sam is more of a man's name. Get it?"
I shook my head.
"You will," she promised, and left it at that.
Later, at lunch, Uncle Perry talked about his upcoming vacation. He was going on a Caribbean cruise. He loved traveling and had gone to far more places than Daddy and Mother. Mother had many questions about his trip, but Daddy seemed reluctant to ask or hear any answers.
Cassie leaned over to whisper, "It's probably a gay men's cruise."
I nearly choked on my salmon.
"So," Uncle Perry said after Mother and Cassie had brought out coffee and some Danish for dessert, "how do you girls feel about having a new little brother?"
"How should we feel?" Cassie replied. The way she looked at him made it seem she really wanted to hear his answer. I could see it threw him off. He looked at Daddy and then smiled.
"I would imagine excited," he said.
"Well, of course," Cassie said. "And we're happy for our parents, too."
Uncle Perry nodded. He drank his coffee, glanced at me, and looked now as if he couldn't wait to be on his way. After lunch, however, Daddy took him to his office to discuss some business. Later, after we helped Mother clean up, Cassie told me to follow her up to her bedroom. Even though she closed the door behind us and we were far from anyone who could hear us, she still whispered.
"Now you should have no trouble understanding why Daddy wanted Mother to get pregnant so much."
"What do you mean?"
"Christmas trees, Semantha. Figure it out. Who will take over the Heavenstone Corporation in years to come? Not me, and certainly not you."
When I didn't respond, she raised her voice. "Uncle Perry will never have a son, much less a daughter, unless he adopts one, and that child won't have any Heavenstone blood in him!"
"Yes, oooooh." She flopped on her bed. "Every generation of Heavenstones has always had a male to take control of what had been built by his father and his father's father. Daddy must have nightmares about it. He's not happy with the prospect of some other, bigger corporation taking us over, but without a son, what else could happen? You see what Uncle Perry is like. Even if he outlived Daddy by years and years, he couldn't handle the responsibilities. He knows nothing about real business."
"But why couldn't you run the company someday, Cassie? You're the smartest girl I know."
"I don't want to," she replied sharply and slowly. "I'm more like...like a wife. Goodness knows, I do half of Mother's work here, don't I? Well? Don't I?"
"Yes, but I thought..."
She sighed and then looked at me harder. She nodded to herself.
"What?" I asked.
"I suppose you could, with great care and guidance, someday find the right man to marry, a man who might be able to be work in our corporation. But," she added, shaking her head, "I have grave doubts about your taste when it comes to the opposite sex. I see how infatuated you are with Kent Pearson. Don't deny it. He'll be lucky to attend a state university and probably won't have a head for business anyway, if he's anything like his brother. Therefore, even if you have a boy, he might not have the wherewithal to inherit control of our empire."
"Don't you see?" she cried. She actually pounded her own leg for emphasis, so hard it made me wince. "You can't just go flouting about with anyone who pees standing up."
"What?" I started to smile.
"Any boy, Semantha. You have to realize your responsibility to our heritage."
"What about you, Cassie? You might find the right man if I don't."
She looked away for a long moment. I thought she might have nothing else to say.
And then she whispered as if she were talking to herself, "I can't possibly leave Daddy, especially now."
Before I could ask her what she meant, we heard Mother calling us in the hallway. I went to the door.
"Your uncle Perry's leaving, girls. I just showed him Asa's nursery and some of the renovations."
I looked back at Cassie. "Uncle Perry's leaving."
"I'm devastated. Go say good-bye for me," she told me. Then she rose and went into her bathroom.
Her whispered words seemed stuck in my ears: "I can't possibly leave Daddy, especially now."
I would hear them often in my mind.
And I would struggle to understand them as if my life depended on it.
Little did I know that it actually did.
Copyright © 2010 by the Vanda General Partnership