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Chapter 1: Darkness Descends
"What's wrong? Why have you come for me?" I asked her.
Once I had arrived, she had simply started out of the principal's office and begun her stomp through the corridor to the exit for the parking lot. As usual she expected me to trail along like some obedient puppy.
She continued to walk, ignoring my questions. She always fixed herself on her purpose or destination as if she were a guided missile. Getting her to pause, turn or stop required the secret abort code only her own private demon knew and was reluctant to relinquish or reveal. You just had to wait her out, calm yourself down and be patient as difficult as that was. Grandmother Beverly could spread droplets of poison frustration on everyone around her like a lawn sprinkler.
But this was different. She had ripped me out of school and sent my head spinning. I would not be denied.
"Just let's get out of here," she said sharply, not looking at me. She lowered her voice and added, "I don't want anyone hearing about this, if I can help it."
My heart was racing now, galloping alongside my unbridled imagination.
"Your foolish father," she muttered. "I warned him. No one can say I didn't warn him."
We passed through the doors and headed toward her vintage Mercedes sedan.
"Grandmother," I cried, planting my feet firmly in the parking lot. "I'm not taking another step until you tell me exactly what is going on."
She paused finally and turned to me, hoisting those small shoulders like a cobra preparing for a deadly strike.
"Your mother has gone mad and you're the only one who can talk to her. I certainly can't. Of course, I can't reach your father," she said, "and there's no time to wait for him anyway. I don't want to call an ambulance if I can help it."
"You know how one thing leads to another and in this community there's enough gossip about this family as it is," she continued. "Maybe you can get her to stop."
"I can't even begin to describe it," she said, wagging her head as if her hair had been soaked. "Let's just get home," she insisted and hurried to get into the car. Now that she had sharpened my curiosity and raised the level of my anxiety like mercury in a thermometer, I rushed to get in as well.
Once I was seated, my head bowed with the panic I felt.
"I must tell you," she continued after starting the engine and pulling away from the school parking lot, "I have always felt your mother was unbalanced. She had tendencies I spotted from the first moment I set eyes on her. I warned Taylor about her minutes after he had brought her around for me and your grandfather to meet her.
"She was coming to see us for the first time, but she wore no makeup, draped herself in what looked to be little more than a black sheet, kept her hair miles too long like you do and had enough gloom in her eyes to please a dozen undertakers. She could have worked constantly as a professional mourner. I could count on my fingers how many times I've seen a smile on that face, and even if she did smile at me, it was the smile of a madwoman, her eyes glittering like little knives, her wry lips squirming back and into the corners of her cheeks like worms in pain. How many times have I asked myself what he could possibly have seen in such a woman?"
I had heard a similar lecture before.
"Maybe he was in love, Grandmother."
"Love," she spat as if the word put a bitter taste in her mouth. "How could he be in love with her?"
She glanced at me and then put her eyes back on the road. She was a good driver for someone in her early seventies, I thought, but then again, she was good at everything she did. Failure wasn't in her personal vocabulary.
"Your mother was certainly never what I would call beautiful. I'm not saying she doesn't have pleasing features, because she does, but she does nothing to enhance them. In fact, what she does is diminish them just like you do with that silly makeup you wear.
"Of course, it didn't help that she had the personality of a pallbearer. Believe me," she said, "that takes the light from your eyes, the glow from your smile. It's no wonder to me that she never made any friends. Who wants to listen to the music she likes or read those poems about loss and death and insanity? She has no social graces, doesn't care about nice clothes or jewelry. She was never interested in your father's work or helped him meet business associates."
"Then what do you think it was, Grandmother," I asked dryly, "a magic spell?"
"You think you're being facetious, I know, but let me tell you that woman can cast spells of sorts. I'll tell you what it was," she said, after a short pause, never wanting to admit to not knowing something. "She was probably his first love affair. Men, foolish men, often mistake sexual pleasure for love. Sex is like good food. You can eat it with anyone, Cinnamon. Remember that," she ordered.
"Then what's love?" I asked her.
"Love is commitment, responsibility, dedication. It requires maturity."
"Sounds boring," I said. "If that's love, I'll take good food."
She opened her mouth wide and glared at me, shaking her head.
"You'd better be careful of your thoughts," she admonished. "Insanity can be inherited, you know. The genes from our side of the family just might not be enough."
I wanted to laugh at her, but I kept thinking about what awaited me and how it might make her right.
No one could tell anything about the inhabitants of our home by simply driving up, especially this time of the day. The front faced east so that all morning the windows were turned into glittering slabs, impenetrable crystals, twisting, turning and reflecting the sunlight. In fact, if it wasn't a day for the gardeners, and today wasn't, there was a look of abandonment about the place. Our cars were always left in the rear, out of sight. Two tall weeping willows on the northeast end painted long shadows over one side of the structure, adding to the sense of desertion.
There was a swing under a maple tree to the right on the west side. I noticed it was going back and forth, which made me smile. Anyone looking at it would be convinced there was a ghost sitting on it. I imagined one myself, one of the Demerest girls, smiling.
Fall had just lifted its head and begun to blow the cooler winds over the landscape, waving a magical hand to change the greens into yellows, browns and oranges. The grass, however, seemed happier, waking to heavier dews every morning. It was a deeper green. I loved the aroma of freshly cut lawns, the freshness traveled into my brain and washed away the cobwebs and shadows from my darker thoughts.
As Grandmother Beverly turned up the drive, she finally revealed the situation in detail.
"I was in the living room, watching a good Cary Grant movie, when I heard her humming in the hallway. What is she doing downstairs? I wondered. The doctor had specifically told her that if she was going home, she was to remain in bed, resting, getting stronger. I offered to be her nurse, to march up and down those stairs as many times as need be, so she couldn't use that as any excuse.
"But your mother never listens to wiser voices. She hears only what she wants to hear. Secret voices out of the shadows," she muttered.
"Anyway, I went to the family room doorway. At first, I didn't see her. Then I heard her talking to her plants."
She paused, smirked and shook her head.
Mommy often spoke aloud to her plants as if they were her little children. She said when she was sad, which was far too often, the leaves were limp and dreary, but when she was happy, they were crisp and alive.
Anyway, I didn't think much of that.
"She's always talking to flowers, Grandmother. Many people do that."
"She was standing there in the hallway, watering those plants naked, and she was using a bed pan to water them," she said, her voice rising. "Who even knows if it was water?"
I felt the blood drain a bit from my face and looked at the house as we started around back.
"But that wasn't the horror of it, Cinnamon. 'What are you doing, Amber?' I asked, and she turned slowly toward me, a crazed smile on her face."
Grandmother stopped the car and turned to me before shutting off the engine.
"Over her stomach, with a stick of red lipstick, she had drawn the outline of a baby, a fetus!" she cried with a grimace. "I screamed, 'Oh, my God!' I nearly fainted at the sight, but she continued to smile at me and then went back to watering the plants, humming and watering.
"So, I got into the car and went for you."
I swallowed back the rock that had risen into my throat and got out of the car. All I could think of was Ophelia's mad scene in Hamlet. With my head down, my feet feeling like they had turned into marshmallows, I charged toward the rear entrance and quickly went inside, through the rear entryway and down the corridor to the stairway, gazing in each room to be sure Mommy wasn't downstairs.
Then I pounded up the stairs and paused when I reached the top. I could hear her humming and talking to herself. It was coming from the room that had been set up to be the nursery. Slowly, I approached it and looked in. It was just as Grandmother Beverly had described: Mommy was naked, the imaginary baby crudely drawn over her stomach in her apple red lipstick.
She was folding and unfolding the same little blanket at the side of the bassinet.
"Mommy," I said.
She stopped humming and looked at me.
"Cinnamon, you're home. Good. I was having labor pains this morning. It won't be long now," she said.
"Labor pains? But Mommy -- "
"It's expected, I know, but it's still very difficult, Cinnamon. Most wonderful things are difficult," she muttered, "and worth the pain," she added with a new smile.
How could she have forgotten she had just had a miscarriage? It was so sad, so tragic, I thought, and then: Maybe that's why she's forgotten. She doesn't want to remember. She and I have done so much pretending in this house. This comes easily to her.
"Mommy, you've got to return to bed."
"I will as soon as I do this. I want everything to be ready when we come home with little Sacha," she said, gazing around the nursery.
"Come back to bed, Mommy," I said, moving to her. I gently took her by the elbow. She smiled at me and put the blanket in the bassinet.
"My grown-up little lady, taking care of me. You're going to be such a big help with Sacha, I know. I'm as happy for you as I am for Daddy and me," she said. "Did you know I always wished I had a sister, especially a little sister who would look up to me for everything?
"Sacha's going to idolize you, Cinnamon. She'll want to do everything you do just the way you do it, I'm sure. You mustn't be short with her or impatient," she warned, her face full of concern. "Always remember she's just a little girl who doesn't understand. Explain things; make sure you and she always talk and never hide anything from each other. A sister can be your best friend in the whole world, even more than your mother. I'm sure mine would have been."
She started out with me, but she didn't stop talking.
"It's all right for her to be a better friend to you than I am. I'll never be jealous of the two of you, honey. I realize you will have more in common with her than you will with me. You don't ever have to worry about that."
"Please get into bed, Mommy," I said when we entered the master bedroom.
Mommy and Daddy had a king-size, oak four-post bed with an oversized headboard on which two roses with their stems crossed were embossed. Mommy loved roses. The comforter and the pillow cases had a pattern of red roses, which made the room cheerful. When they were younger and more affectionate toward each other, I used to think of their bed as a bed that promised its inhabitants magical love, a bed that filled their heads with wonderful dreams when they slept afterward, both of them, smiling, contented, warm and secure, those four posts like powerful arms protecting them against any of the evil spirits that sought to invade their contentment.
I pulled back the comforter and she got into the bed, slowly lowering her head to the pillow. She was still smiling.
"I want you to help take care of her right from the start, honey. You'll be her second mother, just as Agatha Demerest was a second mother to her younger brothers and sisters," she said. "Remember?"
Mommy was referring to a story she and I had actually created during one of our earliest visits to the attic.
When I was a little more than fourteen, she decided one day that we should explore the house. She had been up in the attic before, of course, and told me that shortly after she and Daddy had moved into the house, she had discovered an old hickory chest with hinges so rusted, they fell off when she lifted the lid. The chest was filled with things that went back to the 1800s. She had been especially intrigued by the Demerest family pictures. Most were faded so badly you could barely make out the faces, but some of them were still in quite good condition.
Daddy, who works on Wall Street and puts a monetary value on everything in sight, decided that much of the stuff could be sold. He took things like the Union army uniform, old newspapers, a pair of spurs and a pistol holster to New York to be valued and later placed in a consignment store, but Mommy wouldn't let him take the pictures.
"I told him family pictures don't belong in stores and certainly don't belong on the walls of strangers. These pictures should never leave this house and they never will," she vowed to me.
She and I would look at the women and the men and try to imagine what they must have been like, whether they were sad or happy people, whether they suffered or not. We did our role-playing and I would assume the persona of one of the women in a picture. Mommy would often be Jonathan Demerest, speaking in a deep voice. That was when we came up with the story of Agatha Demerest having to take on the role of mother when her mother died of smallpox.
But Mommy was talking about it now as if it were historical fact and we had no concrete information upon which to base our assumptions, except for the dates carved in a couple of tombstones.
"Okay, Mommy," I said. I was thinking about washing the lipstick drawing off her stomach, but I was afraid even to mention it.
I have to try to get in touch with Daddy, I thought.
"Oh," Mommy suddenly cried. "Oh, oh, oh, Cinnamon, it's happening again!" She clutched her stomach. "It's getting worse. I'm going into labor. You'd better call the doctor, call an ambulance, call your father," she cried.
She released a chilling scream that shook my very bones.
I didn't know what to do. I ran from the room. Grandmother Beverly was already at the top of the stairway.
"What is it?" she asked, her hand on her breast, her face whiter than ever.
"She thinks she's in labor. I think she really is in pain!"
"Oh dear, dear. We'll have to call the doctor. I was hoping you could calm her down, get her to sleep and be sane," she said. Another scream from Mommy spun her around and sent her fleeing down the stairway.
Mommy continued to moan.
I glanced at my watch. Daddy had to be at his desk. Why did Grandmother Beverly say before that she certainly couldn't reach him? He should be easy to reach.
I rushed to my room and tapped out the number for his office quickly. It rang and rang until his secretary finally picked up and announced his company.
"I need to speak to my father immediately," I practically screamed.
Mommy was crying out even louder now, her shouts of pain echoing down the hallway and through the house.
"He's not here at the moment," the secretary said.
"But he has to be. The market is still open."
"I'm sorry," she said.
"Where is he?"
"He didn't leave a number," she said.
"It's an emergency," I continued.
"Let me see if he answers his page," she relented. Why hadn't she said that first? I wondered. I held on, my heart pounding a drum in my ears.
"I'm sorry," she said. "He's not responding."
"Keep trying and if you get him, tell him my mother is being taken to the hospital."
"The hospital? Oh, dear. Oh," she said. "Yes, I'll keep trying."
I hung up just as Grandmother Beverly came up the stairs, looking more her age.
"The doctor has called the ambulance," she said. She swallowed and continued. "It's no use. She has to return to the hospital. When I told him what she had done, he said he'd have her brought to the mental ward."
"Of course. Look at her behavior. That's exactly where she belongs," she added with that damnable look of self-satisfaction I hated so much.
She put her hands over her ears, but Mommy's heart-wrenching scream drove Grandmother Beverly back down the stairs to wait.
I was hoping it would drive her out of our lives.
Copyright © 2001 by the Vanda General Partnership