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Such Devoted Sisters
By Eileen Goudge
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1992 Eileen Goudge
All rights reserved.
Annie lay in bed, staring at the dragon on her wall.
It wasn't a real dragon, only the shadow of one. Each of the tall posts on her Chinese bed was carved in the shape of a dragon, its tail starting at the mattress and twisting up, seeming to writhe almost, and ending at the top in a great snarling head with a forked tongue. She remembered when her mother had sent her the bed, for her fifth birthday, all the way from Hong Kong, where Dearie had been filming Slow Boat to China. She was sure it had never occurred to Dearie that such a scary-looking thing might give a little girl nightmares. But Annie hadn't been scared. The moment she saw it taken from its shipping crate and unwrapped amid a crackling burst of packing straw, she loved it. Dragons weren't afraid of anyone or anything ... and that's how she wanted to be.
But right now, peering wide-eyed into the darkness, Annie didn't feel quite so brave. She felt closer to seven than seventeen—a small, scared kid crouched under the covers like a rabbit in its burrow, afraid that something bad was about to happen.
Lying very still, she listened. All she could hear was the rapid thumping of her heart. Then the usual creaks of Bel Jardin settling into itself. Now it came to her, the sound that a moment ago she had thought, no, hoped she was only imagining: the low growl of Val's Alfa Romeo Spider as it sped up Chantilly Road. The sound of the sports car's engine grew louder, pausing, then there was a faint hiccough as it switched to low gear. Now rumbling up the curving crushed-shell drive.
Earlier tonight, when she was getting ready for bed, she'd heard her stepfather go out, and had felt light-headed with relief. She'd prayed he would stay out a long time, maybe all night. But now he was back. A cold fist of dread squeezed her stomach into a tight ball.
She sat up in bed, holding her pillow scrunched against her chest, nibbling on a thumbnail that was already bitten down to the quick. She'd always felt so safe here, in this room, and now somehow it was more like a cage ... or a baby's barred playpen. She looked about her, at the walls stenciled with Mother Goose characters, the dressing table with its ruffled chintz skirt, and the dollhouse that was an exact replica of Bel Jardin in miniature. Except for her dragon bed, a little girl's room, full of things she'd long ago outgrown. Had Dearie stopped noticing she'd grown up ... or was it just that when she drank, she hadn't cared?
Annie stared at the pale-blue bookcase—in the moonlight it looked white—filled with all her favorite childhood books. How she'd envied their heroines! Fearless Eloise and resourceful Madeline. Swashbuckling Pippi Longstocking. Laura Ingalls, girl pioneer. And her idol, Nancy Drew.
Nancy Drew would've figured out what to do, Annie thought. If Val tried to mess with her, she'd hit him over the head, get him arrested. Or she'd climb into her roadster and roar away off into the night.
Except Nancy Drew didn't have an eleven-year-old sister. A sister Annie had done everything for since she was in diapers, and whom Annie loved more than anyone or anything. The thought of leaving Laurel here alone with Val made her stomach ache even more, and caused her to chew her thumbnail harder. She tasted blood, warm and briny.
To calm herself, she went over the plan she had been mapping out in her head. Next time Val went out on a date or a job interview, she would pack two suitcases, one for her and one for Laurel. Then the two of them would run away. She'd gotten her license last year, and Dearie's stately old Lincoln was still parked in the garage. And she had the pearl necklace and diamond ear clips Dearie had given her, which she'd carefully hidden from Val. She could sell them, and use the money for food and gas.
But gas to go where? And what would they do once they got there? Who would hide them from Val? The only relative Annie had ever heard of—besides Uncle Rudy, who didn't count because he was Val's brother, and an even slimier creep besides—was Aunt Dolly, whom she hadn't seen or spoken to in ten or twelve years. Annie had a hazy memory of being at a sunny beach, Santa Monica or maybe Pacific Palisades, of a smiling lady with lemon-colored hair and shiny red lips helping her dig a hole to China.
What had become of her? Long, long ago, Annie remembered overhearing Dearie tell Val, a bitter, almost nasty note in her voice, that her sister, Doris, had gotten herself a rich husband and moved to the big apple, and good riddance. Annie had pictured her aunt as a worm burrowing into a gigantic apple. It wasn't until sixth or seventh grade that Annie found out the Big Apple was New York City. But was Aunt Dolly still in New York? Would she want to see her nieces? Probably not. For Dearie to have been so mad at her, there had to have been a good reason.
And even if they had a place to go, what about Val? Sure, she didn't belong to him; he wasn't her father. Her real father had died in a plane crash, so long ago she couldn't even remember what he looked like. No, Val wouldn't chase after her if she took off—they'd never gotten along. They didn't even like each other. But with Laurel, it would be different. Laurel was his flesh and blood. Not that he'd ever paid her much attention. She was like a toy to him, to be played with for ten minutes or so until he got bored, then handed over to someone else. Weeks went by when he hardly noticed her, then suddenly he'd scoop her onto his lap and tickle her until she cried, or feed her ice cream until she was sick. Still, he was her legal father. Annie's running away was one thing, but if she took Laurel, Annie knew Val would call it kidnapping.
Val might even try to have her arrested and thrown in jail. Annie felt her heart lurch in panic at the thought.
But what else could she do? She loved this great old house, with its Spanish-tiled roof and curlicued wrought iron, its pale-yellow stucco walls festooned in bougainvillea. In Spanish, Bel Jardin meant "beautiful garden," and even inside with all the windows shut, you could smell the honeysuckle and jasmine, and the fragrant, star-shaped blossoms of the lemon tree outside her window.
It made her ache to think of leaving, not just Bel Jardin, but her good friends Naomi Jenkins and Mallory Gaylord, too. And not being able to start college next week like she'd planned. Since kindergarten, she'd knocked herself out in school, getting so far ahead of her classmates that her fourth-grade teacher, in the middle of the year, had moved her up to fifth. The thought of college, and life beyond that—away from Dearie and Val—had kept her going all these years, like some fabulous mirage shimmering at the edge of an endless desert. At seventeen, she'd been the youngest in her graduating class at Green Oaks. She'd been accepted at Stanford ... but had turned it down in favor of UCLA. Partly because there wasn't enough money, she knew, for a college with an Ivy League tuition; but mostly so she could stay close to Laurel.
But to live here with Val? God, no, she'd rather die.
She remembered last night, and hugged herself tighter, shivering. Val following her upstairs and sitting on the end of her bed, saying he wanted to talk. She had gotten the creeps just looking at him, seated there like a great hulking polar bear. He didn't belong in her room; he filled up too much space, and seemed to take up all the air.
"Look," he'd launched right in, "I'm not gonna beat around the bush, you're not a kid anymore." His large hand shot out and closed over her wrist; then, to her horror, he drew her onto the bed beside him. "The thing is, we're broke."
Annie, shocked, had sat there as if frozen. He was so close, she could smell him. Under his perfumy aftershave, he smelled hot and sweaty, like after he lifted his weights. And the way he was looking at her made her feel as if her skin had shrunk two sizes.
"I had to let Bonita go," he went on. "Actually, she quit. I haven't paid her in three months."
Annie grew suddenly hot, burning with anger. "You spent everything we had?"
His eyes slid away from hers. "It wasn't like that. It didn't happen overnight. And it wasn't like we had money coming in. Your mother ... she hadn't made a picture in twelve years. And when the school folded ..." He shrugged. "You know how it is."
Val, who had a black belt, had started a karate school a couple of years ago, but like everything he did—being a real-estate broker, and then a foreign-car salesman—he'd screwed it up somehow.
"What's going to happen?" Annie made herself ask. She hated feeling so powerless, having to depend on him for things, food and money. If only she was old enough to be in charge!
He shrugged. "Sell the house, I guess. Rudy says we should be able to get a pretty good price for it, but we owe a lot too, so there won't be much left over."
Val's brother, Rudy, was a couple of years older than Val, short and ugly, but a lot smarter—a hotshot divorce lawyer. Val was always quoting Rudy, and wouldn't make a move without asking his brother's advice ... but Dearie had never liked or trusted Rudy, and thank goodness she'd been savvy enough to let someone else handle the trust money she'd years ago set aside for Annie and Laurel, fifty thousand each. The only bad thing was, Annie couldn't touch hers until her twenty-fifth birthday. Right now, that seemed eons away.
"We can look for something smaller," Val was saying. "Something closer to downtown ... where you can catch a bus to work."
"I'll be in school," Annie reminded him, struggling to keep her voice even. "I thought I'd pick up a part-time job on campus. Maybe in the cafeteria, or one of the bookstores."
"Yeah, well, here's the thing. Rudy is pretty sure he can set you up with something in his law office. Full-time. You can type, can't you?"
Suddenly, she understood. Now that he'd run through all their money, he wanted her to take Dearie's place. She would go to work, forget about college, support all three of them. And he was so obvious about it! She wanted to hit him, smash her fists into his smug face. But she could only sit there, trembling, speechless.
Val, mistaking her helpless rage for sorrow, put his arms around her, patting her clumsily as if he wanted to comfort her. "Yeah, I miss her, too," he murmured.
She tried to pull away, but he only squeezed tighter. Now the embrace became something more ... he was stroking the small of her back, her hip, his rough cheek pressed against hers, his breath warm and quick against her ear.
She felt sick.
Steeling herself, Annie gave him a hard push and jumped to her feet. A sweetish-sour taste filled her mouth. She really thought she might throw up.
"Excuse me, I have to brush my teeth." She said the first thing that popped into her head. Then she rushed into the bathroom and locked the door. She ran a hot bath and stayed in it for an hour, until her toes shrivelled into pale raisins.
When she got back to her room, Val was gone.
Today, all day, she had managed to avoid him. But now he was back, and if he felt like coming into her room again there was no lock on the door to stop him.
As if it were echoing her thoughts, Annie heard the front door slam downstairs, then the soft clacking of shoes against the tiled foyer. She sucked her breath in and held it until red spots swarmed before her eyes.
She could hear him climbing the stairs now, his footsteps heavy, measured, but muffled by the Oriental runner. Just beyond her door, the footsteps slowed ... then stopped. Her heart was pounding so hard, she was sure he would hear it.
Then, after what seemed to her like an eternity, she heard Val move on, the whisper of his shoes against the carpet growing fainter as he made his way toward the master suite at the far end of the corridor.
Annie let her breath out in a dizzying rush. She felt flushed and weak, as if she had a fever. And sticky with sweat. A swim, that's what she needed. And the pool would be perfect, cool and still.
Annie forced herself to wait until she was absolutely certain Val had to have gone to bed. Then she slipped out. In her nightgown, she tiptoed out into the hallway and made her way along the thick carpet toward the narrow servants' staircase that would take her down through the kitchen and sun porch, then out onto the patio.
Reaching the half-open door to Laurel's room, Annie paused, then slipped inside. Looking at her sister, asleep on her back, her small hands folded neatly across the blanket that covered her, Annie thought of the print her art teacher, Mr. Honeick, had shown in class last year. A famous painting, by an artist named Millais—of drowned Ophelia floating face- up in the water, her long golden hair drifting like seaweed about her still, white face. Annie's heart caught in her throat, and before she could stop herself, she was leaning forward, listening for Laurel's breathing.
There it was, but so soft it could have been a breeze blowing through the open window. Annie relaxed a little. Don't worry, Laurey. I won't let you down. I'll take care of you.
That time when Laurel had had scarlet fever, when she was two, came back to her in a hot rush, that morning she'd never forget, looking into her baby sister's crib, and finding Laurel gasping for air, her face purple, her tiny arms thrashing. Annie, only eight and scared out of her mind, snatched Laurel up and ran through the house, screaming for Dearie. She could feel Laurel's frail chest hitching desperately, making a horrible honking sound. Despite how little Laurel was, she was still too heavy for Annie, and kept slithering from her grasp.
She finally found Dearie, passed out on the living-room sofa, an empty brandy bottle on the coffee table in front of her, exhausted, probably, from being up all night with Laurel. Annie, sobbing, more scared than she'd ever been, had hit her, pushed her, shouted in her ear, trying to make her wake up. But Dearie wouldn't budge. There was no one else; it was Bonita's day off, and Val was gone. Annie, terrified, had thought, I'm just a kid, I can't do this, I can't save Laurey.
Then a voice inside her head commanded: Think.
She remembered a long time ago, when she herself had had a bad cough and stuffy chest, and Dearie had put her in a steamy bathtub, and how it had made her breathe easier.
Annie lugged Laurel into Dearie's big bathroom and cranked on the tub's hot-water tap. Then, sitting on the toilet with Laurel facedown across her knees, she began to pound on her back, praying that whatever was choking her would somehow pop out. Nothing so dramatic happened, but as steam billowed and stuck Laurel's hair to her scalp in wet clumps, her breath gradually began returning, and the awful purple color faded.
Then with a tremendous whoop, Laurel began to cry. She was going to be all right. Annie's face felt wet—from the steam, she thought; then she realized she was crying.
And she had realized something else, that she was Laurel's real mother, that God had meant for her to look after and protect her sister, always.
Now, she leaned over and lightly kissed her sister's dry, cool forehead. A weird thing about Laurel, she never sweated, not even on the hottest days. She always had that fresh, baby-powdery scent, like the little bundles of dried flowers wrapped in cheesecloth that Bonita tucked among the sheets in the linen closet.
Annie sweated like a pig. In phys ed, playing basketball, it embarrassed her, the way her T-shirt always stuck to her back only two minutes into the game. When she was taking a test, especially in math, her palms dripped, and the insides of her shoes turned to swamps. Even her hair sweated, for God's sake. Once, in the fourth grade, on Parents' Night, when they all had to clasp hands while singing "America the Beautiful," Joyce Leonardi had dropped Annie's in disgust, and wailed, "It's getting on me!"
Even now, her palms were sweating. Annie pushed her fingers through her hair, still a little shocked by its shortness. She'd hacked it off only last week, with Dearie's sewing scissors, and hadn't quite gotten used to the idea of not having long hair. Still, she wasn't sorry. For some reason, it had made her feel better, seeing all that dark hair clumped at her feet ... as if she were shedding an old skin, and making way for a new Annie, strong, shining, brave.
Excerpted from Such Devoted Sisters by Eileen Goudge. Copyright © 1992 Eileen Goudge. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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