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Free, at Last!
How young we were the day we escaped. How exuberantly alive we should have felt to be freed, at last, from such a grim, lonely and stifling place. How pitifully delighted we should have been to be riding on a bus that rumbled slowly southward. But if we felt joy, we didn't show it. We sat, all three, pale, silent, staring out the windows, very frightened by all we saw.
Free. Was ever a word more wonderful than that one? No, even though the cold and bony hands of death would reach out and drag us back, if God wasn't up there somewhere, or maybe down here on the bus, riding with us and looking out for us. At some time in our life we had to believe in someone.
The hours passed with the miles. Our nerves grew frazzled because the bus stopped often to pick up and let off passengers. It stopped for rest breaks, for breakfast, then to pick up a single huge black lady who stood alone where a dirt road met the concrete interstate. It took her forever to pull herself onto the bus, then lug inside the many bundles she carried with her. Just as she was finally seated, we passed over the state line between Virginia and North Carolina.
Oh! The relief to be gone from that state of our imprisonment! For the first time in years, I began to relax -- a little.
We three were the youngest on the bus. Chris was seventeen years old and strikingly handsome with long, waving blond hair that just touched his shoulders, then curled upward. His darkly fringed blue eyes rivaled the color of a summer sky, and he was in personality like a warm sunny day -- he put on a brave face despite the bleakness of our situation. His straight and finely shaped nose had just taken on the strength and maturity that promised to make him all that our father had been -- the type of man to make every woman's heart flutter when he looked her way, or even when he didn't. His expression was confident; he almost looked happy. If he hadn't looked at Carrie he might have even been happy. But when he saw her sickly, pale face, he frowned and worry darkened his eyes. He began to pluck on the strings of the guitar strapped to his shoulder. Chris played "Oh Susannah," singing softly in a sweet melancholy voice that touched my heart. We looked at each other and felt sad with the memories the tune brought back. Like one we were, he and I. I couldn't bear to look at him for too long, for fear I would cry.
Curled up on my lap was my younger sister. She didn't look older than three, but she was eight years old and small, so pitifully small, and weak. In her large, shadowed blue eyes fingered more dark secrets and sufferings than a child her age should know. Carrie's eyes were old, very, very old. She expected nothing: no happiness, no love, nothing -- for all that had been wonderful in her life had been taken from her. Weakened by apathy, she seemed willing to pass from life into death. It hurt to see her so alone, so terribly alone now that Cory was gone.
I was fifteen. The year was 1960, and it was November. I wanted everything, needed everything, and I was so terribly afraid I'd never in an my life find enough to make up for what I had already lost. I sat tense, ready to scream if one more bad thing happened. Like a coiled fuse attached to a time bomb, I knew that sooner or later I would explode and bring down all those who lived in Foxworth Hall!
Chris laid his hand on mine, as if he could read my mind and knew I was already thinking about how I would bring hell to those who had tried to destroy us.
He said in a low voice, "Don't look like that, Cathy. It's going to be all right. We'll get by."
He was still the eternal cockeyed optimist, believing, despite everything, that whatever happened was for the best! God, how could he think so when Cory was dead? How could that possibly be for the best?
"Cathy," he whispered, "we have to make the most of what we have left, and that is each other. We have to accept what's happened and go on from there. We have to believe in ourselves, our talents, and if we do, we will get what we want. It works that way, Cathy, really it does. It has to!"
He wanted to be a dull, staid doctor who spent his days in small examination rooms, surrounded by human miseries. I wanted something far more fanciful -- and a mountain of it! I wanted all my star-filled dreams of love and romance to be fulfilled -- on the stage, where I'd be the world's most famous prima ballerina; nothing less would do! That would show Momma!
Damn you, Momma! I hope Foxworth Hall burns to the ground! I hope you never sleep a comfortable night in that grand swan bed, never again! I hope your young husband finds a mistress younger and more beautiful than you! I hope he gives you the hell you deserve!
Carrie turned to whisper: "Cathy, I don't feel so good. My stomach, it feels funny...." I was seized by fear. Her small face seemed unnaturally pale; her hair, once so bright and shining, hung in dull, lank strings. Her voice was merely a weak whisper.
"Darling, darling." I comforted and then kissed her. "Hang on. We're taking you to a doctor soon. It won't be so long before we reach Florida and there we'll never be locked up."
Carrie slumped in my arms as I miserably stared out at the dangling Spanish moss that indicated we were now in South Carolina. We still had to pass through Georgia...It would be a long time before we arrived in Sarasota. Violently Carrie jerked upright and began to choke and retch.
I'd judiciously stuffed my pockets with paper napkins during our last rest break, so I was able to clean up Carrie. I handed her over to Chris so I could kneel on the floor to clean up the rest. Chris slid over to the window and tried to force it open to throw out the sodden paper napkins. The window refused to budge no matter how hard he pushed and shoved. Carrie began to cry.
"Put the napkins in the crevice between the seat and the side of the bus," whispered Chris, but that keeneyed bus driver must have been watching through his rear-view mirror, for he bellowed out, "You kids back there -- get rid of that stinking mess some other way!" What other way but to take everything from the outside pocket of Chris's Polaroid camera case, which I was using as a purse, and stuff the smelly napkins in there.
"I'm sorry," sobbed Carrie as she clung desperately to Chris. "I didn't mean to do it. Will they put us in jail now?"
"No, of course not," said Chris in his fatherly way. "In less than two hours we'll be in Florida. Just try to hang on until then. If we get off now we'll lose the money we've paid for our tickets, and we don't have much money to waste."
Carrie began to whimper and tremble. I felt her forehead and it was clammy, and now her face wasn't just pale, but white! Like Cory's before he had died.
I prayed that just once God would have some mercy on us. Hadn't we endured enough? Did it have to go on and on? While I hesitated with the squeamish desire to vomit myself, Carrie let go again. I couldn't believe she had anything left. I sagged against Chris while Carrie went limp in his arms and looked heartbreakingly near unconsciousness. "I think she's going into shock," whispered Chris, his face almost as pale as Carrie's.
This was when a mean, heartless passenger really began to complain, and loudly, so the compassionate ones looked embarrassed and undecided as to what to do to help us. Chris's eyes met mine. He asked a mute question -- what were we to do next?
I was beginning to panic. Then, down the aisle, swaying from side to side as she advanced toward us, came that huge black woman smiling at us reassuringly. She had paper bags with her which she held for me to drop the smelly napkins in. With gestures but no words she patted my shoulder, chucked Carrie under the chin and then handed me a handful of rags taken from one of her bundles. "Thank you," I whispered, and smiled weakly as I did a better job of cleaning myself, Carrie and Chris. She took the rags and stuffed them in the bag, then stood back as if to protect us.
Full of gratitude, I smiled at the very, very fat woman who filled the aisle with her brilliantly gowned body. She winked, then smiled back.
"Cathy," said Chris, his expression more worried than before, "we've, got to get Carrie to a doctor, and soon!"
"But we've paid our way to Sarasota!"
"I know, but this is an emergency."
Our benefactor smiled reassuringly, then she leaned over to peer into Carrie's face. She put her large black hand to Carrie's clammy brow, then put her fingers to her pulse. She made some gestures with her hands which puzzled me, but Chris said, "She must not be able to talk, Cathy. Those are the signs deaf people make." I shrugged to tell her we didn't understand her signs. She frowned, then whipped from a dress pocket beneath a heavy red sweater she wore a pad of multicolored sheets of notepaper and very swiftly she wrote a note which she handed to me.
My name Henrietta Beech, she'd written, Can hear, but no talk. Little girl is very, very sick and need good doctor. I read this, then looked at her hoping she'd have more information. "Do you know of a good doctor?" I asked. She nodded vigorously, then quickly dashed off another green note. Your good fortune I be on your bus, and can take you to my own doctor-son who is very best doctor.
"Good golly," murmured Chris when I handed him the note, "we sure must be under a lucky star to have someone to direct us to such a doctor."
"Look here, driver," yelled the meanest man on the bus. "Get that sick kid to a hospital! Damned if I paid my good money to ride on a stinking bus!"
The other passengers looked at him with disapproval, and I could see in the rear-view mirror that the driver's face flushed with anger, or perhaps it was humiliation. In the mirror our eyes met. He lamely called to me. "I'm sorry but I've got a wife and five kids and if I don't keep my schedules, then my wife and kids won't eat, because I'll be out of a job." Mutely I pleaded with my eyes, making him mumble to himself, "Damn Sundays. Let the week days go by just fine, then comes Sunday, damn Sundays."
This was when Henrietta Beech seemed to have heard enough. Again she picked up her pencil and notepad and wrote. This note she showed to me.
Okay, man in driver's seat who hates Sundays. Keep on ignoring little sick girl, and her parents will sue big shot bus owners for two million!
No sooner had Chris had the chance to skim this note than she was waddling up the aisle and she pushed the note into the driver's face. Impatiently he shoved it away, but she thrust it forward again, and this time he made an attempt to read it while keeping one eye on the traffic.
"Oh, God," sighed the driver whose face I could clearly see in the mirror. "The nearest hospital is twenty miles off my route."
Both Chris and I watched, fascinated, as the mammoth black lady made gestures and signals that left the driver as frustrated as we had been. Once again she had to write a note, and whatever she wrote in that one soon had him turning the bus off the wide highway onto a side road that led into a city named Clairmont. Henrietta Beech stayed with the driver, obviously giving him instructions, but she took the time to look back at us and shine on us a brilliant smile, assuring us that everything would be just fine.
Soon we were rolling along quiet, wide streets with trees that arched gracefully overhead. The houses I stared at were large, aristocratic, with verandas and towering cupolas. Though in the mountains of Virginia it had already snowed once or twice, autumn had not yet laid a frosty hand here. The maples, beeches, oaks and magnolias still held most of their summer leaves, and a few flowers still bloomed.
The bus driver didn't think Henrietta Beech was directing him right, and to be honest I didn't think she was either. Really, they didn't put medical buildings on this kind of residential street. But just as I was beginning to get worried, the bus jerked to a sudden halt in front of a big white house perched on a low, gentle hill and surrounded by spacious lawns and flower beds.
"You kids!" the bus driver bellowed back to us, "pack your gear, turn in your tickets for a refund, or use them before the time limit expires!" Then quickly he was out of the bus and opening up the locked underbelly, and from there he pulled out forty or so suitcases before he came to our two. I slung Cory's guitar and banjo over my shoulders, as Chris very gently, and with a great deal of tenderness, lifted Carrie in his arms.
Like a fat mother hen, Henrietta Beech hustled us up the long brick walk to the front veranda and there I hesitated, staring at the house, the double black doors. To the right a small sign read FOR PATIENTS ONLY. This was obviously a doctor who had offices in his own home. Our two suitcases were left back in the shade near the concrete sidewalk while I scanned the veranda to spy a man sleeping in a white wicker chair. Our good Samaritan approached him with a wide smile before she gently touched him on the arm, and when he still slept on she gestured for us to advance and speak for ourselves. Next she pointed to the house, and made signals to indicate she had to get inside and prepare a meal for us to eat.
I wished she'd stayed to introduce us, to explain why we were on his porch on Sunday. Even as Chris and I stole on cautious pussywillow feet toward him, even as I filled with fear I was sniffing the air filled with the scent of roses and feeling that I'd been here before and knew this place. This fresh air perfumed with roses was not the kind of air I'd grown to expect as the kind deemed worthy for such as me. "It's Sunday, damn Sunday," I whispered to Chris, "and that doctor may not appreciate our being here."
"He's a doctor," said Chris, "and he's used to having his spare time robbed...but you can wake him up."
Slowly I approached. He was a large man wearing a pale gray suit with a white carnation in his buttonhole. His long legs were stretched out and lifted to the top of the balustrade. He looked rather elegant, even sprawled out as he was with his hands dangling over the arms of the chair. He appeared so comfortable it seemed a terrible pity to awaken him and put him back on duty.
"Are you Dr. Paul Sheffield?" asked Chris who had read the sign with the doctor's name. Carrie lay in his arms with her neck arched backwards, her eyes closed and her long golden hair waving in the soft, warm breezes. Reluctantly the doctor came awake. He stared at us long moments, as if disbelieving his eyes. I knew we looked strange in our many layers of clothing. He shook his head as if trying to focus his eyes, and such beautiful hazel eyes they were, bejeweled with flecks of blue, green and gold on soft brown. Those remarkable eyes drank me in, then swallowed me down. He appeared dazzled, slightly drunk, and much too sleepy to put on his customary professional mask that would keep him from darting his eyes from my face to my breasts, then to my legs before he scanned slowly upward. And again he was hypnotized by my face, my hair. It was hair that was far too long, I knew that, and it was clumsily cut on top, and too pale and fragile on the ends.
"You are the doctor, aren't you?" demanded Chris.
"Yes, of course. I'm Dr. Sheffield," he finally said, now turning his attention to Chris and Carrie. Surprisingly graceful and quick, he lifted his legs from the railing, rose to his feet to tower above us, ran long fingers through the mop of his dark hair, and then stepped closer to peer down into Carrie's small, white face. He parted her closed lids with forefinger and thumb and looked for a moment at whatever was revealed in that blue eye. "How long has this child been unconscious?"
"A few minutes," said Chris. He was almost a doctor himself, he'd studied so much while we were locked away upstairs. "Carrie threw up on the bus three times, then began to tremble and feel clammy. There was a lady on the bus named Henrietta Beech, and she brought us here to you."
The doctor nodded, then explained that Mrs. Beech was his housekeeper-cook. He then led us to the door for patients only, and into a section of the house with two small examination rooms and an office, all while apologizing for not having his usual nurse available. "Take off all Carrie's clothes but her underpants," he ordered me. While I set about doing this, Chris dashed back to the sidewalk to fetch our suitcases.
Full of a thousand anxieties, Chris and I backed up against a wall and watched as the doctor checked Carrie's blood pressure, her pulse, her temperature and listened to her heart, front and back. By this time Carrie had come around so he could request her to cough. All I could do was wonder why everything bad had happened to us. Why was fate so persistently against us? Were we as evil as the grandmother had said? Did Carrie have to die too?
"Carrie," said Dr. Sheffield pleasantly after I had dressed her again, "we're going to leave you in this room for a while so you can rest." He covered her with a thin blanket. "Now don't be afraid. We'll be right down the hall in my office. I know that table isn't too soft, but do try and sleep while I talk to your brother and sister."
She gazed at him with wide, dull eyes, not really caring if the table was hard or soft.
A few minutes later Dr. Sheffield was seated behind his big impressive desk with his elbows on the blotter pad, and that's when he began to speak earnestly and with some concern. "The two of you look embarrassed and ill-at-ease. Don't be afraid you're depriving me of Sunday fun and games, for I don't do much of that. I'm a widower, and Sunday for me is no different than any other day...."
Ah, yes. He could say that, but he looked tired, as if he worked too many long hours. I perched uneasily on the soft brown leather sofa, close by Chris. The sunlight filtering through the windows fell directly on our faces while the doctor was in the shadows. My clothes felt damp and miserable, and suddenly I remembered why. Quickly I stood to unzip and remove my filthy outer skirt. I felt quite pleased to see the doctor start in surprise. Since he'd left the room when I undressed Carrie, he didn't realize that I had two dresses on underneath. When I sat again next to Chris, I wore only one dress of blue, princess styled, and it was flattering and unsoiled.
"Do you always wear more than one outfit on Sundays?" he asked.
"Only on the Sundays I run away," I said. "And we have only two suitcases and need to save room for the valuables we can hock later on when we have to." Chris nudged me sharply, mutely signaling I was revealing too much. But I knew about doctors, from him mostly. That doctor behind the desk could be trusted -- it was in his eyes. We could tell him anything, everything.
"Sooo," he drawled, "you three are running away. And just what are you running from? Parents who offended you by denying you some privileges?"
Oh, if he only knew! "It's a long story, Doctor," said Chris, "and right now all we want to hear about is Carrie."
"Yes," he agreed, "you're right. So we'll talk about Carrie." A professional now, he continued, "I don't know who you are, or where you're from, or why you feel you have to run. But that little girl is very, very ill. If this weren't Sunday, I'd admit her to a hospital today for further tests I can't make here. I suggest you contact your parents immediately."
Just the words to make me panic!
"We're orphans," said Chris. "But don't worry about not being paid. We can pay our own way."
"It's good you have money," said the doctor. "You're going to need it." He swept long, observant looks over both of us, sizing us up. "Two weeks in a hospital should be sufficient to discover the factor in your sister's illness I can't quite put my finger on." And while we gasped, stunned that Carrie was that sick, he made an approximate guess as to the amount of money it would cost. Again we were stunned. Dear God! Our stolen cache of money wouldn't even pay for one week, much less two.
My eyes clashed with the appalled look in Chris's blue eyes. What would we do now? We couldn't pay that much.
The doctor easily read our situation. "Are you still orphans?" he asked softly.
"Yes, we're still orphans," stated Chris defiantly, then glanced hard at me to let me know I was to keep my trap shut. "Once you're an orphan you stay that way. Now, tell us what you suspect is wrong with our sister, and what you can do to make her well again."
"Hold up there young man. First you have to answer a few questions." His was a soft voice, but firm enough to let us know he was in command here. "First, what is your last name?"
"I am Christopher Dollanganger, and this is my sister, Catherine Leigh Dollanganger, and Carrie is eight years old, whether or not you believe it!"
"Why shouldn't I believe it?" the doctor asked mildly, when just a few minutes ago in the cubelike examination room, he'd shown shock to hear her age.
"We realize Carrie is very small for her age," said Chris defensively.
"Indeed she is small." He flicked his eyes to me when he said this, then to my brother, and leaned forward on his crossed arms in a friendly, confidential manner that made me tense in preparation. "Now look. Let's stop being suspicious of one another. I'm a doctor, and anything you confide to me will remain in my confidence.
"If you really want to help your sister, you can't sit there and make up lies. You have to give me the truth, or else you're wasting my time and risking Carrie's life."
We both sat silent, holding hands, our shoulders pressed one against one other. I felt Chris shudder, so I shuddered too. We were so scared, so damned scared to speak the full truth -- for who would believe? We'd trusted those who were supposedly honorable before so how could we trust again? And yet, that man behind the desk...he looked so familiar, like I'd seen him before. "All right," he said, "if it's that difficult, let me ask more questions. Tell me what all three of you ate last."
Chris sighed, relieved. "Our last meal was breakfast very early this morning. We all ate the same thing, hot dogs with everything, french fries dipped in catsup, and then chocolate milkshakes. Carrie ate only a little of her meal. She's very picky about food under the best of circumstances. I'd say she's never really had a healthy appetite. "
Frowning, the doctor noted this down. "And all three of you ate exactly the very same things for breakfast? And only Carrie was nauseated?"
"Right. Only Carrie."
"Is Carrie often nauseated?"
"Occasionally, not often."
"Well..." said Chris slowly, "Carrie threw up twice last week, and about five times last month. It's worried me a lot; her attacks seem to be growing more violent as they come more often."
Oh, the evasive way Chris was telling about Carrie made me really furious! He would protect our mother even now, after all she'd done. Maybe it was my expression that betrayed Chris and made the doctor lean my way, as if he knew he'd hear a more complete story from me. "Look, you came to me for help, and I'm willing to do what I can, but you aren't giving me a fair chance if you don't give me all the facts. If Carrie hurts inside, I can't look inside to see where it is -- she has to tell me, or you have to tell me. I need information to work with -- full information. Already I know Carrie is malnourished, underexercised and underdeveloped for her age. I see that all three of you have enlarged pupils. I see you are all pale, thin and weak looking. Nor can I understand why you hesitate about money when you wear watches that look quite expensive, and someone has chosen your clothes with taste and considerable cost -- though why they fit so poorly is beyond my speculations. You sit there with gold and diamond watches, wearing rich clothes and shoddy sneakers, and tell me half-truths. So now I'm going to tell you a few full truths!" His voice grew stronger, more forceful. "I suspect your small sister is dangerously anemic. And because she is anemic she is susceptible to myriad infections. Her blood pressure is dangerously low. And there is some elusive factor I can't put my finger on. So, tomorrow Carrie will be admitted to a hospital, whether or not you call your parents, and you can hock those wristwatches to pay for her life. Now...if we admit her to the hospital this evening, the tests can begin early tomorrow morning.
"Do what you feel necessary," said Chris dully.
"Wait a minute!" I cried, jumping to my feet and moving swiftly to the doctor's desk. "My brother isn't telling you everything!" I threw Chris a hard glance over my shoulder, while he shot his fierce look to forbid me to reveal the whole truth. I thought bitterly, don't worry, I'll protect our precious mother as much as I can!
I think Chris understood, for tears came to his eyes. Oh, how much that woman had done to hurt him, hurt all of us, and he could still cry for her sake. His tears put tears in my heart too, not for her, but for him, who'd loved her so well, and for me who loved him so well, and tears for all we'd shared and suffered....
He nodded, as if saying okay, go ahead, and then I began to tell what must have seemed to the doctor an incredible tale. At first I could tell he thought I was lying, or at least exaggerating. Why was that when every day the newspapers told terrible tales of what loving, caring parents did to their children?
"...And so, after Daddy was in that fatal accident, Momma came and told us she was deeply in debt, and she had no way to earn a living for the five of us. She began writing letters to her parents in Virginia. At first they didn't reply, but then one day a letter came. She told us her parents lived in a fine, rich house in Virginia and were fabulously wealthy, but because she had married her half-uncle she'd been disinherited. Now we were going to lose everything we owned. We had to leave our bicycles in the garage, and she didn't even give us time to say good-bye to our friends, and that very evening we set off on a train headed for the Blue Ridge Mountains.
"We felt happy to be going to a fine, rich house, but not so happy about meeting a grandfather who sounded cruel. Our mother told us we'd have to hide away until she could win back his affections. Momma said one night only, or maybe two or three, then we could go downstairs and meet her father. He was dying of heart disease and never climbed the stairs so we were safe enough up there as long as we didn't make much noise. The grandmother gave us the attic to play in. It was huge -- and dirty, and full of spiders, mice and insects. And that's where we played and tried to make the best of it until Momma won back her father's good will and we could go down and begin to enjoy living like rich children. But soon enough we found out that our grandfather was never going to forgive our mother for marrying his half-brother and we were going to remain 'Devil's issue.' We'd have to live up there until he was dead!"
I went on, despite the look of pained incredulity in the doctor's eyes. "And as if that weren't bad enough, being locked up in one room with our playground in the attic, we soon found out our grandmother hated us too! She gave us a long list of what we could do and what we couldn't do. We were never to look out of the front windows, or even open the heavy draperies to let in some light.
"At first the meals the grandmother brought up each morning in a picnic hamper were rather good, but gradually they worsened to only sandwiches, potato salad and fried chicken. Never any desserts, for they would rot our teeth and we couldn't go to a dentist. Of course, when our birthdays came around, Momma would sneak us up ice cream and a bakery cake, and plenty of presents. Oh, you bet she bought us everything to make up for what she was doing to us -- as if books and games and toys could ever make up for all we were losing -- our health, our belief in ourselves. And, worst of all, we began to lose faith in her!
"Another year came, and that summer Momma didn't even visit us at all! Then, in October she showed up again to tell us she'd married a second time and had spent the summer touring Europe on her honeymoon! I could have killed her! She could have told us, but she'd gone away and not said a word to explain! She brought us expensive gifts, clothes that didn't fit, and thought that made up for everything, when it didn't make up for anything! Finally I was able to convince Chris we should find a way to escape that house and forget about inheriting a fortune. He didn't want to go, because he thought that any day the grandfather might die, and he wanted to go to college, then medical school and become a doctor -- like you."
"A doctor like me..." said Dr. Sheffield with a strange sigh. His eyes were soft with sympathy, and something darker too. "It's a strange story, Cathy, and hard to believe."
"Wait a minute!" I cried. "I haven't finished. I haven't told you the worst part! The grandfather did die, and he did write our mother into his will so she'd inherit his tremendous fortune -- but he added a codicil that said she could never have children. If it were ever proven she'd given birth to children by her first husband, she'd have to forfeit everything she'd inherited and everything she'd bought with the money!"
I paused. I glanced at Chris who sat pale and weak-looking, staring at me with hurt and pleading eyes. But he needn't have worried; I wasn't going to speak of Cory. I turned again to the doctor. "Now that mysterious, elusive factor you can't put your finger on -- the thing wrong with Carrie that makes her throw up, and us too sometimes. It's really very simple. You see, once our mother knew she could never claim us and keep the fortune, she decided to get rid of us. The grandmother began to add sugared doughnuts to the basket. We ate them eagerly enough, not knowing that they were coated with arsenic."
And so I'd said it.
Poisoned doughnuts to sweeten our imprisoned days as we stole from our room by using the wooden key Chris had fashioned. Day by day dying for nine months while we sneaked into our mother's grand bedroom suite and took all the one- and five-dollar bills we could find. Almost a year we'd traversed those long, dim corridors, stealing into her room to take what money we could.
"In that one room, Doctor, we lived three years and four months and sixteen days."
When I'd concluded my long tale the doctor sat very quietly staring at me with compassion, shock, and concern. "So you see, Doctor," I said to finish, "you can't force us to go to the police and tell our story! They might throw the grandmother and our mother in jail, but we'd suffer too! Not only from the publicity, but also from being separated. They'd put us in foster homes, or make us wards of the court, and we've sworn to stay together, always!"
Chris was staring at the floor. He spoke without looking up. "Take care of our sister. Do whatever is needed to make her well again, and both Cathy and I will find a way to meet our obligations."
"Hold on, Chris," said the doctor in his slow, patient way. "You and Cathy have been fed arsenic too and will need to undergo many of the same tests I order for Carrie. Look at the two of you. You're thin, pale, weak. You need good food, rest and plenty of fresh air and sunshine. Maybe there is something I can do to help."
"You're a stranger to us, sir," Chris said respectfully, "and we don't expect or need anyone's charity or pity. Cathy and I are not that weak or sick. Carrie's the one most affected."
Full of indignation, I spun about to glare at Chris. We'd be fools to reject help from this kind man just so we could salvage some of our pride that had already gone down in defeat so many times before. What difference did one more time make?
"...Yes," continued the doctor, as if both Chris and I had already agreed to his generous offer to help, "expenses are not as high for an 'out' patient as for an 'in' patient -- no room and no board to pay. Now listen, this is only a suggestion which you're free to refuse, and travel on to wherever you have in mind -- by the way, where are you going?"
"To Sarasota, Florida," Chris said weakly. "Cathy and I used to swing from the ropes we tied to the attic rafters, so she thought we could become aerialists, with some practice." It sounded silly when I heard him say it. I expected the doctor to laugh, but he didn't. He just looked sadder.
"Honestly, Chris, I would hate to see you and Cathy risk your lives like that, and as a doctor I feel I can't allow you to go as you are. Everything in my personal ethics and professional ones too refuses to let you go on without medical treatment. Common sense tells me I should keep my distance and not give a damn about what happens to three kids on their own. For all I know that horrendous story may just be a pack of lies to gain my sympathy." He smiled kindly to take the sting from his words. "Yet, my intuition tells me to believe your story. Your expensive clothes, your watches and the sneakers on your feet, your pale skin and the haunted look in your eyes all testify to the truth."
Such a voice he had, hypnotizing, soft and melodious, with just a bit of Southern accent. "Come," he said, charming me, if not Chris, "forget about pride and charity. Come live in my home of twelve lonely rooms. God must have put Henrietta Beech on that bus to lead you to me. Henny is a terrific worker and keeps my house spotless, but she constantly complains that twelve rooms and four baths are just too much for one woman to care for. Out in the back I have four acres of garden. I hire two gardeners to help, for I just can't devote as much time to the garden as I need to. At this point he riveted his brilliant eyes directly on Chris. "You can help earn your keep by mowing the lawns, clipping the hedges and preparing the gardens for winter. Cathy can help out in the house." He shot me a questioning, teasing look with his eyes twinkling. "Can you cook?"
Cook? Was he kidding? We'd been locked upstairs for more than three years, and we'd never even had a toaster to brown our bread in the mornings, and no butter, or even margarine!
"No!" I snapped. "I can't cook. I'm a dancer. When I'm a famous prima ballerina I'll hire a woman to do the cooking, like you do. I don't want to be stuck away in some man's kitchen, washing his dishes and fixing his meals and having his babies! That's not for me."
"I see," he said, his expression blank.
"I don't mean to sound ungrateful," I explained. "I will do what I can to help out Mrs. Beech. I'll even learn how to cook for her -- and you."
"Good," he said. His eyes were laughing, full of sparkling lights as he templed his fingers beneath his chin and smiled. "You are going to be a prima ballerina, and Chris is going to be a famous doctor, and you are going to achieve all of this by running away to Florida to perform in the circus? Of course I'm of another stodgy generation and I can't fathom your reasoning. Does it really make good sense to you?"
Now that we were out of the locked room and the attic and in the full light of reality, no, it didn't make good sense. It sounded like foolish, childish and unrealistic folly.
"Do you realize what you'd be up against as professional aerialists?" the doctor asked. "You would have to compete against people who've trained from early childhood, people descended from long lines of circus performers. It wouldn't be easy. Still, I'll admit there's something in those blue eyes that tells me you two are very determined young people, and no doubt you'll get what you go after if you really want it badly enough. But what about school? What about Carrie? What's she going to do while the two of you swing from trapezes? Now don't bother to answer," he said quickly when my lips parted. "I'm sure you can come up with something to convince me, but I must dissuade you. First you have to tend to your health and Carrie's. Any day the two of you could come down as swiftly as Carrie and be just as sick. After all, didn't all three of you exist under the same miserable conditions?"
Four of us, not three, was the whisper in my ears, but I didn't speak of Cory.
"If you meant it about taking us in until Carrie is well," said Chris with his eyes shining suspiciously, "we're extremely grateful. We'll work hard, and when we can we'll leave and repay you every cent you spent on us."
"I meant it. And you don't have to repay me, except by helping out in the house and the yard. So, you see, it isn't pity, or charity, only a business arrangement to benefit all of us."
Copyright © 1980 by Virginia Andrews