Authors: V.C. Andrews
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For Mary and Joan Andrews,
who help keep the faith
Papa died with my name on his lips. I would have thought his final words would be a call for my sister, Sylvia, or for Lucietta, our mother, who had died giving birth to Sylvia. For years afterward, I would think about the way he had said my name in those final moments. Was his call to me a plea for help, or was he begging for forgiveness? Was it merely pleasure at having his last thoughts be about me? Did he see my much younger face before him?
Arden, Sylvia, and I were there in his bedroom when he took his last breath. Sylvia and I were sitting beside the bed. Sylvia held his hand, and my husband, Arden, standing beside me, had his hand on my
shoulder, his fingers drumming with impatience. He had been on his way out the door to go to work when Papa took a sudden turn for the worse. Of course, he'd thought it was another false alarm, but he quickly returned and saw that this time, it was very, very serious.
The ticking of the dark oak miniature grandfather's clock on the dresser seemed to grow louder and louder, impressing us with every passing moment. I imagined it was like Papa's heartbeat. I would swear that it paused when Papa took his final breath. A cloud passed over the sun, and a shadow rushed in through the windows and fell like a dark sheet over his body and his face. I felt a shawl of ice slip over my shoulders as Arden lifted his hand away.
The week before, Papa had nearly passed out going up the stairs. His eyes had closed, and he'd swayed almost at the top step. Sylvia had been following him up, just as she often followed at his heels, eager to do his bidding, and that had kept him from falling backward. A fatal accident on those stairs would come as no surprise. They'd already had too much tragic history. Sylvia's scream had brought me running. I'd seen her hands on his back. Before I could reach them, he had regained his composure, the color coming back into his pale face.
“I'm all right,” he had said, but without admitting that something wrong with him had caused him to lose his balance, he also declared that Sylvia had saved his life.
“We should call the doctor,” I had said.
“Nonsense, no need. Everyone loses his
balance occasionally. Maybe a little too much blackberry brandy.”
It was futile to contradict him or insist. Papa never changed his mind about anything once he had made it up. My aunt Ellsbeth would say, “He's as stubborn as a tree stump when he digs his roots into an argument.”
Nevertheless, at his insistence, we had celebrated Sylvia as a heroine at dinner that night. I was told to make her favorite cake, vanilla with chocolate icing. We had champagne and, later, music so Papa could do a little dance with her. While I'd watched them, I'd been reminded of how he would waltz with my mother sometimes after dinner when they were young, and our world would look like a world of eternal spring. Momma's peals of laughter and joy would echo off the walls. The only one who scowled would be Aunt Ellsbeth.
Sylvia had been so happy when Papa called her “my little heroine.” She'd loved repeating, “I saved Papa,” every morning for days afterward; it was the first thing she'd say to me when I roused her to dress and come down for breakfast. Compliments and applause were rare birds in her nest. Perhaps she thought she could do it again the day he died, save him and keep him from falling into the inevitable grave. She clung so tightly to his hand.
Arden often called her “your father's extra shadow,” but he wasn't saying that because he thought what she was doing was cute or loving. No, he thought it was both annoying for Papa and embarrassing for us, mainly for him, whenever anyone he knew from work saw this grown woman still so attached to her father,
sensitive to his every move, eager to do the simplest things for him, like fetching his slippers or lighting his pipe.
“He can't even go to the bathroom without her waiting for him at the door like a puppy. Can't you make her see how foolish she looks? Do something!” Arden had demanded. “You're the one she'll listen to.”
“Papa doesn't mind,” I'd said in Sylvia's defense, “so you shouldn't, either.”
Papa never did complain, nor did he ever criticize my sister or make her feel silly or foolish. If anything, he liked females hounding him. I had no illusions about my father. He was always a woman's man. He would always flirt, even with me when I was older. Of course, Sylvia was special. Perhaps he should have tried harder to have her become less dependent on him. A girl can love her father, adore him, but at some point, she has to step out into the world with independence, or she will not mature and enjoy what other love awaits her.
No one, including me, had much confidence in Sylvia developing an independent existence or finding the love of another man. She had been born prematurely and was mentally slow. Once everyone viewed her that way, she'd become comfortable with that image. She liked being babied so much that she never tried too hard to become a mature woman with a mature woman's responsibilities. At least, that was my theory. Everyone criticized me for it. Arden, in fact, once accused me of being jealous of my father's affection for her.
“Maybe you think he'll turn her into âmy sweet Sylvia' or create a Sylvia Two,” he said, with that wry smile on his face that usually irritated me. “He thinks he's God and can change anyone to his liking.”
But accusing me of jealousy wasn't fair. With the exception of my father, no one ever loved or treated my sister more tenderly than I did. She used to follow me around the way she was then following him. Perhaps that was why I didn't openly criticize her or try to get her to be less fawning. Many times, I was tempted to do what Arden wanted and tell her to stop clinging so hard to our father.
Let Papa breathe
, I wanted to say, but I swallowed back the words. She probably wouldn't have understood it, and if it was explained to her, I was afraid she would go into one of her hysterical fits of sobbing and others would accuse me of the same thing Arden had. I feared even Papa would admonish me.
So when I saw Papa die in front of us, I looked quickly at Sylvia, anticipating an outburst of sorrow from her.
But then I realized she had no idea he was gone. She still clung to his hand. She shook it softly, expecting him to open his eyes and smile at her as he had done only minutes ago.
I put my arm around her. “He's gone, Sylvia,” I said, my lips trembling and tears streaming down my cheeks. “Papa has passed on. You have to let go of his hand. He's gone.”
She looked at me, scowled, and then looked back at him, but she didn't move, nor did she let go of his
hand. The words apparently made no sense to her. I knew what she was thinking:
How can he be gone if he is still here in his bed?
Sylvia always took everything literally, expecting the truth to be straightforward, the way children did.
I looked to Dr. Prescott. He was frustrated because he had come too late, and he sat on the other side of the bed, his hands pressed against his cheeks, his shock of graying brown hair as wild as weeds from running his thick fingers through it with frustration. He was only a year younger than Papa, but lately, he'd looked ten years younger and was far sprier. He wasn't as tall as Papa; few men were. But these last months, he had looked taller.
The kind doctor raised his head to look at us, his eyes swimming in sorrow far beyond what any doctor would experience after losing a patient. Physicians, probably more than anyone, lived with the inevitability of death. It was like dogs barking at their heels. He leaned over and closed Papa's eyes. Then he gently took Papa's hand from Sylvia's and put it over Papa's now-still chest and then his other hand over that.
“I told him he needed a stent. I finally had him convinced to go into the hospitalÂ .Â .Â . this Monday,” Dr. Prescott said, shaking his head and looking down at Papa. “But I knew he would put it off again and again. Stubborn man.”
He had rushed over after I called to tell him Papa wasn't feeling well and was weak and pale. I'd mentioned he was having trouble breathing. Dr. Prescott had thought we should send for an ambulance, but
Papa had gotten so upset about it I had to call back and tell him that I was afraid Papa's anger would just make him sicker and that Sylvia and I had helped him to bed.
“Okay, I'm on my way,” he'd replied. He was more than just Papa's doctor. He and Papa were good friends and lately had spent at least one night a week playing chess, drinking brandy, and talking about their youth. On more than one occasion, I had overheard Papa's conversation drift into a sea of guilt, on which floated many regrettable actions and decisions. Maybe it was the effect of the brandy or maybe because he was getting older, but he'd sought opportunities to confess his sins.
His biggest one, as far as he and I were concerned, was his elaborate plan to convince me when I was a child that I was the older sister of my dead sister, AuÂdrina, the perfect little girl after whom I was supposedly named.
Back then, Papa would often have me close my eyes and rock in the first Audrina's rocking chair, supposedly to capture some of her gifts and memories, the most horrid of which was her being raped at the age of nine. He knew all the memories would return, for they were really my memories. Whether or not I wanted to believe that there were good intentions behind this deception, the result was that it gave birth to more sadness and tragedy than any family should have to bear.
Papa had known that, and the knowledge had weighed on him so heavily as he grew older that his once strong and perfect manly body began to crumble, his shoulders turning in, his back bent more and more,
his walk slower and unsteady, his six-foot-five frame looking so much shorter and fragile. Gray had devastated his unique black hair, which used to appear blue in the sunlight but no longer did, and his lively, sexy, almond-shaped dark brown eyes had dulled and begun to look sleepy and forlorn.
He had started to go to work less often at the brokerage firm, finally acquiescing to letting Arden take on more and more responsibility there. Occasionally, he would argue with and discuss some of the decisions Arden had made, decisions that would drive him to return to work more frequently, often to correct them. However, during the past few weeks, it had seemed to me that my father had lost interest in almost everything. Lately, he'd spent more of his time sitting on our front porch, even when it was raining or there was a thick fog, bitterly staring out at the world as though it had deceived him. I would try to cheer him up, bring him his favorite freshly baked cookies or a cup of tea, even a brandy, but he would show little enthusiasm. Only Sylvia could bring a smile to his face during those last days. He'd pet her and stroke her, and I was sure he would be thinking of our mother. Despite how angry he could get at her from time to time, he had surely loved our mother more than he'd lovedâor could loveâany woman.
As Sylvia had grown, she did look more like our mother than I did. I'd spent as much time as I could helping her develop into someone who could care for herself. She was so dependent on the kindness of others, even to this day. Whenever any of Papa and Arden's
clients came to dinner with their wives, the wives always brought Sylvia something pretty, whether it was costume jewelry, ribbons, or delicious boxes of candy. On those nights, there was laughter and music, and no one dared mention a single sad moment from our past. Good things still could happen in our house, but that was never enough to drown out the bad completely. Those memories refused to be forgotten or buried.
Guilt, in fact, hovered in every corner of Whitefern, our family home, like invisible spiderwebs trapping every happy thought to make sure that unhappiness dominated our lives. I had wanted to run from the mansion and never set foot in it again when I learned the horrible truths that had been whirling around me all my life. The grave for the so-called “first Audrina” was in the Whitefern Cemetery nearby, a grave I was taken to often to visit and hear about this mythical sister. The grave was, in fact, empty. What an elaborate ruse. Who wouldn't want to get as far away from it all as fast as she could?
I had to find a deep well of forgiveness from which to draw the understanding and tolerance that would enable me to continue to live here, to accept Arden again, to pity my father and even my ruthless, jealous cousin Vera, who, I discovered, really was what she claimed to be, my half sister. She became one of the fatal victims in this house, along with Aunt Ellsbeth and Billie, Arden's mother. They'd all fallen down the stairway to their deaths, every one of them ruled an accident. It was as if Whitefern wanted to dole out
justice or attack deception and had the power to do so. Maybe such thoughts had flashed through Papa's mind when he stumbled backward on the stairway.
It wasn't difficult to accept the idea that my family home was alive and conscious of all the intrigue and pain that went on within it. It was and remained right up to today an impressive Victorian gingerbread house. Arden had organized some restoration, having it repainted white and all the blinds redone, in addition to the outside steps. Recently, a house not unlike ours in the Tidewater region of Virginia had suffered a tragedy when two women were out on a balcony that gave way without warning. They'd fallen three stories, and both had died. This had prompted Arden to get to work immediately on ours, firming things up but adhering to Papa's orders to keep the style.