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My Sweet Audrina

V. C. Andrews

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  For Ann Patty, my editor,

  For Anita and Humphrey, my agents,

  with gratitude.

  Acknowledgment to Richard W. Maurer Jr., who dauntlessly supplied me with lists of misdemeanors concerning stock market activities, herein committed by Damian Jonathan Adare.

  Part 1


  There was something strange about the house where I grew up. There were shadows in the corners and whispers on the stairs and time was as irrelevant as honesty. Though how I knew that I couldn’t say.

  There was a war going on in our house, a silent war that sounded no guns, and the bodies that fell were only wishes that died and the bullets were only words and the blood that spilled was always called pride.

  Though I’d never been to school—and I was seven years old and it was high time I was in school—it seemed I knew all about the Civil War. Around me the Civil War was still being waged, and though the future might stretch ahead for billions of years, it was still the war we’d never forget, for our pride had been injured, and our passions were lingering on. We’d lost the battle better won by the opposite side. Maybe that’s why it still kept hurting.

  Momma and my aunt Ellsbeth always said that men liked violent discussions about wars better than any other topic, but if there were other wars of any importance at all, they were never discussed in our house. Papa would read any book, see any movie, cut out any magazine photo that represented that war between brothers, even though his ancestors had fought against my maternal ones. He was Yankee born, but a Southerner by preference. At the dinner table he’d recount the plots of the long novels he read about General Robert E. Lee and give grisly accounts of all the bloody battles. And if most of what he read charmed me, it did not charm either my aunt, who preferred the television, or my mother, who preferred to read her own books, claiming Papa left out the best parts, which weren’t fit for young ears to hear.

  That meant my ears, and my cousin Vera’s ears. Though most of the world believed Vera to be my sister, I knew she was my unmarried aunt’s illegitimate daughter—and that we had to shield her from the scorn of society by pretending she was my legitimate older sister. I did have a legitimate older sister, too, but she had died before I was born. Her name was also Audrina, and even though she had been dead a long time, still she lingered on. My papa never forgot the first and best Audrina, and still hoped that someday I would be as special as she was.

  My cousin Vera liked people to think she was my sister. I didn’t know her true age, for she refused to tell me that. Nobody in our house ever revealed their ages. Only my age was talked about all the time. It was Vera’s boast that she could be any age she wanted to be—ten, twelve, fifteen, and even twenty. With a few elegant and sophisticated postures, truly she did change her manner and expression. She could look very mature—or very childlike—depending on her mood. She liked to ridicule me because I was so uncertain about time. Often Vera told me I’d hatched full blown from a giant ostrich egg at the age of seven. She always said that I had inherited that bird’s famous habit of sticking its head in the sand and pretending nothing in the world was wrong. She didn’t know about my dreams and the ugliness they gave me.

  From the very beginning, I knew Vera was my enemy even when she pretended to be my friend. Though I wanted her for my friend in the worst way, I knew she hated me. She was jealous because I was an Audrina and she wasn’t. Oh, how I wanted Vera to like and admire me, as sometimes I really liked and admired her. I envied her, too, because she was normal and didn’t have to try to be like someone who was dead. No one seemed to care if Vera wasn’t special. No one except Vera. Vera was fond of telling me that I wasn’t really special, either, I was merely strange. To tell the truth, I thought there was something strange about me, too. I seemed to be unable to recall anything about my early childhood. I couldn’t remember anything about the past—what I had done the week or even the day before. I didn’t know how I had learned the things I knew, or why I seemed to know some things I shouldn’t.

  The many clocks scattered throughout our giant house confused me even more. The grandfather clocks in the halls chimed out different hours; the cuckoos in their wooden Swiss clocks popped in and out of small ornate doors, each contradicting all the others; the fancy French clock in my parents’ bedroom had stopped long ago at midnight or noon, and a Chinese clock ran backwards. To my great distress, though I searched everywhere, there were no calendars in our house, not even old ones. And the newspapers never came on the day they were due. Our only magazines were old ones, stacked in closets, hidden in the attic. Nobody threw anything away in our house. It was kept, saved for our descendents, so they could sell it one day and make a fortune.

  Much of my insecurity had to do with the first Audrina, who had died exactly nine years before I was born. She had died mysteriously in the woods after cruel and heartless boys had spoiled her in some indescribable way, and because of her, I was never supposed to enter the woods, even to go to school. And the woods were all around us, almost smothering us. They embraced us on three sides, the River Lyle on the fourth. To go anywhere we had to travel through the woods.

  Everywhere in our home photographs of the First and Best Audrina were scattered. On Papa’s desk, there were three framed portraits of her, at age one, two and three. There was not one single baby picture of me, not one, and that hurt. The First Audrina had been a beautiful little girl, and when I looked at her photographs, I felt oddly haunted, wanting to be her so badly I ached inside. I wanted to be her so I’d feel as loved, as special as everyone said she had been; and then again, contrarily, I wanted more than anything to be myself, and on my own merits gain the love I felt denied me.

  Oh, the tales Papa could tell me about the wonders of his first daughter, and everyone he told made me know I was not the Best Audrina, not the perfect and special one—only the second and the inferior one.

  My parents kept the first Audrina’s bedroom like a shrine for a dead princess. It was left exactly as it had been on the day she met her fate, which was never explained in detail to me. That room was so full of toys it seemed more a playroom than a bedroom. Momma herself cleaned that room, and she hated housework. Just to see her room made me realize nothing had been too good for her, while my bedroom lacked toy shelves, and her vast array of playthings. I felt cheated, cheated of a real childhood. Audrina the First and Best had stolen my youth, and everyone talked so much about her that I couldn’t remember anything about me. I believed it was because of her that my memory was so full of holes.

  Papa would try to fill those holes by putting me in her rocking chair and making me rock and sing until I became “the empty pitcher that would fill with everything.”

  He wanted me to fill with her memories and capture her special powers since she was dead and didn’t need them anymore.

  And as if one ghost weren’t enough, we had a second who came every Tuesday at four. “Teatime,” we called Aunt Mercy Marie’s day. There she’d sit on the piano, in her black and white photograph in a silver frame, her fat face beaming a vacuous smile, her pale blue eyes staring out as if she could see us, when she couldn’t. She was dead, and yet undead, just like my dead sister.

  My aunt and my mother would speak for Aunt Mercy Marie, and through her they would let loose all the venom they held back and saved for “teatimes.” Strangely enough, my cousin Vera enjoyed these Tuesday teatimes so
much she’d find any reason to play hookey from school, just to be there and hear all the ugly things my mother and her half sister could say to one another. They were White-fern sisters, and once upon a far ago time, that had meant something wonderful. Now it meant something sad, but they would never tell me exactly what.

  Long ago the Whitefern family had been the most notable family in our Tidewater section of Virginia, giving the country senators and vice presidents. But we’d fallen out of favor not just with the villagers, but also with everyone, and we were no longer honored, or even respected.

  Our house was far from the nearest city of any size.

  Whitefern Village was fifteen miles down a lonely country road, but we seldom went there. It was as if long ago some secret war had been declared, and we in our castle (as Papa liked to call our home) were hated by the “serfs” in the lowlands. If anyplace in our vicinity could be called “highlands” it was the slight hill on which Whitefern sat.

  Papa had to drive thirty miles to and from his stock-brokerage office. All the friends we had lived in the city. Our nearest neighbors were twelve miles away as a car drove, five as a crow flew. Papa drove our only car to work, leaving all of us without transportation. So often my aunt Ellsbeth would bemoan the day she’d sold her small car to buy the TV set.

  My aunt, who’d never been married, loved her portable television set with a twelve-inch screen. She seldom allowed me to watch, though her daughter, Vera, could watch as much as she liked when she was home from school. That was another thing I couldn’t understand: why Vera was allowed to go to school when I couldn’t go. School was dangerous for me, but not for Vera.

  Naturally I presumed there had to be something terribly wrong with me. My parents had to hide me away to keep me safe, if not from outsiders, then from myself. That was the scariest thought of all.

  At the age of seven, while other children boarded yellow buses and rode off giggling and having fun, I sat down at the kitchen table and was taught how to read, write, add and subtract by my mother, who played the piano beautifully but was not good at teaching anything but how to play the piano. Fortunately, or maybe not, my aunt Ellsbeth was there to help. She had once been a grade-school teacher with ready slaps to deliver any boy who dared to call her a nasty name. Just one slap too many, and the parents had seen that my aunt was fired. Though she tried for many a year to find another teaching position, the word was out. My aunt had a ferocious temper and a ready hand.

  Aunt Ellsbeth, like her daughter, Vera, also had ready comments to criticize our way of living. According to my aunt we were all as “antediluvian” as the house in which we lived. “Out of sync with the rest of the world,” she’d say.

  In my dreams of home, Whitefern loomed up high and white against a dark and stormy sky, frightening to behold. It threatened in the night, but in the day it welcomed me with open arms. I had a habit of sitting outside on the lawn and admiring the grandness of Whitefern. It was a gingerbread Victorian house of many frills, with its white paint peeling, its dark blinds loose and crooked. It had three stories, with an attic and a basement toward the back half of the house where the spacious lawn inclined toward the River Lyle. As I stared at that house, I thought I had much in common with it. We were both antediluvian and “out of sync.”

  Our windows were myriad, many of them beautiful stained glass. The shutters, about to fall off, were so darkly red they appeared black from a distance, like dried blood. From the outside the most marvelous thing of all were the balustrades on all the many porches, balconies and verandas, designed to look like stylized woodferns.

  In the very center of the dark roof was a round cupola with a copper roof now turned green from tarnish. It formed a point that was topped by a golden ball whose gold leaf was coming off bit by bit each time it rained. The cupola was about fourteen feet in diameter, and every single one of its many windows was made of leaded stained glass with scenes to represent the angels of life and death.

  Inside and out, ferns cascaded everywhere from wicker stands. There were other plants, but the ferns seemed to steal what moisture there was in the air so soon all other plants died.

  On stealthy, timid feet I played my small lonely games in the great foyer where the stained glass from the double front doors threw colorful patterns on the floor. Rapier-sharp colors sometimes, stabbing into my brain and punching holes there. I also had little rhymes Vera had taught me that I said to protect myself from the colors:

  Step on black, live forever in a shack.

  Step on green, never be clean.

  Step on blue, work will never be through.

  Step on yellow, hear the world bellow.

  Step on red, soon be dead.

  Just so I wouldn’t have to step on any color, I stole along near the walls, keeping to the shadows, listening to the clocks ticking away the wrong times and the silly cuckoos going crazy in the night. When the wind blew hard, the shutters banged and the floors creaked, the furnace in the basement coughed, sputtered, groaned, and the wind chimes in the cupola tinkled, tinkled.

  Yet in the daytime there were things so wondrously grand in our house that I felt like Alice lost in a house of jewels. Art deco lamps and objets d’art were scattered hither and yon. Tiffany lamps rose up to throw more colors, to pattern the walls. Crystal prisms dangled from lamp shades, from wall sconces, from chandeliers, from gaslamps, catching colors, refracting rainbows that flashed like lightning whenever sunlight managed to steal through the lace curtains.

  We had a fireplace in every room. There were eight of marble, many of elegantly carved wood and none were made of brick. Brick was not elegant enough for our type of house that seemed to despise simplicity.

  Our ceilings were high, and carved with elaborate designs, making frames for Biblical or romantic scenes. In the olden days people had, or so it seemed to my young eyes, either too many clothes on, or too little that wanted to stay in place. I wondered why the Biblical scenes usually had more flesh showing than the ones where people were decidedly wicked. One could hardly believe those near-naked people were sincerely trying to follow where God would lead them.

  Bare bosoms of impressive proportions protruded brazenly in every room of our house but mine. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and several other dead-eyed presidents gazed day after day at the naked lady lying on a chaise across the way as she forever dropped grapes into her gaping mouth. Naked baby boys flew about shamelessly shooting aimless arrows. But the men always modestly hid their maleness behind some strategically placed leaf or graceful flow of drapery. Women were not so apt to hide what they had, I’d often thought as I gazed at them. They looked shy, but acted bold. Aunt Ellsbeth had come up behind me once and explained bitterly that since most artists were men, it was only natural for them to delight in “exploiting” the nude female figure.

  “Don’t judge women by what you see in paintings and statues. Judge them only by what you yourself know about the women in your life. The day any man understands any woman will be the day the world comes to an end. Men are hateful, contrary creatures who say they want goddesses to put on pedestals. Once they have them up there, they rip off the halo, tear off the gown, slice off the wings so they can’t fly and then kick the pedestal away so the woman falls at his feet and he can scream out as he kicks her, tramp!—or worse.”

  To hear my aunt Ellsbeth talk one would think she’d been married a dozen or more times, and one thousand men had disappointed her. As far as I knew, only one man had.

  Our furniture had many styles, all of them fancy. It seemed each chair, each table, each sofa, lamp, pillow, hassock, desk was in competition, trying to outdo the others. Although Aunt Ellsbeth complained about the furniture, Momma would catch hold of my hand and lead me reverently from room to room, explaining that this table was a “Renaissance Revival” centerpiece, made by Berkey and Gay, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

  “All antiques, Audrina. All worth their weight in gold. The bed in my room is five hundred years old. Once ki
ngs and queens slept behind its curtains.”

  Behind us my aunt would snort her contempt and disbelief.

  Other people had electricity in all their rooms; we had electricity only in our kitchen and bathrooms. In other rooms we used gaslamps because Momma thought them more flattering to her complexion. My aunt thought them a pain in—(But I wasn’t supposed to use some of the words my aunt said readily.) Even more than gaslamps, Momma loved candles burning, and logs in the fireplace snapping and crackling and making shadows dance on the dark paneled walls. Our kitchen stuck out like a sore thumb with all its modern gadgets that made life bearable for Momma, who hated any kind of hard work but loved cooking the gourmet meals my father had to have.

  The room we all favored most was the Roman Revival Salon. On its royal-purple velvet lounging chaise with the gold cording tarnished and falling off where it wasn’t fastened by fancy tassels, Momma would lie dressed in some filmy negligee, or a soft summer dress. She didn’t seem to notice that the stuffing was coming out and the springs poked through in a few places. Sprawled elegantly on that chaise, she’d read her romances and occasionally lift her eyes to stare dreamily off into space. I guessed she was imagining herself in the arms of the handsome lover on the colorful cover of her paperback novel. I told myself bravely that someday I was going to have the nerve to read novels like that, wicked and beautiful at the same time—though how I knew they were wicked books I couldn’t say, since I’d never read one. But almost-naked people on the cover seemed awfully wicked.

  Papa’s huge round home office, directly under the cupola, held thousands of old-old books, and many fine editions of classics that nobody read but me and Aunt Ellsbeth. Papa said he didn’t have time to read them, but he kept on adding to our leather-bound collection as if hoping all his friends would think he read them. Momma hid her paperbacks in her bedroom closets and pretended that she, too, loved the high-minded tales printed on fine paper and bound with beautiful leather.