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The Umbrella Lady

V. C. Andrews

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  The dream begins and stops the same way always: Daddy starts up the stairs.


  We had gotten off the train because we were supposed to wait for another, which Daddy said would come soon.

  “I promise,” he had said, which made me wince.

  I remembered how much Mama hated promises. She told me that promises are only good for things people will or won’t do. It’s not necessary to promise it will rain or snow or the sun will come up in the morning. She said, “It’s not even necessary for your mother or father to say, ‘I promise if you keep doing that, you will get hurt.’ In your heart you know you will, so you stop. Why promise that something that has to happen will happen? A promise is a cousin to a lie. It’s just a way to get someone to stop asking for something or believe in something that very well might be untrue. Your father’s an expert when it comes to that. Don’t believe in his promises.”

  When the Umbrella Lady appeared, I was already sitting on the bench with my new blue and white carry-on bag beside me. Daddy had bought it for me yesterday. I had been totally absorbed by the new coloring book he had bought me, but I had paused to take a rest. My wrist actually ached, I had completed so many pages.

  I didn’t know Daddy had gotten me a new coloring book before we had left. Because we had departed so quickly and he had so much on his mind, I imagined he had forgotten. He had kept it in his black leather briefcase with his three initials in raised bold silver on the outside, DFA, Derick Francis Anders. Besides saving me, it was the only other important thing he was able to rescue, because, as usual, he had left it in the entryway when he had come home that day, and all he had to do when we rushed down the stairs was scoop it up while still balancing me in his arms, avoiding the flames, and charge through the front door.

  After we had stepped off the train and he had led me to the bench, he had snapped open the briefcase and taken out the new coloring book and a box of new crayons.

  When he had handed them to me, he had said, “Work on this until I come back from getting a few things.”

  “What about all the other things we’ll need, Daddy?”

  After all, I thought, we had to fill a new house.

  “Don’t worry. I’m getting us everything essential soon after we get there.”

  “We’ll be shopping and shopping,” I had said. “And without Mama to help us get the right things.”

  It was more of a warning, because I knew he didn’t like shopping. He was always hurrying Mama and me along when we went to malls, even if he was with us at the grocery store. If Mama ever forgot anything, she’d blame it on his rushing us, and they’d argue about it. Sometimes, mumbling under his breath, he’d have to go back to get what we had forgotten. I wanted to feel sorry for him, but Mama wouldn’t let me. “Don’t pity him,” she would say. “It’s his own fault.”

  He had pulled the collar of his dark-blue cashmere overcoat up around his neck and stared at me a moment before replying to my concern about our new home. Shadows were washing over him so that he looked like a man without a face, just like the man in my dream.

  “What you’ll need, you’ll have. Stop worrying. You’re too young to worry.”

  “I’m almost nine. How old do you have to be to worry?” I had asked.

  Just like always when I asked a question he didn’t want to answer, he had looked away, shaken his head, taken a breath, and talked about something else.

  “I’m off just to get some things we absolutely must have before we get on another train. I want a newspaper, and I’ll get you something fun to read, among other small things like toothpaste. I don’t want to go shopping as soon as we get there. It’ll be late, and you’ll be tired. I’ll be tired, too. Stay busy, and don’t move,” he had said, jabbing his right forefinger at me. Mama often called him a “tank commander” when he spoke like that. After he had left the house, she would imitate him and, with her finger jabbing, say, “You will do this; you will do that.”

  I thought she was joking, even though she didn’t laugh.

  I had watched him walk off the train platform.

  He had started away slowly, pausing and almost turning back. Other departing passengers bumped into him because he had stopped so suddenly. I saw that some excused themselves, but most did not. Some looked angry at him. He didn’t turn to look back at me. He made sure his collar was up and continued, picking up his pace until he was close to running, weaving in and out around other people. He went around the platform corner and disappeared.

  Daddy had looked so frantic and confused when we had left in the morning. He had still looked that way when we had stepped off the train. He had been gazing everywhere as if he was expecting to see someone and had forgotten to take my hand. I had hesitated on the last step, and he had turned around to help me off as if he had just remembered I was with him. The last step was high up, and I was small for my age.

  During our train ride here, he had sat with his eyes squeezed closed, not like someone sleeping but more like someone who didn’t want to see where he was going or like someone expecting to feel a pain. I often did that with my eyelids when I didn’t want to see something, especially in our house. I hoped that when I opened them again, what I didn’t want to see would be gone. Sometimes it was, but more often than not, it wasn’t.

  “Temporary blindness cures nothing,” Mama had said when she saw me doing it once. Mama could stop herself from seeing without closing her eyes. At least, Daddy said so.

  After a while, I had fallen asleep on the train and hadn’t woken until I felt it coming to a stop at this station. Daddy still had his eyes closed. The fire in our house and Mama’s funeral seemed like a long, bad, never-ending dream, and dreams could make you very tired. Many times during the past days, I had closed my eyes and wished and wished it had all just been in my imagination, but what I saw and heard when I opened them reminded me it was real and it wouldn’t go away. No matter where we were, I couldn’t get the smell of smoke out of my nose. I thought Daddy’s plan for us to run as far as we could from all that was a good idea.

  For a little while after he had left me at the bench, I simply sat there and stared at the corner of the train station to see if he would suddenly reappear and come rushing back to me. I had no idea how long he would be gone. He didn’t say. Thinking about time and how much had passed was like watching an icicle melting off a corner of our roof. Staring at it too long would make me nauseous, because after a while I could feel the drips falling into my stomach.

  When he hadn’t reappeared quickly, I opened my new coloring book and then opened the box of crayons. I always liked to inhale the scent of them. Once, I mentioned that to my mother. I said, “They smell good enough to eat,” and she said, “Chew up a coloring book first.”

  She didn’t smile. She simply said it and walked away. This was when she started to say things like “Falling is a wonderful feeling. For a few seconds, nothing holds you or traps you. The higher up you are when you fall, the longer the wonderful feeling lasts.”

  Everything she had said recently would make me think and think until I had packed her words of cloudy thoughts into an imaginary trunk decorated with wooden forget-me-nots. Sometimes they slipped out and fluttered around me like confused butterfli

  I dove into my coloring with the same enthusiasm my mother had when she washed the kitchen floor, even though she had washed it only an hour earlier and no one had walked on it. But coloring was never a chore or just a way to pass time for me. It was part of my art class she conducted. Mama said I had artistic talent. It was always fascinating to bring something more to life. From the moment I could hold a crayon until now, I was very good at keeping within the lines and choosing interesting or just proper colors for the object I was coloring. I never painted black canaries or yellow crows or purple monkeys. My project before the tragedy was to create my own coloring book. Mama had actually suggested it.

  At one point while I was sitting at the station, I looked up and realized that while I had been coloring, many people had walked past me in both directions, and although I had barely noticed, a few trains had gone by, some stopping and then going. I wasn’t worried about that. None of them could be the right one, because Daddy hadn’t returned yet, and he knew the train schedules. He had them in the top pocket of his coat.

  However, I also became aware that it had grown colder, and the light-blue cotton jacket I was wearing was not very warm. Daddy should have bought me a heavier coat before we left. Mama would have insisted, but he was in too much of a rush, and it wasn’t as cold that day when we did what he called “survival shopping.” I really didn’t know what that meant. I mean, I knew what the word survival meant, but how did you shop for it?

  Of course, he’d had to buy me something else to wear under my jacket. What I had been wearing reeked of smoke, and washing it at the motel didn’t matter. I helped him pick out the two-piece top and pants set I was wearing now, another blouse, and some socks and underwear. I had something similar to this top and pants in my dresser drawer, washed, neatly folded, and ready to wear, but Daddy had said that everything we had, everything we all owned, in closets and drawers and rooms, had gone up in smoke. It was as if the Magician of Fire had said, “Poof,” and it was all gone. He had told me that there was no point in ever going back to look for anything. When he had rushed into my room that night, he was already dressed and had scooped up some clothes for me to wear. I hadn’t heard him dashing about my room until he had shaken me awake.

  “Hold this tightly, embrace it,” he had said, and put everything in my arms before he had lifted me into his. “There’s no time to dress. You’ll put it on over your pajamas to keep warm as soon as we’re outside.”

  “Outside?” I knew it was the middle of the night. No wonder it seemed like a dream for so long afterward. “I can walk,” I had said.

  “No time. There’s only one way out. We can’t afford a second or a mistake.”

  He didn’t say anything more. It had been some time since he had carried me, even on his shoulders. With me in his arms, he hurried down the stairs. There was already so much smoke. I started coughing, and he told me to keep my mouth shut tight and stop breathing. The flames were coming out of the kitchen, but they looked like they were in the living room, too. He was probably right. There wasn’t much time, and I would surely have been confused about which way to go.

  “Mama,” I had said, looking back up the stairs. Why wasn’t she right behind us?

  “I couldn’t wake her,” he had said. “It was either carry her or carry you, and I had to get you before it was too late. The fire’s been going too long.”

  I really hadn’t understood what that meant. Why couldn’t he wake her? Why would he have to carry her, anyway? Surely, she would know how to go or just follow us.

  “Mama!” I had screamed, but the smoke was burning my eyes.

  I couldn’t think or remember much more detail about the fire while we were fleeing. The flames had looked overwhelming, and there was so much smoke that I had to bury my face against my father’s chest. All that would come later, but as soon as we had shot through the front door, I wondered if Mama was already outside. Maybe she had told Daddy to get me and then left, confident he would.

  When we had rushed from the house, he had brought me to the street before he set me and his briefcase down. I had looked everywhere but didn’t see her. People on our street were coming out of their houses, and a fire engine could be heard rushing toward us with police cars ahead of and behind it.

  “Get your clothes on,” Daddy had said, and I had started to dress. I remembered being hypnotized by the flames leaping out of the windows and now the front door. I hadn’t even felt cold. I knew which windows were in Mama and Daddy’s bedroom. I had heard the glass explode and seen the curtains turning into blazing shapes dancing gleefully.

  “Mama,” I had said again. “Where’s Mama? Why didn’t she wake up?”

  He had put his hand on my shoulder. “Don’t think about anything but tomorrow.”

  How could I think about tomorrow? What about Mama? I had wondered, and turned around looking for her. There wasn’t a tomorrow without Mama. Someone out here must have been helping her, I thought.

  Daddy had stared at the fire, the flames lighting his face, making his eyes look like blue stars. Then he had started to button his shirt calmly as people rushed in around us. Everyone had stepped back away from us when the fire engine arrived. They seemed more frightened of us than they were of the fire. No one spoke to us or asked questions.

  I had turned to press my face against my father. I didn’t want to look at our house on fire, my room in flames, and think about Mama still sleeping inside.

  He had put his hand on my shoulder again.

  I was sure I had heard him whisper, “Tomorrow,” but I think he was talking more to himself. Later, I had to go with him to a police station to answer questions about the fire and especially about Mama. I was so tired that I kept falling asleep, even when someone was talking to me. I didn’t want to think about Mama sleeping in the fire, much less talk about her, anyway. Everyone had been nice about it. No one had wanted to speak loudly in front of me, but I heard a policeman say something about the gas stove being left on. “These older houses have no sprinkler systems,” he had added. The house had been burned to the ground. There was nothing retrievable. Raking through the ashes had produced nothing, not even any of Mama’s or Daddy’s jewelry in any decent condition, since they weren’t kept in a safe. Nothing was worth the effort, I heard Daddy say. It was going to be easier to bulldoze it all away and put the land up for sale.

  Later, while Daddy was talking in an office, I had sat with a young woman who had short black hair and dimples in both her cheeks. She looked like she was going to start crying but sandwiched my hand in hers and kept telling me I’d be all right. I hadn’t cried then and wasn’t crying now. Someone had told my father in a hallway that I was still in shock and would need more tender loving care.

  “Don’t we all,” I had heard my father say and then promise he would take care of me. Right now, that seemed a long time ago; it was like looking back through a tunnel and hoping you don’t see what was at the start of your journey through the darkness.

  After coloring an elephant dark gray, I looked up and down the train platform, but I still didn’t see him. I wondered if I should go look for him or stay where I was, because if he returned and I wasn’t here, he might go off looking for me, and we’d never find each other. How would I even know the right direction to take once I went around the corner, anyway? The sign on the station read “Hurley,” but I had no idea where we were. I could barely see past the lighted area, and to my right there were trees and no houses, and to my left it was the same.

  These trees had lost most of their leaves, just like the trees back home. Trees without leaves always looked sad to me. “Leaves fall like crisp tears until the trees are cried naked,” Mama once said. “That’s why they call autumn the fall. They’re not friendly.”

  We were talking about nature. It was part of my homeschooling.

  I didn’t understand how trees without eyes could cry and not be friendly, but I knew that the younger trees had sharp branches that could catch on yo
ur clothes. I had been scratched a few times running through woods full of leafless trees in our backyard. Leaves were softer, especially when they were green, and made the branches behave. It didn’t surprise my mother when I asked her if trees were unfriendly because they were angry that they had lost their leaves.

  “You’re so poetic for someone your age,” she said. “Actually, children are more poetic than adults. Their imaginations aren’t cluttered with reality.”

  After thinking a moment more, she added, “Yes, yes, I believe trees can be angry, and rightly so.”

  “People are unhappy when they lose their hair,” I said. I thought she might think that clever and tell me how brilliant I was. She used to when I said something she thought was characteristic of someone years older than I was, sometimes adding a kiss on my cheek. Her kisses were my gold stars for excellence.

  But to me, what I thought and said was simple. I had seen bald men in television commercials looking grouchy until something was shown to them that would help them grow back their hair. That made me think of the trees and the leaves. Maybe whatever it was could be sprayed on the branches and speed up the return of leaves.

  My father was losing his hair. He never stopped complaining about it, because he said it was premature and came from stress. I had no idea what all that meant, but I told him, “It’ll grow back in the spring. With the leaves.”

  Mama laughed, but back then, I didn’t mean it to be funny. I thought it might happen.

  He didn’t think it was funny, either. He looked at me without smiling and then turned to my mother and said, “She’s your daughter. You had most to do with making her this way. You handle it.”

  I looked at my mother. What was there to handle? And what did he mean by “making her this way”? What way was I?

  Memories like that flowed through my mind as I sat there waiting and coloring. Occasionally, I would look up in anticipation of him coming back around the corner, and although I was still quite tempted to go look for him, I didn’t. Later, the Umbrella Lady would tell me that not rushing off to find my father was very good logic for an eight-year-old girl.