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Girl in the Shadows, Page 2

V. C. Andrews

  It didn't surprise me that I was plagued by indecision. Every significant choice I had made, especially recently, seemed to have taken me into deeper shadows, deeper bewilderment and

  pandemonium. I was dangerously close to becoming inert, terrified of moving in any direction.

  Lying there and struggling to remember it all. I realized how much I wanted to become an amnesiac. Forgetting was so temptingly luxurious. Yes, how wonderful it would be if today really was the first day of my life. I thought. Daddy wouldn't have died of a brain tumor he had kept secret from us. Mama wouldn't have become so depressed she had to overdose on sleeping pills. My sister. Brenda, wouldn't hate me for being unable to reject her girlfriend Celia's advances, and I wouldn't have had to watch Uncle Palaver drink himself to death. Surely that was enough to drive anyone willingly into a state of amnesia.

  I took a deep breath and sat up slowly. My nightgown was a little snug under my arms. Mrs. Westington had insisted I use whatever of her daughter Rhona's clothing I could fit into, which really wasn't much more than this pink nightgown I now wore. The closet was filled with what looked like relatively unworn garments, pretty one-piece dresses, skirts, and blouses I could only dream of wearing. I was still a good twenty pounds overweight and hated the sight of myself undressed. The roll of fat around my waist made it look like I had swallowed a small inner tube. When I was younger, I used to wonder if I could poke myself with a pin and let the fat out as I could let the air out of a balloon. I came close to trying it.

  Despite my weight. I did hold up every pretty garment Rhona had left behind and dream of what I would look like if I could actually fit into each. When I sifted through the closet. I realized Rhona had left a considerable wardrobe. A few skirts and blouses actually still had sales tags hanging on them. There were at least two-dozen pairs of shoes. However, when she had abandoned her responsibilities nearly ten years ago, she had left more than just her clothing and other material possessions behind. According to Mrs. Westington, Rhona had deserted her deaf daughter. Echo, without a good-bye, without a promise to return. She hadn't even left a note for her to read someday explaining why she had left her!

  "She gave that girl nothing but her name. When she left, it was as if that daughter of mine turned into a puff of smoke," Mrs. Westington said, and snapped her fingers. She sat in her favorite chair and talked about Rhona. While she did, she fixed her eves on the wall behind me as if she could see it all projected and running like a home movie.

  "She was always unhappy, always complaining. She told me she had to get away and have some fun with her life. She couldn't stomach being responsible for a child, especially a disabled one. One day she was gone, just like that. I should have expected it. She never cared a tinker's damn about anything that wasn't solely for her own pleasure. I swear that girl was born without a conscience. The good angels must have been on vacation when I gave birth. She was my daughter and I did what I could bringing her up. but you'd have to dig deeply into the well of stinginess to find someone more self-centered,"

  Even though I'd been here in the old vineyard mansion barely three days. I could sense the pain in Mrs. Westington's heart whenever she mentioned Rhona. She tried to put on a hard shell and pretend she couldn't care much less about her daughter, but the way she shifted those dark gray eyes nervously and tightened her thin fingers around the pearl head of her brown walking stick at the slightest reference to Rhona told me she still suffered sharp pangs in her heart from the great disappointment. She couldn't simply write her off and forget her as she claimed, waving her hand and declaring. "It's as if she never was, far as I'm concerned. Never was."

  Trevor Washington said. "Asking a parent to deny her own child is like asking a flower to deny the rain. Mrs. Westington can pretend all she wants, but it can't happen. Blood's blood. It can't be ignored no matter what you do."

  He whispered this to me after one of Mrs. Westington's tirades about her ungrateful daughter, but I was positive Mrs. Westing-ton had heard him. It didn't take me long to see that she didn't miss much going on around her, despite her age and fragile appearance.

  I was surprised her loyal employee would say anything negative or critical about her to me, but right from the beginning, Trevor was willing to take me into his confidence. Perhaps he was desperate for company, desperate for someone who not only could hear but was willing to listen. After all, he had no family of his own and was working for an elderly lady and a deaf fourteen-year-old girl. Loneliness had found a home in his world. too.

  Mrs. Westington told me about his tragedy. "He lost his young wife to a raging bone cancer that gobbled her up like some monster with metal teeth. That poor beautiful girl withered like one of his grapes on the vine and that tore his heart to shreds. There's a line in the Bible that fits him," she said. " 'If you should die. I will hate all womankind.'

  "That in a nutshell is the story of Trevor Washington. The man married himself to this land and this family with the dedication of a monk. And I'm not flattered by it. I'm saddened by it," she said.

  "He has no other family?" I asked. "He has some elderly aunts and some cousins, and his mother is still alive."

  "She is?"

  "She's ninety-three and lives in a nursing home in Phoenix. Arizona. He visits her regularly, but he says she's in that limbo between life and death where she doesn't remember anything, including him and his visits. Of course, he noes anyway."

  After Mrs. Westington's husband died or as she says. "kicked the bucket," she closed the vineyard. She knew Trevor had to manufacture most of the work he did, but she would never let him go. The old three-story house was large enough to require him to provide regular maintenance and I knew he had a pet project: fanning a small portion of the once fruitful and vibrant vineyard, and then processing his harvest into Chardonnay wine. I understood that he grew enough grapes to produce 50 to a 150 cases of the Chardonnay that had built the Westingtons" their small fortune. The remainder of the property was overgrown.

  Although the house still had its original charm and style, all of the furnishings looked worn and tired. It was truly as if it had aged alongside Mrs. Westington. Frayed sofas, worn rugs, a cracked figurine on a rickety looking pedestal, all of it, like her, nevertheless still had character. Giving anything away or throwing anything out would be like deserting old friends. Right from the moment I set foot in the home. Mrs. Westington would nod at something and tell me its history and why it was still important to her. This was a present; that was something she had bought on a trip East or a vacation. I imagined she recited these anecdotes to anyone who entered so as to justify why someone with her bank account wouldn't replenish, restore, or buy new and more fashionable things.

  "Because people today treat their possessions with such disdain, they treat each other likewise," she declared before I could even think of asking such questions. "People who have no respect for what their ancestors left them have no respect for themselves.

  You don't get tired of things that had meaning." she lectured.

  However, the bedroom I was using had been Rhona's and the furnishings were newer than most everything else in the house. I was sleeping in a beautiful white and pink canopy bed. The matching dresser, armoire, and vanity table had the same pink swirls in them and there was a soft, milk white area rug surrounding the bed. The only blemish was a deep yellow stain Mrs. Westington said was Rhona's fault. She had spilled wine and not told anyone about it.

  Curious about the daughter who had lived here and then run off, deserting her own flesh and blood. I did search the dresser drawers and the closet for clues, but I discovered nothing that would tell me why. I found packs of old cigarettes she had probably kept hidden and some grains of what I knew was pot. Mrs. Westiagton had taken down posters of rock stars and scantily clad male models and shoved all of it to the rear of the closet. I found some jewelry in the vanity table drawer, but none of it looked expensive. Most of the makeup was dried out and the colognes smelled too old to be used.
  The most surprising thing I found was a dildo. I knew what it was because my sister's lover. Celia, had one on the small night dresser next to her and Brenda's bed. She called it Mr. Feelgood. Brenda would get furious with her if she talked about it in front of me, but nevertheless, she once had a birthday party for it and put it in the center of a cake. Of course. I wondered now if most women, heterosexual or homosexual, used them. I quickly put it back where I found it, buried under a pile of Playgirl magazines deep at the rear of Rhona's closet.

  I wondered why Mrs. Westington hadn't gone through this room and at least had her cleaning lady. Lourdes, throw out some of this, Had she been living with the hope that her daughter would have a surge of remorse and return? Even after all these years? Mrs. Westington didn't strike me as someone who permitted herself any illusions, but all of us, even someone like her, cling to that life preserver called hope.

  As I became more awake. I remembered that today was the day Echo's tutor. Tyler Monahan, was coming, Mrs. Westington told me he had been on a trip and had returned. He worked with Echo weekdays for five hours a day. Mrs. Westington explained that he had been a teacher in a school for the disabled in Los Angeles and had returned to the nearby town of Healdsburg to help his mother. Lee Monahan, with their chocolate wine sauce business after his father had died suddenly of heart failure. That was nearly two years ago. Up until then. Echo's education had been basically catch as catch can, the instructors being those teachers at a relatively close school for disabled children. None of them were willing to devote as much time as Tyler Monahan did, or with any regularity. and Mrs. Westington was unwilling to have Echo attend the special school and sleep away from home.

  Although she never came right out and said it. Mrs. Westington had lost her daughter to bad influences and she was afraid of something similar happening to Echo, who because of her disability, was perhaps more vulnerable. According to Mrs. Westington, whatever bad genes Rhona had inherited from her father. Echo could have also inherited, and then there was the mystery of who her father was. too.

  "He couldn't have been much," Mrs.

  Westington insisted. "Not if he was with Rhona. He probably doesn't even know he has a child, which is for the best. I'm sure."

  I really didn't know how long I would remain here. but Mrs. Westington wanted me at least to stay long enough to have Tyler tutor me so I could pass the high school equivalency exam. She convinced me I was of some real help for her with Echo. which made me feel a little better about taking so much from her. Of course. I knew I had to develop the methods to communicate with Echo. In just the few days I had been here. I had already begun to learn a little signing on my own. Trevor was fairly good at it and so was Mrs. Westinton, although she seemed to be able to communicate with Echo just as well through a look or a gesture. For example, even though Echo couldn't hear it, if she saw Mrs. Westington tap her cane. Echo understood her grandmother wanted her to do something promptly.

  What amazed me about Echo was how conscious she was of other people's hearing ability. I realized it again this morning when not five minutes after I had awoken. I heard a knock on my bedroom door. I cried. "Come in." The door didn't open. I heard knocking again and I realized it was Echo. so I got out of bed and opened the door. She was standing there, already dressed, smiling at me and signing good morning. I signed back and combined some of my own gestures with words, telling her I would shower and dress quickly so we could go down to breakfast. She was very good at reading lips and understanding my little mime shows.

  Right from the first time I set eyes on her. I thought she was a cute girl who had the potential to into a very attractive young woman. Her curly black hair had been poorly cut too short. It looked like a bowl had been placed around her head. so I suspected her grandmother had done it. but Echo had striking Kelly green eyes, a sweet, small nose that was turned up full lips, and a slightly cleft chin. She didn't wear a bra. Maybe she didn't even own one, but her breasts clearly looked firm and already quite shapely. She was developing a very nice figure, a figure I, obviously twenty or so pounds overweight, envied.

  I turned and hurried to the bathroom to shower and dress. While she waited for me, she looked at some of the posters and pictures of Uncle Palaver I had lying about the vanity table. She was amused to see Mr. Panda on my bed. I wrote out his name for her and told her it had been a present from my father. She held it in her hands more lovingly and looked at it more intently then, because not only had she never gotten a present from her father, she didn't know who he was and had never met him.

  "Would you like to keep Mr. Panda in your room?" I asked her, and her eyes brightened. She nodded quickly. The teddy bear had always brought me comfort. I thought. Maybe it would do the same for her.

  She wondered about some of my other things, especially Uncle Palaver's, which I had brought in from the motor home the night of his funeral. I promised to show her more of them later.

  He had left instructions for cremation and the ceremony, attended only by me. Mrs. Westington, and Trevor Washington, was very short. On our way back. I asked her if she minded my bringing the Destiny doll into the house. I felt guilty leaving the doll in the motor home, sprawled on the bed upon which Uncle Palaver had died. Living with Uncle Palaver and watching him treat his doll so reverently had obviously left an impression on me.

  "Not just yet," Mrs. Westington replied. "It will take a while to get Echo to understand it all," she suggested.

  How could I disagree? I was still trying to understand it all myself.

  Echo took Mr. Panda to her room. I dressed quickly and when she returned, we went down to breakfast together, Mrs. Westington, who was an early riser, had already eaten her breakfast, which consisted mainly of some pieces of orange, a bowl of oatmeal, and a cup of tea with honey. Echo and I squeezed fresh orange juice and Mrs. Westington put up some eggs to boil. Echo liked them soft and so did I. The table was set and there was sliced homemade bread as well as jams and butter, and fresh fruit.

  "Tyler uses my husband's old office for his tutoring," Mrs. Westington suddenly blurted. With her cane she pointed at the clock over the refrigerator. "'He'll be here in less than a half hour, so don't you two dillydally."

  She signed what she had said to me and Echo stopped smiling and looked serious.

  "He doesn't know anything about you yet," Mrs. Westington told me. "But I'll speak to him about helping you."

  "Maybe he won't want to do it," I said. I wasn't disabled and he was a specialist in working with the disabled. although I had a self-image that was probably not much better than the image a disabled person had of herself.

  "Maybe he won't: maybe he will. Take a letter," she added, which was her way of telling me to remember something. "If I could read the future. I sure as hell wouldn't have made the mistakes I made. But you don't cry over spilt milk, girl. You wipe it up and start over. If you dwell on the past, you'll have no future." she concluded, nodding at her own wisdom.

  "I guess you're right about that," I said, recalling my first thoughts this morning.

  She raised her eyebrows. "Oh, you think so, do you? Well, that's hopeful. My granddad used to say. 'Youth is wasted on the young. Wisdom wouldn't be so bad if it didn't come with age.' Eat up," she added, bringing us the eggs. You want coffee or tea?"

  "I'm fine with this," I said, nodding at the milk.

  Echo watched me crack my eggs open carefully from the small end down and then she did the same with her eggs, imitating my every move. My father used to do it this way. He was meticulous about it and it left an impression on me. I loved imitating things he did anyway.

  Echo smiled and I caught Mrs. Westington gazing at her, a warming in her eyes and softening in her lips. She realized I was looking at her and quickly turned away, banging the pot in the sink as if she was upset with herself for being caught showing warm affection.

  "That cleaning girl of mine comes today. I'm sure she'll be as late as ever. No one pays much attention to time anymore."
she muttered, "How I wish I was younger and stronger so I could do my own housework again. Hateful thing, age. It makes you too dependant on the kindness of others and believe me, girl, you got to dig deeply into some people to find a drop of kindness in their hearts."

  She took so deep a breath. I thought she was going to keel over. "Are you all right. Mrs. Westing- ton?" I asked quickly.

  "What? Oh, yeah fine, fine," she said. but I was sure some arrow of pain had shot through her. "It's my own fault jawing away like this. All talk and no cider," she mumbled.

  Echo seemed to sense Mrs. Westington's moods from the way she held her head and shoulders. I saw how she reacted immediately, a look of worry spreading over her face. What would happen to her if something happened to Mrs. Westington? I wondered. Her mother was as good as dead to her and she didn't know her father. Seeing her vulnerability caused me to recall my own when Mama had been so sick. It was terrifying for me and I had all my senses and an older sister. Mrs. Westington was Echo's lifeline to the world, even the small and restricted world she had.

  "Maybe now that I'm here, I can do the work. Mrs. Westington. I don't mind. I used to help my mother with her house chores."

  "What? No. no. I wouldn't take the work away from Lourdes. She needs the money, and besides, you'll have other things to do. It will be enough if you look after your bedroom." she said, and then leaned forward to look more clearly out the kitchen window, "Just look at that foolish man toiling away out there on those grapevines, You ever see such stubbornness? He thinks if he clings onto a piece of the past, he'll get me wanting to start it all again. No matter how I tell him he's wasting his time, he's at it. Don't know why I kept him around me all these years."