|Flight of Fancy
Author: GrayRainbows PM
Alicia Foxworth seeks shelter in a world of illusions - Flowers series, GoSRated: Fiction T - English - Words: 9,998 - Reviews: 7 - Favs: 4 - Published: 04-06-08 - Status: Complete - id: 4180759
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"Don't you know what is happening? Surely you sense it."
Olivia gazed at me, not yet infected with the knowledge of what Malcolm had done, but her mind was already working.
Misery came over me in a flood, as I saw the dread that nonplussed her, but the most bitter truth was yet to be spoken. I had to tell her that Malcolm wanted the baby.
"Malcolm," she said, the question and answer in one, as the last piece of the puzzle fell into place for her.
Circumstance forced me to conspire with Malcolm, to hurt Olivia in ways that heartfelt apologies and tears couldn't reverse. Malcolm should have been the one to make the confession and watch the light die out of his wife's eyes.
Having little thought for any but my own predicament, I envied Olivia her silent body and her clear conscience, for Olivia, standing by the window in the early afternoon light was the picture of purity in a white dress.
She turned from the window, and I saw that she was dismayed, but not mortified. I felt a dawning horror as I realized, suddenly, that she must be so conditioned to Malcolm's inclemency that hearing it spoken of did not shock her. I hadn't thought it possible for a man to treat his own wife in the same way Malcolm had treated me, but her very reaction, the equanimity with which she listened, and that she did not immediately berate me upon hearing my story revealed that she, too, must have suffered at Malcolm's hands.
I couldn't imagine Olivia being forced to tolerate his violence, but Malcolm seemed always to do whatever he wanted, and to get whatever he wanted.
"He called me..." I hesitated, deeply ashamed and embarrassed. "Corinne."
More than once, I experienced Olivia's impatience with my plaintiveness, and even now, I wonder how she managed to be so strong throughout that ordeal. I would not have been surprised if I'd come upon her alone in the north salon, silently weeping, as I imagine she did. Heaven knows I sobbed enough for the both of us, but she didn't cry, not in my presence.
Disgusted, sickened, she was. She had a right to be sickened. So had I, but the shame belonged to Malcolm.
But I, too, had my share of shame, for while my darling Garland lived, I did once let myself fantasize about Malcolm, for after all, he was years younger than my husband, and like Garland, was exceptionally handsome. But I never truly wanted to catch Malcolm's eye; I never wanted to be the object of his lust!
"If you breathe one word-" Malcolm had warned me in quietly vicious tones, cornering me in the hallway the morning after the first time he'd come to my room.
"I-I won't!" I stammered in quick, foolish agreement, hoping to forestall whatever threat he thought to make. "I don't want to hurt her."
He'd clapped a hand over my mouth.
"Quiet! Not a word about her, or to her!"
But a new malady supplanted all others: I was with child; I'd known it since the morning I had been unable to swallow a cup of tea that had suddenly tasted metallic-a sure sign that I was pregnant.
I had not been surviving without Garland very well; I had been unable to look after my one son. How would I fare with two?
I told Olivia many things, but not about the dreams, not about the girl with pale blue eyes and golden-blonde hair, who appeared in my room the night after the tea went metallic. I didn't know if she was the ghost of the future, or the past.
The things I did say were those which a clearer head, age and retrospect tells me Olivia didn't need to hear, but I wasn't entirely honest. I didn't tell her that I'd called her husband by Garland's name.
"Garland," I whispered into my pillow, once. That stilled Malcolm, stopped him. I almost thought that he, too, had suffered heart failure. "Please help me." I finished, as if praying.
I almost believed that Garland truly could help me. Alone in the Swan Room, I spoke to him so often, trying to keep his memory alive, but I couldn't raise his ghost; my memory of Garland was already fading. Malcolm had stolen him from me.
"He took one of those old nightgowns out of the closet and made me put it on." I explained to Olivia. I led her to believe that that brute husband of hers came to my room oftener than he did, in truth, and that he lived out some twisted romantic fantasy.
I always averted my eyes, which rankled with him. If he thought that the sight of him should cause me to swoon, he was wrong. There was nothing at all exciting about the way Malcolm forced himself on me. He was taller than Garland, and probably thirty pounds heavier; his body hadn't gone slack with middle age and diminishing strength, and I feared I would be smothered or crushed.
I should not have been surprised by what happened, for the man had shown himself to be cruel, in countless instances. His children were on their guard when he was at home. His wife... Well, what can one say of Olivia?
Olivia isn't loved for her beauty; she has more than that to recommend her. She is valued for her integrity and fortitude, qualities necessary for survival in Malcolm's house. I used to respect her for being true to that granite-hearted man.
"What is he really like?" I'd once asked. "Garland can exaggerate so."
I'd sensed, obliquely, Garland's impatience with his older son, and that he sometimes disliked Malcolm.
"Don't look for much geniality from him, it isn't in his nature. He's a lot like his mother." Garland had said.
Had Olivia been his peer, rather than thirty years his junior, Garland would have been intimidated by her, for she wasn't the cheerful, open sort of person with whom Garland was most at ease. She didn't laugh easily, and she looked at you as though she was holding some unfavorable judgment in reserve, and that there was much within herself that she wouldn't share. Though she once chastised me for it, she took great pride in status and the Foxworth name, yet was uneasy in herself, much like Malcolm was.
"Never ask a wife what her husband is like. You won't get an honest answer."
Oh, how cleverly evasive she was! How noncommittal in her responses, and reluctant to share confidences.
I have no doubt that if asked the same question, Malcolm would have given a similar reply.
Malcolm never mentioned Olivia's name to me; at least he thought enough of her not to malign her. This gave me hope that some goodness prevailed in him. Yet, it sickened me to see him kiss her goodbye each morning, pretending he'd done nothing wrong!
I hated what he was doing, but Malcolm was suffering, surely feeling tremendous guilt over his part in his father's death.
I was that naive!
My naivete was what Malcolm played upon, to frighten me. He used the threat of harming my only child to gain my silent acceptance. Trying to keep him out by locking my door at night meant also the chance of Christopher-if he should need me-finding his mother's door locked to him, and for that, I couldn't forgive Malcolm.
That was before I was left cowering once too often, wrapped tightly in the bedspread, praying to forget his foul assaults on my body and my ears. My feelings were not hurt by his base aspersions, but if he felt so repulsed, why didn't he leave me alone?
If I took to heart the denigrating things Malcolm implied or directly stated, I would have believed I was bony, almost flat-chested, and that I gave my final favor to every man who looked twice at me. I was unlike what he was used to, so he insulted me; possibly this made him feel less guilt.
I hoped Olivia would eventually forgive me, but I said what I did, only because I was trying to help her. If she became angry enough, I thought she'd leave him, and take those precious boys away from him. Malcolm doesn't deserve them.
"He's a credit to the eighteenth century." my sister Althea replied to one of my letters, in which I'd described Malcolm, telling her some, but not all about life at Foxworth Hall in the three years before Garland died.
But I rarely looked beyond my own happiness with Christopher and Garland to see the true colors of those around me.
Unlike the rest of his family, Garland never made me feel foolish for being young and for all that I didn't know, only very grateful to have his love and protection. Without him, I learned just how much I had been sheltered from the ugliness that could exist in people. I was an innocent, but by the time I left the Foxworth family, I no longer played the part of the ingenue in the drama of my own life.
Too late, I saw that I'd become far to involved.
Too late, I saw that I'd been too free with my explanations: telling Olivia that I'd once gone into Malcolm's bedroom had been a mistake. I'd violated her code of acceptable behavior, her tone informed me. I opened the door to her suspicions, and nothing I said after could change that.
In the days following my talk with Olivia, I kept to my room, avoiding them both. I was terrified of Malcolm, even in Olivia's presence, now. I was glad, however, that everything was out in the open, but I felt tremendous guilt for causing the arctic atmosphere between them, and for contributing to the tension that made Olivia short-tempered and stern with the children.
Reminding myself that it was Malcolm who had caused the trouble did little to alleviate my guilt. I knew I should have told Olivia sooner, but I'd wanted to shield her, and I'd been afraid to speak up.
Olivia so often suspected my motives. Her imperious manner and her quick impatience made me so nervous that at times I found it difficult to talk to her. Malcolm guessed this, using it to temporarily buy my silence, yet again, on the morning when I told him of my predicament.
On that morning, the same day on which, Later, I would confess all to Olivia, I'd dressed in an old shapeless robe, and stealthily left the Swan Room. My heart hammered as my slippered feet whispered along the beige runner carpeting the center of the corridor, as I made my way toward the end of the hallway. The back stairs fell away into shadow, and sunrise was not yet visible through the single window. I found it hard to catch my breath as I approached the last door on the left-Malcolm's bedroom; it was not a place I wanted to visit. I hoped something would intervene to prevent the conversation I had to initiate, but my cautious hand found his door unlocked, and beyond, Malcolm was still asleep. Alone.
There was only dim illumination from the corridor, reflected by a mirror and a glass-fronted bookcase off to the right, and I stood holding onto the doorframe as my eyes adjusted to the dark interior of his room. The furniture loomed as unrecognizable dark shapes. The omission of a rug made the room seem even more spacious, and the lustrous hardwood floor gleamed like golden honey poured wall to wall.
I'd left the door ajar, intending this to be a brief dialog, not an intimate conversation, but I had no plan of action.
I didn't speak, only turned on the brass lamp at his bedside and waited.
Malcolm opened his eyes, but remained supine in the center of his bed, disoriented. His stare was blank, as though he didn't see me. When he did, he was angry, and pulled himself upright.
"What the hell are you doing here?"
How curious, that the foreign sight of me in this room didn't immediately prompt him to ask if the house was on fire, or whether his sons were all right.
He glanced toward the door, a shadow of worry passing over his face.
I was afraid, suddenly, that Olivia might hear us talking and investigate, and what would she think? I knew what this would look like. Malcolm's anger was harrowing to experience, but it would be far worse having to tell Olivia of her husband's betrayal at six o'clock in the morning, or to hear him tell her, while he was angry and felt cornered.
I stepped back, and averted my eyes from his angry blue ones. By mistake, I backed into the bureau, dislodging something that clattered to the floor. Malcolm winced at the noise.
"Now Olivia may come."
"She may." I agreed calmly, but my calm was only pretense. I let him stew for another few seconds. "She's sleeping soundly. I looked in on her."
"You did WHAT!"
His fists clenched, and his face went through even greater apoplectic contortions.
I'd come to ask him, once more, to consult with the lawyers, to expedite the dispersal of Garland's estate-whatever must be done to give me access to the money I needed to start my life anew in Richmond, but I couldn't find the words to press my suit, emphasizing the need for haste. Instead, I said the very thing I'd promised myself I wouldn't reveal.
"I'm pregnant." I blurted.
My lips quivered, and my eyes smarted with tears.
For a space of perhaps five seconds, I didn't know why he was angry, then I realized the assumption he made, and I knew it for a solution to my problem.
I looked at the floor, afraid to meet his eyes, revulsion gnawing at the pit of my stomach, remembering. I knew what he must think-that a pregnancy wasn't likely to have occurred, because each time, he had drawn away when necessary.
"I haven't said anything to her." I said hastily, thinking I knew what worried him.
"Olivia," he said, and the color of rage began to fade from his face. He seemed to regain control of himself.
"She doesn't have to know. I could just go away."
"The terms of my father's will are very definite. You'll have your appanage, but no more, so if you thought, by this scheme of yours, to extort more money from me, think again."
"This is no scheme!" I countered indignantly. "I never wanted this!"
"I will not support you and your offspring."
"I don't want anything from you." I said, my voice husky with hurt, and with anger-the lifeline I struggled to hold onto, to see me through this confrontation.
"Prove it. Leave Foxworth Hall. Today."
"I-I can't!" I said in a panic.
He smiled coldly.
"Leave it to me to speak to Olivia."
I would gladly leave that unhappy task to him.
"We will keep the baby; it will be hers." he announced in decretory fashion. "What's mine, I keep."
I gaped. The rapidity of his perpension, and his immediate solution was astonishing.
"You'll live in seclusion in the north wing." he concluded. "You will agree to my terms, or I shall confess to my wife that you enticed me into your bed."
"Oh, please, Malcolm, please don't!" I implored, melting into tears. "I couldn't bear for her to think that."
"Have a little self control." he admonished, scornfully.
I dabbed at my eyes with my sleeve. My trembling knees threatened to buckle. I knew what justifications Malcolm might posit, for I'd overheard some of what he told Olivia on the night Garland died. He had said I was responsible for his being in my room. She hadn't believed him, but he had had two months since then in which to convince her that his story was true. Maybe he'd convinced himself, as well.
"She has never trusted you. She would believe that a woman like you would do just that."
His certitude was such that in my heart, I knew it was true, though I was so at sea without Garland that I hardly knew the truth of anything, anymore.
What did he mean by, "a woman like you?"
Had I tempted Malcolm? Had I encouraged this tyranny to continue by agreeing to stay silent, after the first time?
"What-what will you tell her?"
"Don't concern yourself with what I will say to my wife."
Those words, undoubtedly meant to remind me of my place, were boundaries within which Malcolm could restore some semblance of control. His wife. His sons. He invoked them as talismans against the disaster that was about to befall his household, the disaster his folly had invited.
"What if she asks me about the baby's father?"
"You'll think of some explanation, I'm sure. Some acquaintance of yours, or perhaps the gardener, for after all, he is of your preferred generation."
Tears leaked from my eyes, but I didn't crumple to the floor and lose control.
"You're a hateful person." I branded him, using Olivia's own words, but they had no effect, coming from me. He had no respect for me, no fear of me.
"Be that as it may, I hold all the cards."
"Not all. You aren't alone in this. She may want no part of your plan." I felt a stab of pity for Olivia. "Oh, Malcolm, have you really thought of what you'll be asking her to do?"
I paused, giving him time to consider what I'd said, but he did not reply.
"It would be extraordinary for her to accept this baby." I continued. "She may demand the name of this child's father, and I won't sully the reputation of an innocent man. Anyway, Olivia deserves to know the truth of what you've done."
"The truth is that you remain in my home on sufferance." said Malcolm, and his voice was chipped with ice. "Your pretense of innocence is wearing thin, and it is evident that you are a fortune-hunter who will even stoop to adultery and blackmail."
"That's a lie!"
"What people will think matters more than the precise truth, and they are more inclined to believe the worst."
"I loved Garland; you know I did! I was always faithful to him and my marriage vows-always, which is better than you can say for yourself."
"Concern yourself with your own life-" he started to say.
"My life is here, because you haven't given me control of my inheritance from Garland. Now you have made your life my business, and your marriage. But I cannot preserve that, though I won't do anything purposefully to destroy it. Please believe that."
He didn't reply, and averted his eyes, and seeing that, I reached the end of my good will and patience. I'd given him the benefit of my good opinion long enough.
"You'll pretend to be sorry, I imagine, and Olivia will want to believe you, and so she will. She will because she loves you, even knowing you are the most incurably dishonest man God ever turned out. Or maybe you'll pretend to be sorry, and she will see through you-but I think she does, already. It is your duty to-"
His look of pure wrath stopped me.
"I-I'm sorry. So sorry." I mumbled, faltering, afraid of his fury and of my own boldness. The Bakelite clock on his nightstand told me that I should be leaving, anyway.
The audible creak of a nearby door startled us both.
"Wait!" he commanded in an impatient undertone, and went to the door and looked out.
It was only Mal. Sleepwalking, again.
I made my escape quickly, turned the corner and hurried down the back stairs, since I had no business to be in that end of the south wing hall.
No clatter of breakfast preparation came from Mrs. Wilson's kitchen, it was too early yet, and so I crossed the foyer and slipped into the parlor, unseen. It was the formal parlor, the one Malcolm and Olivia preferred, the one to which guests were brought. Malcolm did not like the children to play here, or to leave their toys strewn about, but often, they did. I picked up Christopher's little fuzzy bear from the piano bench, pressing it to my cheek, worrying for the welfare of the boys, if I were kept away from them for months. How easily they could be brought to tears with a harsh word, how easily they incurred scoldings from Malcolm.
With a sinking feeling, I realized that by allowing these thoughts, I was already becoming complicit to Malcolm's plan, when I knew I should be gathering courage to refuse. Did I have much choice in the matter? There was no one to advise me, no one to care about me.
Back upstairs, I went into Garland's room, a dim, narrow room, the only place where I felt safe. I should have abandoned the Swan Room and slept here, for adjacent to this was Olivia's room, and Malcolm wouldn't have had the audacity to attack me, here. Garland's belongings were all around, but I hadn't wanted to live among them, though it comforted me to know they were nearby. I pressed the pillow to my face,, inhaling only the pervasive scent of clean linen; no trace of Garland's Bay Rum cologne remained. Opening the closet, I buried my face in the wool of his sport jackets.
Movement somewhere nearby alerted me to the fact that Olivia must be awake. I wasn't ready to see her.
I went quietly into the bathroom, took a hand towel from its bar attached to the pedestal sink, dampened it and rinsed my feverish face in cold water, before hurrying back to the Swan Room where I lay atop the coverlet on my bed, unable to sleep for more than five minutes at a time.
I listened to all of them go down to breakfast. Later I heard the boys voices, could imagine their play and their irrepressible energy. I heard Malcolm's car drive away. I heard Olivia scold Mal for grasping and swinging from the newel post. She forbade all of them from running inside the house, though the long foyer and the hallways would tempt any child. I heard their laughter, my Christopher's laughter, but my lips couldn't form a smile.
I felt as amorphous as smoke, barely breathing, barely existing; it was as though I were already immured in the north wing. Life went on without me, just as it had done since April.
What would it matter if I was here, or in the north wing?
Once I'd settled to the idea, some of the burden of my widowed state lifted, for I'd bought myself several more months during which I wouldn't need to face the outside world which would expect me to have finished, too soon, grieving Garland. In that frame of mind, I tried to view this time as a reprieve, even a gift, knowing an end was in sight. Once this was over, life would continue, and might yet bring blessings in my future, though that future would never be as bright as my past, nor as dark as the present.
The room where I spent the rest of my days at Foxworth Hall was functional, but depressingly ugly. The furniture was oppressive and uncomfortable, the chairs uninviting. The glass in the covered windows rattled when there was thunder and when a door closed downstairs. The bath was equally unappealing, with its old square white porcelain tiles and tarnished fixtures. The cold water spigot dripped. There was rust around the drain of the bathtub; there was no hint of luxury here-not even a heated towel rail. How could I ever come out of my period of mourning, in these forlorn surroundings?
There were many things about which Olivia and I could have talked, but didn't. We each of us were striving to protect ourselves. Beyond queries about my health, Olivia didn't ask how I felt, and I never asked her. I felt I had no right, and I was half frightened of the torrential blame that would be apportioned me, if I should ask.
The future, too, was a forbidden topic. I didn't so much as ask what they planned to name the baby, although for a time, I thought I would want to see Olivia's initial response to her, to assure myself that she would be loved, for Olivia did not seem interested in the baby. But perhaps she kept that, like so much of what she felt, private, and this too was a method of self-protection, though Olivia's way was not mine.
In one of the books brought to me during my first weeks ensconced in the north wing, I found a folded paper stuck between the pages.
"We may as well be strangers."
The penmanship bespoke of a disciplined mind and hand-Olivia's. But why had she written that, and about whom had she written it? What did it mean? Strangers?
When next she appeared, I asked for a pen and paper.
"Olivia," I reasoned innocently, "I must write to my mother. If she doesn't hear from me, she'll worry."-and then the winning point-"If she does not hear from me, she'll telephone."
The next day, she left a pen on the table, and a folder embossed with the logo from one of Malcolm's banks.
I did try to write, but quickly gave up writing letters, because in them I could not be truthful.
"Alicia," I wrote on the clean white endpaper, and then just kept writing it. "Alicia. Alicia. Alicia. Alicia!" And then, "Olivia." Because I knew SHE was the prisoner in that house.
I could not, but I wanted to erase my name. I wanted the Foxworths to forget me when the new year came, when their new baby came. They would forget me, but I would never forget what happened, and what I've learned.
There is so little love in that mansion. I thought Garland and I could bring love into it. I thought the children could.
I tried to believe that Mal and Joel would grow up happy, in spite of their father and their unhappy mother. Soon, I would take Christopher away from this loveless, strange menage, and I wouldn't care about any other child but my own.
I could hear Christopher shout gleefully from below, from outside. How easy it was to make Christopher laugh, and how quickly he was forgetting his father. I was sad to be missing these months of Christopher's life, but took comfort in the knowledge that he was so adaptable, and so attached to Mal and Joel, who he looked on as brothers.
The three boys were on the swings. I nudged the curtains aside in time to see Mal fly from his swing, into a hard landing on the ground. To my great relief, Christopher and Joel did not follow his lead.
For as long as I dared, I watched Christopher, then let the curtains fall into place again, for the boys must not see me. My heart ached, and I went up into the attic so I couldn't hear my son.
I have always believed that love wins out over evil, but I had no one to cling to and adore, and I had always been loved, had always fiercely loved those who looked after me.
I didn't recognize myself during those months adrift; I was not Garland's wife, not Christopher's mother. Garland used to say that I was like a summer day, but the Alicia of before was gone. Malcolm destroyed her. I was as much a ghost as was the entity that continued to haunt my room at night.
In the many free hours I had over the next months, my hatred for Malcolm grew. I wished I could steal from him what mattered.
Sitting in the attic schoolroom, I discovered how easily I could copy Olivia's handwriting, and I practiced until mind and hand worked automatically.
"I have never loved him, but he has never seen through that lie."
My resentment against Olivia began one day when I had a headache. Surely, it would do no harm for her to bring a remedy. I remembered her medicine cabinets, crowded with neat rows of jars of powders and pills, and then compared it with the barrenness of my room. Had Olivia forgotten, or had she intended to force me to ask for every little thing?-left to suffer and wait, and hope to see her come through that door?
I went to the door and contemplated pounding on it.
For the first time, I fully understood I was a prisoner.
You catch more flies with honey, I thought. Charm her, and these months will go easier, whispered a new voice in my head. I didn't recognize it as cunning, though, I only knew it was whispering of something new.
Enraged by her continuing absence, I eventually lay down upon the bed, and reached for a book and my pen.
"Christopher grows to look more and more like his half brother." I wrote on the endpaper of one of Olivia's books in a simulation of Olivia's hand. "It's the eyes that make me wonder..."
Probably not for years and years would these books be read again. By the time my words were found, their meaning would be indecipherable. It would be a mystery, a game.
"I was married for my money." I wrote. "I always knew it."
But I grew bored with the game, and went back to reading. Thank goodness Olivia had finally brought books I liked, rather than one of the densely worded tomes she enjoyed.
"How he longed to feast his eyes upon the softness of her beauty! To fill his ears with the music of her voice! To touch her little hand, and scent the fragrance of her breath upon his cheek!"
I sighed in a transport of pleasure, and daydreaming about the beautiful words and purple grass, upon which Garland and I danced, fell asleep.
A large square patch of purple grass moved across the floor. When it came near, I saw that it was not grass. There were no blades, but roots. The roots were revolving for each small plant in the whole patch, like the spokes of a wheel. They plunged into the rug, and were then withdrawn. The sinister purple plant-creature jumped forward. Some semi-intelligent instinct kept the plants moving at one pace, like a flock of migrating birds, coming closer.
I awakened fighting the urge to scream, drenched in sweat that pasted my nightgown to my skin, the sound of my own breath scaring me as I stared groggily at the macabre picture on the nearest wall. Then I was alert enough to recall the source of the horrifying dream imagery, and to recognize my surroundings. All was quiet in that stuffy room, except for the ticking clock which revealed that only one short hour had passed!
Had Olivia seen the clock here when she made this room ready, and not removed it, or had she intentionally put it on the dresser?
The clock chimed hourly, so I'd know just how many long hours I spent in boredom. The ceaseless ticking of that clock tempted me to break the glass and bend the little gold hour and minute hands, so that the works would grind to a halt. Finally, I took it up to the attic and hid it away in an armoire. I would have done the same with those grotesque paintings, but I had to have something at which to look, and the scenes from the mind of a mad Spaniard weren't any worse than seeing my own reflection.
So I covered the mirrors.
I asked for many things with which to sweeten my time of captivity. Except for a warm slice of angel food cake once, she would bring no desserts. I requested plump, purple grapes, strawberries with cream, baked apples with cinnamon, even a banana, but nobody downstairs cared for bananas, so they were never bought. (That really meant that the tyrant, Malcolm, and possibly the tyrant-in-training, Mal, disliked bananas.)
I wanted Olivia to tell me the gossip from the neighbors, and she refused, saying that she had no interest in the doings of others, when so much was going on right here in this house. I asked her to bring magazines, but she brought books; I almost expected her to bring a Bible and a dictionary-an unspoken statement of her opinions about my failed morality and intellect.
Oh Lord, make me a good child and take me to heaven when I die, for Jesus' sake!
What did she expect? None of this was my fault!
None of this was my fault, yet she still cut off my hair, and made me thank her for doing it.
She disliked me, and it hurt to think that she might also blame me.
Then, on the last day of August, although never directly acknowledging my birthday, Olivia brought a thermos of coffee with my breakfast. I'd craved coffee for a month! When I came down from the attic later in the day, I found the presents my mother and sister had sent. With the excitement of a child, I quickly unwrapped the boxes. There were new jazz recordings from Althea, and a dress and cinnabar earrings from Mother, and on the table, a brand new bottle of my favorite gardenia bath oil and other vanity items I'd wanted, but had been advised not to bring with me to this room. I felt so grateful, I even forgave the absent Olivia for all the ways she had of making me unhappy.
For the first time in months, I was able to sit down and write a cheerful letter home.
In the first week of September, Olivia decreed it was time I had a new wardrobe, and so into my room she carried the dresses I was to borrow.
"I am not fond of this pattern. Couldn't you bring something else?"
She placed a packet of needles and assorted spools of thread on the table.
"Like WHAT? Surely, you aren't suggesting that we buy you new clothes!"
She was married to the richest man in Virginia, had thousands of dollars worth of diamonds on her hands, but balked at paying the price for a few dresses!
"No, Alicia. You'll only wear them for a few months. You shouldn't have given away your own maternity dresses."
Garland and I had decided, even before Christopher's birth, that he would be our only child. I'd laughed when Garland first said that, for how could it be prevented? The truth is that, at Garland's age, he hadn't wanted children, but he never could deny me anything I wanted.
I forbore to ask why Olivia had not given away her maternity dresses. Did she expect to have another child? Didn't she want one of her own? I was not yet angry enough to ask such a hurtful question, for a moment's thought on the subject presented the obvious, sad answer.
Olivia was still young enough to have more babies, although I could not imagine her in my condition. In fact, I laughed when, a week later, I saw what she had devised to give that appearance so convincingly. I don't know why I laughed; she didn't see the humor in the situation. Olivia had stopped seeing humor in any situation.
She wouldn't agree to buy me a new dress, but she herself wore a new one the following week. Its striped pattern made her look even taller.
"What a pity that you have to spoil your appearance with those silly old pillows."
She has a figure anyone would envy, and beautiful hair, but a plain face. When I first met her, she was unfashionably slim, and even worse, for a woman she is impossibly tall!
I held up one of her maternity dresses. Its sleeves were too long, its skirt dragged on the floor. Its yards of fabric would positively swallow me!
"Just take up the hems."
"I'd have to do a lot more than hem." I said petulantly. "It will be like wearing a tablecloth!"
She didn't like that at all.
"Alicia, must you always exaggerate so ?"
And so wearing her dresses, I waited to have her child. I was the only one in that house who felt sympathy for her, sympathy turned inward, unexpressed.
I worried that she showed little interest in the baby, but most of all, I was starved for human contact, to be enfolded in the sheltering arms of someone stronger than myself.
I took Olivia's hand impulsively, one afternoon. She did not draw away. Her hand was warm; there was an electric tension as our eyes met, as the life current flowed from me to her as she felt the baby move.
I have lost my heart. We aren't meant to be unloved, unhappy.
I telegraphed thoughts to her through my eyes, as I talked of the daughter that would be hers.
Then the spell was broken, as she was reminded by her own demon of jealousy that this child was the child of a man-the proper lover of a woman, the correct one by law, by convention.
"You're mad," she said.
She must have guessed the half-formed hopes I'd entertained, for it was in the way she slammed out of the room-forgetting to lock the door, and in the way she kept her distance thereafter. The hints of kindness she'd previously shown me were absent after that day. She would not meet my eyes. Maybe I'd frightened her.
But, I told myself, tonight, or maybe tomorrow night, she would think of me here, alone, as she lay alone, and she would know her lawful husband didn't care for her as he should-as I did. She'll know how easy it would be; I am her captive. She would realize that I always thought of her, as I endured her husband's invasions. She might know I thought of her sometimes... sometimes when Garland made love to me so tenderly-all the times when I knew how lucky I was, and how unlucky she was.
What caused my strange thoughts, making me hear the music Malcolm no longer heard in the lilting contralto register of her voice, and notice what he'd forgotten to see?
Everyday, I was close enough to notice the scent she liked best, lavender and vanilla-a masculine cologne, but mellowed to perfection on her skin.
Everyday, I saw how disheartened she was becoming. I knew she needed to be loved.
I knew this because of all the conversations I'd half overheard, half understood.
"You know you WILL, if I want you to." I once heard Malcolm say. A long pause followed, a silent clash of wills, knowing them, as I was coming to know them.
"Well?"-a raised voice this time, then hers, higher pitched and frantic, perhaps afraid. Was Olivia ever afraid?
"All right. All RIGHT!"
Garland would never have spoken to me so harshly.
"My love," Garland would murmur reverently, adoringly.
"My dear," his son would say to his wife, but with a very different emphasis, and oddly formal. Sarcasm. Casual ownership, steely insistence: What's mine, I keep. My opinion is always right; my will is law.
From my place in the parlor or dining room or Swan Room I'd overheard several of their arguments. I was at first deeply shocked, then interested, less so as the months went by.
"Can't you get through a full hour without losing your temper?" she once shouted at him.
But most of the time, there was no reason for even stifled mirth. I looked forward to times when Malcolm wasn't home, for no one can thoroughly ruin a day like Malcolm can, as Garland often said.
Then Garland died, and I spent a month in a tranquilized stupor.
I should have left soon after. I should have gone to my mother and sister and the people who love me.
Instead, I waited. I played a Victrola in the attic, danced to the tinny jazz piano it emitted, and indulged my imagination in all kinds of fancies.
What did she want? She hadn't come to let me out, I knew that. She would burst my bubble of contentment and make-believe, so I walked deeper into the attic, and ignored her.
She called from the foot of the stairs in the closet, but I didn't think she'd come up the stairs. She could shout at me all afternoon, and I wouldn't hear.
I lifted my arms into the air, and danced around in a joyous circle, before stepping onto the roof, closing the window behind me. The dark slate burned my bare feet as I looked for a place to sit.
"Olivia," I said, imagining her standing with me on the roof in the sunlight. "I'm sorry."
"Keep thinking about the future, and you will survive the present." Olivia often said. She was so wise!
I fell into a deep sleep on the roof, and dreamed.
"When mild morn, in saffron stole, first issues from her eastern goal-" I began, when next Olivia stepped into my cage.
"It's from a poem about sunrise." I said, happy that she was here, happy she'd brought my breakfast.
But she was not happy. She always looked like she had a pebble in her shoe.
"Of course I know that."
Eliciting her looks of irritation or perplexity amused me. But as the weeks passed, Olivia's response to my strange behavior turned more often to pity, and then to mistrust.
"Garland likes to wake me in the mornings by reciting poetry, and telling me how very beautiful I am."
Malcolm probably tells his wife how beautiful all their millions are.
I laughed gleefully, and kept laughing until my laughter drove her right out of my room, bounced off the four walls and nearly strangled me.
Pretend. See the beach, feel the sugar-sand underfoot. I'll lie here all day in the sun, wearing my new red bathing suit that Garland likes so much. Pretend, and I can taste the cold tangy sweetness of sherbet. I'll see again all the romantic, foreign cities Garland showed his "little girl" who'd never been out of Richmond, Virginia. Pretend I can run away to a place where Garland can be remembered, without pain, without feeling umbrage from the overshadowing memories of Malcolm. Away to a far land where Christopher lives, where we'll sing silly songs, make a magic pudding, and forget all about the evil king in his castle.
When I opened my eyes from my dreams, the air was full of flowers. Purple flowers. The flowers whirled about the room in spiral-shaped bunches, swirling faster, ever closer, buzzing like swarms of bees. Then they began to drift down, slowly, relentlessly, to pile on the bed, burying me!
"Olivia, I can't stay in this room. It's haunted."
"Don't be ridiculous."
"There are ghosts in this house." I lowered my voice to a near whisper. "Haven't you seen them?"
"I certainly have not!"
"I once saw a woman in the Swan Room-"
"Alicia, that, clearly, is nothing but your befuddled imagination."
"There's a little blonde girl. I dream about her."
"Because you are thinking of the child you will have." Olivia said, sensibly. "Or perhaps you're remembering something Garland told you."
"She glides across this room, in the same direction, always. She goes right out that window."
That made her shiver, but she tried not to believe me.
"I've heard quite enough of your nonsense. You shouldn't frighten yourself with these mad stories, Alicia."
She straightened her back, as if the cares of worlds rested on her shoulders.
"There are children, too." I said, growing animated with the telling of my tale. "A whole parade of children."
She'd been at the door, hand in her skirt pocket to retrieve the key, but she turned back, giving me a sharp, long look of scrutiny.
"Next, you're going to tell me that you hear them crashing about in the attic at night, I suppose." Her dangerously quiet, sharp tone and her glare kept me silent, but what she'd just said truly frightened me. "Alicia, I'm wise to your games. Now hear this, if you persist with this unstable behavior, I will have no choice but to bring in a doctor. Do you understand what I am saying?"
"But Olivia, there are other children." I said, and smiled. "They might like to go to the ice cream parlor with Christopher and me."
"Well," she finally snapped, exasperated, "You can no longer complain that you are lonely up here."
But I was lonely. Very lonely. I walked up and down the attic stairs until my legs ached, struck by a terrible thought: What if I changed so much that Christopher did not recognize his mother?
With difficulty, I climbed out onto the roof and walked around the sloping edge. I looked down, unafraid of falling, only of the changes in myself. I stopped believing there was good in everybody, and that there is only good in myself. I began to grow up, finally, at the age of twenty-three, in the long months I lived alone.
One October evening, I parted the tasseled draperies, carefully. I was positively bored to death, and I wanted to open the window just a little, to see the autumn I was missing.
Below, I saw Malcolm, stunning in evening clothes, and Olivia, equally good to look at, proving there isn't a woman alive who is free of vanity; even the most dowdy of girls gives in to the imperative to pretty herself.
Malcolm and Olivia had gone out on the evening of the fifth, then eighth, and now the fifteenth. Garland and I had never agreed to so many social obligations!
"It's because they would rather not be alone together." I once observed, and Garland had looked mystified. He could be the most oblivious man, my darling Garland.
I hadn't seen Malcolm since the beginning of August, and seeing him, even from that distance, made me tremble with panic. I backed away from the window, to avoid seeing his face, although I knew I wouldn't be able to see his inscrutable, cold eyes from where I stood. But not seeing Malcolm meant not seeing Olivia, and I needed to watch her, to find out as much as I could about what she was thinking.
They emerged from beneath the cover of the portico and walked to Malcolm's car. He tried to take her arm. "What's mine, I keep," his gesture of habit proclaimed.
I felt a bilious rage bubbling up inside me.
She held herself stiffly, clearly not wanting even his most casual touch.
I smiled, made hopeful. Then I remembered that she didn't want mine, either. The habit of self-repression is too strong in her.
For the first time careless of my protruding belly, I threw myself prone on the bed, and thought and thought. For hours I lay there, confused, euphoric and joyous, then despairing.
Nine o'clock. In the attic, the muffled clock would send out three silvery chimes that no one would hear.
The porch lights came on.
By now, the children, even Mal, would have been put to bed by some unknown person. Olivia should have stayed home to read to them from "Peter and Polly," and tuck them in!
Where was she?
The baby and my mind were far too active to allow me to sleep. Still, I turned off the lamp. I didn't have to undress, for I never changed my nightgown for a dress during the daytime, anymore.
I thought I understood Olivia's sadness, her simmering anger. I cried for her, for myself, and then, drained of that grief, my thoughts turned back on themselves, inside out.
I began to imagine that I understood Malcolm's frustration.
She is unattainable.
From beneath a pillow I pulled a book, paused in thought, then shook the pen and pressed the nib to the page, and continued forming a spiteful sentence.
"Christopher grows to look more and more like his half brother. It's the eyes that make me wonder if he is Malcolm's son. He would have been, if Malcolm had had his way!"
Yes, I thought, Olivia would say it that way.
Her proximity, and my own malicious, daring act of rebellion made my heart start to palpitate, made a chill creep up my spine and over my arms.
Someday, someone would know my secret.
"You can take these back to the library." I told the waitress when she brought my lunch the following day. She took the books without a word.
I didn't want a shelf of books near my bed to make me feel that I would be staying forever.
"Are you all right, Alicia? You barely touched your breakfast."
"I don't get out much. It is so nice of you to visit," I said to my guest, cheerily. "Won't you sit down?"
"I can't stay." she answered in that false voice I was hearing more and more often.
I hated that falseness, so I stopped listening. But I couldn't help but see her myriad expressions of dislike and annoyance, the way she would pull in the corners of her mouth, press her lips together as if she would never again smile, never again speak. It was almost as if that were true, for I stopped hearing her voice. I heard the other voices much more clearly; they were real, close by, and all were like variations of my own voice.
"Oh, but you've come all this way. You mustn't leave so soon! You see, I've decided to be hospitable toward you."
Olivia won't ever stay and talk. She uses the excuse of having to look after the boys, but it is more likely that she's hurrying away to spend time with her friend, away from this horrid house. I just know it!
She was wearing that lavender-vanilla cologne again, I noticed. No roses or lilacs for her, oh no, that would be too ordinary. I could tell her that it smells, not so much like perfume, but like she's just whipped up a batch of cookies...and burned them.
Those boys, except for my angel Christopher, don't deserve treats. Mal is always cranky and hard-headed, Joel is timid. They have all the very worst traits of their parents.
She told me of the sundry tasks that required her attention, of all the places she had to go, but I just looked at the pictures on the walls, and knew where I WANTED her to go.
"Go then," I told her. "and don't forget to take your volitant, whirring flowers with you."
Her look of incomprehension was priceless.
"If this-this mad behavior of yours doesn't come to an end, and soon, I shall have to call a doctor, and have you committed."
"I don't need a doctor yet."
I picked up a book, and sat down in the rocking chair.
"What are you doing, Alicia?"
"I am muddying the waters of history."
"Alicia, that makes no sense."
I ignored Olivia, and went back to reading about poor, mad Bertha Rochester, hidden away in the attic.
The mad wife in THIS house is not locked up. She possesses the keys, and she has begun to look at me with deep suspicion, to convince herself that I am going insane, ever since I told her about the ghost children, and about how wonderful Garland is. She need not think what she's thinking, that Malcolm has visited me. The best part of being here is that I don't see him anymore, and I am sane enough to realize my good fortune. I give thanks for it, everyday.
"You could have a cool bath." Olivia said, on another afternoon when I complained about the heat, on the last day of Indian summer. She may as well have poured a pail of cold water over me, herself. She hated me. I was the uncouth piece of trash her father-in-law brought into her home. With every look, she expressed contempt for me, for my manners, which she, no doubt, pronounced "gauche" to... not to Malcolm, surely?
In November, the next time I peeped through the window, it was to see them going out for the evening, yet again, to some event of dubious importance, or perhaps to a performance of the symphony. They would enjoy quality wine and cuisine. They would dance, feel alive.
Not once did either of them look toward my windows, or even glance back toward the house. They disappeared from sight, engrossed in animated conversation. This time, she did not flinch at his nearness.
Fury twisted my insides into a fiery ball of red rage at the thought that her icy resentment toward him might be thawing. No, answered a voice inside my head-no, armistice cannot be declared so soon, she can't forgive him so easily!
"Lies!" I spit at the window, at Malcolm, below. Whatever he was saying, it was sure to be a pack of lies!
I longed for conversation, for change, for love, but all I could do was go into the attic and scream and vent my rage on the dusty treasures of forgotten Foxworths. My anger was with her first, then with Malcolm, too. What right did they have to enjoy themselves and to forget me?
What did they talk about? Surely, they didn't discuss me?
"I am afraid..." I wrote, "Malcolm is in love with Alicia."
Even if it had been true, who could blame him?
My complexion was as creamy as ever, and needed no artificial enhancement. My hair had grown out once more into soft, thick chestnut ringlets, with natural lustrous copper highlights restored. I shaped it carefully, snipping away all of the golden strands that remained of my brief blond experiment.
I pulled the sheet away from the mirror, and gazed at my own exquisite image.
December arrived. On the other bed, I laid out the dress I would wear on the day I left Foxworth hall, and I daydreamed not of Garland, but of the train that would take me back to Richmond in time for Christmas. Even in sleep, I dreamed of the cramped compartment that would be mine, of the little table bracketed to the wall for folding up or down, a miniature lamp and faux wood paneling. I woke in the mornings, my cheeks wet with tears of disappointment, because all I heard was dead silence, not the continuous noise of the track.
Gone, too, was the little girl who'd hovered on the edges of my dreams.
Five days into December, my time came, and I blessed the pains. I'd assumed that there would be papers to sign, some binding contract. Olivia had told me there would be, but Malcolm had misled her on this point. If there were no papers, there would be no proof that I was the child's mother. The midwife called me by Olivia's name; Malcolm concealed the truth well, and so carefully.
I never saw Malcolm, for I screamed that I would not have him in my room (nor did he wish to be there a millisecond longer than necessary, I am sure) and everyone was eager to placate and quieten me. I wanted Olivia to stay; I needed someone who wasn't a stranger at my side, and she had been my only friend and companion for months. No one considered this, and Malcolm sent her away. Later, I heard his hateful voice from the corridor, issuing instructions to another woman whose job it was to discreetly escort me from the mansion. I never knew her name, or that of the midwife.
Daylight had not yet chased the night's shadows away when we left that room, and I stole like a thief into the south wing. I didn't even glance at the door to Garland's bedroom or mine, but went straight to the nursery where Christopher slept. I tiptoed around, quickly packing his clothes and toys, then softly woke my son.
I was overjoyed, but subdued as I settled into the train, with Christopher in my arms, arms which had never held the baby girl someone had whisked away, once she'd taken her first breath. I would not grieve, for I had never allowed myself to want the baby who I'd only known through the sensations in my own body, for I had avoided looking at her in those minutes after the birth.
But my thoughts were taken up with the present. I had so much to tell Christopher about the home we were going to, and about the family he would soon meet. My family. His family.
As the train sped toward its destination, I began to wonder how long it would take me to assimilate into my old circle of friends and family, again, and how I would appear to those who waited. I saw myself as they might, my dress wrinkled, my shoes dusty and unpolished, my hair mussed from my restless sleep on the train.
Hours later, disoriented, and holding Christopher by the hand, I stepped off the train in snowy Richmond, where my mother and Althea were waiting to meet us.
I looked into my sister's smiling, innocent face, into my mother's kind eyes, and couldn't speak. All the fear and shame of the past year overwhelmed me.
"Dearie," my mother whispered, then choked. She opened her arms and hugged me tightly, and we both cried.
The nightmare and the madness were finally over.
"You should be planning your future and the future of your son. No one else is going to do that for you. Put the past away."
Try as I might to sever all ties with the past, I cannot. Even away from Foxworth Hall, Olivia's voice intrudes upon my thoughts. I have internalized her voice and her kind of advice so well that she is my permanent companion.
I took the advice. Six months after leaving Foxworth Hall, I exchanged one wedding band for another, and married Charles Ingmar Bellamy, a man younger than Garland, but not by much. Charles promised love, but not the moon, and by the time I met him, I no longer wanted extravagance in love or in its declarations. People rarely lived the life of their dreams, I'd learned.
As Garland had once been, Charles had become my family's benefactor. He was not only a family friend, but the doctor who did his best for Mother when she was dying of tuberculosis, and so I felt I owed him a great deal.
At the very least, I owed him my honesty.
I told Charles about my shameful past, my "sins." His reaction broke my heart, because my story broke his heart. He was such a good, gentle man, and had I known he'd always loved me and was in my future, I may not have needed to comply with the Foxworths' daft plan.
Or so I said to Charles. He will never know that the plan was partly my own.
Banks are closing left and right, now, making it hard for even a family of three to survive. Charles is ill, sometimes we are hungry, and still, Christopher dreams of a better, improbable life.
There is no better life for those I love. And Malcolm Neal Foxworth ensures that his family will never go without. I remind myself of this, whenever my own little ghost girl crosses my mind, trying to plant there the seeds of regret.