Read an excerpt from "Flowers in the Attic" before tuning in to Lifetime's adaptation of the V.C. Andrews cult classic on January 18 at 8/7c.
While Momma packed, Christopher and I threw our clothes into two suitcases, along with a few toys and one game. In the early twilight of evening, a taxi drove us to the train station. We had slipped away furtively, without saying good-bye to even one friend, and this hurt. I didn't know why it had to be that way, but Momma insisted. Our bicycles were left in the garage along with everything else too large to take.
The train lumbered through a dark and starry night, heading toward a distant mountain estate in Virginia. We passed many a sleepy town and village, and scattered farmhouses where golden rectangles of light were the only evidence to show they were there at all. M y brother and I didn't want to fall asleep and miss out on anything, and oh, did we have a lot to talk about! Mostly we speculated on that grand rich house where we would live in splendor, and eat from golden plates, and be served by a butler wearing livery. And I supposed I'd have my own maid to lay out my clothes, draw my bath, brush my hair, and jump when I commanded. But I wouldn't be too stern with her. I would be sweet, understanding, the kind of mistress every servant desired—unless she broke something I really cherished! Then there'd be hell to pay—I'd throw a temper tantrum, and hurl a few things I didn't like, anyway.
Looking backward to that night ride on the train, I realize that was the very night I began to grow up, and philosophize. With everything you gained, you had to lose something—so I might as well get used to it, and make the best of it.
While my brother and I speculated on how we would spend the money when it came to us, the portly, balding conductor entered our small compartment and gazed admiringly at our mother from head to toes before he softly spoke: "Mrs. Patterson, in fifteen minutes we'll reach your depot."
Now why was he calling her "Mrs. Patterson"? I wondered. I shot a questioning look at Christopher, who also seemed perplexed by this.
Jolted awake, appearing startled and disoriented, Momma's eyes flew wide open. Her gaze jumped from the conductor, who hovered so close above her, over to Christopher and me, and then she looked down in despair at the sleeping twins. Next came ready tears and she was reaching in her purse and pulled out tissues, dabbing at her eyes daintily. Then came a sigh so heavy, so full of woe, my heart began to beat in a nervous tempo. "Yes, thank you," she said to the conductor, who was still watching her with great approval and admiration. "Don't fear, we'll be ready to leave."
"Ma'am," he said, most concerned when he glanced at his pocket watch, "it's three o'clock in the morning. Will someone be there to meet you?" He flicked his worried gaze to Christopher and me, then to the sleeping twins.
"It's all right," assured our mother.
"Ma'am, it's very dark out there."
"I could find my way home asleep."
The grandfatherly conductor wasn't satisfied with this. "Lady," he said, "it's an hour's ride to Charlottesville. We are letting you and your children off in the middle of nowhere. There's not a house in sight."
To forbid any further questioning, Momma answered in her most arrogant manner, "Someone is meeting us." Funny how she could put on that kind of haughty manner like a hat, and just as easily discard it.
We arrived at the depot in the middle of nowhere, and we were let off. No one was there to meet us.
It was totally dark when we stepped from the train, and as the conductor had warned, there was not a house in sight. Alone in the night, far from any sign of civilization, we stood and waved good-bye to the conductor on the train steps, holding on by one hand, waving with the other. His expression revealed that he wasn't too happy about leaving "Mrs. Patterson" and her brood of four sleepy children waiting for someone coming in a car. I looked around and saw nothing but a rusty, tin roof supported by four wooden posts, and a rickety green bench. This was our train depot. We didn't sit on that bench, just stood and watched until the train disappeared in the darkness, hearing one single, mournful whistle calling back, as if wishing us good luck and Godspeed.
We were surrounded by fields and meadows. From the deep woods in back of the "depot", something made a weird noise. I jumped and spun about to see what it was, making Christopher laugh. "That was only an owl! Did you think it was a ghost?"
"Now there is to be none of that!" said Momma sharply. "And you don't have to whisper. No one is about. This is farm country, dairy cows mostly. Look around. See the fields of wheat and oats, some barley, too. The nearby farmers supply all the fresh produce for the wealthy people who live on the hill."
There were hills aplenty, looking like lumpy patchwork quilts, with trees parading up and down to separate them into distinct sections. Sentinels of the night, I called them, but Momma told us the many trees in straight rows acted as wind- breaks, and held back the heavy drifts of snow. Just the right words to make Christopher very excited. He loved all kinds of winter sports, and he hadn't thought a southern state like Virginia would have heavy snow.
"Oh, yes, it snows here," said Momma. "You bet it snows. We are in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and it gets very, very cold here, just as cold as it did in Gladstone. But the summers will be warmer during the day. The nights are always cool enough for at least one blanket. Now if the sun were out, you'd be feasting your eyes on very beautiful countryside, as pretty as there is anywhere in the world. We have to hurry, though. It's a long, long walk to my home, and we have to reach there before dawn, when the servants get up."
How strange. "Why?" I asked. "And why did that conductor call you Mrs. Patterson?"
"Cathy, I don't have time to explain to you now. We've got to walk fast." She bent to pick up the two heaviest suitcases, and said in a firm voice that we were to follow where she led. Christopher and I were forced to carry the twins, who were too sleepy to walk, or make even an attempt.
"Momma!" I cried out, when we had moved on a few steps, "the conductor forgot to give us your two suitcases!"
"It's all right, Cathy," she said breathlessly, as if the two suitcases she was carrying were enough to tax her strength. "I asked the conductor to take my two bags on to Charlottesville and put them in a locker for me to pick up tomorrow morning."
"Why would you do that?" asked Christopher in a tight voice.
"Well, for one thing, I certainly couldn't handle four suitcases, could I? And, for another thing, I want the chance to talk to my father first before he learns about my children. And it just wouldn't seem right if I arrived home in the middle of the night after being gone for fifteen years, now would it?"
It sounded reasonable, I guess, for we did have all we could handle since the twins refused to walk. We set off, tagging along behind our mother, over uneven ground, following faint paths between rocks and trees and shrubbery that clawed at our clothes. We trekked a long, long, long way. Christopher and I became tired, irritable, as the twins grew heavier and heavier, and our arms began to ache. It was an adventure already beginning to pall. We complained, we nagged, we dragged our feet, wanting to sit down and rest. We wanted to be back in Gladstone, in our own beds, with our own things—better than here—better than that big old house with servants and grandparents we didn't even know.
"Wake up the twins!" snapped Momma, grown impatient with our complaining. "Stand them on their feet, and force them to walk, whether or not they want to." Then she mumbled something faint into the fur collar of her jacket that just barely reached my keen ears: "Lord knows, they'd better walk outside while they can."
A ripple of apprehension shot down my spine. I glanced at my older brother to see if he'd heard, just as he turned his head to look at me. He smiled. I smiled in return.
Tomorrow, when Momma arrived at a proper time, in a taxi, she would go to the sick grandfather and she'd smile, and she'd speak, and he'd be charmed, won over. Just one look at her lovely face, and just one word from her soft beautiful voice, and he'd hold out his arms, and forgive her for whatever she'd done to make her "fall from grace."
From what she'd already told us, her father was a cantankerous old man, for sixty-six did seem like incredibly old age to me. And a man on the verge of death couldn't afford to hold grudges against his sole remaining child, a daughter he'd once loved very much. He'd have to forgive her, so he could go peacefully, blissfully into his grave, and know he'd done the right thing. Then, once she had him under her spell, she'd bring us down from the bedroom, and we'd be looking our best, and acting our sweetest selves, and he'd soon see we weren't ugly, or really bad, and nobody, absolutely nobody with a heart could resist loving the twins. Why, people in shopping centers stopped to pat the twins, and compliment our mother on having such beautiful babies. And just wait until Grandfather learned how smart Christopher was! A straight-A student! And what was even more remarkable, he didn't have to study and study the way I did. Everything came so easily for him. His eyes could scan a page just once or twice, and all the information would be written indelibly on his brain, never to be forgotten. Oh, how I did envy him that gift.
I had a gift too; not the bright and shining coin that was Christopher's. It was my way to turn over all that glittered and look for the tarnish. We had gleaned but a bit of information about that unknown grandfather, but putting the pieces together, I already had the idea he was not the kind to easily forgive—not when he could deny a once-beloved daughter for fifteen years. Yet, could he be so hard he could resist all Momma's wheedling charms, which were considerable? I doubted it. I had seen and heard her wheedle with our father about money matters, and always Daddy was the one to give in and be won over to her way. Just a kiss, a hug, a soft stroking caress and Daddy would brighten up and smile, and agree, yes, somehow or other they could manage to pay for everything expensive she bought.
"Cathy," said Christopher, "take that worried look off your face. If God didn't plan for people to grow old, and sick, and to eventually die, he wouldn't keep on letting people have babies."
I felt Christopher staring at me, as if reading my thoughts, and I flushed. He grinned cheerfully. He was the perpetual cock- eyed optimist, never gloomy, doubtful, or moody, as I often was.
We followed Momma's advice and woke up the twins. We stood them on their feet and told them they would have to make an effort to walk, tired or not. We pulled them along while they whined and complained with sniffling sobs of rebellion. "Don't wanna go where we're going," sobbed a teary Carrie.
Cory only wailed.
"Don't like walkin' in woods when it's dark!" screamed Carrie, trying to pull her tiny hand free from mine. "I'm going home! Let me go, Cathy, let me go!"
Cory howled louder.
I wanted to pick Carrie up again, and carry her on, but my arms were just too aching to make another effort. Then Christopher released Cory's hand and ran ahead to assist Momma with her two heavy suitcases, so I had two unwilling, resisting twins to lug along in the darkness.
The air was cool and sharply pungent. Though Momma called this hill country, those shadowy, high forms in the distance looked like mountains to me. I stared up at the sky. It seemed to me like an inverted deep bowl of navy-blue velvet, sparkled all over with crystallized snowflakes instead of stars—or were they tears of ice that I was going to cry in the future? Why did they seem to be looking down at me with pity, making me feel ant- sized, overwhelmed, completely insignificant? It was too big, that close sky, too beautiful, and it filled me with a strange sense of foreboding. Still I knew that under other circumstances, I could love a countryside like this.
We came at last upon a cluster of large and very fine homes, nestled on a steep hillside. Stealthily, we approached the largest and, by far, the grandest of all the sleeping mountain homes. Momma said in a hushed voice that her ancestral home was named Foxworth Hall, and was more than two hundred years old!
"Is there a lake nearby for ice-skating, and swimming?" asked Christopher. He gave serious attention to the hillside. "It's not good ski country—too many trees and rocks." "Yes," said Momma, "there's a small lake about a quarter of a mile away." And she pointed in the direction where a lake could be found.
We circled that enormous house, almost on tiptoes. Once at the back door, an old lady let us in. She must have been waiting, and seen us coming, for she opened that door so readily we didn't even have to knock. Just like thieves in the night, we stole silently inside. Not a word did she speak to welcome us. Could this be one of the servants? I wondered.
Immediately we were inside the dark house, and she hustled us up a steep and narrow back staircase, not allowing us one second to pause and take a look around the grand rooms we only glimpsed in our swift and mute passage. She led us down many halls, past many closed doors, and finally we came to an end room, where she swung open a door and gestured us inside. It was a relief to have our long night journey over, and be in a large bedroom where a single lamp was lit. Heavy, tapestried draperies covered two tall windows. The old woman in her gray dress turned to look us over as she closed the heavy door to the hall and leaned against it.
She spoke, and I was jolted. "Just as you said, Corrine. Your children are beautiful."
There she was, paying us a compliment that should warm our hearts—but it chilled mine. Her voice was cold and uncaring, as if we were without ears to hear, and without minds to comprehend her displeasure, despite her flattery. And I was right to judge her so. Her next words proved that.
"But are you sure they are intelligent? Do they have some invisible afflictions not apparent to the eyes?"
"None!" cried our mother, taking offense, as did I. "My children are perfect, as you can plainly see, physically and mentally!" She glared at that old woman in gray before she squatted down on her heels and began to undress Carrie, who was nodding on her feet. I knelt before Cory and unbuttoned his small blue jacket, as Christopher lifted one of the suitcases up on one of the big beds. He opened it and took out two pairs of small yellow pajamas with feet.
Furtively, as I helped Cory off with his clothes and into his yellow pajamas, I studied that tall, big woman, who was, I presumed, our grandmother. As I looked her over, seeking wrinkles and heavy jowls, I found out she was not as old as I had at first presumed. Her hair was a strong, steel-blue color, drawn back from her face in a severe style which made her eyes appear somewhat long and cat-like. Why, you could even see how each strand of hair pulled her skin up in little resentful hills—and even as I watched, I saw one hair spring free from its moorings!
Her nose was an eagle's beak, her shoulders were wide, and her mouth was like a thin, crooked knife slash. Her dress, of gray taffeta, had a diamond brooch at the throat of a high, severe neckline. Nothing about her appeared soft or yielding; even her bosom looked like twin hills of concrete. There would be no funning with her, as we had played with our mother and father.
I didn't like her. I wanted to go home. My lips quivered. I wanted Daddy alive again. How could such a woman as this make someone as lovely and sweet as our mother? From whom had our mother inherited her beauty, her gaiety? I shivered, and tried to forbid those tears that welled in my eyes. Momma had prepared us in advance for an unloving, uncaring, unrelenting grandfather—but the grandmother who had arranged for our coming—she came as a harsh, astonishing surprise. I blinked back my tears, fearful Christopher would see them and mock me later. But to reassure me, there was our mother smiling warmly as she lifted a pajamaed Cory into one of the big beds, and then she put Carrie in beside him. Oh, how they did look sweet, lying there, like big, rosy-cheeked dolls. Momma leaned over the twins and pressed kisses on their flushed cheeks, and her hand tenderly brushed back the curls on their foreheads, and then she tucked the covers high under their chins. "Good night, my darlings," she whispered in the loving voice we knew so well.
The twins didn't hear. Already they were deeply asleep.
However, standing firmly as a rooted tree, the grandmother was obviously displeased as she gazed upon the twins in one bed, then over to where Christopher and I were huddled close together. We were tired, and half-supporting each other. Strong disapproval glinted in her gray-stone eyes. She wore a fixed, piercing scowl that Momma seemed to understand, although I did not. Momma's face flushed as the grandmother said, "Your two older children cannot sleep in one bed!"
"They're only children," Momma flared back with unusual fire. "Mother, you haven't changed one bit, have you? You still have a nasty, suspicious mind! Christopher and Cathy are innocent!"
"Innocent?" she snapped back, her mean look so sharp it could cut and draw blood. "That is exactly what your father and I always presumed about you and your half-uncle!" I looked from one to the other, my eyes wide. I glanced at my brother. Years seemed to melt from him, and he stood there vulnerable, helpless, as a child of six or seven, no more comprehending than I.
A tempest of hot anger made our mother's ruddy color depart. "If you think like that, then give them separate rooms, and separate beds! Lord knows this house has enough of them!"
"That is impossible," the grandmother said in her fire ice voice. "This is the only bedroom with its own adjoining bath, and where my husband won't hear them walking overhead, or flushing the toilet. If they are separated, and scattered about all over upstairs, he will hear their voices, or their noise, or the servants will. Now, I have given this arrangement a great deal of thought. This is the only safe room."
Safe room? We were going to sleep, all of us, in only one room? In a grand, rich house with twenty, thirty, forty rooms, we were going to stay in one room? Even so, now that I gave it more thought, I didn't want to be in a room alone in this mammoth house.
"Put the two girls in one bed, and the two boys in the other," the grandmother ordered.
Momma lifted Cory and put him in the remaining double bed, thus, casually establishing the way it was to be from then on. The boys in the bed nearest the bathroom door, and Carrie and I in the bed nearest the windows.
The old woman turned her hard gaze on me, then on Christopher. "Now hear this," she began like a drill sergeant, "it will be up to you two older children to keep the younger ones quiet, and you two will be responsible if they break even one of the rules I lay down. Keep this always in your minds: if your grandfather learns too soon you are up here, then he will throw all of you out without one red penny—after he has severely punished you for being alive! And you will keep this room clean, neat, tidy, and the bathroom, too, just as if no one lived here. And you will be quiet; you will not yell, or cry, or run about to pound on the ceilings below. When your mother and I leave this room tonight, I will close and lock the door behind me. For I will not have you roaming from room to room, and into the other sections of this house. Until the day your grandfather dies, you are here, but you don't really exist."
Oh, God! My eyes flashed to Momma. This couldn't be true! She was lying, wasn't she? Saying mean things just to scare us. I drew closer to Christopher, pressing against his side, gone cold and shaky. The grandmother scowled, and quickly I stepped away. I tried to look at Momma, but she had turned her back, and her head was lowered, but her shoulders sagged and quivered as if she were crying.
Panic filled me, and I would have screamed out something if Momma hadn't turned then and sat down on a bed, and stretched out her arms to Christopher and me. We ran to her, grateful for her arms that drew us close, and her hands that stroked our hair and backs, and smoothed down our wind-rumpled hair. "It's all right," she whispered. "Trust me. One night only will you be in here, and my father will welcome you into his home, to use it as you would your own—all of it, every room, and the gardens, too."
Then she glared up at her mother so tall, so stern, so forbidding. "Mother, have some pity and compassion for my children. They are of your flesh and blood too; keep that in your mind. They are very good children, but they are also normal children, and they need room to play and run and make noise. Do you expect them to speak in whispers? You don't have to lock the door to this room; you can lock the door at the end of the hall. Now why can't they have all the rooms of this north wing to use as their very own? I know you never cared for this older section very much."
The grandmother shook her head vigorously. "Corrine, I make the decisions here—not you! Do you think I can just close and lock the door to this wing and the servants won't wonder why? Everything must stay just as it was. They understand why I keep this particular room locked, for the stairway to the attic is in here, and I don't like for them to snoop around where they don't belong. Very early in the mornings, I will bring the children food and milk—before the cook and the maids enter the kitchen. This north wing is never entered except on the last Friday of each month, when it is thoroughly cleaned. On those days, the children will hide in the attic until the maids finish. And before the maids enter, I myself will check everything over to see they leave behind no evidence of their occupancy."
Momma voiced more objections. "That is impossible! They are bound to give themselves away, leave a clue. Mother, lock the door at the end of the hall!"
The grandmother gnashed her teeth. "Corrine, give me time; with time I can figure out some reason why the servants cannot enter this wing at all, even to clean. But I have to tread carefully, and not raise their suspicions. They don't like me; they would run to your father with tales, hoping he would reward them. Can't you see? The closure of this wing cannot coincide with your return, Corrine."
Our mother nodded, giving in. She and the grandmother plotted on and on, while Christopher and I grew sleepier and sleepier. It seemed an endless day. I wanted so much to crawl into the bed beside Carrie, and nestle down so I could fall into sweet oblivion, where problems didn't live.
Eventually, just when I thought she never would, Momma took notice of how tired Christopher and I were, and we were allowed to undress in the bathroom, and then to climb into bed—at long last.
Momma came to me, looking tired and concerned, with dark shadows in her eyes, and she pressed her warm lips on my fore- head. I saw tears glistening in the corners of her eyes, and her mascara pooled the tears into black streaks. Why was she crying again? "Go to sleep," she said hoarsely. "Don't worry. Pay no attention to what you just heard. A s soon as my father forgives me, and forgets what I did to displease him, he'll open up his arms and welcome his grandchildren—the only grandchildren he's likely to live long enough to see."
"Momma"—I frowned, full of anguish, "why do you keep crying so much?"
With jerky movements she brushed away her tears and tried to smile. "Cathy, I'm afraid it may take more than just one day to win back my father's affection and approval. It may take two days, or more."
"Maybe, maybe even a week, but not longer, possibly much less time. I just don't know exactly . . . but it won't be long. You can count on that." Her soft hand smoothed back my hair. "Dear sweet Cathy, your father loved you so very much, and so do I." She drifted over to Christopher, to kiss his forehead and stroke his hair, but what she whispered to him, I couldn't hear.
At the door she turned to say, "Have a good night's rest, and I'll see you tomorrow as soon as I can. You know my plans. I have to walk back to the train depot, and catch another train to Charlottesville where my two suitcases will be waiting, and tomorrow morning, early, I'll taxi back here, and I'll sneak up to visit with you when I can."
The grandmother ruthlessly shoved our mother through the open doorway, but Momma twisted around to peer back at us over her shoulder, her bleak eyes silently pleading with us even before her voice sounded again: "Please be good. Behave yourselves. Don't make any noise. Obey your grandmother and her rules, and never give her any reason to punish you. Please, please do this; and make the twins obey, and keep them from crying and missing me too much. Make this seem a game, lots of fun. Do what you can to entertain them until I'm back with toys and games for you all to play. I'll be back tomorrow, and every second I'm gone, I'll be thinking of you, and praying for you, and loving you."
We promised we'd be as good as gold, and quiet as mice, and like angels we'd obey and keep to whatever rules were laid down. We'd do the best we could for the twins and I'd do anything, say anything, to take the anxiety from her eyes.
"Good night, Momma," said both Christopher and I as she stood falteringly in the hall with the grandmother's large cruel hands on her shoulders. "Don't worry about us. We'll all be fine. We know what to do for the twins, and how to entertain our- selves. We're not little children anymore." All of this came from my brother.
"You'll see me early tomorrow morning," the grandmother said before she pushed Momma into the hall, then closed and locked the door.
Scary to be locked in, children alone. What if a fire started? Fire. Always I was to think of fire and how to escape. If we were going to be here locked in, no one would hear us if we cried out for help. Who could hear us in this remote, forbidden room on the second floor, where no one came but once a month, on the last Friday?
Thank God this was just a temporary arrangement—one night. And then, tomorrow Momma would win over the dying grandfather.
And we were alone. Locked in. All the lights were turned off. Around us, below us, this huge house seemed a monster, holding us in its sharp-toothed mouth. If we moved, whispered, breathed heavily, we'd be swallowed and digested.
It was sleep I wanted as I lay there, not the long, long silence that stretched interminably. For the first time in my life I didn't fall into dreams the moment my head touched the pillow. Christopher broke the silence, and we began, in whispers, to discuss our situation.
"It won't be so bad," he said softly, his eyes liquid and gleaming in the dimness. "That grandmother—she can't possibly be as mean as she seems."
"You mean to tell me you didn't think she was a sweet old lady?"
He sort of chuckled. "Yeah, you bet, sweet—sweet as a boa constrictor."
"She's awful big. How tall do you think she is?"
"Gosh, that's hard to guess. Maybe six feet, and two hundred pounds."
"Seven feet! Five hundred pounds!"
"Cathy, one thing you've got to learn—stop exaggerating! Stop making so much out of small things. Now, take a real look at our situation, and realize this is only a room in a big house, nothing at all frightening. We have one night to spend here before Momma comes back."
"Christopher, did you hear what the grandmother said about a half-uncle? Did you understand what she meant?"
"No, but I suppose Momma will explain everything. Now go to sleep, and say a prayer. Isn't that about all we can do?"
I got right out of the bed, fell down on my knees, and folded my hands beneath my chin. I closed my eyes tightly and prayed, prayed for God to help Momma be her most charming, disarming, and winning self. "And God, please don't let the grandfather be as hateful and mean as his wife."
Then, fatigued and drowning in many emotions, I hopped back into bed, hugged Carrie close against my chest, and fell, as I wanted, into dreams.
From Flowers in the Attic © 1979 by Virginia Andrews