The shorter days of approaching winter darkened the corners of my attic earlier and earlier every afternoon. Usually, when you think of yourself ascending, whether it’s hiking up a mountain, flying in an airplane, or walking to the top floor of your house, you imagine moving into brighter light. But as my boyfriend, Kane Hill, and I walked up the attic stairway for the first time together, I could almost feel the shadows growing and opening like Venus flytraps to welcome us.
The stairs creaked the way they always had, but it sounded more like a warning this time, each squeak a groan of frantic admonition. Our attic didn’t have an unpleasant odor, but it did have the scent of old things that hadn’t seen the light of day for years: furniture, lamps, and trunks stuffed with old clothing too out of fashion to care about or throw away when the previous owners left. They were still good enough for someone else to use. All of it had been accumulated by what my father called “pack rats,” but he also admitted to being one himself. Our garage was neat but jammed with his old tools and boxes of sample building materials, my first tricycle, various hoses, and plumbing fittings he might find use for someday.
The attic floor was a dark brown hardwood that had worn well and, according to my father, was as solid as the day it was laid. He looked in once in a while, but I would go up regularly to dust a bit, get rid of spiderwebs, and clean the two small windows, spotted with small flies and other tiny bugs who thought they had died outside. I felt I had to maintain the attic mostly because my father kept my mother’s things in an old wardrobe there, walnut with embossed cherubs on the doors, another antique. Even after nearly nine years, my father couldn’t get himself to throw out or give away any of her things: shoes and slippers, purses, dresses, blouses, nightgowns, coats, and sweaters.
Just like in the Foxworth attic that Christopher had described in his diary, there were other larger items that previous occupants had left, including brass and pewter tables and standing lamps, a dark oak magazine rack with some old copies of Life and Time, some black and silver metal trunks that had once worn their travel labels proudly, bragging about Paris, London, and Madrid, and other pieces of furniture that had lost their places in the living room and the bedrooms when the decor was changed.
Despite being thought useless and relegated to this vault, to my father, they were almost a part of the house now. He said that their having been there so long gave them squatters’ rights. It really didn’t matter whether they had been there long or whether they would find another home, fulfill another purpose. Memories, no matter whose they were, were sacred to him. Things weren’t ever simply things. Old toys were once cherished by the children who owned them, and family heirlooms possessed history, whether or not you knew exactly what that history was. It didn’t surprise me that a man who built and restored homes had such respect for what was in them. I just hadn’t paid much attention to any of it until now.
I was still not convinced that what Kane Hill had suggested the day he discovered Christopher’s diary under my pillow was a good idea. At first, I suspected that he might be playing with me, humoring me, when he said he would read it aloud to me, pretending to be Christopher Dollanganger, the oldest of the four children who had been incarcerated in Foxworth Hall more than fifty years ago. I didn’t want to diminish the diary’s historical importance for Charlottesville or in any way make fun of it. He had assured me that he wouldn’t do that.
And then he had added, “To get into it, really get into it, we’ll read it up in your attic.”
The Foxworth attic was where the four Dollanganger children had spent most of their time for years, there and in a small bedroom below. According to what I knew and how Christopher had described it, the attic was a long, rambling loft that they had turned into their imaginary world because they had been shut out of the real one for so long. The idea of reading Christopher’s thoughts and descriptions aloud in a similar environment both fascinated and frightened me. We would no longer be simply observers. In a sense, by playing the roles of Christopher and Cathy, we would empathize, and not just sympathize, with them.
As soon as he had said it, Kane saw the indecision in my face and went on to explain that it would be like acting on a movie set. Movie sets in studios were suggestions of what really was or had been, weren’t they?
“This is no different, Kristin,” Kane said.
I pointed out that my attic was much smaller than the one in Foxworth, but he insisted that it was an attic, a place where we could pretend to be imprisoned and better understand what Christopher and Cathy had experienced.
He thought we’d get a more realistic sense of it. “It will be like reading Moby-Dick while you’re on a ship on the ocean. This way, you’ll appreciate what happens to the older sister more, and I’ll appreciate Christopher’s words more, I’m sure.”
Of course, I had found myself empathizing with Cathy often when I read Christopher’s diary anyway, but not to the extent he was suggesting. It was more like putting on her clothes and stepping into her shoes. In moments, I would lose myself completely and for a while become her. Maybe I did have to be in an attic for that. However, what frightened me about pretending to be her in front of someone else was the possibility that I would be exposing my own vulnerabilities, my own fears and fantasies. Everyone knew the Dollanganger children were distant cousins of mine.
What if I was more like her than I imagined?
The leather-bound book suddenly loomed larger than some historical discovery. It was almost as though the diary had the power to unmask me and cause me to reveal my own secrets, deeply personal ones I had yet to share with anyone, even my father. There would inevitably be questions about Cathy’s feelings and how they were the same as or different from mine, especially when it came to her physical and emotional maturing. Like most girls my age, I was both excited and confused at times by changes in my body and my feelings. I wasn’t comfortable chatting about them with other girls, even best friends. And here I was confronting it all with Kane more intimately than I had with anyone. We hadn’t been dating that long. There was still so much about each other we had to learn, with or without Christopher’s diary. Was I rushing headlong into something I would regret, all because of the diary, because of how it made me feel about myself and my own new feelings? So much of what we do and who we draw closer to ourselves makes us see deeper into ourselves. Sometimes I felt surrounded by mirrors.
Yet I had to admit that Kane sounded as enthusiastic about and as genuinely interested in what Christopher was revealing in his diary as I was. He was as excited as I had been that day when I realized what it was. Since we could safely assume that no one else had read it, Kane made the point that only he and I would know what really had occurred at Foxworth Hall. The legend, the exaggerations, and the misinformation would all be shed, and we would know the truth about the mysteries that were thought to have gone up in flames and assumed to have been lost in the darkness of fading memories.
Kane’s eyes were dazzled with excitement when he spoke about it. He looked like a little boy on Christmas morning who knew what was in the package he was about to unwrap. In his mind, perhaps, and certainly in mine, it was like opening a forbidden door, an entrance that led us back into the dark past, through the shadows, up the narrow stairway, and into a world now more like the subject for Halloween stories. Would the door slam shut behind us? Would we trap ourselves in someone else’s nightmare? Would what we read and did in my attic haunt us forever because of how intimate the revelations were, both Christopher Dollanganger’s and our own?
I never anticipated that I’d be in such a quandary, but after Kane had discovered the diary while he was waiting for me in my room, he was naturally very curious about it. He had only read a page. However, it was enough to force me to reveal what it was. When I explained it to him and told him that my father wasn’t happy that I was reading it, his curiosity grew. Nothing makes anything more desirable than declaring it forbidden. Kane said he couldn’t wait to catch up to where I was in the diary so that we could go forward together. He sounded like a child about to begin an adventure he had imagined for a long time. I felt his excitement enliven my own and thought maybe it was a good thing he had found the diary under my pillow. Maybe it was meant to be. I even fantasized that it had the power to capture anyone who came close to it. I shouldn’t have been so surprised at his finding it and being drawn to it.
And yet I had gone to sleep that night afraid that I had given my trust too easily. I thought that yes, right now, he honestly might be interested in and genuinely excited about what the diary was going to reveal, and for a while, he might find reading it aloud to me in my attic somehow as satisfying as being in a play or a movie, but what if he became bored or thought it had been stupid to start with and then mentioned it to someone at school, who mentioned it to someone else, until I was surrounded with demands and questions? As my father was fond of saying, “Loose lips sink ships.” In this case, it would be my ship that had sunk, even before it had much of a chance to sail.
Would I feel like a fool? Would I feel as betrayed as Christopher would be by revealing to strangers how Cathy obviously felt at this point in his diary? I could appreciate how horrible it was for her and maybe even for him. When people whom you cared about and who cared about you seriously disappointed you, it was truly like digging farther down into a wound, sending the pain through your very being. Your heart would close around itself. You would feel naked, lost, deceived by anything and everything afterward, and you would know that from then on, you would not have faith in anyone again. You would be unable to give your trust, even to those you loved. How much more alone could you be than that? Surely, that was what had happened to the Dollanganger children. And maybe that would happen to me.
And all because I was reading the diary secretly.
Was it possible for a diary to be too dangerous to open, a Pandora’s box? Was that why my father had told me not to read it? Wasn’t it silly to ascribe such powers to an old leather-bound book full of some teenage boy’s personal thoughts and descriptions? However, I reminded myself that there were forbidden books. Books had influence on their readers. Schools kept certain books out of their libraries, and parents forbade their children to read them. Governments forbade books. Religions forbade books they thought had been written by witches, even the devil.
Whatever had happened at the original Foxworth Hall, it still had an atmosphere of mystery and horror around it. It had been kept alive through fantastic theories printed in the local newspaper and discussed around the date of the famous first fire and always on Halloween. The diary could carry that same aura. Touch it, open the cover, read the pages, and you could be carried away in the same ugly shadows and cold wind that had carried away those children.
I had tossed and turned all night debating these thoughts and worries in my mind. Sometimes I believe we all really do have two people living inside us arguing often. One has conscience, and the other doesn’t. Everyone talks to himself or herself. They would all have to admit that. Well, who were they all talking to? Who is the himself or herself?
The following morning, one side of me seemed to have won the argument. I was determined to tell Kane to forget it. I was even working up a good story, a fabrication, something that would end his idea completely. I thought I might tell him that my father had found me reading the diary into the early hours and was so angry that he had seized it right out of my hands. He had said he was going to burn it, and I had watched him throw it into an old oilcan in our backyard. It had gone up in a puff of black smoke.
But I changed my mind the moment I set eyes on my father at breakfast and saw how happy he was with how well his work was going rebuilding a new, more modern mansion on the Foxworth property. He was getting along with Arthur Johnson, who didn’t seem as difficult apparently as other customers he had worked for. That made my father even more sweet and loving to me. I regretted even thinking of using him to deceive someone by making him sound unreasonable and angry. I couldn’t do it. However, I felt trapped because I was disobeying his wishes by permitting someone else to know about the diary. I comforted myself by telling myself in this case, he would understand and forgive me.
But the questions and the doubts about what I had agreed to do wouldn’t be still. Really, I had thought, what if Kane should betray me and, in a real sense, betray Christopher? Go through with this or not, Kristin? I had asked myself while I had dressed to go down to breakfast. I was tottering between yes and no. I could easily go in either direction. I looked at the clock. It wasn’t much longer before I would have to make a definite decision. Kane was going to pick me up to take me to school again, and I knew he would be talking about nothing else. When I had told my father that Kane was coming, he paused in making our breakfast.
“Picking you up again? We’re considerably out of his way, especially with morning traffic. He has to be getting himself up and out much earlier.”
“Oh, please. He doesn’t care about that, Daddy,” I said, making it sound like he was just another parent who didn’t understand what was and wasn’t a priority for teenagers like us.
He shrugged. “To me—you excluded, of course—it seems young people don’t want to make compromises or sacrifices too easily. They don’t naturally go out of their way. It’s the ‘please me now’ generation.”
“You can exclude Kane, too, from that conclusion. Besides, you’d have driven as far as another state to pick up Mommy, wouldn’t you?”
He turned and squinted at me, deepening the folds in his forehead. “I see. Getting a little serious in this first romance of yours?” he asked.
I was a bit surprised myself at how quickly I had come to Kane’s defense, but I had also compared us to my father and mother, who I knew had loved each other intensely. That comparison was a bit over the top, at least for now. And my father was right to characterize my dating Kane as my first real romance. I had gone out on dates, met other boys at parties and dances, but none of that ever became much more than one follow-up call or a few days of some additional hanging out together. Until now, those budding romances always seemed to drift away with the softening of a grip on my hand, until my date’s fingers cooled into icicles and finally slipped out to find a different hand to hold. More often than not, however, it was my hand that began to avoid theirs.
You can’t help but think at first that it’s your fault, that maybe there’s something wrong with you, especially if it happened more than once or twice. Most of my girlfriends had a similar reaction to their failed little affairs of the heart. I always felt I should have been sorrier about it. My indifference surprised me. Was I capable of having deep feelings for anyone besides my own father? Maybe you’re too picky, too sensitive, or too afraid of having a relationship, I told myself. Your standards are too high—impossible, in fact. No relationship will ever be satisfying, and it’s mostly your own fault.
The insecurity rocks you for a while and makes you so timid that you don’t even want to look at another boy and encourage what might be another flop. Why try? Failure was inevitable no matter how promising it was when it started. It was as if the moment I returned a smile, joined a conversation with a new boy, and then went on a date, magnifying glasses dropped over my eyes, and I could see all of my prospective boyfriend’s weaknesses and faults. The only comfort I had was watching other couples fail. It was always good to have friends close enough to support me and sympathize, especially because they had been through the same challenges, similar experiences.
I was an amateur psychiatrist, especially when it came to myself, and I came up with a theory, which I told no one, especially not my father. Maybe because of how involved I was with my father’s loss of his one great love, I was afraid of ever finding one of my own. People end up alone for many reasons. Many are just too selfish to share or compromise or are just too cynical. They believe love brings too many expectations that can never be fulfilled. And because you’ve invested so much of yourself in it, your emotions are bankrupt when it fails, and unlike with any other bankruptcy, you can’t reorganize those feelings and begin again.
However, right from the beginning, I could sense that something different from any of those brief little romances was happening between Kane and me. We were looking at each other with more intensity, holding our gazes longer, smiling at each other more often, and rushing toward every opportunity to be together. It was happening whether or not either of us wanted it to happen. Every time we saw each other in the school hallways, there was almost a surge of electricity in the air. Everyone around us began to fade away, their voices drifting off, their questions lingering unanswered.
I had to believe there was something special between us, and whatever that was, it helped me relax my resistance and permit myself to believe something magical could be happening. After all, that was how it was supposed to work, wasn’t it? It was finally happening to me. I felt relief about myself, as if going seventeen years without having a serious romance was close to tragic, abnormal, an indication of troubled relationships to come. I worked on convincing myself that whatever happened between Kane and me would support and justify my faith in his promises, but especially when it came to the diary, because he could see how important it was to me. Of course, he wouldn’t betray me. He couldn’t, I thought. Why was I even debating with myself about it? He cared for me too much. He knew I wouldn’t forgive him and that everything we had would burn out as fast as a meteor falling to earth.
That buoyed my confidence and sent me back to yes, but then, almost immediately, I wondered if I was becoming another one of those ostriches my father often pointed out to me, people who wouldn’t face unpleasant realities or admit to weaknesses in themselves or others they trusted.
“You can’t simply will things to happen the way you want them to, Kristin,” my dad had warned me. “The night owl knows sunrise is coming, and there is nothing he can do to stop it, no matter how much he enjoys the darkness.”
Wisdom often dripped from his lips like honey, always kindly, always sweet. Right now, I had to answer him truthfully about Kane.
“Yes, Daddy. It’s a little serious between Kane and me,” I replied.
He nodded and then, turning away, added, “Let me know if a little turns into a lot.”
“Why?” I demanded with a little more fervor than I had intended. Was he already suspicious about what I was going to share with Kane? Would he be upset if I had strong feelings for someone besides him?
“I’m just kidding, Kristin. I don’t expect you to run off and elope or anything. Uh-oh,” he added, putting up his hands to surrender when I didn’t respond. Then he hummed the theme from Jaws as if a big shark was approaching a swimmer, and he stepped back.
“I think I just entered that world I’ve been warned about.”
“The world of sensitive teenage girls, otherwise known as bedlam.”
“Very funny, Daddy. The world of teenage boys is more dysfunctional, if you ask me.”
“Probably so.” He returned his attention to the pancakes on the stove. “But at least that’s waters I’ve swum in myself. I know what to expect and when to expect it. Teenage girls are more like an earthquake.”
He flipped a pancake. Right after being in the navy, where he got into cooking, he had been a short-order cook in a diner-type restaurant off I-95. This was before he met my mother and got into the construction business. When I was little, he actually would juggle a couple of pancakes with two spatulas. It made my mother and me laugh. He would flip one so it fell perfectly on my plate. Somehow all that juggling made them even more delicious.
“And so for me, with a teenage daughter,” he said, bringing over my pancakes, “it does feel like swimming in shark-infested waters.”
“I promise, I’ll warn you ahead of time before I bite,” I said as he poured out just the right amount of maple syrup and added banana, which he had sliced for me. He would do all that even when I was married and had children of my own, I thought.
“I’ll appreciate the warning. Oh, by the way, I might be running late every afternoon this week,” he said, sitting across from me. “Scheduling all these building inspectors, dealing with different contractors, meeting with the architect. This owner is taking a very detailed interest in all the construction, too. He’s a nice guy, but lately, now that this is really happening, it feels like he’s breathing down my neck sometimes. He slips in behind me like a ghost stepping back into the world.”
“Don’t most new homeowners take that sort of interest in what you’re doing?”
“Not like this,” he said. “Sometimes I get the feeling someone’s looking over Arthur Johnson’s shoulder, too.”
“What do you know about him?”
“I told you he ran a hedge fund and made a lot of money. I know as much about him as I have to, I guess. But between you and me, I think it’s ridiculous for a man that young to retire, even if he can. He’s married to a woman about twelve years younger. I picked that up. Her mother apparently worked for his father. I sort of got the impression that—” He suddenly clamped his lips together and scrunched his nose the way he would when he was about to utter a secret or a nasty comment about something or someone in front of me and stopped himself.
He looked at me oddly, obviously hesitant to tell me what he was thinking.
“I’m not a child anymore, Dad. You don’t have to worry about offending my innocent little ears.”
“Yeah, I have to keep reminding myself. Anyway, you’ve heard worse and read worse, I’m sure,” he added, raising his eyebrows.
“Worse than what?”
“I picked up that Arthur Johnson’s father got romantically involved with Arthur’s mother-in-law after her husband died. Right after,” he added. I guess I didn’t react enough, so he said, “Minutes after. Understand?”
“Oh. She might have picked up with him a little before her husband had died?” I asked.
He nodded. “And maybe not just a little before. His wife had died just a year or so earlier, not that her still being alive might have stopped him anyway.”
The disapproval on his face was blatant. I knew he was thinking of his own tragedy and wondering how much in love with his wife Arthur Johnson’s father had been if he could move on to another woman so quickly. And wondering about it even more so when he learned about Arthur Johnson’s mother-in-law. For many reasons, a line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet never drifted too far from my memory after we had read it in English class: “A second time I kill my husband dead, when second husband kisses me in bed.”
It was only natural for me to wonder if my father would fall in love with someone again. When would he be ready, if ever, to kiss another woman in his bed? It was painful for me to think about it, but I didn’t want to wish him endless loneliness, and I was especially worried about what his life would be like when I was out of the house. I had been filling out applications for college. An acceptance would come soon and ring a bell in this house. I wondered how often he thought about that. I knew he did. Maybe he had his own timetable for when he would fall in love again, and it would start when that bell rang; or maybe he was determined never to love again. Maybe he knew that line in Tennyson’s poem: “ ’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”
“Anyway,” he continued, now that he had committed to revealing the story, “afterward, Arthur Johnson met and spent time with his future wife because of their parents’ relationship, and both parents were pleased when they became engaged. Then they decided to do the same thing, get engaged and get married. It was a double wedding. His father married his wife’s mother at the same ceremony.”
“To save money?”
“Maybe,” he said, smiling. “When you question why someone rich looks for bargains, he always tells you that’s how he became rich. The women shopped for gowns together, and the men bought tuxedos together. They probably did get deals. They even bought similar wedding rings from the same jeweler. He gave away his son at the altar, and she gave away her daughter, and then vice versa. It was a ceremony conducted in mirrors.”
“Must have looked weird with them switching places and all.”
“I would think so, but he seemed proud of it when he talked about it. ‘I got a new mother, and she got a new father the same time we got each other,’ he told me. Families replacing families instantly,” he said, shaking his head. “Goes on a lot more these days. People accept almost everything when it comes to relationships, exes marrying exes of friends, widows marrying widowed husbands of best friends, stepbrothers marrying stepsisters. Anything goes, it seems.”
“Have you seen her?”
“Arthur Johnson’s young wife.”
“Yeah, once. Pretty girl. I shouldn’t say ‘girl.’ They have a fourteen-year-old son and a twelve-year-old daughter. Both attend a private school in another state and live in dormitories. Maybe they’re just not built to raise children. More bird in them.”
“You know. Hatching the eggs is one thing, getting them out of the nest as soon as possible is another.”
“Bird,” I repeated, and shook my head. “You are a character, Dad.”
He shrugged. “I call it like I see it. And if you ask me, you can learn a lot about people by watching and observing so-called lower animals.”
“I guess you learn a lot about the people you build or redo houses for.”
“Nothing reveals as much about people as the home they live in,” he said. “And their children are products of all that, too, often through no fault of their own.”
I wanted to ask, What if you were brought up in a mansion with parents from hell like Corrine Foxworth? Would that excuse her behavior after her husband died? But I didn’t. I started to clear off the table.
“Only odd thing,” Dad added, sounding more like he was talking to himself than to me.
“Huh? Oh. The only odd thing was the feeling I got that both Johnson and his wife—her name’s Shannon—that both knew a lot more about both the original and the restored Foxworth Hall than Johnson first revealed.”
“How do you mean? Knew what?”
“What it looked like in detail, inside and out. He makes references to it from time to time. Where windows were and what they looked out on, stuff like that. Although it’s a different architecture, with all sorts of technological updates, he wants to be sure some things are the same.”
“Well, there have been pictures of it. What’s the surprise?”
“No. It was as if they had been there when it was in its heyday.” He thought a moment and then shook his head. “Probably just my imagination. Anyway, don’t let my blabbering make you late for school.”
I had been late once before because of reading the diary late into the night and then oversleeping. One time was a warning, two was a detention and a demerit, and with my pursuit of class valedictorian, any misbehavior could affect a close decision if my final grades and someone else’s were practically the same, which, right now, was the case. But it wasn’t just that. Ever since my mother had died of a cerebral aneurism and my father and I were the only immediate family we had, disappointing him in any way, even with something as relatively minor as a tardiness demerit, was abhorrent to me. It was as if since my mother’s death, both he and I felt things more, especially sad and disappointing things.
I once heard my father say that the death of someone as close as a wife or a husband strips away the bark. “The rain, even a sharp breeze, stings more.”
“I won’t be late. I have someone making sure of it, remember?”
“Oh, right. Okay. I left a meat loaf in the fridge. You just have to warm it up. Don’t wait dinner on me,” he said, and gave me a kiss. He held on to me just a few seconds longer than usual.
“Don’t worry about this bird. I’m not leaving the nest so quickly, Dad,” I said, and he laughed.
“Have a good day, Kristin.”
“You, too, Dad.”
I turned back to the sink but paused to think. What had my father meant by people accepting more when it came to relationships these days? Would they easily accept Christopher’s father and mother marrying even though he was her half-uncle? According to Christopher Jr., that’s what Corrine had finally revealed, making it sound so romantic and inevitable that she expected her children would accept it. There was a time when parents actually wanted their children to marry within the family, marry cousins, believing it kept their blood purer or something, and no one thought of it as incest back then.
I glanced at the clock and finished cleaning up quickly. By the time I had my hands wiped, Kane was sounding his horn. One long beep and two short beeps, like he was sending Morse code or a spy message. Why are we all so dramatic at our age? I thought. When we were older, would we look back and laugh at the little things that made us cry or laugh, sad or happy? When had I become so damn analytical? Maybe because of the way Christopher described Cathy, I was thinking more about everything I did. I was finding myself blaming more of what I thought and felt on my reading of the diary. Was that a bad omen?
I scooped up my books, flicked my dark blue hooded jacket off the hanger in the entryway, and shot out the door as if I was being chased. I slammed it behind me, the echo reverberating like a gunshot. It jerked me out of my deep thoughts as effectively as a slap on my face.
Kane was laughing at me as I hurried to the driveway, putting my jacket on as I went.
“What?” I asked, getting in.
“You should see me when I get up in the morning and stumble into the kitchen for some breakfast. I have to feel my way to the table. You look so alert, so ready to go,” he said, and he gazed at the front of the house for a few seconds to see if my father might be looking out the window, then leaned over to kiss me quickly. “Hi.”
“I’m not raring to go. Don’t remind me how tired I am,” I said. “I didn’t sleep that well.”
“I just didn’t.”
He carefully backed out of the driveway. It was a mostly cloudy day. Before this, I had barely noticed the chill in the air. If it had ever smelled like snow was on the way, it did this morning. Already I missed the songbirds and the sweet scent of freshly cut grass. Our short Indian summer was gone. The leafless trees looked stunned. The surrounding woods had become the sleeping forest, hibernating, and the fields of dry grass looked like faded yellowish-green carpets, corpses of hay. With the weather so unpredictable, it was difficult to know confidently what it would be like tomorrow, much less next week or next month. Normally, we didn’t have heavy snowfalls this early, but there were also many Christmases without snow at all.
Kane was only in a long-sleeved khaki shirt and jeans despite the cool air. Sometimes I thought he must have ice in his veins. He could be indifferent about the weather. I thought he was that way about almost everything. Whenever I’d complain about something, he’d simply nod, shrug, and give me that “what’s the difference?” smile. What’s the difference what I wear, what I say, even what I think? Just move along, and if anything, just laugh. Laugh at the changes in the weather, laugh at the nervousness before exams, laugh at the school rules, and especially laugh at the drama of growing older and closer to being totally responsible for yourself. Just laugh.
“Did you read any more of the diary without me?” he asked as we drove off to school. He narrowed his eyes with suspicion when he turned to me. “Is that why you didn’t sleep well?”
I didn’t answer him. I was still thinking about reading the diary in the attic, with him playing Christopher and me being Cathy. He was so casual about everything. Why should I believe he’d take the diary as seriously as I did? This is too big a risk, I told myself. You’ll regret it.
“What’s wrong?” His hazel eyes darkened with concern. “Did you read something that bothered you, something terrible? I really want to do it with you. You haven’t changed your mind, have you?” He looked about as sincere as he ever was about anything.
This was it, I thought. I would either deliver my fabrication and end the diary reading or go on with it. I had to take that big risk. I had to believe in someone else besides my father, didn’t I? Otherwise, I’d lock myself in a different kind of attic, but it would still be avoiding the world. I had to go on with it. I really wasn’t a good liar, anyway. I was often compared to a fish in a bowl, with all my thoughts visibly swimming about. My father bragged about that, telling people, “Deceit’s not comfortable sitting on her face.” That was certainly not true for Corrine Dollanganger, I thought. If anything, she was certainly a good liar. Were selfish people naturally better liars?
“Nothing’s wrong. I didn’t read any more of the diary.”
“Good. That gives me a chance to catch up. What about this afternoon? What time does your father usually come home? How much time will we have?”
“He’s going to be late today, maybe the rest of the week.”
“Perfect. Isn’t it?” he asked when I didn’t say anything.
“Are you sure you want to do this, Kane, really sure?”
“What? How can you ask? Absolutely. I couldn’t stop thinking about it last night. I’m excited. Besides, I remembered that I always thought my father might know more about what happened at that original Foxworth Hall fire than he admits. He’s learned lots of things about Malcolm Foxworth and his family from his older customers. I just never cared much about it until now.”
“Did you tell him about the diary?” I asked, my voice on the verge of panic.
“No, no. I promised I would tell no one, and that’s that. I won’t.”
“What do you mean, your father might know more than he admits?” I asked, sitting up more. “What does he know? How do you know it’s more?”
“Easy,” he said, smiling. “My father and mother know we went up to Foxworth to have that picnic.”
“He asked me about the site, what your father was doing, and I asked him what he really knew about the original fire. This was before you told me about the diary. He said what he heard was that the first fire definitely wasn’t accidentally caused by a servant or some electrical malfunction or gas leak. He said that the story of how it happened that some firemen describe was right.”
“The one about the daughter deliberately setting the fire. She had gone mad and deliberately set the fire. He said she was whisked away before anyone could ask any more questions and apparently put in an insane asylum or something.”
“He definitely said ‘the daughter’? He believes that to be true?”
“Did you ask him her name?”
“I didn’t want to ask him too many questions and get him suspicious.”
“That was probably a good idea. Why would she have done that?”
“Who knows? Considering how long ago that was, I’m not surprised there are so many theories and so few facts. He said no one really cared that much about them or what had happened to them. He said from what old-timers told him, Malcolm and Olivia Foxworth weren’t particularly liked and were considered rich, raving, religious maniacs. It was easy to believe they were capable of doing weird things to their children and grandchildren. That’s why what you found is so exciting, Kristin. We’ll know the truth. We’ll learn all the secrets, secrets more than fifty years old.”
“I’m not really sure we should jump to conclusions about anything in the diary. We can’t treat it as gospel.”
“What do you mean? You said it was found on the property. It’s the diary of the boy who was imprisoned there, Christopher, right?”
“Right, but we are getting the story from Christopher. Maybe . . . maybe he’s not telling the truth. My father once suggested that after I had begun to read it.”
Kane thought a moment and then nodded. “I’ll know pretty quickly once I get into it,” he said confidently. “But people don’t usually lie in a diary, anyway. That’s why I never kept one. I don’t want to be caught telling the truth.” He gave me that James Dean smile and shrug that he had become famous for in our school.
“That I believe. So how will you know so quickly if he’s lying or not?”
“I have a built-in lie detector. A buzzer goes off in my head, so don’t try to fool me.”
“Maybe I’ve fooled you already.”
He laughed. “You’re good, angel, you’re real good,” he said. “My father uses that line on my mother. It comes from some old Humphrey Bogart movie.”
“Too bad Christopher Dollanganger didn’t have that built-in buzzer of yours to know when he was being told the truth and when he wasn’t. I’m sure he and his brother and sisters wouldn’t have suffered so much.”
“I’ll have to catch up to see what you mean by suffering so much, but don’t tell me any more. I want to be objective and come to my own conclusions. I know that’s what you want, too, right?”
I nodded, and Kane made the turn into the school parking lot. Others were racing not to be late, the cooler air putting more energy into their strides, because, like Kane, most were underdressed. Even though they looked like they were on treadmills going five or six miles an hour and looked as comical as silent movie stars, some boys thought it was macho to freeze.
After Kane parked and shut off the engine, he sat there for a moment.
“What?” I asked, seeing that he was still in deep thought.
“Their mother brought them there, right?”
“Yes, you’ll read about how and why. So?”
“So maybe he rationalized a lot. Maybe he did know, Kristin.”
“Did know what?”
“Maybe he knew when he was being lied to but put up with it and lied to himself, and that’s what we’ll read. So your father could be at least half right.”
“Why would he lie to himself?”
“All of us are willing to forgive the ones we love, Kristin,” he replied, “even for their lies.”
That was a perceptive thing to say, I thought, but what was going on in Kane’s life that brought him to that conclusion, a conclusion he was willing to share? I was more impressed with him every time we were together. The sensitivity he revealed was a nice surprise. My father always said that getting to know someone, someone you cared very much to know, was like peeling an onion. It took time and patience. Sometimes you peeled away too much and regretted it. I didn’t think I would regret it when it came to Kane. At least, I hoped I wouldn’t.
I got out of the car, but I was still thinking about what he had said. All of us are willing to forgive the ones we love? Even for lies?
I hope so, I thought. I hope that in the end, my father will forgive me.
* * *
A big secret changes you in ways you don’t realize immediately, especially if you share that secret with someone and hope he or she is keeping it safe. The bigger the secret, the more vulnerable and in danger you feel. Sometimes it shows right on your face, like splattered egg yolk, especially a face like mine. Practically every moment outside of class, I expected someone to rush over to me and declare, “You have the diary? You know what really happened at the original Foxworth Hall?” Every time I heard one of my friends call my name, an electric chill would rush up my spine.
Everyone has little secrets. In our world, that was what made you more interesting. But this was very different. Anyone who found out what we had would surely pounce, and not just my classmates. Newspapers, radio, television people would haunt us. The phone wouldn’t stop ringing, nor would the doorbell. People would accuse us of always having had it and deliberately hoarding the truth because it was embarrassing for our family. My mother was a distant cousin of Malcolm Foxworth, so the children were distant cousins of mine. My father would feel terrible for calling me over that day to watch him open the locked metal box at the bottom of some debris in the remains of the restored Foxworth Hall. The restoration had used the same basement walls. My father thought the builders were just not very meticulous when it came to cleaning away the original debris. His colleagues would tease him about it. Some might even be nasty and make him angry. He would hate to go anywhere, except to work and right back home. Just going to the supermarket would become a big deal. I couldn’t even imagine what coming to my high school graduation would be like for him.
He might lose business. He might want to sell our house and move away.
I didn’t want to imagine any of it. It was like having a nightmare while awake. That’s what it was starting to feel like at school.
Physically, I was walking about with my books embraced tightly against my breasts, as if I were protecting something precious inside the covers, or perhaps really more inside me. Emotionally, I felt clogged, as if my feelings were twisted into figure-eight knots. The weight of our secret slowed my pace, no matter what I was doing. I could feel my eyes widen in expectation every time I was asked a question, no matter how innocent the question might seem. Had I revealed anything accidentally? Had I whetted anyone’s interest? Had Kane inadvertently given something away already, and others were testing me? I was taking on real paranoia. This was triggered especially when one of my close friends, Kyra Skewer, asked me about Kane picking me up every morning and taking me home after school.
“Does he hang out at your house, or do you go to his or what afterward?” she wanted to know. She asked in front of Suzette, Missy Meyer, and Theresa Flowman, and all four of them gave me their full attention, their ears perked up like extraterrestrial antennae.
“It varies with my mood,” I said cryptically.
“Whatever,” I said. “It’s spontaneous.”
“You and your vocabulary,” Kyra complained. She had a grimace that made her look like she was being burned at the stake whenever she complained about anything.
“Spontaneous? Please. That’s not a hard word to define, Kyra.”
“I know what it means. I just never heard it used like that,” she said.
“When you’re in love, everything is spontaneous,” Suzette said, and then giggled and turned her shoulders inward, which made her breasts bulge in the deep V-neck of her light blue sweater. I knew she often did that deliberately just to see where the gaze of the boy she was talking to went. “Whether it’s a kiss or something more,” she added.
“Then every day is spontaneous for you,” Kyra said. “Every month, you fall into a desperate love that lasts as long as your period.”
Everyone laughed. I smiled. It wasn’t all that much of an exaggeration when it came to Suzette. Recently, she had gotten blond highlights in her dark brown hair because Tommy Clark liked blond highlights, and soon after that, she let us all know she had pierced her navel. In fact, she let everyone know, especially Greg Storm, who had his nose pierced. It did seem like she remade herself weekly to attract some new boy she fancied.
“I’d rather go to Kane’s house. You’d have more privacy,” Missy Meyer said, getting serious again. “I mean, you have a nice house. It’s just that . . .”
“The way the house is laid out, her father might hear what goes on in her bedroom?” Suzette suggested, her silver-blue eyes brightening like two diamonds of promiscuous excitement. “Didn’t your younger brother hear what went on in yours when you brought Dylan Marks home one afternoon?” she asked Kyra. She embraced herself and mimicked groans and moans.
“Well, no matter where you go after school, Kristin, he can’t help you with your homework. If anything, he’ll distract you,” Theresa Flowman said in her nasal voice. She was hoping for that result, hoping Kane would distract me enough to lower my grades. After the last marking period, Theresa and I were neck and neck for valedictorian.
“Please, Theresa, distract her?” Kyra said. “What you need is a lot more distraction. Any distraction, come to think of it,” she added, flashing a sly smile at me. Suzette and Missy laughed. Theresa turned crimson, glared at her, and walked off.
“All that girl knows about sex is that it’s a three-letter word,” Suzette said.
“And what do you know?” Kyra teased.
“I know Steve Cooper would like to practice the missionary position with you in his basement,” she retorted, and the three of them laughed again. Steve’s parents had let him move into their basement, which felt like a private apartment because it had a separate entrance. Lately, it had acquired a nickname: Steve’s Sex Pit.
They looked at me, noticing I wasn’t laughing this time. The chitchat had reminded me of Christopher and Cathy talking about sex, and for a moment, I was back in the attic, thinking about an older brother being a young girl’s only source for information about her maturing body. Even though Christopher was coldly scientific, he was still her brother and not her mother or older sister. Any young girl would still be sensitive about asking him questions about sex, but especially a sister. I recalled how hard it had been for my father to talk to me about any of it. He finally had to ask his sister, my aunt Barbara, to speak with me about my own emerging hormones clamoring to be recognized. She had made a special trip from New York to do it.
Who would make a special trip for Cathy? It didn’t look like her mother would take the time to do it. She certainly wouldn’t take her out of the room to have a private conversation, one of those mother-daughter talks that my girlfriends satirized. They didn’t realize how envious of them I was. There were so many little things that had become big things for all of us, but especially for children locked away like that, I thought, children locked in a room and an attic and left to their own imagination to amuse and educate themselves. Christopher would do fine, but Cathy . . . how would it end up for her? Did I really want to know? Would both Kane and I regret turning those pages in the diary?
“Anything wrong?” Kyra said. “Hello, earth to Kristin?”
She looked at Suzette.
“We were both talking to you, and you didn’t hear us. You’ve been acting weird all day. You didn’t miss a period, did you?” Suzette asked. She would.
The three of them looked at me with one face, mouths slightly open, eyes anticipating.
“She hasn’t been going with him long enough, has she?” Kyra asked.
“We really don’t know how long she’s been seeing him,” Suzette said, enjoying the implication as she kept her eyes on me. “And guess what? It doesn’t take that long to get pregnant. Some sperm are faster than a speeding bullet, right, Kristin?”
“Get outta here,” I said, playfully nudging her. “You have a one-track mind,” I added, and then spotted Kane coming around the hallway corner. “Later,” I muttered, and hurried to join him.
“Hey,” he said, putting his arm around my shoulders. “You all right?”
He looked back at my girlfriends, who were staring at us and giggling.
“Someone say something about us?”
“No. They don’t bother me. I think I screwed up on a math quiz.”
“Does the CIA know yet?”
“I’m serious. I should have aced it, Kane.”
“All right. Sorry. What happened?” he asked as we walked to our next classes.
“I don’t know. My mind just . . . went blank or something.”
“Everyone has a day like that.”
“I never did,” I said.
“So now you’re normal. Relax. You’ll do better the next time,” he insisted. He shrugged. “Isn’t that why there are erasers on pencils?”
I stopped and smiled. “That’s exactly what my father says when I complain about something I’ve done wrong.”
“My father doesn’t say it; my mother does. My father doesn’t believe in mistakes. He claims it’s not in his religion.”
“What religion is that?”
“Perfection,” he replied, then laughed and gave me a quick kiss on the lips, which at least twenty other students saw, their eyes blinking like the lenses of paparazzi cameras. And then he hurried off to beat the late bell for his class. Most of my classes were advanced placement classes now. He turned and waved and then pretended he had been grabbed and pulled into a room. I laughed. He could have entertained everyone on the Titanic.
What a mixture of emotions I was feeling. I was excited about being with him. I really did love every minute, and I loved how we were like everyone’s perfect couple, but I was feeling a little numb, confused, very tentative about myself because of the plan we had made for reading the diary together. I kept coming back to it all day, and sometimes I’d be trembling. Why was I so nervous about it? Did I really think the diary had some evil magical power because it had been buried so long in the rubble of the original Foxworth Hall? Was opening it like opening Pandora’s box? Did my father get me thinking like this by his wishing so strongly that I wouldn’t read it?
My father always had this weird attitude about the original Foxworth Hall, never really wanting to talk about it or what had happened there, even though I was related to them on my mother’s side. Maybe he didn’t want to talk about it precisely because of that. When I was younger and even now, some of my classmates wondered if I had inherited any of the Foxworth madness.
It got so even I began to wonder.
Finally, I decided I was just being stupid thinking all these weird things and pushed it all out of my mind by concentrating hard on my schoolwork.
However, as soon as the bell rang to end our final class of the day, I felt my heart begin to beat faster in anticipation of what Kane and I were going to begin doing. My girlfriends, especially Suzette, continued to tease me about being with Kane before and after school, filling up every free moment with him. I thought they were just jealous.
“Will we ever see you again?” Suzette joked.
“Will you ever answer the phone when we call?” Kyra followed.
I shut them out, their laughter falling behind me like pebbles falling from a speeding, bouncing dump truck, and hurried to meet him. He was already at the exit waiting for me. He put his arm around me quickly and turned us to the door.
“I lucked out. Not much homework tonight,” he said. “I can spend more time reading.”
“I have my usual ton.”
He opened the door, and we walked out quickly to the parking lot and his car. Practically every classmate of mine smiled licentiously at us as they passed us, some walking faster just to do that. Kane seemed oblivious to it. We had known each other a long time, even though we had just started going out together. I was still trying to understand him. Was he indifferent to most of the things that captured everyone else’s interest because he was just plain arrogant, or did he simply not care? Perhaps our experience with Christopher’s diary would peel that onion faster when it came to him.
“Don and Ryan were driving me crazy to go skeet shooting with them this afternoon,” he said after we got into the car. “I forgot I had made plans to do that.”
“You want to?” I asked, welcoming the reprieve. “We can postpone this.”
“Hell no. As you know, I’ve got reading to do, and with your father coming home late, we have a good opportunity to get into a lot of it,” he said. He started the engine and drove us to my house.
I could never imagine Kane Hill nervous about anything, but until we turned into my driveway, he talked continually, describing the most inconsequential things that had happened during the day. It was almost like someone dictating Facebook or Twitter posts. His desk in math class wobbled too much. His math teacher, Mr. Brizel, broke his green chalk, the one he used to underline answers on the blackboard when he was frustrated with class responses. It was too cool in shop class because Mr. Primack left a window open too much and no one had the nerve to complain.
I was half-listening, anyway. I was thinking that I should call my father just to be sure he was going to be late for dinner and wouldn’t arrive earlier than I expected and discover us in my room reading the diary. When we entered the house, I went right to the phone in the kitchen. Kane glanced at the stairway and looked at me expectantly.
“Go on up ahead of me and start,” I said. “I have to call my father.”
He shot up the stairs, taking two at a time, and turned to my room before I even entered the kitchen.
He really was into this, I thought, but that still wasn’t making me feel confident about it now. I called my father.
“Hey, what’s up?” he asked. “Anything wrong?”
“No. Just checking to be sure you will be late for dinner.”
“Yeah, sorry. I know you don’t like to eat alone.”
“I might invite Kane,” I said. “You made enough for at least five people,” I added quickly.
“Oh, so he’s there?”
“Yes. We’re . . . doing homework together.”
“Sounds romantic. Should I be worried?” He hummed the shark theme again, just what I had been anticipating when I thought about calling him from Kane’s car.
“Is it all right to have him stay for dinner?”
“Absolutely. Later are you going to brag that your father won over your new boyfriend with his cooking?”
“No,” I said.
He laughed. “Enjoy,” he said, and shouted to someone just before he hung up.
I stood there for a moment thinking about it all and then walked slowly up the stairs. Kane was on my bed, his shoes off, the diary in his hands.
“You want to stay for dinner? My father’s definitely going to be late,” I said.
“What’s for dinner?”
“It’s his meat loaf, my mashed potatoes, and string beans.”
“Sure. I love meat loaf,” he replied, and then returned to the diary as if his eyes were pulled to it beyond his control.
I put my books on my desk and, after looking at him again, began to attack my homework. Even though I glanced at him from time to time, neither of us spoke for a good hour or so. Finally, I heard him sigh deeply, and I turned and saw that he had sat up and was holding his hands over his face.
“What?” I asked.
“This was one bright kid, this Christopher Dollanganger. He writes well, but he sounds like he’s afraid of his own emotions, afraid that he’s going to explode or something. I get the feeling he was walking around holding his breath most of the time, especially after they were brought to the mansion. And how about that grandmother? She’d give Norman Bates from Psycho nightmares. He’s putting up with a lot more than I would, even at that age.”
“Yes. He’s doing a great deal for his little brother and sister and for Cathy, and he has to keep the lid on.”
“I can’t wait to see if he does. Cathy sounds more difficult than the twins.”
“She has a lot to be unhappy about, Kane. She’s cut off from all her friends, everything that once made her life exciting, and look at the new responsibilities dropped on her. It wasn’t fair.”
He nodded. “Makes sense. So you like her?”
“Why not? It’s not her fault that they are where they are.”
“You sound very defensive. Maybe there’s more Cathy in you than either of us knows.”
He smiled and picked up the diary again.
“Are you going to catch up to me in one day?” I asked, sounding a bit annoyed now.
“What about your homework?”
“I told you, I don’t have that much, and besides, I’ll do it when I get home.”
I looked at my watch. “I’m going down to start on dinner. We’ll eat in about a half hour. I hope you can tear yourself away. You’re not bringing it to the dinner table,” I warned.
He didn’t respond. He was already back into the diary so much that he didn’t hear me. I paused in the doorway and looked at him, with the book up and his face blocked. I thought of Cathy, bored in that attic, looking at Christopher and seeing him deep in one of his science books, in his own world. That was probably his only escape, but it had to be frustrating for her. She had no one else to talk to but the twins.
I didn’t know why exactly, but Kane’s attraction to the diary was making me irritable. Anyone might think I was jealous of how passionate he had become about it. It was as though he appreciated it more than I did or something. I banged things around a bit more than necessary and mumbled under my breath as I set the table.
Kane came down exactly thirty minutes later. I turned, surprised.
“Wow! You could break away, after all.”
“Smelled the aroma and got hungry,” he said. “How can I help?”
“Take this jug of water to the table. Everything else is done,” I told him.
I began to bring in the food.
“It looks terrific,” he said.
I began to serve him. Then I served myself and sat.
“How did you like how their grandmother fed them?” he said. “It was like leaving crumbs out for birds. I think the servants knew what was going on, or at least one or two did.”
Christopher's Diary: Echoes of Dollanganger
Jealousy, tragedy, survival, and revenge—the discovery of Christopher’s diary in the ruins of Foxworth Hall brings new secrets of the Dollanganger family to light and obsesses a new generation. With Flowers in the Attic and Petals on the Wind both now major Lifetime TV events, the first new Dollanganger stories in nearly thirty years is a timely look at the events in the attic—from teenage Christopher’s point of view.
Christopher Dollanganger was fourteen when he and his younger siblings—Cathy and the twins, Cory and Carrie—were locked away in the attic of Foxworth Hall, prisoners of their mother’s greedy inheritance scheme. For three long years he kept hope alive for the sake of the others. But the shocking truth about how their ordeal affected him was always kept hidden—until now.
Seventeen-year-old Kristin Masterwood is thrilled when her father’s construction company is hired to inspect the Foxworth property for a prospective buyer. The once grand Southern mansion still sparks legends and half-truths about the four innocent Dollanganger children, even all these decades later. Foxworth holds a special fascination for Kristin, who was too young when her mother died to learn much about her distant blood tie to the notorious family.
Accompanying her dad to the “forbidden territory,” they find a leather-bound book, its yellowed pages filled with the neat script of Christopher Dollanganger himself. Her father grows increasingly uneasy about her reading it, but as she devours the teen’s story page by page, his shattering account of temptation, heartache, courage, and betrayal overtakes Kristin’s every thought. And soon her obsession with the doomed boy crosses a dangerous line…