The Secrets Among Us
Summary: When Bridget's mother dies, she is separated from her family and sent away to school. There, she meets four new girls, who take the places of her sisters. Together they relive each other's pasts, learning that through tragedy, they are all connected.
Chapter 1: Unwanted
In the dark, I could see the light under their door. It was the only light on in the house. Everything else lay dormant. That tiny line of gold on the floor drew me closer. I was tempted to listen. No, it was beyond temptation. I had to listen. I put my ear to the wood of the door and ignored the cold of the floor numbing my small feet.
My father never raised his voice. He was a soft-spoken man who liked to work things out by looking at all sides of the argument. But my mother, she was prone to more irrational methods of solving problems. And so despite my father's understanding and careful nature, what I heard coming from their room was not comforting.
"Charles, I can't go on like this!" My mother's voice was strained. I could tell she was trying her best to stay quiet. She didn't want to wake my sisters. Dora especially would never get back to sleep if she was awoken. She would hear them and stay up all night, afraid.
I heard the squeak of my father's chair as he stood and went to her. I wished I could see inside the room. It was all I could do to keep from turning the handle and bursting in on them. But I knew better than to interrupt them now.
"Rebecca, you promised you would try; for the girls. I understand that it's difficult for you. With your condition, it's bound to be. But you can't just give up. They need you. They need a mother. What am I supposed to do if you're gone?" My father's voice had turned weak and needing. It was a voice I'd never heard him use and it scared me. He was always such a calm man, concluding that the world could always use another rational person
I wasn't supposed to know what they were talking about. It was adult business. But I'd stumbled in on my mother in her bathroom one morning taking so many pills that she couldn't avoid telling me that she was sick. That was when I'd realised something wasn't quite right with our family anymore. We seemed to be harbouring a secret we all felt had to be kept in order to keep the peace.
The first time I saw my mother cry, it set an ardent fear within me. When I was much younger, four or five, she'd never cried. My mother had had the will power of a god. She could be any person she wanted. She flitted around cocktail rooms in her flowing skirts; charming all the husbands and enticing the other ladies into conversations that made them feel important and intelligent. But that was when I was younger. The day I turned eight, she cried when we passed a beggar on the street. My sister Tessa cried for beggars all the time. She couldn't see the justice in it. But it had never bothered my mother. It was part of life, she would explain. But as we passed that man, with his unshaven face, dirty hands and torn clothes, she let an uncharacteristic tear slip down her cheek when she thought I wasn't looking. I never said anything about it. I thought that if she tried to hide it, it was all well, because she'd been doing it all along.
But soon after that, I saw more tears trail down past her nose and lips before she wiped them away. And they began occurring more frequently. So much so, that I lost count the number of times I'd seen her cry.
And I heard her again tonight. Her sobs were muffled into my father's chest as he drew her close. Their voices became barely whispers and I struggled to hear more.
"Charles. I can't do it. I know. I know that I am supposed to love my children. I'm supposed to love them so much that I would die for them. But how can I when I feel this way? I want to hurt them, Charles! How can I be around them like this? Why do you want me here knowing that I care for nothing anymore."
My mother's words cut deeply into my skin and I sucked in my breath. I'd never heard her speak that way. I thought she'd loved us.
In the end, my mother's delirium drove her to forget about my father's suggestions to keep her chin up, or agree to admit herself into Green Valley Institution. Instead, Tessa found her in bed, cold and without a heartbeat. She'd taken too many of her pills. Only my father forever held any belief that it was an accident. The rest of us knew or came to know when we were older.
At the funeral, I stood by my sisters and we held onto Tessa, me on the right, Dora on the left and Agnes clutching to me. Tessa was the eldest; seventeen to my fourteen. But despite that, I felt it was my duty to hold our family together. And so for my mother, I refused to cry.
My sisters and I thought that with our mother gone, our father would simply hire someone to look after us. We thought he would keep us. We thought there would be no question in his mind that we should stay with him. But I suppose we reminded him too much of her. He loved our mother more than most husbands did then. They'd had a passionate love affair that most could only dream of. And we girls were merely painful mementos of the dream he'd lost. Our relatives intervened, seeing that Father could no longer care for us. We were split up because none of our relatives could take four girls. Those were difficult times in England. Agnes and Dora went to London to live with our Aunt Jocelyn. Even Tessa was sent to my father's brother, Samuel and his wife Louise in Birmingham. As for me? I was shipped off to live with my mother's parents in a tiny village outside of Bristol. The night we all left, our father shut himself up in his study with a tumbler of brandy and watched us out of the window as we hugged and kissed each other goodbye, and climbed into our separate carriages. He thought we couldn't see him because he didn't want us to. But the look of anguish on my father's face was one I would never forget. In it, I saw the same sadness I had seen so many times in my mother's.
I arrived on at Langley Manor one rainy morning in the middle of the summer, a mere fortnight after my mother's death. As my grandfather opened the door, I prayed for my sisters and me. I prayed that we would never fall into the depression that haunted my mother and tore us apart.
As I stepped down from the carriage, I gazed at the grand manor before me. My father had informed me that, while their lifestyle implied prosperity, my grandfather was not a man of enormous wealth. He was an incredibly well-respected everywhere, for he'd once been a prominent politician, but he'd given it up because he thought England's government too corrupt and he'd returned to the trade that made him content; carpentry.
The lands he had, had been inherited from his own grandfather, and the money he had was from his trade and the little he had amassed and managed to save during his earlier career.
"Bridget," my grandfather's gruff voice came as no surprise. I'd never met him, but he was tall and burly for a man so old. He looked nothing as I had expected though. He certainly had not the air of a man who had ever been involved in politics.
"Grandfather," I replied squaring my shoulders in a determined manner.
"Just like her mother," he muttered. He leaned down and picked up my bag. It wasn't too heavy. My father had never believed in spoiling young girls, or anyone for that matter. Mother was the only one who could talk him into spending money. Not that he was a penny-pincher. He just held tightly onto his money in case an emergency ever arose.
I followed Grandfather through the main hall and up the spiralling staircase. It was an old Victorian house, full of creaking walls and stairs. The halls upstairs were all lined with the same dark olive green wallpaper, a tormenting colour that reminded me of my mother's favourite dress. My room was the last on the left. It smelled old and musty, like no one had been in there for a long time.
"Was this…was it…?" I wanted to know, but I couldn't ask.
"Your mother's room?" He looked at me, expressionless. "No. Her's was down the hall."
I wondered why it was that we'd never met before.
My grandfather rubbed his neck and looked around, unsure of what to say.
"Well, I suppose you ought to come downstairs and have something to eat. Alma will put away your things. She's the maid."
I nodded and followed him as he walked out the door. In the parlour, my grandmother sat, nervously fiddling with her skirt. She was a tiny woman compared to Grandfather. Her white hair was piled atop her head in the latest fashion and her clothes were clean and neat, obviously recently made, but despite her elegant appearance, her face and expression looked down to earth, as if she were a pauper in a queen's clothing. I warmed to her immediately.
She smiled and motioned to the seat next to her on the sofa. I took it, trying to do so daintily.
"Why Benjamin!" she exclaimed, "She looks as though she hasn't been fed in years!"
I looked down at my legs and supposed she was right. I was fairly small and scrawny for my age. But I'd always been so. Mother always said she was afraid to hug me because she was afraid she'd break me. I wondered now if that was really the reason.
Grandfather shrugged as he sat down in the chair in the corner. They both looked me over a bit, I suppose looking for hints of my mother, but I resembled my father more with his thick, dark brown hair and matching eyes. I had her lips though, she always told me, red and full, kissable, she would tease in rare moments of affection.
I didn't sleep that night. The floors creaked constantly and the rain splashed harshly against my window. Just past midnight, I got up from my bed. There were so many blankets that I was sweating and the cold air of the house was welcome.
I walked across the room and opened my door into the black hallway. I'd never liked the dark. It was full of terrifying possibilities. The eyes in the framed portraits on the wall followed me as I made my way down to the door where Grandfather had pointed earlier; my mother's room.
Taking a deep breath, I pushed the door open. I don't quite know what I expected. More than cold silence I suppose, but that was all I got. I didn't want to light the lamp, as it was I could see fairly well. I went over to the wardrobe and pulled open one of the heavy doors. The strong smell of mothballs filled my nose. On the hangers were my mother's dresses; soft and thick. I rubbed the velvet of one between my fingers imagining Mother in the material. She had a way of making even the rattiest clothes seem elegant.
A writing bureau was up against the wall under the window. I ran my finger along the surface and felt a thick layer of dust come away. My mother's room was a shrine to immutability
I sat down at the desk and took out a piece of the brittle, creamy white paper. I had no intention of writing anything, I couldn't if I'd wanted, the inkwell was dry, but I wanted to know what it felt like to be in my mother's place.
I stared out the window, the curtains were drawn, and wanted to cry, but held back the tears. I felt it unfair that my father had let us be separated, me from my sisters, us all from him. It was like a stake thrust right through the centre of my heart it ached so much. I wanted us to be a family, together, and I couldn't understand why Father had driven us away.
Before the sun came up, I crept back to my room for a few hours of restless sleep.
At breakfast, as I poked at my egg in a cup, my grandfather cleared his throat and said gruffly, "You know that you aren't staying here, I assume." He said it as a statement, but I was thrown.
"What?" I looked up in confusion. Father had told me that I was living with my grandparents. And here they were sitting at the table with me. This was where I was told I would be.
"It's just that, your grandmother and I, we are your guardians, but we feel that you would profit more, that maybe you would…" he struggled for words that wouldn't offend me, "be happier around girls your age."
I nodded. They wanted to send me away.
"There's a school over in Cardiff for girls; Dalton's School. It's a good place."
"Are my sisters going to be there?" I asked, hope touching my voice.
Grandfather scratched his neck, "Ah, no. Your relatives can't afford it."
I was slightly taken aback, "Can't my father pay? He's plenty of money. He's always paid for tutors!" But I should have known the answer. My father's money saving days would be more numerous with Mother gone. Besides, tutors were much less expensive than boarding schools anyways.
Grandmother shook her head and spoke, "He's going through a difficult time. He isn't able to make these decisions."
I was furious with Father. "We're all going through difficult time! Our mother just died! Or did he forget that we're part of his family too?" I slammed my chair back and righted myself before running out of the room.
It was so unfair to be split up from my sisters and now from my grandparents. I had thought and come to terms with the fact that this would now be my home. But now I was being sent away again. Where had I gone wrong? But I couldn't argue with them. If my grandparents didn't want me here, I couldn't very well do anything about it.
For several days, my grandparents let me be as I wandered aimlessly from room to room. I'd never felt so unwanted in all my life. Every now and again, Grandmother would try to coerce me into talking, but I could never find the strength to say much. Not only was the thought of leaving again plaguing me, but memories of my mother. It wasn't so much her death that bothered me, but the knowledge that when she'd died, she didn't love us. And that was far worse to me.