A/N: I've decided to go through with Clarence, just because I started writing from his point of view and decided that I liked it better. There is some canon dialogue in here that I absolutely do not own.
The atmosphere in our once-pretty, jovial home was one of quiet, hurried need. I envied the twins, who were oblivious to Momma's tight, tense silence as she packed – unlike Christopher, Cathy, and me (though looking back, I doubt we had any idea how truly grave the situation was). The three of us scrambled to obey Momma, throwing clothes and a few games into our two suitcases, our most precious belongings and nothing else.
Other than clothes, the only thing I packed (tucked safely away at the bottom of the suitcase) was my most cherished possession: a beautifully embossed book, bound in fine leather. Daddy had bought little gifts for all of us, when he was alive, but when he found that I was disinterested by the knickknacks and novelties he brought me, he had saved up for months to present me with a book that had immediately enthralled me, the Complete Sherlock Holmes.
Christopher frowned when he saw me place it into our suitcase, ready, no doubt, to scold me for bringing something so heavy and that would take up so much space (he had left behind his own books to make room). But when he caught sight of the cover, he only turned away and continued rummaging for the twins' clothes, saying nothing. Perhaps he was remembering, as I was, the day Daddy had given it to me, his eyes bright with excitement as he placed it into my hands and the wide smile on his face when my eyes had gone round and wide with wonder.
I had hugged him so tightly that I hoped to become enveloped by his warmth, his strength, his laughter. He had ruffled my hair and lifted me easily up onto his shoulders (I had been seven, but I was still small and thin enough that it hadn't been any effort at all), until I was laughing and clutching tightly to him with one arm and the treasured book with the other.
Oh, how I missed him…
Christopher helped Momma drag the suitcases to the train while Cathy and I managed the sleeping twins: Cory in my arms, Carrie in hers. They didn't even stir as we settled them onto our laps – we had only four seats in our compartment, so Cathy and I pressed up against each other so that the twins could have more room to sleep across our laps.
Cathy and Christopher began a quiet, eager conversation of what they would do with the money that the grandfather would give Momma. I, exhausted as I was, fell into a doze, lulled by the sounds of their hushed voices and the rocking of the train.
I awoke when Cathy nudged me, disoriented and aching and feeling as if everything so far – Daddy's death, Momma's news – had been but a fevered dream.
"It's our stop," Cathy said. She was carrying Carrie in her arms, who was nestled against her chest with her rosebud lips parted slightly. "I can't carry them both," she added, looking a little helplessly at Cory, still slumped against the seat.
I nodded, taking Cory into my arms. He didn't even stir as I shifted my hold on him, the twins utterly and blissfully oblivious to the world as Cathy and I followed Momma and Christopher, who were wrestling with the unwieldly suitcases.
The walk was a long, eerie one. There was a certain sort of beauty, I supposed, to the stillness and quiet of the night, the moonlight streaming in past the thick leaves of the forest. Somewhere along the way, I lost myself into the serene darkness, even after Cory and Carrie were jostled awake and made to walk, complaining, alongside me and Cathy.
Our arrival jolted me out of my dazed reverie. I remember how enormous and lofty the house appeared, how intimidating it was, towering above us and outlined starkly against the dark night. And as we lurked in the terribly tense silence, the entire being of the house seemed to become even more imposing as the promise of a cruel, malicious grandfather and a cold, unloving grandmother lurked behind the heavy doors. Momma twisted her delicate white hands, her face shadowed in the dim moonlight as we circled around the edges of the house to a back door, all but invisible against the wall of the house.
The door swung open suddenly, making me jump and take a stuttering step backwards. Ordinarily, Christopher might have laughed and teased me for it, but his eyes were wide, too, as cowed as I was by our grandmother.
We were led into the house, past an impossibly narrow staircase that made me shudder with unease. Christopher seemed to notice and brushed his shoulder against mine in the silence – he'd always seemed to be under the impression that he had to protect me, ever since we were young and I was his much smaller baby brother. I was nearly thirteen, too old to accept comfort from a fourteen-year-old brother, but all the same, it was a gesture that I appreciated in the rickety darkness of the stairway.
Our journey ended at a large bedroom, lit only by a single lamp. But instead of looking at my surroundings, I took the time to study our strange saviour.
She was tall, taller than Momma – and seemed even taller than Daddy had ever been, even though I knew it couldn't be possible. Where Daddy had been tall and strong and kind, this woman had hard lines on her face, a firm set to her mouth and a cold glint in her eyes as she regarded the six of us on the doorstep.
I held my breath, fearful, hopeful, that she would look at us and see us for who we were. That when her gaze skipped hastily over Christopher, it was because she knew at first glance that he was healthy and strong, the cleverest person I knew, besides perhaps Daddy. That when her lips thinned when she stared at Cathy, it was because she had noticed her graceful dancer's figure and her bold charisma. That when she sniffed at the sight of the twins, leaning heavily on each other and blinking sleepily, that it was because of their innocent, beautiful charm.
Her gaze seemed to linger for a second on me and I flushed uncomfortably – I was small for my age, very slender, unlike Christopher, who was athletic and popular. I lowered my eyes immediately, terrified that she would look into me and see something to condemn me before we were even given chances to speak.
"Just as you said, Corrine. Your children are beautiful."
There was something about her voice that chilled me to the bone. I glanced at Cathy, who met my gaze uncertainly, and then at Momma, whose face was very pale.
"But are you sure they are intelligent? Do they have some invisible afflictions not apparent to the eyes?"
Momma cried out in offense, a sentiment Cathy seemed to echo, though she didn't seem to dare speak up. She glared at the severe old woman for a second before crouching down to unpack the twins' clothes, and Cathy quickly followed suit. Carrie and Cory were placed into one of the two beds, their flushed cheeks pressed together in their sound sleep.
Already I could see a problem. I was small, yes, but there was no way that Christopher, Cathy, and I would all fit in one bed. The grandmother's steel-grey eyes flashed with cold disapproval as she looked at the three of us. "Corrine, your older children cannot sleep together in one bed."
Momma's face flushed, though I wasn't quite sure why – and nor was I sure why the grandmother sounded so scornful, why disgust bled through her voice. "They're children, mother. They are all innocent to the world, even if they are not to your nasty, suspicious mind! Give them separate rooms, then, or at least separate beds. God knows this house has enough of them!"
The grandmother's look was so sharp that it seemed as if it sliced Momma open to the bone. "This is impossible. This is the only safe room in the house, and furthermore, there is neither enough room for another bed, nor is it possible to bring another one up without causing suspicion. Put the girl with the younger ones, and the two boys together for now," she ordered. "I will think about this and devise another arrangement if necessary."
We were informed that we did not truly exist, not in the eyes of the grandfather, and so, not in the eyes of the rest of the world. It was our job – Christopher, Cathy, and I – to keep the twins quiet and complacent. We were ordered to keep ourselves hidden, to control ourselves, to stay put and never leave from the attic.
As the grandmother said this, my fear surmounted and grew until it took all I had to keep from trembling. It was a familiar sensation, but not a welcome one – the world was all at once too much and too little, the sound of Momma and the grandmother's voices were fading into the distance as if coming from very far away, but anxiety ached in my chest and made me gasp breathlessly for air.
"Clare," Christopher whispered, perhaps fearful that the grandmother would hear. "Clare, calm down, it's okay. Momma's going to win over the grandfather and then everything's going to be fine. Hear me, Clare?"
I shook my head mutely, trying to focus on Christopher's even breathing and Cathy's anxious blue eyes above me, until the tightness in my chest lightened fractionally.
It could have been mere moments later, it could have been hours, but the next thing I knew, Momma was leaning over us with gentle, pleading eyes.
She murmured to Cathy, then Christopher, kissing their foreheads. When she came to me, she seemed to hesitate, her eyes bright and concerned.
"Dearest Clarence, your father did so love you, as do I – and don't you ever forget it. Be brave."
Momma said her good-nights to us, and we clung to every word, even as exhausted as we were.
"Good night, Momma," Christopher said – and she was gone, leaving us alone in the attic.
Cathy settled in beside the twins, curled around them as if she thought that she could shield them from the house itself. Christopher climbed into our shared bed first and shifted over to make room for me, and I lay down beside him.
"It won't be so bad," Christopher said quietly. He and Cathy bantered back-and-forth over my head, but I was too tired to join in.
Everything today had been so much. My eyes ached and so did my chest, and I felt utterly drained and exhausted.
"Go to sleep, Clare," Christopher said softly, sounding suddenly much older than his fourteen years. "Everything will work out in the morning."
I was too tired even to nod, only managing a mumble of acknowledgement. With Christopher's back pressed up against mine, and knowing that Cathy and the twins were close by, I finally managed to relinquish the weight on my chest of all my built-up and frantic emotions, and give myself up to dreams.