A door slammed so hard that the glass prisms on the hall light clashed in alarm. Someone very angry had either gone into a room or had left it. Then silence, thick and ominous, fell back. When the silence began to ring, Charlotte pulled the pillow around her ears.
They were arguing again. But they would get over it as they always did. After a while her mother, who was undoubtedly the one who had slammed the door, would quiet down. She wondered whether other people's parents lived like this.
"Childish," said Emmabrown, talking to her nephew the mailman at the front door. "Charlotte's fourteen, and she has more sense in her little finger than her mother has in her whole body."
Emmabrown--that being the name Charlotte herself had bestowed—was proud of her connection with the family; she had kept house for three generations of the Daweses, and liked to talk about their affairs. Dad was her favorite. On the telephone while Charlotte eavesdropped, she grumbled and boasted to her friends.
"I knew Bill and Cliff when those two boys were learning to talk. Bill was the smart one, good natured, too, a real pleasure. So then he goes to Europe one summer for some studies, Lord knows why you have to go there to study, but anyway he did, and comes home three months later married to this Elena, she just twenty and he twenty-two. Kids, they were. The family wasn't too happy about it, either, I can tell you. The one good thing was she's no gold digger. She's an orphan, left with a pile of money of her own. A real good-looker with a foreign accent--Italian--and a figure like a movie star. Pretty face too. Big eyes and big smile. You can see why he fell for her. She winds him around her little finger."
Did she really? Well, maybe. Dad didn't like to fight with people. Sometimes he didn't even answer back, which made Mama more angry. Mama
. People called their mothers Mom
, but she wanted to be called Mama, with the accent on the end. Silly. Stubborn. In her private thoughts Charlotte called her Elena
It was cold, even under the quilt. She could feel the October wind coming through the walls. No, she thought then, it's not coming through the walls; the cold is inside me. It's because I'm scared, although I should be used to all this, shouldn't I?
Now there were voices in the hall, barely loud enough to be heard. Dad's voice rumbled.
"What do I do that you don't like?"
"Nothing? You like everything I do? I take it you like everything about me, then?"
Laughter. "No. Oh, no."
Pause. "Oh, good God, Elena, will you open your mouth and say specifically what's wrong today? Specifically?"
"A lot of things. Nothing. I don't know."
"You really don't know anything, do you?"
"That's true. I don't know anything."
"Well, if you didn't spend all your days at the country club, you might know something. I joined for your sake, but I didn't think you were going to make a second home of the place."
"And what am I supposed to do with myself? Get elected to the Board of Education? And the Committee for the Environment? I'm not you, Bill. Those aren't my thing. I wouldn't fit."
That was true. She wouldn't fit. She not only looked different from most other girls' mothers with their sweaters and moccasins and Jeeps, but she was different. That's probably why she had no friends among the PTA ladies; they didn't like her. But their husbands do,
Charlotte thought, thinking, too, how people would be surprised if they knew how much their children noticed: glances, little greetings on a Saturday morning at the post office or at the school play.
They had gone into their room now, which was just across the hall, yet she was still able to hear. They were assuming that she was asleep.
"Get busy with worthwhile things, Elena, and you'll be happier."
"I'll be happier when I get away from this town, this city, whatever you call it. Of all the places in America, I have to end up in New England in a dying factory town. Fifteen years in this town. 'A country town,' you said, and I imagined something with charm, something like Tuscany, with vineyards and old stone houses. Fifteen years in this place."
"You've been living pretty darn well in this place."
"The winter hasn't even begun and I'm already freezing."
Dad sighed. "Oh, what the hell do you want, Elena?"
"I want to go to Florida, to rent a place for a few months."
"That's ridiculous. Charlotte has school."
"We can get tutors for her there. She'd learn more than she would here in school."
"We'll leave her here with Emmabrown. We could shorten our time to six weeks."
"You know all the trouble we've been having with the business. Anyway, I wouldn't leave her for six weeks, no matter what."
"All right, Bill, I may just go by myself."
"You do that."
Dad's anger had petered out, and he was tired. The door closed.
Maybe now I can sleep, Charlotte thought. Suddenly she remembered to put her hand on her heart and feel whether it was beating faster. It was. It always did, whenever they fought.
Even the night before Uncle Cliff's wedding, they had to fight. Even that day they had to spoil.
Excerpted from Secrecy by Belva Plain. Copyright © 1998 by Belva Plain. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.