Dark Hunger


Part One. DEMO Chapter Four


She had a couple of good, productive days. She'd lined up her plumber, her electrician, her head carpenter, and had the first of three projected estimates on replacement windows. But her luckiest find, to her way of thinking, had been connecting with an ancient little man named Dobby and his energetic grandson Jack, who would save and restore the original plaster walls.

"Old man McGowan hired my daddy to do these walls back around 1922," Dobby told Cilla as he stood on his short, bowed legs in the living room of the little farm. "I was about six, came around to help him mix the plaster. Never saw such a big house before."

"It's good work."

"He took pride in it, taught me the same. Miz Hardy, she hired me on to do some pointing up, and replastering where she made some changes. That'd be back around, 'sixty-five, I guess."

Dobby's face reminded Cilla of a piece of thin brown paper that had been balled tight, then carelessly smoothed out. The creases deepened like valleys when he smiled. "Never seen the like of her, either. Looked like an angel. Had a sweet way about her, and didn't put on airs like you'd reckon a movie star would. Signed one of her record albums for me, too, when I got up the gumption to ask her. My wife wouldn't let me play it after that. Had to frame it up for the wall, and buy a new one to listen to. It's still hanging in the parlor."

"I'm glad I found you, to keep the tradition going."

"Not hard to find, I expect. Lot of people, in Miz Hardy's day, and with her wherewithal, woulda put up the Sheetrock." He turned his deep brown eyes on Cilla. "Most people'd do that now instead of preserving it."

"I can't save it all, Mr. Dobby. Some of it has to change, and some just has to go. But what I can save, I intend to." She ran a fingertip along a long crack in the living room wall. "I think the house deserves that kind of respect from me."

"Respect." He nodded, obviously pleased. "That's a fine way to look at it. It's right fitting to have a McGowan here again, and one who comes down from Miz Hardy. My grandson and I'll do good work for you."

"I'm sure you will."

They shook hands on it, there where she imagined his father might have shaken hands with her great-grandfather. And where Janet Hardy had signed an album that would stand in a frame.

She spent a few hours off site with a local cabinetmaker. Respect was important, but the old metal kitchen cabinets had to go. She planned to strip some of them down, repaint them and put them to use in the combination mud- and laundry room she'd designed.

When she got home again, she found the open bottle of cabernet topped with a goofy, alien head glow-in-the-dark wine stopper, and a corkscrew sitting on the temporary boards at her front door.

The note under the bottle read:

Sorry I didn't get this back to you sooner, but Spock chained me to my desk. Recently escaped, and you weren't home. Somebody could drink all this selfishly by herself, or ask a thirsty neighbor to join her one of these nights.

Ford

Amused, she considered doing just that-one of these nights. Glancing back, she felt a little poke of disappointment that he wasn't standing out on his porch-veranda, she corrected. And the poke warned her to be careful about sharing a bottle of wine with hot guys who lived across the road.

Considering that, considering him, made her think of his studio-the space, the light. Wouldn't it be nice to have that sort of space, that sort of light, for an office? If she pushed through with her long-term plans of rehabbing, remodeling homes, flipping houses, she'd need an attractive and efficient home office space.

The bedroom she'd earmarked for the purpose on the second floor would certainly do the job. But imagining Ford's studio as she set the wine down on the old kitchen counter (slated for demo the next day), her projected office came off small, cramped and barely adequate.

She could take out the wall between the second and third bedrooms, she supposed. But that didn't give her the light, the look she now imagined.

Wandering the first floor, she repositioned, projected, considered. It could be done, she thought, but she didn't want her office space on the main level. She didn't want to live at work, so to speak. Not for the long term. Besides, if she hadn't seen Ford's fabulous studio, she'd have been perfectly content with the refit bedroom.

And later, if her business actually took off, she could add a breezeway off the south side, then...

"Wait a minute."

She hustled up the stairs, down the hall to the attic door. It groaned in cranky protest when she opened it, but the bare bulb at the top of the steep, narrow stairs blinked on when she hit the switch.

One look at the dusty steps had her backtracking for her notebook, and a flashlight, just in case.

Clean attic. Install new light fixtures.

She headed up, pulled the chain on the first of three hanging bulbs.

"Oh yeah. Now we're talking."

It was a long, wide, sloped-roof mess of dust and spiderwebs. And loaded, to her mind, with potential. Though she'd had it lower than low on her priority list for cleaning and repair, the lightbulb was on in her head as well as over it.

The space was huge, the exposed rafter ceiling high enough for her to stand with room to spare until it pitched down at the sides. At the moment, there were two stingy windows on either end, but that could change. Would change.

Boxes, chests, a scarred dresser, old furniture, old pole lamps with yellowed shades stood blanketed with dust. Dingy ghosts. Books, probably full of silverfish, and old record albums likely warped from decades of summer heat jammed an old open bookcase.

She'd come up here before, taken one wincing look, then had designated the attic to Someday.

But now.

Go through the junk, she thought, writing quickly. Sort the wheat from the chaff. Clean it up. Bring the stairwell and the stairs up to code. Enlarge window openings. Outdoor entrance-and that meant outdoor stairs, with maybe an atrium-style door. Insulate, sand and seal the rafters and leave them exposed. Wiring, heat and AC. Plumbing, too, because there was plenty of room for a half bath. Maybe skylights.

Oh boy, oh boy. She'd just added a ton to her budget.

But wouldn't it be fun?

Sitting cross-legged on the dusty floor, she spent a happy hour drawing out various options and ideas.

How much of the stuff up here had been her great-grandfather's? Had he, or his daughter or son, actually used the old white bowl and pitcher for washing up? Or sat and rocked a fretful baby in the spindly rocker?

Who read the books, listened to the music, hauled up the boxes in which she discovered a rat's nest of Christmas lights with fat, old-fashioned colored bulbs?

Toss, donate or keep, she mused. She'd have to start piles. More boxes revealed more Christmas decorations, scraps of material she imagined someone had kept with the idea of sewing something out of them. She found three old toasters with cords frayed and possibly gnawed on by mice, broken porcelain lamps, chipped teacups. People saved the weirdest things.

She bumped up the mice quotient on discovering four traps, mercifully uninhabited. Curious, and since she was already filthy, she squatted down to pull out some of the books. Some might be salvageable.

Who read Zane Grey? she wondered. Who enjoyed Frank Yerby and Mary Stewart? She piled them up, dug out more. Steinbeck and Edgar Rice Burroughs, Dashiell Hammett and Laura Ingalls Wilder.

She started to pull out a copy of The Great Gatsby, and her fingers depressed the sides. Fearing the pages inside had simply deteriorated, she opened it carefully. Inside, in a depression framed by the raw edges of cut pages, sat a stack of letters tied with a faded red ribbon.

"Trudy Hamilton," Cilla read. "Oh my God."

She sat with the open book on her lap, her palms together as if in prayer, and her fingertips pressed to her lips. Letters to her grandmother, sent to a name Janet hadn't used since childhood.

The address on the top envelope was a post office box in Malibu. And the postmark...

Reverently, Cilla lifted the stack, angled it toward the light.

"Front Royal, Virginia, January 1972." A year and a half before she died, Cilla thought.

Love letters. What else could they be, tied with a ribbon, hidden away? A secret of a woman who'd been allowed precious few under the microscope of fame, and surely concealed by her own hands before, like Gatsby, she died young, tragically.

Romanticizing it, Cilla told herself. They could be chatty letters from an old friend, a distant relative.

But they weren't. She knew they weren't. Laying them back in the book, she closed it and carried it downstairs.

She showered first, knowing she didn't dare handle the treasure she'd unearthed until she'd scrubbed off the attic dirt.

Scrubbed, dressed in flannel pants and a sweatshirt, her wet hair pulled back, she poured a glass of Ford's wine. Standing in the hard fluorescent light-and boy, did that have to go-she sipped the wine, stared at the book.

The letters were hers now, Cilla had no qualms about that. Oh, her mother would disagree-and loudly. She'd weep about her loss, her right to anything that had been Janet's. Then she'd sell them, auction them off as she had so many of Janet's possessions over the years.

For posterity, Dilly would claim. For the public who adored her. But that was so much crap, Cilla thought. It would be for the money, and for the reflected glow of fame, the spread in People with photos of Dilly holding the stack of letters, her eyes sheened with tears, with inserts of her and Janet.

But she'd believe her own spin, Cilla thought. That was one of Dilly's finest skills, as innate as her ability to call up those tear-sheened eyes on cue.

What should be done with them? Should they be hidden away again, returned to sender? Framed like a signed record and hung in the parlor?

"Have to read them first."

Cilla blew out a breath, set the wine aside, then dragged a stool to the counter. With great care, she untied the faded ribbon, then slipped the top letter out of its envelope. The paper whispered as she unfolded it. Dark, clear handwriting filled two pages.

My Darling,

My heart beats faster knowing I have the right to call you that. My darling. What have I done in my life to earn such a precious gift? Every night I dream of you, of the sound of your voice, the scent of your skin, the taste of your mouth. I tremble inside as I remember the sheer glory of making love to you.


And every morning I wake, afraid it's all just a dream. Did I imagine it, how we sat by the fire on that cold, clear night, talking as we had never talked before?

Only friends, as I knew what I felt for you, what I wanted with you, could never be. How could such a woman ever want someone like me? Then, then, did it happen? Did you come into my arms? Did your lips seek mine? Did we come together like madness while the fire burned and the music played? Was that the dream, my darling? If it was, I want to live in dreams forever.

My body aches for yours now that we are so far from each other. I long for your voice, but not only on the radio or the record player. I long for your face, but not only in photographs or on the movie screen. It's you I want, the you inside. The beautiful, passionate, real woman I held in my arms that night, and the nights we were able to steal after.

Come to me soon, my darling. Come back to me and to our secret world where only you and I exist.

I send you all my love, all my longing in this new year.

I am now and forever,

Only Yours

Here? Cilla wondered, carefully folding the letter again. Had it been here in this house, in front of the fire? Had Janet found love and happiness in this house in the final eighteen months of her life? Or was it another fling, another of her brief encounters?

Cilla counted out the envelopes, noting they were all addressed the same way and by the same hand, though some of the postmarks varied. Forty-two letters, she thought, and the last postmarked only ten short days before Janet took her life in this house.

Fingers trembling a bit, she opened the last letter.

Only one page this time, she noted.

This stops now. The calls, the threats, the hysteria stop now. It's over, Janet. The last time was a mistake, and will never be repeated. You must be mad, calling my home, speaking to my wife, but then I've seen the sickness in you time and time again. Understand me, I will not leave my wife, my family. I will not endanger all I've built, and my future, for you. You claim you love me, but what does a woman like you know about love? Your whole life is built on lies and illusions, and for a time I was seduced by them, by you. No longer.

If you are pregnant, as you claim, there's no proof the responsibility is mine. Don't threaten me again with exposure, or you will pay for it, I promise you.

Stay in Hollywood where your lies are currency. They're worth nothing here. You are not wanted.

"Pregnant." Cilla's whispered word seemed to echo through the house.

Shaken, she pushed off the stool to open the back door, to stand and breathe and let the chilly air cool her face.

CULVER CITY 1941

"To understand," Janet told Cilla, "you have to start at the beginning. This is close enough."

The hand holding Cilla's was small and soft. Like all her dreams of Janet, the image began as an old photograph, faded and frayed, and slowly took on color and depth.

Two long braids lay over the shoulders of a gingham dress like ropes of sunlight on a meadow of fading flowers. Those brilliant, cold and clear blue eyes stared out at the world. The illusion of it.

All around Cilla and the child who would become her grandmother people bustled, on foot or in the open-sided jitneys that plowed along the wide avenue. Fifth Avenue, Cilla realized-or its movie counterpart.

Here was MGM at its zenith. More stars than the heavens could hold, and the child clutching her hand would be one of its brightest.

"I'm seven years old," Janet told her. "I've been performing for three years now. Vaudeville first. I wanted to sing, to perform. I loved the applause. It's like being hugged by a thousand arms. I dreamed of being a star," she continued as she led Cilla along. "A movie star, with pretty dresses and the bright, bright lights. All the candy in the candy shop."

Janet paused, spun into a complex and energetic tap routine, scuffed Mary Janes flying. "I can dance, too. I can learn a routine with one rehearsal. My voice is magic in my throat. I remember all my lines, but more, I can act. Do you know why?"

"Why?" she asked, though she knew the answer. She'd read the interviews, the books, the biographies. She knew the child.

"Because I believe it. Every time, I believe the story. I make it real for me so it's real for all the people who come to watch me in the movie show. Didn't you?"

"Sometimes I did. But that meant it hurt when it stopped."

The child nodded, and an adult sorrow clouded her eyes. "It's like dying when it stops, so you have to find things that make it bright again. But that's for later. I don't know that yet. Now, it's all bright." The child threw out her arms as if to embrace it. "I'm younger than Judy and Shirley, and the camera loves me almost as much as I love it. I'll make four movies this year, but this one makes me a real star. 'The Little Comet' is what they'll call me after The Family O'Hara's released."

"You sang 'I'll Get By' and made it a love song to your family. It became your signature song."

"They'll play it at my funeral. I don't know that yet, either. This is Lot One. Brownstone Street." Just a hint of priss entered her voice as she educated her granddaughter, and tugged her along with the small, soft hand. "The O'Haras live in New York, a down-on-their-luck theatrical troupe. They think it's just another Depression-era movie, with music. Just another cog in the factory wheel. But it changes everything. They'll be riding on the tail of the Little Comet for a long time.

"I'm already a drug addict, but that's another thing I don't know yet. I owe that to my mama."

"Seconal and Benzedrine." Cilla knew. "She gave them to you day and night."

"A girl's got to get a good night's sleep and be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in the morning." Bitter, adult eyes stared out of the child's pretty face. "She wanted to be a star, but she didn't have it. I did, so she pushed, and she pushed, and she used me. She never hugged me, but the audience did. She changed my name, and pulled the strings. She signed me to a seven-year contract with Mr. Mayer, who changed my name again, and she took all the money. She gave me pills so I could make more. I hated her-not yet, but soon. Today, I don't mind," she said with a shrug that bounced her pigtails. "Today I'm happy because I know what to do with the song. I always know what to do with a song."

She gestured. "That's the soundstage. That's where the magic happens. Out here, we're just ghosts, ghosts and dreams," she continued as a jitney full of actors in evening dresses and tuxes passed right through them. "But in there, it's real. While the camera's on, it's all there is."

"It's not real, Janet. It's a job."

The blue eyes filled with warmth. "Maybe for you, but for me, it was my true love, and my salvation."

"It killed you."

"It made me first. I wanted this. That's what you have to understand to figure out the rest. I wanted this more than anything I wanted before, or anything I wanted ever again, until it was nearly over. Those few moments when I do the scene, sing the song, and even the director's eyes blur with tears. When, after he yells 'Cut,' the crew, the cast all break into applause and I feel their love for me. That's all I wanted in the world, and what I'd try to find again and again and again. Sometimes I did. I was happy here, when I was seven especially."

She sighed, smiled. "I would've lived here if they'd let me, wandering from New York to ancient Rome, from the old West to small-town USA. What could be a better playground for a child? This was home, more than I'd had. And I was pathetically grateful."

"They used you up."

"Not today, not today." Frowning in annoyance, Janet waved the thought away. "Today everything's perfect. I have everything I ever wanted today."

"You bought the Little Farm, thousands of miles from here. A world away from this."

"That was later, wasn't it? And besides, I always came back. I needed this. I couldn't live without love."

"Is that why you killed yourself?"

"There are so many reasons for so many things. It's hard to pick one. That's what you want to do. That's what you'll need to do."

"But if you were pregnant-"

"If, if, if." Laughing, Janet danced over the sidewalk, up the steps of a dignified brownstone fa莽ade, then back down. "If is for tomorrow, for next year. People will play if about my whole life after I'm dead. I'll be immortal, but I won't be around to enjoy it." She laughed again, then swung Gene Kelly style on a lamppost. "Except when you're dreaming about me. Don't stop, Cilla. You can bring me back just like the Little Farm. You're the only one who can."

She jumped off. "I have to go. It's time for my scene. Time to make magic. It's really the beginning for me." She blew Cilla a kiss, then ran off down the sidewalk.

As the illusions of New York faded, as Cilla slowly surfaced from the dream, she heard Janet's rich, heartbreaking voice soaring.

I'll get by, as long as I have you.

But you didn't, Cilla thought as she stared at the soft sunlight sliding through the windows. You didn't get by.

Sighing, she crawled out of the sleeping bag and, scrubbing sleep from her face, walked to the window to stare out at the hills and mountains. And thought about a world, a life, three thousand miles west.

"If that was home, that was what you needed, why did you come all the way here to die?"

Was it for him? she wondered. Were you pregnant, and they covered that up? Or was that just a lie to stop your lover from ending your affair?

Who was he? Was he still alive, still in Virginia? And how did you keep the affair off the microscope slide? Why did you? was a keener question, Cilla decided.

Was he the reason you unplugged the phone that night, then chased the pills with vodka, the vodka with more pills until you went away? Not because of Johnnie then, Cilla mused. Not, as so many theorized, over the guilt and grief of losing your indulged eighteen-year-old son. Or not only because of that.

But a pregnancy so close to a death? Was that overwhelming or a beam of light in the dark?

It mattered, Cilla realized. All of it mattered, not only because Janet Hardy was her grandmother, but because she'd held the child's hand in the dream. The lovely little girl on the towering edge of impossible stardom.

It mattered. Somehow she had to find the answers.

Even if her mother had been a reliable source of information-which Cilla thought not-it was hours too early to call Dilly. In any case, within thirty minutes, subcontractors would begin to arrive. So she'd mull all this, let it turn around in her head while she worked.

Cilla picked up the stack of letters she'd read, retied the faded ribbon. Once again she tucked them inside Fitzgerald. Then she laid the book on the folding table currently standing as a work area, along with her stacks of files and home magazines-and Ford's graphic novel.

Until she figured out what to do about them, the letters were her secret. Just as they'd been Janet's.

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