Hot Shot(4)

By: Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Charles Lydiard died in a boating accident in 1954. Kay was in San Francisco when it happened. She had recently married Joel Faulconer, the California industrialist, and she was much too preoccupied with keeping her virile young husband happy to dwell on the fate of a disappointing former husband. Nor did she spare any thoughts for the three-year-old daughter she had left her elderly mother to raise on the other side of the continent.

Susannah Bennett Lydiard, with her gray eyes, thin nose, and auburn hair tightly confined in two perfect plaits, grew into a solemn little mouse of a child. By the age of four, she had taught herself to read and learned to move soundlessly through the high-ceilinged rooms of her grandmother's penthouse. She slipped like a shadow past the tall windows with their heavy velvet drapes firmly drawn against the vulgar bustle of the city below. She passed like a whisper across the deep, old carpets. She existed as silently as the stuffed songbirds displayed under glass domes on the polished tables.

Her Grandmother Bennett was gradually losing her mind, but Susannah was too young to understand that. She only knew that her grandmother had very strict rules, and that breaking any one of them resulted in swift and terrible punishment. Grandmother Bennett said that she had already raised one frivolous child, and she didn't intend to raise another.

Twice a year Susannah's mother came to visit. On those days, instead of walking around the block with one of her grandmother's two elderly servants, Susannah went to tea with Kay at the Plaza. Her mother was very beautiful, and Susannah watched in tongue-tied fascination as Kay smoked one cigarette after another and checked the time on her diamond-encrusted wristwatch. As soon as tea was over, Susannah was returned to her grandmother, where Kay kissed her dutifully on the forehead and then disappeared for another six months. Grandmother Bennett said that Susannah couldn't live with her mother because Susannah was too wicked.

It was true. Susannah was a horribly wicked little girl. Sometimes she touched her nose at the dinner table. Other times she didn't sit up straight. Occasionally she forgot her pleases and thank-yous. For any of these transgressions, she was punished by being imprisoned for not less than one hour in the rear closet. This was done for her own good, her grandmother explained, but Susannah didn't understand how something so horrible could be good.

The closet was small and suffocating, but even more terrifying, it held Grandmother Bennett's old furs. For an imaginative child, the closet became a living nightmare. Dark ugly minks brushed at her pale cheeks, and gruesome sheared beaver coats rubbed against her thin arms. Worst of all was a fox boa with a real head forming its grisly clasp. Even in the dark of the closet she could feel those sly glass fox eyes watching her and she sat frozen in terror, her back pressed rigidly against the closet door, while she waited for those sharp fox teeth to eat her up.

Life took on dark, frightening hues for such a small child. By the time she was five, she had developed the careful habits of a much older person. She didn't raise her voice, seldom laughed, and never cried. She did everything within her limited powers to stay out of the terrifying feral depths of the closet, and she worked so diligently at being good that she would probably have succeeded if—late at night when she was sound asleep—her body hadn't begun to betray her.

She started to wet herself.

She never knew when it would happen. Sometimes several weeks would go by without incident, occasionally an entire month, but then she would awaken one morning and discover that she was lying in her own urine. Her grandmother's paper-thin nostrils wrinkled in distaste when Susannah was brought before her. Even Susannah's wicked mother Katherine had never done anything so odious, she said.

Susannah tried to hide the bedding, but there was too much of it and she was always discovered. When that happened, her grandmother gave her a stinging lecture and then made her wear her soiled nightgown into the closet as punishment. The acrid scent of her own urine mingled with the camphor that permeated the old furs until she couldn't breath. Furry monsters were all around her, ready to eat her up. She could feel their sharp teeth sinking into her flesh and their strong jaws snapping her tender bones. Bruises, like a string of discolored pearls, formed down the length of her spine from being pressed so hard against the closet door.