Read Those Who Favor Fire Online
Authors: Lauren Wolk
He knew that he could not confront his father, not without betraying Holly’s trust. She had begged him to wait a few more months,
until they turned twenty-one and she could run. “I’ve kept quiet for a long time now, Kit,” she’d said. “You can do it for a while.” But he wasn’t sure that he could do it for a single day.
“What’s on your mind, Kit?” His father was sitting in the living room with a scotch and, inevitably, a newspaper. Kit had come in quietly to lean up against the wall, his hands behind his back, like an odd stick of furniture. It was almost evening, almost time for them to sit down to a meal together, and Kit couldn’t imagine looking across the table at his father as he’d done thousands of times before, breaking bread with this man, without asking him even one of the questions that were again squeezing into every cranny of his skull.
“Nothing, Dad,” he said. “I guess I’m still getting used to being home. It takes me a while, after exams, to unwind. That’s all.”
“You make me nervous, lurking around the house. You should be out, at the club, chasing girls. Playing some golf while you can. I’m putting you to work in another week.”
“Yes, I know.”
“Get yourself a new suit. Two. Can’t have you at the office dressed like that.”
“Give me some credit, Dad.” Kit pushed himself away from the wall.
“When it’s due,” his father said, raised an eyebrow at his son, swallowed some scotch. “Looking forward to having you aboard again, Kit.”
“Likewise.” He was saying the words first inside his head, so that when they left his mouth they sounded to him like an echo. “I learn more from you over the summer than I do at Yale all year.”
“Hmmm. Not sure I like the sound of that. Not sure I don’t.”
And with that, Chad Barrows gathered up his paper and walked straight out of the room, and it was all Kit could do not to follow him.
And so it went. From one hour to the next, Kit did not know what to think or how to feel. Home for only a day, he felt as if he had been stranded on this plot of land for years, completely out of touch with the world beyond. He wanted to be away, gone, if only for a while, but when he pondered destinations, none seemed to suit. He balked, too, at the idea of explaining such a trip to his father. He could think of no acceptable reason for leaving home now—not even for a day or two—after he’d just come back. His work would begin soon. His father
would never sanction an irrational retreat. And Kit could not reveal his motives without putting his sister at risk.
Still, he longed to take some sort of action, some sort of stand, to grant himself a brief reprieve and somehow—and this was the thing he wanted most—somehow to make things right with his sister. He simply could not leave Holly behind.
That night, after his father had gone up to bed, Kit wandered into his father’s study, hoping to lose himself in a book, and found instead a way to free himself and Holly both.
He stared at the window behind his father’s spectacular desk for several minutes, scarcely moving, and then ran up to his room. To do this thing would force him to leave, at least for a while, perhaps a long while, but he was glad to feel that he had no other choice. So he collected his shaving kit, some clothes, spare shoes, scrounged a paper bag from under the kitchen sink, and carried everything back to his father’s study.
Dropping his gear by the door, he walked to the far side of the desk. He first opened the window and then examined the sill for a moment, took up his father’s sterling letter opener, and scraped the paint from two small hinges on the far edge of the sill. He loosened each hinge with a sharp rap—paused for a moment, listening for sounds from his father’s bedroom overhead, waiting to be sure his father had not heard, would not be storming down to face him—and then, with a bit of coaxing, tipped the sill back on its hinges to reveal a hollow space inside the wall. From this narrow compartment, Kit lifted a locked firebox.
The sight of it after a dozen years filled Kit with satisfaction and, despite himself, pride. “This is between us men, eh?” his father had told him with a conspiratorial wink. “For emergencies, understand? You are never”—and he had become stern for a moment—“never to open this unless you absolutely must. And never in front of anyone else. Don’t even go near the window unless you’re alone. I’m trusting you to keep this a secret.” And Kit had promised that he would.
“But why not have a real safe?” he had asked.
“If you want to make sure something escapes notice,” his father had intoned, “don’t put a lock on it.”
On the wall beside the window was a watercolor of several small and spotless sailboats tacking through a narrow, rocky channel. “Four skiffs tacking to starboard,” Kit murmured as he spun the dial on the
firebox to the right and stopped at four. “Two prams tacking to port,” he continued, turning the dial left to the two. “Eight girls sailing the lot of them,” right to eight. “And one lighthouse on the shore.” Kit could not remember any nursery rhymes but this one.
As he opened the box, Kit once again marveled at a man who could look at a painting so full of color and light and see in it a way to grant a little boy access to a fortune.
Inside the box Kit found five bundles of one-hundred-dollar bills, three ten-ounce bars of gold bullion and half a dozen gleaming Krugerrands, a small velvet bag that held his mother’s rings, and a second bag he’d never seen before. When he turned it upside down, Kit was only mildly surprised at the spectrum of gems, cut but unset, that tumbled across the blotter on his father’s desk. He automatically admired their brilliance and calculated their worth but did not consider taking them. He had enough money of his own.
As he poured them back into their velvet pouch, however, he paused over a fiery opal the size of a robin’s egg and, without thinking twice, slipped it into his pocket.
Then he locked the gems in the firebox, put the currency, the gold, and his mother’s rings into the paper sack he’d brought with him, replaced the firebox in the wall, and closed the windowsill. He knew that his father would notice the intrusion when next in his study, for he liked to stand at the window, his hands resting on the paint-locked sill, and admire his rhododendron. Kit decided not to think about this until later.
Holly was still awake when Kit arrived at the carriage house. “I won’t stay long,” he promised when she invited him in.
“Don’t be ridiculous. You haven’t been up here in years. Have a seat.”
Kit sat down heavily. Holly looked at the paper bag in his lap. “You want something to drink?” she asked. “Are you hungry?”
“No, no, I’m fine.” He looked at his hands. Seemed not to know where to begin. But Holly was a patient person. He had waited for her that morning. She would wait for him now.
He began to speak several times, but each time he stopped after a word or two.
“It’s all right, Kit,” she finally said. “Believe me, I understand how hard it is to talk about it. You don’t have to get it perfect. Just say it.”
He looked at her and nodded. “I know,” he said. “It’s just that I feel so many things. One thing contradicts another. Maybe in a week or a month or a year I’ll know how I feel, but right now I’m absolutely flummoxed.” He cleared his throat, plunged ahead. “But I’ve spent the day thinking about everything you told me this morning, and I believe you. I believe all of it. All but one thing.
“You seem to think that Dad was being kind when he lied about how you were hurt … about how I hurt you. But I think you give him too much credit. He’s spent his entire life perfecting the art of escaping blame. Everything is always someone else’s fault, never his. And when he absolved me of my guilt—Christ, before I was even remotely qualified for any kind of absolution—he made me his conspirator. Twenty years ago, he lied so that I would not be blamed. Last night, when I came home and found him under the magnolias, he lied again, said that you and your life were none of my business or his. He’s always been good at deflecting accusations, creating scapegoats, saving his own skin at all cost.”
Kit put a hand to his throat. His voice had grown hoarse and whiskery. “I’m just like him,” he croaked. “You said so yourself.” It was as if he had only just noticed that his fingers were webbed or his pupils square.
Holly did not say anything. She looked sad and sorry but not very sympathetic. He had spent years ignoring his own sister, and he was not surprised at the distance that remained between them.
“I’m going away for a few days,” he told her. “I’m not sure where. Anywhere but here.”
Holly sighed and looked at him impatiently. “Have a heart, Kit,” she said. “Don’t tell me about your plans to go off soul-searching. I’ve already found my soul, and I’m dying to take it away from here.”
“So what’s stopping you?” Kit said. He placed the heavy paper sack in his sister’s lap.
“What’s this?” she asked cautiously. When he didn’t answer, she opened the bag and dumped its contents onto the coffee table.
“The money should see you through to our birthday,” Kit said. “And the gold ought to make a nice nest egg. Open the small bag.” He watched with real pleasure as she poured their mother’s rings into her small palm.
Holly cried for a while after that. She put the rings on her fingers, put her face into her jeweled hands, and cried. Kit smiled at her now
and then, when she wasn’t looking, and eventually got up and ran his hand over her smooth hair.
He was pleased at her reaction, although he realized that he could not possibly understand the enormity of her relief. He had not suffered as Holly had, though he was beginning to think that his father’s influence would give him much to regret. Nor had he ever looked at money the way Holly had. She had known for years that to live in a mansion means nothing if you can’t afford to leave it. But Kit had credit cards, bank accounts, plenty of everything. His father had always paid his debts when he came up short and had attended to the nuts and bolts of everyday life so that Kit himself had never had to pay a bill, stick to a budget, make ends meet. High finance Kit understood. But he’d never known what a gallon of milk cost … or cared. Nor had he ever learned to take care of himself. There was always someone else to do that, to wash his clothes, cook his meals, clean up after him. Holly had never made her own living, or held even a summer job for that matter, and the money that was allowing her to leave was not money she herself had earned, but she knew how to take care of herself in other ways, was far more self-reliant than her brother, and he both envied and respected her for it.
“I’m afraid you won’t have time to pack much,” Kit said. “I should have given you a couple of days notice before I”—he nodded at the trove on the coffee table. “I’m obviously not thinking too clearly.”
“That’s where you’re wrong,” Holly said, wiping her face with her sleeves. “You’re thinking very clearly. Besides, I don’t need much time to pack. An hour, tops. There’s not a lot I want to take with me. And I don’t need to make any plans. I’ve spent years imagining what I’d do when I had money of my own. All I have to do is throw some things in a suitcase.”
“I’ll help you,” Kit offered.
He followed her around the apartment for a while, bumping into her and getting underfoot, until she finally handed him the phone book and asked him to call a travel agent. “Find out about flights to San Francisco for tomorrow morning,” she said, “and book me a room for tonight somewhere near the airport. Somewhere nice.”
While he made the calls, Holly finished packing, tucked her riches into a fat leather bag, and carried her things down to Kit’s car.
She was gone for such an oddly long time that Kit was on the point of going after her, afraid suddenly that their father might have
found them out, when she returned. She was a bit breathless and looked as if she might have been crying.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
“Fine. I’m a little overwhelmed, I guess. It’s finally beginning to sink in.” She took a quick look in the fridge and, after a moment, reluctantly poured a quart of milk down the kitchen sink. “I hope you won’t mind giving me a ride to the hotel.”
“Of course not,” he said, glad that they would be leaving together.
“Oh, here,” she said, fetching a postcard from her desk, writing out a name and a telephone number, handing it to him. “I’ll write to you at Yale in the fall to let you know where I am, but I don’t think I’d better try to reach you here. If you need me before then, call the Corrigans. Emily Corrigan’s my best friend. She’s been my roommate at Bryn Mawr for the past two years. When I go back to school in the fall, I’m sure it will be somewhere else, but I’ll still be in touch with Emily. She’ll know where I am.”
Kit was ashamed to realize that he had not known about an Emily, that he had never bothered to ask Holly about the man she’d been with the night before, who had unintentionally played such a pivotal role in their lives. But he believed that there would be time to learn about Holly’s life, and he looked forward to meeting her again on neutral ground where the only shadows would be their own.
On their way to the hotel, Kit and Holly Barrows said their good-byes in roundabout ways amid long silences that struck them as less odd than the sound of their two voices together. When they arrived at the hotel, Kit waved away the doorman and helped Holly carry her luggage into the lobby. He said good-bye to her then, held her head against his shoulder for a moment, and drove away without giving a single thought to where he might go. It just didn’t seem important at the time.
When Rachel woke up in Harry’s bed, it took her a full minute to remember where she was and why she felt so ill. It was a long and frightening minute, measured by a parade of sensations that compounded her bewilderment, one by one. The clenching of her stomach, the sour film on her tongue, the pasty lethargy of her eyelids, the sticky ache where her thighs met, the sting of her abraded cheeks.
“Thank God,” Rachel whispered when she realized she was alone. She lay in the bed for a while, listening, but finally climbed unsteadily to her feet, hoping that Harry would not return before she’d had a chance to dress and compose herself. When she could not find her sweater, she gingerly searched through the clothes that were draped over chair backs and radiators, lampshades and bedposts, across the neglected room. The green chamois shirt she chose was fairly clean, worn just enough to smell vaguely of Harry.