Read Those Who Favor Fire Online
Authors: Lauren Wolk
Sober, Rachel might have allowed her indecision to escalate and, eventually, to lead her safely home. As drunk as she was, she simply declared a stalemate, put her concerns aside for the moment, and concentrated on keeping her feet as Harry took her by the hand and led her to his bedroom.
She did not say a word as he shut the door and pushed her gently onto the mattress. When he knelt over her and began to unfasten her pants, Rachel closed her eyes and allowed herself to drift, to recall the absolutely safe and satisfying feeling of her mother’s hands putting her to bed when she was very small, perhaps drowsy with fever, removing her socks, lifting her compliant limbs, arranging the blankets over her, moving quietly about the room.
Harry removed the last of Rachel’s clothing, tugged her from the edge of the bed, all without a word. He paid her no compliments, made no inquiries, offered her no protection. He addressed himself not to her but to her flesh. Through it all, Rachel kept her silence and, with it, a degree of distance.
The weight of his body on her changed things. It yanked her into the here and now, purged her memories of home and comfort, so that she opened her eyes and suddenly felt as if she had a great deal to say. But it was as her lassitude left her that she felt herself tear. She hissed like an animal, bit right into her lip, and, through the rest of it, coached herself gently, silent and removed.
This is inevitable. It happens to everyone. I should never have waited so long. Maybe it’s like chicken pox: much worse the older you get. God, this is awful. After tonight I won’t have to worry about this anymore. I’ll be through with this part of it. I’ll know what it’s like. I won’t ever let it be like this again. They say the first time is awful. Thank God they told me. There is no pleasure in this. Not for me, anyway. Is this what men are after? They must know something. Or maybe they just set their sights lower. Or maybe they just don’t know any better. Isn’t he through yet? He’s not even looking at me. I’ll have to ask Paul about this. He’s a man. He must know something about it. There must be more to it than this, even for them
When Harry rolled over onto his side and straight into a deep sleep, Rachel waited until her insides had slowly rocked to a standstill and then, floundering against the tangled sheet, threw up in her naked lap. She would have laughed at this whole astounding turn of events, but she was concentrating fiercely on containing her nausea and cleaning herself. When she dragged the soiled sheet into the bathroom with her—feeling vaguely like a giant snake shedding its skin—she found the cloth streaked with blood. She tried to assess her wounds, but bending over made her feel sick again, and faint. So she climbed carefully into the bathtub, blinking at its brightness, and pulled the linen in after her. The hot spray of the shower stung her cheeks, inflamed by Harry’s whiskers, and scorched her swollen breasts. It took all of Rachel’s strength to stay on her feet, to stay awake, and to tamp down the invasive impression that she had made a terrible mistake.
It wasn’t the sex that alarmed her. It wasn’t the blood or the sickness or even the way she’d surrendered herself so completely, so quickly, so knowingly.
It was the distance he’d put between them in that ill-made bed, the back he’d turned to her, the realization that he had never once called her by name.
On his first morning home from Yale, Kit Barrows woke early, showered, shaved, dressed carefully, and crept past his father’s bedroom door, down the stairs, and into the kitchen. While he waited at the table, the cook made him a pan of bacon, a stack of toast, and a pot of black coffee. She knew what he wanted without asking, and she knew him well enough to keep quiet. There were mornings when he was friendly and talkative, but this was not one of them.
When he had finished eating, he picked up the phone, dialed the carriage house, and asked Holly to join him in the garden as soon as she could. He did not apologize for waking her. Nor did he ask her if she was alone. The thought of her asleep in her bed did not even enter his mind.
There was an old gazebo in the garden where Kay Barrows and her children had feasted on strawberries and read stories through the hottest part of many summer days. As Kit sat there, waiting for his sister, he passed the time by thinking about business school, Wall Street, and wealth. Such daydreams never failed to fill him with anticipation. They did not fail him now. When he saw Holly making her way slowly through the tulips, he stood up reluctantly and put his hands into his pockets.
“Hello yourself,” she said. When they sat down, they kept a yard of bench between them. “What’s so important that it can’t wait past the
crack of dawn?” But as she looked up from her tennis shoes, she forgave him with a modest smile. It made him uncomfortable to see the way her face worked. The way her skin stretched taut over her bones. He did not see how it could be anything but painful.
“I’m worried about Dad. I wanted to talk to you before I saw him again.”
“He’s not up yet?” Their father had always been an early riser, as if to sleep in daylight was to miss an opportunity.
“No. He was … he had too much to drink last night.” To which Holly showed no surprise at all. “I found him outside when I got home. In the magnolias. He must have been drinking for some time by then. He was sick.” Kit worried a loose button on his shirt. “It was awful. I don’t understand what he was doing out there, acting like that.”
He looked at Holly, hoping she’d be the one to say, Maybe it had something to do with the man I was with last night. But she didn’t. She simply blinked slowly, sleepily, and looked out at the tulips in their beds. She seemed to have lost interest in what he was saying. “You don’t seem too concerned,” he said.
“I’m not,” she said to the tulips. “Why should I be?”
Despite the way Holly had distanced herself from their father, Kit had expected more than this. “Because it’s so unlike him,” he said. “I would have been less surprised to find him playing bingo.”
Which got him another ghost of a smile.
“How do you know what’s like or unlike him?” she said, the smile receding.
“How do I know? No one knows him better than I do.”
Holly looked at him for a long moment. “Of the two of us,” she finally said, “I know him better.”
Although Kit suspected that Holly’s tryst on the carriage-house roof was linked to his father’s strange behavior, and although he was often easily annoyed by things she said and did, Kit had not called her out here for a scolding. Now, however, in the face of this claim, he felt himself become angry.
“That’s ridiculous, Holly. You’ve done everything possible to avoid Dad for as long as I can remember. What makes you think you know him better than I do?”
Holly had become accustomed, over the years, to being reprimanded by her brother and her father. She had learned to expect little
from either of them. Certainly not much in the way of affection or respect. But she had also grown tired of holding her tongue, keeping her own counsel, and on this invigorating spring morning she was for once unwilling to hold herself in check.
“What do you want from me?” she asked him. “You call me out here, tell me a sad story about Dad drinking, remind me that the two of you are great pals. What for?”
She was right. It didn’t make a lot of sense. But none of what he’d seen since coming home made much sense to Kit. “I guess I was curious to see if you knew what was bothering him. If it had anything to do with your visitor last night.”
“My visitor.” Holly looked out at the tulips again. They were dependable flowers. Tough. Lovely, even in their last days. “Yes, it had everything to do with my visitor.” She pushed her hair back away from her face with both hands. “But I don’t really think that’s any of your business, Kit. And since you know Dad so goddamned well, figure him out for yourself.” She pushed herself up off the bench and straightened her clothes, slipped her hands into her pockets, and took a step away from him. “I’m sorry you had such a lousy homecoming,” she said. “But I’m sure things will be much better from now on, if you put last night out of your mind.”
As she turned to leave, Kit’s inclination was to let her go, take her advice, and start over fresh when he saw his sober and predictable father back at the house. But there was much here that he didn’t understand. And it bothered him to think that Holly might know something too important to be left in her hands.
“I don’t want to put it out of my mind,” he said, although he did. “I want to know what’s going on in my own house.”
She turned back and stood thoughtfully, considered what he was asking of her, weighed his words carefully. She said, “Be careful, Kit.”
But he didn’t know what he had to be careful about. “For God’s sake, Holly, if there’s something going on, I want to know what it is. I’m sorry, too, if I walked in on a problem between you and Dad, but I did. And I’d like to know what it is. I might be able to help.”
For the first time Holly became upset. Her chin trembled as she looked at him. She bent a little at the waist as if standing up straight were too difficult. “I don’t think you can,” she said after a moment. “And I’m certain that you’re going to wish you’d left well enough alone.” But she didn’t leave. Instead, she returned to the bench and
sat down again, waited quietly, gave him one last chance to go his own way, much as he had done for more than a decade now.
“Tell me,” he said, more gently than anything he’d said to her in a long time. “Tell me what’s wrong.” He sat patiently next to her and gave her some time. And the minutes that she took to collect herself and to consider her words were the last moments of the life he’d always led and had thought he always would.
“I guess it’s wrong to think you could leave well enough alone,” she murmured, more to herself than to him. “Nothing about this is well enough. But I’ve been handling it, getting pretty good at it, since I was eleven years old.” She looked at him, as if she hoped that he would interrupt her, change his mind, opt to prolong the silence they’d honored between them for years. But he did nothing. Said nothing. Simply waited.
“When I was eleven years old,” she continued, looking away from Kit, “he … Dad … began to … to bother me, whenever I was home from school.” She kept her face turned away from him, and as he listened he wondered if he were hearing her correctly. “At first it was little things,” she said, the words coming faster now. “Some of them he’d been doing for years, but I never really thought about them. Like coming up behind me when I was at the piano, standing very close to me so he was pressed up against my back. He never hugged me when I was little, or kissed me, and I used to love it when he’d stand like that behind me. I thought it was something any father would do. I’m sure it
what most fathers do, in a very different way. For very different reasons.”
And all at once Kit did not want to hear another word. He was terribly afraid of the things Holly was saying. She was slowly turning the knob of a door he’d never expected to find in the house at his back, and if such a door existed, if she pulled it open all the way, he knew that he would not want to look through it, to see what waited on the other side. He stood up and began to walk away from her, down the steps of the gazebo, shaking his head. “No, no, no, no,” he said. “You’re not going to do this to me.”
But she had given him his chance, and he had lost it. “Do this to
!” she called after him, scrambling to her feet. “To
. No one has ever done anything to
in your whole goddamned life. You come back here and sit down and listen to me until I decide to stop. I did not start this.
did not call
did not badger
talking about the wreck he’s made of
life. All I’ve ever asked of you is a little privacy, which you’ve insisted on denying me. But if you think you have the right to summon me out here, interrogate me like this, then I certainly have the right to answer you the way
to answer you.”
She was shouting, her neck webbed with tendons, her arms so stiff at her sides, her hands clenched so tightly they looked like clubs. “All right,” he hissed, holding his palms out toward her, both afraid and half hoping that his father would hear Holly and come striding out to silence her. Kit climbed the steps of the gazebo as if he never expected to leave it again and stood as far from her as he could, his back against a pillar. “All right. Get it over with. Tell me how he’s wrecked your life.” But he was afraid to his bones that he already knew.
“You won’t believe me,” Holly said. All the anger had gone out of her. She seemed tired and almost as if she, too, wanted nothing less than to talk about her life. “But I meant what I said before. Now that I’ve started I’m going to tell you everything I’ve got to tell. And then I want you to leave me alone. I don’t ever want you to bring it up again.”
Kit felt as if he ought to be the one saying these things, for it was precisely how he felt. He wanted her to get it all over with and then put it to rest. If it was something she had lived with, then it was certainly something he could live with, too. It had to be.
But as it turned out, it wasn’t.
Holly’s father had never raped her. He had stopped short of that. She never said the word
as she told Kit the story, although she might have. Her father had been more subtle than that, at least in the beginning, when Holly was only eleven, and on top of that small for her age. He had often walked in on her in the bathroom, as if by accident, especially when she had just stepped out of the shower. She had sometimes woken up in the night to find him sitting on the edge of her bed, his hands resting on her hips or her legs, but before she’d come fully awake he would walk out of her room without saying a word and in the morning she would wonder if she had dreamed the whole thing. And then she would feel unclean for dreaming such a dream.