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Authors: Lauren Wolk

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BOOK: Those Who Favor Fire
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For years she had felt nervous and confused around him, for no
matter how hard she tried to stay out of his way, to do nothing that would draw his attention, he always found a way to cross her path, to stand too close, to collide with her and then reach out as if to save her from a fall, grabbing her around the middle one time, by the shoulders the next. “Clumsy girl,” he would say, and then as she left he would touch her with his eyes. If anything, it was this impalpable touch that left bruises.

Much as she had hated boarding school in the beginning—still small, her mother newly dead—Holly had eventually come to love her exile and to dread the approach of every holiday, every summer home. Over time, she became more self-assured and was strengthened by her association with a stern, resourceful headmistress, the daughters of other important people, and the world at large. And by her fifteenth birthday she had outgrown the insecurity and confusion that had prevented her from knowing how to behave in the face of her father’s strange interest—whether to be alarmed, how to deflect his advances. She expected her father to notice the change in her, when she went home again: to look at the way she kept her head up, her shoulders back, and her eyes steady, and be intimidated. She expected him to see, in her, a challenge. But she did not expect him to take it.

When he did, when he walked straight into her bedroom the first night she was home again, a day earlier than Kit, when he shut the door behind him and stood glaring at her as she lay absolutely still in her bed, when he suddenly rushed toward her and pulled away the covers and opened his robe, Holly knew that she was completely alone. There was no one to hear her scream. There was no one to protect her. There was no one to stop her father from wrenching away her nightgown and pinning her with all his weight in the bed where her mother had once brought her picnics and read her books and polished her heart until it shone.

Chad Barrows would have raped his fifteen-year-old daughter that night, and he did try. But, whether he had drunk too much or failed to completely disarm his conscience, he was unable to do what he’d intended. His body seemed to have greater scruples than his soul.

After that, Holly went home only when she had to. Christmas, Easter, summer vacations were all spent in odd maneuvers. Because Kit was usually home, too, Chad was more careful, but Holly still made sure never to be caught alone. She locked all doors behind her. She accepted every invitation to spend time away from home. And,
when her father approached her one morning in the woods behind their house, she stood her ground and said, as loudly as she could without screaming, “If you touch me, I will tell Kit.”

Had she known how effective this threat would be, she would have issued it much sooner. Her father’s eyes had widened with fury and alarm. He panted like a wild man. He took one more step toward her and stopped, his hands slowly clenching, and said, “If you tell him, I will break your fucking face.”

“My face!” She had actually laughed. “Go ahead! Maybe you’ll improve it.”

This time, the strength she’d gained from years of unhappiness made some impression on him. Either that, or he felt he had no choice but to let her be. Whatever the reason, Chad backed off. Although he still watched her and seemed always to be holding himself in check, he never touched her again. He did not try to stop her when she eventually moved her things into the carriage house. And when she finally brought a man home with her for the first time, her father stood among the magnolia trees with a bottle of whiskey in his hand and showed her that she was even stronger than she’d thought.

Kit sat in the gazebo beside his sister and felt that a large part of him had slipped free of its bones and now hovered somewhere nearby, listening, waiting for the remaining parts of him to rise and follow. He felt light-headed and was sure that if he stood up too quickly, he would collapse, maybe die. He could only imagine one cure for what he was feeling, and that was to prove Holly wrong.

“If all this is true,” he began, “I would think you’d have told me a long time ago.”

Holly looked at him curiously.
“If all this is true,”
she said. “Didn’t I say you wouldn’t want to believe it? I don’t blame you.” She laced her fingers behind her neck and worked her head cautiously from side to side. “You were only a kid when all of this was happening. What could you have done?”

Kit tried to remember what it was like to be that young. “You were just a kid, too,” he said. “I can’t believe you thought you could handle a problem like that by yourself. There must have been another reason why you didn’t tell me.”
It never really happened
, he thought.
That’s why you never told me
.

“You’re right,” she said, dropping her hands and straightening her shoulders. “The truth is, I didn’t tell you because you’re a bastard. That’s why.”

Kit leaned away from her. He wished he were sitting on her other side, where he could not see the ruined part of her face. “What did I do to deserve that?”

“It’s not so much what you’ve
done
. It’s what you
are
, Kit. What you’ve become. What’s been happening to you ever since Mom died.”

When Holly looked at Kit’s face, saw how carefully he was breathing, how pale he had become, she realized that she was asking too much of him, that she had to lead him through this one step at a time if she hoped to reach him in the end. “For God’s sake, Kit, we’ve behaved like strangers for years now. We barely spoke to each other back then. What would you have done if I’d come to you and said, ‘Dad keeps touching me’?”

Kit had no answer. He might have laughed at her. He might have told her not to be a fool. He might not have listened in the first place. He did not know what he would have done. “I don’t know,” he said.

Holly sat back and looked at him in silence. “Thank you,” she said after a moment. “That’s the only answer I would have accepted.”

They sat for a while. Then, “What about later on?” Kit said, the questions he’d assembled refusing to be dismissed. “When things got worse? If he really did what you say he did, why didn’t you come to me then? Or leave altogether?”

“You see? You say things like that, you call me a liar, and you wonder why I didn’t come to you.”

“Oh, please, Holly. Did you really expect me to accept this story without any doubts? He’s my
father
. I’ve never known him to do anything like what you’re claiming he’s done. Why should I believe you? Why should I disbelieve him?”

Holly put her hand on Kit’s arm. It was the first time either of them had touched the other in many months. “All right,” she said. “That’s fair. It’s natural for you to deny what I’ve told you. I denied it myself, for years, so I can’t blame you for doing the same thing. Which answers your question. I didn’t come to you when things got worse because I knew that if it came to a choice between him and me, you’d choose him. In fact, you did choose him, a long time ago. Why such a choice was necessary, I don’t know. I suppose it’s because of the kind of man he is. The more distance I put between him and me, the less chance I had of keeping you.”

Kit was ready with his next question. He knew that he had another choice to make and that he would not be able to make it until he had asked every last question, weighed every last answer, and hopefully found a way to walk out of this gazebo a whole and healthy man.

But before he had a chance to ask anything else of her, Holly said, “I also think that the only way to learn the really important things in life is to live them. People learn things best on their own, in their own good time. Which is another reason I never told you. I kept hoping you’d grow out of his shadow. He’s a bad man, Kit. I know that’s a childish word. It makes him sound like a little boy. But that’s what he is … bad. Maybe it’s not all his fault. Maybe the seeds were in his blood or in his upbringing, but he fed them, let them put down roots. Like you’re doing.” The tulips, Kit noticed, appeared to be nodding. He suddenly felt outnumbered. “But I think there’s still a chance for you,” Holly said. “That’s why I’ve told you all this. What he’s really like.”

Kit suddenly found it difficult to remember what he had meant to ask Holly. Nothing came to mind but a memory of sitting in this same gazebo with his mother at his side.

“It’s impossible,” he said slowly, turning the memory around until it showed him another way to defend both his father and himself. “It doesn’t make any sense. You can’t say things like this about Dad without questioning everything you know about her.”

“About who?” And for the first time Holly too looked afraid.

“Mom. You can’t honestly think she’d have married a monster. She was smart. She would have seen signs. She would have known if he was capable of such things, long before he ever did them. She never would have stayed with such a man.
You
may not remember her, but—”

“Not
remember
her! Christ! Shut up! Don’t you talk about her!” And suddenly Holly was swinging her arms at him, her hair flying in her face, the tears she must have been saving for years streaming down her cheeks. He grabbed her arms and held her against him, wanting to silence her, wanting to hurl her into the garden, and yet wanting to mend everything about her that was broken, wanting everything to be all right and not knowing how to make it so.

“I’m sorry,” he said, trying to quiet her. “I’m sorry.”

But something had come loose inside Holly, and although she no longer struck out at him she now threw back her head and bared her teeth and said, before she could stop herself for the millionth time,
“She sailed those waters her whole life, but she headed straight into a storm, Kit. Alone. She
chose
to do that. She
died
because she did that. But if we didn’t have her body to prove it, I’d be sure that she was alive somewhere as far from him as she could get.”

Holly clawed her hair back and dried her face with her hands. She was spent. She sagged against the wooden rail at her back. “I’m sorry,” she said. She sounded as if she’d run a hundred miles. “I didn’t mean to say anything about that. I’m probably wrong. It had to have been an accident.”

“It was an accident,” Kit said through his teeth. He couldn’t look at his sister. His heart had stopped beating. How he continued to live he did not know. He could not move. He had no strength left at all. “It was an accident. It was an accident.”

“It was. I’m sure you’re right.” Holly could see that her brother had to believe this absolutely. “I was upset. I shouldn’t have said that.”

Kit’s heart began to beat again. Slowly. Like an old man’s. And as it did, one last question slipped up out of the place that had flourished in the half-light of his father’s shadow. “If all this is true,” he said once again, “not the part about … about her … but the rest of it. If all of that is true, why didn’t you leave? How could you have stayed here?”

Holly sighed. A part of her, too, wished that she had never come out to this garden, never said any of the things she’d forced herself to say. “At first I was too young, and what he’d done was fairly innocuous. Not in hindsight, but at the time—more confusing than anything. And later, I was too afraid of him to tell anyone. And too embarrassed. If he’d raped me, yes. I know I would have gone for help. Or if he’d tried a second time, I would have told someone. Maybe even you. I don’t know. If he had, maybe I would have gone off on my own. But he didn’t. I was unhappy and scared, but I wasn’t home that often. And once I’d moved into the carriage house, things were better.” She’d spent years scrutinizing her own behavior, coming to understand why she had done what she’d done, and it should have been easy to explain herself to Kit. But it wasn’t.

“Besides, think about what you’re suggesting, Kit. How would I leave? Dad gives you money, but I have none of my own. Certainly not enough to live on. Dad bought you a car, but not me. I suppose I could go out, try to find a job where looks aren’t important, and never
come back here again. I suppose I could do that. But why should I? I want to write. That’s all I want to do. I don’t want to have to struggle to make a living. Which sounds spoiled, I know, but I’m not asking for anything more than I’ve been led to expect. So I’m biding my time, Kit. In a few months, we turn twenty-one. Our trust funds will be ours. And then I will go.”

Kit nodded. He was almost through. “I can understand all that, I guess. But you have to forgive me for having my doubts.” He saw her face harden. “Come on, Holly, put yourself in my shoes. Every time I open a newspaper these days I read about some woman making terrible accusations against her father. It’s become the fashion to blame every problem on something that happened in childhood. Except half the time it’s an incident that’s remembered in a dream or in hypnosis or at the hands of a very persuasive therapist. Who’s to say what’s a real memory and what’s not? How is a father supposed to defend himself in a situation like that? I’m sorry, Holly. Too many of these accusations turn out to be false, which is not to say that the women involved don’t honestly believe their own lies. I’m sure some of them do. But that doesn’t change the fact that they’re lying.”

Holly took a deep breath. Her hands clutched each other in her lap as if they belonged to two different people. “I don’t know why I thought you would believe me,” she said. “I should have known better.”

“You yourself said it was natural to believe in my own father, Holly. You yourself said it would be hard for me to accept what you’ve told me.”

“But you saw him!” she cried. “Crawling around in the dark. Spying on me. If you don’t believe my explanation, then give me a better one.”

“For Christ’s sake, Holly, there are a thousand explanations. I won’t know why until I ask him.”

Holly flinched as if her bones had turned to blades. She began to shake her head. “You can’t talk to him about this,” she said. She was trembling.

She doesn’t want to get caught
, he said to himself, and a part of him bloomed with satisfaction.
She’s been lying
.

“Why not?” he said. “Doesn’t he deserve a chance to defend himself?”

BOOK: Those Who Favor Fire
10.55Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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