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Authors: Lauren Wolk

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BOOK: Those Who Favor Fire
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“He’ll kill me,” she said, and although he did not believe this, it was clear that she did.

“Don’t be ridiculous. Granted, if he’s guilty of doing what you claim, then I admit he’s cruel or sick or both. But to exaggerate the problem isn’t going to help matters.”

“I’m not exaggerating anything, Kit. But I know him. I know that he’s capable of far more than he’s actually done. Let me ask you this.” She turned on the bench so she faced him straight on. “What if I’d told you that he did rape me that night, that I became pregnant, and that he forced me to have an abortion. Would you consider all that worse than
trying
to rape me?”

Kit went cold inside. “Of course I would.”

“But why?
He
didn’t stop himself from raping me. His
body
did, thank God. But if he’d been able to, he would have raped me, and I might have become pregnant, and we both know I would have had an abortion. I’ve made the mistake in the past of underestimating him. I don’t make that mistake anymore.”

“All right,” Kit said, working his way back to the place where he’d found his best footing. “But I still can’t believe what you’ve told me—that my father is some kind of monster—without hearing his side of the story. Surely you realize that he has the right to defend himself. But if he can’t … if it turns out that you’re telling the truth, I’ll help you. And if you’re not, we’ll both help you.”

“You’ll both help me?” And then, understanding, “You think I’m crazy,” she whispered. “You’re going to go to Dad and he’s going to tell you some fairy tale, and once again I’m the one who’s going to pay for something someone else has done.”

Kit didn’t like what was happening. He hadn’t set out to say anything of the sort. Lying she might be, but crazy, no. And yet, why would a sane person make up such a terrible story? Again, he felt himself go cold inside. No matter what he believed, no matter which choice he made, he would be facing something awful.

“You can’t tell him,” she said again, with great urgency. “You can’t do that to me.”

“Then convince me,” he said, not really thinking about what he was asking of her or bringing on his own head. “Convince me you’re telling the truth. Convince me he’s a liar.”

He did not think that she could, but he was wrong.

Holly stood abruptly and began to pace in circles around the gazebo. As she walked she snatched at the vines that draped down to claim the pillars, wrapping them in blossoms and bees. At one point
she stopped to bury her face in their leaves, to breathe in their scent, not caring if she was stung. She seemed strengthened by them. And when she turned to face Kit, she seemed to have reached some sort of decision.

Holly sat down. She shook out her hands, crossed her arms, and looked at Kit’s face for a long minute. She loved his face, despite how he had turned it away from her over the years. He looked much as he had as a young child, his eyes the same evening blue, his hair still the color of thumbed gold, his face sharper now, and stronger, but not so that it had lost the sweet shape of his boyhood.

Seen from one side, they looked alike. But not from the other.

“This is the hardest part,” she finally said. “This is the part I swore I’d never tell you.” At the look in his eyes, she said, “Not because it’s so terrible. It isn’t. In fact, it’s one of the kindest things Dad has ever done. And it’s something that doesn’t matter. Not in the least. When I found out, I was startled by it, and it made me think about a lot of things in a different way, but it never bothered me, and it shouldn’t bother you.”

Kit made a gesture with his hands to hurry her. He had already heard more than he had bargained for, and he had no desire to open any more doors, but he wanted more than anything else to get it all over with.

“Just after Christmas,” Holly continued, “my freshman year at Bryn Mawr, I went skating. I fell. I hit my jaw.” She touched the damaged side of her face. “The next day I woke up with a horrible toothache. It was the first time I’d ever needed to see a dentist while I was away from home. Dad always insisted that I see Dr. Bennett during my vacations. But I was in a lot of pain, and I wasn’t about to come all the way home. So I went to a good dentist near campus. When he looked at my teeth, he asked me what had happened to my face. I told him that Mom had fallen down the stairs during her pregnancy and that my face had been damaged before you and I were born. I told him about you and me, how you were conceived first. He looked at me in this really peculiar way. I thought he was crazy. Then he took an X ray and examined it for a long time. Then he looked at my face again, and at my teeth, and then at the X ray again. Then he asked me to tell him more about Mom’s accident and about you. How many weeks older you were. How much bigger you were at birth. Whether you’d been hurt when Mom fell. He was acting the way
people do when they know the answer to a question but they want to see how much
you
know. I told him what I could, which wasn’t much.

“That’s when he showed me the X ray and explained what must really have happened. He didn’t get it completely right, but he was close. Later, when I confronted Dad, he tried to bluster his way out of it. But he eventually told me. In fact, he seemed to enjoy telling me.”

Kit began to feel sick. He began to think of ways to leave, now, before she said another word, for he believed that he could not bear anything more and he dreaded to his soul what she might say next.

“It’s strange,” she said, tears trembling in her eyes, “how we don’t question things we’re told in childhood, even when we’re old enough and smart enough to know better. Mom used to tell me that eating bread crusts would make my hair curly.” She almost smiled then. “I was eighteen before I gave that one a second thought. It was the same with my face. I never stopped to think that it might have happened any other way. And even if I had, why would I have ever thought they’d lie to us about it?”

Kit put his head into his hands so that all he could see through his fingers were small, manageable bits of the world. “What happened, Holly? Please just tell me what happened.”

“I really don’t want to hurt you, Kit. I can remember when we were little and I loved you so much. You were always so much bigger than I was. And I was always sick. I still am sick a lot. I’m not put together all that well.” She paused. “And I’m almost grateful for your disgraceful perspective on things: it’s probably kept you from feeling guilty about getting the lion’s share of everything from the minute you were conceived. I don’t want you to feel guilty. I don’t want you to feel responsible for something you did before you were born. Something completely innocent. But I do want you to know that Dad is capable of lying in a deep and sustained way. That he’s capable of forcing people—doctors and dentists and maybe even our own mother—to back him up. If not to lie, then at least to keep quiet about the truth.

“The fact is, Kit, that I was not hurt when Mom fell down the stairs. That never even happened. I was hurt when you kicked me in the face, Kit. Long before we were born. You were four weeks older, much stronger than I was, your bones much harder than mine. And this time, you have to believe me. Because I can prove it. But also because it will give you something to hold on to. It will remind you
that even though he is a terrible liar and a terrible father and in many ways a terrible man, our father has spent the past twenty years protecting you. He was right to keep this secret, I suppose. What you did was entirely innocent.” Holly put her arms around Kit and held him as he had not been held since his mother had gone so suddenly to her death. “He didn’t want you to bear any blame,” she said gently. “And neither do I.”

For a long while after Holly left him, Kit sat in the gazebo and listened to the harvest of the bees. He watched a tiny, auburn ant slowly drag the corpse of a paper wasp across the gazebo floor. He followed the patient course of the shadows in the sun-baked garden. He tasted the breeze on his tongue and for the first time in his life noticed his own salt and a subtle, coppery flavor and a trace of the nectar with which the flowers scented the sky. He felt the breeze lift the small hairs on his forearms. He ran his hand over the old wood of the bench where he sat.

He was afraid that if he moved too quickly, the panic that had filled him up would spill over and wash him away, as if he’d never been. He thought about everything Holly had told him, pondered the myth his father had forged, and wondered whether he possessed a tool strong enough to break the bonds of heredity and tradition.

For the first time in years, he remembered his mother in such tremendous detail and dimension that she seemed not to have died after all. He could smell her, feel the texture of her hair, the warmth of her skin. They were on the beach, and he was helping her rig her skiff, hoist its sail, splash it clean of sand. He meant to go out with her, but she said no. Not today. It was too windy. Too late. Nearly time for his supper. She intended to sail out to the first bell, maybe beyond.

Kit remembered how he became furious, threw himself into the sand. How his mother patiently lifted him up and drew him into her lap so that they nestled together in the sand like shore birds. She scolded him gently and kissed him, ran her fingers through his salty hair, told him that he was the best boy she had ever known. Which made him so proud that he wiped his tears with sandy hands, leaving trails along his cheeks, and kissed her good-bye.

“Go on up for your supper,” she told him, dragging the skiff into the shallows and climbing carefully aboard. “And look after your sister while I’m gone.”

He turned and walked away up the beach toward the sloping lawn. As he reached the grass, he thought he heard her call to him and turned back in time to see her wave and blow him a kiss. She called out again, but he could not tell what she was saying, and so he simply waved back, smiling belatedly, as she turned her attention once again to the sea.

Kit remembered waiting for his mother to return, watching his father go out into the night, going to bed with the knowledge that his mother was missing, waking to the news that she was dead.

He and Holly huddled together in their playroom that awful morning, among their wooden horses and their puppets, until someone brought them breakfast on a tray. But they would not eat and instead clung to each other, dry-eyed, serious as young monkeys.

When their father finally came to see them, they were shocked by his whiskers and his sooty eyes. When they both ran to him, still disbelieving, he grabbed Kit in his arms and walked around the room with slow, giant, random steps. Kit hung straight and limp from his father’s emphatic embrace while Holly stood where they had left her and followed them with her eyes.

Kit looked over his father’s shoulder and saw his sister watching them. He missed his mother fiercely and began to cry for her. And although he knew that Holly’s loss was somehow greater than his own, perhaps
because
he knew this, he was comforted by the knowledge that he was the child his father preferred. He turned his face into his father’s chest, wrapped his arms around his father’s neck, and was only momentarily distracted when he heard his sister open the playroom door.

Kit was startled to find himself sitting alone in the gazebo, surrounded by tulips. But this was nothing compared with the shock he felt when he realized that until now he had completely forgotten the morning when he lost his mother and his sister both.

Before his father could stumble upon him out here in the open, where he could neither hide nor take a proper stand, where he was still mired in confusion and filled, from one moment to the next, with anger, fear, sorrow, and a surprising strain of relief, Kit rose to his feet and made his way back to the house. The day felt old, but Kit had spent only an hour with Holly, and his father had not yet come downstairs. Still in bed, perhaps. Kit was grateful for the reprieve.

While he still could, he shut himself up in his bedroom and thought about what he ought to do. He believed everything Holly
had told him. And yet, he felt so numb and in some ways so removed from what had happened to her that he could not decide on a course of action. Everything of importance had happened years ago. And none of it had been nearly as bad as it might have been.
If it happened at all
, a small part of him murmured, refusing to be gagged.

It would be easy, he realized, to do what he had intended, spend the summer as his father’s apprentice, play golf, do the things he’d always done. But it would also be terribly hard.

Kit decided, in the end, to give himself the day. He would spend it with his father, watching him, studying him, looking for an explanation. Perhaps a solution would present itself. Perhaps by the end of the day Kit would know what he ought to do.

And then, if he chose well, perhaps he would be rewarded that night with a dream that would take him back for a second glimpse of the things he had forgotten.

All that day, Kit watched his father carefully. He did not know exactly what he was looking for, but he imagined making the most awful kinds of discoveries: noticing, all at once, that the skin of his father’s face was lifting away at the edges and that a moldy skull peeked out from underneath. It was easier now to acknowledge that the time they spent together had often seemed to require rehearsal. Kit realized that he had always planned what he would say and how he would behave around his father, but he found himself too deeply confused to understand why this might be so.

He was furious with his father and afraid for himself. Whenever he thought about his sister, pinned in her bed, he wanted to rip the drapes from their rods and pull the paintings from their frames. At times he wanted to get back in his car and drive away somewhere. But he had only just come home, eager to be with his father again, and a part of him was still looking for a reason to stay.

He found himself acting toward his father as a young boy might toward an older brother: following him around yet having nothing to say, nothing to offer, feeling like an intruder and yet unable to be anywhere in the entire house without wondering where his father was, what he was doing, how he looked when he thought no one was watching.

BOOK: Those Who Favor Fire
7.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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