The pit of my stomach shifted from aching to feeling as though it had plummeted to the floor, lying amongst our feet in the prison’s visitation room. Had I heard him correctly? What he said made little to no sense. What sane person would put their sister’s home in flames? Who would purposely inflict themselves with burn marks all over their body? I scoffed, not allowing his fairytale to corrupt my perception of my mother.
“She barely survived that fire.” I chimed.
“But she did. Miraculously, must I add. You can look up every newspaper article about that night and you’ll see how often they explain how she shouldn’t have survived that night. Logically, it didn’t make much sense how she came out with only some burns.”
"Some burns?” I barked. “She’s covered in marks. Don’t try to minimize what happened to her to make yourself feel better.”
“I don’t need to make myself feel better about that incident. You know why? Because I didn’t set that fire. There’s a lot of evidence that sleazy lawyer of hers didn’t bring up.”
“It wasn’t Jonah Ellington’s job to make you look good. That’s your lawyer’s job.”
He eased his face into his palms, shaking his head and gradually moving his hands to his bald scalp, massaging it slowly. “You’re too young to remember my court case. I didn’t have a lawyer. I represented myself. I couldn’t afford a lawyer.”
“How did mom pay for one?”
“From what I heard, Jonah Ellington cover the cost out of pocket.” He divulged, raising both his eyebrows. “Now, isn’t that a little suspicious?” He didn’t wait for my reply. “Anyhow, after looking over the details and having Dion check on other supporting evidence, I think I’m starting to build up enough information to repeal my sentencing to a higher court.”
I wiped my eyes, moving my fingertips to the bridge of my nose and sighing into my hand. “That doesn’t explain why mom would set the fire. You can’t possible have evidence to prove that in court.”
“They didn’t have much proof to nail it on me to begin with. Her slimy lawyer brought up the police reports your mother filed in the past for domestic abuse. They didn’t have my finger prints at the scene, but because someone witnessed me having a verbal altercation with her only hours before, the intent was there. That, on top of my criminal history, I was pinned for something I didn’t do.”
“Why?” I croaked. “Why wait this long to fight the case if you knew all along that you weren’t guilt?”
“I don’t know. Ask Dion. He’s the one who came here the week Diana died.” He explained, cupping his hands in front of him. “Ever since then, he’s been helping me. I’m surprised, if anything, that he would want to help me get out. I would’ve expected you to come to me first, being my only son and all.”
“What?” I blurted.
“My only son.” He repeated as if that somehow answered the confusion racing through me. “Dion isn’t mine. He’s an Ellington. I didn’t know that at his birth. Dona and I were dating throughout high school. When she came to me, telling me she was pregnant, I believed her. We had an issue earlier in our senior year because I had caught word of Jonah trying to get at your mother. I made sure to teach him a lesson for that one.”
I remembered Silvia telling me what she learned from one of her coaches last semester. Her father’s athletic career was ruined after a violent fight, leaving him with a small limp whenever he walked fast. It came together now, explaining why Jonah had such a major injury in high school. It was my father’s fault. This new bit of knowledge also revealed that the Segg prank Silvia’s father did to my mother might’ve included using her.
I was on the verge of throwing up at all of this news. “How...how do you know I’m yours?”
“I did a paternity test on you and Diana before the same week the fire happened. I couldn’t trust that bitch after I kept hearing townspeople whispering about Dion not being mine. You’re the only living child of mine. I’m not sure who told Diana about the Segg prank Ellington pulled on your mother, but she started to think that she was an Ellington, too. When she visited during her freshman year, she asked me, and I was infuriated that she thought that. I suspect she wanted to be an Ellington more than anything.”
“That’s impossible. She couldn’t stand that family.”
“That is not what she said.” Ethan dug deep into the pockets of his orange jumpsuit, yanking out a large stack of letters. They were bound together with a plastic rubber band. Each letter was a different color; they were all written in Diana’s handwriting. After reading many pages of her diary, I memorized her style of writing. I snatched at them, but he collected it off the table quickly, holding the bundle close to his chest. “Ah, ah, what do you say? What’s the magic word?”
He smirked. “You’re lucky there’s guards.”
“I’d kick your ass with or without them there,” I snarled. “I’m not a kid anymore.”
“No, son. You are a kid.” He flung the letters to the center of table. “You’re still the same disrespectful child, I can see.”
“You could say I take up after my father,” I mused with tight lips, removing the plastic band. I started shuffling through the pile. Amazement struck me at the volume of letters my little sister sent to our dad. “How long have you had these?”
“She used to send one once a week when she was alive. I miss getting new ones. I miss seeing her, too,” his voice cracked, and he slapped a hand to his face, covering his eyes. For the first time, I could sense him exude an emotion other than fiery rage. He sounded genuinely vulnerable for once. Hurt. I didn’t know my father harbored such a human feeling. I always saw him as a cold, heartless man that only thought of himself and no one else. “I’d give anything up if I could see her one last time.”
“I say that all the time, too,” I nodded. “If I could hear her laugh, see her face just one more and talk to her, I know that I wouldn’t have so much weight on my shoulders about her death.”
“You’d still feel it, son. I know I would as well. No matter what, I’d be greedy for more time.” He relaxed back into his seat. “The letters she sent me date back to her freshman year and up until her last week alive. Read them. Study them as much as I did. I obsessed over each one after I heard of her suicide. I want you to have them. Maybe you’ll see something I couldn’t. Maybe you can find out the name of the asshole who knocked her up and left her out to dry. She talks about him more towards the end.”
“She tells you about the father?”
“Yes, she does, but she never says a name.”
“Sounds like Diana.” I rolled my eyes. She avoided giving away his name in her diaries, too. I read them countless times in desperate search for a clue. But there was never any clear defining detail that told me who he was. It frustrated me to the point of almost giving up, but that feeling never stayed for long. I found myself diving back into her leather-bound diaries on numerous nights, sprawled in her former room, flipping through the pages with tired eyes.
I set the letters on my lap, gripping them until my knuckles turned white. With greeted teeth, I said, “Thanks,” and stood to my feet.
“Find out who he is,” he asked of me, “and make sure to beat the living shit out of him.”