“Nice wheels,” Ellie said, following me across the lot to my Maserati.
“You like fancy cars?”
“Yes. Father gifted me a purple Porsche convertible for my tenth birthday. He believed he would be deceased when I turned sixteen, and he wished to buy me a car before he died.”
“That sounds like something Dad would do.”
“I can’t drive it, obviously. But I go out and sit in it sometimes.”
“Hop in, kiddo,” I said, opening the door for her.
She didn’t get in. Instead, she glared at me with her hands on her hips. “Let’s get a couple of things straight, big brother.”
“Yes ma’am,” I said, backing away with my hands in the air.
“I don’t need a man to open doors for me. And I’m not a kid.”
“I promise I’ll never open a door for you again,” I chuckled, climbing into the driver’s seat. “And you’re twelve. So, yes. You are most definitely a kid.”
“I’m wise and mature way beyond my years,” she informed me.
“You’re still a kid. And Kinley and I are in charge.”
“We’ll see,” she mumbled to herself as she buckled her seatbelt.
“What was the foster home like?” I asked, glancing over at her as I merged onto the Interstate.
“That bad, eh?”
“It was crowded. I had to share a bedroom with two other girls. And there was only one bathroom! They had dogs that left bones all over the house. And you should’ve seen the slop they served for dinner last night. It was packaged pasta mixed with ground beef and canned tomatoes. And they drink water from the tap! Gross!”
“I’m sorry you had to go through that, Ellie.”
“It was an eye-opening experience. But I don’t care to do it again. Promise me that won’t transpire.”
“Why didn’t you come to visit, Harland?”
I pinched the bridge of my nose, unsure how to navigate a difficult conversation with a twelve-year-old. “Dad and I didn’t always see eye to eye.”
“Mother said it was because of her. She said you hated her.”
“Hate is a pretty strong word.”
“Did you hate my mother?”
“When they got married, she was twenty-five and he was seventy-one. Your mom was broke, with a ten-year-old kid to support.”
“You believe she only married Father for his money?”
“I don’t want to speak ill of your mom. It doesn’t feel right. Especially since she just passed away a couple days ago.”
“She loved my dad, Harland.”
“Well, I’m sure they’re together in Heaven.” Or hell, more likely. But I’d let the kid have her happy memories.
“Why do you and Kinley hate each other?”
“We don’t hate each other.”
“The dialogue and behaviour I witnessed in the lawyer’s office does not support that statement,” she declared with a definitive snort.
“It’s the first time we’ve seen each other in sixteen years. We used to fight like that all the time. And we fell right back into that habit today, as if no time had passed.”
“How come you’re not married?”
“I haven’t found the right woman.”
“Father was regretful he didn’t have any grandchildren.”
“How bad was his dementia?”
“He had days when he was coherent, but the confusion was escalating.”
“How did your mom deal with that?”
“What do you mean?”
“Mother was married to a dictator for twenty-two years. Father’s dementia was her ticket to freedom. She was finally able to leave the grounds without the supervision of a controlling tyrant.”
“Where did she go?”
“To meet men and have sexual relations.”
“She told you that?”
“Then how do you know that’s what she was doing?”
“Father knew. He was having her followed.”
“And he told you?”
“No. He would never do that. I learned of it in one of the letters.”
“The one’s he penned and hid in various locations throughout the house.”
“I collected them and secured them in my room so the staff wouldn’t find them.”
“Did you read them?”
“Don’t judge me, Harland. I was trying to protect my family.”
“I wasn’t judging you. I would’ve read them, too.”
She turned her head, staring out the passenger window. What was going through her mind? My sister was very intelligent and mature. But she was only twelve. A kid shouldn’t have to deal with this kind of shit.
I loathed my stepmother. She was a despicable excuse for a human being. I didn’t give a fuck that she was dead. What kind of mother leaves a twelve-year-old alone to take care of an old man with dementia, while she goes out whoring?
Ellie hadn’t showed any emotion about the sudden loss of her parents. Was that normal? Maybe she was good at hiding her feelings. That was a Hollingbrook family trait. Bottle it up and lock it away.
Real men don’t talk about feelings. They don’t cry. Hollingbrook men are strong. We take whatever comes our way like soldiers. Deal with it and move on.
Did my dad give that speech to Ellie?
“Tell me a little about yourself,” I suggested.
She turned away from the window, narrowing her eyes at me. “What do you want to know?”
“Do you go to Forrichsnob Academy?”
“No. I was homeschooled. I had a tutor.”
“It gave me more time for business meetings.”
“I was helping Father.”
“He was still involved in the day-to-day operations at Hollingbrook Enterprises?”
“The board wasn’t aware of his declining mental function?”
“What do you do for fun, Ellie?”
“I enjoy reading.”
“What type of books do you read?”
“Business journals, political pieces, finance books.”
“Do you have any friends?”
“Father believed spending time with girls my age would serve no purpose.”
I rubbed my temple, silently cursing my dad for brainwashing this kid, and depriving her of the opportunity to have a normal childhood. And her mother stood by and let it happen.
“Are you hungry?” I asked. “Did you wanna grab some lunch?”
“Yes. I haven’t eaten today, and I’m quite famished. The foster mother offered me a bowl of sugar-laden cereal with cow’s milk. I passed.”
I took the exit for Houlton, swinging into a McDonald’s near the freeway. “What would you like to eat?”
“What do you recommend?”
“I’ve never dined here before.”
“Holy fuck,” I muttered.
“Please refrain from using profanity in my presence.”
“Sorry,” I mumbled.
“Just order me whatever you’re having,” she suggested.
I ordered one of everything on the menu.
Ellie shook her head when the drive through attendant handed me several bags of food. “What a ridiculous waste of money, Harland.”
“Last time I checked, neither of us was short on cash.”
“Being wealthy isn’t an acceptable excuse for gluttony.”
“You’re very opinionated.” A real chip off the old block.
“I’m well-educated and intelligent. That affords me the right to express my opinion on a variety of subjects.”
“Are you going to eat some of that food?”
She pulled out a Big Mac, taking a tiny bite. I watched out of the corner of my eye, grinning when she devoured the burger.
“Was it good?” I asked.
“You’ve been missing out, little sister.”
“I’ve been eating high quality meat and organic vegetables my entire life. You make it sound like I’ve been living in a shack in the woods or something.”
“You didn’t have a normal childhood, Ellie.”
“I suppose. But I wasn’t unhappy. I was very close with our father.”
“What about your mother?”
“No. We didn’t have anything in common.”
“That’s too bad.”
“I loved Mother. She wasn’t perfect. Nobody is. But I accepted her for who she was. It was a challenge to converse with her, but I attempted to find some mutual ground. I’m deeply disturbed by some of the things I learned about her from Father’s letters, but there is nothing to be gained by casting judgement on a deceased woman.”
“Your attitude is commendable, Ellie.”
“Thank you, Harland,” she said. “You might consider taking a page from my book of behaviour where Kinley is concerned.”
“I don’t see that happening.”
“Kinley hates my guts.”
“I treated her pretty badly when we were kids.”
“You could apologize.”
“I think it would take a lot more than a lame apology to repair the rift between us.”
“Can you do me a favour?”
“Sure, kiddo. Anything.”
“Please don’t call me kiddo.”
“That wasn’t the favour though.”
“What do you need, Ellie?”
“Be nice to Kinley.”
“That’s a pretty big favour.”
“Kinley and me are like oil and water.”
“Kinley’s return to Hollingbrook will be an arduous journey. One that will require immense support and understanding. From both of us.”
“Do you know why she ran away?” I asked, glancing over at her as I turned onto Hollingbrook Road. I hadn’t been home in years. Kinley wasn’t the only one avoiding the family homestead.
“Is that Kinley’s car?” she asked, pointing to the beat up Honda parked outside the gate.
“I gave her the code for the gate before we left the lawyer’s office.”
“Maybe it’s not working.”
I pulled up next to Kinley’s car. She was slumped forward with her head resting on the steering wheel.