Come in here, Kinley. I want to show you something.
I wanna go in the house. I’m cold. My friends already went in. We’re gonna make popcorn and watch movies.
Don’t you want your birthday present?
My present is in the pool house?
Yes, beautiful girl. I have something special for you.
“No!” I screamed. “Stop!”
“It’s okay, Kinley,” a soft voice whispered. “You’re safe.”
I sat up, relief washing over me when I realized I was in my car. And I wasn’t sixteen. I was thirty-one. My little sister was sitting in the passenger seat, concern etched on her beautiful face.
“Sorry,” I said, laughing nervously. “I forgot the code you gave me for the gate. I figured I’d just wait here until you guys arrived, and I must’ve fallen asleep.”
“Excuse me?” I gasped. “And I thought you didn’t like swearing?”
“I don’t,” she agreed. “But there are situations that warrant the use of profanity, and this is one of those times.”
“I don’t like it when people lie, even if they have a valid reason.”
“Where is Harland?”
“I told him to proceed up to the house.
“Because you needed help, and his presence wasn’t warranted.”
“And he actually listened to you?”
“He argued at first.”
“I’m sure he did. I never thought I’d see the day Harland would cave to a twelve-year-old. He certainly never did when I was your age. And he was only a year older than me.”
“I know why you’re sitting out here crying,” she said bluntly.
“I’m not crying.”
She tilted her head, rolling her eyes and looking like a preteen girl for the first time since I met her four hours before.
“Fine. I was crying. I just lost my mother. I’m allowed to have a breakdown.”
“That’s not why you’re crying.”
“Look, Ellie,” I sighed. “I really appreciate your concern. It’s sweet. But I have a lot of unhappy memories here, and it’s not gonna be easy for me to step back onto this estate.”
“He’s not here. He can’t hurt you.”
I turned to study the young girl sitting next me, her eyes conveying empathy and understanding. There was no way she could possibly know why I ran away. Orland Hollingbrook would’ve taken that secret to his grave. And my mother was probably still in denial. Who would confess something like that to a kid anyway?
“Who are you talking about, Ellie?”
“Father. He’s dead.”
“Yes. He is.”
“There is nothing to fear here.”
“What makes you think I was afraid of your dad?”
“I know why you ran away.”
“No, you don’t.”
“Father wrote letters and hid them all over the house.”
I blinked rapidly, sucking in a big gulp of air while I fought the crushing weight bearing down on my chest. How dare he? It wasn’t enough that he ruined my life, he had to write about it and leave it lying around the house for my little sister to find? What if one of the staff found his letters? They could sell them to the tabloids.
“I’m sure most of the stuff he wrote wasn’t true,” I said, praying she would just drop this. “He was suffering from dementia.”
“I’ve spent hours scouring the house, endeavouring to find them all before someone else does. But as you know, the house is massive. And Father never threw anything away. Every cupboard, drawer and closet is loaded with stuff. I drew up a floor plan and set up search grids, but I’ve only covered twenty percent of the main house. And that doesn’t include the attic.”
“I’ll help you,” I offered.
“Does that mean you’re going to come inside?” she teased.
“I’m glad, Kinley.”
“Will you hold my hand?”
“Of course,” she said, squeezing my hand. “That’s what sisters are for.”
“Did you tell Harland about the letters?”
“I did. But I didn’t tell him why you ran away.”
“I think you should tell him.”
“I don’t think there’s anything to be gained from doing that.”
“You never know.”
“Please don’t tell him, Ellie.”
“I would never do that.”
“Put your seatbelt on,” I said as I turned the key, my old engine rumbling to life.
“You need a new car, Kinley.”
“Why? This one runs fine.”
“It’s old,” she chuckled.
“It got me here.”
The gate was already open. Harland never closed it. I drove between the concrete pillars, my heart pounding against my rib cage like a little fist, my sixteen-year-old self screaming at me to turn around. She didn’t want to come back to this place. But thirty-one-year-old me knew I had no choice. Maybe this was exactly what I needed. To face the past head on. Running away certainly didn’t erase the memory of what he did.
I shuddered when the iron gates clanged, closing behind us. “Your dad finally joined the twenty-first century, I see?” I commented when I noticed Ellie was controlling the gate with her phone.
“Only when it came to security.”
The trip down the laneway ended way too soon, the sprawling stone mansion rising from the dense forest like a two-hundred-year-old monster, waiting to rip me from my car and imprison me inside it’s thick walls.
“It’s just a house, Kinley,” Ellie whispered.
“Where should I park?”
“There’s no room in the garage. Just park over there beside Harland’s car.”
“I don’t think Harland is going to be okay with leaving his fancy car outside.”
“He allowed me to eat McDonald’s in it. I don’t believe he would’ve done that if he was super anal about his wheels.”
“You’re funny, Ellie.”
“Most of the time, you talk like a wise adult. But I like it when you say things and make faces more consistent with a twelve-year-old.”
“Father always demanded I act like an adult. I was his business partner, and he wanted me to act in an appropriate manner. But when I wasn’t busy helping him run his empire, I would go online and chat and hang out with kids my age. It was fun.”
“Don’t you go to school?”
“No. I already graduated high school, and I’m working on my undergraduate degree in business and finance.”
“Really? Are you a genius?”
“Yes. I have an IQ of 181.”
“That’s amazing, Ellie.”
“I owe it all to my father.”
Alarm bells clanged in my brain, dread seeping into my gut. He wouldn’t. Not to his own daughter.
I stared at my little sister. How do you ask a twelve-year-old something like that? But I had to know. It was important. I refused to be like my mother, who preferred to stick her head in the sand and ignore things that threatened to disturb her life. Ellie was my responsibility now.
I parked my car next to Harland’s and cut the engine. “Ellie?” I asked gently, swallowing past the lump in my throat.
“I need to ask you a really important question.”
“I can’t ask you a question?”
“I know what you were going to ask me. And the answer is no. Never. I wouldn’t hide something like that. My father, the one who raised me, was a decent, kind man. He treated me with nothing but respect. The man who wrote those letters, the one who did the things he confessed to, wasn’t the same man I knew.”
I jumped, smoking my temple off the corner of the rearview mirror when Harland rapped on the window.
“Are you okay, Kinley?” Ellie asked.
“Yes,” I grumbled, rubbing my head before turning to glare at Harland. He grabbed the handle, jerking the door open forcefully. “Be careful, idiot! You almost pulled the handle right off!”
“Why are you guys sitting out here?”
“We were talking.”
“None of your business.”
“Everything to do with Ellie is my business. Dad left her to both of us.”
“She’s not an object, Harland.”
“I never said she was, fire crotch.”
“Stop calling me that!”
“Maybe I don’t wanna.”
“You’re an asshole, Harland Hollingbrook.”
“Just get out of the fucking car, Kinley.”
“Enough!” Ellie bellowed. “Stop fighting!”
I shoved Harland out of the way, climbing out of my car before I got yelled at again by the kid. Harland was a big guy, but I caught him off guard. He stumbled backward, his heel catching on the edge of a loose paving stone before he toppled into the rose bushes.