FAMILY SECRETS-short story.

“Stop! Stop running!”, Fred kept telling himself.

He was out of breath and tired. Small cuts covered his arms from the branches he was pushing out the way as he was running. The big branches that came out of the trees-like overstretched arms-were breaking. However, the small ones, were like whips, they wouldn’t break, they would wrap around his arms and then let go, tearing his flesh little by little, making his body bleed, slowly, painfully.

He avoided trees that got in the way, jumped over roots that came out of the ground treacherously. Those same roots seemed armed with a will to stop him or at the very least, make him fall. He wouldn’t stop though. He would keep going, running like a sprinter, as fast as he could, going faster by the second. He couldn’t stop but deep down he knew he just wouldn’t.

He didn’t know for how long he had been sprinting like a gazelle in the savanna. He could barely breathe, his lungs were burning, his legs were aching, his head was hurting but it was the sorrow in his heart that hurt immensely more. It didn’t matter, however. He kept running.

The forest was dense, it was nighttime, and it was late autumn. The farther he went, the harder it would be to get back and he wasn’t properly dressed. His t-shirt, sweatpants and Adidas running shoes wouldn’t protect him from the cold. He kept running, nevertheless. He wasn’t testing his limits; he had done that abundantly at school. He always escalated walls and trees whenever possible. He never fell, always agile and with a tremendous balance, like a ballerina. He loved watching them on TV, especially the Russian ones because of their discipline and grace. He had also read about their inhuman training. Failure was rewarded with punishment, weakness with insults, fatigue with more exercise. He had the same mentality. He hated weakness. It was the reason he wouldn’t stop or perhaps he wouldn’t stop because of what had happened earlier. He wasn’t sure.

A flash came out of nowhere. The night, for a millisecond, became day. And just as fast, the darkness, swallowed all that light. He stopped, petrified. He stood still and held his breath, but his heart almost exploded in his chest. He gave up and took a quick sip of air through his mouth. His eyes were already accustomed to the darkness, therefore, seeing wasn’t a problem anymore. For once, tonight, and maybe only tonight, darkness was his friend. He didn’t move. “Statues would have been jealous, he said to himself. Was he alone? He thought he was. Was somebody taking pictures? This time of night and that far from any roads or the house…it was improbable, but not impossible.

“Who’s there?”, he asked, with a trembling voice he couldn’t conceal.

There was no answer. The only sounds he could hear were of his heart pounding, and his breathing. He just stood there, in the middle of nowhere, frozen by fear. Suddenly, it hit him. What was he doing in the middle of the forest? He was sixteen, a kid in many people’s eyes. The darkness, the loneliness, left him lost and fearful.

As he was calming down, he felt the wind on his face. And then, a drop fell on his arm. “Rain”, he said with a little smile. The noise that followed, scared the living hell out of him. It was like an explosion. He looked up and the sky opened once more and let the light in. “Thunder”, he told himself. Light rain started falling and he started walking back towards the house.

He didn’t want to go back but, in life, one rarely did what they wanted to do; they mostly did what they had to do. His aunt repeated that everyday. She’d say it was a valuable lesson. She had asked him repeatedly to use that motto daily.

So, which way was home? He was surrounded by trees, squirrels, and leaves. He decided to climb a tree, to get a better vantage point. In the distance, he saw the house. It appeared to be minuscule, which meant he ran for too long and went farther than he ever did. The walk back would be long and unpleasant. As he touched the ground, the rain started pouring. Water ran down his face, shoes were soaked and the cold clung to his body like mud. He felt dirty and he smelled worse.

The storm quickly turned into intermittent showers that offered him the occasional light to illuminate his path. He stopped running and switched to walking. Getting to the house would take twice as long and he started thinking about his day. It all seemed surreal but unless he was dreaming, reality was uglier than ever. He was young but he knew what it all meant. Was he going to be defined by all this? Would it pass? Would it stain him forever or, was it already part of his own being? Was it printed in his DNA? The thoughts rampaging through his brain pushed his body to stop. He looked up and welcomed water on his face. He was cold and he knew he would be sick the next day. He didn’t want to go home. It was synonymous with dealing with the truth.

He walked by an old oak that was cut in half two years before by a sever storm, and he knew he was two hundred meters away from the house. The lights became bigger and the house’s full size and shape were clear as day. The confrontation was a few hours away. He was never good at it but, he had no choice.

He stepped inside the house. From the looks of it, no one was there yet so he ran up to his room and took a hot shower. He put a few band aids on his arms to cover the small cuts on his arms and one on his forehead. He traded his dirty and wet clothes with a sweatshirt with the McGill university logo, put on another Adidas pair of sweatpants and added white socks. His aunt hated to see him walking with white socks in the house, but he did so everyday.

He looked at his watch. It was 6:32 pm. Aunt Myriam would be home by 7:30 pm. “When I tell her what I found, she will get mad.”, he said out loud to himself. He stopped and looked in the mirror that hung on the back of his bedroom door. He looked exhausted with the dark circles under his eyes. He stared at the man behind the mirror. Suddenly, he had someone to talk to, someone who wouldn’t interrupt him so, he started his rant.

“She will get mad. So, what? I am mad too. She lied to me. She did it knowingly, purposefully, with intent because she knew what she was doing. How could she hide the truth from me, all these years? And why did she do that? How could she do that? She is Aunt Myriam. She raised me since I was 3, treated me better than a mother would, like one of her own kids! I have called this woman mom on more than one occasion. She gave me a home, she loved me, she taught me everything I know.”

The boy on the other side was sad and felt betrayed. He felt sorry for him. He saw he was hurting. He walked away because he couldn’t handle it anymore. He sat on his bed and kept clenching his fists. Anger still had a good tight grip on his soul. He lied on his back and tried to remember all the good moments he spent with his aunt, and there were so many. He remembered his first bike ride, his swimming lessons, her putting a band aid on his injured knee, her help with his homework, her encouragement when he had a race and even when he practiced, the two of them talking about his first crush when he was 9. But all this seemed to disappear when he remembered the lies.

He got up and went back to look at the boy in the mirror. The calm left and the anger came back in a flash.

“You know she loves you. But why would she lie? What could possibly explain all this deliberate deception and secrecy? She must give you answers. SHE MUST! Ask her the questions! You owe her a chance to explain herself! Give her the courtesy she never gave you. Be the gentleman she taught you to be. Just tell her what you found out today and wait for her to answer.”

His anger turned off the rational part of his brain. Out of the blue, and not knowing why, he punched the mirror and it shattered. Pieces of glass flew all over the room and drops of blood fell to the floor. His knuckles were bleeding and he felt angrier than ever. A small piece of glass was still hanging by the door and he could see his eyes.

“Look at you. Are you proud of you now? You just lost it. You lost. Stay down and lick your wounds or man up and clean your goddamn room!”

He got a broom and started sweeping, methodically. As he was sweeping the floor, he felt ashamed to have fallen so low in his behaviour. He replayed the early morning in his head. He had gotten up at 8am and told his aunt he was going to meet a friend at a café. She dropped him at 10am and she went to work. The café was half empty and he chose a table in a corner where he could see every client come in. His meeting would take some time and he didn’t want to be disturbed by the comings and goings of various clients. He waited for half an hour and at exactly 10:30am, the person he was meeting entered the café and she scanned the room. He got up and raised his hand. She smiled and walked towards him.

“Thank you for meeting with me Mrs. Montgomery. I am sure your time is valuable”, he said as he extended his hand to greet her. She smiled and shook his hand. He felt her firm handshake and he knew right away she was a woman used to deal with powerful people.

“My time hasn’t been valuable in an awfully long time. Being retired is far less glamorous than it looks on tv, young man.”

He smiled back. The lady was simply dressed, black pantsuit and black shoes, which seemed expensive, probably designer shoes. She was petite, with gray hair and perfectly aligned teeth. Mrs. Montgomery had light make up on and held a pink umbrella in her left hand. She reminded him weirdly of Hilary Clinton, but she was far more affable, charming, and less robotic than the former senator of the state of New York.

“Would you like to drink something, ma’am?”, he said before pushing his chair back so he could get up and fetch a beverage.

She raised her right hand to stop him as he was getting up.

“Young man, I will not allow you to pay for the coffee. Last time I checked I am the adult on this table.”, she responded in a commanding voice that left no doubt as to how the coffee situation would unfold. Fred smiled, nodded, and sat back down. The former prosecutor got up and came back 2 minutes later with a green tea for herself and a hot chocolate for him. They both sipped their beverages in silence for a minute and put them back on the table at the same time.

“Ma’am, if you will allow me, I would like to start asking you a few questions regarding the case you prosecuted over 14 years ago.”

“Before we begin, if you don’t mind Fred, I would like to tell you something.”

“Of course. Please, go ahead.”

“I need your word that whatever we say today will stay between us.”

“You have my word.”, he answered as fast as humanly possible.

“Now, take it easy. I know you are impatient to get more information about the case. But before doing so, I want to make sure you understand that once this box is opened, it cannot be closed. It will be out there. And trust me, it will not be pleasant.”

“I understand, ma’am.”

“Very well. And I have a question of my own. You could have gotten all the information through the internet, it’s public, as far as I know. Why did you want to talk to me?”

“You lived the situation. I thought you would be the best person to talk to.”

“Fair enough.”

He cleared his throat and tilted in his chair, visibly uneasy with the whole situation.

“My first question is to know why you agreed to meet with me. I am very curious.”

She took a sip of her green tea.

“I certainly hope all of your questions will be as easy as this one. Well, the reason I am here is because a young man asked me, very politely, to meet with him so we could discuss a case that is personal to him. You might not have known either of your parents last name, but from what you told me, I deduced you are Anita’s brother. After a long consideration, I decided it would be unfair to deprive you of your own history. I felt it would be wrong if I said no. You deserve to know what happened.”

“Thank you for your understanding”

“Don’t thank me yet.”

She took a deep breath; he could sense she was nervous too.  

“I won’t lie to you Fred. I thought long and hard before agreeing to meet with you. You must understand this is the first time in my whole career that I am meeting with the child of a person that I convicted. I am usually the last person the family wants to see.”

He nodded and smiled at her. He found it was easy to trust the now retired prosecutor.

“I wouldn’t have called you if it weren’t important. It is my family’s history, my history. I am aware you tried this case 14 years ago and I was wondering if you’d remember anything about it.”

He felt the desperation in his own voice, and he wondered how it made him look. He straightened himself up to appear in control.

“I am sorry to say but your mother’s case is not easy to forget. I remember it as if it were yesterday. It was a tragedy, almost a whole family was erased from this earth. I have a decent memory, but I must admit, I did go through the files of the case yesterday to refresh my memory.”

She leaned forward, to add emphasis to her statement.

“Listen Fred. This door you and I are about to go through will leave you changed and shocked forever. You are still incredibly young; you are almost a kid. But you tracked me down and convinced me to come here. That alone tells me, you are not as innocent and inexperienced as I thought you would be. Plus, you have shown me respect and you are displaying a maturity that is uncommon for a high school student.”

He nodded and pulled out his favorite notebook from his backpack.

“I want to remind you that we are talking gruesome details here, the kind you might want to forget. Are you sure you want to do this?”

He looked up, took a deep breath, grabbed his favourite pen, and opened the notebook. He was armed and ready to write.

“Consider me warned. I apologize in advance if I don’t look at you as we talk, I would like to write down as much as I can.”

She let out a small chuckle, one that slightly irritated Fred. It must have been that he was nervous and anxious. He knew his emotions were scattered all over the place.

“May I ask what is funny?”

“You are quite an extraordinary young man. I am just impressed, that is all.”

She saw him blush and he blushed even more.

“Thank you, Mrs. Montgomery. My aunt taught me all I know. Whatever I am today, is because of her.”

“Well, keep that in mind at all times. You might be angry with her and jump to punishing her but, you are here today because of her love and care. You are who you are because of her, not because of the subject we are about to discuss.”

He nodded.

“If you would Mrs. Montgomery, please start from the beginning.”

They spoke for an hour and a half. Time flew by. Perhaps, time is relative as Einstein said. Fred ended up with more questions than answers. The questions that ended up torturing his young mind, only the involved parties could offer answers to. He left the café, went home, and decided to go for that run that lasted way longer than he expected.

He stopped thinking about his eventful morning and realized he hadn’t picked up all the pieces of the broken mirror. He finished picking up the pieces of glass in his room and it looked clean, as good as new. He went for his notebook. After talking to Mrs. Montgomery, he realized he had 17 pages worth of information. His physics notebook looked like a battlefield filled with names instead of bomb craters or empty gun shells. It looked indecipherable. If anyone else had tried to read the content of those pages, they would get lost. To the rest of humanity, his notebook contained dirty, nonsensical gibberish. He had a method of taking notes that irritated his professors. He’d write a word and from that word, he would make arrows and other lines connecting it to another word and so on. At times, it looked like a circle and other times like a square. It was a messy way of working but this web of interlinked information was clear as day to him. Leonardo Da Vinci used his mirror writing technique and Fred used his own mystery technique. His manic way of being secretive would pay off this time. No one needed to know what he was working on. It has always been that way.

He was combing through those pages instinctively, without thinking, as if his hand were guided by a willful and mysterious power. He read everything over and over. Every name, location, date, event, and it made sense. It could only make sense, yet it hurt more than ever. Was he going to be defined by the story? It was his story now or had always been his story, unbeknownst to him.

He always felt defined by the fact he was an orphan. It left a gaping hole in his heart and he would cry himself to sleep occasionally. He was so lost in his thoughts that he only realized he was crying when the tears hit the top of his left shoe. The frustration and the sadness made him throw his notebook against the wall. As soon as the notebook hit the ground, he felt sorry for himself. The day hadn’t been easy but destroying his room wasn’t going to take his sorrow away.

He took a deep breath and went to the window. The view was mesmerizing. His aunt’s house was built near a cliff so, he’d had the blessing of appreciating sunsets since he was a kid. His room was on the first floor and the back window faced that never-ending blue sea. He would occasionally see ferries, private yachts and even small fishing boats. The infinite view displayed by the ocean had this calming and soothing effect.

During the summer, he would watch the birds flying high for hours and wished he could join them to escape his reality. Nothing compared however to the sound of the waves crashing against the coast. They had a calming effect. Those waves brought a smile on his face and would choose them over anything else on this earth. He also remembered, as a child, bringing a chair to stand on so he could see that appeasing sunset. He kept that habit, and he needed it now more than ever. He was going to confront his aunt and it wouldn’t be pretty.

He heard his aunt enter the house and shout out his name, as she did every day to make sure he was home. He didn’t answer right away. He gathered all his strength, put the notebook in his left hand and went downstairs. She was in the kitchen, stacking the groceries in the fridge.

“Hey honey. You didn’t answer when I called you.”, she said while packing the fridge with groceries. She didn’t even look at him.

“Sorry auntie. I had my iPod on. How was your day?”

“Long, tiring, uneventful and mostly boring. You?”

“About the same.”

He knew his short answers would trigger her curiosity. He always was loquacious and could talk nonstop for hours. He’d always tell her about his day at school, the fights – verbal ones of course – he’d always get into with his classmates, his arguments with his girlfriend, his sprint training, he’d really tell her every detail of his day.

“You ok honey?”, she asked as she stepped away from the open fridge door to look at him. Before he could utter anything out, she saw his right hand.

“Yes, I am ok.”

“What happened to your hand?”, she asked. She closed the door and came towards him. He stepped back, and she stopped. She had realized something was off. The woman wasn’t stupid. She raised him and knew him better than anybody. He realized he couldn’t play it cool and pretend as if nothing happened.

“I punched my bedroom mirror, auntie.”

The horror on her face lasted a second and was quickly replaced by anger. He couldn’t take the anxiety of this whole situation; he turned his back and went to the living room. He heard her calling his name, asking him what happened but he kept walking.

“Fred, I asked you a question, don’t turn your back on me. What is wrong with you?”. Now she was screaming. She hated being disrespected. In their culture, turning one’s back to an elder, especially a parent, was the quintessential act of disrespect. She finally caught up to him, she grabbed him by the arm and made him turn around.

“Fred, I don’t know what has gotten into you, but I will not tolerate this kind of behaviour. What the hell is wrong with you? You walk away from me as I am talking! What is going on?”

He turned around to face her. Suddenly, she looked like a stranger. She wasn’t Aunt Myriam anymore. Suddenly, she had become the genesis of all his problems, all his sorrow and he hated her for that.

“Honey, I am trying to stay calm here, but my patience has its limits. I come home, you are injured, and you disrespect me in a manner I can’t comprehend. What is going on? Please tell me. I am not mad anymore, I am worried. I just want to understand.”

He wanted to tell her how much he hated her, scream at her, break everything in her precious living room. He had done enough physical damage for the day and opted to go with the hard-cutting truth.

“My mother killed my father. And she is alive.”

The scene that followed was hard to describe accurately. It was the first time he saw a person lose their life force. It was a surreal sight, one that hurt him immensely. His Aunt Myriam was a strong woman, always standing straight, shoulders back, chest out, gracious and classy. She had energy from dusk until dawn, cooking, cleaning, volunteering, attending parents-teachers’ conferences, working long hours and still find time to read books. The woman was unstoppable and could easily do anything once she put her mind to it.

Once, she believed her mechanic was ripping her off and what did she do? She went and took some engineering classes to learn the basic principles of thermodynamics to fix her own engine. Fred had argued at the time, buying a new car would have been easier and less expensive (her car was just an antique, still running by sheer divine will) but the woman was stubborn. She finished her classes and even aced them while working full time simultaneously. In the end, she was even better while practicing on her car. However, once the car died, she gave up and bought a new vehicle. Her outspoken manner earned her a few enemies in her class and that had made Fred smile from ear to ear.

Aunt Myriam never complained, and she could be demanding. She was tough with others but even tougher with herself. She held herself to a high standard and she never disappointed. Even during the holidays, she wouldn’t let Fred sleep in, she wanted him to be active, working, writing, always moving.

All those attributes had vanished, in a puff of smoke, as if they never existed. The aunt Myriam he knew and loved, became a mythical creature, an illusion. Her very aura, her energy had vanished. Despite her dark complexion, she was pale. Fred had taken all life out of her by uttering those 9 words with an ease that alarmed him. He wanted to let her know, but deeply inside he wanted to hurt her, retribution for all those years of lies. He decided to detach himself from the emotional part of the conversation. Heck, he wanted to put a respectable distance between them. He wanted to talk to her like a stranger. He wanted to be cold with her. She had to explain herself and not the other way around. He was the victim, not her!

She stood there, lifeless, empty. Her eyes weren’t blinking. She looked forward but she wasn’t staring or seeing anything. Fred stepped in front of her to get a natural reaction from her, have her eyes blink or see her step back. Nothing happened, he could have been invisible or a brick wall, it wouldn’t have made a difference. He took another step towards her and still, she didn’t move. He looked at her and was surprised to find a few gray hairs in her usually dark nappy hair. “Have they always been there?”, he asked himself. Her shoulders were now slouching, and her hands were lightly shaking.

Suddenly, she saw him and jumped back. He stood still and observed. As she jumped back, Fred saw she put her arms in front of her chest, as if she wanted to protect herself. She couldn’t have been afraid of him. She was breathing fast now, and she looked terrified. Fred raised his right arm, slowly. He didn’t want to scare her, and he took a step forward. Despite everything that had happened, it was Aunt Myriam, the closest thing he had to a mother. She took another step back and started sobbing. He stopped. The strongest person he’d ever known was crying like a child, shaking, she was lost and frightened. Fred found himself feeling as lost as his aunt.

He didn’t know what to do or if there was anything that could be done. He was a powerless spectator and had a front row seat to this theater production made in hell, or perhaps, that very moment was hell, earthly hell, not the one described in the new testament. Fred felt fear had gotten the best of him and she wouldn’t let go. He had to fight and vanquish that formidable foe. He took a deep breath and got up. He marched towards his aunt and stood over her. She looked up. He saw desperation in her eyes. He pitied her, but he had an objective. Her feelings mattered less than the answers he was longing for. He grabbed by the shoulders and she looked even more frightened than before. Fred let her go and she straightened her blouse, wiped her tears away and stood proudly in front of her nephew.

“Auntie, I have questions, a million questions. You are going to sit down and answer all of them.”

“What questions?”, she said, defiantly.

“Really auntie? You are going to play dumb with me?”

She got irritated.

“I don’t know what’s gotten into you. You don’t talk to me like that, boy!”

That last part irritated him. He reached in his pocket and got a newspaper clip and handed it to her. She read it and she sighed out of desperation.

“Yvette N. sentenced to life in prison, no possibility for parole for 25 years, for killing abusive husband.”

“Quite a title I have to admit.”

“Where did you get this?”, she asked him with her voice breaking.

“It doesn’t matter. I just need answers. I already got a few through Mrs. Montgomery, now I need your answers.”

“You spoke to her?”

“I did. She was truly kind and informative. Now, it is your turn.”

She handed the paper clip back as she walked by him, so she could sit in her favourite green velvet armchair. He sat in the big sofa to her left and he turned the light on so he could take notes.

“Are you ready auntie?”

“No, I am not. What makes you think I have answers?”

“Auntie stop this!!!”, he screamed at her. He got up and walked away and then, out of anger and desperation turned around to scream at her even more.

“THIS IS NOT A NEGOTIATION; YOU WILL NOT AVOID THIS CONVERSATION! I DON’T CARE WHAT YOU KNOW OR THINK OF MY BEHAVIOUR. I DON’T CARE ABOUT YOUR FEELINGS. I WANT ANSWERS ABOUT MY PARENTS! HOW CAN YOU NOT UNDERSTAND THAT?”

“Calm down Fred!”

He hit a vase that was next to him. It went flying and broke into a thousand pieces like the mirror in his bedroom.

“DON’T TELL ME TO CALM DOWN. I HAVE BEEN CALM ALL DAY. I HAD TO LISTEN TO A STRANGER TELL ME MORE ABOUT MY FAMILY AND MYSELF THAN MY OWN AUNT! DO YOU KNOW HOW THAT MAKES ME FEEL? HOW UNIMPORTANT I FEEL? I FEEL BETRAYED! I AM ANGRY! YOU OWE ME THE TRUTH.”

He stood there and stared at her. She reciprocated in kind. He finally decided to clean up and picked all the pieces up. He went and threw them in the trashcan located in the kitchen. He came back and sat next to his auntie.

“Auntie listen to me. I have had quite an emotional day. Everything I am saying or doing shouldn’t be taken as disrespect towards you. I am tired. I am looking for answers. You are going to take the time and help me figure some things out, whether you like it or not.”

“You think I will answer any questions after you acted like a spoiled brat who can’t control his emotions and broke things in the house, my house?”

“I know it is your house. No need to emphasize. You are not going to kick me out anyway. I am done breaking things. I broke enough stuff for today. I will pay for the mirror with my allowance and will put the vase back together in a matter of hours.”

She sat back and looked at him, seizing him up, trying to find a weak spot to press on. He knew how she operated, and it wouldn’t work this time.

“By the way, for the love of God, don’t preach about control. You just broke down in front of me. Where did the mighty Myriam go? Where is she now?”

“Are you calling me weak? Are you out of your mind?”

“You don’t seem that strong to me. You are doing everything you can to avoid the subject matter. Strong people don’t hide, they face the music. You say that to me all the time. You are always teaching me to own my decisions and accept responsibility for my actions. So, you think I am going to allow you to hide from your responsibility of telling me truth?”

“Allow?”, she looked shocked to hear him dictate anything to her.

“Yes, allow. Listen, I know I owe you my life. I know that. But you owe me too. You owe me my story. You owe me answers! That’s it.”

She crossed her arms. She was still on the defensive and Fred decided to keep going on the offense. He had nothing to lose anyway.

“My story is your story. Whatever happened, affected you more than it will ever affect me. I am sure it is hard to share but you must. It is our history, auntie. Not only yours. You did an exceptional job avoiding all this for years now. The truth is out. Let’s talk about it. It will help us both.”

Myriam sat up and put her face in her hands. She wiped tears yet again, sat back and crossed her legs. She did a good job hiding any shame or uneasiness she might have felt. 

“What do you want to know?”

“I need to set some ground rules.”

Myriam looked exasperated.

“What rules?”

“First, no lies. Second, assume I already know enough. Third, no matter how unpleasant the truth is, I want to hear it. Those are my rules.”

“Ok, they seem pretty simple.”, she nodded like a child when she uttered those words.

He smiled, a thin and sad smile.

“We’ll see.”

He opened his notebook and looked through the 17 pages. There was no better way than to start with the beginning.

“I found out my mother is alive and well. She is currently incarcerated for killing her husband, my father. Why?”, he asked. He already knew the answer but he wanted to see how much she would divulge.

Aunt Myriam looked whole again, sitting in that green velvet armchair, her place of peace, where she read every night before going to sleep, the same chair she would sit when helping Fred, with his homework, the same chair she would sit in when she was knitting or working every afternoon. She sat and crossed her legs and her arms. He knew she wasn’t ready to talk about everything, but he didn’t care. He also knew his aunt to be incredibly adaptive, and this was an occasion for her to prove it.

“About 14 years ago, your mother figured out your father had been sexually abusing your older sister, Anita, for years.”

“You say figured out, implying she was looking for something.” he said as he interrupted her. He was told by his aunt to never interrupt people. This was a special evening and normal rules of civility didn’t seem to apply. Answers mattered more than politeness.  

“She had been suspecting it for a while and spoke numerous times to your sister, who always denied it.”

“How did she figure it out then?”

“She tried different strategies, talking to your sister, her friends, she looked through her clothes to find any signs of abuse, semen, or blood, she even read Anita’s diary but found no evidence. Abusers are quite good at covering their tracks and tend to scare their victims into keeping their secret. But as time goes by, they become overconfident and they become sloppy. Your father was no exception.”

Remembering the story was taking a toll on her. She looked as if she had aged a decade in the last ten minutes. She was slouching again as she was sitting. She liked to brag about having royal blood from her mother’s side and royalty always had to act dignified. Not tonight though. All that education and upbringing seemed to have disappeared. Dignity was out the window.

“Your mother worked a lot as a nurse and your father was an architect but was self-employed, so he spent more time at home than your mother did. She usually worked 60 to 70 hours per week on a normal workweek. With that kind of a workload and crazy hours, could she have missed a few things? Most likely.”

He stopped taking notes and moved quickly to the page where he had written down the signs and symptoms of sexual abuse.

“Mom didn’t pick up on the physical signs of abuse. She had medical training as a nurse for crying out loud.”

Myriam had a sad smile.

“How easy it is to see everything clearly when the dust has settled! Do you think your mother missed something? She would never have imagined he was capable of this.”

“I don’t buy it. It is impossible she never saw anything?”

She leaned forward and said coldly.

“How easy it is for you to judge your mother, with all the information that you have today, honey. You had no idea what the story was before you started looking. Your mother was a great woman. Don’t sit here and judge other people. You have no idea what they went through.”

She was right even if he didn’t want her to be right at all, on anything.

“Your father was a very meticulous man and therefore, he was quite good at covering the physical signs of abuse when Anita was little. Your father was the one who cooked, cleaned the house, and took care of most routine things in the house. He was abusing your sister and…”

She broke into tears. She couldn’t help it. Remembering everything was taking its toll on her. Fred felt sorry for her. He wanted to go hug her, but he wouldn’t. He had decided to be as icy as possible.

“You were saying?”

He said that with an indifference that scared him. He was really detached from the whole situation. He knew he could only keep that up for a certain amount of time, so he was rushing her before he snapped himself. Aunt Myriam looked up and saw the cold stare he was giving her. She got her shoulders straight and decided to carry on with this insane conversation.

“Please don’t mince words auntie. I am not a boy anymore. Words don’t scare me…Lies on the other hand might.”

She sat back in that beautiful chair, crossed her legs, and put both her hands on her thighs. She was ready.

“He realized the abuse left blood and semen on her underwear so, he took it upon himself to buy all of Anita’s clothes. Your mother didn’t find that awkward because she saw the gesture as thoughtful. She was extremely busy, and he was home most of the time. So, the years of abuse went by. Your mother kept working long hours and he kept on…violating your sister.”

She paused to breathe. Fred wiped the sweat from his brow. He was getting closer by the second to his breaking point.

“What about all the other signs of abuse? I looked them up online”, he grabbed his notebook and looked through the pages, “the signs such as withdrawal from friends, defiant behaviour, any signs of sexual behaviour on her part, any delayed emotional development, depression, to name a few? How could she not see that? How did she miss all that?”

“It is so easy to blame her now, with all time that has passed. Do you think that a woman working 70 hour-week has the time to notice anything? Do you also think all the symptoms or signs manifest magically at the same time? It takes time for all those to be noticeable and I will have you know that, unfortunately, victims of abuse learn how to manipulate people and situations to survive. Your sister developed a certain tendency for secrecy, and she hid most things from your mother. By hiding things, your mother just thought her daughter was being just a teenager with all the rebellion that comes along.

“So, what did my mother find out?”

“She didn’t find out. Anita attempted suicide when she was alone in the house. She swallowed a bunch of pills. Fortunately, your mother got home early that day and found her unconscious but alive. She called an ambulance and they rushed her to the hospital. They saved her by pumping her stomach. They kept her at the hospital for 3 days as it is mandatory policy for any suicide attempt. While she was sleeping, she started hallucinating and uttered some incoherent sentences, which in turn, were heard by a nurse. She was asking her father to let her go. When she woke up, the psychiatrist was brought in and asked her questions to assess the situation, but she avoided them. For 3 whole days, the psychiatrist went at her, relentlessly. He got no conclusive answers, but he realized something else, just as noteworthy. He concluded that her skills for manipulation were quite good and highly unusual for a regular 13-year old.”

She stopped to take a sip of water. Thirst came easily when one was telling a difficult story that brought sweat and tears.

“The psychiatrist…”

“Dr. Lincoln Artois.”, said Fred, while rampaging through his messy notes, interrupting her yet again. She smiled, proud of his impressive information gathering skills.

“Yes, Dr. Artois had an idea to access your sister’s subconscious. He would perform hypnosis. It wasn’t a sure thing but nonetheless, it was worth a shot. So, he got your mother’s consent, since your sister was a minor and he went ahead with the procedure. Needless to say, your sister revealed enough to have everyone asking questions about your father and his behaviour toward her.”

Fred kept going through his notes, writing, erasing, adding post it notes. Aunt Myriam went on with her story.

“By the way, your father was conveniently absent during most of those three days, especially after the first day, when one of the nurses…”

“Nurse Nivea Cole.”

“Yes. Nurse Cole asked him a few questions about your sister’s hallucinations and he just took off. She noticed he looked nervous when she spoke to him.”

“He never came back to the hospital.”

Aunt Myriam paused for a while, as Fred was going through his notes. He stopped and put the notebook aside. Listening was better writing. 

“Why didn’t he?”

“Most likely he had no answers to the embarrassing questions that surfaced. Suddenly, for a man who worked from home for 15 years, he had a lot of meetings, he became terribly busy and he wasn’t around at the hospital which raised even more suspicions. He would call your mother every hour to make sure everything was ok. Retrospectively, perhaps he was fishing for information, to find out what people knew so he could spin it in his favor. But, given the information your sister provided, spinning any of it had become nearly impossible.”

Fred was afraid to ask, but he had to know.

“What information did my sister give to Dr. Artois?”

Aunt Myriam took a deep breath.

“During the hypnosis, she spoke of all the abuse since she was a kid. Dr. Artois recorded everything and once she was no longer under hypnosis, she was asked the same questions. She denied everything at first but, your mother insisted Dr. Artois push her as far as he could. And it happened…Anita couldn’t hold it any longer, her own mind broke and she admitted everything. She started screaming and had to be sedated.”

“What did she say?”

Aunt Myriam looked at him long enough for him to get uncomfortable.

“What?”

“You went to the courthouse and you also spoke to Mrs. Montgomery, right?”

“Yes, I did.”

She looked at him with contempt, almost as if she wanted to spit on him, out of disgust. She couldn’t hide it.

“I will not repeat what you already know about the abuse. All those details that used to make my skin crawl, everything my sweet Anita had to go through…You know all about them. I won’t repeat them.”

“Yes, you will!”

She got up and stood up over him, towering him with all the contempt and disgust she could muster.

“Either you are sick, and you get off on this or you want to hurt me by having me relive things I have spent the last 10+ years forgetting. Either way, I won’t repeat them. If you don’t like it, you can go to hell Fred.”

He felt sick to have pushed her that far. She sat back down and stared at him. He felt sorry and ashamed.

“I am sorry auntie. You are right. I want to hurt you. I want you to feel my pain and sorrow. But you are right. I will leave Anita’s spirit alone. God only knows she deserves peace.”

They sat there, in silence. Fred didn’t ask any more questions. He knew the details, the constant rapes since she was 5, the bloody clothes, the threats made to Anita, her personality changes, her rebellious nature, and so many more cringing details. His aunt finally spoke.

“When Dr. Artois sat down with your mother and told her everything he knew, she left in a hurry and went home to confront your father. It was only normal for her to react like that. Dr. Artois didn’t call the police right away, he wanted to talk to the hospital’s legal team first. He wasn’t sure Anita was in a state to testify, with all the medication that was administered to her.”

“Is that when Anita committed suicide?”

Aunt Myriam looked down and had to clench her fists to not cry. Her attempt to contain her tears was pointless, she started sobbing again in a matter of seconds.

“Yes. She heard your mother had left and locked herself in the bathroom. Before locking herself up, she took an oxygen tank and your mother’s lighter that she stole from her.”

She smiled a little as she was thinking of Anita.

“She knew the room next to hers was empty and she was hoping the explosion would only kill her. She was right. Only nurse Cole got injured by debris, a few scratches.”

Tears came down Fred’s face. He didn’t remember Anita. She sounded like a kind soul, a young spirit whose energy got destroyed by a sociopath who was supposed to shield her from all the evil in the world. Fred exhaled heavily and faced his aunt. They had barely scratched the surface of the story, his story. Aunt Myriam started crying again. Tears streamed down Fred’s face as well. He excused himself and went out to take a breath of fresh air.

He remembered the conversation he had with Mrs. Montgomery that morning.

“The only account of the events that transpired at the house was from your mother’s own version, given that your father was dead.”

Mrs. Montgomery had ordered a second cup of tea. She had drunk the first one in four long sips, Fred was still working on his first hot chocolate, because taking notes was the priority.

Fred raised an eyebrow.

“Are you saying you don’t know what exactly happened?”

“Yes.”

She looked uneasy, hesitating whether she should share more information.

“Listen Fred…Your mother was barely 5 foot 7 tall, and your father was literally a giant, he stood 6 foot 4 tall. The idea of her overpowering him and being able to kill him, didn’t fly with the police. We did consider the idea that an accomplice might have been present at the scene, but we found no proof to pursue that theory.”

“So, you don’t think she was able to overpower him? Maybe she pushed him, fell and broke his neck?”

“He died from the blood loss. He was stabbed three times: twice on the torso and once in the leg. The knife, which was left at the scene and had your mother’s prints, cut deeply into his femoral artery, and severed it. He bled out in less than 5 minutes.”

Fred stopped taking notes and took a big sip out of his cup. The story had holes, that was evident. How could she overpower him? Could there have been another person? The deeper he dug, for every answer he got, three more questions seemed to appear. It was frustrating, infuriating.

“We believe your mother got to the house, confronted your father, a fight ensued, and she killed him. That is the short version.”

“And the long version?”

“Well, from what she told us, she got home and confronted him. He must have denied everything, at first, but with the avalanche of accusations, he must have confessed. At that point, we think she got the knife and killed him. However, the whole house was a mess, it looked like a hurricane had gone through the living room, the dining room and especially the kitchen. It was strange to see signs of struggle all over the house.”

“Why do you say it is strange?”, he asked, not understanding her meaning.

“Because all the struggle meant they must have fought for some time, maybe a few minutes before she stabbed him. If that were the case, he would have time to overpower her, and he would have done so easily. But she killed HIM. Perhaps, your mother being a nurse, she knew where to stab him to cause fatal damage. Moreover, all that mess could have been from your mother being irate and breaking things out of frustration.”

“You said earlier she confessed.”

She took another long sip of her tea.

“That was another strange part of the investigation. We only got to the house because your mother called the police. They found her sitting on the porch, smoking a cigarette, and covered in blood. She seemed very calm and collected, but she didn’t speak. She only asked for a lawyer. Once she got to the police station, she said she killed him but did so in self defense. She didn’t deny confronting him at all. She simply said that things got out of hand, he came at her and put his hand around her neck. She feared for her life, grabbed the knife and stabbed him 3 times.”

“That sounds easy and simple.”. Fred said that unconvincingly. He hated to feel powerless. He had many questions and almost no answers. Moreover, only one side of the story existed. There was no way of getting his late father’s version. Did he want to hear it? What could a sociopath have to say anyway? His father’s version died with him.

“Murder cases are rarely easy or simple young man. After confessing, your mother asked for a lawyer and wanted to plead guilty to murder in self defense.”

“Isn’t that what happened?”, he asked while raising his eyebrows.

“No, it isn’t. As soon as we informed her that your sister had committed suicide, she lost it, started screaming and she hit the detective who was interrogating her. She had a nervous breakdown and it took 3 people to subdue her. We took her to the hospital, so she could be checked, we were hoping for a psychiatric evaluation. They sedated her, and she slept for 24 hours. When she woke up, she changed her plea to first degree murder. Do you know what that is?”

“What’s the difference between murder and first-degree murder?”, he asked, visibly eager to hear the answer.

The former prosecutor had a little smile. She was a bit amused with the fact that, for the first time, Fred didn’t know something. He had come prepared and ready to rumble but the technical terms of the law might have been too much to handle.

“First degree murder is defined as any intentional murder that is willful and premeditated with malice aforethought. That means, it shows intent to kill.”

“I don’t understand. Why did she go from self defense to confessing to first degree murder? I don’t get it. You had her confession for self defense she had made the day before.”

Fred was irritated. He couldn’t understand why she changed her plea. Mrs. Montgomery took off her glasses and rubbed her eyes. She was drained, revisiting the whole case must have been dreadful mentally and physically.

“She confessed but didn’t sign any legal document to make it official.”

“Wasn’t that just a technicality? You could have changed her mind. She could have avoided life in PRISON!”

He had raised his voice this time. Mrs. Montgomery looked at him with a severe look that made him shrink. She still had that prosecutor stare, the kind that could make any man, no matter how imposing, freeze.

“Mrs. Montgomery, I apolog…” he started saying but she leaned in and he stopped talking. She was intimidating despite of her small size.

“Young man let’s get something clear. I am not your friend and you do not raise your voice at me…”

He interrupted her.

“Mrs. Montg…”

“Stop talking.”, she commanded.

He did as he was ordered.

“I want you to shut up and listen. I am here out of the goodness of my heart. You will not disrespect me again. This is not a game; this is real life. Guess what? Sometimes, it isn’t pretty. I can guess what you are going through. You are mostly lost. You have too many feelings going through your head and heart right now. You can’t understand them, nor tame them. You are too young to fully comprehend the magnitude of what you have been told. From the beginning I told you this would be hard, and I was naïve enough to believe a 16-year old boy could handle it. Yes, you are a boy. Do not take this as an insult. You have so much to learn and so much to look forward to. I have no problem walking away right now and leave you with more unanswered questions than your teenage mind can handle. I know I won’t regret it and I won’t lose any sleep over it.”

She stopped and took a sip of her tea. Fred was petrified. She was convincingly sincere about her leaving at any time. He wouldn’t dare utter a word and was impatiently waiting for Mrs. Montgomery to give him permission to speak.

“I will answer all your questions, only if you promise me that you won’t raise your voice again and that you will keep your composure. Do you understand me?”

He nodded yes.

“Answer me when I ask you a question.”

Her voice was slightly raised, on purpose, and she was talking like a platoon commander.

“Yes, Ma’am, I understand. I am sorry I raised my voice.”

“Good. Apology accepted by the way. Let’s not talk about that again. Now, where were we?”

Fred started looking through his notes, nervously. Mrs. Montgomery’s speech had left discombobulated. It took him half a minute to gather his thoughts and be in control. He looked up and met her stare. She was sitting with her legs crossed, waiting for the next question. She was calm and collected, she was everything he wasn’t at that moment. He felt exposed and weak. But he decided to be a good soldier and carry on.

“Why did you allow my mother to change her plea?” he finally asked, and he felt liberated. The air left his lungs and he had never been so grateful to exhale in his life!

“I couldn’t stop her. Since she hadn’t signed anything, her plea could change at will, so to speak. She ordered her lawyer to plead guilty to first degree murder and I accepted the plea. It is my job as a prosecutor to accept or any negotiate any deal presented to me. I spoke to her and she said it was what she wanted. A trial was avoided, and we went straight to sentencing. The judge was really tough. He wanted to make your mother an example, so others wouldn’t think of doing the same thing.”

“The judge didn’t take the fact she had lost her daughter into account before sentencing?”

“I am afraid he didn’t. I recommended 7 years and he gave her 25 years instead. He didn’t even blink while sentencing her. That man was a cold bastard. He believed in punishment over anything else. There was no room for rehabilitation in his little mind.”

“You think I could talk to him?”

“He is dead, son. Good riddance. He was a harsh man, who handed out heavy sentences as if it were a game. Your mother never filed for an appeal”.

Fred pretended to write something in his notebook, but he looked down, so Mrs. Montgomery wouldn’t see him cry. She did see the tears land on his notebook, and she acted as if it never happened.

“My theory was, upon learning your sister had committed suicide, your mother must have snapped. Perhaps, she lost the will to live and she opted to go away forever. She chose a cell instead of living in a world where she would be judged by others. Perhaps she was ashamed to have failed protecting her daughter. It is just a theory.”

The explanation was meant to be comforting but it did nothing for Fred’s heart.

“She made a choice you are right Mrs. Montgomery. She left me.”

“Listen Fred, I know it is a lot of information to digest. This story has a lot of twists and turns and trust me when I say it will get harder, a thousand-fold, hell, a millionfold! You have more questions than answers, and you will not get all the answers you are looking for. You will not. Do your best to find all the answers that you can, but know that, you will not get all the answers. The sooner you accept that, the better off you will be.”

She stopped talking because she saw Fred was sobbing. She waited for him to calm down.

“I know you must feel abandoned, forgotten and unloved. I get it. I’d feel the same if I were in you. But the story, your story hasn’t ended yet. Your mother is alive. You can always go see her and ask her all the questions you want. It will be the toughest thing you’ll have to do but I believe you need it.”

He thought she was being mean to him. She wanted to punish him for disrespecting her earlier.

“You think I’m being unfairly hard and mean right?”, she finally asked.

He looked up, and he had a bewildered look on his teenage face. He wasn’t expecting Mrs. Montgomery to say that, as if she was reading his mind.

“Yes. How did you know?”

She had a sad smile on her face, ashamed of her prowess.

“It is called life experience Fred. To become a great prosecutor, like myself, you need to master reading people’s faces and body language. I am not enjoying being right. But…I am not being mean. I want you to grasp what is happening to you and more importantly, what the future might hold for you, your story and your identity.”

At that moment, he realized he was going to be defined by this. It was his family history, his story, whether he liked it or not. “What if that kind of evil was genetic and passed on? Do I have it? Is it dormant?” he thought to himself.

“May I offer a suggestion?”

Her voice brought him back. He was lost in his thoughts. He was asking himself the million questions he didn’t have answers to. The whole process was eating away his brain and numbing his soul.

“Of course.”

“Go see you mother. She is being incarcerated in a prison, only 2 hours from here. She might have answers for you. I have done all I could. From here on out, you have two choices: you pursue this, or you let it go. But I am quite sure which option you are going to choose.”

They ended up chatting for another hour. They spoke of everything but the case. Mrs. Montgomery ended up leaving as she had to go pick up her grandchildren from acting rehearsal. Before she left, she thanked him for his tenacity and his intelligence. She also promised to write him a glowing letter of recommendation for his university application. She was really impressed by him and he felt proud of himself.

Fred stayed for another hour at the coffee shop, reading his notes, putting events together, writing down questions he had, and he might ask his mother, one day, if he ever got to meet her.

Back to the house, he told the whole story to his aunt because he didn’t want to keep things inside. When he was done, his aunt was flabbergasted. She had listened to the whole story patiently. She didn’t interrupt him once, she was being mellow, cooperative.

“I can’t believe you. You went to see that woman?”

“You mean the woman that gave me more information than you ever did?”

She paused. It was hard to say anything to counter that. She was guilty of lying to him, she knew better than to aggravate him. Time was on her side. The longer they talked, the more openings she might get to defend herself or flip the conversation to her advantage. She started by arguing with him, by getting mad. He saw she changed her strategy. She was listening more, letting him finish his sentences, allowing him to throw the anger in her face, she swallowed her pride because she knew, in the end, he’d get tired and she would win, if that could ever be considered a win.

She knew their relationship wasn’t going to be the same ever again. The trust, which was the cement of any relationship, had been shattered. No glue would ever put back together the pieces, but, perhaps, hopefully, time might rebuild it, slowly.

“Were you the accomplice?”, he asked, directly, looking at her straight in the eyes.

“No.”, she retorted calmly, without blinking or shifting her weight from side to side as she had done the past hour in that velvet chair.

“Are you sure?”, he insisted.

“I think I’d remember helping my own sister murdering her piece of shit of a husband.”

“AUNTIE, DON’T YOU DARE LIE TO ME!”, he screamed while pointing his index finger at her.

“You can scream at me all you want. You don’t scare me Fred. You won’t intimidate me into changing my answer because I won’t say what you want to hear. Besides, when your father died, I was at the hospital”, she said, yet again calmly. She was in total control of the situation and Fred was a complete mess. He was screaming, walking left and right in the living room, looking at his notes, breathing heavily. He looked like he was about to break.

“You never wondered what happened? How could she have overpowered him?”, he asked, desperately. He wanted an answer from her, she had to convince him that she cared. He was sick of her silence and her nonchalance.

“Ok, that’s enough! Don’t you even think you care more about this than I ever did. You were a child; you don’t remember anything. I was there! I lost my sister and my niece.”

He knew she was right.

“The only silver lining is that I got to raise you. I got to enjoy witnessing you becoming a man. And now, look at you. You used that brain of yours and you figured everything out. I am proud of you.”

Flattery was a drug, a dangerous one at that. His girlfriend Tricia had always been beautiful, from the first time they met in kindergarten, when they were 4 years old. He had seen firsthand how she reacted to compliments, how they boosted her self-esteem, how much she ended up craving them. He had witnessed her behaviour change once a compliment was thrown at her, how her face lit up, how she was more inclined to listen to people, how she dropped her guard. Perhaps, he resented that she got compliments all the time, perhaps he resented not getting any himself. Nonetheless, he would keep his guard up, he wouldn’t succumb to flattery, that opioid of the mind. He couldn’t help but feel proud and grateful his talents of investigation and smarts were being praised by the person he loved the most. However, he wanted answers and he was still hurt from all the secrecy.

He was tired of walking around. He sat down and looked down. Fatigue and shame were taking over his body, he wasn’t proud of his attitude, but he cared even less about how he was perceived. Aunt Myriam got up and marched slowly towards him. She sat next to him and took a deep breath. He waited. He raised his eyes and met her gaze. He saw that her shyness was gone and was replaced by her confidence. He knew he had to be careful not to succumb to whatever story she was about to feed him. “Resist to flattery, get the facts”, he kept repeating to himself. They sat there, looking in each other’s eyes, and slowly, her confidence gave way to a mix of sadness and shame. But, she spoke, and her voice was straight as a razor.

“Fred, I am sorry.”

He didn’t flinch, nor did he blink.

“You are mad, and you should be.”,she continued.

“You have no freaking idea how I feel auntie.”

“You are right. But I do know one thing though. You will not get rid of me; I will never let you go. You are my boy. My own. You hate me, and you will for a while, but I won’t abandon you. You are everything to me.”

He got up and went to the window. He felt the need to get away from her.

“I am mostly angry with myself you know.”

She frowned.

“Why? You didn’t do anything wrong.”

“I should have found out sooner.”

She got up and stood next to him.

“How could you have hidden this from me? All this time?”, he asked.

“I wanted to tell you, but your mother asked me not to.”

The last part hurt like a punch in the face. So, all this time, auntie Myriam was in touch with his mother.

“What kind of woman does that? What kind of woman denies her love to her son? To what end?”, he asked, pouring his heart out.

“I did tell her it wasn’t wise, I told her it was just a matter of when, not if…I told her you’d find out. Fred, please do not condemn her just yet. She had her reasons.”

He couldn’t help but laugh.

“I sincerely cannot wait to her those reasons auntie. They must be worth their weight in gold.”

Aunt Myriam went back to her velvet sofa. She sat there, lost in her thoughts. Fred kept staring outside. He saw the forest in the distance and the sight eased his soul. those naked autumn trees always provided a feeling of calm, a comfort that was impossible to describe.

“Fred?”

He turned around and faced her.

“Yes.”

“I have a proposition for you. Today, you showed me you are way too mature for your age and I want to make amends.”

“And how are you going to do that?”

“In 2 weeks, we will go and visit your mother.”

That statement took him aback. He wasn’t ready. He knew he wasn’t and meeting this stranger that abandoned him wasn’t something he wanted to do.

“No, auntie. I am not ready. I don’t want to see her. I am still angry at her.”

“You want answers, right?”, she asked, already knowing the answer.

“More than anything.”

“Good. Who better to give you what you need than your own mother?”

Fred took a deep breath. He knew he wasn’t ready. But when life ever cared about him being ready for anything?

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