“Whoa. Nice wall art. It’s like a shrine or something. Not creepy at all,” Drew said, checking out Penelope’s wall of dog photos and laughing. “This series is hilarious. Their eyes are bugging out of their heads in all these costumes.” Drew stopped scanning the photos to focus on one with William wearing a white shirt with a Canadian flag, his long ears tied up loosely over his head to look like a mound of curly hair, while Harry wore a coat equipped with a paintbrush, palette and a tiny stuffed animal attached at the shoulder. “What are they supposed to be in this one? What does that shirt say — ‘Marathon of Hope?’ And why is the other dog carrying a stuffed monkey with ‘Woo’ on it?”
“Taking photos of family members isn’t creepy, Drew, it’s called love. It makes me sad that I have to explain that to you,” Penelope said as she turned on two large computer monitors. “And besides, they like getting dressed up. Mom works in the film industry doing makeup and costumes. She made all the outfits next to the one you’re looking at. William is dressed as Terry Fox and Harry is Emily Carr. Come on, Drew. Duh!”
“Yeah, but, like, I can’t even tell what color your walls are. There isn’t one inch that isn’t covered with a picture. As far as interior design goes, I think I prefer a clean, uncluttered aesthetic, like Ben’s place. It’s super sleek, modern and cool. In the room with the lap pool, the walls are just floor-to-ceiling glass so you can see the car collection. Ferraris, Lambos, Bugattis. It’s amazing. And I dunno, your dogs look pretty miserable dressed up as… okay, who are they in this one?” He leaned in to get a closer look at a photo of William sporting a straw hat and a blue dress. Two long red braids extended down from the hat and a tiny, cracked chalkboard slate with the letter “E” written on it peeked out from a dress pocket. Harry wore a long red cloak and a white bonnet cap with the word “Ofpen” printed neatly on the rim. Before Penelope could respond, Drew’s face brightened with a smile of recognition. “Ooooh! Handmaid’s Tale and Anne with an ‘E’ of Green Gables!”
“Praise be, Drew. But that shows how much you know about dogs. Which is to say, you know nothing, Drew McConnell. They aren’t sad there. Check out the top left corner. The bath pictures. That is misery.”
“Oooh. Yeah,” he responded with empathy.
“Stop being so nosy and come over here. You’re supposed to be helping.”
“I am! I brought you my stuff from the Challenge.”
“One seven minute video and five pictures from the first night? That’s it? And what is Wesley doing in these photos?”
“Huh? Oh, that. Wesley must have been a little pissed with Ben. His phone was dead, but Ben wouldn’t let Wes use his, so I let him use mine.”
Penelope scrolled through the images that Wesley had captured. They were selfies with Ben sleeping in the background and Wesley hovering in the foreground making a rude gesture, pumping one fist out aimed at Ben’s head, holding one cupped hand over Ben’s neck as he pretended to throttle his big brother, and posing with a sinister look on his face as he held the long blade of his Swiss army knife under Ben’s chin.
“Well, these aren’t violent and disturbing at all,” Penelope said with a shiver. “What would Wesley do if Ben did something that really hurt him?”
“Wes was just playing. That’s just stuff brothers do. It’s not that big a deal,” Drew said, picking up a photo album.
“Yeah, it’s not that big a deal until someone’s throat gets slashed.” Without looking at him, she added, “Put that back and sit your skinny butt down over here.”
“Overdramatic, much?” Drew took a step and stopped in front of the full length mirror, twisting half his body around while he examined his reflection. “My butt’s not that skinny, is it? I’ve been working on my glutes.”
“Sit, you dork! And I’m not being overdramatic. Those Swiss Army knives are incredibly sharp. I almost cut my finger off once just trying to open up the blade. What if Ben had suddenly woken up and lifted his head? Wesley could have done some real damage!”
Drew arched an eyebrow and cocked his head. “Yeah. You, a drama queen? Never.” He sat down and looked at the screen. “Alright, alright. What am I doing?”
“I uploaded half my photos onto that computer and half onto this one. So you go through your half and I’ll go through mine.”
Drew shook his head as he browsed through the album on the screen. “Two hundred and eighty-seven photos? Are you kidding me? You’re supposed to take your finger off the button after you’ve captured an image.”
“That’s just from the first night, too,” Penelope said with pride. “Listen, I’m telling you, there is something off with that kid. I mean, how were you and Ben just following him around town while he was pointing a rifle at everyone, anyway? That was so crazy. Even I was speechless, and that doesn’t happen easily.”
“Oh, ha. Ben took the ammo out of the rifle when Wes wasn’t looking while we were up on the mountain.”
“Drew, what are you doing? You can’t just scroll through them so quickly. That’s why you’re here using the big screen. Make sure they’re full size before you pass on it.”
“Alright, alright. Geez. I would’ve packed a toothbrush if I’d known you had this in mind. Anyway, Wes isn’t that bad. He just gets a bit crazy sometimes. He had a super tough childhood and he’s been through a lot. It’s not easy being a small guy, y’know.”
“That boy is not right in the head, Drew. And it’s a good idea to pack a toothbrush with you wherever you go, anyway.”
“What are you saying?” Drew looked at Penelope with panic in his eyes. He exhaled into a cupped hand and sniffed while he glanced up at her for reassurance.
“I’m saying that you can only excuse someone’s behavior for so long. Actions have consequences regardless of any deep-rooted issues that may have caused them,” she said, her eyes focused on her screen.
“I don’t think Wes would actually hurt Ben, despite all the stuff he says. Wes is pretty harmless.”
“It’s always the people who are closest to you who cut you the deepest.”
“Whoa. What’s this?” Drew pointed to a photo on his screen.
Penelope looked over. “That’s exactly what we’re looking for. Good job, Drew. Only two hundred and seventy-two more to go.”
Dan knew the question was coming, that Sam would ask it, and that it would happen today, but still, he wasn’t prepared. A small part of him had hoped that she had missed hearing the Chief mention Aunt Marjorie during the interview, that he would never have to address the issue with Sam. But it was the same part of him that hoped to win the lottery every time he played, which was about once every five or six years when the jackpot was too big to ignore. He knew the chances of things going his way in either situation were about the same. Next to nothing. But still, he had carried a tiny glimmer of hope that maybe luck would be on his side for once. And now that hope was dead.
He had stolen a glimpse of Sam after the Chief had mentioned Aunt Marjorie, but her face hadn’t given anything away. No look of surprise, no indication of confusion, no sign of interest in the least. Her eyes had remained on the Chief and her expression had remained neutral. The kid was good, he thought. My kid was good.
Dan’s realization of his daughter’s adeptness at controlling her emotions left him with mixed feelings of pride and fear. Would she ever use that skill to deceive him? Could she? No, he was being paranoid. He and Elaine knew every detail of Sam’s life. Not because they had demanded it, but because she had chosen to share everything with them. She was still the same little girl who readily confessed to sneaking into Halloween candy hauls before telltale wrappers were found in the trash or chocolate stains around her mouth were even noticed. Dan looked at his baby girl and saw the same tiny human who had taken her first steps right where she was sitting now. Sam was still a child. His child. The one he had sworn to protect at all costs.
“Sam, you’re too young to fully understand the situation. You need to know that my first priority is to protect my family. I’ve always tried to keep you and your mom safe.” He drew a deep breath and watched his daughter closely. Maybe, just maybe, this would be enough.
“You say that I’ve changed since the shooting, but I’m not the only one. You’re never around anymore. You can’t be working all the time, otherwise you wouldn’t be telling Chief Constable Joe that you’re visiting some relative who doesn’t exist. What are you doing?”
Dan let out the breath he was holding. There was no avoiding it now, he thought. He would have to come clean with his daughter and the best way to do it would be to just rip the bandaid off.
“Aunt Marjorie is my mom’s sister and she is very sick. I was in Vancouver to visit her and to talk with Shelly.”
Dan saw his daughter’s eyes narrow as she cocked her head abruptly in confusion. “What? Who’s Shelly?”
“Shelly is my sister. She is a couple of years older than me. She’s married with one child. I have a brother, Patrick. He’s the oldest, not married, no kids. My parents really are gone, but some of my mom’s siblings are alive.”
He watched the faint lines between Sam’s eyebrows grow into deep creases. “But… that doesn’t… you said that you didn’t have any family?”
“Sam, I’m not close with them. Before this, I hadn’t spoken to any of them for almost twenty years. It was just easier to tell people that I didn’t have family than to explain why I never spoke to mine.”
“But why? What happened?”
Dan hesitated. “This isn’t easy for me to talk about. It’s part of my history, but I just… I wish it could just stay in my past. Do you know what I mean? At the time, I felt that it was better for me, and then better for your mom and you, to stay away from them. It just wasn’t a healthy family dynamic.”
He felt the tension in the room relax as Sam’s face softened. Good, he thought. She was being receptive, which meant she would also be less demanding. He hoped that it meant that this conversation was nearing its end.
“What exactly does that mean, Dad?”
“Sam,” he said, trying to stop frustration from creeping into his voice, “I’d really rather not get into it too much.” He gave her a stern look as if to say “we’re done here” and felt a pang of disappointment as he watched her press her lips together. She wasn’t done yet.
“I think you owe me a better explanation than that, Dad. They’re my relatives too, and I think I deserve to know why I’ve never known about them. I mean, I get it. It must have been painful, but if it’s been, like, twenty years then hasn’t it been….” Sam stopped herself mid-sentence, as though she had thought better of what she was going to ask. She took a second to collect her thoughts and when she spoke again her tone was much softer. “If it’s your history, it’s my history too and I should know about it, don’t you think?”
Dan drew a deep breath and let out a long, heavy sigh. He didn’t respond right away. He couldn’t. Images of his childhood flashed in his mind, taking him back to memories that tormented him and made him feel like a helpless child again. He could heard his mother’s and father’s voices, loud, cold, irritated, impatient, like they were right there in his living room: “Oh my God. Are you crying again,” “Why can’t you just get along,” “Boys will be boys,” “What is wrong with you,” “Get over it,” “It’s not that bad,” “Nobody cares.” The voices and their words triggered memories that he hadn’t thought about for years. But now they seemed fresh, like they had just happened days ago. He saw the bruises, tasted the iron from the blood in his mouth, felt the stabbing pains, smelled the saltwater of the Pacific Ocean from the highest point on the Lion’s Gate Bridge.
A lump formed in Dan’s throat and he couldn’t bring himself to look Sam in the eye. He cleared his throat and swallowed, trying to push the lump down enough to get the words out. “Let’s just say, for a long time, I didn’t feel safe in my home. See this?” He combed his fingers through his hair and stopped an inch past his left temple. His fingers lingered there a second before they came together and pulled the hair back, revealing a long scar line where no hair would ever grow again. “Seven stitches. I’ve had two cracked ribs, one broken arm and more than a few black eyes. Some of those happened before I was ten.”
“Dad!” Sam gasped. Dan saw her eyes, already swollen from crying earlier, start to water again.
“Scars look bad, but the body heals,” Dan said, trying to offer a bit of comfort to his daughter.
As painful as it was to tell his story, a deeper ache tore at his heart when he saw the horrified look on Sam’s face. Exposing her to domestic violence in her own family was not something he had ever planned to do.
Sam’s eyes had grown large and round and she spoke with both gentleness and timidity. “Was it… your dad?”
“My brother. Once because he thought I had stolen his toy. Once because I was doing my homework on the coffee table when he decided to make up a new rule that only applied to me. Other times… who knows. He just did what he wanted. Dad was never around, Mom was too busy or too stressed. When they were around, they just dismissed it.” Dan let out a small huff of amusement as another dismissive phrase he had heard too many times came to mind. “They’d say, ‘That’s what brothers do, they fight.’ As though we were equally at fault, and it didn’t matter that he was five years older, bigger, stronger and always put in charge.”
“Did he hurt your sister too?”
Dan shook his head. “They’re close. Good friends. She always stayed neutral, like Switzerland. She may not have been the bully, and my parents may not have been the ones to cause the scars, but, well, inaction can be just as bad as action. Sometimes it’s the injuries that don’t leave a mark that cause the most damage.”
He thought about how stressed and unhappy his parents always seemed to be. He remembered feeling like a burden when he complained, feeling betrayed when the complaints were ignored, feeling alone in the world. And he didn’t want his daughter to think of him the same way his family had thought of him. He wasn’t a loser. And he wasn’t a child either. He was an adult now and he could see his family as flawed individuals.
“Maybe inaction was just easier for everyone, life wasn’t easy for any of us back then. It’s disappointing how things turned out. I learned to avoid my brother and that meant I had to avoid virtually everyone else, because he was always around. At parties, reunions, funerals. When we were in our twenties, we tried to reconcile. He approached me and apologized for his behavior when he was younger. But it didn’t take long for him to show his true stripes again. That’s when I decided to move here and cut everyone off for good. I chose my health over my family because I came to realize that having both wasn’t possible.”
Sam’s contemplative silence seemed louder than the television ad that was blaring at twice the volume of the program.
“But Dad, why did you go to Vancouver now? What’s changed?”
“Sam, I don’t know how my sister found me, but she did. Told me about Aunt Marjorie. It was just something I had to do. I always liked her.”
“Dad—” Sam started, but he cut her off.
“Listen Sam, let’s finish dinner before it sits out too long. We can’t afford to waste it.” He forced himself to take a bite, but Kenji’s special sushi had somehow lost all its flavor.
Dan hoped that Sam would be satisfied with their conversation, but he suspected that she had more questions. And he would have no choice but to tell her the truth. He knew that he couldn’t keep his secrets forever, that she was going to find out soon enough. But today was not that day. Childhood memories were still flashing through his mind, haunting him as they used to do when he was younger, and it would take a little while before he would be able to clear his head of them once again.
Dan and Sam finished their dinner facing the television screen, allowing the sound from the speakers to do its job.
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