City of Secrets
Previously: Though grieving the death of her brother, model student Penny Harper begins her senior year with the resolve to focus on her future.
Penny walked quickly, knowing it wouldn’t be long before the rain came. The sky had gone from its usual pale gray to a threatening charcoal. She reached the end of her driveway, and froze at the sight of the SUV parked there. It belonged to Brook Forest, a friend of her parents. If Brook was there, then her father wasn’t.
Penny shook her head. “Dad, you promised.” She didn’t know why she’d believed him, why she’d thought this time would be any different. She glared at the SUV, the anger that had been growing inside her for months boiling to the surface. “Dad, she needs you. Can’t you see you’re making it worse?” Her voice was swallowed by the wind, which was fitting, because she’d never be able to say these things to him, no matter how much she wanted to.
The wind whipped at her back, pulling strands of hair loose from her braid. Her ears stung from the cold, but she couldn’t move. She didn’t want to go in that house. Everything was wrong inside that house. She wanted to turn around and run. “If only we got away when we had the chance, Richie.”
She and Richie, along with their best friend Josh, had tried to run away when they were kids. Josh had been spending the night, and the three of them—always talking about how much they hated Caribou Canyon—had come up with the brilliant plan to run away to Denver, because Denver was where it was all happening. After her parents had gone to sleep, they’d raided the kitchen and snuck out the back door with overstuffed backpacks slung over their shoulders. Their adventure had lasted a grand total of fifteen minutes before Sheriff Beaumont found them at the bus stop and driven them home.
If only she had the courage she’d had back then, but she didn’t. With heavy footsteps she forced herself to walk into a house that had never felt like home. But at least she’d had Richie to shoulder the burden of their parents’ overbearing nature with her. Now she had no one.
The warm air was stifling rather than inviting. “Mom? I’m home!” There was no answer.
Penny left her shoes and backpack in the entryway—a move that wouldn’t have been tolerated a few months ago—and walked into the formal dining room. This was Penny’s least favorite room in the house. It was too breakable, too fragile. The decorations were too perfect, too gold, too shiny. The room was excessive in every sense of the word. Penny had always feared she’d break something just by breathing.
Not one of the guests her parents had invited over agreed with her. They were always raving about how bright and lively the room was. No one would dare call it lively now, not with the shadow sitting at the table that threatened to tarnish the gold antique chair or singe the embroidered tablecloth. Victoria Harper had once brought life into every room she walked into. Now she was a ghost of her former self, spending most of her waking hours looking at pictures of Richie on her tablet.
After Richie died, the dining room was where Victoria spent most of her time. Penny had a good guess as to why: it was the room Richie had spent the least amount of time in. The family only ate dinner in there on holidays and other special occasions. They usually ate in the smaller dining room or in the kitchen. This room felt the loss of Richie the least. A person could sit here and pretend he wasn’t gone, because here, he never was.
Penny sat down across from her mother. “Hi, Mom.” Victoria didn’t look up.
“Mom, I’m home.”
Still nothing. Penny gently took the tablet from her mother’s hands and moved it to the other side of the table. Victoria’s head shot up. “Hey!” She swatted at Penny’s hand, but missed and hit the table. Her face scrunched up and she glared at Penny the way a child would glare at a teacher who’d just taken their favorite toy away.
“Mom, I’ll give it back in a minute. I just want to say hi,” Penny said, her tone patient.
Victoria blinked several times. “Oh.” Her blue eyes, once so animated, now had a lost looked in them. “You’re home. How were finals?”
You already know how finals were, because I told you three months ago. When they happened. Penny took a deep breath, reminding herself to be patient, but that was getting harder and harder as time passed. “Today was the first day. We didn’t have any tests.”
Victoria wrinkled her forehead. “Oh. Already? What are you? A junior?”
“No. I’m a senior.” Penny stood up and started out of the room, because she knew what was coming next, and she couldn’t deal with it, not after the day she’d had. She was halfway to the door when it happened.
“Did your brother walk home with you?”
Penny froze and sucked in a breath. It was a punch in the gut. Every single time. She closed her eyes, feeling the strange, empty sensation of needing to cry but having no tears. She hadn’t cried since the funeral. The tears just wouldn’t come. Sometimes she was grateful, other times she wanted nothing more than to curl up and cry for hours.
What’s his name, Mom? she wanted to ask. If you want to pretend he’s alive so badly, why can’t you say his name?She took a deep, shaky breath. “No. He’s not in school anymore.”
It was a ludicrous response, but it was how Dr.Macky, her mother’s psychiatrist, had instructed them to handle these moments. He believed that Victoria truly did know her son was dead, but wasn’t ready to accept that fact. He suggested that the best way to handle her was with love and patience. He advised them to be cautious and gentle when speaking to her. He didn’t want anyone to pretend that Richie was in fact alive, but he didn’t think it wise for anyone to shock her with the truth either. He’d prescribed anti-depressants and sleeping pills, and was counseling her twice a week.
Penny thought it was a load of crap. Why should her mom get off so easily? Richie’s death was horrible. The truth was shocking. No one else got to have it broken to them slowly and gently.
“Because he graduated?” Victoria asked.
“Last May. We were all there. Aunt Sharon came up from Boulder,” Penny said. Richie had died in a car accident the following day. Accident. Right.
Penny had tried to comfort herself with the fact that at least Richie had gotten to graduate, but that was also a load of crap. Life didn’t end with high school. That was when it began. There was so much more that he was supposed to do. Graduation had only been the beginning. It wasn’t fair.
“He better not be with that silly band again. He’s throwing his life away.”
Penny had been dangling from a high wire. By one finger. That finger slipped and the world spun out of control. Penny whipped around. “Mom, just stop already! You’re—” Penny gasped and threw her hand over her mouth. Here it comes, she thought.
But it didn’t. Victoria’s features, once permanently carved with an expression of superiority, now scrunched together like a child about to cry. As if trying to hide, she sank lower in the chair.
Come on, yell at me, Penny thought, not realizing how much she’d wanted it to happen until it hadn’t. Tell me I’m ungrateful, tell me how little I understand about the world. Tell me I can’t talk to you like that, that I’m out of line. Send me to my room. Do something!
Victoria tilted her head. “Wh—what did I do?”
The swinging door that led from the dining room to the kitchen opened and Brook walked in, carrying a steaming mug in her hands. She stopped in the doorway, looking between Penny and her mother, worry etched into the wrinkles on her plump cheeks. “Is everything all right?”
“I—I don’t know,” Victoria said.
Penny forced herself to smile at Brook, who had always been like a grandmother to Penny; both of hers had passed before she’d been born. “Everything’s fine. Thanks for coming over.”
“Douglas called this morning. He had to go into town. There was an emergency at the office.” She carried the mug to Victoria, who was now picking at an invisible piece of dirt on the tablecloth. “I brought you some tea, Vicki. It’s chamomile.”
Penny bit her lip, feeling the now familiar embarrassment course through her. There was no way Brook actually bought her father’s story, but she was too nice to say otherwise. The office her father kept in town was only that—an office. It didn’t have much more to offer than his study at home did. His main office was in Denver, which he only visited once or twice a week, due to the long drive. The Caribou Canyon office was nothing more than a way for Douglas Harper to escape his family, which was something he’d been doing more and more of lately. “Yeah, I figured,” Penny said.
“Would you like me to make you some tea? The water’s still hot.”
“No, thank you.”
Brook studied her for a moment, her eyes narrowed. “How are you holding up, dear?”
“I’m fine. It’s nice to have school to focus on again.” If I have to say that one more time, I’m going to scream.
Brook nodded. “I’m sure it is. I made you a casserole for dinner. It’s in the refrigerator. All you have to do is put it in the oven.”
“Thanks. You didn’t have to do that,” Penny said, though she was so grateful she could’ve hugged Brook. It was one less chore she had to smile through, one less thing she had to fake being okay through.
“It was no trouble at all, dear. I can stay if you’d like, help with the cleanup?”
“It’s all right. We’ll be fine.” The response was automatic. She refused to take advantage of people’s kindness.
“Your father isn’t sure when he’ll be home. He said he’d give you a call.”
“Okay, thanks.” He won’t be home before nine. He won’t call.
“Well, I need to go home and make sure Mischief and Mayhem aren’t making any,” Brook said, referring to her cats. “If you need anything, don’t hesitate to call, all right?”
“I won’t,” Penny said, though it was unlikely that she would. Her father, on the other hand, was abusing Brook’s generosity.
Brook leaned down and gave Victoria a quick hug. “I’m headed out, Vicky. You take care, all right?”
“Mmm,” Victoria mumbled.
Penny gave Brook an apologetic smile, but Brook waved it off. “Goodbye, dear,” Brook said. She patted Penny on the shoulder before heading out of the kitchen.
Penny picked up the tablet her mom had been looking at earlier and set it back in front of her. “Mom, I’m going to start on my homework, okay?”
Victoria didn’t answer, but instead turned on the tablet and started tapping away at the screen. Penny sighed, turned, and walked away, wondering why she even bothered anymore.