“That’s not the photo you keep looking at,” he says and the chill comes back to me, like the edge of an ice cube running down the back of my neck. “Did he show you a picture too? The picture of his house?”
My stomach churns as I nod once, forcing my gaze to meet my father’s. “Yes,” I breathe the word, drawing strength from the truth and feeling an edge of defiance I didn’t know I had. “Why do you have it?” I ask him evenly, slowly standing, and gripping the notebook tightly in my right hand.
“The same reason I’ve hung all these photos here. They’re the failures that led to my demise,” he tells me, turning to look at the pictures and ignoring me. “Each one of them, my mistakes.”
I can feel the agony rip through me as I look back to my mother. To the picture of her with my uncle and my father. Swallowing thickly, I try to speak but I can’t.
His finger taps on the glass of the picture frame, the one of Carter’s house that was destroyed. “I should have made sure they’d all died that night. When I hung this, I thought they’d be the ones to kill me. They still may be. Maybe tonight even.”
A part of me wishes to console my father, to assure him that it’s going to be all right. But it would only be lies, and he knows better than that.
“Are they the ones who are here?” I manage to ask him, hiding my desperation to know and why I want to know. Anxiety whispers along every inch of my skin.
My father’s smirk makes his eyes wrinkle and the rough chuckle is accompanied with the telltale cough that comes from a smoker’s lungs. While I was away, praying he’d come save me, I forgot how old my father’s become in the past few years.
“Yes, of course they are.” His answer is what I’d hoped, although I know I shouldn’t. My heart hammers and my pulse quickens, but I don’t show my father anything. I give him no indication of how that knowledge makes me feel.
At my lack of shock, my lack of emotion, not knowing how to react as thoughts race through my mind, my father offers me a small smile and then points to the photo of my mother, tapping his finger once again, but this time on the very edge of it. Almost like he’s afraid to touch it.
“You know that I love you,” my father says and it’s then that his voice cracks and his expression crumples. “I was never a good father, but I chose you and I thought it counted for something.”
“You are a good father,” I say, pushing out the words in a shallow breath, trying to contain the guilt and fear of what’s to come. I could drown in my emotions as I take a shaky step closer to him, needing to hold him as he’s held me before. “I know you were hard on me, but this life is hard and I needed it.” I get it now, why he always made me stand on my own. Maybe he knew this day would come sooner than I did. The day someone would take it all away from him.
“No, no, Aria,” my father says as he shakes his head. His eyes search mine, not giving away any secrets but hiding every one of them.
Another yell is heard, this time farther away and it takes my attention but only for a split second until I hear my father say, “Your mother didn’t belong to me. She was supposed to marry my brother.”
One beat of my heart, ragged and jagged.
“She loved him and his money… his power. He was supposed to inherit everything. He was the one meant to rule.”
Another beat of my heart and my father takes down the photo, the frame making an awful cracking noise as he does, the frame splintering, from being so old perhaps. I know my uncle was supposed to be the don, the head of the family. He was older than my father, but he was killed before he could take charge.
What I didn’t know, is that my mother was involved with my uncle. I’ve never been told such a thing.
“She fell in love with you after he died?” I assume out loud.
“She was pregnant and afraid,” my father says, not looking at me at all, or the slow realization that comes to form on my face. “She needed someone to protect her after her quick affair with him, and I loved her. I wanted her.”
I can’t breathe, I swear to it. An unseen hand seems to strangle me as my father slowly raises his gaze to mine.
“What?” The disbelief cloaks the whisper.
“They were only together for a short time and most people had no idea. But when he was murdered, she was pregnant, alone, and with a price on her head.”