Few people know me, but I know many people. That’s a skill that comes from living in the shadows and gaining knowledge through observation. It sounds bad, I know, but I didn’t have a lot of options.
I grew up with the Mihals. They took me in when I was a wandering, abandoned four-year-old child. Cyril found me and brought home to his mother, who in turn convinced his father that I was worth keeping. They gave me a home and everything I’d ever wanted from a family. Cyril–Cy, as he likes to be called–was my best friend and the brother my real parents told me I’d never have.
Vasilis tracked my parents down–I’m still not sure how–and made a deal with them. He told them that if they would let him care for me, he wouldn’t turn them in for child abandonment. He never told me this, but I’m sneaky when I want to be. I learned long ago with my real parents how to find secrets and things without anyone knowing.
Five days after Cyril’s twelfth birthday, Agatha, our mother, fell and hit her head on a table. It was past Cy’s and my bedtime. The only person to see what happened was Vasilis, our father. By the time I woke in the morning,
her body was gone and the living area was clean except for a permanent bloodstain in the carpet. Cy was gone, too.
Vasilis–he’s too intimidating for me to call him “father”–refused to talk about what happened, too grief-stricken to say anything. I didn’t question that or Cy’s disappearance. He’s always been the more dramatic of the two of us. I assumed he woke earlier than I did and ran away from the sight of his dead mother. I assumed he’d gotten lost, though recent events have proven me the lost one.
Vasilis left Cy alone, saying he needed to figure this out on his own. I don’t know if Vasilis wanted Cy to realize he needed us or what his thoughts were, but Cy is not only the most dramatic but also the luckiest person I have ever known. Of course he wouldn’t come back. Of course he wouldn’t be forced into it. He refused to tell anyone who his real parents were, so the couple who found him, the Amoses, took him in. He seemed to forget all about Vasilis and me and what had happened to his mother. I made it my mission over the passing years to send him reminders that we–that I–still existed, but he never responded.
Meanwhile, we planted a beautiful cherry tree to remember Agatha. Vasilis moved his study to a room on the ground floor that looked out onto what became his garden. The backyard that Cy and I played in became his outlet for grief. He added on to the garden through the years, planting flowers and shrubs that bloomed in every season, so there was always something to tend and view in the garden, but Agatha’s cherry tree remained at the center of all of it.
He planted them systematically, starting with the northern side and working his way clockwise around the garden. It became a calendar of sorts for him. When the edges filled up, he built a spiral garden path to outline where he could improve and plant more flowers. When that was finished, he filled in the rest of the garden little by little in the same fashion as the edges, starting at the northern end and planting flowers and things in a circle according to season. When he filled that in, he restarted and replanted.
It became hard not to notice a pattern to his planting but his timing was erratic. Whenever he retrieved his gardening tools from the large storage closet by the back door, I knew exactly what he would plant but not how long it would take or how soon he would plant the next thing on his list. The only thing I could do was give him space for his grief.
Recently, though, he’s kept a more watchful eye on Cyril. He’s graduating from high school in two weeks, and Vasilis has managed to get a hold of his test results and college prospects.
I graduated a year and a half ago because homeschooling can be any schedule I–Vasilis–wants it to be. Without friends or outside distractions, I had no reason to take any of the breaks normal schools took. After I finished grade school, I took the preparatory tests and made top marks, but no school sent me any indication that they were interested in my attendance.
I never entertained the option that I could leave Vasilis behind. He’s the only one who stood beside me and supported me through everything. He’s never held that over me, and I doubt he ever will. To my knowledge, he’s never held anything over anyone. Besides that, he’s still grieving. I know it’s not healthy, but it’s hard to say it isn’t right. He doesn’t sleep well, he holes himself up in his office, he sometimes forgets to eat, and sometimes–always right before he plants new flowers–he disappears altogether. When that happens, it’s sometimes days before he returns.
Those are the days that I take care of the house and do my best to figure out how to stop his slow descent into insanity. Two days ago, he disappeared again. I know by now to have the proper gardening tools ready when he returns.
With the house to myself and Vasilis’s office open to me, I sneak in and write a letter from Vasilis to Cy. I know Cy thinks Vasilis is responsible for Agatha’s death, but I have to get him to come back before he leaves town forever. They need to reconcile.
I just have to get Vasilis’s tone right. Commanding and bold but careful and methodical. Intimidating but warm. Should I… invite that girl he hangs out with–Raven, I think?–over for… tea? No, that’s ridiculous. Vasilis hates tea. The invitation would be an insult. Dinner. Yes. That’s better.
When we were kids, it was always Vasilis who cooked the meals, but since Agatha’s death, he’s given up a lot of things he used to do, and cooking is one of them. But Cy doesn’t know that.
I finish the letter and send it out before the post comes. Perfect. I love it when things come together. I frown. Where have I heard that before? My frown deepens the harder I think about it.
Then it comes on a wave of sunshine and clarity. Agatha. One of her famous lines was “I love it when a plan comes together.” I can’t believe I forgot that. Now that I remember, I’m certain I’ve heard Vasilis mumble it under his breath countless times. That puzzles me since he hasn’t had “plans” since she died. Maybe he was talking about the garden? I shrug to myself and move on.
The letter is out. Cy will get it tomorrow when he comes back from school. I imagine him opening it and smiling, but then I remember he thinks it’s from his father and not me. Maybe I should have invited him as myself instead of as Vasilis, but it’s too late to change. Too late again, I wonder if Vasilis will be angry with me for what I’ve done. He’s no fan of surprises or, as he has made perfectly clear to me time and again, of me working without his direction.
Like everything else I sent these past years, Cy doesn’t respond. I use Vasilis’s monitoring system to spy on him and Raven over the next week. To my surprise, it’s Raven that convinces him to open the letter.
I’ve never used the system myself. Vasilis taught me how to operate it if I need to, but he’s never been gone this long and I’ve never needed it before. Watching Cy now, I wonder if he opened any of my other letters. Maybe he doesn’t know they’re from me. I never put my name on them because Vasilis is weird about people knowing who we are and where we live.
He’s been gone over a week. I’m worried now, but there’s not a lot that I can do apart from reporting him missing, and he wouldn’t like that regardless of his circumstances.
Raven’s curiosity convinces Cy to open the letter I sent last week. I thank her silently through the cameras and watch for his reaction. He doesn’t disappoint. Still dramatic as ever. His first reaction is incredulity. Raven tries to read over his shoulder, but he shoves her gently aside and reads it aloud instead. I notice when he skips over the section that invites her for dinner. He crumples the paper and tosses it across his room in disgust when he’s done.
I can’t help but feel a pang of disappointment and betrayal. Would he turn on me so quickly? I remind myself that he thinks the letter is from Vasilis and not me. Briefly, I entertain the notion to write a letter as myself, but he would think Vasilis did that, too. I guess I messed up. Maybe I could visit?
I spend the rest of the day pondering what to do. I don’t want him to stay forever, I just want to see and talk to him again before he leaves.
Around eleven thirty in the evening, the doorbell rings. Thinking it’s Vasilis finally returning from his trip, I hurry to answer the door. Cy stands on the doorstep.
“Kieran,” he says in surprise. Did he really forget me? We stand in the doorway staring at each other for several minutes saying nothing. I’m about to stand aside and motion him in when he surprises me with a hug. “It’s good to see you, Kieran,” he mumbles into my shoulder.
I’d forgotten how affectionate he can be. Vasilis never displays emotion beyond grief and flashes of anger or disapproval. Sometimes pride. But he never shows me any kind of affectionate gesture. He keeps himself contained and separate at all times.
When I don’t hug him back, Cy steps back and looks me in the eye. “I can’t imagine what you’ve been through here.” I blink. What? What is he talking about? I don’t answer, so he hugs me again and marches past me inside. “Where is he?”
Vasilis is gone. He hasn’t been home in a week and a half now. I can’t tell Cy or he might leave. “Sleeping,” I say. In the morning, he’ll know that I lied, but right now it’s enough that Cyril stays the night and talks with me about whatever comes up. Almost.
“I’m starving,” he says just inside the door. Cy looks around at the entryway. I see memory and pain swirling in his eyes and through his thoughts. Nothing has changed in this part of the house. A smile curls his mouth and he looks back at me. “Are the snacks still where we hid them?”
I think for a moment and smile. “Yeah, think so.” I laugh and Cy’s smile grows. He heads to the kitchen and seeks them out. When he finds them hidden behind the toaster in a gallon-sized plastic bags, he shouts, “Aha!”
He tosses them at me, and I miss the catch. The decade-old cookies smash on the linoleum and crumble into dust, thankfully contained by the bag. I pick up the plastic bag and stare at our pilfered cookies.
Agatha made them. These are perhaps the last thing of hers that Vasilis hasn’t taken and hoarded. I look to Cyril. My expression must give away my emotion because his turns to concern, followed swiftly by grief.
Cy hugs me again. Before I can respond, he starts to shake. He’s crying? He is, I realize, and the little kid Cyril found on his doorstep rushes back to me. I hug him back and grieve for our mother.
All thoughts of keeping Vasilis, his activities, and his absence from Cy vanish. “She’s buried in the back,” I say in a shaky voice.
My brother backs away from me.
“He dares bury her in–” Cy storms off before finishing his sentence, though it isn’t hard to guess the rest. I forgot to tell him about the changes in the house. I try to catch him, but he’s faster than me. Still.
“Wait,” I call, but he isn’t listening. “Cy, wait!”
He marches straight into Vasilis’s office and stares at the room in surprise, but his attention turns inevitably to the floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall windows that look out onto the garden.
“What is this?” Cy whispers.
I want to tell him, but my attention is caught by the office itself. No matter how many times I come in here, it always catches me offguard.
The room is black: the walls, the ceiling, the floor, even the back of the door. It’s like a void sucking me in. The only thing in the room that isn’t black is the wall of windows at the far end. He designed everything around it. There are no lights in the ceiling, but the garden lights are bright enough to illuminate the room at night. During the day, the natural light fills the area around the desk and accentuates the dark corners. The room smells of ammonia.
No wonder he never got over his grief. He never let himself heal.
I’m still looking around when I answer Cy, “Vasilis uses gardening as an outlet for his grief.”
I feel Cy’s sharp glance, but I don’t acknowledge it. I think I found something. Amid the darkness of the walls, there’s a space that looks almost like another door. I remember there being a closet in this room before it was an office, but even an office needs a closet, right?
Before I get a chance to investigate it–I’ve never noticed it before–Cy and I hear the back door open and close.
I’d set the gardening tools by the back door, ready for whenever he returned, so I’m not surprised when we hear the door open and close a second time. Or when Vasilis appears in the garden on the other side of the windows. He doesn’t see us. It’s late; he probably assumes I’m asleep. And why would he ever think Cy is here? He wouldn’t.
“You need to hide,” I whisper to my brother. He looks at me with questions on his mind, but Vasilis can’t know what I’ve done. I explain to Cy what I did and he curses under his breath and stalks out of the room.
Before I follow him, I catch a glimpse of Vasilis digging a new hole in the backyard. It’s too big and too deep to be for flowers. Has he been burying other things and covering them up with the garden this entire time?
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