Authors: Abigail Graham
A Stepbrother Romance
Copyright 2015, Abigail Graham
Cover Designed by Cormar Covers
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I live in studio apartment over a massage parlor in the Old City. It’s a six block walk to the liberty bell. It’s two flights of wrought iron stairs down to the parlor on the first floor. The scents of Korean cooking waft up to my apartment, a two hundred square foot studio with one tall narrow window that looks out over the alleyway. If I stand there I can watch a steady stream of men walk in and out of the parlor. Young and old, plump and thin, chubby boys and stooped graybeards, they all have one thing in common. Slumped shoulders and a faraway look. They know what they’re about to do and when they come out they know what they’ve done. I drink whiskey from a chipped coffee mug and watch.
I don’t know how
the mug came to be in my box of personal effects, the one they gave back when I was paroled. It was my father’s, though. It’s all that I have of him. For now.
I have a business meeting this afternoon in New York. I’ll be catching a private jet in a few hours. I’m not sure if I’ll be violating my parole or not. I’m allowed to travel for business.
First, I need to steal my car back.
This ‘apartment’ is about the size of my closet in the suite of rooms where I grew up.
Suits hanging on a rack, a cart like the use at a dry cleaner’s, socks and underwear in a rubber tub, and a mattress covered in a plain white sheet. A refrigerator rattling away as it cools a block of Velveeta, a pack of imported ham, eight beers and a jar of peanut butter.
I don’t even know why I keep the peanut butter in the fridge.
This is my life.
As I descend the rickety cast iron staircase I check my watch. It’s a Timex I picked up at K-Mart after I stepped off the bus. I have to be on the flight in eight hours. It’s now two thirty-three in the morning. The parlor closes at three, I think. That’s when the in-and-out stream stops, or maybe the patrons are too scared to brave the mean streets at four in the morning. I don’t know or care.
A stoop-shouldered man emerges and doesn’t look at me and I don’t look at him. I check my watch again and walk in the rain. It’s a light drizzle that covers everything, makes the world glow. Water slides down my face and clings to my eyebrows. I glance at a shop window. The lights are shut off inside, and I see myself in a glass darkly. For a startling moment I’m walking side by side with my father’s ghost, but I see the tattoos running down both arms to stop just above the wrist and it’s just me. Dad never wore his hair this long and he never visited a tattoo parlor.
He had one tattoo, a crudely incised PETER in blue ink on his right shoulder. When he was a kid he and some boys he knew gave themselves tattoos with pins and a ballpoint pen. His was buried so deep in the flesh that all his attempts to remove it failed, and so he had his own name tattooed on his meaty shoulder until he died.
I should probably be wearing a jacket. November, and rain, but it’s unseasonably warm, almost fifty. I’ve had enough of being confined. I want to swing my arms.
The car is parked in a lot. I stop to pay a bleary-eyed attendant and walk over. It’s an unremarkable Toyota. I’ve been ordered to keep a low profile.
I hate driving this thing. The old city is dead at night. Last call was over an hour ago and the tourists get scared of the dark. It’s one of the safer areas but all cities are the same. I fucking hate cities. Too much chain link and concrete and neon, not enough trees. I don’t belong here.
Turn on 3
onto Market, catch I-95. It’s a straight run now. I obey all posted limits and traffic signals.
Have to. I’m on parole, after all. I wouldn’t want to get pulled over on my way to steal a car.
Driving gives me a lot of time to think. My knuckles go white. The wheel creaks in protest.
I’ve had plenty of time to think.
That’s what prison is. The punishment isn’t confinement. They put a roof over your head. It’s not isolation, either, unless you get sent to solitary. I never did. It’s not following orders, it’s not the shitty therapy groups, either. (Evidently, I have an anger management problem.) No, the punishment is
. Time to think, time to brood, time to plan. When you’re out in the world all you want is time. People say “there aren’t enough hours in the day” and try to stretch them out.
In prison, the bars just keep you in. It’s the time that punishes you.
Time has come today.
The drive takes almost an hour, out to Lancaster County, the very eastern edge. This is an old place. Everything around here is old. Old for the United States, anyway. I went to Europe once, went on a tour. Saw lots of history. Thousand year old buildings that just go about their business like buildings do. They’re just
. Around here anything older than a century or two always goes behind velvet ropes. We think it’s so special.
Europe. I was sixteen. There was good coffee and better company, but I can’t think about that. If I try to hard I can’t remember half the girls’ names. I was never good at that to begin with. There was a time in my life when there were so many girls I’d have to take notes to remember who I fucked when. Then one day there were two girls. The one, and all the rest just kind of lumped together.
The windshield wipers tick away the seconds, minutes, an hour and a half or so. Take it easy in the rain.
From the mist, the high chimneys and glowing lights fold into existence, vague shapes growing more solid as I approach. It catches in my chest.
This is my home. I am going home.
Except I’m not. Now the high walls with their jagged glass tops and wrought iron spear points are there to keep me
My home no longer.
One of the oldest continuously occupied homes in the entire state, the Amsel estate is sprawling expanse of almost three hundred acres.
my great-great-insert-more-greats grandfather named it. It’s the German word for rookery. The family name, Amsel, means Blackbird. The house sits far back from the road, so far back, in fact, that in the deep gloom of a cloudy moonless night the only thing visible is the windows, like the distant lights of Xanadu or that green light in
The Great Gatsby.
I didn’t pay any attention in high school English, but I used to know somebody who cared a lot about that shit, and it meant I started caring about it, too.
If I keep driving half a mile there will be a break in the ancient brick wall that surrounds the wilds of the estate. The trees peel away and there’s a huge wrought iron gate, almost fifteen feet tall, overtopping the wall itself by five feet. I’ve been casing the place for a while now. The new owners patched some broken places in the wall.
My ancestors coated the very top with broken glass, and the wall is also adorned with six inch long wrought iron spikes, each wickedly sharp. When they built the walls there was a real possibility the house might actually be attacked.
On top of the old school security system, there’s all the modern conveniences. Motion sensors, cameras, and a pack of dobermans running on the property. Silent sentinels. I’ve always liked dobermans. They don’t fuck around with barking, they just rip out your throat. If you toss them some sausage they’ll eat it after they finish with you. Good, loyal, no nonsense dogs.
The place is a fortress, and with good reason.
It’s old, though, and old houses have secrets. They start to love their families.
I could go on and on about my family. It used to be a huge extended network, all over the East coast. Distant relatives of mine fought on both sides of the Civil War, and both sides of the Revolutionary War, but only on one side of the French and Indian War. I can trace my ancestry back to a Hessian mercenary who switched sides and married into the family and took the Amsel name for himself, as the current patriarch at the time had only daughters. They did things like that back then.
Later on, the owners of the house were abolitionists, and the estate was a stop on the Underground Railroad. That’s where I’m headed now.
I’m not sure who owns the farm that borders my family home, but the dilapidated barn is still there, edging up to the wall. I pull the Toyota off the road, bounce and jounce down a dirt track, and pull it right into the barn. I’m going to leave it here. It’s not mine anyway, and after today I won’t need it anymore. Four-thirty in the morning, now. Plenty of time, plenty of time. I leave the keys in the ignition and the doors unlocked.
Dad showed me this tunnel once. It still stands. In the barn, in the back corner, the half-rotted floorboard lifts up. The tunnel is dark, and barely tall enough for me to stand, bending my head a little. I take a flashlight and a stick. It’s always full of spiders. I fucking hate spiders. Suffer not the arachnid to live. I think that’s in the Bible somewhere.
If it’s not, it should be.
The tunnel is sixty feet long, shored up with old timbers that are so hard they may as well be stone. It looks like a mine shaft in a cowboy movie. When I was a kid, I was terrified of this place. Of course, it’s November and it’s freezing cold at night, so the few times I have to knock down the web the one that made it is already dead, spindly legs curled up on themselves. I didn’t need much encouragement to stay out of here when I was a kid but Dad made it very clear I wasn’t ever to travel the tunnel alone; once he was younger then I was the first time he showed it to me, he found a nest of black widows and it was just luck that he didn’t put his foot in it and get bitten half a hundred times. Probably would have killed him. Adults can usually survive the widow’s bite, but not
When I emerge from the other side I’m covered in dust and a little dirt and my stick is coated with filmy old spider silk.
I toss it aside and cut off the flashlight, then take a few minutes for my eyes to adjust.
I make it about twenty yards when the dogs show up.
They fold out of the darkness on silent legs, black specters with bobbed tails and cropped ears that make them look like silky black devils. I stop and they surround me, staring, silent. One by one they bare their fangs.
One of them is older than the others, gray hairs silvery on his dark face. He pads over, the stump of his tail twitching as he tries to wag. I crouch down and offer him my hand. He sniffs, and gives me a friendly lick as I scratch behind his ears.
“Hey, buddy,” I whisper. “I wish I could remember which one you were.”
The others take their cue from the leader, surrounded me and sniff at me and I pet them one by one. They’d rip out an intruder’s throat and leave his rotting carcass to be found by the groundskeeper in the morning.
I’m not an intruder. The intruders are inside, sleeping in my
One step at a time.
After I pay my respects to the dogs, I move silently through the grounds. This section is wooded, kept wooded to conceal the movements of runaway slaves and the new owners have let it run wild. There are oaks here that stood before the United States was the United States. Hell, the ivy growing on some of the trees is older than that. It’s like walking through some ancient forest. Dobermans hadn’t been developed yet but my grandfather’s grandfather’s grandfather probably walked these woods with a pack of hounds, just like I am now.
There used to be a path here but the stones are worn down smooth and covered with loam. I used to walk here all the time with my mother and father. When you’re a kid, Mom and Dad are just
. Only now with both of them gone do I realize how I miss them both so fucking much. I can see them in my mind’s eye on this very path on a warm autumn day, walking hand in hand. Dad was built like I am- tall and heavily muscled, but he kept his coal black hair closely cropped.
That was so long ago.
The garage is big enough to be a house on its own. A long, long time ago, it was a stables, but my grandfather, or maybe great grandfather, had it converted and rebuilt into a garage. His car, a lumbering Packard, is still in the furthest bay, or was when I was last here. I went for a ride in a few times. It’s big and slow and ponderous to drive and I’m not here for it.
I’m here for my Dad’s car. Technically, she’s mine. They’re holding her hostage here.
The garage is in sight, but so is the house. The lights are on on the second floor.
I shouldn’t. I should go nowhere near it, not yet.
Refusing to listen to that little voice that says
is probably how I ended up in prison for five years, but old habits die hard. I run across the grass, hoping I don’t set off a motion detector or end up on camera. Stupid, stupid, stupid. I could end up back in prison serving out the rest of my term for this, plus interest, but I have to see.