I switch my phone on, and when it finds a signal, I hit the Safari icon and enter the address, noticing how my heartbeat has sped up and hearing that warning in my head that I shouldn’t do this, shouldn’t look. I sit up as the website loads to show a black background with a box opening up at the center, the cursor resting there. It’s all very ominous. Taking the code from the back of the photo, a random string of letters and numbers, I type it in, and a part of me wishes it won’t work. Wishes I’ll get an error message or something. But then the screen changes, and from the black background, a bright, happy, almost maniacally so, smiley face appears, starting out small, then growing large enough to fill the entire screen. It hovers there and makes me shudder.
And then I see the first image.
For a moment, I’m not sure what I’m looking at. Or maybe I don’t want to know what it is. But I click through, as if on autopilot, to scroll to the next one. And the next one. And the ones after that. My hand goes to my mouth as my brain processes what I’m seeing.
My mother with a man who is not my father.
The photos begin to blur as my eyes fill with tears, and masochist that I am, I keep clicking only to see more and more photos of them together. My mother and her lover. A man whose face I never see. A man who is very clearly not my father, not with his build, not with those tattoos.
Dad’s letter to me comes to mind. The betrayal he’d felt. My conversation with Bastian and Amadeo telling me Emma isn’t my father’s daughter repeats itself, their voices so clear. I see the evidence they had. And then I hear what Lucien said. How Dad wasn’t surprised about the accident that killed her. That almost killed my sister. My sister who won’t speak and is terrified of men.
And tears spill from my eyes as I remember the man I knew. The one who loved me. Only me. The one who put this photo of his girls where he wouldn’t have to see it day in and day out. Who, by the end, couldn’t stand to look at Mom if I’m being honest. And Mom, who, by the end, cowered from him. It all makes sense, I think, as I look down onto the small screen of my phone and see Mom’s face, see Mom in the arms of a stranger. Mom happy. It all fits.
The library door opens, and I jump, quickly dropping the phone into my bag and standing, wiping my eyes, looking as guilty as I feel. It’s Hyacinth, and she startles. I don’t know if it’s because she found me in here or the state I’m in.
“Vittoria. Are you okay? Has something happened?”
I wipe my eyes and shake my head. “No, it’s fine. I’m fine.” I look behind her for Emma but she’s alone.
“I told Emma I’d look for you to read to her. She was up early and upset you weren’t there when she woke up.”
“God. Of course, she was. I didn’t even realize the time. I’ll go right up.”
“I’ll get us some coffee and meet you up there. She’s setting her stuffed animals and dolls up for a tea party. All of them.” She rolls her eyes but is smiling warmly.
I love the innocence of the act. “Thanks, Hyacinth.”
She nods even though she looks worried. I give her hand a squeeze and head up to Emma’s bedroom as she disappears into the kitchen.
But as I’m approaching her bedroom door, I hear it. The chopper landing. They’re back. I’m out of time. I hurry into Emma’s room and find her at the window, watching as the chopper lands. It’s so stark and loud against the peaceful backdrop of the sun rising. But it’s what I see, or more who I see, spilling out of the chopper that silences me, that has me grabbing Emma’s hand hard as, from downstairs, we hear the sounds of men. A lot of men. And gunfire.
Because it’s not the brothers who have returned. These are soldiers.
I turn to Emma and see the tea party she was preparing in the large walk-in closet. See all the stuffed animals taking up the entire back wall.
“Hide,” I tell her. She’s good at that. Has been since Mom died. “Go. Hide.” I rush into the closet with her even as I hear footsteps charging up the stairs. “And don’t come out until someone you know and trust comes to get you. Do you understand? Me or Hyacinth. Understand?” She nods, but she looks terrified. “Bastian or Amadeo,” I add at the last minute. She’s squeezing my hand so tight I’m not sure she’ll let go. “No one else. No one!”
She nods, too frightened to even cry. I’m grateful for her silence for the first time ever as she does as I say, and I rush out of the closet and close the door just as soldiers burst into the bedroom.
Our flight is landing when the call comes in, and even though it’s not the middle of the night or in any way unusual for Bruno to be calling at eight in the morning, I know before I answer that something is wrong.
Amadeo and I descend the stairs of the jet and step onto the tarmac. The chopper that will take us up to Ravello is waiting in the distance.
“Bruno?” I ask as I slide the green bar across the screen to accept the call.
“You land?” he asks, voice tight.
“Just now. What is it?” Amadeo and I both stop. I put the phone on speaker and bring it close to our ears, given the noise.
“You need to get to Ravello.”