Penelope stares down at the gray and mauve rug, her eyes glossing over—seeing something I can’t.
“We used to hide in the wardrobe. Sarah had read The Chronicles of Narnia and I think some part of her prayed it was real, that we could be transported somewhere—anywhere but where we were. We would cover our ears and hold Mother’s dresses over our heads to try to muffle the sounds. You wouldn’t think you could hear so clearly,” she says and looks up at me with tears glinting like ice drops in her eyes. “I mean, it was a fucking castle. But the sounds carried and we heard every slap, every cry.”
Her brows draw together and her forehead crinkles. “I was . . . five the first time Sarah did it, so she would’ve been about seven.”
“Did what?” I rasp out.
“The first time she left the wardrobe.”
The words drop like lead in my stomach. Like shrapnel.
“She couldn’t stand it. I held onto her hand and I begged her to stay. She told me to stay put—no matter what happened, no matter what I heard.” Tears fall silently, one after the other, down Penelope’s smooth cheek. “And then she went out of the room and started breaking things.”
Penelope nods. “A vase in the hallway, china plates in the drawing room—once she pulled a gold-framed mirror right off the wall. Anything that would make a crash. That would take his attention away from Mother. She would go from room to room, until . . .”
It’s only when Penelope stops speaking that I realize I’ve stopped breathing.
Her light brown eyes look directly into mine. “Until he caught her.”
My mind is blank. Black. Like the heaviest curtain has come down, blocking out any light or thought or image.
“Caught her.” I roll the words around on my tongue. “I don’t . . . I don’t understand.”
Penelope gazes back at me. “I think you do.”
The air expels from my lungs.
“Are you . . . are you saying he hurt her? That he . . . beat her? Sarah?”
I’m not an idiot. I studied engineering at university and was bored by it. I have a deep breadth of understanding of history and art and military strategy and science. I know words—big and little. I understand their meaning when they’re strung together. When they’re used to imply, to deduce, to insinuate.
But this . . . this doesn’t make any sense. I can’t process it.
Or maybe I just don’t want to.
“But . . . how?”
How could anyone hurt sweet, darling Sarah? My Sarah. She’s everything that is kind and good and funny and beautiful and amazing in this world. Why would anyone want to cause her pain? How is that even possible?
Penelope sniffles. “Usually with his fists. Sometimes with the belt. If she fell, he would kick—”
“Stop.” Nausea twists and knots my stomach, folding me over. “Fucking Christ, stop.”
Because the curtain is lifted and the images that spill out from Penelope’s words are sickening and vivid. My thoughts are cut off when I think of something else. Something I didn’t put together until this moment.
“She limps,” I tell Penelope in a voice colored by ash. “It’s barely perceptible, but I noticed. When she’s tired, she limps.”
“That was the final straw for Mother. He broke Sarah’s leg. They were right outside the door of the room I was in when it happened. It was so loud—the snap of it.” Penny squeezes her eyes closed. “God, I can still hear it.”
I broke my arm once. Fell the wrong way during a rugby match. It hurt like a bitch. And I know just what she means about the sound—it’s distinct. Once you hear it, you’ll never forget.
“He wouldn’t let us leave, wouldn’t let Mother take Sarah to the hospital. For three days he kept us in one of the upstairs rooms.” Penelope shudders as she breathes and cries softly. “Sarah was in so much pain. And then, Joseph, the driver—he had only been with us a few months—he helped us escape when our father fell asleep. I remember he swept in and scooped Sarah up in his arms and told us, ‘Down the back steps, the car is waiting—hurry now.’ And the most terrifying moment was when the three of us were loaded into the back and Joseph had to run around to get to the driver’s seat. We were so close . . . I kept watching the door, waiting for my father to burst through and kill us.”
Penelope’s face has lost all color now. She rubs at her eyes and cheeks with weary hands. “But he didn’t. Joseph drove us to the hospital and they set Sarah’s leg, but it never healed the way it should have. Auntie Gertrude took us in, had her lawyers arrange the divorce, and they managed to convince our father that if he ever came near us again, details of his actions and photos of Sarah’s bruises would be made public. He was in Switzerland the last I heard, and I hope every day that an avalanche falls on him.”
My chest feels like it’s filled with concrete. And I want to cry. I haven’t wept since I was ten years old, but I could now. For her. For the fucking injustice of it. I want to fall to my knees and shout at the sky. I want to curse God to his face.
I want to slash and burn and maim and kill.
And it’s that last thought that finally gives me the focus I so desperately need. I take a few deep breaths then stand up and put my hand on Penelope’s shoulder, squeezing. “Thank you for telling me.”