“Have you gone in?” she asked Taylor over her shoulder.
“Not yet. Not sure I can squeeze through the opening.”
This was one of the times Harper was glad she was small. She got down on all fours, relieved she was wearing jeans today.
“Be careful,” Taylor warned.
“I’ll be fine.” She slowly crept into the fort, eyes on the lookout for mice or spiders. Once inside, she sat Indian-style and looked around. The space was tight and cozy, a right proper fort, she thought to herself, and smiled. Just the kind of place she would have loved to hide out in as a child.
“See anything?” Taylor was on his hands and knees, peering in.
“You can fit through. But it might be tight.” Poised to leap back, she reached out and gingerly lifted the red blanket, half expecting a mouse to scamper out. She released a long sigh when one didn’t, but she was surprised nonetheless. Under the blanket was an ashtray filled with butts.
“That’s weird,” she said.
“Not really. Parker probably came up here to sneak a smoke.”
Nasty habit, she thought as she leaned over to grab the ashtray. The floor under the ashtray teetered beneath the weight of her hand. Catching her balance, she set the ashtray aside, then lowered her head and inspected the floor.
“The wood floor in here has been cut. I wonder . . .” She wiggled the wood a bit, getting one side to rise up a few inches. Grabbing the edge, she lifted the board off. “I knew it. It’s a secret compartment!” She was filled with admiration for her father’s cleverness. It’s exactly what she would have done if she’d had a fort like this.
“What’s in it?”
“Just a minute.” She wiped her brow, feeling the heat of the attic. Behind her, Taylor had climbed through the door to his waist and was watching over her shoulder with keen interest. She handed him the pieces as she pulled them out.
There were three watches sans bands. A black velvet bag. A few empty gun shells. A World War II medal, a few pennies so green with age she couldn’t make them out. On the bottom of the compartment were three slim books. She pulled them out and set them on her lap.
“Are they yours?”
Harper was wildly wondering the same thing. Could her father have gotten hold of books she’d written as a girl, perhaps from Mamaw, and had them printed? “Wouldn’t that be lovely?” she said with a child’s delight. To think he might have read them, cherished them enough to bind them up. Her hands were dusty. She wiped them on her apron before inspecting the first book on her lap. She carefully opened the navy cover.
“It’s not mine. It’s a self-published book. Oh, Taylor, this might be one of his books. My God, it might be the only copies we have of something Parker wrote.” Her heart beat faster.
She reverently turned the page and read the title. Tideland Treasures. She looked up at Taylor and grinned with anticipation. She began to read aloud.
On a small barrier island there lived children who sat only on towels when they went to the beach, swam only in chlorinated swimming pools, who never picked up a fishing rod, and who never, ever ventured from the paved path.
And then there was Atticus and his sisters, Dora, Carson, and Harper.
Harper’s voice faded until the last word, her own name, came out a mere whisper. She felt the heat of the room like a furnace, and her head grew dizzy as all the comments, gestures, glances, and clues that had been floating in her head the past few weeks fell neatly into one inevitable conclusion.
Those eyes. Those incredible Muir-blue eyes.
She looked at Taylor. His green gaze was hooded, masking his emotions so he could better gauge hers.
Harper closed the book and licked her parched lips. “We’d best get Mamaw.”
Atticus sat at the granite counter of his condo, hands folded, head bent, praying for guidance.
Mamaw had called to tell him the cat was out of the bag. His sisters had discovered he was their brother. Something about a fort found in the attic and a book Parker had written. Tideland Treasures was the story of a boy named Atticus who had three sisters: Dora, Carson, and Harper. How ironic, Atticus thought bitterly, because none of the three were mentioned at all in the terrible book he had read. He looked at the marked-up, tattered manuscript lying on the counter.
He dropped his forehead to his palm. He felt overwhelmed with shame, panic. All that he’d built with his sisters—trust, confidence, even affection—would be soured by this. They’d only know that he’d lied to them.
Why hadn’t he just told them the truth? He’d asked himself this same question over and over for weeks now. What madness convinced him to agree to that lie in the first place? And how did he and Mamaw think they wouldn’t be discovered and not hurt the very ones they had hoped to protect? Now nothing was left for him to do but man up and face them. To let them vent their anger.
He looked outside the window at the ocean sparkling in the distance. He’d come to love living here, being near his newfound family. God help him, he was going to miss having them in his life. Leaving them—leaving the lowcountry—would be the hardest thing he’d ever had to do. Mamaw and his sisters had filled the hole inside him. And now he’d ruined it. They’d never trust him again. Atticus squeezed his eyes tight, feeling the hole in his heart opening again, fathomless.
After a moment, he reached out to pick up Parker’s manuscript from the table. This, he now knew, was the only copy of their—and his—father’s book. It was the treasure for which the girls had been searching for so long. Not because it was an outstanding novel and would bring great wealth; sadly it wasn’t. But because the book was Parker’s life’s work. That made it priceless. At the very least, he could give them their father’s book as a parting gift. He slowly set down the manuscript, resting his hand upon the tattered pages. At least with that, having met him wouldn’t be a total loss for them.
The Muir women congregated in Harper’s office, seated on chairs clustered around the coffee table. Everyone hastily called to this gathering and pulled from a wedding task on an already busy day now sat stunned and wide-eyed at the news that their father’s old fort had been found in the attic, with the children’s books authored by him nestled within. Outside the room, the calls of workmen echoed and the hammering was distracting. Inside the office, it was as silent as the grave. Tension crackled in the air as Harper read the line from their father’s book: