Note from Michele: This is Part 1 of a complete short story that takes place in the Secrets of Redemption universe. However, if you haven’t read the free novella, The Secret Diary of Helen Blackstone, you may want to start there as this short story builds on what was revealed there.
Helen’s heart sank as she peered out the front window from behind the curtains. But, really, it shouldn’t have, she chided herself. It’s not like she didn’t know he would be out there. She knew the moment she opened her eyes that morning that today would be the day.
It didn’t stop from her from wishing it wasn’t.
He stood near the car, a tall, stooped, gaunt figure dressed all in black despite the warmth of the day. He looked toward the house, a hand raised to block the sun from his eyes. Even now, she knew he wouldn’t come to the door.
The fear would never leave him. It didn’t matter that it had been decades since it happened. He would never step foot inside the house again.
Helen let go of the curtain, allowing it to swing back into place, and plodded toward the front door. It was silly, really, this reluctance to see her brother. She had known this day was coming for years.
It didn’t make it any easier.
She pulled the door open and stepped onto the porch, folding her arms across her chest. Her brother straightened up when he saw her and half-raised his hand in a wave. Even across the distance, she could see the sickness that was ravaging his face, devouring him from the inside.
It was all she could do not to turn and flee back into the house.
Her baby brother. Her only sibling. She couldn’t do it. She wasn’t strong enough.
No. She forced herself to take a steadying breath. She was strong enough, and she could do this.
She had to.
She trudged down the steps and driveaway toward him. He watched her progress without making any move from the car.
“Henry,” she called out when she was closer. “Would you like to come sit? We can stay on the porch or go in the backyard, if you’d like. I can make you some tea.”
His whole body shuddered. “I can’t stay long. We can just sit in the car.”
She nodded, having fully expected that response.
“You look good,” he said as she came closer. “Very healthy. Glowing, even.”
“Thanks,” she quietly responded. She wanted to say something equally as nice, but the truth was, Henry looked awful. He was too thin—the bones in his face jutted out, and his white, waxy skin looked even worse against his long, black coat and shirt. “I’m glad to see you, as well.”
It was true, in a way. She just wished it was under different circumstances.
Henry’s mouth twisted into a bitter smile before he shifted to open the car door for her. Helen bit her lip, noticing how jerky and unbalanced his movements were, but she didn’t say a word. She tucked herself into the car and watched her brother slowly and painfully make his way to the driver’s seat, his hand trailing across the car body as if for support.
When he finally slid into the seat next to her, he was clearly out of breath, and Helen could see beads of sweat on his forehead.
Neither of them said anything. Helen stared out the windshield, fighting the urge to throw open the door and rush back into the house. Maybe if the actual words were never uttered, it wouldn’t be true. Maybe …
“I’m sick,” Henry said quietly.
She closed her eyes. “How long?”
He shrugged. “A few weeks. Maybe a month. Maybe a little longer. You know how doctors are.”
She didn’t look at him. Didn’t think she could bear it. “Why didn’t you come to me sooner? I might have been able to help.”
“What, with your teas?” He laughed, but it was devoid of humor. “Helen, you and I both know nothing could ever help me. This is the way it was always going to end.”
Her only answer was silence.
Henry reached across to touch her arm. “Don’t blame yourself. You did everything you could.”
“Maybe,” she said, blinking back the tears. “Or maybe there was something else I could have done.”
“Like what?” he asked, incredulous. “Helen, you gave your life up for me. Don’t think I ever forgot that, or that I wasn’t grateful.”
She turned her head to stare at the house—the house she had devoted her life to, swearing never to leave.
“It’s not like that,” she said. “I have my garden and my business here …”
“You’re a prisoner,” he interrupted forcefully. “You were never going to come back. Remember?”
Helen dropped her gaze to her lap. “That wasn’t your fault. Father …”
“Called us both back, I know,” Henry said, his voice still rough. “Believe me, I blame him. A lot.”
She jerked her head toward him. “You shouldn’t. He did the best he could.”
“He was a cheat and a liar and a con man,” Henry said. “And we’re both in this situation because of him.”
Helen bit her lip again. “He was still your father.” Her voice was soft.
Henry shook his head. “I don’t want to talk about him anymore. Likely I’ll be seeing him soon enough, whether I want to or not.”
She didn’t respond. Henry hadn’t attended their father’s funeral. To be fair, no one had, other than the priest and weird girl who was always muttering to herself as she wandered around town. She could never remember her name.
Henry began to cough, a violent, chest-wrenching noise, and he fumbled for a handkerchief to press against his lips.
“Are you okay?”
He nodded, unable to speak.
“Do you want some water?”
He shook his head and gradually got himself under control. “Sorry about that,” he said, removing the handkerchief from his face and folding it up, but not before she saw the bright, red spots of blood on it. He quickly tucked it away in his pocket.
“I want you to promise me something,” he said.
He shook his head. “I’m serious.”
“So am I.”
He eyed her, looking unconvinced. “Promise me you’ll leave.”
She jerked, her eyes going wide. She hadn’t expected that. “I can’t.”
“Of course you can,” he said with a grimace. “I’ll be gone. Father is gone. There’s no one left.” He didn’t say anything about their mother, but there was no need. Their downfall as a family began the day their mother became a murderer. The less said about her, the better.
“That doesn’t matter,” she said. “It’s not what I agreed to.”
“Screw that,” he snapped, his expression full of rage. “What’s going to happen? We’re all dead! Except you. And you deserve a life. Hasn’t that house taken enough from us?”
Helen could see his point, but unfortunately, it wasn’t quite true. Henry did have a family. A wife. Children. And although none of them had ever been inside the house, they all lived in Redemption. That meant she would always wonder how safe they actually were.
But she held her tongue. The last thing she wanted was Henry to worry about them, too. He had enough on his plate.
“I made a promise,” she reiterated instead.
“Promises can be broken.”
“Not by me.”
“Helen,” he said, his voice exasperated. Underneath that, though, she could hear the pain and heartbreak. “Please. You’ve sacrificed enough. For all of us. You deserve a life. Grant me this one wish—my only wish, really—and promise me you’ll sell this monstrosity of a house and do something else with your life.”
He stared at her. “What do you mean, ‘like what’? Anything you want.”
“Henry, look at me.” She spread her hands out. “I’m old. I’m way too old to start over somewhere else. This is my home, my life. What else am I going to do?”
“If money is the problem …”
“No, it’s not money,” she cut in. “Really, this is my home. I have no idea where I would even go.”
“I’m sure there’s somewhere,” he said. “The beach? The mountains? Isn’t there somewhere you’ve dreamed of traveling?”
Anywhere but here.
The words flitted through her mind before she could stop them, and suddenly, she was a young woman again, living in downtown Chicago, her entire life in front of her. How she had loved the big city, the people, the energy. She had dreamed of living in New York, or maybe even Hollywood.
But it was too late now. What would an old woman like her do in a big city? No, she was better off staying right where she was. This was her life.
Henry started coughing again. His entire body shook uncontrollably as blood leaked from the corner of his mouth.
“Henry,” she cried out, alarmed.
He tried to shake his head, like it was no big deal, but his face was turning purple.
“Henry, I better call someone,” she said, reaching for the door handle.
He reached out one skeletal hand and clutched at her arm. His fingers dug painfully into her skin, but she stayed where she was, despite how it broke her heart to listen to the deep, wrenching coughs tearing at her brother’s chest.
“Sorry,” he gasped when the gasping finally subsided. “It sounds worse than it is.”
She highly doubted that, but refrained from questioning him.
“Helen, I’m not going to take ‘no’ for an answer.” He turned in his seat to face her, his eyes staring intently into hers. “I can’t die without knowing you’ll finally be free. Please, promise me you’ll leave. It’s my dying wish.”
She wanted to say “no.” It was on the tip of her tongue. She couldn’t break her word. Not now. She was committed to staying in the house until the next caretaker arrived. Only then could she pass it on. Not a moment before.
But, as she stared into brother’s dying face, his pleading eyes so full of pain and despair, she couldn’t do it. She couldn’t deny him.
“Alright,” she said.
His eyes widened and his grip on her arm tightened again. “Really? You mean it? You’ll leave once I die?”
“Yes,” she said, hating herself for the lie. Although, it wasn’t a total lie. At some point after his death, she would leave.
Just not as soon as he wanted.
His mouth stretched into a huge grin, and in that moment, she saw the little boy he once was … the boy she helped raise after her mother …
She never could say “no” to that smile. Not even after all these years.
“You won’t regret this,” he said. “There’s a whole world waiting for you, and you deserve every wonderful minute! You’ll love …” He collapsed into another coughing fit, unable to finish what he was going to say.
“I know,” she said, her eyes full of tears. “I know.”
“I better go,” he said once he got himself under control. “I have a few things I need to do before I go home.”
“Of course,” she said, even though she knew it was a lie. It was the house. He needed to get away from it. Or maybe it was her. It was hard to know at this point which made him sicker. “Call me. I’d love to see you again.”
“I will,” he said, although they both knew it was another lie.
This was it. This was goodbye.
She turned to the door handle, fumbling with it so he couldn’t see her tears.
His voice was soft, the way it was when he was little. She half-turned, keeping her face hidden from him. “Yes?”
“Thank you,” he said. “For everything. You are the best sister in the world. I didn’t deserve you.”
She could no longer stop the tears from flowing. “Nonsense,” she choked out. “You’re the best brother in the world. I love you to pieces.”
He half-smiled. “I love you to pieces back.”
Finally, the latch in the door released, and Helen flung it open, her entire body shaking with pent-up sobs. She stumbled out, slamming the door behind her. For a moment, she could see Henry hesitate, as if he was contemplating getting out of the car to comfort her.
“Just go,” she whispered. If she had to watch him suffer through another coughing fit, she might just lose her mind.
As if he could hear her thoughts, he turned the key and pulled away from the curb, making a U-turn before leaving the neighborhood behind him.
She watched him, tears flowing down her face. “Goodbye, Henry.”
Want to keep reading? Part 2 here.