He takes a step forward, and I instinctively reach for the nearest heavy object: a paperweight my mom bought me as a souvenir from our last vacation before she got sick. A little glass ball with a miniature model of the Eiffel tower set in the center. I have no idea what I’m going to do, but I need something to defend myself.
But before my hand wraps around it, he turns, balling his fists at his sides. Looking for some strength or an answer to something on the ceiling, and when he speaks again his voice is softer.
“Anna, this man used to work for us. For one of my businesses.” He laughs. “He didn’t even know what I was, he was just an employee like anyone else. Then he discovered discrepancies in the accounts. He traced what was happening and discovered I was embezzling funds. It was one of my earlier crimes and I wasn’t very good at covering my tracks.”
I can barely believe what I’m hearing. Of course, I knew my father wasn’t exactly legitimate, but he’s never discussed these things with me before. He’s never told me anything about his business dealings.
To admit that he wasn’t completely in control, that he…
“What happened?” I ask, and he turns, meeting my eyes. I notice that his are glassy, as if this is hard for him, and a small part of my heart breaks. I know he’s a bad man, but he’s still my father.
“He came to me. Told me what he’d discovered. He said he was doing it out of respect for me, and that if I put the money back, made a charitable donation and assured him it would never happen again, he’d look the other way. He didn’t even want anything for himself. But I needed that money, Anna.” His expression is almost pleading, as if he needs me to absolve him of any guilt. “You’d just been born and we were trying to buy this place. I couldn’t go to your mother and tell her it was all for nothing, that we had nothing.”
My heart is thundering. What’s he trying to tell me?
“What did you do? Dad?”
“I made it look like he was behind it all, and took the evidence to the police. They never found the money, and they didn’t believe him when he told them it was me. Sour grapes, that’s what they said. I learned my lesson. I hired someone who could help hide the money. He went to prison.”
“So that’s what this is all about? You feel guilty so you’re giving me to some stranger as what? Some sort of compensation for spending years behind bars because of you?”
“No! It’s not like that, he…” My father takes a step forward, but my hand is already on the paperweight and I grip it tighter, raising it, ready to strike, and he falters. A look of disgust crosses his face, though whether at me or at himself I’ll never know. “I got into debt. Gambling, mostly. But also some business deals that went south. I didn’t even know that he was holding all my debts until it came time to pay up and I couldn’t. And there he was, telling me that he’d make me a deal. Anna, if you don’t marry him, he’ll send people to our house. They’ll murder your mother. They’ll tie you up in here and set light to the building. They’ll make me watch as everyone I love dies, then they’ll finally kill me. He doesn’t care about the money. He wants what is most precious to me. He wants to destroy me. One way or the other. It’s the least of the evils, my daughter. The one that assures that we get to live.”
This isn’t happening.
What my dad told me is like something from a movie. He let an innocent man go to prison, and now that man is so bitter he just wants to destroy my father’s life?
This is what movies and books are made of, not real life. Not my life.
A part of me wants to tell him no. Even if I die, if he has to watch, maybe that’s the right thing? After all, it would teach him a lesson instead of punishing me.
But my mom. I’m sure she knows none of this. Maybe she did, once, but not anymore. Her mind is too far gone. I’ve seen the look in her eyes when my father talks about the engagement. She thinks it’s romantic, and she talks to me about tradition and how they didn’t know each other before they were engaged. That man, my future husband, will have her murdered, and something tells me it won’t be quick. If they’re going to burn me alive, surely whatever they do to her will be just as awful.