But Poppa, I worry about Gunnar...”
Her father frowned. “No.” He closed his eyes. “No”.
Freyja’s hand went to her mouth but the words were out. She’d just downloaded her anxiety on a frail old man. Judgmental, hypocritical, insensitive, she knew people used these words to describe her but when they used them she didn’t care. Now they were coming from the inside out. Her heart twisted.
“Poppa?” Was he sleeping? She was afraid to look.
Why did she do this? It didn’t matter ‘how charged with punishment the scroll’, as ‘captain of her fate’ she’d leave regardless of what her father said, regardless of their circumstances or their benefactor, yet she wanted him to say it was okay, to alleviate her guilty conscience. What kind of person tried to pry absolution from her chronically ill father?
Poppa tried to clear his throat. He tried again. “Water, Freyja, please.”
Freyja passed him the water bottle. He took a long sip and continued to hold the bottle.
“Gunnar is not unlike a military strategist, a brilliant one.” Poppa pushed himself up with his empty hand. He had his stern face, the one Freyja remembered when he delivered her a lecture on obedience. Momma smacked, Poppa lectured.
“First he probes our defenses, finds where we are weak, where we’re vulnerable. This is where he attacks. His weapons are not guns or bombs, but they destroy all the same. They are enhancements, gifts, opportunities, things that will make life just a bit easier, nicer. Most of us can’t resist, we think we are entitled, have an unalienable right to everything. Gunnar is just fulfilling it.
“This is how your brother works; enticing, tempting, inveigling, until we’re addicted, hooked on his way of life of quick fixes and instant gratification. This is how he pushes his poison, this is how he peddles his influence.”
Freyja knew this and wasn’t surprised her father, the constant observer, did as well. She neither expected nor needed an explanation of Gunnar, but conversations with Poppa traveled circuitous routes. She kept quiet and waited to see the ultimate destination of this one.
“A few of us are strong and principled, like you, my golden girl.” He squeezed her hand. “For you to accept anything less than the truth is to commit psychological and spiritual suicide. Your soul will die. You can’t help it. Maybe it’s genetic?” he smiled. “My small conceit.”
Could this be true? She often wondered why other people seemed to have so many alternatives.
Poppa took a moment to catch his breath. “Gunnar knows this. He sees your defenses are strong and so, like any smart general, he comes up with other strategies to breach them and win you over. Maybe he’ll try to outflank you using the family circumstances. Maybe he’ll use a ‘fifth column’ approach and demoralize you by turning your friends. Maybe he’ll simply wear you down through attrition, stealing your triumphs, undermining your accomplishments.”
The conversation reminded her of a darkroom, a sheet of exposed photographic paper immersed in the tray of developer, first the under and over exposed areas appeared, then as she agitated the bath, the more subtle areas began to fill in.
From the moment Carly revealed Gunnar had bought out her show, Freyja wondered about his motive. She’d discounted money - too small an amount for laundering or to flip for a profit; not for art; Gunnar had a proclivity toward Thor the Thunder God comic book characters; and, despite what her benefactor might like her to believe, instinct told her brotherly love, however misguided, didn’t factor into it either. The full image had not yet emerged, areas remained undeveloped.
“I’m not afraid to fight him, Poppa. I can–”
“No Freyja. It’s not your fight. It’s between father and son.” Shallow breathing, excited tremors. Freyja rescued the water bottle from tumbling on the floor. “You must go.”
Must go? She wanted a blessing, not banishment. Guilt alleviated, anxiety increased. “Mexico’s a long way, there’ll be other assignments closer–”
“No. You don’t understand,” Rasps shredded Poppa’s words. “You must go because the prize is your heart.”
It all came into focus. Out of the developer into the stop bath, except it would never stop, and there could be no fixer, it would just keep on developing.
“You have my heart, Poppa. You’ll always have my heart.”
“When I banished Gunnar from this house I hoped to save the rest of you from his corruption.” A ragged voice, tears on hollow cheeks. “You’re the only one pure. The only one he hasn’t tainted. You must go.”
“It’s okay, Poppa.” Freyja had wanted a little reassurance, what she got sounded like a Nordic myth or a Freudian case study.
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