After exiting the car, we began walking the trail adjacent to the resort. Jack Russell took the lead.
“I was the product of one of his many affairs,” Cassiopeia said, shoving her hands into her pockets. “We rarely discussed him, Mom and me. I knew I had a father but that was all I knew. For years, Jupiter would just randomly show up at our house. There was never an explanation as to who he was; my mother would fix him a plate and we would just all eat dinner together. It was so strange. He would ask me a million questions about school, my teachers, what I liked to do for fun. I was eight years old when I asked my mother who he was. That’s when she told me everything. He was her biggest mistake, but I was the gift in that mistake, according to her.”
I remembered the Google search from a few days and not being able to find an Alfred Benson on the web. “Was there ever an Alfred Benson?” I asked.
She shook her head. “It was easier for me to invent a kind, benevolent man as my father. Not the man I currently know.”
“And yet,” I said, remembering that day in the break room and the reverence in her voice, “you admire him, don’t you?”
Cassiopeia nodded after a moment. “He’s a self-made man. He started from nothing. And now, he—not just his companies—he is a conglomerate. A part of me finds that incredible.”
“That story, about your name and—”
“All true. He chose my name for all the reasons I shared with you.”
A fierce and unapologetic love for his child, I recalled her saying.
“I wanted to please him in every way. I attended the same colleges he graduated from. I studied what he studied. He was everything to me. When he asked me to join the corps, I did.”
“It’s what we call the agents that my father employs. It’s all true, that there are agents who exist to enforce his rules. But some of us operate a bit differently. Some of us are absorbed into the company as employees. We become your friends, your confidants, maybe even your crush. When we learn about relationships or even admissions of feelings, that’s when the other part of our team takes over.”
I recalled Crew Cut’s words. When you make admissions, they come after you. An image of Ballard Keene crossed my mind. The memories of that afternoon came flashing back to me: Ballard declaring his intentions to marry Marnie and quit the company, Ballard detailing his lofty goals to speak to Jupiter himself. I had long recognized the bit of hope in our conjecture and theories after the two had vanished, a hope that we would be proven wrong and learn that the two had simply chosen to disappear. Now, however, I needed to know. Inhaling deeply, I steeled myself for the question that needed to be asked. “What happened to Ballard Keene and Marnie Anderson?”
She was silent for some time. I watched as she visibly struggled with my question and my heart sank with each passing minute. Hadn’t Crew Cut also mentioned that if I wanted to live, I would stay away from Cassiopeia? There was only one alternative to living. And Ballard and Marnie had refused to stay away from each other.
“Just know that I wasn’t part of—I didn’t hurt them.” She turned to me. “My father ordered me to, and I said no. They were so young and in love and didn’t deserve what he wanted to do to them. So, I took my punishment.” She paused, then, noticeably reliving the memories of whatever pain that punishment had involved. “But I didn’t touch them, Elliott. Please believe me. Believe me.”
Someone had hurt them, however; someone had done what she had refused to do, what she knew would happen to them. The reality of all those things felt like successive punches in the gut.
I now walked ahead of them on the trail, weighed down by my thoughts. Cassiopeia deliberately lagged, accompanied by Jack Russell, undoubtedly aware that I needed space.
How could I consolidate my feelings for this woman with the knowledge that she had actively hurt people? The question remained there, growing as I walked, each word mounting with each step I took. I couldn’t find the answer. I just couldn’t find it.
Arms encircled around me. I squeezed her hands and then turned around, placing my hands on both sides of her face. “I don’t know what to think right now,” I told her, searching her brown eyes.
“I worshiped him in the beginning, Elliott. But it wasn’t enough. I was also troubled and disturbed by what we were doing. When I said no to the Ballard and Marnie plan, I experienced a rage from him that I still can’t describe. He declared war on me. So, I bizarrely thought switching to the other team, not being an enforcer, would help somehow, at least to ease my conscience and to stop his punishments.” An abundance of emotions flashed across her face: anger, sadness. But I also saw resolve. “That day in the Thai restaurant, I could have easily led you to say the words, to admit that you wanted me. That was my assignment. I had been threatened with seeing it through. He was listening to us that day. He was likely watching. But looking at you that day, looking at you as me, not the woman I was pretending to be—I couldn’t. And I wouldn’t.”
Nothing to say?
It’s ok. We’ll talk about it later. Let’s discuss that collaboration project they mentioned at the morning meeting.
She had purposely kept me from speaking further.
“Nothing happens to you under my watch, not by me or anyone else, Elliott.”
Gently, I kissed her. I had found my answer.