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Molly O'Connor
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When Secrets become Lies

Chapter 1
March 7, 2003

She was in chemistry class when Mr. Swan, the Principal arrived at the door and beckoned Philippa. “Oooh, you’re in trouble” and “What did you do, Flip?” followed her into the hallway.
Mike Styles, her closest friend stood in the hallway with his parents, solemn expressions on their faces. Philippa felt chills crawl up her neck.
“What’s wrong?”
Mrs. Styles grasped Philippa by the upper arms, looked her in the eye and in a soft emotion choked voice said—“honey, there’s been an accident.”
“Accident—what accident?”
Mike stepped forward. “Flip, your parents were in a car accident. We're going to the police station.”
“Is that where they are? Are we going there to pick them up? Are they hurt? Do we need to take them to the hospital?”
At the police station they were ushered into a small room with a sitting area and a coffee machine. A police officer stood by the window. Constable Mabel Eaton, a senior Trauma Specialist introduced herself. “I’m afraid I have very disturbing news …” and that is how Philippa learned her life would never be the same again.
“Dead! They can’t be dead.” Her screams were muffled by the closed door—the reality was posted like a billboard on the face of a stranger who spoke the dreaded words.
March 10, 2003
Silhouetted against the setting sun, Philippa stood motionless. Two white caskets, side-by-side, stood suspended over gaping holes ready to be lowered into the ground. They blushed pink in the afterglow. Like a choreographed chasse, shadows of scattered clouds glided over them—the final number in the dance of death.
Head bowed, the teen twisted a sodden wad of tissue and chewed her bottom lip. Tear-stained, her face was obscured by a curtain of soft brown hair shot with glints of gold. She lifted her hand and pushed wayward strands off her shoulders, shuddered and dabbed at her eyes, eyes that darted back and forth like a frightened bird.
Philippa stepped forward and placed her hands on her parents’ caskets. She sought some response to say it wasn’t so. But it was. Elaine and Patrick Snelling’s lives were ripped away in a devastating moment. Philippa hunched her shoulders and clasped her elbows tight to her small frame, the full realization of her parent’s death sliding over her like quicksilver, cold and elusive. Her center, her anchor, her parents lay inside coffins shrouded in mauve silk.
Philippa’s Aunt Helen, her only living relative, had rushed to Ottawa from Montreal as soon as the news reached her. Too young and too shattered, Philippa stood aside and let her aunt deal efficiently with arranging the funeral details. Helen’s hasty efforts at providing comfort hung unheard as Philippa cowered in a prenatal position in the depths of the sofa. Devastated and disassociated she hardly registered that her aunt also grieved. Helen lost her only brother—her big brother. During the two days prior to the funeral, Philippa repeatedly flared into angry tirades against the truck driver responsible for the accident.
“He’s the one that should have died—he’s the one that was speeding and couldn’t stop on the ice-slicked road.”
Now, standing in the graveyard in the cool of a late March afternoon, unaware of the earthy scent of freshly dug gardens or the beauty of marshmallow clouds, Philippa searched through her troubled thoughts reaching for one comforting memory. One that would give her enough strength to walk away and leave her mother and father behind. Helen had suggested that Philippa concentrate on happier times. Tragic as it was, her parents would be with her always. “Think about your last birthday.”
Philippa’s sixteenth birthday on June 28th of the previous year, had been a special celebration—a milestone marked in style, a happy time. Sixteen coral roses, delivered at breakfast, dominated the center of the kitchen table. She was hugged and kissed by both parents before she left for school. Good-natured teasing from peers followed her throughout the day with “sweet sixteen and never been kissed”. A celebratory dinner at the Westin Hotel in Ottawa was full of laughter and good conversation. They were seated beside one of the gigantic windows overlooking the lazy water of the Rideau Canal that reflected white fairy lights from the National Arts Centre that twinkled like stars on the surface of the water. The mirrored flag of the Peace Tower played lazily in the ripples.
The in-house pianist played “Happy Birthday” and all the diners sang as the moon settled over Capital Hill. A tenor’s voice rose from the back of the room sending his greeting to the rafters with virtuosic fervor. Ceremoniously carried to the table, a three-tiered black forest cake glowed with sixteen pink candles. Her closest friend, Mike, wearing a white shirt and tie, navy blazer, and grey flannels, sat directly opposite Philippa. He cheered and clapped, as did all the diners as the cake was paraded toward the birthday girl. When the cake was served, Mike stood, cleared his throat, his tall swimmer’s body commanding attention, and raised his Coke in a toast.
“To Flip,” he said in his raspy teenage voice. “May we all share in celebrating her next sixteen. Here’s to my best friend.” He bent over, clinked her glass, winked, and blew a kiss.
She would never celebrate another birthday with her parents. The coffins’ surfaces appeared to turn from white to shades of pink dulling to grey-white as the sunset slipped below the horizon. Philippa still stood with her hands pressed on top of each as she recalled how her mother and father fawned over her with gifts when they returned home from the birthday dinner party. She had assumed after receiving so many gifts that all her presents were opened when Patrick grasped her shoulders and squeezed them affectionately.
“Just one more, Flip.” He walked away and disappeared into his den shouting back across his shoulder. “Your mother and I knew it was time for this one.”
Flushed and smiling, he was the picture of a proud father, dark eyes sparkled as he smoothed wayward strands of graying hair that had escaped his ponytail. Youthful for a man in his mid fifties, he gave her a roguish grin before he disappeared into the next room. He returned holding a slim box. Philippa eyed the size and shape and knew it was just right for a laptop computer. She ripped off the paper festooned with brightly coloured balloons. Patrick ceremoniously plopped the elaborate bow on top of her head. Blinded by camera flashes Philippa blinked then laughed, happy tears trickling down her cheeks. A streamlined silver Mac lay on her lap.
“Oh, my God, Oh, my god! Thank you. Thank you.”
“Start it up,” her mother ordered.
The monitor came to life. Patrick and Elaine exchanged knowing glances. A montage of family pictures filled the monitor, faded to black then one-by-one they slid onto the screen. The slide show depicted Philippa from infant days to one taken a few days before accompanied by “Yes, sir, she’s my baby.”
“Wow! Cool!” chorused her friends.
Later after her other friends left, she sat with Mike on the front steps of the wrap-around veranda, of the two-story house clutching her new computer. The soft June air was filled with the smell of lilacs. Dew glowed like silver gauze spread over the lawn. Mike removed his tie and propped himself on his elbows letting his long legs dangle down three steps. Philippa played with the ends of a colourful silk scarf that matched her sky-blue sweater and skirt. No words were needed the night was full of happy thoughts.
She remembered sitting there, her prized computer on her lap. Now, she stood beside the bodies of her father and mother ready to be lowered to their final resting place. The computer was at home on her desk.
A wayward breeze lifted strands of hair from her neck sending cold chills down her spine. Blinded by tears, she stumbled backward—strong hands caught her. Mike appeared silently beside her and wrapped his arms securely around her shoulders.
“Steady, Flip. It’s time to go.” She leaned into him letting him lead her away along a winding path past rows of names engraved in stone to a waiting car. Budding trees lined the pathway, a promise of new life. Philippa turned and whispered, “Goodbye, Elaine and Patrick, you will be with me always.”
Frank Styles, Mike’s father, watched the teens approach. He stepped away from the fender he was leaning on and opened the back door of a silver-coloured Toyota Camry. His stocky frame lent an appearance of strength. “She’ll need us all. Bless her.” Frank spoke to the car fender.
“Careful you don’t bang your head.” Mike guided Philippa into the back seat and eased in beside her.
They sped along city streets passing people walking along the sidewalks chatting with animated gestures. Hurried shoppers ran to catch their buses and teens were slumped against telephone poles smoking—outside everyday life continued. Inside the car, death delivered silence.
The drive took less than thirty minutes. They turned down a divided avenue to Philippa’s house, through a sub division, built in the late 1970s. The avenue was lined by mature maple trees laden with swollen buds and well-cared-for detached homes of middle income families. Hers was a clapboard two-story, painted yellow with white trim, the colour of sunshine that gave no indication of the heavy hearts within. Cars parked one behind the other lined the curb. Dark-clad people filed up Philippa’s front walk. There had been no church service, only graveside prayers. Mourners were gathering at the house to offer condolences.
Mike grasped Philippa’s hand to stop her trembling. She slid across the leather seat and raised her hazel, red rimmed eyes to Mike’s clear blue. Mike gave a warm supporting nod.
Stepping out of the car, Mike placed his hand firmly on the small of her back and directed her forward and up the steps to the front door. “If I can get through the day with my Adam’s apple rubbing on this collar, you’ll get through this too.” He squeezed Philippa’s hand. His efforts to lighten the tension brought a weak return squeeze.
In the hallway, Mike took Philippa’s coat and tilted his head to indicate she should join her aunt who was standing in the middle of the living room greeting guests. Swallowing a deep breath, Philippa stepped hesitantly forward, stopped, straightened her back, and moved on to join her Aunt Helen who was dressed in a black bell skirt topped by a trim wide-lapelled jacket nipped tight to the waist.
Helen, tall and slim, wore an expression of warm tolerance as she listened to strangers, neighbours and friends of her brother and sister-in-law’s. Her crimson lips were formed into a forced smile, her head nodding. Philippa moved beside Helen and stood woodenly as people took her hand, hugged her, and stroked her arms offering awkward comforting words. “Thank you for coming—you’re so kind.” Helen’s words floated to Philippa in a vacuum.
Sable, the family cocker spaniel lay at Philippa’s feet. There were only three receiving condolences, Philippa, her Aunt Helen and Sable. Every now and again, Philippa bent over to touch Sable’s familiar silky black fur. Soft dark eyes flashed adoration followed by a swish of his tail.
Mr. Petry, her next door neighbour who she had taught to use his computer, stood holding both her hands in his, as if in prayer. When she had set up his internet he talked non-stop about his family, his cat and his garden. Today there were no words—his firm grip and passionate eyes said everything. Philippa nodded, she understood. Other mourners sputtered awkward clichés then sorted themselves around the living room and engaged in hushed conversations talking endlessly of the tragedy and Philippa’s bleak future.
Helen, with her arms across Philippa’s back, guided her from person to person through the living room. Plates of half eaten sandwiches and scrunched napkins lay on tables and the mantelpiece. Together, they spoke to everyone repeatedly expressing their appreciation for their support. Guests told stories of happier times hoping to push back the tragic reason they were gathered.
“I remember when they returned from their year away with a new baby. No one had any idea that Elaine was pregnant. Philippa became their total focus. Elaine seldom was depressed anymore.”
Their words played like a far away echo in Philippa’s head. She had always wondered why her parents had kept the pregnancy a secret, probably because they were so afraid of a miscarriage or stillbirth. When she had asked her parents about her birth the pat answers were always the old fables—she was found under a bush—she was delivered by a stork.
Eventually, the house emptied and the cars drove away.
Philippa slumped to the living room floor beside Sable. She twisted her pet’s ears and buried her face in his fur. Sounds of her Aunt Helen directing a few remaining helpful neighbours gathering soiled napkins and plates drifted to her. She half smiled as she thought of her mother’s description of Helen—the organizer. She heard the dishwasher start, her Aunt bidding goodbyes and final words of “Thank you. You were a big help.”
Joining Philippa and Sable on the floor Helen gathered her niece in her arms. Together they rocked and rocked taking comfort in each other. Eventually they moved to the kitchen. There was little evidence that soiled plates had recently covered the gleaming white-tiled counters. Damp tea towels hung over the oven handle and the backs of chairs. Serving platters and utensils had been cleaned and returned to their rightful place in the cherry-wood cabinets.
“I put the kettle on for a cup of hot chocolate.” Helen handed a mug to Philippa, then poured boiled water over a packet of green tea.
“This is my mother’s favourite mug.” Philippa held it as if she held a precious delicate art piece.
Helen silently nodded and took a chair across from her niece. “I’ll stay here for as long as it takes to finalize the legal stuff.” Helen said. “We’ve a lot of decisions to make, like selling the house and deciding where you’ll live.”
“What do you mean sell the house? I want to stay here. It’s my home.” Philippa cried out in alarm.
“But baby, you’re too young to be on your own, and I live in Montreal so wouldn’t be here if you needed me.”
“No! I won’t move.”
"Philippa, dear, I’m all you have now. Decisions have to be made.”
“Aunt Helen, I can’t leave school. I have to stay here.”
“No, the best solution would be for you to move to Montreal and live with your Uncle Elliot and me. Of course we’ll have to find a home for Sable since your uncle’s allergic to dogs.”
Philippa stared at her aunt in disbelief, anger flashing like golden darts from her eyes. She stood too quickly and toppled her chair, ignored it and ran to her room. She slammed the door behind her and threw herself on her bed. “There’s no way I’m going to live with my uncle. He hates me and I hate him.” Philippa punched her fist into a pillow. “Why did this have to happen? It’s not fair. Uncle Elliot didn’t approve of my mother and father and he dislikes me. I don’t want to move and I don’t want to lose Sable. I don’t want to live without my parents.”
She reached for a photograph she kept on her bed-side table. Smiling faces appeared out of focus through her tears. She reached for a corner of the counterpane to wipe her eyes. Patrick and Elaine stood arms around each other, both, tall, fit and alive. Philippa ran a finger over Patrick’s swarthy face, a contrast to Elaine’s milky white. They were a handsome couple known to live for the moment—spontaneous and unpredictable. If she favoured either, it was her mother. Philippa had similar pale skin, hazel eyes and glints of gold in her mousy-brown hair, but other than that there was little resemblance in looks or personality. Philippa was studious and thoughtful. She barely reached 5’2”, was not the least athletic and had a prominent dimple in her left cheek. She was far from beautiful in the Hollywood sense. Her most redeeming feature was a smile that managed to captivate everybody. Her Aunt Helen often went on and on about her brother not telling her that Elaine was pregnant. They simply arrived back in Ottawa after a year-long cross-Canada trip with a new-born, Philippa.
Helen shook her head at her niece’s sudden departure. “I hope the legal matters aren’t too complicated. Elliot and I should be compensated for Philippa’s care but regardless, she’s my only niece so I’ll make sure she’s taken care of no matter how Elliot feels.” She muttered to the white, ceramic coffee cup cradled in her hands; her crimson manicured nails gripped the sides. “Patrick and Elaine's lawyer, Don Evans, agreed to meet me tomorrow morning. There is a will. He insisted that Philippa be there and that’s a good thing. She’s going to have to learn to deal with what life has handed her. At least, we’ll know what-is-what once the will is read.”
A fine drizzle fell during the night leaving the morning air sweet with ozone. Grey clouds were breaking apart to reveal a promise of a clear blue sky. Hustling about the house Helen brewed coffee, unloaded the dishwasher and let Sable out into the fenced yard before calling up the stairs to Philippa. “Time to get up, dear, we have to be on our way in a half hour.” When Philippa came downstairs her eyes were red from lack of sleep and bouts of crying. She let Sable in the back door, wiped his paws, reveled in his nuzzling and fed him. “I’m never going to let you go.” She whispered in his ear.