Mitch had just enough time to toss her glowing backpack into the brush before Graham stepped into the clearing.
“Mitch!” he cried with relief. “What on earth—”
“Oh granddaddy!” Mitch cut in, running to his side.
Graham’s face was strained with worry and fatigue. He leaned heavily on his walking stick and tried to catch his breath.
“I’m so sorry!” Mitch grabbed hold of her grandfather’s arm to steady him.
As Graham regained his strength his tone turned stern.
“Your principal called, young lady. My granddaughter—skipping classes?! In all my born days, I ain’t been this shocked!”
Mitch hated being scolded by her grandfather, but she knew she deserved it. She was in hot water now.
“Well,” Graham said, looking at her expectantly. “What have you got to say for yourself?”
“I think what the girl is trying to say,” said a cool voice from behind. “Is that she hasn’t an acceptable excuse.”
Mitch swung around. The amber eyes that greeted hers looked amused. Oren Arlington pulled his niece’s bag from behind his back and dumped the contents onto the floor.
“Hey!” Mitch protested. “What do you think you’re—” but she stopped short as The Corridor Atlas fell to the ground.
Oren held out a hand. The book shot up into his open palm and began to glow.
“Granddaddy,” Mitch started, desperate to explain, “I’m sorry—I—”
“Why is that book glowing, Oren?” Graham asked, ignoring Mitch completely. His eyes were locked on the book in his brother’s hand.
“Because, Graham,” Oren replied evenly. “The Corridor has been reopened.”
Graham stared at his brother in disbelief. “It can’t be.”
“It is,” Oren said simply, but his face betrayed much deeper emotion. Something terrible had happened.
Graham shook his head and tried to gather his senses. He needed to steel himself against his brother.
“Where did you get that book, Mitch?” he demanded.
“Graham!” Oren interjected. “Surely your reprimands can wait. Do you understand me, man? The Corridor—”
“I don’t give a lick about the Corridor, Oren! And you have no right to interfere in my business with my granddaughter!”
“I have every right, little brother,” Oren replied pointedly. “Mitch is my family too, and she has a birthright—one that you have been hiding from her all these years.”
“How dare you?!” Graham exploded. “How dare you claim kinship to my granddaughter when it was YOU who destroyed our family?! I won’t let you start this up again, Oren Arlington. You stole my only son from me when you convinced him to go chasing after this girl’s mother.”
Mitch was stunned. She knew very little about her parents—only that they disappeared mysteriously when she was just five. They had dropped her off at Graham’s for a visit one morning, promising to be back before dinner to pick her up, but they never returned. Graham had always reassured Mitch her parents would never abandon her. Something had happened to them—he was sure of it—but if he had any idea what, he wouldn’t say.
With each passing year, Mitch lost a little more hope her parents might come back. Sometimes she wondered if they left her on purpose after all. Over the past two days, however, it had become clear there was more to the past than her grandfather was letting on. Mitch’s stomach tightened with anger at the thought of all the secrets he had been keeping from her, but Graham was too heated to notice the dark cloud passing his granddaughter’s face.
“You knew what you were doing when you sent Ryland into the Trust! You knew Vella would see right through him. You knew he wouldn’t be able to resist her dark charms, especially with his—preservationist leanings.”
Graham spat out the words in disgust.
The corners of Oren’s mouth curled in satisfaction. His brother still had some fire left in him.
“Wipe that stupid grin off your face,” Graham ordered. “I know what you’re thinking, but you’re wrong! I have no interest in continuing this fight, and you have no interest in my granddaughter!”
“That’s where you’re wrong, brother,” Oren replied firmly. “I do have an interest in Mitch. We all do.”
At the sound of her name, Mitch decided she’d had enough of people arguing over her head as if she were invisible. The past they were fighting about belonged to her as much as anyone else. Why should she be so in the dark about it?
“That’s enough!” she cried out. Both men looked at her with mild surprise, as if they really had forgotten she was standing between them.
Mitch turned to Graham with her hands on her hips.
“Look granddaddy, you can be mad at Uncle Oren all you want, but that doesn’t change the fact that you’ve been keeping secrets from me. I’ve known that for some time now because…well because…”
Mitch dropped her arms to her sides and took a deep breath. She hated that she was about to break her grandfather’s trust in her, but it was time for the truth to come out. She looked him straight in the eyes.
“Because I’ve been reading those books you keep locked away in the attic.”
Graham frowned disapprovingly.
“I know, okay, but I was curious! So last night, after you went out to the porch for your tea, I snuck upstairs and found that book.”
She pointed to the atlas in Oren’s hands.
Graham looked incredulous. “That book? In my attic? Impossible!”
“I came across it years ago,” Mitch insisted. “But it didn’t make sense then. Yesterday, when you told me about the Corridor, I thought back to the atlas, and I wondered if it might be able to answer some of the questions I have.”
Mitch looked at her grandfather searchingly, but Graham was glaring at his brother with tight lips. She could see he wasn’t going to volunteer any information.
“Anyway,” she huffed. “That’s why I missed class today. I was reading at lunch and lost track of time. I’m sorry for that, granddaddy, and I’m sorry I worried you too, but I need answers, and I’m not getting them—not from you, not from him,” she pointed Oren. “Not even from that old book!” Mitch threw up her hands in frustration.
“It’s filled with all these weird drawings and symbols. I can barely make sense of it! And I’m not even sure if the things I think I’m understanding are real—voyage vessels and time anchors—who could possibly believe in all that?”
Oren let out a loud snort and Graham shot him a nasty look. Mitch stomped her foot to bring the attention back to her.
“I’m flat sick of the mystery, you two.” She turned to Graham. “Granddaddy, I’m sorry I’ve been hiding things from you, but I know now that you’ve been hiding things from me too. I want answers, and I want them now!”
Mitch crossed her arms over her chest and looked expectantly from her grandfather to her great-uncle. Oren and Graham looked from Mitch to each other. It was Oren who finally broke the silence.
“Well ain’t you a little spit-fire?” he said, bursting into laughter.
Graham smiled in spite of himself, but his face quickly turned serious again.
“Oh Mitch,” he said, drawing her into a hug.
Mitch could feel her anger recede as she breathed in the familiar scents of cypress and magnolia.
“You have to believe me when I tell you that everything I’ve done since you’ve been in my care—every secret I’ve ever kept—has been in the interest of keeping you safe.”
He hugged Mitch tight, and when he released her she could see that his eyes had watered over with tears.
“Granddaddy, I’m sorry,” she started, but Graham put up a hand.
“No Mitch, as much as I hate to admit it, your Uncle Oren is right.”
Oren raised an eyebrow. “I am?”
“Yes, Oren—you insufferable fool!” Graham scowled at his brother. “You’re right. Mitch has a birthright, and if the Corridor really has been reopened—”
He stopped short and looked Mitch over with deep concern.
Oren nodded and pulled a silver case from his pocket. He flipped open the lid and offered his brother a cigar. Graham refused. Oren shrugged, pulled a cigar from the case, and lit the end.
“Well then,” he said between puffs of blue smoke. “If Mitch wants answers, we had better get to Ol’ Cypress.”
“We?” Graham asked sharply. “Don’t tell me you got summons to Ol’ Cypress too.”
“Of course,” Oren replied smoothly. “What else would have brought me back to this infernal swampland?” His eyes darted to Mitch.
Graham’s eyes narrowed.
Oren puffed lightly on his cigar.
“It can’t have slipped your mind that we still have agents out there. Now that the Corridor’s back open, we can finally retrieve Ian.” Oren looked hard at Graham. “Or Ryland, or even—”
Graham shot his brother a warning look. Oren gave an exasperated sigh.
“At any rate,” he continued. “We’d better get going.”
Oren turned toward the creek and disappeared into the brush. Graham looked at Mitch expecting more questions, but she was already bounding down the hill after her uncle.
New chapters of The Secret Corridor will be published every Friday to CorridorCounty.com. Listen at Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or Buzzsprout.