Berta bit back the sob even as tears streamed down her face. She collapsed into a heap on her bedroom floor at Martha’s feet and prayed that Bruno stayed in his room. As much as she wanted her brother there, it would better to suffer this alone. She had broken the room’s intercom after all, so the punishment was hers and hers alone. But, why did Martha have to be so cruel?
Another blow thudded across her shoulders and left a stinging line behind. The belt in Martha’s hand lifted, only to fall once more. Six. If Martha didn’t get angrier, and Berta kept quiet, there were only three more she’d have to suffer. Nine was a key number with her step-mother, for everything she did - as long as her anger didn’t get the better of her.
Berta braced and stuffed her right fist into her mouth to stifle any outcries as the belt landed another stinging, thudding blow. It left an echo of stinging pain slightly lower down her back this time. Another landed slightly sideways, and the edge of the thick leather belt bruised one of her ribs. One more left. She ducked her head in anticipation and secretly mopped at her nose with the sleeve of her shirt.
Yet, it didn’t fall. Berta glanced up, hesitant and fearful, not wanting to see the look of pure hatred in her step-mother’s eyes. Martha stood there, belt raised over her head. A shiver ran through Berta’s body at the fire that burned in Martha’s scowling gaze. In that moment’s reprieve from the blows, Berta’s body screamed in pain. The wounded muscles pulsed, and her skin stung. Along the left side of her face, a swelling, stinging, throb burned from Martha’s earlier back-hand. Along the bone in her cheek, where Martha’s knuckles connected, pain thrummed with Berta’s racing heartbeat.
Martha’s voice was cold, as she spoke down at Berta’s crumpled form. “You are too old for this my dear. Why do you still fight me so?”
Any answer that might have arisen, stuck in Berta’s throat. Too afraid to speak, and just as terrified not to answer, the conflict locked her voice away. What could she say? Martha wanted the truth, but that wasn’t something Berta dared to share - not when it would bring more pain. But, it was the need for privacy that drove her to this. Privacy that was not allowed in this household, at least not for her and her brother.
Teenagers are unruly and hormone driven, and thus untrustworthy. Their brains aren’t developed enough to makerationalchoices.
Martha’s words haunted her dreams, and were what finally fueled the rebellion. The intercom lay on her bed, its plastic housing stripped of its wires almost in the same way Martha had tried to strip their privacy away. Berta’s attempted sabotage foiled by Martha’s unexpected return home from work.
“Well?” Martha’s question demanded an answer.
Berta swallowed. When she spoke her voice wavered, “I... I’m sorry.”
“You should be, but not sorry enough to look at me with such ungrateful hate in your eyes.” Martha said as the belt came down again, harder this time. Berta gasped, tears fell from her eyes in a steady stream, and she choked on the mucus that streamed down the back of her throat.
“I will have order in this household! If you want me to go easy on you,” Martha motioned towards the ruined intercom, “you shouldn’t be doing things like this.”
“You are here by grounded. I would restrict you from the event tomorrow, but I don’t trust you in this house by yourself.” Martha scowled down at Berta, and shifted her weight to the other leg. “When we get back, two week of no television, no friends, and you are allowed only in your room or cleaning the bathrooms with a toothbrush.”
The self-righteous gleam in Martha’s eyes as she spoke sparked a bubble of indigent rage inside Berta’s chest. Yet, she remained silent and averted her gaze.
Suddenly, searing pain across her scalp heralded the frighteningly powerful yank that drew Berta to her feet. Martha’s grip in her hair was vice-like, and for a few second she dangled a scant half inch above the floor. Dread sent ice into Berta’s whole body. Wide frightened eyes met Martha’s burning expression. They stared at each other for a long moment. Berta’s hands unconsciously crept towards Martha’s, the desire to ease the sharp, pulling, pain too much to control the response. Martha gave her a shake and dropped her onto her bed, next to the intercom housing. Lifting her head high and looking down her nose at Berta, Martha sneered.
“And you know, I will speak to your fatherfirst,” she paused to grab the intercom housing with a swift snatch. “So any words you may have for him won’t matter.”
The warning was clear. Go ahead, tell your father, he won’t believe you anyway.
“Which reminds me,” Martha leaned over with a narrowed-eye snarl, “I have yet to get an apology from you, little miss. Snooping where you didn’t belong.”
Like you snoop on us?Berta fought to keep the sneer off her face, which the thought provoked, and twined her fingers into a fist around a wad of her bedspread. Her eyes continued to stream tears, but these were hot and angry now.
“- and then telling your father about myalternative religion,” Martha laughed, but it was dark and perverse. “I told you not to say anything and you made an utter fool of yourself.”
Berta curled her legs up into her chin and watched Martha from under her eyebrows. Her stepmom was right, she had made an utter fool of herself. Worse, she had discovered the depth of the hold that Martha had on her father. The woman’s evilness knew no bounds, and she hid it too well. From sacrificing live animals on a blood altar for some unspeakably grotesque demon, to the mental and social manipulations that kept others in the dark - it was all too much.
Such evil only happened in fairy tales, right?
Without hard evidence neither Bruno nor her father would believe her. In the last three years of living in their household, Martha’s dark secrets kept to themselves and none of them knew the truth. The memory of that evening, only two months ago, left Berta chilled. Martha wanted an apology, for having her evil truths revealed? Never.
“You have nothing to say?” Martha laughed in mocking tones and stood up, the backs of her hands on her hips. The plastic housing dangled precariously from the fingertips of one hand. “I’ll get my apology eventually, you little brat. When you finally accept that I’m here to stay, youwillcome crawling.”
With a spin on her heel, Martha turned and stormed out of Berta’s bedroom. She paused with the door handle gripped firmly in her free hand, and looked back over her shoulder at Berta.
“It’s that, or I will kill you myself. You will not interfere with my plans, little one.” Martha sneered at her, “You have no power over me.”
With that she pulled the door shut firmly, without slamming it. Her footsteps echoed down the short hall, with little pauses every few steps. Finally, the stairs creaked as she walked down them and into the second story level. Fading, fading, fading, and finally too faint to hear, Berta’s room was left in an eerie, drafty, silence.
A shaking hand reached into the top drawer of her night stand. From it she pulled out four medallions on long thin chains. They sparkled golden in the lamplight. Three of them were warm to the touch and pulsed as if they had heartbeats of their own. It was an added layer of protection, she prayed it was enough.
She stuffed them into her bag. A hand caressed the pocket where the medallions laid hidden. It was something she had learned how to do, crafting protective trinkets. The Wiccans at the corner store down on South Street had taught her a thing or two, and even lent her a few books. She wasn’t sure they’d work, after all she wasn’t an actual witch. Right?
Magic wasn’t actually real either, at least not the magic from fairy tales. Right? Casting spells from some book borrowed from a dusty old bookstore didn’t count as “real” witchcraft, right? God, she hoped not. Messing with the unknown powers out there was too much like trying to cook on a hot stove in the dark - dangerous and messy.
Of course, Bruno didn’t know about her studies or the medallions, either. Her heart ached. Sometime soon, once they were far away fromher, she’d tell him. She sighed.
Suddenly overwhelmed, she sunk back to her spot on the floor. Her body hurt, her heart ached, and her mind whirled with anxiety. Today had to be the worst possible day ever. The teen clung to her bedspread and buried her face into its softness and wept.