Oh God, please. Let it stop.

Not for the first time, or even the thousandth, the thought streaked through Rachel’s mind. Every time, she thought it would be the last; that her endurance would simply give out and she would go with it, winking out like a candle. So long, see you later, alligator, don’t forget to write. By the time she was ten, she had begun to pray that it would happen; by the time her thirteenth birthday came around, she had begun to dread that it would not.

Mother stood over her, seeming to loom despite her small stature, bearing the look of a stone idol more than a being of flesh and blood. Her frayed print dress hung slack on her skeletal frame, the brown and yellow daffodil pattern dulled from constant washing and now stained a muddy brown with the blood of her daughter. Mother had gotten quite adept with the switch over the years, knowing just where to strike to inflict maximum pain but minimal physical damage, but in the fifteen years Rachel had been imprisoned in this attic room, a great deal of trial and error had been committed; even after such extensive experience, Mother’s zealotry still occasionally overruled that hard-won experience, leading to fresh stains, thick and red in contrast to the murk of the dress itself.

“You never learn, wicked child. I’ve always known you were slow – it’s the devil in you, I know it is – but still, you’d think at least some of your lessons would have taken root.”

Rachel wasn’t even certain what she’d done wrong. Had she placed a book in the wrong spot, missed a maroon droplet marring the floor from a previous punishment? Had her eyes flickered with a brief flash of hatred when Mother had come to loosen the shackles this morning or had Mother seen the dull rage in those otherwise placid grey eyes when she glanced out the window to see Celia, free and happy and playful, running along the beach below?

Any of those things, all of them, none of them, or something that existed only in Mother’s mind. That mind was unknowable to Rachel, and even at fifteen, she knew better than to probe too deeply. Mother’s madness might be catching.

Worse, Mother might sense that probing, and do some of her own. Rachel couldn’t have that. Mother might see, might know about her friend, and make her go away.

Rachel would rather die than let that happen. But some days, like today, the pain was so huge, dwarfing any concept of survival, that she felt that moment would come sooner rather than later.

(The story continues here!)

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