“When I was a little girl, I would often hide away in my wardrobe. I felt safe in there: surrounded by soft knitted sweaters and my collection of buttons. With the doors shut, I would have tea parties under the glow of a hundred tiny stars, each one stickered by me. It smelled like my mother too. I had used her perfume bottle to spray every piece of clothing I owned. It was the perfect hideaway. I could even keep watch from inside. The doors were slatted at just the right angle for me to see a little way across my bedroom floor. But sometimes, I would forget to keep an eye out...”
“And what would happen when you forgot, Willow?” probes my therapist, Dr. Janette Carter - cold as usual in her tone and demeaner. I close my eyes tight and remember.
I jump at the loud crash of the wardrobe doors being forced open. I gasp as my eyes become temporarily blinded by the bright lights invading my safe place.
“What trouble are you up to, girl?!” he bellows as he yanks me out by my arm, causing one of my tea cups to shatter on the wooden floor. “I told you not to touch your mother’s things. Give me that!”
He takes my mother’s perfume bottle from me, and that single act cuts me deeper than the broken porcelain slicing into my knee.
Also present at the therapy session is my older stepsister, Zara. “Well, you shouldn’t have taken Mother’s things,” she scolds. “You know Father was especially sensitive after she passed that year.”
Her words bewilder me. “But she told me I could have it! Mother said it as she lay sick in bed that final day, in front of all of us!”
“You clearly are remembering it wrong,” Zara states flatly.
“You and I remember a lot of things differently, sister,” I bite back bitterly.
“Elaborate,” directs Dr. Carter.
“What about the incident in the lake behind our house?” I begin.
It’s an early summer morning, and the air is still crisp. Lately, I’ve been practicing making small sailboats out of sticks and leaves to see how far they can float. With each sendoff, I make a quiet wish for them to journey peacefully along the lake's calm waters.
Encroaching like a dark cloud rolling in, a shadow looms over me, causing me to shiver, “It’s high time you learnt to swim, girl,” he announces.
“But I’m frightened of the deep water,” I plead.
My words make no difference to him; he pulls my dress off me and dumps it on the ground. I have no choice but to wade into the cold water with him in nothing but my underwear. As the water reaches my throat, I stop.
“Come on now!” he hastens, as he grabs my wrist and pulls me deeper. He then proceeds to hold me up by his waist as we go further in, only stopping when we reach the middle of the lake.
I get one instruction: “Start kicking.” Then, he throws me away from him and into the water.
I immediately start swallowing water as I flail around helplessly. My vision blurs, but I somehow manage to find him with the tips of my fingers. I swear I see him smirk before he throws me away from him a second time.
“I can’t breathe!” I splutter as I start to sink again. Underneath the water, I hear warped laughter. My desperation turns to determination as I thrash and kick with everything I’ve got. This time when I find him, I claw my way up his back and hold on tight with both arms and legs. He isn’t able to throw me off of him anymore.
I open my eyes and glare at my stepsister on the therapy couch across from me. My steel gaze dares her to challenge my version of events.
“What’s wrong with teaching you to swim, Willow?” Zara scoffs. “Dad taught me to swim too, and he was holding your hand the entire time.”
“How would you know? You were at the other side of the lake!” My heart lurches. “I was only seven, Zara. Even at fifteen, you should have been able to understand what was going on.”
My therapist raises her hand to stop me and interjects again, “Let’s rehash what happened on your eighth birthday.”
I clear my throat. “All I wanted for my eighth birthday was to go to the playground at the local park.”
I used to come here with Mother all the time. I remember the sound of her laughter as I would point out every dog that walked by. The people here used to say how much we looked alike. We had the exact same shade of auburn hair, and I would love nothing more than when she braided our hair to match. I miss her gentle hands; I miss her.
I look around at the children laughing on the play equipment and feel alone.
Unexpectedly, a heavy hand grips my shoulder. “I think you’re finally old enough to go down the big slide, wouldn’t you say?”
I turn and find his expression to be fairly neutral. Maybe things are beginning to return to the way they were? Maybe he will go back to normal?
I look up at a slide three times as tall as the one I usually go down. The steps are steep and sharp, and the metal platform at the very top is small.
“Will you help me climb to the top?” I ask.
Together we make our way up the solid stairs, myself first, with him close behind me. Each step makes a loud metal clang as we climb higher.
I look down from the very top of the slide and start to feel dizzy.
“I think I’ve changed my mind,” I hesitate.
“You can’t back out now.”
“No, I don’t want to.” I turn to go back down the stairs, but he blocks my path.
“You have to do it.”
“No!” I struggle against him, but he gives me a solid push. Only, I don’t go down the slide; instead, I fall off the side of the platform and land hard on my arm with a sickening crunch.
“My arm was broken for two months,” I conclude to both Dr. Carter and my stepsister.
Zara can’t wait to defend him. “From what I saw, you simply slipped and fell.”
“He pushed me. He was trying to hurt me.”
“Now, Willow,” Dr. Carter begins, “We’ve talked about how you get confused sometimes.”
“I’m not confused, Janette.”
“It’s Dr. Carter.”
“He also tried to run me over with his car on our driveway, Janette.”
“You need to be open to the truth, Willow.”
“The truth, you say? The truth is that he put my cat behind his car and waited for me to attempt to rescue her. Either I would watch my cat die, or I would be crushed along with her. A win-win for him really. Unlucky for him though, I was able to save us both.”
“You’re actually deluded,” Zara accuses in disdain, “Why would he even want to hurt you and not me?”
“It was different for you because he was your biological father. But there was more to it than me not being his child. It took some growing up to see what I didn’t understand before. The reality is that he hated me, just like he hated my mother."
“Please! Why would he hate her?”
“She was planning on leaving him. She used to tell me fairy tales of how she and I would ride away in a beautiful carriage and never return. I even saw her packing a suitcase before she got sick. Remember when he got angry at her for whispering on the phone?”
“You’re deranged. You’re making all of this up.”
“He was happy when she got sick. She was a bird with clipped wings in his cage. But even when she passed, it wasn’t enough. He hated that I reminded him of her. The same eyes as Mother’s staring back at him. He wanted to see mine lifeless too.”
Dr. Carter cuts in. “Willow, I think it’s time we talk about that day out in the woods.”
The thought of dead animals has always made my stomach sink. I can’t bear to go near the fence where he hangs the bodies of the rabbits and foxes he has shot for fun. Even at a distance, I can still smell the blood in the air.
“You’re coming hunting with me today, girl,” he commands.
“No! I don’t want to see you take innocent life away!” I cry.
“Me? With any luck, you’ll be getting your first kill today, ha-ha.” After gathering his weapons and supplies, he marches me out into the woods.
He gives me his handgun while he holds onto his rifle. He shows me how to grasp it and even how to fire it. It’s loud and scary, but I'm okay as long as I’m not aiming it at any animals.
After some time, he grows frustrated as we both miss a few birds and other small animals. I have purposefully been misaiming and stepping on twigs to scare the animals away. I miss again and can’t help but laugh.
“You think you’re so clever, don’t you?” he growls. “Go over into that bush and flush out a rabbit.”
“Do what I tell you!”
I slowly walk over to the bushes, the gun heavy in my hand. It’s not long before I spot a burrow. I panic and look back over at him.
My blood turns cold. “What are you doing?” I ask in terror as I see him aiming his rifle directly at me.
“Hunting rabbit,” he sneers.
The last thing I remember is raising my arm and pointing the handgun at him.
This time, I don’t miss.
“You’re a murderer! You murdered my father!” Zara shouts with a pointed finger as she stands from the couch.
“He was trying to kill me; it was self-defense,” I say calmly.
Dr. Carter taps her pen impatiently on her notebook. “Unless you’re willing to show remorse and admit that what you did to your stepfather was wrong, I won’t be able to recommend an early release at your upcoming hearing. Don’t you think eight years has been long enough? You’re sixteen now, Willow; they’ll transfer you to the adult wing soon enough.”
“I know the truth. I would rather spend another eight years in this psychiatric hospital than even suggest that he wasn’t evil,” I say with conviction.
“Dr. Carter, please buzz me out of this room,” says Zara. “This was a waste of time. There's no way I'm giving her a good character reference at the next hearing. I can’t stand to even look at her anymore.”
“Guards, please escort me and the visitor out of the room. Then please take the patient back to isolation.”
I smirk. “Thanks for the chat, Janette.”