I grimace and glance at my sister across the room. She is engrossed in her Lite-Brite creation, hunched over the glowing board with her blond hair hanging in her eyes, a preview of the brilliant artist she'll become later in life. She hasn't looked up in what seems like hours, but I know as soon as I so much as flinch, she'll tell. I let out a little whimper. My skin is crawling. I'm going insane from the itch. My fingers twitch and another whimper escapes.
"It itches," I moan.
"So scratch it," she says, disinterested, still sorting the green lights from the red.
I'm desperate to scratch, dying to rake my nails across my arms until I tear off the skin if that's what it takes. But She told me not to, and I'm terrified of Her. "I'll get in trouble," I whine.
"Just scratch it. She's not even in here."
I'm beginning to panic. The itch is unbearable, but the punishment is sure to be worse. "Noooo," I wail. "She'll know."
"No she won't. Just scratch it."
I kneel down, turn my back and press myself even further into the corner. I let my own blond hair fall forward in an effort to further conceal my disobedience. And slowly, I graze the fingernails of my right hand across the eruption of bug bites on my left arm. The relief is so great, I begin to cry. I sink to the floor and scratch at my arms feverishly, lost in the sweet satisfaction.
"Mom!" my sister shrieks, "She's scratching her bites again."
I freeze, terrified, furious, betrayed. I hear the angry footsteps of my step-mother coming down the hallway. I stand, still pressed into the safety of my corner, and turn to face her. She bursts into the bedroom, already screaming, and pulls me out of the corner by my hair. She shoves me on the bed, disrupting the sorted Lite-Brite pegs, for which I will suffer my sister's wrath later that night. She is a whirlwind of noise and insults and hands and teeth. And as I always do during her tirades, I focus on her mouth, her teeth, her monster's jaw tearing apart insults and spitting them in my face. I am told that I am stupid, that I am fat and ugly, that it's no wonder my real mother doesn't love me. I am pelted with obscenities. I am shaken, I am smacked, I am shoved, I am spanked. When it is all over, I am delighted to discover that the bites no longer itch, but am unable to control the tears streaming down my face. And crying is not allowed.
I am led out of the bedroom, through the living room, and out the front door. It is winter in Colville and there are several feet of snow on the ground. She is no longer yelling but still angry, hissing at me through clenched teeth, her hot breath a stark contrast to the winter air biting my cheeks.
When the lecture is complete she storms back into the house, leaving me alone to shiver on the porch without a coat, without a hat, without shoes. Bewildered, I tiptoe to the window. My hands sting; my bare feet stick to the frozen porch. My sister's face peers back at me from the warmth of our bedroom.
Suddenly, the door flies open and my step-mother emerges to yank me away from the window. She tugs on the pink nylon of my night gown until it is around my waist, yanks off my underwear, and storms back into the house, locking the door behind her.
It seems like hours pass. I am ushered back into the house mere minutes before my dad gets home, my frozen body thrown under the covers of a deliciously warm bed where I writhe in pain as my bones thaw. From the bedroom, I can hear their voices. I hear my father, concerned, wonder why I'm already in bed. I hear her tell him that I am exhausted from the beautiful day we had together. And he believes her.
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