This story is by Vanessa Victoria Kilmer and was part of our 2018 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Victoria screamed as the door slammed shut and the bolt slid into place. She banged her small fists on the aged wood, splinters biting into the flesh of her hands. She kicked at the barrier, doing nothing more than injuring her toes. She stomped in frustration. She yelled at the top of her lungs, but no one came to let her out.
The cold and dark of the attic room of the nine-hundred-year-old farmhouse brought out goosebumps on her hot skin. Despite the heat her body produced from her fight, she shivered. The old stones of the building, thick dark slabs quarried from the Alps, kept out the light. Her senses damped down, focusing on only those things her brain created.
Her five-year-old mind conjured up a beast hiding in the murky shadows. Sharp teeth and long claws waited to punish her.
A chill draft brushed along the back of her neck. The breath of some long-dead resident of the building whispered. The ancient mountain man with gnarled fingers and long white hair and beard entangled her.
The serpent that lived in the salt caves high above the valley joined her. Its talons clicked along the marble floor, edging closer to her. It forced her to condense into a small ball for protection.
She did not need to imagine the real monster lurking on the other side of the door. Her mother, Francesca, had beautiful white blonde hair and eyes the color of frozen lakes. She wore clothes of untouchable perfection. Her laughter was sweet and her touch alluring to other adults.
Holding herself still, Victoria waited for the creatures to devour her. Instead, she felt a caress along her left cheek. She raised her head and looked into the luminous eyes of an angel. He folded her in his lap, his wings and arms hugging her small body and calming her shaking. He sang unintelligible lullabies in her ear and whispered soothing assurances. His familiar presence kept her quiet, and she fell asleep curled into his warmth.
The morning and the afternoon passed without her notice.
She played games with the angel. They built castles and palaces in the black space surrounding her. Her angel introduced her to the dead old man. She talked to the spirit of his living memories. He loved frothy ale, cows to herd into mountain pastures in bright, sunny summers and his wife’s warm brown bread. She petted the dragon, her fear evaporating in her growing acquaintance with him. The beast revealed himself to be a farm kitten, all fluff once he became used to Victoria.
She liked this world so much better than the one on the other side of the door where beauty hid fury and pain.
“Open that door.” The voice of the neighbor with the blind son penetrated into the dark room.
“She needs to learn to behave,” said Francesca. She never backed down. She was always right.
“She has not made a sound in ten hours.” The key scratched the lock. “She hasn’t eaten. There is no toilet in there. It’s pitch-black.”
Victoria scrambled closer to the door, sitting beside it, knees drawn to her chin. She crawled through a boarded-up window. She inched along the narrow wooden balcony and over to the second story privy. No one was around at the time. She snuck into the hallway and grabbed a couple of fresh rolls from the basket left by the baker’s delivery boy. She scared away a few pigeons on the way back into the attic room. She could stay in this room all day and night, quiet, and so still. Her mother would not recognize her as the little girl who ran around the small sitting room. The behavior that got Victoria banished to her prison.
“You’ve punished her enough,” said a male voice, not Victoria’s father. He was away, again.
“She will stay in there until she promises to be good. Until she apologizes for embarrassing me.”
Victoria heard scuffling. A bang vibrated to the door. A woman called out in pain. Metal tinkled on stone.
“Francesca,” said Victoria’s great-grandmother, Oma. “Let the child out.”
“The neighbors have gone,” said Oma. “No one is here to see you relent. Let the child out. I will watch her. You go out with your friends.”
Francesca would not be able to resist the offer.
Victoria tiptoed to the furthest corner, lay down and curled up. She closed her eyes.
The lock on the door clicked. The great slab of wood moved into the room. A shaft of light fell upon Victoria. Strong arms lifted her. She smelled vanilla tobacco. Oma kissed her forehead.
Francesca was already gone by the time Oma carried Victoria into the warm kitchen. Oma took Victoria to the washroom, the steam rising from the heated tile floors. Victoria loved bathing in the stone laundry tubs. Her whole body was pink and rosy and warm. She dressed in a long flannel nightgown and thick wool socks. Oma wrapped Victoria in her sweater, and they ran up the stone stairs to Oma’s apartment. Oma sliced two thick pieces of brown bread, slathered them in whipped, sweet butter. She topped them with golden honey fresh from the comb. Rosehip tea with thick cream and two tablespoons of sugar completed the treat. Victoria read her Cinderella book. The sisters who cut off their toes to fit the glass slipper fascinated her. Oma read her gossip magazine and said a decade of the rosary.
The cardboard fairy tale book slipped from her fingers. Oma guided Victoria into the freezing bedroom and hustled her under the feather pillows. The windows were wide open, letting in the winter night. Only Victoria’s nose and the top of her dirty blonde head showed from the white comforter. Victoria fell asleep dreaming of her fairy godmother taking her to her prince charming.
Pain in her thigh woke her. Her mother pinched her again.
“Wake up, you little monster.” Francesca’s breath burned Victoria’s ear. “You are not cute or clever, no matter how others may fawn over you.” The sharp smell of whiskey made Victoria wrinkle her nose. She kept still and quiet. Her mother twisted the skin on her leg between her fingers, scraping Victoria with her nails.
Francesca wrapped her arms around Victoria.
“I never wanted you,” she said as she held Victoria in her arms. “Your father wanted fourteen children. I wanted to dance.” Francesca placed her hand over Victoria’s mouth and closed her nose between her index finger and thumb. Victoria held still. She would not give her mother the satisfaction of knowing she was afraid.
“Keep quiet when my friends are around, or I will make sure you never make a sound again.” Francesca smoothed the hair on Victoria’s head. “I thought you’d be this cute little doll I could dress up for guests, then put away on a shelf.” Francesca yawned. Her hands fell away from Victoria. Little snores escaped from Francesca. Victoria crawled out from under the covers. She went into Oma’s room and crawled into bed with her.
The next day, Victoria locked herself in the bedroom. The key was on her side of the door. No one thought a five-year-old capable of locking or unlocking the door on her own. Her great-uncle Sebastian found a ladder in the barn. He placed it against the building, the bottom legs missing the bank of the canal. He reached the window and drew himself into the room. As he reached Victoria, she turned the key in the door and opened it. He laughed. He whisked her up and twirled her around and around.
“My clever little moppet,” he said.
Oma, great-aunt Tabitha and great-cousin Susan filled the doorway. They clapped and cheered that Victoria was able to unlock the door all by herself.
Francesca stood behind the other women. She narrowed her eyes and bared her teeth at Victoria. Mother and daughter locked eyes. Francesca pinched her nose between her thumb and forefinger.
“Can I sleep with you again tonight, Oma?” she asked. “You’re so warm and soft.”
“My sweet little angel,” said Oma.
Victoria blew her mother a kiss goodnight as Oma took her away.
A lifetime of battles had begun.