The door bangs open, and the man stands in the threshold, silhouetted by the yellow electric light. The leather belt dangles from his hand, and beneath the bed, Mick notices he holds the buckle in his fist.
Cowering beside him, Mandy’s terrified breathing booms in Mick’s ears. He squeezes her small hand until his fingers ache from the tension. Mick tries to slow his own breath, and to clear his mind. It is a good sign their father is holding the buckle in his clenched fist instead of letting it scrape across the wooden floor. He will not use the buckle this time, but the lashing is imminent.
A careless comment he made to Mandy, and the stepmother overheard, and now his father knows, and the lashing will not be for Mick, but for his little sister who knows too well how punishment works in this house.
Mick was the offender, and Mandy will be punished. And when Mandy errs, the punishment falls on Mick, and on her as well, for good measure. This family always punishes Mandy for her existence.
The father steps into the darkened bedroom, and the heavy footfall shakes the floor while the adrenaline slithers up Mick’s spine, winding him up, like his toy cars. One more move, and he is ready to spring because Mandy means the world to him. In Mandy’s eyes he sees Mom, whose photograph graces his nightstand. Mom, a hazy woman Mandy only met long enough to bid her farewell when she came into the world.
The belt dangles by the bed, and the children fix their terrified eyes on it. Lightning strikes and thunder claps and startles Mick, ready to jump out of his skin.
The howling wind roars outside the window, and the sudden storm makes the father hesitate. A red glow beams into the room, and the oak branch scrapes and scratches against the windowpane. The red wind howls and bangs and slams against the glass, warping it with such force it might shatter. Still, the father coils the leather belt around his fist, and the scared children watch the belt lift out of view, obscured by the hanging bedspread.
Mandy’s breath hitches, the time has come. And Mick prepares to lunge, the time has come.
But the oak branch bursts through the window and the wind roars into the room, toppling the framed photograph on the nightstand. It startles the father, and he gazes at the photograph with a mixture of rancor and love and devotion and anger. The father’s eyes narrow with hatred for the daughter who took his wife. The look-alike that ripped the woman he loved from the inside out as she pushed her way into this world and has the gall to steal her mother’s features, and mar them, deface them and spoil them with a port-wine stain slashed across her cheek.
Seething, the father stoops to snatch the girl from her hiding place and give her something to cry about. Mandy whimpers as the strong fingers reach under the bed and search for her.
“Bite him,” a soft voice whispers in Mandy’s ear as the hand touches her.
She obeys and clamps her tiny teeth on the robust palm. The father screeches and pulls his hand back as the red glow intensifies. Mick pounces to tackle the father, but he falls flat on the floor.
The father hovers against the wall, and a figure gleaming in hues of white and red holds him by the throat. Mick’s jaw drops open; he stares at Mom, larger than life, choking his father against the wall. Through her, as though seeing through a red veil, he sees his father’s terrified face staring into his dead wife’s eyes.
“Never again,” she booms and the room shakes, “never touch my children again!