“It really is lovely having you over,” Mrs. Fulton said as they all sat down around the dinner table. The Shepherds nodded their heads, seeming to gaze at the setup with scrutinizing eyes.
“Quite,” Mrs. Shepherd said. “We haven’t done this sort of thing in a long time. It’s nice to visit with others and get out of your own house every once in a while.”
As the adults talked, Beth and Hannah stared at each other from across the table, an awkward silence passing between them. They weren’t just looking at each other; they were gazing at each others’ respective guardians. Cynder stood behind Beth, leaning against the wall with a small smile on his face. Cecil stood behind Hannah, a hard look on his face. They were each staring at each other as if daring the other to do something.
Neither of the girls ate much. Hannah had just enough to not look rude, and Beth only ate when her grandmother started giving her disapproving looks. If it weren’t for all that had happened between them, and between their families in general, it would have been a perfectly lovely evening.
Mrs. Fulton brought out a silk pie for dessert. Everyone had a piece except for Beth, who politely refused by saying she was full. When they finished their pie, the two families migrated into the living room to sit and talk. The tension in the air was almost tangible as they started running out of things to talk about.
At some point, Hannah excused herself to go to the bathroom. Once she had left the room, Bill Fulton sat up straighter and looked at Beth with a smile. “Well, I don’t see why we have to wait around any longer. I did say we should start having one-on-one counseling sessions. Why not start them tonight?”
Beth shrank down and shook her head slowly. Her grandma nudged her and made her stand. Bill stood as well, the smile on his face growing ever wider. He put his arm around Beth’s shoulder and led her into his office, closing the door behind them. He made her sit on the armchair opposite his desk before taking his seat behind the desk.
“Now then, Bethany, I want you to tell me how you feel. Be honest with me. I want to help you.”
Beth glanced around the room, not able to find Cynder anywhere which made her feel far more vulnerable and uncomfortable. It was best, she decided, to keep quiet about everything that happened before and to cooperate for the time being.
“I feel… empty inside. Hollow. Like I’m not really alive, just a shell.”
Bill leaned forward, his elbows propped up on his desk and his chin resting in his palms. “Oh? Please, go on.”
“I feel like nobody really cares about me.” Beth turned her face away, both so she wouldn’t have to look at him and because she felt like she was about to start crying and didn’t want him to see. “I’ve always been treated this way my whole life, and it’s even worse now that Mom is gone.”
“Why is that? Is it because you felt like she was the only one who cared about you?”
“No! She didn’t care about me, that’s why! And everyone around me is making it even worse, and I just can’t…” Her breathing became labored and she pressed her face into her hands. “I can’t do this anymore!”
Beth was starting to cry now. Bill watched her for a few moments before standing and walking over and crouching down in front of her, laying a hand on her shoulder.
“Now now, my dear, it’s alright. I can tell you the root of your problem. You see, being a girl and not growing up with any significant father figure has made things difficult for you. True, you had your grandfather, but clearly he isn’t the best example for a young lady, given how your mother turned out. You need a strong man to keep you in line, to show you God’s way. Being raised by your mother alone did not give you what you needed.”
Beth stiffened when he touched her. “Keep me in line?”
“Well of course. The man is the head of the woman. That’s how it works. Before she is married, her father is in charge of her, and after she’s married it’s her husband’s duty. It’s the Word of God.”
She clenched her hands tightly, turning her face away from him. She wasn’t able to say anything, knowing anything she did say would get her into trouble. He continued speaking, and as he talked he leaned in closer to her.
“You know, I tried to tell this to your mother and she refused to listen to me. She was stubborn and foolish and far out of line. As I’ve said before, she led a life steeped in sin.”
“If… if the father is in charge of an unmarried woman, then what gave you the right to do anything to her?” Beth said quietly, shaking visibly. Bill’s grip on her shoulder tightened a little.
“Because I’m also a deacon,” he said, a wry smile on his face. “I have authority in such matters even over a woman’s father. Matters of spiritual discipline, that is. And besides, your grandfather did nothing to keep her in line, so that’s why I stepped in.”
Beth wanted to run away, to get as far from this man as she could, but now that he was so close to her there was no possible way for her to run. At this point she couldn’t find anything else to say. She was having a hard time getting enough air into her lungs.
Bill leaned in closer so he was whispering into her ear. “I have a feeling your grandfather isn’t doing anything to teach you the way a father should, either. It’s such a shame. But I can teach you, Bethany. I can teach you all sorts of things.”
She felt his hands run over her body, down her back and across her arms, reaching her sides. Every touch made her shudder and she couldn’t breathe. It wasn’t like when Cynder held her. When he did it he was affectionate and caring. This felt violating.
“D-don’t, please,” she whimpered, trying to get away, but when she moved he gripped her tighter, standing and leaning over her.
“Ah-ah, you’re not going anywhere until we’ve finished our lesson,” he murmured in her ear. He continued stroking along her sides and soon his fingers found their way to the edge of her shirt, lifting it up and slipping under it so he was touching her bare skin. She let out a small cry, choking and freezing in his grasp. She felt like she was going to retch. She tried to cry out for Cynder but couldn’t make any sound at all.
The door to the office opened. Bill let go of Beth and stood, looking outraged. “Hannah, what the hell are you doing in here?”
Everything happened so fast that Beth could hardly process it. She saw Hannah in the doorway, holding a knife, and all of a sudden Hannah was in the room, rushing at her father and attempting to plunge the knife into his chest. Cynder was there, wrapping his arms around Beth and pulling her close. He leaned down and whispered in her ear, “This was what we’ve been waiting for, Beth. It’s all over now.”
Except it wasn’t. Hannah’s hand faltered, and rather than stabbing him through the heart, the knife veered off course and hit him in the shoulder instead. He yelled in pain and drew his hand back to hit Hannah, but a different hand caught him by the wrist. Cecil stood between Bill and his daughter, a look of rage in the angel’s eyes.
Hannah dropped the knife and ran out of the room. Beth’s head spun with everything that had just happened and she felt like she was about to lose consciousness. As her eyes started to shut, she saw Cecil grabbing Bill by the collar of his shirt. The angel was yelling in words she could not understand.
Cynder leaned down and whispered in her ear, “I think things are all over now. You can rest. We’ll take things from here.”