She only called her stepmother. Nothing else. Not mum, or mummy, or even her first name. Only stepmother. Good morning, stepmother. How are you, stepmother? Goodnight, stepmother. Stepmother. Stepmother. Stepmother. The word would echo with every taunt, every little reminder that she didn’t actually belong in this family. That it wasn’t her family to begin with.
Abigail couldn’t find it in her to resent Charlotte for her distance. It wasn’t an easy divorce for anyone involved and Charlotte must have watched it all from the side lines, unable to understand why her mummy and daddy weren’t getting along. And then her mother was gone for good. Three days after the divorce was finalised, Charlotte’s mother was killed in a car crash. A drunk driver drove her off the road and she broke her neck on impact. She was dead before the ambulance was even called. Charlotte didn’t know that, and Abigail prayed she never did.
When she had first met Joshua, he had been a broken man. Lost after his family fell apart and confused as to whether he had the right to grieve for his ex-wife. If they hadn’t kept running into one another, Abigail wouldn’t have given him a second thought, but soon she couldn’t deny that something seemed to be bringing them together.
She and Joshua married a year later, much to the dismay of nearly everyone in their lives. Joshua was told she was too young and he was being reckless. She was told that Joshua was too old and that he was just using her to feel better, but Abigail knew the truth. She and Joshua were meant to be. Even if it was difficult sometimes. Even if he got angry sometimes. Even if Charlotte hated her. It would be easy soon enough. She just had to be patient.
“Stepmother,” a quiet voice said from the doorway of the kitchen. Charlotte stood in her blue and white pyjamas, her short black hair tucked behind her ears, and her pale hands rubbing at her heavy eyes. “How did you sleep?”
“Okay,” Abigail said. “It was a bit warm though. Did you sleep well, sweetheart?”
“Yes, stepmother,” Charlotte said as she pulled her chair away from the table and sat down. She looked up at Abigail expectantly. Her eyes were cold and focused, unlike those of a child, and didn’t waver until a box of chocolate cereal was placed in front of her. Charlotte took the box and poured the cereal. She left the box open at her side and began picking up the pieces with her fingers. She ate them one at a time without any milk and refused to have anything to drink until she was done. The one time Abigail had prepared her a glass of juice to go with breakfast, Charlotte simply stared at it until she took it away, her small hands fisted at her sides.
It was the only time that Abigail had seen real emotion from Charlotte. The only emotion she could earn from her stepdaughter was anger. Nothing more.
“Good morning, ladies,” Joshua said with a wide smile. He ruffled Charlotte’s hair as he walked past her and kissed Abigail’s cheek. He sat down and grabbed the paper in front of him, unfolding it and skimming over the headlines as he spoke over his shoulder. “Eggs and bacon.”
“Yes, dear,” Abigail said. She went to the fridge and took out three eggs and a packet of turkey bacon. She placed them on the side and flinched as a hand suddenly grabbed her arm.
“What is that?” Joshua asked.
“Your breakfast,” Abigail said, her voice trembling.
“No,” he said. “I said I want bacon. Real bacon. Not that fake crap,”
“We don’t have any -,”
The newspaper slapped on the table causing Abigail to jump. She clutched her hand against her chest and bit her lip.
“I work all day while you get to sit around and do nothing in my house,” Joshua said as he grabbed his jacket from the back of the door. “All I ask is that you take care of the shopping. Is that too must to ask? Is it? Charlotte, do you think it’s too much?”
“No! No, it’s not,” Joshua turned back to Abigail. “Are you fucking stupid?”
“Save it,” Joshua said as he slammed opened the backdoor and walked away.
Abigail closed her eyes as she tried to steady her breathing. She exhaled slowly and blinked open her eyes, wiping the dampness away from her eyes before putting the eggs and bacon back. She sat down at the table and held her cup of tea, mostly so she had something to ground her.
“I’m finished, stepmother,” Charlotte said. “You should clean up. He won’t want to see a mess when he gets home.”
Abigail nodded and began collecting the barely touched dishes.
Charlotte opened the car door and slammed it shut as she shuffled into the cold passenger seat. She tucked her dark hair back behind her ears and yawned into the palm of her hand. Smacking her red lips, Charlotte turned to Abigail and tilted her head to the side.
“Why haven’t you started driving yet, stepmother?”
Abigail apologised and started the engine. She started the drive home and watched Charlotte from the corner of her eye. She didn’t know what to say. Charlotte never wanted to talk to her about school, or her friends, or anything else that may have been on her mind. At first, Abigail had assumed she was shy, but she saw the way she spoke to the other children and the other parents. She saw the smiling faces and animated gestures, and knew that it had nothing to do with Charlotte. It was because of her.
Abigail was the problem.
“You should watch the road,” Charlotte said suddenly, her eyes never facing away from the window. “If we get into an accident he’ll be very upset,”
Abigail felt a cold chill run down her spine at the ominous words. She couldn’t upset him again. Not twice in one day.
“Aren’t you going to ask about my day?” Charlotte said.
Abigail frowned. “You usually don’t like it when I ask about your day,” she said.
“No, but I can change my mind,” Charlotte said. “Can’t I?”
“Of course, sweetheart,” Abigail said quickly. “How was your day?”
“I learned a new recipe,” Charlotte said. “I would like to make it for you,”
Charlotte nodded. A strand of hair fell forward and Charlotte focused on the few loose pieces of hair before slowly moving it back behind her ear.
“Yes, I would like to make it for you. All for you,” Charlotte turned to Abigail and smiled. Her eyes empty and cold. “Do you like apple pie?”
The room filled with the scent of warm pastry and boiled fruit. It slowly ran through the kitchen and filled their home with the delicious taste of fresh apple pie. Abigail felt her stomach rumble as the scent met her in the living room. She hadn’t realised that she was hungry until she felt it build in the pit of her stomach. She walked towards the kitchen door and knocked twice, waiting to be allowed in. Charlotte had been very clear that she didn’t want Abigail in the kitchen while she was working.
“Come in,” Charlotte called.
Abigail pushed the door open and crept inside. She waited against the cupboards, observing the young girl as she sprinkled brown sugar over the top of the pastry and leaned forward to inhale deeply. As Charlotte closed her eyes, Abigail walked forward and rested her hands on the table that Charlotte stood next to.
“It looks delicious,” Abigail said quietly.
Charlotte opened her eyes and looked up at Abigail with a raised brow. Tilting her head to the side, she looked Abigail up and down and sighed.
“You shouldn’t eat too much of this,” Charlotte said. “You’ll get fat and then daddy wouldn’t want you anymore,”
Abigail stilled. She looked at her stomach and placed her hands against her hips. She hadn’t notice any weight gain, but she supposed that it could be possible. Pulling at her shirt, she watched at the fabric stretched against her lower stomach. It curved over the fullness of her belly, straining against the skin as she tugged. Abigail let go of her shirt. She would have a slice when it had cooled. And then she would go for a run.
Charlotte smiled. Her eyes still empty.
“Do you need some help cleaning up?” Abigail asked with a forced smile, her cheeks sore at the strain.
“No,” Charlotte said. “I’m tired. You do it,” Charlotte walked away and allowed the door to slam shut behind her.
Abigail looked at the mess around her. She would have to be quick. Joshua would be home soon.
Joshua smelt like strong alcohol and smoke.
By the time he arrived home, Charlotte had already tucked herself into bed and Abigail sat in her nightgown on the living room couch. She was staring at the television screen, but couldn’t comprehend what was going on. She didn’t even know what show she was suppose to be watching. When the front door open, Abigail jumped to her feet and rushed into the foyer.
“You’re home,” She said with a warm smile.
Joshua snorted as he took off his coat and hung it over the banister. He ruffled his already messy hair and rubbed at his bloodshot eyes. Cracking his neck, he yawned loudly and began making his way upstairs.
“I’m going to bed,” He called over his shoulder.
Abigail watched as he disappeared upstairs and felt her shoulders slump forward in disappointment. He was still upset with her. She would have to sleep downstairs again.
Tying her hair into a low ponytail, Abigail walked to the kitchen and flicked on the light. She stretched her arms over head and pulled herself up onto her toes. Dropping back down, she walked over to the fridge and grabbed the bottle of milk. Pouring a glass, she noticed the still untouched pie sitting on the side. She had already eaten a balanced dinner, most of the plate covered in greens, so it shouldn’t be too damaging to have one slice. Just a sliver. Maybe even a single bite.
She grabbed a damp fork and dried it on the bottom of her nightgown. She pressed it into the crust and licked her lips as she felt firm press through the pastry and smelt the sweetness of the apples. She brought the fork to her lips and hesitated, checking over her shoulder. Quickly taking the fork in her mouth, she closed her eyes and melted as the delicious pie overwhelmed her taste buds.
She placed her hand over her mouth as crumbs scattered across the counter. Swiping them into the palm of her hand, she threw the crumbs into the bin and made her way to the living room away. Pausing, she spared a single glance to the pie, but shock her head. That was enough for today.
Abigail sat up slowly, her sore body stiff with tension as her shoulders and elbows cracked and shifted. She rolled her shoulders backwards and lifted them over her head. She squirmed at the popping muscles and stood on her shaking legs. Her whole body was tired and cold as she tumbled towards the kitchen to turn on the kettle.
“Good morning, stepmother,”
Abigail screamed as she pressed against the kitchen side, grasping her heaving chest and staring open mouthed at Charlotte. Closing her eyes and swallowing the sudden lump at the end of her throat, Abigail took a few short breaths before forcing a tight smile.
“Morning, Charlotte,” she said. “How did you sleep?”
“Did you like the pie?” Charlotte said.
Abigail looked at the pie sitting on the table. She hadn’t put it there last night.
“It was lovely,” she said. “Thank you.”
“Have some more.”
Abigail flinched at Charlotte’s sudden demand. For a moment, she could see Joshua in her. In the way she held her head high and an emptiness hid something in her strong gaze. She blinked away the thought. She couldn’t think poorly about her husband. She had no right.
“Stepmother,” Charlotte said. “Have some more. A real slice this time.”
Abigail cut a slice of pie and sat down at the breakfast table. She pushed the side of her fork through the crisp pastry and soft apples and raised the fork to her lips. She opened her mouth to take a bite, but stopped when she looked over the table and saw Charlotte’s eyes bearing down on her. Abigail held the fork in the air, her throat drying as her mouth hung open, and stared back at her.
“Eat,” Charlotte said.
Abigail closed her mouth and placed her fork back onto the plate.
“I said eat it!” Charlotte yelled as she slammed her hand against the table top. The plates and cups shook as the table rocked suddenly and the utensils scratched at the sides of the fragile porcelain.
Abigail felt her bottom lip begin to shake and her eyes water. She picked up the fork and ate. It was drier and the fruit was mushier than last night. She shouldn’t have let it sit out all night.
As Charlotte watched, Abigail continued to eat more and more of the slice until the only thing that remained was a small pile of crumbs on her plate. Abigail licked her lips and coughed into the palm of her hands, a sharp burning residing at the back of her throat.
“Did you like it?” Charlotte asked.
Abigail nodded. She coughed and took a deep breath before coughing again.
“I’m so glad,” Charlotte said. Her face was blank of emotion and her eyes were cold again. “I used my best ingredients,”
Abigail stood on her shaking feet as she clutched at her stomach. She coughed again and again until bile suddenly filled her throats. She spat it into the sink and choked as she tried to take a deep breath.
“I used flour, and sugar, and apples,” Charlotte said. “And cyanide.”
Abigail gasped as she bent over, vomit spewing around her as her heart pounded in her ears and her body became overwhelmed with heat. Her body convulsed as Charlotte walked around the table and watched as her arms jerked, her legs kicked, and her body began to shut down. Abigail wanted to look away, to see something good and bright before she left this world, but all she could do was stare up at those cold, empty eyes.