His parents had died in an auto accident and there was no one he could talk to, no one he would have dared tell what Eloise did to Gabriella.
Gabriella was certainly a model child, she barely spoke, cleared the table carefully, folded her clothes neatly in her room, did everything she was told, and never answered back to her mother. Maybe Eloise was right. The results were certainly impressive. And when she sat at dinner with them, her eyes were huge in her face, and she remained completely silent. It was only unfortunate that her father came to mistake terror for good manners.
But in Eloise's less generous eyes, Gabriella always fell far short of perfection. There was always something more to scold her about, punish her for, or a new reason to give her a “spanking.” Eventually the spankings became longer and more frequent, the slaps seemed to punctuate every exchange between them, the shakings, the sharp blows, the resounding slaps to every part of her body. There were times when John feared that Eloise might seriously hurt Gabriella, but he kept his comments to himself about the way his wife was bringing up their daughter. To him, it appeared that discretion was the better part of valor, and he did his best to convince himself that what she was doing wasn't wrong, and he was careful never to see the bruises. According to Eloise, the child fell constantly, and was so awkward they couldn't let her ride a bike or learn to roller-skate. The deprivations her mother inflicted on her were clearly for her own protection, the bruises a sign that she was as clumsy as Eloise declared her.
And by her sixth birthday, Gabriella's beatings had become a habit, for all of them. John avoided them, Gabriella expected them, and Eloise clearly enjoyed them. If anyone had said as much to her, she would have been outraged. They were for the child's own good, she claimed. They were “necessary.” They kept her from becoming more of a spoiled brat than she was, Eloise would have explained. And Gabriella herself knew how truly bad she was. If she weren't, her mother wouldn't have had to hit her… if she weren't, her father would have stopped her mother from beating her… if she weren't, they might have loved her. But she knew better than anyone how unworthy she was, how truly terrible were her crimes. She knew all of it, because her mother told her.
And as she lay on the floor that summer afternoon, and her mother dragged her off the floor by one arm, and slapped her one more time before sending her to her room, she saw her father watching them from the doorway. She knew he had seen the beating and done nothing about it, just as always. His eyes looked mournful as Gabriella crept past him, and he said nothing. He didn't reach out to comfort her, he didn't try to touch her, he simply looked away, refusing to see the look in her eyes, unable to bear it any longer.
“Go to your room and stay there!” Gabriella's mothers words rang in her ears as she walked softly down the hall, feeling her cheek with tiny trembling fingers. She knew she was a big girl now, she knew that the things she did that made her mother so angry were really awful, and as she crept into her room and closed the door, a sob escaped her, and she ran to the bed and clutched her dolly. It was the only toy she was allowed to have, her grandmother had given it to her before she died, her father's mother. It had big blue eyes and eyelashes and pretty blond hair, and Gabriella genuinely loved her. The doll's name was Meredith and she was Gabriella's only ally. Gabriella clutched her now, rocking back and forth, sitting on her bed, wondering why her mother hit her so hard… why she herself was so awful… and all she could remember now was the look in her father's eyes as she walked past him. He seemed so disappointed, as though he had hoped that she'd be better than she was, instead of the little monster her mother accused her of being. And Gabriella believed her. She did everything wrong, and she knew it. She tried so hard, but there was no pleasing them… no way to stop the inevitable… no way to escape it. And as she sat there, holding her doll, she knew deep in her soul that it would never stop. She would never be good enough, she would never win them over. She had known all her life that they didn't love her, and was long since convinced that she didn't deserve love. She didn't deserve anything more than the pain her mother inflicted on her. She knew that, but she wondered still why it had to hurt so much… why her mother was always so angry at her… what she had done to make them hate her… And as she lay crying silently on her bed, the one thing she knew was that there were no answers, and no one could save her from this. Not even her father. All she had in the world was Meredith, her only friend, her dolly. She had no grandparents, no aunts or uncles, no friends or cousins. She was never allowed to play with other children. Probably because she was so naughty. They probably wouldn't like her anyway. No one would. Who could possibly like her if her parents didn't, if she was so bad?… She knew she couldn't tell anyone what they did to her, because it only proved how bad she was, and when they asked her in school what had happened to her, she always told them she fell down the stairs, or over the dog, even though they didn't have one. But she knew this was a secret she had to keep, because if she didn't, people would know how truly terrible she was, and she didn't want anyone to know that.
It wasn't her parents’ fault, she knew that as well. It was her fault for being so bad, for making so many mistakes, for making her mother so angry. It was all her fault. And as she lay on her bed and thought about it, she could hear her parents’ voices. As they often did, they were shouting, and she knew that was her fault too. Sometimes after her mother punished her, she could hear her father shouting at her, as he did now. She couldn't make out the words, but it was probably about her… probably her fault… she was even worse than they said. She made them fight. She made them angry at each other. She made everyone so unhappy, almost as unhappy as she was.
She cried herself to sleep, at dusk, without dinner, and as she drifted off to sleep, feeling her cheek ache and her thigh throb where her mother had kicked her, she tried to think of other places, other things… a garden… or a park… with happy people in it… and children laughing as they played… everyone was playing, and they wanted her to play with them… a tall, beautiful woman came toward her and held her arms out to her and told her that she loved her… It was the most wonderful feeling in the world, and as she thought of it, everything else in her life faded away, and she drifted off to sleep, holding her dolly.
“Aren't you afraid you're going to kill her one of these days?” John said pointedly to his wife, and she looked at him in contemptuous amusement. He'd had more than a few drinks as he stood looking at her, gently reeling. The drinking had started at about the same time as the beatings. It was easier than trying to stop the beatings, or explaining Eloise's behavior. The drinking took the edge off and made an intolerable situation nearly bearable for him, if not for Gabriella. “Maybe she won't end up a drunk like you, if I beat a little sense into her now. It might save her a lot of heartache later.” Eloise sat calmly on the couch looking at him with disdain, as he made himself another martini.
“The sickest thing is, I think you believe that.”
“Are you suggesting I'm too hard on her?” Eloise said, visibly furious at being challenged.
“Too hard? Too hard? Have you ever taken a good look at her bruises? How do you think she gets them?”
“Don't be ridiculous, if you re trying to blame me for that. She falls on her face every time she puts her shoes on.” She lit a cigarette, and leaned back to watch him drink his martini.
“Eloise, this is me you're talking to. Who are you kidding here? I know how you feel about her… so does she… poor kid, she doesn't deserve this.”
“Neither do I. Do you have any idea what I have to put up with? She's a little monster underneath those curls, with those big innocent blue eyes you're so in love with.”
He looked at her as though a veil had been lifted from his eyes, swept away by the force of the alcohol in his system. “You're jealous of her, aren't you, El? That's what this is all about, isn't it? Just plain jealousy. You're jealous of your own daughter.”
“You're drunk.” She dismissed him with a wave of the cigarette, unwilling to listen to what he was saying.
“I'm right, and you know it. You're sick. I'm just sorry for her that we ever had her. She doesn't deserve a life like the one we give her… you give her…” He took no responsibility for his wife's cruelty and took great pride in the fact that he had never laid a hand on Gabriella. But he had never done anything to protect her either.
“If you're trying to make me feel guilty about her, don't bother. I don't. I know what I'm doing.”
“Do you? You beat her senseless practically every day. Is that what you had intended for her?” He looked horrified as he drained his glass, and felt the effect of his fourth martini. Sometimes it took more than that to drown the things that he remembered her doing.
“She's not an easy child, John. She needs to be taught a lesson.”
“Well, you've done that, El. I'm sure she'll always remember the lessons we taught her.” His eyes began to glaze as he said it.
“I hope so. Children don't need a lot of fussing over. It's not good for them. She knows I'm right too. She never argues with me when I punish her. She knows she deserves it.”
“She's too afraid to argue with you, and you know it. She's probably afraid you'll kill her if she says anything, or tries to resist you.”