Riley was fifteen when she killed her stepfather.
Wait. Step back. He wasn't her stepfather. Not really. He and her mother never married. Technically he never even moved in, though he was there more nights than not. For a while, Riley tried to be elsewhere those nights, once she was old enough to go out. Then when she was fourteen, she came home to find no one there. When they finally got back, it was nearly midnight and her younger brother was sporting a cast. No one said what had happened, but she knew. Her mother's boyfriend stayed away for a few days. When he came back, Riley made sure she was there.
She never understood why her mother--who was attractive and smart and had a good career of her own--had hooked up with a guy like that. Why she stayed with him past the first insult. Past the first blow. Whatever Riley's father's faults had been--and Riley wasn't blind to them, even at twelve--he'd never raised a hand to anyone in their family. Her mother knew that was possible. So why didn't she asked for better? Demand better?
Riley was determined to be different.
As Riley got older, she caught him watching her in a way that made her skin crawl. She started sleeping with a knife under her pillow. She wasn't going down without a fight. It never came to that, though. He never came in, never touched her. At least not like that. Maybe he suspected the knife. Maybe he suspected that there were limits to what Riley's mother would put up with. Maybe he actually had some sort of twisted conscience, buried deep. Whatever it was, it spared Riley, though she still got plenty of the usual casual brutality when he'd been drinking and she made the mistake of catching his attention.
(Sometimes she drew his attention deliberately, when he was on a tear and her mother or brother or sister seemed likely targets. Her mother would scold her as she dressed cuts and bruises, but her hands were gentle. Riley liked to think she appreciated the protection.)
The first time Riley thought of killing him--seriously thought about it as an option, not just wished for it with the impotent rage of a child--was a few months after her brother got his cast off. The boyfriend had apparently seen the removal of the cast as the removal of a check on his behaviour. He started hanging out at their house more, drinking more and drinking more heavily. There was no more of him giggling with Riley's mother as the two of them drank margaritas on the deck. Now it was him calling sharply for more whiskey, more vodka. Always the hard stuff, always in large quantities. Riley wondered how he held down a job. She wondered if maybe he wasn't any more and that's why he was drinking so much. And then one day, they didn't have any more vodka. Or whiskey. Or anything else besides weak-piss beer as he called it.
He took the lack out on all three of them. Only Riley's sister, seventeen and spending far more time at her boyfriend's house than at home, was spared. It was three days before Riley could go back to school. She spent all three days lying in bed, thinking about ways he could die. Not fantasizing, but actually planning.
A little more than three years, and she could get out. She thought she could make it that long. But her brother was ten, with eight more years to go. And the older he got, the more the boyfriend went after him, and the less their mother seemed inclined to protect him. Of course, that was probably also because she was more scared herself. The boyfriend's rages had gotten much, much worse in recent months. She wasn't sure her brother would survive without her here. What scared her even more was that he couldn't remember any other life besides this one. For him, this was normal, and she was the only one left to remind him that things weren't supposed to be like this.
(She'd tried talking to her father, but her father worked surgeon's hours and so did his new wife, and neither of them really wanted full-time responsibility for three kids. Especially when one of them was only ten. She thought he didn't really understand how bad it was, and that was partly because he didn't want to. Maybe if he'd been able to see the bruises from the most recent beating it might have made a difference, but her mother had lied and told him the kids had the flu, and Riley had never gotten a chance to speak to him.)
She thought a gun would be the best way. He was too big for her to take on up-close, even with the martial arts classes she'd been secretly taking on the side. Guns would equalize things. Make it possible to kill him before he knew it was coming. And she knew where he kept his.
In the end, when it actually happened, it wasn't the way Riley had planned it at all. There was no deliberation, no forethought. Just desperation as he threw Riley into a wall and kept raining down blow after blow on her mother. He's going to kill her, he's going to kill her, was Riley's only thought as she scrambled, heart pounding, for the gun that her mother had bought for protection when her father moved out. She'd had her sister's boyfriend show her how to shoot. Had done a bit of target practice out in the woods, knocking down tin cans until she could hit them straight on every time.
Shooting a man was nothing like shooting a can.
She shot twice, dead centre in his chest. He didn't even have time to look up, just collapsed in a heap. Riley took the gun with her into the kitchen, in case he wasn't really dead, and called the police from there. She could hear her mother sobbing in the other room, and then the sobs turned to wails as what had just happened sunk in.
The 911 operator tried to keep her on the line, but Riley hung up after she was sure the police were on their way and called her father. She left a message with his answering service. And then she put the gun on top of the fridge, and sat down to wait.
Whatever happened next, she'd taken control. She'd protected her family.
She'd done what needed to be done.
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