She touches my forehead, which is wet with sweat. All of me is. A sudden leaking of perspiration that baffles me until my stomach begins to cramp. It’s a sharp, stinging pain that leaves me gasping.
“You’ve had the pie,” Marta says. “Good. That makes this easier.”
I try to scream. Nothing comes out but a few pained rasps.
“Hush, now,” Marta says. “It’s nothing to fuss about. Just a little pie with some baneberries mixed in.”
I clutch my stomach and roll over, the room rolling with me. Marta stays by my side, rubbing my back in a motherly way.
“I never really understood why your parents hid Petra’s death,” she says. “Even after that book came out, I wondered what their thinking had been. It took me a long time to understand they thought you had done it, Maggie.”
Her hand continues to circle on my back. I wonder if she did the same thing with Katie when she was feeling sick.
“I have to admit, I was relieved. God help me, I was. I felt terrible about what happened. That poor girl. She didn’t deserve that. And there were a few times I thought about confessing. Just marching right up to Tess Alcott and telling her the truth. I didn’t because no one would understand it was an accident. No one would see it that way. I would have been punished for what happened. But when you get right down to it, haven’t I been punished enough?”
Marta pauses, as if waiting for me to agree.
I say nothing.
“I spent the past twenty-odd years secure in the knowledge that I was safe,” she says. “That God had decided I’d suffered enough for one life. Then you came back. And Petra was found. And I knew it was only a matter of time before the truth finally came out.”
Marta’s hand stops at the small of my back and stays there. I tense beneath it, fearing what’s to come.
“I can’t let that happen, Maggie,” she says. “I’ve suffered. Far more than most. I lost my daughter and my husband on the same day. Few people in this world will ever know that kind of pain. But I do. I know it all too well. Forgive me, but I’m not about to suffer more.”
She flips me onto my back in one rough, startling motion. I’m too weak to fight it. Just a rag doll in her arms. The room stops tilting enough for me to notice the pillow hugged against her chest.
Marta pushes the pillow over my face. A sudden darkening. My breathing, already labored, becomes almost nonexistent. I gasp for air, sucking in pillowcase instead, almost choking on the fabric.
She scrambles on top of me, increasing the pillow’s pressure. I try to buck beneath her, to thrash my legs. But I have no energy left. The baneberries have stolen it from me. The most I can do is roll again onto my side.
Marta is thrown off-balance and falls away from me.
I fall, too.
Off the bed.
Onto the floor.
I take a deep breath of blessed air, and adrenaline kicks in, giving me the strength to start dragging myself along the floor. I’m at the doorway when Marta grabs an ankle and pulls me back toward the bed.
I scream and thrust out my free leg in a crazed, desperate kick. My foot slams against Marta’s face, which makes her start screaming, too. The sound of it rings off the walls as I resume my frenzied scramble down the hallway.
Marta doesn’t catch up to me until I’m at the top of the stairs. When she snags my leg again, I expect another pull back to the bedroom. Instead, she lifts it, flipping me over.
For a moment, the whole house goes upside down.
Then I’m on the stairs.
The edges of steps pound at my back. My head knocks against wall. My eyes pop open to see banister rails blurring past my face.
When it ends, I’m on my back at the foot of the stairs. Far above me, Marta stands at the top of the staircase, bent forward a bit, looking to see if I’m dead.
But I do think I’m dying.
A bright light forms atop the staircase, blinding in its intensity. So bright I grimace and squint. With that narrowing of my eyes, I’m able to see someone inside the brightness—a young woman just behind Marta, hovering at her shoulder.
She looks like Petra Ditmer.
Still sixteen and beautiful, flashing a smile of deep satisfaction.
The light lasts no longer than a blink. Definitely not long enough to confirm if the glow was indeed Petra or just a trick of my poisoned mind.
All I know is that right before the brightness dims, Marta Carver jolts forward, as if she’s been pushed. She tumbles down the steps, bones snapping like twigs. There’s one final snap when she lands—a loud crack of her neck I feel in my bones.
Her body rests a foot from mine, her head twisted like an elastic toy.
That’s when I know she’s dead.
And that I’m not.
And that all of this is finally over.
I roll my head, looking upward, my gaze sweeping up the staircase the two of us have just tumbled down.
That’s when I see someone standing at the top of the steps.
The person who had shoved Marta to her death.
It’s not Petra, as I had thought.
It’s her mother.
Elsa Ditmer stares at me, her eyes wild and alert. It’s clear she knows exactly where she is, what she’s done, and, after twenty-five long years, what happened to her daughter.