She reviewed the checklist in her head. Laces tied? Yes. She inspected the loops- perfectly even. The black shoes shined with the polish she’d rubbed onto them. Moving up, her eyes followed the straight lines of his pants. She’d gotten up 2 hours early to iron and starch them, having learned the hard way that an hour was not enough time to ensure perfection. Reflexively she reached out and put a hand on Frederick’s shoulder to stop him from fidgeting. He stilled under her touch.
She pulled on his vest, smoothing the lapel and pulling the sleeves of his jacket straight. Then up to his tie which she tightened. His hand went up to pull it open again and she gently pushed it back down.
“I know, Frederick. But I need you to play statue now, ok? Just until we get outside.”
She picked up his hand and inspected his fingernails. The cuticles were cut back, the nails perfectly clean from the scrubbing she’d given them. She gave it a light squeeze before letting it drop back at his side. Then she straightened herself so she could look over his head. The part she combed in was a line as straight as the starched pants and his hair gleamed with the oil she’d combed into it.
She smiled weakly, then turned to the mirror and performed the same operation on herself, slightly sped up. Her uniform showed the same firm lines with razor straight folds in the pleats of her skirt and stockings cutting across her legs just below the knee. They glowed white, the bleach so strong it had been causing rashes on her unseen legs. She gave her vest a pull and her breath caught in her throat- one of the buttons was hanging on by a thread.
She held her breath and pushed the button back through the hole, just enough to hold it in place. If she could keep perfectly still she’d be able to mend it on the ride to school. Giving her little brother a glance she turned to face the door. Two swift knocks and waiting.
“Come in,” the deep voice loomed from behind the giant oak door. She pushed it and lead Frederick inside.
They marched in tandem and she kept her footsteps in synch with his so that their heels beat a steady rhythm on the polished floor. She had to march in place twice to end in time with Frederick’s short legs. She held her chest out and head down, looking briefly out of her peripheral vision to make sure he was doing the same. He was.
She held her body rigid and counted her heartbeats; mentally willing them to slow down. She breathed deeply and then froze- she could see the loose button at the bottom of her vest threatening to fall out if she expanded her abdomen too much. So she slowed her breathing and kept it shallow and steady. She said a silent prayer in her mind: “Just hold on.”
She heard her grandfather stand from behind the giant desk and snapped her eyes away from the vest lest her focus give her away. His footsteps echoed in the foreboding room as he slowly and deliberately made his way around the desk to them. She saw the tall shape of him move up in front of Frederick and held her breath the way that she always did when he was being scrutinized.
“Good, Frederick, my good strong boy,” he said, patting him on the shoulder. “You will excel in all your studies, ya?”
“Yes, sir,” she heard her brother answer.
“And you will show all the other boys the strength of the Brandt family?”
A single step to the side and the broad chest that entered her vision was the firm expanse of dark wool she was familiar with. He said nothing as he stood in front of her inspecting every facet of her appearance. The silence strengthened the sound of her heart in her ears as she held her breath, waiting for him to give his approval and release them. Then her heart stopped as she saw his hand move towards her vest.
He pulled on the bottom with one, firm tug and the button popped off and sailed through the air. The seconds seemed to slow to a crawl as she watched it arch and then fall. Gravity mocked her by drawing out the agonizing descent and she felt almost relieved when it finally hit the floor. The sound it made as it bounced echoed in her ears.
“Please,” she prayed, but said nothing.
“Frederick, go wait outside while I talk to your sister.”
She saw him hesitate and moved her head just enough to look at him, darting her eyes towards the door. For just a second his eyes began to water but he swallowed, turned on his heel and marched out. She allowed herself to exhale as she heard the door close behind him.
She prepared her apology as a formality, reasoning why her negligence was unforgivable. She reviewed her weakness, her failure to plan appropriately, her stupidity- all the reasons why she deserved the lesson he was about to teach her. But the usual question never came.
Thus why the first blow was a surprise. His fist collided with her chest and knocked the breath out of her in one uncontrolled rush of wind. The floor rose up to meet her and she embraced it like a long lost friend, spreading herself across it like a cloak.
She didn’t move. Even if she could she knew that covering herself would only increase his severity. A second hit connected with her lower back, an open handed smack. It seemed almost as if he meant to spank her but her body was too low to the ground. The third was higher up, directly across her spine. He rained pain down on her with his characteristic control- steady beats on a taut skin. Anger was a sign of weakness, he had beat that lesson into her many times before. So she clamped her eyes shut against the frenzied panic of her emotions and endured, the way she always had. It took her a long time to realize that he had stopped.
“Stand, now,” was all he said.
She complied immediately and ignored the screaming protests of her body as she forced herself to stand, picking up the traitorous button as she rose. She regained the rod-straight posture she had held before.
Her eyes were dry. Her jaw held firm. Her face was the calm resignation of a dead man’s. He would call her weak, he would prove she was. But in the end she was the one thing he was unknowingly training her to be. Strong.