Mother, the one who birthed us, was the one who turned the oven on. Tossed us in there, my older sister Nan and me, as though we were turkeys at Thanksgiving. She was too strong for us to resist, though we tried, squirming, kicking. But she was still strong.
She smelled like whiskey, sweat, and stale feet as she set us to roast. Propped up a bookcase against the oven, so we couldn’t get out.
Said she needed peace, peace, peace. Said Dad left her in the lurch, left her with us, so he could marry that woman, that so-called peacemaker, that beatific bitch. And all she got was two loud children.
Her words echoed while she strode away.
We hunched, apologizing for fights. Promised to stick with each other, while the oven started to heat and click. Click, click, click. One step closer towards something dark, indefinable.
We even blamed the stepmother too. We wished she’d get run over by a train, our words sharp things in that dirty old oven. Wished she hadn’t split Mother and Daddy up. Once, after all, Mother loved us, laughed, sang to us. Once she even took us to movies, taught us to smuggle candy into the theaters. Once Daddy came home every single night and we didn’t see him on weekends.
Once Mother never got into fights with stepmothers, staging Wagner concerts on their front lawns because stepmother absolutely abhorred Wagner. We recited all these things in that blackened expanse, the dim little light blinding us, things still cool otherwise.
The oven clicked, the heat growing. We held each other, a ten and thirteen year old. We tried not to talk of it, darkness, but we talked of being able to sleep. Of never being woken up, never doing chores again. We tried to laugh at it all, but the laughter died, with the smoke and the heat rising.
We waited for that moment. For it. Nan even wished it would end, just end now, but I told her not to say that.
The stepmother, the one we called wicked, sensed something was wrong. Somehow. We didn’t know how then. We still don’t, even though she sometimes says it’s about impulse. Said she felt like she’d better call and when no one answered, she rushed over. Even as adults, that word is something incredibly mysterious.
I still remember Nan and I sobbing as she shoved the bookcase aside, the squeak, the slam of things. And I very much remember the way she extracted us, pushed us into the expanse of air again. Some images: blue-and-white lights whirled like some kaleidoscope. Mother was led away, still talking about peace. The scent of the once-stepmother, the bitch, rushed to my consciousness. The lavender perfume, the fresh mint soap and forgiveness, all that rushed through like a speeding train. I still remember the confessions sliding from me, even as Nan punched me in the shoulder somehow. The stepmother murmured that word love, love, murmured away.
She promised us a better home. Promised we’d never come back here. Never again. She told us things Dad must have told her about us. Things Mother had forgotten. Nan’s favorite color, lavender, my favorite composer, Tchaikovsky, the way I laughed.
She called us Nick and Nan. Not Nicholas and Nancy like Mother had.
Meanwhile, we tried to brush the smoke and numb the burns and things past, murmuring contrition and murmuring a whole other word. Mother.
Mother, mother, mother, we murmured, murmur turning to cries, the word step burnt remains in the still-smoldering oven.