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There must be a million things cooking can’t cure, but I don’t know of any. I have whisked away anger, can knead-roll-knead through sadness, despair, even grief. Crank up the heat and negativity simmers and evaporates, just—poof!—disappears. I remember every ingredient I’ve ever used, the textures of the labels I’ve touched, the tangy scent of each herb.
The kitchen is my fortress, my sanctuary.
Until she walks through the door.
A tight flutter of foreboding claws at my throat, slice, slice, slicing away at my euphoria. My eyes flit to the polished silver crucifix that hangs over the door, and I mouth a prayer. Lord, give me strength.
But even He can’t save me from my stepmother.
I work my knuckles through the slab of ground hamburger on the granite countertop, focused on anything but her. The knots in my shoulder blades tense, release, tense. Across the kitchen, the gears on the wall clock click and catch. I glance up just before it strikes ten.
“Lizbeth, that’s inappropriate attire for Mass.”
Her voice scratches like nails on a chalkboard. I clench my hands into fists, forcing the slimy egg yolk to ooze through my fingertips. “I’m not going.”
Abigail steps closer, her thin neck arched and craning downward. A large gold cross dangles from a thick chain, suffocating in the fleshy folds of her cleavage. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she says. “It’s Christmas Eve.”
I wipe my forehead with the back of my hand. My nose twitches at the scent of raw beef mixing with the tart evergreen-and-cinnamon wreath that hangs crooked in the window. I gather the meat mixture into a tight ball and slam it into the bowl with enough force that hamburger chunks slap against the backsplash and trail down the tiles like maggots.
Disgust curdles from somewhere deep in Abigail’s throat. “Dear God, Lizbeth.”
My heartbeat picks up speed. I yank the dish towel off the counter and swing at the mess, smearing rosemary and beef bits into the tile. “I need to take care of the meat loaf,” I say, pitch rising.
I draw in a calming breath.
Abigail’s arm swoops forward, the gold sequins on her totally inappropriate dress shimmering like reptile scales under the stark overhead fluorescents. She upturns her palm and her tongue flicks out. My eyes lock on the thin gold band encircling her wedding finger. My throat goes raw. It’s still so jarring after four years.
“You never miss church,” Abigail says. She puts her hands on her wide hips. “It’s practically your second home with all that senseless volunteering.” She shakes her head, knocking loose a few wayward curls. “This can wait.”
My voice drops to a hoarse whisper. “It can’t.”
She sighs heavily, the weight of her exasperation landing on my shoulders, already burdened with guilt. I shrug it loose and use my forearm to wipe clear the flecks of wet hamburger stuck to my cheeks. Irritation prickles between my shoulder blades, like an intense itch I can’t reach, can’t scratch. It burns with need.
I drop my hands into the bowl and continue to massage the gooey meat mixture with far more vigor than required. Hamburger spackles the countertop, the wall, and my journal, the place where I have carefully written every revision of this particular recipe, even the subtlest change. I use my wrists to try and wipe it away, but no matter how hard I scrub, the page won’t come clean.
Another tsk of disgust from Abigail. “Lizbeth, calm down. You’re—”
Don’t say it.
I breathe out slow and blink to deter my tears.
“Honey, have you seen my car keys?” The echo of my father’s voice down the hallway lops off what’s left of my oxygen. My throat closes in and I go still as a mouse. Abigail’s mouth twists into a cruel smirk. There is a beat of silence and then louder, harsher, “Abigail. My keys.”
My father’s approaching footsteps pound against my rib cage like a kick drum. Thump-thump-thump. My skin feels thin, stretched out like Saran Wrap. I suck in a sharp breath just as his enormous shadow darkens the threshold of my sanctuary. The tension in the room goes so heavy, you couldn’t hack through it with a hatchet.
A charcoal blazer hangs from my father’s shoulders like giant vulture wings, and his polished shoes gleam under the overhead lights. On the surface, he is disguised as perfection, but I know what lives behind that mask. His piercing gaze lands on me with a thud and my pulse skips a beat.
“You’re wearing an apron to Mass?” he says, disgust like molasses on his tongue.
He gestures at me with his enormous hands, palms stretched out as if in prayer. “I don’t expect you to win any beauty pageants, Lizbeth, but at least make a goddamned effort not to embarrass me.”
A gaping hole opens inside my chest.
Abigail rolls her eyes. With all the gaudy makeup on her face, they’re more bulbous than usual, like they might pop out onto the counter, bounce across the granite, drop onto the floor. “She’s not going,” she says.
I stuff my trembling hands back into the metal bowl, imagining them wrapped around my stepmother’s throat. The meat slithers between my fingers like human entrails.
Dad recoils. “Not going?”
A wave of guilt grips me in a vise, this dark specter of my past, my present, my future. A cruel and vicious voice whispering at the nape of my neck, reminding me that I am unworthy, tainted, undeserving of any freedoms.
The expression on my father’s face reaffirms this, and I duck my head to avoid his searing disapproval.
Through hooded eyes, I watch him advance on me, forehead wrinkles exaggerated, lips pressed together in a firm line. I shrink under his oppressive shadow, my throat shriveling, heart racing. He grabs my wrist and squeezes so hard I gasp. “You’re hurting me.”
“Hurting you?” His tone turns incredulous, wounded even. “For Christ’s sake, Lizbeth, don’t be such a little girl.”
But I am a girl.
Tears spring to my eyes. I blink, blink, blink them clear. My father studies my face, as though searching for a map to help navigate the rocky terrain of our increasingly dysfunctional relationship. Things haven’t been right between us since Mom died, since Abigail moved in.
“Honestly, Lizbeth, I don’t know what’s gotten into you,” Abigail says. She snaps on a pair of pearl-colored gloves that once belonged to my mother, and glares at the mound of raw meat in the bowl.
I resist the urge to stuff her smug face in it. To rip those gloves—my mother’s gloves—from her body.
My father clears his throat. “It’s Christmas Eve.” The ominous undertone of his voice causes an itchy sweat to spread across my back, and I wait for him to issue his command. Remind me that I have no choice but to do as he says. “What will folks think if you’re not with your family, tonight of all nights?”
I bite down hard on my tongue. In this small Massachusetts community of Fall River, my father pantomimes the American dream—success, wealth, the illusion of a wife and two daughters who worship him. Maybe that’s true for Abigail and my older sister, Emma, but my adoration snapped the first time the flat of his hand connected with my cheek.
My skin burns now as though I’ve gone back in time. I hear the crack of bone, the sharp sting of pain. The lump in my chest aches, a phantom reminder of a heart that was once whole. I touch my face to soothe the tingle that never quite fades.
“It is my duty to tend to the inn,” I say, calmly wiping my cheek with the edge of an apron soiled with cow’s blood. The pungent scent intensifies, filling my nostrils and trickling down my throat. “Besides, Mr. Dent forgot his keys last night. . . .”
“Ever the martyr,” Abigail mutters.
Fresh pinpricks of guilt ripple down my spine.
I am expected at church for Mass. Over the years, I’ve become a staple at Father Buck’s side, serving as youth leader, chairwoman of the annual bake sale, and special events coordinator. I’ve earned the title of Fall River’s youngest Sunday school teacher—but my halo is not without tarnish, my service to God not selfless.
Being at the church allows me untethered freedom from the stifling rule of my father’s iron fist. It’s a place where I’m not forced to pretend that we are a unit, a family. To go there, tonight of all nights, with the very forces that trap me under this roof, would strip any solace the church offers, and I’m unwilling—unable—to make that sacrifice. I’d rather play babysitter to the lone guest at the Borden Bed and Breakfast.
My father stuffs his hands in his pockets, drawing my attention to a speck of ground hamburger on his thigh. It will fall off long before he gets to the church, but it gives me a little thrill to know it’s there, a flaw in his otherwise perfect facade.
I glance at the giant cross above the kitchen door, my distorted reflection mirrored in its surface, and pray for the Lord’s forgiveness.
“It’s best she stays behind anyway,” Abigail says, her voice thick with disdain. “She doesn’t look well.”
My spine stiffens.
Dad sighs. “You will lock the door.” Not a question, but an order. I nod with rehearsed obedience. “And you’re not to set foot outside this house,” he adds, as though I don’t already understand the consequences of leaving.
Abigail flicks a piece of black lint off her shimmering sleeve. “Oh, Andrew, where would she possibly go?”
The meaning behind her words rings crystal clear. Within these walls, I am no more significant than a pigeon, a nuisance to be caged or eliminated. But beyond them, I am nothing.
My father stares at me a long beat, expression unreadable. “Fasten all the dead bolts,” he says, ever exercising his paranoia and steadfast control. His gaze moves to the meat-loaf mixture. “And turn off the oven when you’re done.”
My face goes tight with annoyance. “I’m not a child.”
Abigail snorts. “Oh, but you most certainly are.”
She throws back her head and cackles, and the sound reverberates off my skull and makes my teeth chatter with unease. “Don’t you see, Lizbeth? You can never be more than your father’s silly little girl.”