CINNAMON by Gina Marie Bernard

“Your mother should have had them tear you from her womb,” my stepmom says. “For the wicked shall not inherit the kingdom of God.”

I flinch but know better than to reply. 

“What the hell, Darlene? You can’t say that shit,” my dad says from his recliner in the living room. As usual, it sounds more like a request.

“I speak the Lord’s truth,” she replies, emphasizing each syllable with the wooden spoon she has pointed at him. “He will not abide your daughter acting like some filthy dyke.”

My father looks from her to me. He shrugs and mouths, “I tried.” Then he escapes to the garage to pretend to work on his Mustang.

Darlene turns her back to me, adjusts the blue flame beneath her breakfast, and stirs.

Nails have been driven through my eyes. My lips are dry, tongue thick as jerky. Bile sours my throat.

“The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to herself brings shame to her mother,” she intones.

“You’re not my—”

“Must you be my shame? My life’s great error?” she asks, reaching for the alphabetized spice rack above the stove. Her stomach exerts just enough force to shift the Whirlpool, dislocating its gas connection.

My father and I are sitting in the backyard on what’s left of the couch when the first fire truck arrives—a steady din in my ears, much of our house strewn far beyond the alley. I’m certain an EMT asks me what has happened, how I’ve escaped this calamity unscathed. But honestly? I’m still marveling at the gaping hole my stepmother’s lower jaw has punched through our television.

Later—is it already next week?—I stand at a drunken edge of linoleum, a heavy-duty garbage bag in my hand. My father is on his ladder outside, drilling deck screws through a patchwork of tarps covering the borders of the explosion. I push aside a corner of blue polyethylene and hop down into the yard. For the most part, the grass here is scorched to the roots.

Stooping, I gather pieces of OSB, insulation, vinyl siding. Halfway to the alley, I discover the anodized saucepan my stepmother had been tending. Its silicone-covered handle is twisted but unmelted. What’s left of her last meal encrusts the inside—steel-cut oats and dried cranberries. I drop it in the bag and move on.

Thirty minutes later, my father runs out of screws and makes a run to Home Depot. My Hefty now bulges. I tie a knot with the bowstrings and lug it to the city garbage can standing sentry beside our garage.

I hear the crows arguing before I see them. The three birds dance in the long grass at the foot of a telephone pole up the alley, harassing one another in a raucous spray of black feathers.

“Fuck off,” I tell them, approaching.

They fuck off but circle back to alight in the upper branches of a white pine on our neighbor’s property.

I push the weeds aside with the toe of my Converse. Is that a dead squirrel? No, it’s just a tossed KFC drumstick gnawed to the gray bone.

Of course it’s neither of these things.

I stare dumbly at Darlene’s left hand. It’s crawling with ants and is missing the ring and pinky fingers; the first two, though, curl in towards her thumb like talons.

She is holding a spice jar.

“Well, what do you know,” I say to the crows. “Cumin.”

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