This story is by Linda Rooney and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
First, it started as a whisper. “Absolutely, not,” Moira said. To which her husband responded, “What do you mean, ‘absolutely not’?”
Moira turned to look at her husband, John, emphatically pointing to the new six-burner professional stove. “Absolutely not! Get that damned thing out of my kitchen.” Moira pushed past John to get as far away from her now ruined kitchen renovation and a stove that sent shivers up her back.
Moira went to the patio of their historical townhouse to sit and contemplate. She let the fresh air and peace of the secluded backyard calm her. Moira realized that there would be some explaining to do. She looked down at the scar on her left hand, a puckered uneven patch that ran the border of her thumb. Absentmindedly, she rubbed the area. Explain something Moira didn’t understand herself, but couldn’t ignore.
The shadow of her husband fell over her as he sat beside her on the rattan settee. “Can you tell me what happened back there? I wanted to surprise you. The best for your dream kitchen.”
“I’m not sure myself. I’m going to sound irrational if I explain.”
“Just start somewhere because I need to understand why I’m being asked to return an $8,000 stove I pestered my contact to find for us. I’ve never seen you react like that, Moira.”
“We don’t have gas stoves in my family. It’s how it’s always been,” Moira started. She looked down again at her scar. How did she tell her husband about a family secret that her mother still refused to divulge the full details? “No home inhabited by an O’Neil has a gas stove in its kitchen. ‘Only bad comes from it!’ mother has said until it became ingrained in mine and Katie’s heads. Katie hadn’t believed it. Too late now.”
“What in the hell are you talking about?” John said.
Moira paused, steadying herself for what she was about to share. Some family dirty laundry mother would stress to keep in the family. The family’s unreasonable handed down fear, but to be heeded just the same. John deserved an explanation, even if her understanding was incomplete. Moira tried to have him follow why that stove had to go.
“We never had gas stoves in our homes. Even though dad was a chef. Chefs swear by cooking with gas. But in his own kitchen, he resigned to cook on electric. When I asked him why, he said, ‘To keep the peace with your mother. She has a fear of gas stoves.’ When I tried to find out why, dad said to go ask my mom.”
“So. Did you ever ask her?”
“Yes, I tried, and Katie tried. Many times. We never got a full story, and the story changed depending on her ‘mood’. Yet always the same demand from her. ‘Don’t you dare have a gas stove. No good comes from it.’ She said it the last time to Katie. Katie told her she was foolish; refused to hear anymore if mother would not tell the full story. Did I ever tell you that Katie had just bought her old Victorian?” Moira asked John. “It had an old gas stove. She didn’t listen to mother.”
“Are you implying the house fire that killed Katie happened because she kept the gas stove? That your family has a curse when it comes to kitchen equipment? That’s insane. They ruled it an accident, for God’s sake,” John said. “I understand you miss Katie, and you don’t want to upset your mother. But ours isn’t some old leaky gas stove. It’s brand new in a house we’ve renovated down to the studs.”
“It’s not just my mother being irrational, John. I think there’s more to it. Something bad enough that my mother doesn’t want to say the words out loud.” Moria’s voice continued to rise. “It’s me, too. I get a bad feeling seeing that stove in our kitchen. And this stupid scar, I don’t know where it came from. Well, it started to burn when I saw that stove. I can’t have that stove in my house.”
A few moments passed before John made his reply. “Moira, I understand that this is some family superstition, but it’s unfounded. Katie’s death was an accident.”
“The home inspector had tested the stove pilot. It wasn’t faulty. That stove shouldn’t have sparked that fire.”
“The stove is staying, so you need to work this craziness out with your mother.” John rose, leaving Moira alone again.
That afternoon found Moira and John sitting in Mrs. O’Neil’s apartment. Mrs. O’Neil was none too pleased to see them. “Why didn’t you call ahead? I wasn’t wanting visitors.”
“Mother, John and I must know the full reason you have a fear of gas stoves in the house.” John added, “I surprised Moira with an incredible gas range and she’s demanding I return it. What’s wrong with gas stoves, that Katie didn’t listen and her house blew up?”
“Well, if Katie hadn’t dismissed me. I said not to tempt fate. We know how that ended.”
“But mother, how did she tempt fate? What’s the entire story? Why do I have this scar on my hand and how did dad, a chef, agree with not having a gas stove in his own kitchen?” Moira asked. “It’s time. I need to know.”
“Your father didn’t fight it. He was there that day.” Mother shook her head as she said that what the two of them experienced remained burned into their memories. “Do I have to relive it again?”
“Yes. I have to know. John needs to understand that I’m not irrational,” Moira said.
“Fine. Remember, you asked for this.” Mrs. O’Neil shifted in her recliner. “We were living in the old triplex on Madison. You were only 24-months and Katie about a year old. You shouldn’t remember, but somehow you do. My mother was living with us. That miserable old thing. Becoming angrier at still living and cursing at us for being happy. Your dad was out back. I needed to call him in for lunch. You and Katie were playing in the kitchen. I’d asked my mother to watch you both. I never imagined what evil lived in that woman.”
Mrs. O’Neil paused. “Do you actually want to know?” Moira nodded. “Fine. I remember returning to the kitchen then screaming for your father. It happened so quickly, yet I felt I wasn’t moving fast enough.”
“What happened, Mother?” Moira said as her mother waved her off.
“There was your grandmother. She had placed you on the front burner, while she lifted Katie, about to put her on open flames next to you. You both were screaming! I saw your father grabbing you two as I threw your grandmother up against the table. I kept shaking her while screaming, ‘why!’ Her eyes were dead cold. Devoid of any emotion, she looked at me and said, ‘They wouldn’t stop laughing. I had to teach them a lesson.’ My mother was gone. I don’t know what that was standing in my kitchen, but she was no longer allowed in my home,” Mrs. O’Neil said. “Now you know. The shame, the absolute terror of knowing what evil your own mother was capable of and without remorse. I’ve said my peace on this now. Don’t keep that gas stove. Don’t tempt whatever curse it is our family has connected with this.” Mrs. O’Neil turned her head away to stare out the window.
After Mother revealed her secrets, Moria knew John couldn’t refuse her. Even if her mother was being silly about a curse, how could they look at that stove and not think of her and her sister being set afire as babies? Yet, John remained unmoved. “I’m not returning a good stove because of superstition and questionable memories of an old woman. Yes, it was damn traumatic for your parents, but a curse? There’s no such thing.” John turned to her in their front foyer. “Get over it, Moira.”
Moira went to bed early to be alone. She vacillated between accepting a fear planted by her parents from a horrible event to being unable to shake an unease deep in her core. Exhausted, she fell asleep until dawn. John had eased into bed at some point. Moira slipped out of bed, grabbed her wrap, and made her way to the stairs. John was right, she thought. She was being silly.
Moira walked to the kitchen. It was beautiful. John had been amazing to surprise her. She needed to let this silly fear go.
Moira grabbed for the kettle, filled it up, then placed it on a burner. As she ignited the pilot, she looked again into the shiny kettle, startled as she caught her image and that of another.
“Time to finish what I started,” was the last thing Moira heard.