Miriam’s Greatest Fear

Stare into the face of terror.

What follows is one of my most-submitted, most-rejected, most-rewritten, most-resubmitted, mostrerejected stories. That should tell you something about its quality. I hope you enjoy it.

Miriam’s Greatest Fear

 As much as she wanted to deny it, Miriam knew in her heart that her greatest fear was coming true.

Miss Keffers, her housecat, was trying to murder her.

Yet when Miriam very calmly explained this to her daughter, Lucinda, on the telephone, she was met with a shocking amount of disbelief.

“Mom, that’s ridiculous. She is not trying to kill you. She’s a cat. She wants to sleep all day. And poop in sand. And throw up her own hair. That’s what she wants to do.”

“Shhh…not so loud,” Miriam whispered, her eyes flitting to and beyond the kitchen door to the living room of her small home. She could see the upholstered sofa and Stephen’s old Laz-E-Boy, both thankfully empty and still. Miriam prayed Miss Keffers wouldn’t walk in.

After another silent moment or two, Lucinda told her to “Stop it.”

“I want you to be normal,” she said.

“I am being normal.” Miriam’s tone was low and irritated. She gripped the receiver with both palms to muffle the sound. This was a conversation for the two of them, no one else. Miss Keffers had keen ears and Miriam didn’t want them to hear. “You would be nervous, too, if someone you lived with was plotting to kill you. Why don’t you understand that?”

“Because, Mom, it’s nuts. Please, please, please stop being like this.”

Before she had time to catch herself, Miriam whisper-yelled into the receiver: “Why can’t you just listen to me? Just this once?” She threw her free hand across her big mouth to silence it. Eyes on the kitchen door, Miriam waited and prayed.

“Okay…okay, Mom.” Lucinda wasn’t event hiding her frustration anymore. “What exactly did she do this time? Walk by your room? Sit in Dad’s chair? What?”

“No…no it wasn’t anything like that. She just…well, I can’t really explain it. It’s just the way…the way she behaves. She has this way of looking at me…I can’t really explain it.”

“Mom, why don’t you just let me get rid of the cat?”

“No…no…you can’t. That’ll just make her mad. Then she’ll really be after me. Cats are crafty, you know; they can get in and out. She’ll find me, and then…”

“Mom, please. You’re beginning to sound like Dad.”

“Oh, no. No, no, no, no, no. Lucy, not that,” the words barreled from Miriam’ mouth in a rush. “Please, no. Not that. I’m sharp, Honey; really sharp.”

“Mom, it’s just…”

“I’m reading a lot more now, and still work my crossword everyday. I even got most of them right yesterday. Really. I’m all here. It’s not like your father, I promise. It’s Miss Keffers…she knows…she knows that when I talk about her, I sound like a loon. That’s why she can get away with it. That’s why she can hate me and plot to kill me and be so open about it. She knows, Lucy…she knows you don’t believe me. But, I promise, I really do. I’m not crazy.”

There was another long pause, one that seemed to stretch on and on forever. Finally, in a voice much softer than before, her daughter said, “Yeah, well, Mom…calls like this make me question, you know? Remember Dad? Remember what he was like there, at the end?”

“Of course I do. It…it…broke..” and she choked a sob that wouldn’t allow her to continue.

“I know…I know, Mom. I know it still hurts. But, you have to remember what he was like then; the things he thought about the people he loved; the things he thought about you most of all. And, what he did.”

Miriam touched her left eye, wetting the tips of her fingers in the water pooling there. It still hurt when she thought about it, which is why she tried not to. The bruise had never healed, even though the physical marks had faded long ago and Stephen was seven years dead and buried. It wasn’t the punch that did it; it was the things he said to her — the things he accused her of doing.

“I know you’re poisoning my food,” he once told her, reaching across the dinning room table, over the green bean casserole she had prepared for him, and pointing his thick finger at her face. “You and those men of yours want me dead. You’re nothing but a murderous whore.”

At the time, she knew he didn’t mean these awful things; that deep down, the gentle man she loved had somehow faded away and been replaced by a violent, distrustful stranger. But it looked and sounded like him, and even though Miriam’s brain knew better, her heart couldn’t reason. When the police led Stephen away, Miriam wept and wept for his loss. Lucinda had said it was for the best; that he was dangerous to himself and others, especially her. It was still hard to believe.

More painful than anything was the blow to her sense of self. After the synapses in Stephen’s mind snapped apart like old rubber bands, Miriam realized that the same could happen to her. Her future became something imposing, frightening — a dark wall she couldn’t help but crash against. It was always there, always in her mind, always looming ahead. She could become like Stephen one day, just snap and forget everything that made her who she was and what she had done.

But this wasn’t like that at all. Miriam wasn’t like Stephen; Miriam hadn’t known Miss Keffers, for more than a couple of weeks; but, in that short time, she learned that beneath her sweet exterior there was something malicious — a claw sheathed beneath soft tufts of fur.

“This…this isn’t like your father. At all. This is totally different.” Miriam meant it when she said it, but the words came out timidly and with little conviction. Her daughter remained unconvinced.

“I really don’t think it is, Mom. You’re seeing things that aren’t there, just like Dad did. I’m afraid you’re going to hurt yourself.” There was little emotion in her daughter’s voice. Lucinda had always been so businesslike, so reasonable.

“No…it’s just not that way…I wouldn’t…” but Miriam trailed off.

“Mom? Mom, you still there?”

“Yes. Yes. I’m still here.”

There were a few moments of pronounced silence before Lucinda spoke again.

“Listen, Mom, I have to go for now. But, I’m going to drop by tonight and we’re…we’re going to talk about this, okay? We’re going to talk about what we need to do and what’s going to be best for you. Just…just don’t do anything before I get there. Okay?”

“Okay,” Miriam said, weakly.

“Good. I love you, Mom. Always remember that.”

“I will, Honey. You, too.”

“And, Mom, remember: Miss Keffers is not trying to kill you. She’s just a cat, okay? A normal cat. “

“Just a cat. I know. I know.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure. I’m fine.”

“Okay. Try to keep it together until I get there. Love you. See you in a bit. Bye, Mom.”

“Bye. Love you, too.”

Miriam placed the receiver, heavy and black like the future, back in its cradle. What now? Now, there was nothing but to wait. Crying wouldn’t change a thing; she knew that. But she started anyway, the tears running in streams that just wouldn’t stop. Miriam clutched her face in her hands, the water from her eyes wetting both palms so much she could taste the salt pooling there.

It was a jingling that brought her out of it, the tiny tinkle of a bell that caused Miriam to seize up. Terror fell over her like a cold shadow — a black, twisting thing that sent a chill through her spine.

She was there.

The darkness lifted as her hands pulled away from her face and the kitchen slowly came into focus. Miss Keffers was sitting there, just beyond the door. She was looking away, as if she hadn’t heard or wasn’t interested if she had, gently cleaning a single paw with her tongue. The tiny bell around her neck jingled with each movement of her head. Each lick was methodical, planned, calculated.

In a slow, deliberate movement, Miss Keffers spread her toes wide apart and unsheathed five tiny daggers. Her little pink tongue darted between each of these blades, rubbing back and forth against them like a whetstone. Miriam just sat there — still, quiet, fearful — listening to the repeated tolling of that tiny bell.

Miss Keffers finished after a minute of two that seemed to stretch forever. She wiped her paw across the soft, mottled fur on her head and then sat, eyes closed.

She’s a cat, a normal cat, just a normal cat, Miriam told herself, chanting it again and again inside her head, hoping to grab hold of it and make it true but realizing that the words were slipping stealthily between her fingers like wisps of steam. A feeling of helplessness washed over her.

Swallowing what little spit she had, Miriam attempted to wet her dry throat enough to speak. She wanted to ask Miss Keffers if she had heard — if the cat knew that she knew, and knew that her daughter thought that she was crazy and that she was going to a home, just like Stephen. But all Miriam could manage was a dry, shaky, “Miss,” before her throat seized.

But, it was enough to rouse the small feline. Slowly, Miss Keffers opened a single eye a splinter’s worth, just enough to meet Miriam’s terrified gaze. She then stood and gracefully strode deeper into the house, out of sight.

Miriam swallowed. The cat had heard everything.

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