A Dish Best Served Cold

If you stop and think about it, Thanksgiving is the perfect time for a family murder. All those relatives gathered under one roof; all that food setting out on the table for hours. A murderer couldn’t ask for a better alibi than a bit of ptomaine poisoning. Or perhaps a sleepy drive home, zonked out on tryptophan; who’d ever think to check the brake line? So when I decided to kill my cousin, Megan, I zeroed in on Thanksgiving.

Megan had been a thorn in my side for years. She was one of those kids that would pinch you black and blue under the table while smiling sweetly at Aunt Nell. I’d get in trouble for screaming, and Megan would look at me with big, innocent eyes. Then she’d pinch me again. I knew better than to tattle, and no adult ever figured it out.

As we grew up, we realized that Nell Abernathy was our only rich relative. One of four siblings, Nell was a prune-faced single lady who lived very well indeed, though she had no visible means of support. I often heard my family’s bitter remarks about the sister who stole their inheritance. Dad and his brothers and sisters stayed angry about it their whole lives.

Maybe Megan and Nell shared some family DNA for meanness, I don’t know, but they grew closer and closer over the years. Megan was especially attentive as Nell aged, driving her to innumerable doctor appointments, gathering in groceries and crawling about on the floor to dust the deeply-carved legs of the Chippendale chairs. Sometimes, she’d go over to Nell’s and spend the whole weekend cooking up big meals so there’d be leftovers for the next week. Then the two of them would giggle late into the night over old movies.

I didn’t particularly like Aunt Nell, but still, I resented Megan for once again pinching me under the table, figuratively speaking.  As Nell’s only nieces, we’d inherit a small fortune when she died, but at this rate, only Megan would get her paws on it. I contemplated cutting in on some of Megan’s do-good attentions to the old bat, but really, I had better things to do. It just seemed simpler to take Megan out of the picture, and poison was the neatest way to do it. I volunteered to bring the dressing to Thanksgiving dinner.

“You know I always make dressing to stuff the turkey,” Megan said.

“That’s stuffing. This will be dressing. Of course, it won’t be as good. Everyone loves your stuffing so much, there’s never enough. When it runs out, they can eat my dressing.”

Flattery always worked with Megan. She agreed.

You can find anything on the Internet. With a little Googling, I came up with a plan. The eggs…they’d be a little off. Just enough to show up in the toxicology tests, if there were any, hiding the trace of cyanide. Now, I had to make sure only Megan ate the bad dressing. No point in slaying the whole family. I’d make a test batch and take it to her the night before. Revenge is a dish best served cold, but mine would be warm and tasty.

“I don’t think I have the spices quite right. Just taste it and tell me what it needs,” I’d say. “You’re a much better a cook than I am. Here, have some more. ” And she would comply, happy for the chance to tell me my food was lousy.

All went as planned. I knocked on Megan’s porch-lit door on Thanksgiving Eve, carrying my covered dish of death. She ushered me right into the kitchen, where she was cooking for the next day. I was surprised when she offered her own stuffing for a taste test; she who was always totally confident that everything she did was perfect. Oh well, I could play along.

~*~

From the Tipton Times:

Two cousins, June and Megan Abernathy, died the day before Thanksgiving. Cause of death is suspected food poisoning. Relatives became alarmed when the women didn’t show up for the family’s annual dinner and went looking for them. They were found dead on the kitchen floor of Megan Abernathy’s home.

Their aunt, Nell Abernathy, said, “They were such lovely girls, and so close. My only comfort is to think that now they will be together forever. ”

 

 

 

 

 

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Saucer Boy

Bill waited impatiently for the teacher to call his name. It was Report Day in Mrs. Henderson’s room, the day when each child stood before the class and gave a talk. They were allowed to bring something to show and then tell about it, but it wasn’t called Show and Tell because that was for babies. Fourth graders were ‘way beyond that.

On Report Day, it was hard for Mrs. Henderson to keep order. There was a lot of fidgeting, whispering and note-passing. Fear of public speaking took root at an early age.

Bill was as nervous as everyone else. His past efforts hadn’t exactly lit the place on fire. In fact, his classmates’ faces took on a flat look of boredom when he spoke. But today he was actually looking forward to his turn. He had an important report about something everyone needed to know. He could hardly wait.

“William,” Mrs. Henderson said with an encouraging smile, “You’re next.”

He strode to the front of the room and began. “There is something called a UFO, an unidentified flying object, that looks like a fat Frisbee, and it has lights that change color depending on what’s happening. Amber for landing, blue for resting, red for flying.”

The kids rolled their eyes at each other and stifled their giggles behind open hands. Mrs. Henderson stepped forward and touched Bill’s shoulder. “William, today’s report is supposed to be factual, not a make-believe story.”

“This is factual,” Bill said. “There is such a thing as a UFO. I’ve seen it.”

“Now, William, it’s okay to have fantasies and I love your imagination, but remember, today’s assignment is to tell about a real person, place or thing.”

“But it’s real.” Bill didn’t mean to argue, but he couldn’t give up. He needed to say this, even if Mrs. Henderson didn’t want to hear it. “The UFO moves so fast it looks like a shooting star. Maybe you’ve even seen it and thought it was a shooting star. But it’s not. It’s a space ship and there are…beings…inside. And they’re not humans, exactly, but really good beings who would never hurt anyone. People shouldn’t be afraid of them, or chase them away.”

The class exploded in laughter, and Mrs. Henderson rapped on her desk to restore order. She had thirteen more reports to get through before the end of this very long Friday.

“William. Please take your seat.”

“But what about the rest of my report?” Bill asked, his face tense with anxiety.

“That’s all for today. Next week, I expect you to be prepared to follow the assignment.”

~*~

“Saucer Boy! Saucer Boy!”

The taunts began immediately when the children were dismissed for the day.

“Silly Billy’s got a flying space ship!”

“Billy, Billy, U-F-uh-O!”

Bill felt his face burn. He should have known better; would he never learn?

Ignoring the line of yellow school buses, he set off on foot. It wasn’t allowed; if you were a bus-rider, you were supposed to get on your bus. But Bill slipped away, losing himself in a crowd of town kids who walked home. He knew the bus ride would be torture today.

The family’s isolated farm house was a long trudge from school. It took him almost an hour, and when he got there, the door was locked. That wasn’t unusual. Bill got the key from beneath the third flower pot on the left and let himself in. Nobody was home, but he knew what had to be done.

Going directly to his room, he reached up to the top shelf of his closet and got down his duffle bag. In it he placed his favorite book, Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing, his warm fleece jacket and his toothbrush. Last, he tossed in a couple of granola bars. That should be all he’d need. He went to the kitchen, poured a glass of milk and munched his way through most of a bag of Oreos. Then he settled down to watch cartoons. His eyelids slowly closed; it had been an exhausting day.

He woke instantly when amber light flooded the room.  Casting one farewell glance around his home, he grabbed his duffle bag and ran out the back door. A deep blue glow emanated from the airship that rested silently on the grass. When a hatch slid open, Bill moved forward.

“Mom?”

 

In the Arms of the Angels

Burt wished Sarah McLachlan would stop singing that darn song on T.V., the one about the arms of the angels. When he heard it, he’d hurry to hit the remote or even leave the room. The pictures of those sad-eyed dogs cowering in cages or back alleys just killed him.

I can’t save them all, he told Sarah in his head, as he wrote a check to the SPCA. Save just one, then, she replied soundlessly. He tried not to hear.

Burt loved dogs, but he really wanted to own a big, pedigreed animal that would excite envy and attention. His dream dog. Maybe a mastiff. Or a Doberman. One that told the world Burt was a special guy, a force to be reckoned with, not just another cog in the machine.

He’d do research and visit breeders, get enthusiastic and ready to plunk down several thousand dollars for one puppy or another, but then Sarah would sing again and he’d be lost. Finally, in self-defense, he made his way to the shelter. I’m just looking, he told himself sternly, in case a good dog got hauled in with the strays.

Burt walked along the concrete corridor between the tall wire enclosures. His nose stung from the mingled odors of disinfectant and despair. The noise level was deafening. He’d read dogs in shelters go a little crazy from the din, and he could understand why. But the dogs couldn’t help themselves; his presence brought excitement and hope. They barked. His ears ringing, he peered at the hopeful faces.

Just looking.

Here was a quiet one. She was smallish, with rough brown fur, one floppy ear, and a sagging belly from too many litters of puppies. There was absolutely no resemblance to his dream dog, but when she calmly met his eyes, he felt a jolt of recognition.

 I’m your dog. Take me home.

He did. Their song began.

 

 

Lesson Learned

A door slams, jolting little Tom from sleep to terror.  A raised voice, a curse, a crash as something falls over.  Oh no. Daddy’s drunk again.

Tom’s big brother, James, leaps out of bed and catapults down the steps.  The old farmhouse has a narrow enclosed stairway. At the bottom is a door that opens in.  James sits braced with his back to the door, feet against the bottom step.  Tom scurries to his brother’s side, although at eight, his legs aren’t long enough to reach the step.  He sits beside James for solidarity and because he’s too scared to stay in bed alone.  Both boys tremble as the doorknob turns, jiggles. The door vibrates against their backs.   A fist hammers just inches from their heads.  Tom cries soundlessly.

Daddy says, “Dammit, you boys open this door right now. You’re gonna get the belt, you little bastards!”

James is crying, too, but he keeps his legs straight and strong – a human doorstop to keep Daddy out.  Tom feels a rush of gratitude to his brave big brother, who is ten years old.

The hammering stops.  Silence.  Then Daddy is shouting a song.

“He’ll pass out now,” James says.

The  boys crawl back upstairs and into bed.  It’s over this time.

~*~

Tom is a strapping fellow, well over six feet tall with the muscles of a gladiator. He criss-crosses the American prairie in a gleaming silver truck that winks in the sun like the eye of God. His load? Whatever shippers care to send, mostly hazardous materials. It’s a dangerous job, but he’s a careful man.

Tom has a family, a wife and two little boys. He doesn’t see them as often as he’d like, but the trucking money’s good. His brother, James, lives close by and if Mandy or the boys need anything, James is right there. His father still lives somewhere around, but Tom has nothing to do with his parent. The old man is forbidden to set foot on Tom’s place.

He’s glad to be home early today. James has been out of town all week, and Tom’s felt uneasy about that. He picked up a couple of toys for the boys at the last truck stop and looks forward to surprising them, so he parks beside the road and walks down the long driveway.

Almost there, his ears are filled with the familiar roar of his father’s drunken anger. It’s coming from inside the house. Tom’s heart pounds and his breath quickens. He pulls off his belt, swinging the big metal buckle as he breaks into a dead run that will propel him through his kitchen door straight into the past. He knows exactly what to do.

 

A Day at the Races

“C’mon, go to the track with me. It’ll be good for you,” Geraldine said. “You’ve been cooped up in the house since Bill passed.”

Geraldine had a point, Bertha thought. Maybe she did need to get out more. But she’d never been to a race track. She’d never gambled on anything. The idea of losing even a dollar was frightening. Her husband had worked hard to earn that dollar, so she’d have something to live on after he was gone. However, Geraldine said Bertha didn’t have to bet; she could just watch. So she went.

~*~

The minute the horses took the track, she was mesmerized. They were so beautiful, their long, skinny legs kicking up puffs of dust as they streamed effortlessly around the oval, warming up. There was one she especially liked, a black mare named Jinx.

“But she looks lucky to me,” she said daringly to Geraldine.

“Well, go on, have a little flutter,” Geraldine said. “It makes it more fun. And who knows? This might be your lucky day.”

Bertha felt a jolt of temptation that short-circuited her usual common sense. “You know, I think I will bet just a little on that Jinx horse.”

She approached the window and held out a ten dollar bill to the bored man behind the bars. “On Jinx, to win.”  It’s only ten dollars, she counseled her pounding heart.

There wasn’t time to rejoin Geraldine, so Bertha stood at the nearest vantage point. The gates swung open and the horses were off.  Jinx had a good position on the inside and exploded like a rocket, taking the early lead. Bertha pounded the rail and screamed. Just when it looked like Jinx would disprove her name, she stumbled, dropping back as the pack surged around her.

Bertha’s mouth was set in a straight line as she tore up her ticket and, uncharacteristically,  let the pieces flutter to the ground.  I’m an idiot. Might as well be a litter-bug, too.

“So your horse didn’t win, either,” a well-dressed gentleman said, taking her arm as if they were old friends. “Come, let’s drown our sorrows at the bar.”

“I’m not accustomed to drowning anything,” Bertha said, pulling her arm away. “Besides, I need to get back to Geraldine.”

“Of course, your friend is welcome to join us,” the man said, and as if she’d heard her name, Geraldine appeared.

“Oh, I’d love a little drinkie,” she said, ignoring Bertha’s frown and tiny head-shakes.

The ladies were propelled firmly into the bar and settled at a table. Without asking, their new companion – she didn’t catch his name – ordered martinis all around. Bertha had never tasted a martini, but she was hot and thirsty and there wasn’t anything else to drink. She downed it in three gulps, wrinkling her nose at the taste. Immediately, another drink appeared. She sipped this one more slowly.

Bertha drifted into a fuzzy, pleasant place where nothing seemed to matter much. Mr. – what did he say his name was? – talked about odds and handicapping and what the trainers and jockeys told him in confidence. Inside information, sincere brown eyes, and alcohol in the middle of the day conspired to make his offer of help with their bets seem like an opportunity not to be missed.

“So, ladies, how much would you like me to wager for you on the next race? Simpatico is the favorite, but I think it’ll be Danny Boy by a length. He’s a long shot, but he’ll pay ten to one if he wins. Just think: for a mere fifty dollars, you go home with five hundred.”

Dreamily, Bertha rummaged through her pocketbook and handed over two wrinkled twenties and a ten. It was next week’s grocery money, but what the heck.  Mr. Whoever bowed slightly at the waist, and disappeared in the direction of the betting windows.

~*~

Somehow, Bertha was back at the rail. She’d lost Geraldine, but what mattered now was the race. When Danny Boy won – by a length – she would have jumped up and down had she not felt so light-headed. Partly it was the drinks and partly the idea of pocketing five hundred dollars.

Now where’s that Mr. What’s His Name with my winnings? Wait, is that him heading toward the exit? He must be looking for me. Weaving slightly, she hurried after him, catching up when he stopped to talk to another man. She waited politely behind him.

“Easy pickings today. I’m leaving with a cool thou,” Mr. Whosit said, laughing. “Pretty good for an hour’s work. The old dears loved the attention, and I think they got their money’s worth. It’s a day they’ll remember.”

He turned to leave, slinging his sports coat over his shoulder. A fat white envelope slipped unnoticed from the inside pocket, landing with a plop at Bertha’s feet. Quickly, she covered it with her sensible shoe.

This just might be a memorable day for Mr. Whosit, too.

 

The Note

The scrap of paper blew in the wind that stirred the park’s trees. It danced over the path, got hung up for a moment on a bush, then made a pirouette and landed on the playground. A dog sniffed at it but turned away. A child stepped on it on his way to the swings. Finally, the scrap blew against the jeans-clad leg of a young mother. She glanced down, noticed writing and picked it up. The scrawl was shaky, but she read, “If you find this, help me! I’m a prisoner.”

Well, what’s this about? she wondered, looking around the playground for something out of the ordinary. The kids were swinging, sliding, running and yelling as usual, supervised by parents and baby-sitters. She gazed around for an authority figure on whom she could off-load this unwelcome intrusion into her day. A grandmotherly figure on one of the benches looked likely. She crossed to her.

“Good morning,” she began. “Would you mind looking at this?” She held it out.

The older lady read silently, her lips moving, then looked up. “You are need help?” she said.

“No, no, not me, I just found it.”

“If you are need help, must go to policia. I no speak good, you go to policia.”

Shrugging, the young mother stepped to the nearest trash can and let the scrap flutter into it.

~*~

Chet swung the big municipal garbage truck into the park, and Ben jumped off to grab the trash can and affix it to the arm that hoisted it up into the truck’s maw. A gusty wind abetted the escape of a scrap of paper before the crusher could get it, tossing it back at Ben’s feet. With a sign as gusty as the wind, Ben bent to retrieve the wayward garbage.

“If you find this, help me! I’m a prisoner,” he read. His head swiveled as he scanned the park, empty at this early hour.

“Hey, Chet,” he called. “Look at this, will ya?”

“Get on the dang truck, we ain’t got all day,” Chet responded.

“Yeah, but…”

“Look, just get on the truck. Plenty of guys’ll take your job if you don’t want it.”

“Okay, okay,” Ben opened his hand, letting the paper catch the breeze.

~*~

A very old man made his way down the path, leaning heavily on his cane. His eyes were bright as they surveyed the park’s other occupants. He usually saw the same people every day. The school kids were sequestered in their classrooms, so the playground belonged to the little ones. Their hats and coats splashed color into the gray day.

The old man spoke to everyone. This was his daily social event and he was here in any weather. A white scrap impaled on a branch caught his eye. Balancing carefully, he reached up and plucked it.

“If you find this, help me! I’m a prisoner.” He read.

Ah. His snowy head nodded. He tucked the scrap in his pocket. Arriving at his house, he unlocked the door, including both deadbolts, then locked them again from the inside.

“I’m home, dear,” he called.

“Who are you? What are you doing here?” his tiny wife quavered, holding up her arms in defense.

“It’s me, dear. Now don’t get upset. It’s just me.”

He watched the fear in her eyes change to dull acceptance.

“I’ll make us a nice pot of tea,” he said.

He reached into his pocket and sent the note on its last journey into the wastebasket with the others.

 

 

 

Dog Gone

The metal kennel hit the tarmac with a crash.  The dog inside yelped. Then as the broken door swung open, a long, gray streak surged to freedom.

“Stop that dog!” the forklift driver yelled.

But the dog, a greyhound, could not be stopped.  Fueled by terror, it raced under the parked planes and vanished into the underbrush along the taxiway.The forklift driver was joined by two baggage handlers.

“There’ll be hell to pay for that,” one of the handlers said, staring in the direction the dog had disappeared.

“The darn kennel just fell off my fork. I think the dog was jumping around in there and made it go off-balance. Dog wasn’t hurt, though, not from the way it took off.  They’ll find it eventually.”

“You better hope they find it,” the handler said.  “That wasn’t just any dog.  See here on the label?  Westminster Dog Show, New York City, that’s where it came from.  Supposed to be going on another flight to Austin, Texas after you reloaded it, but that ain’t happening now, is it?  That dog’s worth some big money, you can bet on it.”

~*~

 Glengarry’s Rose of Ireland, call name Rosie, had a wall full of blue ribbons that testified to her special status. She was used to airline flights, although they were always awful – the noise and pressure changes hurt her delicate ears and the jostling sickened her. But she had no choice in the matter. It was just one more of the inexplicable things that humans made her do.

The sickening lurch and crash when the kennel fell sent her into a blind panic. When the door swung open, she took off with all the strength and speed of her breed, not knowing or caring where she was headed. When she finally slowed down enough to look around, everything was strange. Trembling from fear and exertion and badly needing water, Rosie spotted an opening under a nearby porch. She made for it, squeezed in and flopped down in the semi-darkness. She was still thirsty, but at least she felt safe.

~*~

The old man saw her. Sitting quietly in his rocker, he spent a lot of time looking out the window. Couldn’t do much else. He knew his neighbors called him Watchful Willie, and not in a nice way. Still, they were glad enough when he signed for their packages or told them they’d left the garden hose running. Darn whippersnappers thought they’d never grow old, never have to pass endless days at a window that looked at nothing.

Only today, nothingness was broken by the arrival of a tall, skinny dog. Will had only seen pictures of dogs like that one. Greyhound, he named it to himself. Amazing-looking creature. He was surprised when the dog ran to his house and disappeared under the porch. Rising, he shuffled to the kitchen, filled a pan with water and took it outside.

“You’re gonna have to come up here, dog,” he said. “The steps ain’t my friend.”

He went back in the house, and soon heard the click of toenails on porch boards, followed by noisy slurping. Back to the kitchen he went, scraping the remains of the beef stew that was to have been his dinner into another pan. When he opened the door, the dog zoomed off the porch and under it in one fluid motion. He put down the beef stew, and this time he sat in the porch rocker and waited.

~*~

Who knows what dogs can remember? Who knows what thoughts go on in their speechless heads? Rosie may not have recalled her days in the show ring, the hours of training and grooming and traveling. Maybe for her there was only the present: the old man who scratched her back and talked to her; the house that was now her home.

But Will knew how different life had become. The dog needed to be walked, so he found himself navigating the steps – and it got easier. On the sidewalk they became a magnet for little kids, which led to cordial conversations with their parents. The dog had to eat, so Will cooked meals for the two of them and they ate together in the kitchen. And the dog did goofy things that made Will laugh every day. He hardly had time to sit at the window anymore.

Will refused to speculate on where she’d come from. Far as he was concerned, she was his dog now. He debated what to call her. “Dog” wouldn’t do, not for a beautiful animal loaded with personality. Not for his best friend.

He named her Angel.