Yesterday, as Caroline walked home from school, she didn’t want to turn the corner by Gorzoch’s small grocery store. She had kicked at the brown leaves on the sidewalk. There was a monster around the edge. Or something worse. She heard the monster’s snarfling, snuffling, chewing, imagined his sulphurous breath. What was he devouring, masticating, swallowing?
She was glad her kitty was at home, so as not to be endangered. She could never throw her to the monster in the maze. Could not do it, would not do it. Of course, there was no monster.
Today, her mother tapped her slender fingers on the kitchen table. A beam of light gilded the worn oilcloth covering. On the stove, the lids jumped up and down from the steam. Caroline could hear the water burbling. On the radio in the next room, President Eisenhower talked about something she didn’t care about, the Cold War or highways. She was waiting for the right moment to tell her mother about the wonderful things she’d learned at school. Her teacher had taught the class about artists–van Gogh and Michelangelo and Renoir, who was Mrs. Turco’s favorite because of his vivid colors and happy scenes with pretty ladies holding parasols. The class would be taking a bus to see a traveling exhibit at the museum in Cleveland. Caroline needed her parents’ permission, and she was afraid that they would say they didn’t have the extra money. Her new plan was to write books and illustrate them. She would start a book after dinner. Her mother was saying, “There is a time for words and a time for silence, a time for play and a time for sleep.” This sounded sententious and confusing to Caroline. Her mother stroked the hole in the oilcloth. “A time for marriage and a time for divorce.”
Caroline felt a punch in her chest. What was her mother telling her? What was her mother not telling her? Caroline didn’t want to hear. She decided to say she was worried about their old kitty, Matilda, who was not eating well and who slept on the towel all day. “Matilda was in the same spot when I came home from school as she was this morning.”
To a mouse or spider, Matilda would’ve looked like a tiger or monster.
Her mother patted her hand. “Yes, she’s getting old.” Her mother’s eyes seemed sad and secretive.
But Caroline was a big girl and knew about death. She once had a turtle which she loved–Beauty–and it died. Of course. Everything died. Her mother had told her that. Beauty was the first creature Caroline knew and loved that had died. Pictures of turtles made them seem like monsters, like small dinosaurs. But Beauty was affectionate and smart and scrambled toward her and taught her about love and faithfulness. Now Matilda was acting like her old turtle–still and forlorn.
At school, her friend Andrea told her she had seen a ghost, but she was excitable and had a big imagination, Caroline’s mother always said. The ghost that Andrea saw was her cat, Lenore, and in her dream her kitty was huge as a mammoth, mouth open, teeth pointy, and Andrea was small as a mouse, holding up her tiny hands like paws in mouse prayers. Her friend woke up before her cat consumed her. She cried that it was her own fault: she had accidentally shut her tail in the door as she rushed out and slammed the door behind her.
“No,” Caroline had said. “You didn’t mean to. It was an accident. How is her tail?”
“There’s a kink in it.” Andrea’s lower lip trembled. “It was my fault, my fault for being in a hurry!”
Every time Caroline visited Andrea, she paid special attention to Lenore, who did have a small notch in her tail but was otherwise sweet and loving. So where did Andrea’s dream, well, nightmare, come from?
Caroline had drawn a picture of Lenore, trying and almost succeeding in portraying her leanness in a sleeping curve. She used her crayons and hatched in the fur. She signed it in the corner and gave it to Andrea, who smiled and burst into tears. She clutched the sketch to her chest and thanked Caroline. Caroline felt warm and gracious and adult. She was Lady Bountiful bequeathing a gift to a needy person. Caroline wanted to do this for the rest of her life.
And now her own kitty was sick, and her mother was saying something about separation, but not divorce. “My ears hurt,” Caroline said. Her mother stood up from the kitchen chair and bent over her.
“Do you have a fever? Does your throat hurt?”
“No.” Caroline clamped her lips.
“Would you like a ginger ale?” Her mother patted Caroline’s forehead and seemed to relax. The autumn sun outside the window was golden. Her mother brought Caroline a glass and a ginger ale for her stomach. “So you’re all right?” She sat down in her chair. “I want to talk about your father moving out of the house.”
Her mother was the monster. Not Matilda.
Her mother muttered something about how they both loved her but they didn’t want to live in the same house and would try a separation for a while.
How would that help? How would that eliminate the screaming? Her father would say, “You spent too much on the dining room set.” Her mother would yell back, “You don’t make enough money!” The walls shook with their words.
Her sweet cat caught a mouse once. Their house was filled with tiny, secret things. Matilda dropped it on the floor and batted it with her paw as if it were a hockey puck. The mouse squeaked and skittered on the linoleum. Matilda ran after it, caught it in her mouth and chomped down on its neck. As Caroline watched, she thought Matilda was a monster. Her mother said it was just a cat’s nature. Caroline didn’t forgive Matilda for days, even when she jumped into Caroline’s lap and nuzzled her.
When Caroline got her as a kitten, she had named her Ace. “Ace is for a boy cat,” her mother had said. “I’m going to call her Matilda.”
“Ace is for tops,” Caroline insisted. “She’s the best. She’s a bandage. She can cure all wounds.”
A short while later, her mother called her Ace, and Caroline called her Matilda, and then they all agreed–her father too–to call her Matilda.
Now her cat trotted into the kitchen. Outside the window, the light was changing, bursting into sunset. Her mother said everything would be all right. She lifted Matilda into her lap and stroked her and stroked her.
No, Caroline thought. Her elbow hit the glass, which fell to the floor, shattered, and spilled the ginger ale. It would not be all right.
Caroline’s nails became claws, her breath shot out in fiery sulphur, she growled from her throat. Her mother sank into a curve, a mouse. Her kitty ran away.
Cezarija Abartis' Nice Girls and Other Stories was published by New Rivers Press. Her stories have appeared in Drunk Monkeys, Pure Slush, and New York Tyrant, among others. She participates on Fictionaut, ShowMeYourLits.com and Zoetrope.com. Her flash, “The Writer,” was selected by Dan Chaon for Wigleaf’s Top 50 Online Fictions of 2012. “History,” published by The Lascaux Review, was chosen as April Story of the Month by The Committee Room. Recently she completed a novel, a thriller. She teaches at St. Cloud State University. Her website is http://magicmasterminds.com/cezarija/