Napkins

“Now Brett,” she started in. “Have you forgotten something?” She glared sternly over her nose at his napkin.

“It was sitting perfectly creased underneath his fork. The fork was aligned correctly with his knife. Facing blade in, of course. They weren’t heathens.

He grabbed the napkin. Crumpling it onto his lap.

Her lips thinned. “We shake the napkin out in a non-theatrical manner, and place it neatly across our lap.”

Brett felt the anger swell up inside him like a sparkler stuck in his chest. He wanted to take the napkin and shove it down her throat.

Mother carried on obliviously, “Manners take us anywhere. If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times, napkin shake, then neatly on the lap. Napkin shake and place. Shake and place.”

She demonstrated with her own napkin as if he’d never seen the demonstration countless times before. “I don’t know what’s wrong with you. I try my best, but you are always a disappointment. Can’t you get even one thing right?” She looked at him expectantly.

He glanced over at Emilia. Her lower lip was trembling, and her large brown eyes were bright with a sheen of tears. Em hated the ‘you are a disappointment’ rant almost more than he did. No matter which of them it was aimed at.

If only he could escape her criticism. Take Emilia and get out from under her watchful eyes. But how? He was just a boy. What could he do?

Brett had asked his father. To please let them live with him. To let them escape her household. Dad had simply laughed and turned him down without giving any reason.

But Brett had his suspicions. Not a chance Dad wanted two kids to cramp his lifestyle. It was why he had left in the first place. At least, that was what Mother always told them. Nobody wanted them except for her. They were strictly her burden.

They were driving over the big hill on 29th Avenue when Brett had the first inklings of an idea. The car struggled to the top of the hill, and then Mother let it begin the long swoop down the other side. Nervously slamming on the brakes to slow their momentum.

Brett fingered the knife in his pocket. What if he cut the brake line? He would have to arrange it for a time when he and Emilia weren’t in the car.

Would it work? Possibly. But the police weren’t stupid. It wouldn’t take them long to find the reason for any car crash. Brett continued thinking. There had to be a way.

That night he found himself wandering into her bedroom. With a plump pillow in his hands. He held it over her head. Blocking her face from his view. All he could hear was the unpleasant rattle of her snores.

It would be so easy. All he had to do was press down. Hold it down firmly. Shake and place until it was over.

His hands trembled. He brought the pillow closer to her nose. But then stopped himself. Smothering would be too detectable. He wanted to be free. Not end up in some juvie asylum separated from Emilia. He needed to be patient. Bide his time.

Brett went to the library and found a vacant computer terminal. He googled ‘murder’. It came up with ninety-nine million results. Definitions. Books. Films. And then endless lists of murder cases. He read until his eyes ached, but couldn’t find a method that might work for him. He gave up and made it home in time to dust the house according to the cleaning schedule Mother had assigned.

It was Emilia’s responsibility to have the tea ready when Mother arrived home from work. It had to be precisely prepared. Perfectly drinkable.

“She’s coming up the driveway,” Brett called.

“I’m not ready,” said Emilia, her voice squeaky with fear.

He heard the whistle of the kettle quickly cut off. Rattling noises from the kitchen.

Mother followed her usual routine. She shrugged off her coat and purse and settled on the pink sateen settee. Putting her feet up on the matching ottoman with a sigh. Emilia presented her with the tea in a delicately flowered china cup and saucer.

She took a long sip before frowning. “What have you done with the tea, Emilia?”

“I don’t know.”

“Did you steep it properly? For five minutes the way I like it?”

“Yes.”

“It looks the right colour. But it tastes horribly weak. You didn’t steep it properly.”

“I tried, Mother.”

“I’m here as a single mother, working my fingers to the bone. And you can’t even prepare a proper cup of tea for me?” Her voice grew more heated. “What on earth is wrong with you? You’re useless. Such a disappointment.”

Brett heard the slap. The sharp crack of flesh on flesh. Then the sound of Emilia sobbing. Running to her room to hide under her quilt. She didn’t come out until dinner. Her eyes were swollen and red.

They were finishing their meal when Mother turned her attention on him. “I notice you left the front door unlocked again. Are you trying to get us killed?”

He shook his head.

“There’s a serial killer on the loose. The Butcher of Babes. He’s attacking single women. That makes me particularly vulnerable.”

Brett’s eyes rolled before he could stop himself. He doubted Mother was the type of babe the Butcher was looking for.

“I expect he’s another disappointment to his parents. Can’t hack real life so he has to take it out on innocents.”

“Why do they call him the Butcher?” asked Emilia.

“He chops off bits of their arms and legs until nothing is left but their torso and head.”

“Brett, really. Emilia doesn’t need to know that.”

“He mails the meat, piece by piece, to their closest relative.”

“Brett!”

“The final package is a square box, neatly wrapped in butcher’s paper, holding only their head.”

“I am disgusted by your behaviour, Brett. It is completely unacceptable to frighten your sister with such stories.”

“I’m only telling the truth.”

“You are being disrespectful. And uncaring. You’re the man of the house now, and I expect better. I just don’t know what’s wrong with you. You never say or do the right thing. Why I got stuck with you, I’ll never know.”

Brett wondered how someone could get in touch with the Butcher. It would be one way to take care of Mother. How did one invite a murderer into their life? Undoubtedly a personal ad would not work. He imagined putting up pictures of Mother around town with a tempting caption.

Butcher wanted. Single woman. House unlocked.

He crept into Mother’s room late that night. Light from the streetlamp outside filtered through the curtains. Giving a soft glow to her face. Asleep, she looked younger. Kinder.

He imagined copying the Butcher. Taking his cleaver and beginning to hack. Using a bone saw when the going got tough. Eating away at her piece by piece just like her words ate away at his soul.

The blood would spurt. He’d need to have something searing hot to cauterize her wounds. Keep her alive until the next slice.

Where could he keep her while this was going on? They had a basement, but that would be the first place the police would look if she was reported missing. His options were limited.

Plus he doubted if he could stand the gore. The metallic tang of blood. The crimson splashes. The scent of flesh burning. The wailing and cries. She would probably even criticize that he wasn’t killing her properly.

At dinner he began watching her from under hooded eyelids. Watching her mouth flap. Letting her vitriol flow past him. Thinking. Endlessly thinking.

“That’s gangplank, Brett,” she told him. Interrupting his reverie.

He looked down at his knife, resting with the handle on the table and the tip on his plate.

“Manners take us anywhere. If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times…”

Brett knew what he’d like to do with his knife. He imagined taking it and stabbing it into her eyeballs. Letting the blood and vitreous fluid leak out like a broken egg yolk. Finishing off by slitting her throat as politely as possible. Which was more correct? Right to left, or left to right? A laugh escaped him.

Mother raised her eyebrow. “What do you find so funny?”

“The fish is delicious,” Brett said with clenched teeth.

Mother smiled. “It’s to die for, isn’t it? I’ve really outdone myself tonight.”

And then it hit him. Poison. Just a simple addition to her meal. Something unexpected. Something nobody would think to look for if she died. When she died.

He got up early the next morning, defiantly throwing on jeans and a t-shirt. He had time to prowl around down in the basement. There were some old boxes of rat poison. He wasn’t sure how that would work on people. It was something to consider.

Brett was eating cereal when Mother arrived in the kitchen. She began preparing eggs and toast for herself and Emilia.

“Please hurry and get changed for school, Brett, or you’ll be late.”

“I’m ready for school.”

Mother gasped. “Jeans? You know that is unacceptable. Go put on your dress pants and vest. I’ve laid out a new bow tie for you as well.”

“I’ve had it with looking like Little Boy Blue. Everyone makes fun of me. I’m wearing jeans and that’s it.”

“Over my dead body!”

A thought popped in Brett’s head. That can certainly be arranged.

Mother ran over in a fury. Taking her metal spatula and slamming Brett over the head and shoulders. “You. Will. Get. Changed.”

He shoved past her, running down the hall and slamming the door to his room. He sat on his bed, his head in his hands, breathing hard. He could feel welts rising up on his face and arms.

She was still screaming, “Clothes make the man. No son of mine is wearing jeans to school. Never!”

He would give in this time. But there was no doubt. Her end was coming. Soon.

Brett used the school computers to do more research. He wondered if the websites about rat poison were true. If it would leave her weeping bloody tears. With a bloody smear of a smile. It seemed too obvious for the authorities. As nice as it would be to bring her to what sounded like a painful end.

He found articles about an Angel of Death. Who killed dozens of people with cyanide. The good part was that the poisoning symptoms mimicked other illnesses. Making it hard to detect. But where could he find this poison? He could try filling her with apricot pits or cassavas—whatever those were—but it sounded too challenging.

And household poisons would be too difficult to disguise. There was no hiding bleach or ammonia in her food.

He sat in science class. Drooping. Morose. Barely listening to his teacher blather on about benefits and risks of plants. But then he heard the magic words. Toxic to humans.

Brett perked up. His teacher was showing slides of a yew tree. Scientists were learning that yew trees might help in cancer treatment. On the flip side, the seeds were highly poisonous.

He remembered Mother slapping his hands and yanking Emilia away from the yew tree in their yard. Yelling at them not to eat the seeds masquerading as small red berries.

When he arrived home, he went out to inspect the yew. It was covered in seeds, plump and bright like rubies. He picked several cups worth and went back to the kitchen. Simmering the seeds with dollops of sugar until he ended up with a jammy substance.

Brett found the jar of strawberry jam in the fridge. The colour of the yew jam wasn’t too far off. He mixed them carefully together. It looked fine to him. He was confident Emilia was in no danger; she was allergic to strawberries. The concoction would be reserved solely for Mother. A broad smile spread across his face. He could hardly wait.

The next morning, he watched happily as Mother spread a generous portion of ‘strawberry jam’ on her toast. She took a big bite. Chewing thoughtfully. He waited for some sign. Some indication that the flavour was off. But Mother simply ate her toast like any other morning. She even had a second piece.

She began to rub her stomach, wincing in pain.

“Are you okay, Mother?” he asked.

Before she could answer she ran for the toilet. He heard the explosive noise of diarrhea.

“What’s wrong, Mother?” called Emilia.

“She’s got the flu,” Brett answered. “Best to leave her.”

Mother staggered off to her bed. Brett went in to plump her pillows and ask if he could get her anything. He assumed an expression of concern. Hiding the delight inside.

She was trembling and rubbing her head. Moaning in pain.

“Should we call the doctor?” asked Emilia.

“No,” he said firmly. “I’ll stay home from school and look after her.”

Mother’s condition steadily deteriorated as time went by. Her breathing became laboured. When he checked her pulse, it was slow and erratic.

“Help,” Mother groaned.

“You’ll get the help you deserve,” Brett assured her.

He sat patiently by her bedside. Watching her closely until she lost consciousness.

When Emilia arrived home from school, Brett told her Mother was sleeping and didn’t want to be disturbed. They had a quiet dinner. Peaceful. No nagging or criticizing.

Brett made sure he was the first one to check on Mother the next morning. He clapped his hands with glee. Her body lay cold and lifeless. Twisted in her sheets. Silent at last.

The paramedics arrived quickly. But there was nothing they could do. Brett hinted that she had been complaining about chest pains. It seemed a clear cut case. Cardiac arrest. Nobody questioned it.

He and Emilia were free.

Brett sat at the dinner table across from Emilia. Her eyes were still red from crying. She hadn’t realized yet how much their life would improve. But she would. Brett would make sure of that.

He balled up his napkin and threw it across the table at her. “No more worrying about napkins now, Em.”

A burble of laughter started in the pit of his belly and burst out of his mouth. Emilia looked confused. He laughed again. “Everything’s going to be just fine.”

A grey shadowy figure suddenly stepped through the wall. Brett could see right through her. See right through to the buffet and the paintings on the wall.

Smoothing back her hair, she sat down in her accustomed seat at the head of the table. She picked up her napkin and placed it neatly on her lap.

His jaw dropped open in horror.

Mother’s ghost smiled her usual thin smile. “Manners take us anywhere, Brett. If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times…”

© Jan Mayes

Feature Photo by Jo Navarra on Unsplash

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