By Joseph J. O’Donnell
Howard and Ellen lived in a perfect little house on Green Apple Lane. They loved their garden and kept the place up mattistically . It was as if their house was their child.
They had no children of their own, of course, so any work that needed to be done was a labor of love, and not one of necessity. There was one fly in the ointment though, and it was that they did not actually own the house. The house belonged to Howard’s mother, Gladys.
Unfortunately, she came with it.
She was a nag of a woman. She was old, embittered with life as she knew it, and to the bane of Howard and his wife, she let them know it every minute, of every waking hour. She showered them with ‘Howard, this’ and ‘Ellen, that’, until both of them could stand it no longer.
“What can we do?,” Howard said to Ellen . “She’s driving us crazy.”
“To bad she couldn’t croak,” she replied.
“No luck there,” Howard said there. “My whole family has a history of living past ninety years old.”
“Didn’t anyone die prior to that?,” Ellen asked haplessly.
“A few heart attacks, nothing more,” he answered .
“How much longer do we have to put up with this?,” she asked .
“She’s eighty six years old,” Howard replied, “she’s still has a few good years in her.”
Dismayed with the prospects, Ellen asked, “Are we still in the will?”
“Why do you ask?,” Howard inquired .
“I just want to make sure that the house and the money don’t go to some cat or charity.
We’ve put up with her for so long, I’d be spitting bullets if that happened,” she answered.
“No. I checked her will last week and I am still the sole surviving heir to her estate,” he said.
“Good,” she said, “ at least she’s done something right towards us.”
Howard loved his mother and, during his earlier years, Ellen considered him a bit of a ‘momma’s boy’. His attitude toward his mother had changed over time, and that was the only thing that saved his marriage to Ellen. Many times during their early years together, she threatened to walk out on him . He was unproductive both financially and in a family way, and it was their mutual love for the house his mother let them move into, that kept things together.
“Does your family suffer from any heart problems?,” Ellen suddenly asked.
“Why do you ask?,” questioned Howard .
“Well you said that several family members die of heart attacks,” she replied.
“There’s nothing hereditary wrong with us physically,” he stated , “they just had a low threshold for fear.”
“What do you mean?,” she asked with mild interest .
“Well, some of them had a great fear toward some psychosis or another,” he said.
“Oh,” she said, “ it’s too bad we just can’t knock her off .”
“Ellen, that’s terrible,” he said with a slight alarm. “What are you implying?”
“Don’t worry, Howard. I’m not a Lizzy Borden or anything,” she replied, belaying his fears, “ I just wish she would die and leave us in peace.”
“I’ll be dead soon enough,” Gladys shouted from the top of the stairs. “I’ve heard everything you’ve said, Ellen, and I might just cut the two of you off for just thinking that way.”
Shocked that their feelings of her were last exposed, they began to apologize profusely to her. She would hear none of it and asked Howard to get in touch with her lawyers. “I’m going to scratch you name off the will,” she said shrilly. “I’ll teach you, and that no good wife of yours, a lesson you won’t forget. After all I’ve done for you two. This is the thanks that I get.”
She turned and slowly ambled back to her room from the top of the stairs, but she did not let from her repertoire even as she hobbled out of sight .
“That’s just great,” Howard said with dismay, “now what are we going to do?”
Ellen had recovered her shock and was now visibly fuming at Gladys’ latest verbal bombardment. With a steely voice she asked, “does she have anything that she’s deathly afraid of?”
“Why?” asked Howard for a loss of anything else to say.
“Well, any good police department today can detect foul play in a case of a murder,” she said with a glaring look.
“Murder?” Howard said.
“She’s going to take our baby away from us Howard,” she said implying about the house, “and any good mother protects her children.”
The look in her eye spoke for her and Howard that she was deadly serious.
“Face it Howard,” she continued, “if we lose this house and her money we have nothing left.”
“We have each other,” Howard said with trepidation .
“It’s not enough,” she said without bitterness. “This house is everything to us, it’s our whole life.”
“But murder?” replied Howard quietly.
“No. With the technology available to the police today, any pathologist can pick up clues that would point to us. It would have to be a natural death,” she said with a firmness that Howard never saw before.
“But how?” he found himself saying realizing that even he had given into his wife’s train of thought.
“Is she afraid of anything?” Ellen asked.
“I don’t know,” he answered.
“C’mon and think,” she pressed, “what is it that she’s really afraid of ?”
“Mice,” he said simply.
“Mice?” she asked.
“Yes. Mice,” he replied. “She’s deathly afraid of mice.”
A slow smile replaced the cold glare that she held earlier. “Good,” she said with a twinkle in her eye.
“When do you think she’ll see her lawyer?” she queried .
“Well today is Friday, and I don’t think she’ll be able to see him here till some time early next week,” he answered.
“Then we don’t have much time,” she stated. “We have work to do.”
She raised her eyebrows with a knowing look, and gave her husband a kiss on his cheek.
She also gave him a big hug, but he didn’t see the cold glare she gave over her shoulder in the direction of Gladys’s continuing tirade drifting down the staircase from the room above. To Gladys’ undoing, her continuing refrain was sealing her doom.
Later that evening, Ellen came back from the hardware store with a small package under her arm. After leaving her coat and purse in the dining room, she made her way up the stairs towards Gladys’ room .
“What do you want?,” Gladys said testily as Ellen waltzed into her room without any emotion about their previous shortcomings.
“Oh, nothing, mother,” Ellen said quietly, pulling two items from the bag and laying them on the floor in two of the corners.
“What are you doing there?” Gladys asked questionably. “What are you putting in the corners?”
“Mouse traps, mother,” Ellen answered.
“Mouse traps?,” Gladys said with an appalled look. “We have mice?”
“Yes, I’ve spotted droppings in the kitchen and up here in your room while I was cleaning,”
Ellen explained, “and I want to catch them before they multiply.”
“Multiply?,” Gladys said with a shrill voice.” “How can that be?”
“It is springtime,” Ellen explained, “and this is when they propagate.”
“That’s horrible,” Gladys said with a shudder,” I hate those things.”
“Well you have them here,” Ellen stated.
“But, I haven’t seen them,” Gladys said.
“They’re probably crawling all over up here the minute you fall asleep,” Ellen said.
Gladys immediately began to rub her arms as if she was cold. “That just won’t do” she muttered aloud.
“I’m afraid it’s true,” Ellen said with a look of sympathy and understanding.
“But what are we to do?” Gladys asked with a pleading look .
“Well, right now I’m laying out some traps in hopes of getting rid of a few of them,” Ellen replied. “On Monday, I’ll call an exterminator in and have him place some bait down in hopes of the rest of them.”
“Them? There’s more?” Gladys said obviously sickened with the thought of it all.
Ellen watched her with a faint smile and said, “Well, I’ve done what I can for now. I’ll be back up here in a little while with your breakfast .
“Can’t you just stay and talk a bit?” Gladys implored . “You know what I said yesterday was out of anger, and I really do love you both.”
“We know too, mother,” Ellen replied, “and we’re sorry for what we said. Perhaps we can work this out and put it behind us.”
Ellen turned to go and Gladys asked, “Where are you going?”. Her voice returned to her usual demanding ways and Ellen knew that the old woman would never change.
“Downstairs to get you breakfast and to start our work in the gardens.”
“I don’t think you two really care for me. I think I’m going to take Howard’s name off the will anyway. I’ll fix you both…,” Gladys rhetoric picked up as Ellen quietly left the room.
Ellen smiled to herself as she closed the door and made her way downstairs.
“She’s still at it then?” Howard said to her as she entered the kitchen.
“There’s no other hope for us,” Ellen surrendered. “Did you get them?” she asked.
Howard pulled out a little perforated white box from a bag which had been sitting on the table. “I’ve got three of them,” he said.
“Perfect. Just like the rhyme,” Ellen giggled.
“The rhyme?” he asked with a puzzled look.
“You know, ‘Three Blind Mice’,” she replied with a smile.
“Oh, right.” he said, a little slow to catch on. “When do you want to do it?”
“Give her a little while to contemplate the mouse traps I set out. That will put her in the mood!” Ellen answered.
“Good idea,” Howard could only reply.
“In the meantime, let’s start working in the garden. You know the old adage, right?” she said playfully.
“Yeah. It’s the early bird that catches the worm,” he said with a smile. “What about mother’s breakfast though?”
Ellen looked toward the ceiling as if she could see through the floorboards upstairs, “Let her cool her heels a little bit. This way she can quiet down and concentrate on the mouse traps.”
“Ok,” Howard said, and took Ellen’s hand and led her out the back door to the garden.
Gladys, still letting out a stream of blasphemes, heard the back door shut and immediately stopped her repertoire. Suddenly, she felt very alone and frightened. Glancing toward the corner of the room, she spied one of the mousetraps. The mere thought of what could be caught in one of those sent a shiver up her spine. Instinctively, she pulled the bed covers tightly about her. She felt hungry and could of liked to have her breakfast soon, but it dawned on her that Howard and Ellen forgot about her and went straight to the garden. Now she felt angry again and began to go into another tirade, until she spotted the mouse trap again. She grew quiet, and looked nervously around to see where Ellen set the other trap. She saw it in the corner, and noticed the big piece of cheese sitting on the trip wire. Once again, she shuddered and began a watchful guard on the floors around her bed.
The minutes grew into a few hours when Gladys heard the familiar footsteps climbing the stairs. She heard the accompanying tinkle of glassware which meant that Ellen was bringing her breakfast on a trap. As Ellen entered the room she asked tersely, “where have you been? I had expected breakfast three hours ago.”
“I’m sorry mother. We got carried away in the garden and I forgot,” Ellen explained with a false air of sympathy.
“Well that’s not good enough!” Gladys shot back. “I usually take my nap about now, but I don’t expect to get any sleep after all. I’ve been watching those damn traps waiting for those God awful creatures to step on one of them and let out some horrible noise, or something.”
“They don’t scream or anything, if that’s what you’re worrying about,” Ellen retorted.
“They just squeak a little bit and squirt a lot of blood .”
“Don’t get fresh with me?” Gladys croaked with anger.
“I’m not getting fresh, mother. I’m trying to explain how it happens when they’re caught,” Ellen said defensively.
“Well leave me alone so I can have my breakfast. You’re making me ill,” Gladys replied.
Ellen obeyed and left the room. She left the door ajar, as was her custom, but what Gladys didn’t know, was that Howard had sneaked up the stairs behind Ellen, and waited outside the door with the little white box in his hands. Ellen smiled as she passed him and made her departure known to Gladys as she slipped downstairs to the kitchen .
Gladys made herself comfortable in her bed and propped up her pillows behind her. After tucking her blankets neatly around her, she reached for her tray and sat it evenly on her lap. She sipped her juice slowly and then reached for her teacup. She strained the tea bag with the spoon and lifted it out of the cup and placed it on the rim of the saucer underneath. As she lifted the dish on the tray’s cover, she slowly closed her eyes to sniff the aroma of her scrambled eggs and toast as she raised the lid.
As she opened her eyes to view the contents of the plate she saw an unexpected horror.
Right dab smack in the middle of the eggs sat a small mouse. With a strangled scream, she threw the tray aside. She watched in horror as the poor mouse darted this way and that across the blankets that had been pulled tightly about her feet . She screamed again as the nasty thing leaped from the bed.
She watched as it darted under the dresser near the window, keeping her full attention towards it’s route of departure.
Suddenly she heard her bedroom door shut with a click. Thinking that Ellen or Howard had heard the commotion and arrived to her rescue, she turned with an appreciative smile only to find that the door was closed and that no one had entered the room. Puzzled, she called, “Howard? Ellen? Where are you?”
Hearing no reply she became puzzled, and frightened, still aware that there was a mouse loose in the room. Her full attention was now focused on looking for the mouse, which had escaped her as she had previously turned to the door. To her disbelief, she now saw two mice on the floor scrambling around at the foot of her bed . She screamed again, feeling her chest going tight with pain and fright. She turned away from the horrifying vision of the mouse coming back out from underneath the dresser.
It was all the old woman could take. Without another sound, Gladys clutched at the pain paralyzing her chest, then gave up the ghost. Howard and Ellen waited tensely in the kitchen, and then lingered a bit as they heard the old woman thrashing around upstairs.
“Do you think it’s safe to go upstairs now?” Howard asked nervously.
“Give her a half hour or so,” Ellen replied. “I don’t want to arrive like the seventh cavalry in the nick of time.”
“Good idea,” Howard agreed. He didn’t see the look of annoyance Ellen showered him with for his stupidity.
“Where did you get the mice?” Ellen asked .
“Caught them in the garden,” he replied .
God, I love that garden,” she said, and they both chuckled.
About a half hour later they both entered Gladys’ upstairs bedroom. Howard and Ellen found Gladys draped upside down over the edge of her bed. Her expression was a gruesome
death mask. Gladys’ face was purplish in color and the eyes, staring blankly toward the far wall, and bore the pain and fright of her final minutes.
“My God!,” Howard gasped. “What have we done?”
“Something that we should of done along time ago!” Ellen retorted. Even she felt a little shock at the outstretched corpse before her, but she knew she had to act fast before they could call for an ambulance.
“C’mon, Howard. You know the drill.” Ellen prompted, as she put their plan into motion, “Remember what we talked about downstairs.”
“Oh, right,” Howard mumbled gathering up the mousetraps in the corners. They had brought the little white box in with them . It had taken all of fifteen minutes to gather up the three furry creatures and place them into the container. They released the mice out into the garden and shredded the box and threw it into the garbage. Taking the traps to the basement after cleaning off the cheese , Ellen carefully stored them on a shelf as if they had been there all the time .
They waited another fifteen minutes, then Ellen tearfully called for an ambulance on the telephone, mindful that anything she said might go on a recording. Within ten minutes the ambulance arrived along with the paramedics . They gave Gladys a once over and placed her still body on a gurney and gently covered her up with a blanket.
A detective arrived and ushered Howard and Ellen into the kitchen. “I believe your mother is dead.,” he said to Howard, still shaken from his experience upstairs.
“Tell me, did she have a heart condition?” the flatfoot asked.
“Well, she was very old, and heart problems do run in the family,” he answered.
“I see,” the detective muttered as he wrote the information in a little black notebook.
“How old was she?” the cop asked.
“Eighty-six,” he replied.
“Natural causes,” the detective mumbled again completing his notes.
“What?” Ellen asked.
“She died of natural causes,” the policeman reiterated more clearly this time . “She was an old woman. It had to happen sooner or later.”
“Yes. I guess so,” Howard said sadly.
“Listen, I see this think all the time,” the detective said a little more sympathetically this time. “It’s not easy for the relatives, but you have to look at it as nature, taking its course.”
“Of course,” Ellen said in compliance.
“Of course,” Howard repeated .
“Well, we’ll take her up to the morgue,” the officer said wrapping things up. “I take it that you two will make all the arrangements and have her taken care of from there?”
“Yes. We’ll make some phone calls and have mother taken care of as soon as possible,” Howard said.
“Good,” the detective concluded . “You two take it easy. There will be some changes in your lives now, and you will have to adjust to them .”
He bade them farewell and they watched everyone, including mother, leave from the door.
After everyone left, Ellen turned and smiled toward Howard . “Well, that’s done,” she said.
“so don’t look so glum . Now we’ll have the house all to ourselves and we can work in the garden all we want with no interruptions.
“I don’t know,” Howard said with remorse. “I don’t feel good about this whole thing.”
Annoyed with his disposition, Ellen scolded, “Listen, Howard, we both agreed upon this, and if we didn’t go through with it we would have lost everything.”
“I guess your right,” he said sadly. “I had just wished she would have died without our help.”
“What are you saying?” she asked.
“I just feel guilty. Maybe we shouldn’t have done it.” he confessed.
Slightly alarmed, Ellen played toward Howard’s guilt trying to soothe him and hopefully snap him out of his misgivings of their little scheme. But Howard would have none of it and Ellen felt it might be their undoing. Consul as she would, he seemed to sink deeper, and deeper into remorse.
‘Come, let’s work in the garden,” she prompted, pulling him by the hand out the back door. His mood changed slightly, but not enough to satisfy Ellen.
Moodily he began to putter about the garden. Ellen kept a watchful eye on him as he
worked. Her guarded looks would change to a small smile if he glanced in he direction, but she
knew that if he faltered, they would lose everything. ‘A good mother protects her children,’ she thought to herself as she worked by his side.
Suddenly he gave a yelp, and began to wave his arms wildly around himself. “What’s the matter?” she exclaimed.
“Bees!” he said with a frightful look. “I hate those things.”
“Really?” she said, pretending real concern. “Well let’s just gather up some flowers for the vases in the house, and we’ll go inside and I’ll make you lunch .”
Once inside, they separated the flowers and Ellen neatly arranged them into several vases.
“We should get some more to freshen the upstairs,” she said. “You back outside and gather some more while I fix us a great big lunch.”
Howard did what he was told, and Ellen smiled to herself and began to prepare a sumptuous meal. In a short while Howard came back inside and was pleasantly surprised to find the kitchen table laid out with a lunch that was fit for a king. “This is great!” Howard exclaimed with pleasure.
“Well, I wanted to take care of you like I always do. Besides, you’ve been under a lot of stress lately,” Ellen said.
Howard sat down and immediately began to satisfy his hunger. The meal was quite sumptuous, and he was really enjoying it. He was always a little overweight, and he ate ravenously .
“Have you had enough?,” Ellen called back over her shoulder as she prepared a few more vases with the flowers Howard fetched from their garden .
“Yes, and I’m beginning to feel sleepy,” he confessed.
“Well, help me upstairs with a few of these vases, and you can take a nap while I tidy up mother’s room .”
“Okay then,” he replied.
They trudged up the stairs, each carrying several vases.
“Where do you want them?” he asked .
“Put them in our room for now, and I’ll redistribute them once I clean up mother’s room,” Ellen replied .
He placed his on the dresser and she put several on the night stands beside the bed. “Why don’t you lay down, and I’ll come in and wake you up later?” she added.
“Ok. Don’t mind if I do,” he agreed. He gladly laid down on the bed and closed his eyes.
The huge meal left him sated and made him sleepy. Ellen went to the next room and cleaned up the dishes. She brought them downstairs and quietly cleaned them up. She put them in the dishwasher and added Howard’s plates in with them . Quietly, she stole her way back upstairs and looked in on her husband. He slept like a child as she watched him from the doorway. She silently went over and opened the windows, and the screens. Their bedroom overlooked the garden at the back of the house and the wafting perfume of the flowers’ scent in the air filled the room. She looked toward Howard, and he seemed to fall deeper into a restful sleep.
She exited the room quietly, and silently closed the door behind her.
Ellen went to the kitchen and made herself a cup of tea and a modest lunch. She knew this was going to be a busy day, and she definitely wanted some food in her stomach to tide her over.
About an hour later she heard a strangled scream from their upstairs bedroom. Ellen smiled to herself, and waited until she heard Howard stop thrashing around. She then returned upstairs and removed the flowers from their room. After swatting the several bees that she found on Howard’s sweat soaked body, she closed the windows and screens, and closed the door to the bedroom as she left.
“Your having a terrible day!,” the detective who visited earlier, told Ellen in the kitchen after arriving on the scene, yet again.
“Yes,” she said in agreement.
“How did it happen?,” he asked.
“Howard was feeling terrible about his mother,” she said. “and after lunch he went upstairs to lay down for awhile. Later, I went up to wake him, and I found him like that.”
“Yes. The poor guy apparently had a heart attack,” the detective concluded .
“Yes, it runs in his family you know,” she replied.
“That’s right,” the detective confirmed, “I have that in my notes when I was here about his mother.
The detective patted her on her shoulder and tried to comfort her by saying, “You’d better rest after all this is over. You’re going to need it.”
“I have my gardening, officer, and that’s all I really need .
The detective bade her goodbye for the second time that day and felt a compassion for her as he left, but unfortunately his day as not quite over. Outside in the garden, one of the three mice was quickly entwined by a snake. Ellen really hated snakes.