The cat wouldn’t stop playing. She ran around the house at top speed, dashing this way and that. The assembled guests pretended not to notice her inappropriate glee.
“I’m sorry,” Elaine whispered to her mother as she handed her a cup of coffee.
Mrs. Landon took the beverage without so much as a glance toward Elaine. “The cat doesn’t know any better. Besides, Mark would have appreciated the irony.”
Elaine’s father had loved the perky little cat. The two were inseparable. He spent hours throwing toy mice back and forth across the room. Fluffy would chase after each mouse and capture it, but she didn’t always bring it back. Most of the time, she waited by her conquest for the next mouse to appear.
Elaine had been jealous that her father always found time for Fluffy even when he was too busy for his children. She felt guilty thinking about that now, under the circumstances, so she tried to focus on being a good hostess. “Is there anything else I can get you? There is a ton of food in the kitchen. I could make you a plate.”
“Maybe some cake?”
“I’m not hungry. Surely you understand.”
Elaine recoiled from the sting of her mother’s words. She felt the flushing of her cheeks as she retreated to the kitchen.
Her brother Tom stood at the counter, piling potato salad onto a paper plate that looked like it might collapse at any moment.
“Maybe you’d better double up on plates.”
“Huh? Oh sure. Good idea.” He reached for another plate and positioned it under the one he was using. “How’s Mom?”
“Who knows? I can never tell what she’s feeling, except when she’s annoyed with me. Which, of course, she is–both often and currently.”
“Don’t take it so hard. You have to stop trying to get her approval. It’s never going to happen.”
“I know. I just can’t seem to kick the habit. Maybe someday they’ll make a patch for it, like for smoking.”
Elaine approached the house with her usual dread. Tonight was supposed to be her brother’s turn at “Mom duty”. But something had come up at work and Tom couldn’t make it. So, despite their mother’s insistence that no one come by, Tom had asked Elaine to look in on the grieving widow.
Standing at the door, Elaine couldn’t will herself to open it. Her hand hovered unsuccessfully over the doorknob. A small basket of silk flowers hung on the door. Her mother had been so proud of them when she first placed the arrangement there. But now the flowers were faded from years of afternoon sunshine.
Elaine stared at the door. The moment felt so familiar. Too many times she had stood on this threshold and wished for a way to just turn around and go somewhere else.
A soft tap caught her attention. She walked to the window and arrived just in time to hear another tap and see a cat toy bounce lightly off the inside of the window. Elaine peered into the house.
Mrs. Landon was sitting on the floor, throwing cat toys as Fluffy sped after each one in a never-ending game of fetch. She was crumpled over like an old stuffed animal that had lost its insides after long years of rough use. Her shoulders heaved in an irregular rhythm.
Elaine drew in a sharp breath. Her mother was crying! Elaine hurried into the house.
“Mom? Are you all right?”
The woman’s hands flew to her face to wipe away the evidence. “Ellie? What are you doing here?”
Elaine knelt on the floor next to her mother. Fluffy ran between them in an effort to get someone to play.
“That stupid cat,” Mrs. Landon said. “It won’t stop. Now that Mark’s gone, she thinks I’ll play with her instead. But I can’t. I just can’t.”
“Mom, you don’t have to. Fluffy will get used to not having as much attention.”
“No, your father would be furious if I neglected his cat. I swear he loved Fluffy more than he loved any of us.”
Elaine could hardly breathe. Was Mom jealous of the cat too? “But Dad loved you.”
Her mother laughed bitterly. “Not really, but I’m glad to know we succeeded in preserving that fantasy for you kids. You were the only thing we had in common. We both loved you.”
“But Dad never–”
Mrs. Landon waved her hand as if swatting away a fly. “Oh, I know. He never was good at showing affection, even in the rare cases when he felt it. But he loved you kids in his own way.”
“Not like he loved the cat.”
The woman shrugged. “Well, cats are easier, I suppose.”
Elaine lowered her hips to sit flat on the floor. Something about her mother’s revelation nagged at her. It took a moment before she could pinpoint what it was.
“Momma, you said ‘we both loved you’.”
“I thought… well, it always seemed like I was a disappointment to you.”
Mrs. Landon exhaled. “What makes you say that?”
“You hardly ever look at me… Like you can’t stand the sight of me.”
Her mother’s voice trembled. “Oh, Ellie.”
“And you barely talk to me except to point out my flaws. I just always knew that you didn’t really…” Elaine lost her nerve.
Mrs. Landon reached an arm around her daughter”s shoulder. “Ellie, I’ve always loved you, even if I didn’t show it like I should have. It’s not your fault. It was just so hard… To be here, in this house, feeling his indifference day in and day out. I never realized that I was hurting you. I’m sorry.”
Fluffy pawed at the widow’s leg, not wanting to be ignored. Elaine picked up a cat toy and threw it toward the kitchen. Fluffy sped after it.
Elaine leaned into her mother’s embrace. “It’s okay, Mom. Everything’s going to be fine now. We’re going to be fine.”
Selena Thomason writes mostly science fiction, but sometimes feels called to other forms and genres. She has had more than twenty stories published in magazines such as Anathema, The Literary Bone, Ray Gun Revival, Alien Skin Magazine, VerbSap, Long Story Short, and The Courier. Selena is also Managing Editor of MindFlights magazine. Her published works are available through her website.