Fiction Crime

Betty Towers was 85 years old. She’d lived in the same house her entire life, eaten the same breakfast every day — scrambled eggs and a glass of orange juice — worn the same reliable Mary Jane shoes for the past several decades, and loved doing her crossword puzzle every morning. 

She was what people referred to as “a real character” and “a spitfire,” which was another way of politely acknowledging the fact that Betty Towers didn’t give two figs about anyone else’s feelings. Her taciturn nature was infamous around town, and she freely lobbed biting insults at anyone who offended her.

Sheer stockings were “what tarts wore when I was a girl” and untucked shirts made a man “look like a bus boy or an out of work auto mechanic.” Nobody was out of bounds for Betty Towers as she dished out nasty remarks almost as casually as a person might throw a tissue into the waste bin after partaking of a particularly messy sniffle.

Still, Betty Towers was never short of company, whether it was out among the other elderly women from her Bridge Club or in the comfort of her own home, where a rotation of paid companions looked after her day and night, a concession to her adult children who would have preferred to put her in a home a decade ago. Betty’s nighttime minder, Flora, had been with her for nearly 12 years, but the daytime companions never lasted more than a few months, mainly because the types of women in town who were willing to work for wages never seemed to have the mental and emotional stamina to meet Betty’s demands while also enduring her unflagging tongue for hours on end. 

That changed when Melody Parker came to town. Young, pretty and ambitious, Melody needed work, and she was willing to take anything she could find. The week before, Betty had torn through another helper, who left in tears without collecting her week’s pay, and so it had fallen to Betty’s eldest daughter, Simone, to sit with her mother 12 hours a day. After two days of this arrangement, Simone had taken to sitting at least one room away from her mother at all times, and by dinner on the second day, she’d printed 50 flyers on her mother’s ancient Xerox machine, announcing an opening for a daytime companion, which she posted around town on her way home.

Melody came across one of these flyers taped up on a lamppost downtown, and that was how she came to find herself standing on Betty Towers’ front porch one sunny Thursday, a bright red smile painted across her face as Simone Towers welcomed her hurriedly into her mother’s sitting room.

“Tart,” Melody heard Betty mutter into her knitting, as Simone invited Melody to join the Towers women for a chat.

“Hello, Ms. Towers,” Melody said, marching up to the old woman with her hand extended by way of greeting. “My name is Melody, and I’d like very much to be your new companion.” 

Betty laid down her knitting needles and met Melody’s gaze, her cloudy old eyes sharpened as she fixed them on the girl’s face, looking her up and down, taking in her trim figure, her skin-tight wool skirt and white Oxford blouse. Melody wore red patent leather heels that matched her lipstick, a hue so bright against her pale white skin that it was hard to notice anything else, except that her green eyes were just as vibrant. Her ginger hair was pulled back into a high ponytail that bounced when she moved. Everything about her looks offended Betty Towers, whose preferred pattern of clothing was anything plaid, whose skirts fell well below her knees, and whose shapeless blouses hid any semblance of her feminine figure underneath their bulk. 

“Yes, mother,” Simone said, her voice breathless. “Melody here is new to town but has excellent references from her previous employers. Isn’t that so, Melody?”

“Why, yes, it is. I previously worked as a —“

“Sit down, girl,” Betty said, interrupting Melody. “I don’t put any stock in anything a young thing like you says about your so-called employers. And I don’t put any stock in red lips and red high-heeled shoes, either.”

“Mother, Melody comes highly recommended and I assure you, we have no other suitable candidates at the moment,” Simone said. “I must implore you to rethink this, remember I travel for work next week and if we don’t find a replacement, I’ll need to look into putting you in some sort of home, at least for the foreseeable future.”

“You ungrateful girl,” Betty said. But Simone had won. “Fine, leave me with this pretty little twit.”

And that’s exactly what Simone did. Melody started the following Monday.

She cooked Betty’s eggs and laid out her crosswords and shined her shoes and read her books. As she got the hang of the job, Melody also acquired a talent for finding things to do that kept her out of the same room as her employer, like polishing the silver, tidying up the washrooms, and cleaning out the cluttered cabinets. She would bring chestfuls of old books and pottery for Betty’s appraisal, helping the old woman get rid of a significant amount of the clutter that had accumulated over many decades. As Melody packed up boxes for the Salvation Army, she sorted a few odds and ends into a separate bag she didn’t tell Betty about. She only kept small things, little porcelain figurines and teaspoons. The problem was, these weren’t items Betty had agreed to donate. But, as Melody thought, the old woman’s myopic eyes surely wouldn’t notice a few trinkets missing here and there.

Their days fell into a rhythm, and Melody was relieved to find that Betty’s torrent of harassment had trickled down to a drizzle here and there. She’d adjusted her appearance to help with that, no longer wearing her beloved red lipstick, instead sporting a fresh face, plus wide-leg slacks and sweaters. In her modest ensemble, Melody worked day after day, setting aside her weekly wages into a jar that never quite filled up fast enough to pay the rent. So she found more excuses to go off on her own after reading to Mrs. Towers, sneaking off to the basement to rummage through bins, hoping to score more pawnable goods. What Betty Towers didn’t know wouldn’t kill her. 

Betty Towers’ strangest rule was that the help could never eat in the house, and they certainly couldn’t share in Betty’s meals. Scrambled eggs and chicken salad sandwiches weren’t tempting enough fare to induce Melody to break that rule, so most days she took an hour lunch break at the diner a few blocks away. 

But the week of Christmas, Betty offered Melody an unusual invitation. 

“Take a seat at the table, girl,” she said. “I haven’t been feeling well this past week and Simone said I mustn’t be left alone, even at meals. Sit.”

“Yes, Mrs. Towers. I can prepare something different, since it’ll be the two of us today.”

Betty Towers raised her eyebrows in annoyance, and Melody understood that she would now be eating chicken salad sandwiches for lunch every day, too. 

Days passed, and the two women made their way through many silent lunches together. With each bite of sandwich, Melody felt her tongue become drier, and she began to dry heave at the thought of consuming another taste of mayonnaise. After a while, she decided to suggest bringing her own food from home.

“There’s nothing wrong with breaking the bread we have in this house, Melody,” Betty said in response, and the subject was never mentioned again. 

But one day, when Melody arrived for work, she found Mrs. Towers in the kitchen, standing at the counter and stirring a bowl full of chicken salad with all her strength. Once she finished, she covered the bowl with Saran Wrap and placed it in the refrigerator.

“Lunch for the week,” she said.

“Mrs. Towers, you know I’m always happy to prepare your meals,” Melody said. “You should conserve your strength.”

“I have strength enough for this, my dear,” she said.

Melody read to Betty Towers that morning after the old woman had her eggs and orange juice and finished her crossword. Afterward, as Betty Towers dozed off in her lounge chair, Melody ventured into the dining room, lifting out a couple of miniatures she’d set aside last week from the curio cabinet in Betty’s room. She tucked them into her purse, then went to the kitchen to make lunch.

“Have a seat, dear,” Betty said, gesturing to Melody’s usual spot across from her at the dining room table. Melody sat down and prepared to tuck into another sandwich. The first bite was hard to swallow — the bread was dry and so was the chicken salad, which had an unusual crunch to it. She forced herself to finish the entire thing, and, looking up, realized Betty Towers was staring at her in silence. A wide grin was spread across her face, a sight so bewildering Melody almost choked as she swallowed her food.

“Mrs. Towers?” 

“I wonder,” the old woman said. “Melody, what if you ran and fetched the tapers from the buffet over there. I might like to eat my dinner by candlelight tonight.”

Melody flinched. She’d sold Mrs. Towers’ tapers several weeks ago. 

“Maybe in a moment, Mrs. Towers,” she said. “Let’s finish our lunch first.”

“A good suggestion,” Betty said. She took a bite of her own sandwich. “Well, maybe the candles were a bad idea. By the way, after we read this afternoon, I’d like to get out some of my old serving platters. You’ll need to run to the store, too, because the women from the Bridge Club have decided to come by for afternoon tea.”

Melody began to fidget with her hands under the table. The platters and bowls had gone to the pawn shop not long after Mrs. Towers’ tapers.

“Mrs. Towers, I wish you’d told me about this sooner,” Melody said. “This is more work than I’d expected, I’m not sure I’ll have time to run to the store.”

“Hm, well that’s a shame. I suppose you could just ring Cheryl Connors, that’s the chair of the Bridge Club, and let her know we need to cancel. She’ll be disappointed, but after all I don’t want to ask too much of you.”

“That’s probably for the best. You can’t tolerate too much excitement in one day, anyway, and you’ve already worked so hard making this delicious lunch when you most certainly didn’t need to go to all that trouble.” Melody’s shoulders, which had slowly risen up to her ears, relaxed again.

“We can just watch TV instead. You remember I told you I have an old set in the basement. You can bring that up this afternoon for us.”

Melody felt her hands sweating and clenched them into fists until her long fingernails dug into her palm. Her heart was beating fast and she was breathing hard — too hard.

“Mrs. Towers —“

“No, dear, don’t speak. You can’t tolerate too much excitement right now.”

Melody looked down at her sandwich, realizing for the first time that the chicken she’d tasted wasn’t just dry — it had a much different texture than normal. It had loads of little slivers of almond that crunched and got stuck in her teeth.

“Bitter almonds, Melody,” Mrs. Towers said. “Fairly common, but they do come with a nasty kick. Did you know, Melody, that these delightful little nuts contain traces of prussic acid? That’s cyanide, dear, not that I’d expect a pretty girl like you to know anything like that. Yes, if you eat enough of these, horrible things start to happen. First your breathing quickens, then your heart starts to race, and eventually your nervous system just shuts down altogether.” She looked at her watch. “We should have a few minutes left.”

Betty Towers sat watching Melody as she struggled to breathe, and the old woman daubed her napkin at the corners of her mouth.

“Why?” Melody gasped.

“Simple, dear. You’re a thief. And you deserve to be punished.”

Melody felt herself losing her balance, toppling out of the chair and onto the floor. 

“Where did you put them, dear?” Betty Towers said. Melody stared up at her, unable to speak. “My things, Melody, my things. I want them back.” 

“G—one,” Melody said. “Money.”

The girl began seizing on the ground. Betty Towers sighed and had another bite of her chicken salad sandwich. Melody grew still. Betty Towers rose from her seat, walked over and kicked the girl’s lifeless body. Then she went into the kitchen and rummaged through Melody’s handbag, retrieving the money from the girl’s wallet. She’d call Simone about taking her out to the shops to replace what that trollop had stolen.

“I suppose we’ll need to see about hiring a new girl tomorrow,” Betty said. “It really is so hard to find good help.”

December 14, 2023 18:55

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Jody S
18:01 Jan 06, 2024

So dark, yet engaging! I love it when a senior character still has a lot of kick and life left in her! Kudos!!


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Jennie B
01:02 Dec 18, 2023

I liked your story Hilary. It took a dark turn in the end! The entire story I thought it was going to be Betty who ate something she shouldn't have... I was wrong!


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