by Joyce Lautens O’Brien
Enjoy this never before published mystery short story.
She’d always suspected it was a bad thing and now she was certain. And what was she famous for, nothing really. It was all a mistake. She just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time or the right time, depending on your point of view. How was she to know that a simple trip to the grocery store would lead to something like this? And she hadn’t wanted much at the store, just a little something for dinner since she didn’t eat that much anymore.
She’d gone up and down the aisles picking out some of the things she liked – potato chips, the new variety with cracked pepper, and several bottles of ginger ale, refreshing on these hot days. Some frozen dinners so she wouldn’t have to worry about cooking, pop tarts, which were easy and fun and some nice chocolate chip cookies for dessert, all the things her daughters disapproved of.
Her daughters had told her over and over again that she had to have a proper dinner, let alone a proper lunch and of course the all-important breakfast. She could hear their voices even now, nagging at her. She didn’t think she’d been like that as a mother, so where on earth had they gotten it from? Their father hadn’t been around long enough for them to have picked it up from him, although now when she thought about it, he had kept finding fault and discovering ways in which she wasn’t taking care of herself. That was before he lost all of his own interest in taking care of her, of course.
When her daughters were young, it was all she could do to get some kind of dinner on the table, anything – takeout Chinese, fried chicken from KFC – or at worst just opening up a can. Well, it was the best she could do. With working full time, there wasn’t any time, and really they’d seemed perfectly happy and healthy, but now they’d become rabid about proper food and nutrition. It would have been fine if they had all the healthy food they wanted and didn’t bother her about it, but they were on a mission to evangelize her at this late date in her life. Only that morning, her eldest had called.
“Did you know they’ve found that broccoli actually protects against heart attack?” Ginnie had asked her.
“Broccoli,” she’d replied, “anything but broccoli. I didn’t make you eat it as children, and I’m not going to start torturing myself now. I say it’s spinach and I say the hell with it.” She’d always loved that New Yorker cartoon.
“That’s not funny, Mom,” was Ginnie’s response. “Eating the right food is serious and important.”
She’d thought she could expect another call from Mary the next morning. It seemed to her they phoned at least once a day to make sure she was on the proper path. She suspected they’d discussed it and decided to take turns phoning so she wouldn’t get suspicious. As much as she loved them, adored them, in fact, it was clear they had no subtlety, and that somehow she’d failed to make sure they understood irony. And so when she heard the commotion and went to see what was happening, she had no idea it was going to end up like this.
The commotion had turned out to be a man waving a gun, shouting “You’re all going to pay!” and then started running toward her. Without thinking she’d put her foot out and tripped him. The gun had gone off, hitting cans and jars of vegetables and spraying beet juice on her. So she was briefly famous, a heroine, her picture everywhere, even on the network evening news. “She saved us from another mass shooting spree,” the announcer said. But it was just instinct and a disinclination to flatten herself on the floor the way you were supposed to, or the way they did in movies. It would have been hard anyway because her arthritis was bad lately, and besides, it turned out he only had two bullets in his gun since he hadn’t prepared properly.
She didn’t know who she was more annoyed at, the busybody with the iPhone who took the pictures, her daughters, the television station or the man with the gun. She decided the television station. She thought about suing them, but she knew it was ridiculous. What could she claim? Alienation of affection? Certainly not that. Now her daughters phoned her two or three times a day and had taken to dropping in unexpectedly. “Oh, Mom, how could you?” Mary had said plaintively.
Cruel and unusual punishment? Perhaps that was a possibility. Showing her face on the news story would have been fine, even though she looked foolish, smeared with red juice that looked like blood and with a slightly flustered smile. But there was absolutely no reason for them to prominently display her cart, with its potato chips, cookies, soft drinks and pop tarts sparkling in bright lurid colors.
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