Curiosity Killed the Cat
Crinkling her nose sympathetically, Jenny squinted down at the needle that swung back and forth. The needle, for its part, was doing a good job of being non-committal. Furrowing her brow, Jenny mentally willed the scale to pick a number that wasn’t going to ruin her day. The needle came to rest on a number that was too high for her liking, but still low enough to tell herself she was forgiven. Some days a girl needs a 2 A.M. banana split. Some days that was all the excitement to be had around here. “Here” being a small northern town. She liked to think of it as a hamlet, but she wasn’t entirely sure what a hamlet actually was.
While stepping off the scale onto the cold tile was unpleasant, the groaning noise the scale made in response was just uncalled for. Glancing into the closet, she was greeted by a monochromatic sea of dressy casual options. She didn’t need to look too good for sitting behind a computer all day, but she did need to look put-together enough that nobody would try to stage an intervention.
She liked to imagine that her monochromatic wardrobe choices spoke of an understated, timeless elegance. Meanwhile, she knew they screamed of monotony. But that is why god made accessories, she thought. Forcing herself to brighten up, figuratively and mentally, she selected an alarming fuchsia necklace that was adorned with an astounding collection of glazed, plastic roses. The roses were astounding for their sheer size, not for their craftsmanship. But they made her smile with their bright, yet pathetic charm.
Lately roses seemed to have become a bit of an obsession in Jenny’s life. John, her ex-boyfriend, would have thought that fitting since he always said she reminded him of a rose. Mind you, he also liked to point out that she had a child’s name paired with a spinster’s soul. John had been a “strange duck”; he was the same man who had thought it was appropriate to give her a taxidermied cat for their three-month anniversary. “He matches your hair!” John had exclaimed as she unwrapped the box. Needless to say, she didn’t keep John around much longer—mostly because she couldn’t get past the feeling that giving dead animals at the three-month mark was both ominous and “too much too soon” in a relationship.
Even though John had gone by the wayside, the taxidermied cat had somehow stayed and been named Wilbur. Wilbur was a butterscotch colored ball of soft fur, who had been forever preserved sitting with one paw raised in a gesture that she could only liken to someone offering comfort. There was something in his expression that broke Jenny’s heart every time she tried to throw him out. She felt almost as bad for him getting her as an owner, as she did for herself being gifted with a dead cat. For the most part Jenny kept Wilbur hidden away in the kitchen cupboard because, as bad as she felt for him, he was still kind of creepy.
Lately though, she had found herself taking him out of his cupboard on nights when she couldn’t sleep. Somewhere between the loneliness that insomnia brought and making a 2 A.M. banana split Jenny decided that Wilbur made good company. They’d sit on the screened-in porch, of her second floor apartment. As they passed the time they listened to the crickets and peepers, ate an ungodly amount of calories and wondered what their neighbor across the fence kept burying in her “award-winning rose garden” in the middle of the night. Whatever it was, it was probably considered a “trade secret”. Jenny liked to think it was body parts. In a town this quiet the competition for the best rose garden was probably cut-throat. Jenny always smiled at the possibilities wrapped up in that thought.
That was the same smile that faded off of Jenny’s face as she settled in at work. Dropping her purse onto her desk, she was surprised to see a basket of cookies waiting for her. The cookies had an aura of positivity around them, with their impeccably decorated cloud and rainbow theme. Gently reaching into the basket to inspect the cookies Jenny realized that they were all broken, not one or two, but all of them were perfectly broken in half— right through the heart of the buttercream rainbow. There was no need to check the gift tag; the cookies were a well-meaning offering from her perpetually cheery, yet somehow “off”, cubicle mate Lilly.
When it came to Lilly, it was as if the 1950s concept of perfect had a fling with questionable fashion choices, such as shoulder pads, and Lilly was the result. To top it all off, Lilly had one of those aggressively effervescent personalities that threatened to drown you in cheer, optimism and occasionally buttercream icing.
Lilly for her part “tried”, mostly too hard. She had the perfect manicure, the perfect smile and was always perfectly gracious. Coincidently Lilly also happened to own an “award-winning rose garden.” In true small town fashion Lilly was not only her cubicle mate, she was also Jenny’s neighbor across the fence.
“Oh good, you found them hon! I knew you could use some cheering up this morning, it being Monday and you being so far from home and all alone….” The sound of Lilly’s southern accent seemed to suck all the air right out of the cubicle. Leaning in close, Lilly furrowed her brow as she searched Jenny’s face, looking for the anticipated gratitude. Not finding what she sought, Lilly’s sing-song voice got loud enough to be considered a form of public-shaming and took on an edge of disapproval, “I am sorry some of them are broken, but it is the thought that counts, and I knew you’d appreciate that, bless your heart. Who isn’t grateful for cookies?” The longer she talked the thicker her accent got…it was as if she was using her southern charm to make a passive-aggressive stand for good manners and gratitude in the cubicle.
Honestly, Jenny found that she was intimated by Lilly. She didn’t know if it was the cheeriness that scared her, or her gut feeling that there was something just plain wrong with Lilly. Two months ago when Lilly had suggested that they push their desks together, “just like being partners in a cop show,” Jenny had agreed mostly because her gut instinct told her turning her back on Lilly would be a mistake.
Since that moment they’d become “just like partners in crime, except for on the right side of the law” as Lilly liked to say. Jenny preferred to think of their situation as akin to looking in a funhouse mirror. Lilly was 10 years older with hair that was so deeply ginger it made Jenny’s strawberry blond locks looked platinum by comparison. Unencumbered by fashion sense, Lilly seemed to compensate for Jenny’s toned-down wardrobe with a collection of larger than life shoulder pads and an inexplicable attraction to coral colored jackets. Both of which were always worn together…and paired with pearls.
Not wanting to feel paranoid, Jenny had spent the better part of the last three months trying to find a legitimate reason to justify her feelings about Lilly. Even if overly cheery people weren’t to be trusted, that didn’t make them serial killers…until they started burying heavy parcels in their rose gardens in the middle of the night. And that was precisely why Jenny was never going to eat the broken rainbow cookies, no matter how many good intentions had gone into baking and breaking them.
Jenny, like Lilly, worked as a reporter covering the “local news”. Anybody who romanticized being a reporter wasn’t working this local beat. To date she had covered more arts and crafts fairs than she could fathom actually existed, wrote a compelling piece about crochet as a new form of currency and even had one of her articles featured on the front page–about a duck stuck in a culvert.
Although Jenny was technically “living the American Dream”, in reality she was bored out of her mind. Lilly’s late night antics were the most exciting thing to happen in a long time. In fact, Jenny thought the rose garden might be the key to her next front page feature. The plan was simple: Jenny would wait for Lilly to finish her late night gardening and then she’d sneak over the fence. Either she’d walk away with the secret to growing award-winning roses or she’d out Lilly as a serial killer. In a town like this both options were newsworthy stories.
Jenny left Wilbur as her lookout on the porch. This wasn’t a task ideally suited to him, but when she looked back she felt comforted knowing he was watching over her. Jenny found her hands were trembling as she pawed through the freshly turned dirt. Keeping an eye on the house and her back to the fence, Jenny felt pretty confident that Lilly wouldn’t spot her. The dirt gave way easily, seemingly ready to give up its secrets. As a cloud obscured the moon, Jenny’s chest tightened and her fingers felt a familiar texture; cloth covering some form she couldn’t make out. She held her breath; she’d watched enough crime TV to know that dead people don’t smell good when left to their own devices. Her fingers fumbled around the edge of the fabric, pulling it back. Jenny tensed, ready for the worst but also prepared to be let down. Taking a deep breath, she thrust her hand back into the hole and felt the familiar smoothness of paper, stacks of paper. Not money, just smooth generic printer paper. Pulling a pile up into her lap Jenny could only barely make out the words, but they seemed to be of a romantic nature…not a love letter, more of a story. Given the quantity of paper, it was likely a novel. As Jenny brought a page closer to her eyes she felt the air harden with disapproval.
The moonlight glinted off Lilly’s teeth as she smiled down at Jenny, her weight leaned heavily on a shovel in her left hand. Something about her posture didn’t make her look as hospitable as she did at the office. Jenny squeaked, surprised and confused. Lilly squatted down and stroked the pages in Jenny’s lap, softly drawling, “Did you find what you were looking for?” Lilly fanned the pages out as the smell of wine hit Jenny’s nostrils, “I had hopes and dreams once: I was going to be a great writer, but try as I might I wasn’t great. But you know what…I figured it out. Failure is the best fertilizer.”
Whether it was the intimacy of the moment or the awkwardness of a middle-aged woman confessing that she used her broken hopes and dreams to grow award-winning roses, Jenny couldn’t help but respond. What started as a giggle turned into a snort and ended with a laugh. Lilly pulled back, taking the pages with her.
This was the first time Lilly had actually looked broken, and Jenny tried to explain, “I thought you were burying body parts….” It sounded so ludicrous the minute it left her lips. Lilly’s stare cut her off before she could make things worse. The silence that was thick with hurt feelings slowly gave way to something darker. Jenny couldn’t quite put her finger on it, but she felt that she’d opened a door that should have stayed shut.
Lilly looked thoughtful as she tilted her head, flashing a kind smile she said, “You are right, that’s an even better idea.” Even though Jenny saw the shovel coming, she couldn’t register what was going on. As her head hit the ground she looked back at her porch. Wilbur was where she’d left him sitting on the table, watching her, with his paw outstretched as if to offer comfort.
By Jamie Redmond ©2014