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Author J.R. Hampton

Mrs. Clifford’s Cat

(Completed Short Fiction)


Helen counts her steps. Thirty-one. She pauses in front of the auditorium doors: the math is wrong. Three plus one is four. A bad number. The only number worse than four is two. She hurries to the end of the sidewalk and starts over, her stride smaller this time. Thirty-five. Three and five are both acceptable, together they make eight. Eight is excellent even though it contains two fours. Helen can’t explain this; it’s just how the math works.

She approaches a folding table manned by two women.

“Here for the reunion?” one of them asks. She waves a hand over the plastic badges arrayed on the table.

“Yes. I’m Helen Spode-Harris.”

“Ah, here you are.” The woman smiles and hands a badge to Helen. Helen lingers, runs her index finger down the line of names starting with the Ps until she hits the first Q.

“Looking for someone?” The same person asks this.

Helen’s fingernail presses a half-moon dimple in the first Q badge. She clears her throat. “Kevin Clifford,” she says. “Class of ’81.”

The second woman checks a clipboard. “Clifford? Oh yes. The Cliffords are here.”

“Thank you.” Helen makes her way into the auditorium, walks until she reaches the far wall.

“Water, no ice, please.” She accepts a plastic cup from the young bartender, adds a straw and moves to the end of the bar to wait.

But not for long. Kevin approaches from a darkened corner, a heavyset woman in his wake. “Helen Spode-Harris. How the hell are you? I saw your RSVP on Facebook, but I wasn’t sure you’d show.” He swivels to address the woman behind him. “Nancy, you remember Helen, don’t you? We had study group together senior year.”

“Gosh no, I sure don’t,” Nancy says. She extends a fleshy hand.

Helen doesn’t return the gesture. Instead, she tells Nancy it’s nice to meet her. Nancy withdraws her hand and glances at her husband. Helen sees this, but Kevin does not. He is too busy staring at Helen, which Helen understands. His wife has let herself go. The dress she’s chosen for the reunion only corroborates her bad choices.

Kevin whistles. “Can you believe it’s been ten years?” he says. “Grab us a table, will you Nance? I’ll get another round and meet you guys.”

Nancy leads the way to an empty table. Helen puts her purse on a chair, then sits down next to it. Nancy says she and Kevin live in Palo Alto. Helen shares that she lives in the Berkeley Hills near Gwin Canyon. Nancy asks what she does. Helen says she’s retired.

“You’re so young,” says Nancy. “What did you retire from?”

“From working.” Helen punts back to Nancy, asks if they have children.

“Us? No way. No kids, no pets. At least not anymore. I did have a cat when we first got married.”

A frozen pit careens in her gut as Helen recalls the afternoon Kevin marched into study group and announced he’d put his wife’s cat in a sack and thrown it off the Richmond Bridge. He’d stood there and laughed, bemused by his violence and oblivious to the shock that stilled the voices of everyone else in the room. She would’ve carved a gash in his throat to match his stupid laughing mouth if only she’d had a knife back then. She moves her hand to her purse as Kevin rejoins them. These days, a knife is only ever the thickness of purse leather away.

“Not yet,” a voice says. It’s a voice only Helen can hear. “And not with the knife.”

“Why not?” Helen asks.

“You mean why no kids or pets?” Nancy says. She frowns. “That’s kind of a—”

“Oh Nance. Don’t be so touchy.” Kevin puts the drinks on the table and takes a seat. “So what the hell have you been up to, Helen Spode-Harris?”

“I’ve been—”

But then he cuts her off and starts talking about himself. He’s in medical equipment sales, good at it he says. Making bank. Going to President’s Club. Helen listens, nursing her drink.

Kevin takes a breath to send his wife to the bar for the next round, then talks about himself some more. Before Nancy comes back, he touches Helen on her forearm and then her shoulder. “You haven’t changed a bit,” he says, his voice all softness now, no brass.

“Thank him,” the voice says.


“I’m serious,” Kevin says. “I’ve thought about you a lot since school.” He asks if she’d be up for a cup of coffee sometime.

“Tell him yes,” says the voice.

“Okay,” says Helen. Nancy returns with the drinks. There’s more small talk. When the cocktail napkins under the drinks begin to offer opinions, Helen stands. “I should get home.”

Nancy turns to her husband. “I’ll hit the ladies while you get the car.”

“Sure thing, hon.” He hops up and heads for the door.

Helen follows Nancy to the bathroom. She leans against the marble sink putting on lipstick as Nancy locks herself in a stall. Nancy pees in short bursts.

“God, I hate pantyhose,” she says from the stall.

Helen replaces the lipstick in her purse. Her hand glances the knife, and she watches blood well in the narrow cut. Nancy joins her at the sink and washes her hands. “You know, I thought I knew all Kev’s friends from back then. Oh, my God. Is that blood? What did you cut yourself on?” Nancy makes eye contact with Helen in the mirror.

“It’s nothing.” Helen wraps one hand around the other. Blood flows between her two fingers, warm. “Have a nice evening,” she says. She slings her bag over her shoulder and leaves the restroom.