FICTION: Force of Habit by W. B. Cameron

Any sequence of mental action which has been frequently repeated tends to perpetuate itself. –William James

Albert buttoned his overcoat and picked his way down the snowy steps. Behind him loomed his ancestral home, a Victorian reminder of more gracious times. For three-quarters of a century the old house had watched Albert set forth on life’s journeys—the small boy racing to catch a school bus, the young suitor pursuing his lady love, the businessman brandishing his briefcase, and, now, the shuffling senior concentrating on balance and foot placement. His morning destination these days was Middleton Bakery.

Before dawn a lazy snow had begun to fall, picking up velocity and volume with each passing hour. Albert brushed a three-inch accumulation from his ’95 Explorer before climbing behind the wheel. A flurry of white stuff had never thwarted his morning ritual before, and, by God, it wouldn’t this December morning. Meggie and he would have their Kona blends, wheat bagels, and Times.

Though the roads had not yet been plowed, Albert was confident that, with four-wheel drive, anti-lock brakes, and studded tires, his trusty chariot would get him there and back. As expected, there was little traffic and poor visibility.

Albert drove slowly, carefully maintaining a steady speed, scarcely pausing at intersections. He waved his foot over the brakes once or twice, ready to pump them should the need arise. It didn’t. At last, only one intersection stood between him and the bakery—one traffic light at the base of a steep hill. Make it green, he implored the traffic gods. Green for Christmas, green for no need to stop.

It was red.

Albert tapped the brakes lightly. Nothing. He pressed harder and longer. Still nothing. His car picked up momentum as it rolled down the steep slope. Faster, faster it flew, its tires scarcely touching the frosted road. Albert pumped the unresponsive brakes once, twice, three times before he caught a single, fleeting glimpse of the 18-wheeler bearing down on him. He heard one blast of useless sound, saw for one instant the teamster’s horror-stricken eyes.

They were mostly white–white like the snow, white like Meggie’s silken hair, white like a static sea of nothingness.

***

Heaven sends us habit to take the place of happiness.—Alexander Pushkin

Lord, how she missed him. The two months without him seemed longer than their forty years together. Meg stepped from the shower. If only she could rinse the grief from her soul as readily as she did the soap from her skin. As she dressed she wondered yet again why Albert had been taken from her in such a violent, horrifying way. Of course they both knew that one of them would most certainly die before the other. But to be crushed so that insides became outsides and everything recognizable, the parts she knew and loved so well, were just so much offal.

Unthinkable!

And yet she thought of little else. Even her peculiar inclination to adopt Albert’s preferences in life failed to pique her interest. She had simply stopped taking the scalding hot showers she’d always enjoyed and opted for the tepid water flow preferred by Albert. Her penchant for keeping the house cool had given way to Albert’s hot-house inclination. She sat and watched tv or read books rather than walking her customary three miles on the treadmill. She had adopted Albert’s obsessive care to keep windows and doors locked, and her love of cookies and cakes had given way to Albert’s weakness for salty, crispy treats.…Hard to believe one would miss such an ill-matched partner, but, oh, how she did. She could hear Albert’s gravelly voice singing “their” song: “You say tomato and I say tomahto …”

“We need a new song, Albert,” she thought as she descended the stairs to a gloomy central hall. “Something along the lines of… ‘We have so much in common, it’s a phenomenon…’”

February sunlight trickled through the long windows flanking the front door. Meg glanced into the dining room where her treadmill sat idle and dusty, a victim of her grieving ways. She knew that her adoption of Albert’s routines and customs was an attempt to memorialize the only man she had ever loved, but she was not yet ready to acknowledge her desperate hope that, by emulating him, she might somehow keep a part of him alive and close.

A sharp rapping at the front door echoed through the old house. Meg groaned. That had to be Robert, Albert’s nephew, his only living kin. Faithful Robert had visited several times a week, every week, since Albert’s death. He brought fruit baskets, bouquets, perfumes. “Such a sweet boy,” Meg told herself. “Sweet… kind…thoughtful…generous…” She repeated this mantra often, trying to will away her instinctive aversion to the young man waiting patiently on the other side of the massive door. Her arthritic fingers fumbled with the many locks and bolts securing the door, though Alfred (and now she) kept them well-oiled.

“Robert! What a pleasant surprise!”

She stepped back, unable to staunch a surge of repugnance. He was slight and sinewy. His colorless, thinning hair was slicked straight back from a low, slanted brow. These traits, combined with his prominent nose and receding chin, gave Robert a striking resemblance to the unfortunate lab rats he worked with every day. His laboratory was frequently cited for ethical violations, and Robert carried with him a miasma of excrement and unnecessary suffering. His dark, close-set eyes glittered as they flicked appraisingly over Meg’s slight figure.

“You are well, Auntie Meg?”

Meg nodded and, with a sigh of resignation, led him to the sitting room. He settled on the sofa, she on the most distant chair.

“I’ve brought you a surprise.” He reached into a grimy supermarket bag and pulled out a plastic bowl with a blue lid. “Almond cookies!” he exclaimed. “Your favorite, Auntie! I baked them myself.”

“Thank you, dear. How very thoughtful.” Meg crossed the room, took the bowl, and remained standing.

“Go on, Auntie. Taste one. Go on…. Pleeese.”

“I’m not hungry, dear. I’ll have one after dinner. Maybe two. Or three.” She smiled and remained standing, hoping he would take the hint and leave. Loneliness, she realized, wasn’t always the worst option in life.

“Okay.” Robert stood. “But you call me the moment you’ve tried one. It’s a new recipe, and I need an expert’s opinion. By the way, you must have been shopping when I visited last week. Did you enjoy the red carnations I left on the porch?”

“Oh, yes, dear. I do so appreciate your thoughtfulness.”

“And you’re still walking on your treadmill each morning?”

“Oh yes. Must keep up my strength.” She blushed and looked away. So many lies! After Albert’s funeral, her love affair with flowers had waned. Where they had once spoken of pastoral fields and nature’s glory, they now screamed of death and loss. She had actually discarded Albert’s generous offering without even opening the box. And, though walking the treadmill might lighten her mood, she’d been too depressed to put forth the effort.

She closed the door behind Robert and began the laborious task of fastening chains and resetting locks. “Robert means well,” she told herself. “He’s just trying to be supportive.” Yet something always stopped her from confiding the odd “role reversal” she’d experienced since Albert’s death.

“The boy really does mean well,” she told herself as she placed the cookies on the kitchen counter. After all, Robert’s behavior towards her had been all kindness and concern, while she had responded with ingratitude and unfounded aversion. It was his actions, not his appearance, that mattered, and it was high time Meg acted to express her appreciation. She straightened her shoulders and rolled up her sleeves.

***

The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken. ― Samuel Johnson

After his abrupt dismissal, Robert lingered on the front porch to survey the Victorian horror.

“After we’re gone,” Uncle Albert had promised, “It’s all yours, my boy. It will be your responsibility to preserve your great grandfather’s birthplace.”

Right. Robert sneered as he studied the grey floorboards sagging beneath his weight, the Doric columns crackled and bowed with age, the clapboard siding splintered and peeling. The whole house, inside and out, was, like its solitary occupant, crusty, decrepit, and, let’s face it, of no practical value.

The property was another matter. Once the nineteenth-century homes had fallen under the wrecking balls and the area had been rezoned commercial, property values had sky-rocketed. Meg and Albert had been offered millions for their decaying homestead. They could have lived like royalty in Florida, cruised the Mediterranean for a decade, signed into a luxurious assisted living facility. But, no. They chose instead a life of deprivation, of struggling to maintain themselves and their rotting domicile on fixed incomes. They were enslaved by long-dead ancestors and mindless adherence to habit. How, Robert wondered, how could he possibly share a gene pool with such cretins?

He started for home, suddenly eager to be rid of the ramshackle view and the frustration of having a fortune so close and yet so distant. He’d managed his uncle’s demise with the precision only a brilliant man of science—like himself—could accomplish. He had calculated the effectiveness of each nick in the brake lines, chosen a day that promised cooperative weather conditions, recognized and relied upon his uncle’s obsession with routine. Such exquisite attention to detail! Of course, chance was always an element in such matters. Uncle Albert could have survived the crash; he could have brought the car under control when the brakes failed. But chance had favored Robert that snowy December morning, chance in the guise of an eighteen wheeler.

He had eliminated the old man first simply because he would be the toughest kill. Or so Robert had thought. The old lady was proving to be quite a challenge despite Robert’s access to a cornucopia of lab poisons and his knowledge of Aunt Meg’s routines, habits, weaknesses. For instance, he knew she loved mini-carnations. Uncle Albert had bought her a bouquet every time they visited the supermarket. “She likes their vibrant colors,” Albert told him once. “And the way they live on and on.”

As did she, apparently. The inhalational anthrax he’d dusted on the bouquet had resulted in no sign of illness. It had been eight days since he’d left them on the porch and rang the bell. “A gift of life and color,” the card had read. (He’d liked that—a gift of life dusted with anthrax.) Had she some special immunity? He wondered. A possibility he would like to test in his lab if he weren’t so committed to his present endeavor.

He knew she walked every morning on her treadmill. Why is it she never slid off after he oiled the belt with copious amounts of industrial grade oil? He knew she enjoyed scalding hot showers–so why hadn’t she been parboiled after he set her water heater thermostat to it’s highest setting? Water temperature over 125 degrees F. can cause severe burns instantly, or death from scalds. That’s what the online article said. Apparently its author had never met Methusalah Meggie.

But he had her now. Over the years he’d watched Meg inhale a dozen marzipan crispies in as many minutes. He had hoped to be there when she scarfed them down, but now he realized that it would be better if he wasn’t there for the actual passing. Her promised call would have to suffice.

As Robert entered his studio flat, he imagined her telephoned “thank you” morphing to a gurgle, a cry of agony, silence. He would never forgive himself if he missed that call. Stepping over piles of dirty clothing and around dishes crusted with food remains, he rushed to check the answering machine.

No calls.

He checked caller ID. Nothing since that psycho animal rights woman called about the lab rats. He stared at the phone, willing it to ring. Maybe the cyanide acted too fast for even the briefest call. Maybe she took a treadmill stroll or burned to death in the shower. At this very moment dear Auntie Meg might be little more than a lifeless pile of pilled cardigan and faded calico.

The phone rang. He picked up halfway through the first ring.

“Is that you, Auntie Meg?” His voice was eager.

“Yes, Robert. I–”

“Did you try a cookie?”

“Not yet, dear. But I did make a special treat for you. You have been so very kind since Uncle Albert’s accident.”

“Not even one cookie?”

“I’m sorry, Robert. My appetite has been … different … since I’ve been alone. Why don’t you stop by tomorrow morning, dear, for your surprise. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.”

“I’ll stop by, Auntie—and I’ll have a surprise for you.”

He disconnected. “One final surprise, Auntie,” he mumbled. “One you cannot possibly survive.” He raised his hands and held them in a oval as though encircling the neck of an unseen enemy — a frail enemy with a scrawny neck.

Robert dreamt of wealth that night and woke to a February day that bridged the seasons: nippy and crisp with winter’s final offering while resonant with a softer promise of spring. He inhaled deeply of the mix as he headed toward his inheritance.

“No more Mr. Nice Guy,” he thought. “No more creative plots.” Meg never locked the doors—that was Uncle Albert’s fetish. He would storm in, throttle the old biddy, steal a few worthless items, and leave. Tomorrow he would visit, as always, and find poor Auntie dead, the victim of a drug-crazed intruder. “Auntie never locked the doors, Officer, no matter how often Uncle Albert and I warned her.” A giggle escaped Albert’s thin lips as he strode to Meg’s front door, turned the tarnished brass knob, and pushed. Locked. Damn! When did the old lady start locking doors? He knocked.

“Robert, dear! So pleased you could come.”

He followed her into the kitchen.

“I made this just for you, Robert.”

She held aloft a blueberry crumb pie, his favorite. Its fruity scent filled his senses. As she cut him a hefty piece, he decided he could “do” Auntie Meg after he’d had some pie.

“Delicious, Aunt Meg. Even better than I remember.” He moved large chunks of sugary goodness around with his tongue, exposing as many taste buds as possible to its spicy, fruity sweetness.

“Thank you, dear. I have a confession to make.” Meg slid another quarter of the pie onto Robert’s plate. “You know how the good book says: ‘Cast thy bread upon the waters; for thou shalt find it after many days?’”

Robert nodded as he shoveled in another huge bite.

“Well, in this case it’s not too many days.” Meg smiled, clearly pleased that her offering was being so rapaciously received. “It’s your generosity and kindness that have made this pie so good. You see, I crushed your excellent almond cookies to make the marzipan crust.”

Even before he spat out his last mouthful of pie, every cell in Robert’s body began screaming for oxygen. He tried to inhale, but breath would not come. Not a gasp, not a whisper. Robert clawed at the worn linoleum in a final frenzy before being lost forever in a sea of white almond dust.

***

In my end is my beginning.—Motto

Meg called an ambulance, using Albert’s posted list of emergency numbers.

“It must be a heart attack,” Meg told the EMTs. “Runs in the family. His Uncle Albert had one just before Christmas, while he was driving.” She lowered her head.

“What’s that almond smell?” an EMT asked.

“Blueberry crumble pie. His favorite.”

“Looks like the guy died happy…”

That afternoon, after everyone had left, after all the paperwork had been seen to and the coroner had ruled that Robert’s death was the result of a coronary occlusion –just like Albert’s — Meg felt a loneliness that threatened to swallow her up whole.

She tossed away the remains of the blueberry crumb pie and regretted that she had used all of Robert’s almond cookies to make the crust. She could go for an almond cookie about now.

For the first time, she looked around her and saw reality–the chipped porcelain sink, the linoleum worn to tar paper, the water-stained, sagging ceiling. Come Spring, she would sell the place, sell the battered furniture, the treadmill, the rugs — everything. She would start anew in a small condo with a tiny, flower-strewn yard. She would buy new sheets, new dishes, new furniture, new clothes. She would cultivate one and only one new habit: Izaak Walton’s “habit of peace.”

#

W.B. Cameron’s publishing history includes two romance short stories in Woman’s World, the Woman’s Weekly, two short mysteries in Futures Magazine (where she served as Assistant Fiction Editor for a brief time), a short feature in Cat Fancy Magazine, and various short stories in various genres in various excellent small publications.

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