“Mom, how come we hardly ever visit Grandma Burns? We go and see Dad’s parents all the time and they live much farther away. She’s just across town and yet we barely know her.”
“Well the truth is, your Grandma has problems. She has a medical condition called ‘agoraphobia’. She has a intense fear of going outside. She hasn’t left the inside of her home in many, many years. She has a delivery boy bring in her groceries. Her mail is dropped through a slot in the front door. If she is sick, she calls a medical service to come and visit her at home. It’s not that I’m ashamed of her. I know she can’t help her irrational fears and phobia but deep down, I suppose I worry that her mental illness might be a little contagious. I don’t want her odd quirks to rub off on any of you.”
Both Jan and Markus stood there with their mouths agape. The big family secret had finally been revealed. Grandma Burns was the dark subject that nobody talked about. In her innocence, Jan was too young to realize her Mom was uncomfortable talking about it. As little kids are apt to do, she just blurted out what thoughts occurred to her. Being a little older, Markus cringed like a member of the audience witnessing the wrong key pressed at a piano recital.
“That’s so sad, Mom. She never goes out in the sunshine or plays in the snow?”; Jan asked. “If she can’t help her fears and we never visit her, then she’s all alone in her house.”
Her daughter had a way of melting through even the most hardened hearts of ice. Mrs. Byers had subconsciously erected a wall of isolation between her and her mom. Intellectually she knew the phobia was powerful but emotionally she felt like her mother was just being ‘stubborn’. Previous attempts to lure or drag her out of the house had failed miserably. After that, she just threw up her hands and gave up. Now it looked like Jan was about to open the same old wounds. Next she would attempt to ‘help’ her too. It’s what well-meaning compassionate people do. Ultimately Mrs. Byers decided that it was unfair to let the issues between them affect her mother’s relationship with Jan and Marcus.
“Well, I’m sure your Grandma would like to see the two of you again. The last time we were there, Marcus was just a toddler and you were only a baby. I’ll call her and see if she would like some company this afternoon. If we go, both of you must be on your best behavior. She gets highly agitated if anyone tries to talk her into going outside, or if you leave the door open too long. Those are the rules, ok?”
Both nodded in understanding. Mrs. Byers called and had a short but cordial conversation with her estranged mother about the proposed visit. Once the details were agreed upon, the family loaded up the car and drove across town to Grace’s quaint childhood home. Mr. Byers was silently impressed that his daughter had sweet-talked his wife into visiting. He had only been to his mother-in-law’s house three times, himself. It was a sore spot with his wife to even talk about her. In only a handful of sentences, his daughter had managed to rebuilt some of those long-ago, burned bridges.
Once at the Burns residence, Mrs. Byers reminded everyone again about the sacred, non-negotiable rules. She nervously rapped on the front door panel and waited for it to open. As if on queue, the door flew open wide and the whole family bound in like precision clockwork.
The house was meticulously clean. Everything was just as Grace remembered it. There was no new furniture or furnishings. Her mother could never leave the house to buy any, nor could the delivery people rush through the door fast enough to avoid triggering her paralyzing phobia. It was a house locked in time. The kids looked around and drank in the atmosphere while Grace and Alan made uncomfortable small talk. Regardless of the initial friction, Mama Burns was thrilled to get to see her grandchildren again. Receiving school portraits once a year in the mail paled in comparison to having personal visits.
After the initial ice was broken, both Grace and her mother began to relax and speak of old memories. Time had passed and both women were much more mature. The had grown to better accept the situation for what it was. The battle of wills was mostly over and things softened significantly between them. Life was too short to hold resentments or grudges.
All in all, it was a very productive, healing visit. As if to make up for lost time, the family started visiting ‘Mama Burns’ on a regular basis. Over time, the old woman’s eccentricities started to fade in importance. She would bake Markus and Jan cookies or watch old movies with them. She even participated in the pillow fortress games they played in the attic.
When the kids asked if they could spend the night there on a summer vacation sleepover, Grace cautiously approved the request. It seemed harmless enough and it allowed them to bond during her mother’s remaining years. Perhaps it would be therapeutic for all of them.
The old house grew warm in the summer months and it’s aged air conditioning unit was overworked. Jan made the mistake of asking if she could open the upstairs window. Mama Burns swift reaction caught the children off guard. Up until that point, they had treated the requisite rapid entrance and exit through the front door as a kind of fun game. It seemed harmless enough. Their other grandmother forbade them from wearing shoes in the house and using the ‘fancy’ guest towels. The ‘door thing’ just seemed like another household rule but her overreaction to the window request was different. For the first time, they saw ‘the other side’ of Grandma Burns. The one their mother warned them about.
Almost as quickly as she had snapped at them, she calmed down and attempted to down-play her manic reaction. The kids mostly shrugged it off. In the end, it wasn’t worth making her upset over. They just turned on the fan to cool off the room. All was smooth sailing again until Marcus spotted a large gray tomcat on the upstairs window ledge. It was looking directly at them through the curtained glass.
“Hey Grandma, how did this large gray tomcat climb all the way up to the windowsill?”; He shouted down to her in the kitchen. “That must be at least fifteen feet straight up.”
A loud crash of dishes breaking downstairs erupted in the night air. Grandma Burns raced up the steps in a breathless panic. “Do NOT open that window under any circumstances!”; She screamed as she scaled the steps two-at-a-time. Then as she reached the threshold of the bedroom, she repeated herself again; with only a slight decline of fear in her voice.
“How did it get up….”
She cut Marcus off mid-sentence. “Never mind that! You can see it? You can see the big tomcat? Tell me what he looks like. Describe him to me.”
Both Jan and Marcus nodded nervously. They could see the large gray feline as it perched gracefully on the narrow ledge but were very confused by the odd question. Why would she ask such a strange thing and did it cause her to drop dishes on the floor? Of course they could see it. Marcus finally understood his mother’s prior reservations about her. Even Jan could see she was acting unstable.
“Yes Grandma. We can see it. He’s very large, gray and has white feet. Oh, and he’s missing part of his left ear. I guess he’s been in a fight or something.”
Grandma Burns lip began to tremble in raw, vindicated emotion. The additional detail about the missing part of the cat’s ear was the final confirmation she was seeking. They COULD really see it!
“Children, I have a dark confession to make. That damn tomcat died 30 years ago. I killed it myself. I got angry that it kept fathering kittens around the neighborhood but it’s owner wouldn’t have him fixed. I’m ashamed to admit that I captured it in a pillowcase and tossed it into a nearby creek to drown. It’s restless spirit has haunted me ever since. I know it is waiting to get its revenge on me as soon as I step outside or open the door. You mother could never see it and thought I was going crazy. She tried to get me to take anti-anxiety and hallucination pills. You don’t know how relieved I am that you can actually see it too. All these years I thought my guilty conscience was just terrorizing me for my evil deed but both of you can see it! I don’t know which is worse. To be haunted by a phantom feline or to just go crazy from the guilt. At least now I know he’s really out there waiting to get inside.”
The cat remained on the window ledge while directly eyeing Mrs. Burns. It clawed the glass passively. Fearing it might fall and harm itself, Little Jan instinctively went to open the window. She was too young to put much weight into the confession or its terrible implications. Grandma Burns eyes were wide-open with pure, gut-wrenching terror. Not knowing what to believe, Marcus froze in confused indecision. Unfortunately Mrs. Burns was also too far away to stop her.
As soon as the window was open enough for the cat to squeeze through, it bound in and pounced down on the floor with a graceful plop. Making a beeline straight for the object of his long quest, the cat sprang off the floor and leapt into the air with a singular purpose.
After the kids calmed down enough to speak, they gave the detectives a nearly identical account of the fatal attack. The powerful animal sprang up and attacked Mrs. Burns before she could react or defend herself. A room by room search failed to find the feral beast but the medical examiner confirmed the method of death was consistent with a small feline attack to the jugular veins. Contagious disease experts were called in to take wound samples for possible rabies quarantine analysis. The kids were taken to a mental health trauma center to help them deal with what they had witnessed.
For the first time in more than twenty years, Mrs. Burns left the relative security of her shuttered suburban home, by the coroner’s wagon.