“The Mother- in-law” 




Barbara L. Curtis 


Tammy poked her fork into the plateful of grilled organic vegetables with tofu and silently wished for a double bacon cheeseburger. She supposed she would need to eat some of this meal so as not to have another argument with Mona, her mother- in-law. 


The trouble between them had actually begun four years ago on her wedding day. Before the service Tammy had overheard Mona comment to a friend, “Justin could have had any girl he wanted, but he settled for this little bottle-blonde.” Tammy’s hair color was actually Golden Honey #3 and came from a box. Tammy knew that everyone loved it, especially Justin. In the pit of her stomach a small ember of hatred towards Mona had begun and the ensuing years had only fanned the flames.  


Back then she had nearly walked away and left Justin and their guests to whisper and worry before dispersing in scandalized silence. But the home pregnancy test Tammy had taken the previous day had prevented her from such rash action. The home test proved to be a false positive. In the future Tammy would no longer purchase such items at the dollar store. 


This was Justin’s birthday and Tammy truly didn’t want to spoil it. He was turning thirty-four and his mother had hijacked their plans with this so-called celebration. Tammy thought that her husband would’ve had much more fun spending his Thursday night as usual; playing darts over pitchers of beer with his old college buddies. Mona bullied Justin into events like this because he was the only family she had, as she frequently reminded anyone who would listen. Her husband, George, had died in an accident when Justin was twelve years old. Privately Tammy thought that fifteen years of marriage to Mona would cause anyone to step in front of a moving truck. 


Mona turned a steely look at Tammy’s plate and said, “Don’t worry about eating a large portion. I know women with your kind of figure tend to turn fat, but this is very healthful.” 


Tammy kept her eyes down and stirred the vegetables. She was too smart to be drawn into her mother-in-law’s games. 


At last the ordeal of the birthday dinner ended. As they pulled away from the curb Justin looked over at Tammy and said, “Wasn’t that awful? I thought she was trying to poison us.” 


They both laughed. Tammy shook her head and grew thoughtful. The idea of poisoning held a lot of appeal, especially after that crack about “her kind of figure”. She smiled at Justin. He was such a handsome man you’d think she had won him on a reality TV show. She knew in that instant that she would do anything for him. 


When they arrived home she presented him with an oversized white envelope. Inside was a birthday card and a brochure picturing a hot springs resort in Montana. “I’ve paid for a weekend getaway,” Tammy told him, “We just need to choose the date.” 


“Wow, I can’t believe you did this. I know how expensive these things are.”  


Justin was impressed that his wife had done this by herself. Tammy was aware that most of the time he underestimated her intelligence, as did most people, due to her Barbie doll looks. As he hugged her to his chest his phone rang. He took a quick look and said, “It’s Mother,” then shut it off. “It’s time for the rest of my birthday celebration,” he announced, and turned off the lights. 


In the ensuing two weeks they both happily anticipated their getaway. Tammy bought herself a new pink swimsuit and Justin picked out a vintage bottle of pinot noir to take to Montana. Their excitement continued until the evening before they were to depart when Justin answered his phone. 


“Of course, I’ll be there right away,” he said. He looked at Tammy. “Mother is at the emergency room. It’s her heart. I don’t know how serious it is.” He grabbed his keys and jacket. “I have to go. I’ll call you.” And then he was gone. 


Tammy began to cry. She wasn’t unduly worried about her mother-in-law since this wasn’t the first time that Mona had ruined their plans. Last summer she’d twisted an ankle and been unable to drive just as they were ready to go on a camping trip. A few months ago when Justin signed up for a darts tournament in Seattle, Mona had come down with the ‘flu and recovered as soon as he told her he would stay home. 


Tammy knew that a good attitude could benefit your health. It seemed reasonable that you could will your illnesses as well. She wouldn’t have thought it was possible to control a heart attack, but if anyone could pull it off, it would be Mona. Tammy wiped her eyes, thinking that her mother-in-law would never change. At that moment a barrier broke inside her and she knew the only way that Justin could lead a happy life was to be rid of Mona. 


Much later Justin returned home and told her that his mother’s condition had stabilized. 


“I’m sorry about missing the spa,” he said. “We can’t get your deposit money back because of the short notice,” he told her. “I’ll make it up to you.” 


“The money isn’t important,” she replied. It certainly wasn’t. The issue was Mona’s control. Tammy remained convinced that Mona had orchestrated her heart condition like a carnival magician. It was going to take planning and patience to outwit the old lady. That night Tammy lay awake trying to decide exactly how she could kill her mother-in-law. 


The next morning she called in sick to her boss at the coffee shop and hung up with the chef’s loud protests ringing in the background. As soon as Justin left the house she got dressed and began a study of the labels on all of their cleaning supplies. 


After several hours of experimentation, Tammy could not find a lethal concoction that didn’t look and smell dreadful. It was quite problematic that she didn’t dare to sample even a drop. Mona would never consume any of these chemical cocktails. Tammy flushed her experiments down the drain and thoroughly washed all the utensils. She resigned herself to finding another method to dispose of Mona. 


Since she had the remainder of the day off from work Tammy decided to look at knives. She took the precaution of wearing sweatpants and a sweatshirt and covered her lovely hair with a cap. There was no point in turning heads at a shop where you were on a mission to obtain a murder weapon. 


She drove across the state line to the Cabela’s store. The number and variety of knives was daunting. There were utility knives, outdoor game knives, survival knives, skinning knives and complete sets of knives. In spite of her disguise the clerk was attentive and a bit flirtatious. 


“I’m just getting an idea of prices today,” Tammy told him coolly and left without making a purchase. On the drive home she began to doubt that she could use such gruesome weapons on another person, even one as villainous as Mona. 


Once home she put on a bathrobe and sipped tea until Justin got home from work. Soon after his arrival a taxi deposited Mona at their house unannounced. She settled herself on the couch and proceeded to turn her sharp gaze all around. She pointed out, “I can see dust on the furniture and that rug needs to be vacuumed.” Soon after that she strolled into the kitchen and said to Tammy, “I’m surprised that you don’t plan your dinners for the week and post them in here like all good homemakers.” 


Before Tammy could summon a reply Mona was on to the “disgraceful” unmade bed and questioned whether Tammy was bleaching and ironing Justin’s undershirts properly. At that remark Justin stepped in and said, “Now, Mother, we generally clean house on Saturdays. Tammy isn’t feeling well, so I’ll drive you home and we can talk there for a bit.” The talk lasted several hours, so Tammy fixed herself some soup and went to bed. 


The following evening Justin arrived home flushed with excitement. 


“I’ve got great news and we’re going out to dinner to celebrate! I’ve been offered the management position at the hotel in Renton. It’s a huge promotion!” 


Tammy smiled with delight. “You didn’t even tell me you were up for a promotion!” 


“I wanted to wait until I knew for sure.” 


“You should have known you’d get the job,” Tammy told him. Justin deserved advancement as much as he deserved a personal life that didn’t include being at his mother’s beck and call.  


Their elation lasted until later that night when Justin told his mother the good news. Mona responded with another trip to the emergency room. When Justin made some noises about backing out of the new job, it confirmed Tammy’s belief she must set her husband free soon. When Mona complained, “I feel like I’m being abandoned. How can he move and leave me like this?” Tammy looked her in the eye and replied, “Mona, wherever we are, Justin and I will always be there for you for as long as you live.” 


She supposed it would be sacrilegious to pray for a way to kill Mona. There probably wasn’t a patron saint of homicidal activities anyway. And then the solution was handed to her; not on a silver platter, but in a sealed plastic bag. 


Mona had always been a snob about “taking afternoon tea”. Last night his mother had told Justin about her belief that herbal teas could help her heart condition. If Mona wanted to discard her prescriptions and use Chinese red yeast rice extracts to cure heart failure, Tammy was all for it. Mona’s new-found belief suggested a possible solution to her daughter-in-law’s dilemma. 


As soon as she finished her shift at the café, Tammy drove to a “natural healing” store to see if she could find an herbal tea with a taste strong enough to disguise added ingredients. A display of herbs and supplements designed to boost energy caught her eye. Tammy picked up a bag and turned it over. The contents included a variety of plant materials and chemicals. The small print listed side effects that included increased heart rate, suicidal thoughts, less blood flow to the heart and heart attacks. She let out a long breath. She had found the perfect tea for her mother-in-law. If Mona didn’t die after a pot full of this mixture, there was always the possibility of adding ingredients to the next packet.  


Without hesitation she purchased the packet and ripped off the label. She drove to Mona’s house and presented the herbs. “This is for your afternoon tea,” Mona said. 


Mona looked past her and asked, “Did Justin come with you?” 


“No, he’s working late,” Tammy replied and walked quickly to her car. It was true that on Fridays he generally arrived home an hour or so later than usual. 


Once home she paced the floor and poured herself a glass of wine. After an hour the phone rang and an unfamiliar voice gave a frantic message that she should drive immediately to her mother-in-law’s house. 


Tammy practically skipped to her car and practiced a properly somber expression as she drove. When she parked across from Mona’s house she was gratified to se the emergency vehicles in the driveway, lights flashing. Her heart rate increased as she hurried up the steps; then nearly stopped when the door opened. 


“Mona?” she cried out in disbelief. 


“Oh, Tammy it’s so terrible.” Mona sank to the floor in genuine distress. 


Tammy looked into the room to see Justin on a stretcher with two EMT’s hovering over him. “What …how did he…?” she couldn’t continue. She tried to get near him, but was held back by the neighbor who had called her. 


Suddenly everything happened very quickly. Justin was bundled into an ambulance. The neighbor drove Tammy and Mona to the hospital. Tammy could barely concentrate on the tearful account Mona gave during the drive. 


“Justin stopped by after work as he does every Friday to check on me. I made some of the spice tea and after two cupfuls Justin had complained of dizziness and itching. Not long after that he had turned red in the face and collapsed. It was horrible!” 


“Justin stops by every Friday?” Tammy whispered. 


“Anaphylactic shock,” the neighbor said solemnly. “He must have been terribly allergic to something in that tea.” 


“Justin has always had to be careful when it comes to seasonings,” Mona said.  


Tammy began to sob and didn’t stop until an hour later when an exhausted looking man in a white coat approached and told them, “I’m so sorry. He’s gone.” At that point she turned white and silent. 


When Justin’s will was read, everyone remarked on the reserve of strength Mona summoned to comfort her daughter-in-law. True to his nature, Justin had considered his mother’s well-being. Included in the will was a provision that Tammy inherited the house and all contents on the condition that Mona reside there also. 


When Mona said, “Don’t worry, dear, I’ll be here at your side always, just like Justin would want,” Tammy was inconsolable.