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The Finest in Crime and Suspense Short Fiction

Story Excerpts

4th Floor Alice
by Mary Angela Honerman

A thick fog settled into the cracks of the city, softening the angles of strip malls and superstores until Kate could see beyond the town of fifty thousand and into the deep fields of South Dakota’s prairie. March hoarfrost covered the stiff brown stubble, making the bare fields appear beautiful. They’d looked this way for a hundred years and would look the same in a hundred more. Time couldn’t touch the enduring flatness of the Northern Plains. A single tree, out of place in the vacant skyline, stood watch over the great expanse, its branches as tangled as the stories Kate’s mother, Elenor, recounted.

Kate let the curtain fall, and the prairie disappeared. Her mother was retelling an Easter story from long ago, when Kate was a young girl. Elenor recalled the details as easily as her favorite recipe.

“You remember, don’t you?” Elenor wasn’t interested in a reply and went on without waiting. “You wore a black and white dress with a pink sash and black patent leather shoes. I loaned you my hoop earrings, the gold ones.”

“I remember,” Kate said. It was the first Easter she’d felt like a grown-up. She’d worn pantyhose instead of tights and made the ambrosia salad all by herself. She remembered carrying the crystal bowl carefully, bestowing it on the table like a first-place trophy. How happy she was to be helping with the family meal.

Kate’s own daughter, Tina, took no joy in family dinners. A night rarely passed without a damaging word being spoken, and the only thing to do was finish quickly. Kate cherished the times they used to spend around the table with value meals and soda pop. The fried food, the greasy fingers, and the chubby smiles were precious to her. If she closed her eyes long enough, she could still see Tina—happy and content.

“Your brother brought that dreadful girl, the one with all the—” Elenor pulled on her earlobe. Like the rest of her skin, it sagged.

“—piercings. She had a dozen.” Kate was ten at the time, and her brother was twenty. Being the oldest in the family, he was living on his own and brought home a girl who was very cool. There had been many other cool girls since then. “Julie? Jennifer? What was her name?”

“Cassandra,” Elenor said, pouring herself a second cup of coffee and offering a refill to Kate.

Kate held her hand over the top of her mug. She really had to get going. It felt like days since she’d been to work.

“She spilled a bottle of red wine, something foreign and expensive. Do you remember? On my lace cloth with the rose in the middle. My second cousin gave it to me as a wedding gift.”

“I remember.” Kate stood. When she left her mother’s apartment, she was picking up a bottle for herself. Not foreign or expensive. Just large.

“Which brings me to what I was going to say about Alice.” Elenor returned to her favorite chair, the only chair in her small living room, and sipped her fresh cup of coffee. A couch and mirror were the other pieces of furniture in the room. The kitchen, too, was small, with two stools pushed up to the counter. It was very different from their home on Thirty-first Street, with its large dining room, winding staircase, and four bedrooms.

Kate shrugged on her coat. Her mom had mentioned Alice at the beginning of the story, twenty minutes ago.

“She walked into my apartment wearing a pink cashmere sweater that had to have cost two hundred dollars, maybe more. And her shoes.” Elenor shook her head at the cost. “I can’t even guess. The most petite woman you ever did see, and pretty too.”

Kate smiled. Her mother wasn’t so big herself, a hundred pounds, with soft blue eyes that were as gray as the foggy day. Her brown hair was gray now, too, the curls not curls anymore but soft tufts that unfurled like a flag on a windy day. It took too much energy to use a curling iron anymore, and who could blame her? Kate’s own hair was due for a cut four weeks ago. Time took its ravages on one’s looks and, more to the point, one’s desire to look good.

“She was searching for a table—if you can imagine. By the size of the cloth, it must seat twelve people. It was snow white and starched to perfection.” Elenor glanced at her daughter’s baggy slacks.

“I’ve been sitting at the office all day.” Kate kissed her mom’s cheek. “I gotta go.” She rummaged through her coat pockets for her keys. She reached for the door handle and stopped, turning around. “By the way, who’s Alice?”

Elenor smiled. Though she was thin, her cheekbones were high and lovely. “Why, Alice just moved in. She lives on the fourth floor.” Elenor held up her emergency alert necklace. “I pushed my button, and an aid helped her back upstairs.”

“Next time, make Alice use hers. They charge you every time you use that thing.”

“I will, dear, but Alice didn’t have one. She just moved in. It’s a big place.”

Kate grumbled to herself about the expense all the way down the long hallway. The residents should receive something in return for the money they paid. Every little thing was extra: bed making, laundry, caregiving. The alert cost twenty-five dollars every time it was pressed. And her mom liked pushing it—a lot. How many times had she pushed it since she’d been there? Kate was always counting.

Later that night, Kate counted her daughter’s bites of food. Six forkfuls went in before Tina abruptly pushed away the bowl of pasta, next doing battle with the strawberries, stabbing one at a time with her fork, a grotesque struggle between her and the fruit.

Kate leaned back from the dining table, a functional piece of furniture that, unlike the furniture from her childhood, added nothing of value to the home. It was the place where she and Tina went to war. But it hadn’t always been that way.

Kate closed her eyes and sipped her wine until sweet memories overcame her. When Tina was young, she loved strawberries and ate them with wild abandon. Her thick blonde hair clung to her sticky cheeks as she giggled through dinner. Everything was funny, and between the laughter and the juicy berries, her face was a pretty pink. The epitome of youth. A happy girl.

Kate opened her eyes as the thin, sullen girl slunk away from the table, her cheeks hollow and her hair a dull straw color. It hadn’t been that long ago, had it?

“Six years,” her husband answered. “She’s twelve now.”

Kate put down the wine. She hadn’t realized she asked the question aloud.


When Kate saw her mom two days later, Elenor was staring into the cupboard, looking frazzled. Kate didn’t take off her coat before asking, “What’s the matter? Has something happened?”

“She startled me, that’s all.” Elenor smoothed her blouse, a striped shirt that would have fit in nicely at the beach. Her pants were matching blue polyester.

“Who?” Kate set her purse on the stool.


“Oh, the new woman. What happened?”

Elenor shut the cupboard doors. “She was lost, looking for her table again. She walked into my apartment without knocking.”

Kate was taken aback by the account. “What did you do?”

“I pushed my button.”

“Mom, I thought we talked about that.” Kate hated the sound of her own voice, as if she were scolding a child. But really, her mother should know better. She was always telling Kate how she was on a limited income.

“I know, dear, but what else could I do? She was very insistent. She even went into my bedroom.” She walked around the small kitchen island, into the living room. “Obviously my space is smaller than hers. You know the fourth floor has much larger apartments. How could I fit a table in here?”

She couldn’t. The heavy family furniture was a thing of the past. Her apartment was an eclectic mix of her favorite things. Everything else was sold at auction two years ago.

“She had on the loveliest necklace, a string of pearls.” Elenor sat down and crossed her ankles. “A lot of women wear their jewelry to dinner.” She smoothed the bare collar of her scalloped neckline.

“You should wear yours,” said Kate. “I’ll get the box down from the closet.”

“You don’t have time for that. You’re on your lunch break.”

She didn’t tell her mom that lunch was over a half hour ago. “It’ll just take a second.”

The walk-in closet was stuffed with medical equipment, prescriptions, shoeboxes, and old clothes. Kate stood on the bench of Mom’s walker to reach the jewelry box, a tobacco-colored case with a shiny brown finish. She climbed down, pausing to sit. She opened the box, admiring the small sparkles of ruby, emerald, and sapphire. A breath escaped her lips as she pulled out a gold ring with a solitary diamond.

Cubic zirconia, actually. She chuckled as she held it up to the buzzing lightbulb. Her grandmother had bestowed the ring on the family with much fanfare. In the right light, it looked as real as it did thirty years ago.

She examined it closer, admiring the way the jewel refracted the light as a dozen pieces of pie. Like the trinket itself, the mirage was not a reflection of truth but illusion. She slipped it on her finger, noting how large the ring was, like Tina’s old costume jewelry. Tina never thought about sizes then. A feather boa or clip earrings, plastic high heels, pungent perfume or red lipstick made her feel good. How long had it been since Tina felt that pretty? How long for herself?

“Kate, what are you doing in there?” Elenor called.

Kate blinked at the sunlight as she walked out of the closet. “I found your jewelry box. I need to get back to work. I’ll call you tonight?”

Elenor nodded, and Kate walked out the door.

She noticed a woman waiting by the elevator, a woman she hadn’t seen before. She was carrying something. With Alice on her mind, Kate quickened her step, but by the time she arrived, the woman was gone. The elevator was going up. Kate checked her watch. She was late already. She might as well see if she could talk to her.

Her mom was right about the fourth floor. It was much more spacious, with ornate tables, flowered settees, and padded benches lining the halls. A game room, card room, and a billiard room were just three of the doors she passed as she combed the halls for Alice. The woman was old. She couldn’t have gone far. . . .

Read the exciting conclusion in this month’s issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2024. 4th Floor Alice by Mary Angela Honerman

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