Elaine Slater

This short mystery from “Sweet Mysteries of Life”, a compilation of short stories by Elaine Slater, first appeared in the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine in November of 1960. At the time, Anthony Bouchard described it as, “...a curious and subtle story, with a surprisingly sharp bite.” Purchase your copy here.

The Way It Used To Be


The professor’s voice droned on and on in a clipped British accent. A fly, buzzing above her, hit himself repeatedly against the ceiling as if searching blindly for something.


What was it? Something Marilyn had forgotten was haunting her. What could it be? It lay stubbornly encased in her unconscious refusing to stir. Why was it causing her so much anxiety? Damn.


“Miss Clayton,” - her name startled her -“we have just discussed Macbeth’s motivations in some detail. Would you care to expound on the motivations of Hamlet?” She got to her feet.


“Well…as I see it, Hamlet’s motivations always canceled out. What I mean is, he wanted to kill his uncle because he hated him - that is, he was jealous of him. On the other hand, this violently powerful motive was canceled out by his equally violent love for his mother and his desire not to hurt her. It was a kind of…well, guilty love, I guess. Umm, so I would say that while Hamlet had very strong motivations which should have led him to direct action, instead of complementing each other, they nullified each other so that he was paralyzed.”


“Very good. Miss Ellis, would you care to expand this theory for us?”


Marilyn was pleased with herself. She had really pulled that off and she hadn’t half heard the question. But the persistent nagging of that lost thought marred her pleasure.


The bell rang. Class was over. Suddenly the shrill clanging released her hidden memories. When the alarm bell rang this morning, she arose, dressed quickly and got everything ready for breakfast. Dad was not down yet. She gulped her coffee and ran off to class. Oh yes. There is - was - something, but it was not enough to have bothered her this whole hour. There had been two places set at the table. She had noticed it without noticing it. Oh well. It was really nothing after all!


She grabbed her books and dashed off to Psych. She loved this course, and she was a favorite of the teacher who called on her constantly for the right answers. This morning’s discussion was about the relative effects of heredity and environment .


“Scientists have debated this point for years,” Miss Hazard said. “It has engendered such controversy that unfortunately it has invaded the realms of sociology and even politics. Heredity or environmental traits, nature or nurture, are called upon to prove or disprove all sorts of diverse theories, but the fact is that we are still not at all sure of the exact part each plays in our ultimate make-up. Mr. Jessup, would you please give the class an example of a trait that you feel is purely hereditary?”


“I would say our appearance is purely hereditary.”


“Mmm, yes, perhaps. But has not our appearance been refined, and in some cases drastically shaped, by environmental factors? Need I remind you of the giraffe?” The class laughed and Marilyn joined in.


“Miss Clayton, perhaps you can give us an example form your laboratory work that might indicate the effects of heredity or environment or both?”


This time Marilyn was fully ready.


“Yes. If you take a baby rat away from one of its parents - its mother, I mean - and separate it from her by a glass wall, you would see some of the effects. I mean, the rat, under normal conditions, might have been friendly and calm even while eating from the student’s hand. But if you tear it from its mother, letting it see her but not reach her, it would become frustrated and its whole personality structure would change. It would snap at anyone who came near, possibly even stop eating. So you see, environment would have intensified and even distorted emotions that it had inherited but which might have remained latent all its life under normal circumstances.”


“Have you conducted such an experiment, Miss Clayton?”


“No, but I’ve made similar ones and I feel positive that I am right.”


“A scientist never feels positive about anything,” Miss Hazard remarked kindly, “until she and others have made not one but possibly hundreds of experiments to substantiate a theory. However, your point is well taken, and I suggest you do a laboratory experiment such as you describe.”


Marilyn was angry. Of course she was right! And she had been in such a good mood when she left the house this morning. Why was it all being spoiled? She had slept well for the first time in ages, and everything had seemed wonderful. And now that thing about the table
being set only for Dad and herself - why had it worried her? Everything was perfect. Dad was fine. She knew that because she had heard him come in late last night after the university deans’ meeting. He had gone straight to the study where he slept when he didn’t want to
wake his young wife. Marilyn had heard him, but her stepmother hadn’t. The bell rang. Class was over.


It was too hot for field hockey, but that was what came next. So Marilyn headed for the locker room. She got into her gym things, cursing mildly when she missed her hockey stick. She dashed out onto the field late, incurring a black look from Miss Overbrook.


“Take your positions everybody.”


“Uh…I don’t have a stick, Miss Overbrook.”


“No stick! Where is it? How can you play without a stick?”


“I guess I left it at home.” She was sweating now - it was much too hot for hockey anyway.


“Home! Why would you take a heavy hockey stick home?”


“I don’t know.” Marilyn was truly puzzled.


“Well, we have no extras, so you might as well get dressed again and I shall have to mark you absent.”


Marilyn was furious. Why was this wonderful day turning out so badly? Oh, well, it was almost lunchtime. She’d get dressed and go home and have lunch with Dad. Just the two of them. The way it used to be.


She ran all the way home.