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It was December 25th, 1999, when Matilda first arrived at the Bruneski household.
Harriet Bruneski, a small, brown-haired, sharp-eyed girl in third grade, took the stuffed black cat out of her stocking with some confusion.
“Mommy, it's Christmas! Why did Santa give me a Halloween dog?”
Mrs Bruneski sighed patiently.
“It's a cat, honey. And you shouldn't question Santa – just be thankful he gave you a present, not coal. You know you've been rather naughty.”
In truth, Mrs. Bruneski didn't know how the stuffed cat had gotten there. She supposed her husband, who was now laughing merrily with Harriet about how Santa must have been too full to eat all the cookies because he'd left a couple, must have put the cat in their daughter's stocking. An odd choice – perhaps he had found it a neighbor's yard sale. God knows they had little money to spend on Christmas presents. In any account, the cat certainly wasn't new. Its black fur was scruffy and faded, its orange glass eyes were cloudy with nicks and scrapes, and altogether it had a look of great age. It was staring out the window intently, as if waiting for something.
Bemused, Mrs. Bruneski got up and peered through the shades. It had begun to snow.
Three weeks later, Harriet finally took the stuffed cat off her shelf. It was Sunday, she was bored, and the other Christmas presents had lost their new-toy glamour. She had dismissed the cat because of its general shabbiness, but the closer she looked, the more it intrigued her. Its orange eyes, beneath their shadowy cocoon, were deep, bright, and wise. The cat wore a curious half-smile.
“What's your name?” asked Harriet. She listened intently. “Matilda? That's lovely. I wish Mommy and Daddy had named me Matilda, not dumb old Harriet. Sure, I wanna play!”
Mrs. Bruneski was going through papers in her attic office, but her mind was roaming. Peas and leftover turkey for dinner seems good, she thought. And maybe I'll throw in some carrots to make it healthier. Harriet hates them, but they're good for children's eyes, and if Harriet's anything like her father and me, she'll end up needing glasses.
Looking down, she smiled as she saw Harriet jumping wildly in the snow, the distinctive black shape of Matilda in her mittened hand, a wooden sword in her other. That child never went anywhere without her silly cat anymore, not even school!
Deciding she needed some fresh air, Mrs. Bruneski went downstairs. When she opened the front door, her breath plumed out gracefully, and she shivered despite her jacket. Her slacks filled with snow as she shuffled over to her exhilarated daughter. “How's it goin', hon?” she asked.
Harriet spun around, eyes glittering, eyelashes frosted with snowflakes, cheeks pink, sword held threateningly. It was, Mrs. Bruneski was shocked to find, not wood, but horribly real, horribly sharp metal, the blade wet with melted snow.
“Who goes there?” snarled Harriet. “Art thou an infidel? If so, kneel before us and we'll cleave thy head from thy shoulders!”
“Infidel? Now where did you hear that? It is naught but I, thy mother,” Mrs. Bruneski pantomimed uneasily. “Harriet, where did you get that sword? Did Daddy give it to you? That's not a toy.”'
“'Course not,” said Harriet, condescendingly. “Matilda gave it to me. Are you an infidel or not?”
“Enough of that game. Supper'll be soon, so get ready to come in.” Mrs. Bruneski wrenched the sword from her daughter. Already the light was fading, turning the world an ethereal white-and-blue beneath the snow-filled sky. The shabby house's windows shone like orange eyes, casting luminescent bars across the snow. She hoped her husband would be home soon, but knew he wouldn't.
“Mommy?” the small, truculent voice came from behind her.
Harriet looked insubstantial, a slim little figure in a red coat.
“Please don't make me eat the carrots ….”
Several weeks passed, and Christmas morning was but a vague memory. One white Tuesday after school, Harriet sidled shamefaced into her mother's office, carrying a greatly altered Matilda.
“What happened?!” Mrs. Bruneski cried in horror. She rubbed her forehead, feeling a headache thumping to life. Harriet sniffed in way of reply, her hands suspiciously behind her back. Matilda sat on the table. She had no eyes.
“Matilda doesn't show me good things anymore,” said Harriet. “So I wanted her to stop seeing.”
“That's horrible!” What a naughty girl! How could she have mutilated Matilda like that? The Matilda she brought everywhere, ate with, played with, tucked in each night in a shoebox bed.
“She told me Katie didn't really like me – that she was pretending.” Katie was an arrogant, red-headed friend of Harriet's. Mrs. Bruneski didn't find that too hard to believe. “And, and she showed me daddy kissing a lady who wasn't you.”
“What?” Mrs. Bruneski numbly picked up her glasses. “What, what did this lady look like?”
“She had orange hair and red lips and green fingernails. And she smoked a cigarette.” Harriet started crying. She sounded muffled, pathetic, far away. “Now I've made you mad!”
“Tell me more. What else were your father and this woman doing? Where were they?”
“I-I don't know. It was just something Matilda showed me!” Harriet sobbed.
Matilda. The stuffed cat sat there – dark face, empty eye sockets, bland half-smile.
“Harriet, where are Matilda's eyes?”
Harriet's hands trembled behind her back.
“I don't know.”
“Harriet, give me her eyes this instant. Don't you dare be a naughty girl to Mommy.”
“I don't have them!”
Mrs. Bruneski slapped Harriet across the face. Harriet's eyes popped open, her mouth forming an uncomprehending O. The glass eyes fell from her fingers and rolled across the floor.
Mrs. Bruneski bent to get them. When she looked up, Harriet was gone. Mrs. Bruneski got out her sewing box, feeling sick to her stomach. That night, Mr. Bruneski didn't come home.