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The Mouse Inheritance

by Helen Storey

When she found Zip dead, Gina lifted the mouse from its cage by the tail, carried it, corpse dangling, to the bathroom, tossed it into the toilet, and flushed. She did not watch the stiff, grey body--reptile claws pulled up into itself--make its two or three spins into the vortex and out of sight, but she imagined it. She left the bathroom imagining dead Zip rocketing through the sewage flumes, gliding, careening, through parts of town she had never visited, a missile breaking the cloudy murk that filled those wide, mysterious pipes. She saw Zip heading stiff, confident and with an absolute, unhampered grace to a place that was unknown but may as well have been Heaven. It didn't, really, matter.

She returned to her bedroom, where she called her best friend Amy and said, "The last mouse just bit it."

"Are you burying it with the others?" Amy asked.

"It's already flushed." Gina let out a sigh. "God what a disgusting torture this has been."

"Thank God it's finally over," Amy agreed.

When Gina hung up, she stretched, admired the wondrously empty mouse cage, and then wandered downstairs to see what her mother was cooking for dinner.

Zip had been the last of Carl's three mice to die. Each had faded from life in quick succession, all within a year of her brother, Carl's, own death. There had been, before the grey Zip, two brown mice named Ziggy and Zygote. There was no clear reason for their death such as starvation or respiratory infection, and Gina had not pushed for veterinary investigation. She had done everything that Carl had done, but each one had, nonetheless, stubbornly chosen to depart mysteriously and without display.

Gina had worried that Zip's death would toss her back into the inertia she had worked so hard to shake after Carl's suicide. Instead, though, she felt a steely relief. She was glad to wash her hands of the last of the smelly, nibbling, anxious little creatures. She was, to her surprise, truly lightened to be freed of an inheritance that (although the mice were cute, really, and so very helpless) had sat in her stomach like a dry rock.

Still, that night Gina was not able to sleep. After a year of despising the clattering, twitchy nighttime racket of the three, then two mice, and finally of the solitary Zip, she could not bear the quiet, so she slipped out of bed and padded down the stairs to Carl's room.

No one had ever replaced the burned-out bulb in Carl's bedroom, but Gina knew the geography of his walls. Scattered across them were a variety of Army, Navy, and Marine recruitment posters. Punctuating these were some pictures that Carl himself had drawn of griffins, dragons, and knights on horses. And above his bed was his portrait of the three mice. Gina had always liked the drawing, but had been afraid to ask Carl if she could have it. She knew he would give it to her, but had a sense that the act of asking would somehow betray too intimate a connection with this strange brother, so she never did. He had drawn the mice with such delicacy and care: the glittery edge of the mouse eyes, the translucent ears. His touch was so precise and gentle that Carl seemed to have captured the furious, minute beatings of their hearts. Even though Gina had not ventured to the doorway in six months, she knew that the drawing was still there; their parents had left Carl's room exactly as it had been the night he wandered off into the woods with Jim's rifle. She stood in the doorway and considered dashing, breath held, into the dark shadows. Her lungs were good, and she believed she could remove the picture and exit without breathing. But it was more the silent blackness of the room, the not knowing what she might trip over or knock down, that kept her frozen at the entrance and, finally, sent her back to bed empty-handed.

When Carl was alive, the room had smelled of mildew a bit, and of Carl's incontinent cat, his four lizards, dead and live plants, and of course, the mice. Gina's other brother, Jim, who was very literary and in the eleventh grade then, used to call the room a petri dish of writhing iniquity. Gina always laughed when he said that, but Carl's room, to her, had always been beyond naming. The room occupied the finished half of the basement, which was the side with no window. It was a dark, creepy room, and Carl's odd collections of dead animal bones, Civil War artifacts, and leaden miniatures of wizards and dragons brought out the superstitious in Gina. She had felt, even before Carl's death, that the room had the potential to develop an evil heartbeat of its own, that--at the least--the skeletons and figures might come to life at night. Now that Carl was dead, that menacing feeling was even more potent. What made the room finally unbearable, though, were Carl's four jars full of saliva and chewed tobacco. He had lined them up on his bookcase, a proud display of his habit, a bow to his love for baseball, because he was too lazy to go upstairs to spit the tobacco out in the bathroom. The image of these jars with their spinachy contents sunk, lug-heavy at the bottom of cloudy pools of spit, as present and definite in Carl's room as he was absent, was what really made any kind of entrance impossible.

In his letter to them, after apologizing for what he was about to do, and after saying how he wanted them to know it was not their fault, Carl wrote: "I leave my record albums and Venus fly traps to Jim, my coins including the Civil War bullets to Edith, and I leave Ziggy, Zygote, and Zip to Gina." He then ended with "I love you all, Carl." All Gina could think, as her father read the letter to her, and his voice broke into a new set of strange, bark-like sobs, was that she could not bear this new responsibility. She had no time to care for mice. There was too much going on: the return to school after Christmas break, exams the following week, swim team practice morning and night.

The mice had been moved immediately into Gina's room, at her request, because she did not want to have to go into Carl's room to feed them. Two days later, while waiting in a traffic backup on the way to the cemetery, Gina could think of nothing but the mice. She had refused to ride with the family, and chose instead to be chauffeured by Amy's mother. As she sat behind the family limousine carrying her mother, father, sister, and brother--which was inching slowly behind the hearse that was carrying Carl's body--Gina considered how the mice were already ruining her life. She had not been able to sleep the two nights they had been in her room. They scratched and tapped in their cage, made strange cracking noises and irregular, jarring little peeps. She could not sleep because of this din and because of the musky, pissy scent of them that now hung in the air. Fucking mice, she said in her mind. Fucking, fucking mice. Saying such words, even if only to herself, was a new and hearty pleasure. The obscenity tumbled and turned in Gina's mind as they approached the cemetery, making her wonder if Carl's foul mouth and lousy temper had drifted from his soul into her own upon his death.

"Can your Mom turn on the radio?" Gina whispered to Amy, who quickly leaned over the front seat and whispered to her mother.

"Oh, of course," Mrs. Weiss said, and the woman's thin, shaky hand flew to the knob on the dashboard. The car filled with a wave of old rock music.

"Exquisite," Gina said softly, and relaxed back into the vinyl seat. She knew there would be no sound but sniffling and sobbing in the family limousine, and was damn glad she had negotiated her way into her friend's car instead.

Carl had not willed his stereo system, his most valuable possession, to anyone. Gina found this surprising, but reasoned that he had not done so because he had broken it a month earlier and did not want to burden anyone with repairs after his death. She had always been awed by Carl's network of speakers, webbed cords, and glassy control panels, and had not understood why her brother would not fix or replace the receiver he had smashed onto the floor. Gina thought that Carl, perhaps, had left his stereo broken and mute as a ghost to prove a point to his father. Now, though, she realized his life plans had not required music. Carl had done the damage after one of his and their father's regular dinner-time arguments. The yelling match had been one of many concerning Carl's wishes to quit high school and join the Army. Their father refused to allow him to do anything of the sort, which Gina had thought was a good decision, as Carl seemed to always be foolishly and transiently obsessed with one mode of escape or another. Gina's mother was more inclined to allow Carl to follow, as she put it, his heart's desires. This indulgence, added to the way their mother regularly ran downstairs after Carl to soothe him in the wake of such arguments, only proved to Gina that, despite his snotty behavior, Carl was probably their mother's favorite.

Unlike their older brother, Jim, who was very witty and well-liked at school, Carl was quite low in the high school scheme of things. He was a year above Gina, and she rarely saw him, but frequently received complaints from friends on his tendency to stare and skulk as he wandered the high school halls during breaks. His awkward mannerisms, greasy hair, and refusal to smile in public irritated Gina, but she also knew there were secret, redeeming things about him. He did not cheat, and he never seemed remotely interested in speaking poorly of other students. Gina had seen Carl as a high school bottom-feeder; rather disgusting to look at but quietly working away at useful things. Carl, for instance, spent his free period working in a special classroom for the retarded students, encouraging them to draw and paint, talking to them, and even wiping drool from their faces. Carl also assisted in the biology lab, often spending hours after school working with Mr. Thom, a man Gina found to be disgusting. Mr. Thom was, to many of the students and especially to Gina, even more distasteful than the rows of pickled animal fetuses he kept on his shelf. He was grey-skinned and spoke in a jumbled whisper, and he always wore tight nylon trousers that showed his long penis snaking down the side of his left leg. Carl said he helped the teacher care for the animals, prepare specimens for dissection, and set up experiments. What had become more worrying to Gina, however, but was apparently fine with the rest of the family, was that Carl had also begun to spend Saturdays at Mr. Thom's house.

"He has pretty cool pets," Carl had told Gina six months or so before his death. They were on the living room floor, both lying on their sides. Carl liked to exercise his mice with her help, letting Ziggy, Zygote, and Zip loose to flutter between them. It was something he did only with Gina, usually in the evenings or on long, quiet Sundays, when everyone else was out.

Their feet touched. Carl rested his cheek in his hand. "He has a trained falcon," he said, and swept Zygote, who was edging too close to the opening between them, back to the middle. "And a marmot." Gina had heard all this before. Mr. Thom this, Mr. Thom that. Carl was so easily impressed, she thought. So unaware of how his alliance with Mr. Thom ruined any chances of his ever having any friends at school.

"Do you want to come see some time?" he asked her. "He has a boa constrictor as long as Mom's car."

Gina snorted. "Oh, please." The mice gathered together against her stomach, communally bathing, manically running their tiny, speedy, claws from ears to nose, ears to nose. "He stinks," she said.

Carl looked at the ground, his eyes narrowing.

"His breath stinks like dog poop." Carl said nothing, but Gina could see the small bulge in his jaw flinch. "And sometimes I think you're beginning to stink," she blurted, half from concern for her own reputation at school and half for his. "Mr. Thom's poop breath is saturating your clothes--it's going through to your bones."

Carl had jumped up sharply, leaving the mice free to fan out into the open room, and shuffled off toward the basement stairs. "Fuck you, chlorine hair," he said, and Gina had felt stricken. She was aware that she had hurt Carl, not in insulting Mr. Thom, but in somehow crushing his pleasure in speaking with her. "Go to hell you bitch," he added and then, with marginal energy, raised his hand over his head and stuck up his middle finger. Gina panicked as the mice dashed, and for a flickering of a moment--and it was the only time she had wished this--Gina's guilt flew to disgust, and she had wished that Carl would die. She was sick of his creepy existence, of his screaming fights with her father, of the dreary shadow he cast over her own school life.

Now, as Gina slipped into her turquoise racing suit and stretched her purple cap over her head, she wondered if the mice had simply reached their life expectancies and died of old age. After all, Carl had acquired them at least a year before his death. Perhaps she had not neglected anything after all; perhaps the mice had been slotted to die regardless of her participation. She stepped out of the changing room and onto the slick tile that edged the pool, then moved to her favorite lane and sidled in line with the other swimmers. As she dove, submerged, surfaced, and began the first, cool length of her workout, she thought back to the funeral, over a year ago, and the cold, cloud-thick sky of that day. The children had been lined up behind their mother and father, who sat on ugly bronze-colored fold-up chairs, facing the oak coffin. Edith, the oldest child, had come back from her year in Paris for the funeral. She was seven years older than Gina, and had drifted in and out of her sister's life like an exotic family friend. She had a chic, short haircut, and had worn gloves and a hat to the funeral. She was back in France now, but instead of fulfilling the potential of her intellect, was being treated for depression in a St. Cloude hospital. Gina knew her sister's new instability had been Carl's fault. His death had set everyone off balance, and no one knew quite how to get still again.

Next in line, between her and Edith, had stood Jim. He had posed, stiff and stoic, throughout the service; a shorter, sturdier version of their father. He had not shed a tear, which made up for the endless weeping of their mother. Gina had cried on and off beforehand, but the funeral was something that required her to draw in, to close down until she could get out of the cemetery and back to her own bedroom. Her father sat, straight backed, glassy-eyed and steady, until, two breaths after the minister finished--when no one knew what was coming next--their mother flew from her chair, pressed her cheek onto the lacquered coffin lid, and sobbed out Carl's name.

As Gina pushed off of the swimming pool wall, fluttering her feet into her thirtieth lap, she realized that this was the first time she had recalled this instant. Her mother had hugged the coffin as if Carl's blown-apart self might be pressed back into life with her love for him. Gina sliced through the blue water and felt tears burn, a strange warmth against the cool rush.

And as she toweled off, dreamy in the giggling and towel-snapping around her, Gina thought at least, now, Zip is gone. All life forms related to Carl were gone (the incontinent cat, Leila, had been given to a farm family, the lizards let go, the plants discarded). At last, Gina thought, I can sleep in peace.

When she fell asleep that night, though, Carl placed himself in her dreams. In a scene that perfectly mirrored real life, Carl lay on his side, stubbornly sullen, his chin resting in his too-large hand. He had seemed to be talking endlessly, but upon waking, Gina could only remember a small fragment of the conversation.

"He says if I join the Army," he had muttered to Gina, his eyes grey and looking beyond her, "I'll ruin my fucking life." He farted then, and snickered, which had struck Gina as very realistic for a dream. She understood that Carl was speaking about their father, and she also understood that his presence in her sleep was more solid than the vapors of dreams. "You know Jim's rifle?" he had asked her, and he held two fingers together and pushed them into the flesh beneath his chin. Gina felt herself unable to breathe.

"You don't even know how it works," she said, disgusted with Carl's melodrama.

"He showed me how to load it last night," he replied. He then shoved his fingers in harder, "Pressure point," he said, and jolted his chin skyward.

"Stop," Gina yelled, and then she had woken, not sure if her voice had sounded or not.

Jim had been given the hunting rifle on his sixteenth birthday. It was a family heirloom of sorts, passed from grandfather, to father, to eldest son, now spanning a century of deer execution. When Gina asked Carl if he was jealous, if he wished he had received the gun, he just shook his head. "What for?" he had asked. "I'll get way better weapons in the Army." And to Gina's knowledge this was true; he did not care, and had shown no interest in the rifle up to the week before his own shooting. The week before, which had been the week that included New Year's day, Carl had spent almost all of his time in his bedroom, drawing pictures. Gina had spent her days at the swimming pool, trying to shave two seconds off of her 100 freestyle, and Jim had spent all of his time with his friends, for he was immensely popular and rarely touched down at home if he could help it. He was editor of the school newspaper, captain of the wrestling team, and a very good writer. When he was at home, he was always calling Carl things like Kurtz or Caliban, and would dance around the taller brother like a sumo wrestler, but Carl never engaged. The two brothers rarely spent time together because of their differences, although Carl had, on occasion, asked to tag along with Jim during holidays.

The last time Carl ever asked to join in was on New Year's Eve. Gina had sat across from her oldest brother at the kitchen table and sneered as Jim told Carl there was not enough room in the car. Gina knew that Jim was lying, that he wanted to make his round of parties unhampered by Carl's silent, hunched, mawkish presence. Carl did not look upset, and Gina understood that he, of course, had not expected permission to come along. "I'm not going anywhere either," she had said to Carl, and they had spent the evening on the living room floor, playing with Ziggy, Zygote, and Zip. Carl had been especially quiet that night, though. Probably, Gina had thought in retrospect, composing his stupid suicide note in his head.

The morning after her dream, when it was light enough to get out of bed, Gina looked at the empty mouse cage on her dresser. It was spread with cedar shavings and scattered with tiny droppings. She thought of the little Zip, how he had seemed cast adrift after the death of Ziggy, how he would ball his mousy body into the back corner of the cage until she scooped him into her hands where he would spread and relax. There was something deeper in Zip's eyes, a blackness that the others lacked, a knowledge, Gina believed, that he was the last and on the verge. Death had probably been a relief, she decided, to his tiny, twitching solitude.

But now Gina did not know exactly what to do with the cage. So she left it out, silver and empty, on her dresser, slipped into her racing suit, pulled on her sweat pants and jacket, and went downstairs where her mother was waiting to take her to swim practice.

Later, while she was eating lunch with Amy in the school cafeteria, she caught sight of Mr. Thom edging into the front of the lunch line, past her brother Jim, who was in line with a new girlfriend. "Isn't he revolting, " she said, as they both watched the man wind through the students.

"Did you know," Amy said. "That he has cancer?"

Gina turned away, suddenly struck and ashamed by the wretchedness of her character.

"Of the personality!" Amy blurted.

"Very witty," Gina said. She thought briefly back to her dream of the night before, her brother's own skulky personality. She considered telling Amy about the dream, how Carl had told her of his upcoming suicide, as if it were something agreed between them. She considered asking Amy if--in her opinion--there were any signs she should have seen, if she had somehow missed her opportunity to talk her brother out of it all. But she knew that dreams were generally meaningless to others. Gina took a bite of her pizza, then jumped as she felt a hand on her shoulder. As she looked around, Jim clipped the end of her nose with his finger. He had become much more affectionate to Gina since the death, and had taken to checking on her happiness during school time. "Hey you two prom princesses, you Nile queens, you . . .you lovely Lolitas--"

"Oh shut up," Gina elbowed her brother away. She was tired of his cheeriness. He made everything seem silly because it was easier than thinking. Because if you think about things, Gina suddenly understood, you somehow become responsible for them.

"My oh my," Jim said, hopping back a step.

"Fuck off."

Amy stopped chewing her pizza and looked to Gina, whose mouth was pulled tight, and who seemed as if she might spit or cry. "You've never said that before," Amy whispered.

As soon as Gina arrived home that evening, she pulled the cage from her dresser and put it--cedar chips, old mouse droppings and assorted mouse toys--into a large plastic trash bag. She tied a double knot at the top and lifted it over her shoulder, sending the exercise wheel and all variety of other mouse accessories clattering against the metal bars. She went out into the cool November evening and walked briskly away from her house, deeper, block by block, into parts of the neighborhood where she knew no one. The sharp corners of the metal cage knocked against her back with each step, and the weight of the cage grew steadily. When she had gone for at least fifteen minutes and had arrived at the address she had copied out of the phone book, she stopped. The house was surrounded by a tall, wooden fence. Probably to keep in all of his stupid iguanas, pythons, and wildebeests, Gina thought. Probably to keep out anyone normal. She looked around to see if any neighbors were out, but it was a windless night, chilly and hard, and the street was empty. She lifted the bagged cage and hoisted it, with all of her swimmer's strength, above her head so it flew and tumbled over the fence and into the yard. Now, she thought, I can sleep in peace. She turned away, neatened her hair, and walked briskly toward home.

As she slipped into sleep that night, though, in the space where dreams begin, she was jarred by a sharp rush of disappointment. Carl appeared once more, and she realized that, even though she had disposed of all things relating to Carl, she had still not gotten rid of the specter of him. He was again lying on his side on her bedroom floor, his body curved in an arc, his face resting in his hand. In this second dream, though, Gina lay closer to him, across from him, on the floor. Their feet touched, and the two formed a harbor for Ziggy, Zygote and Zip who ran, skittish and dizzied with freedom, between them. Carl picked up Zygote (who, Gina remembered thinking later, when she was awake, seemed--and even smelled--terribly lifelike) and looked into its glistening eyes. "It's going to happen," he said, and pulled the mouse right up to his nose. "I'm taking the gun down to the creek," he made his eyes cross as he stared at the mouse. Gina could see the animal's ribs vibrating with the beat of its heart. "Where you get those tiger lilies in the spring."

"Come on," Gina said. "Knock it off."

"You know--" Carl kissed the top of Zygote's head and released it to run with the other two, "there's nothing you can do."

Gina picked the mouse up and gently rubbed its head across her cheek. She held it to her ear and listened to the impossibly rapid firing of its heart. "Please, Carl," she said. "We really love you. Really." Carl shook his head as if telling her, it's done, it's done. "Please don't die," she said, and dry, soundless sobs pushed the air from her body.

Carl looked her in the eyes. "O.K., Gina." he said, and he flopped onto his back and looked up at the ceiling. "For you, Gina, I won't." But Gina knew that he was lying, that he was going to go ahead and die, and she snapped awake. There was no place in time--in her dreams, or in real life--where she could have made a difference.

Then she got out of bed and edged along the dark hallway and down the staircase. She stopped and hovered, for the second night in a row, in the doorway of Carl's room. The house was silent except for the muted, distant snores of her father. She looked into the shadows and tried to picture the location of Carl's bed, the drawing tacked on the wall. She then tried to imagine that she was Carl, and so would know exactly how to navigate this strange, still, clammy room. She would do everything he would have done, she would feel her way to the drawing of those fucking mice. She would take it from the wall, out of the dark, and keep it forever. And then, for one brief moment, she felt her brother's huge, ungainly hands grasp her shoulders and shove, just slightly. Go get it, she could have sworn she heard him say as she stepped over the threshold. It's yours.

Helen Storey has won awards both nationally and internationally for her fiction but is most proud of the soaringly romantic poetry she published in Seventeen when she was young and innocent. She lives at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains and is currently polishing a novel, sections of which have also won acclaim.


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