Alice knew they wouldn’t survive the night, their bleating bodies just gray sacs with delicate veins and organs showing through. They looked like rolling, blind dumplings or excised tumors. Bud had killed their mother in a glue trap that morning. The mouse’s faint squealing had sifted in and out of Alice’s dreams–transformed into the sound of a loose tricycle wheel, her son’s hair flying in the wind, then the keen of rusty hinge on a barn door, beyond which she could see a golden field–until it eventually untethered her from sleep. By the time she came downstairs the mouse on the glue trap had partially ripped her front leg from her body with all her struggling. Alice was running to get the olive oil to unstick her when Bud came downstairs and stomped on the mouse hard, like he was crushing a beer can. Along with the thrill of disgust and sadness, Alice felt a thrill of relief. It was probably for the best. Of all the things Bud did, depositing the inhumane glue traps all over their cabin wasn’t the worst, as long as he was there to deal with the results.
But then Bud went to work and the high chirping didn’t stop. At first, Alice thought it was her subconscious punishing her for not saving the mouse, but the squealing persisted and drove her to peer under the couch and in all the closets until she found them–the babies, newborn–in the kitchen, nestled in the lower cabinet where she stored the cast iron pots. They had been born in her Dutch oven, its lid slightly ajar, a testament to how long it had been since she made a roast or cooked anything more ambitious than rice and eggs. The babies were helpless and she was helpless looking at them as they rolled over one another blindly, their eyes glued shut and their juicy, plump bodies rooting at each other for a teat. Their mother was dead and Bud would be home in an hour, but Alice experienced the same rush of discovery that she used to feel when finding a cache of brightly colored eggs on Easter morning.
Alice gently slid the Dutch oven from the cupboard and placed it on the kitchen floor. Then she closed the swinging door to the kitchen and stood over the pot, gazing down. She pushed her hair behind her ears and did not move for a very long time. The air in the kitchen felt thin, like some other reality was trying to break through, an alternate world teeming with life as fragile as the tinkling of bone china. She finally roused herself and found an old shoebox in the hall closet, padded it with some of her least favorite socks. Wearing her rubber dish gloves, she held her breath and trembled as she lifted the nest from the Dutch oven into the shoe box. The whole thing, babies and all, was so light it felt like nothing between her hands. Strands of her hair, scraps of fabric from her old quilt, and a twist tie were all woven into the nest. She had the momentary urge to clap her hands together and end it, this alternate future she was creating, pop the babies’ bodies like fat pustules and be done. But just like any intrusive thought, like the quicksilver desire to jump her car off the Bonesborough Bridge or step into traffic, she batted it away, and once she had situated the nest inside the shoebox it was too late. She was responsible.
The woodshed next to the house was dark and neglected, the interior walls filigreed with cobwebs. Alice brought the mouse babies there. She found a dusty clamp light underneath the bed and trained it over their bodies. The library would be open for another hour and so would the pet store. At the library she unlocked the yellow-gray desktop with her library card number and searched “How to keep mouse babies alive without a mother.” At the pet store she bought kitten milk replacer and smiled thinly at the teenage clerk who said, “Poor kitty! No mom, huh?” as she scanned the carton. The clerk was wearing a bright orange t-shirt that read: F*ck the Police. The police in Bonesborough County were mostly interested in pulling over drunk drivers, taking their time to respond to DV calls, and lazily rolling through four-way stops with their lights on for no good reason, but Alice appreciated the sentiment nonetheless.
“Yeah, no mom,” Alice said, sliding the milk replacer into her shoulder bag.
Bud would be home from work in half an hour. Alice warmed some water on the stovetop and mixed in the kitten milk replacer. Powdery chunks formed on the surface. In the bathroom drawer, she found an old eyedropper from when her son had pinkeye. She washed it out with hot water and rubbing alcohol, then brought a cup of the warm formula out into the woodshed.
At first, Alice couldn’t hear anything. She steeled herself. But then the soft, birdlike mewling came from the corner under the heat lamp. One of the babies was completely still as the others continued their aimless, jittery pilgrimage from end to end of the nest, rolling unceremoniously over their unmoving sibling. After rubbing her hands with the hand sanitizer she kept in her bag, she cautiously reached into the shoebox to rub the belly of the still baby. Its skin puckered under her fingertip, cold. Alice felt a pinch under her sternum. She was already failing. To be so close to death, even the smallest of deaths, seemed at once incomprehensible and inevitable, opened a vacuum within her that something sticky and vital raced to fill. She squeezed the pup–she had googled the correct terminology at the library–between her thumb and forefinger and set him on her palm, swallowed him up with a loose fist. The milk formula siphoned easily into the eye dropper and the surviving pups licked and rooted at the fat droplets that ballooned out the tip, their pink tongues jutting out like the nibs of ballpoint pens. The prickling sound of gravel crunching in the driveway lit up Alice’s spine.
That night Alice sat up in bed like she did every night at 4am when the atmosphere of collective reason that coated the world thinned out. The witching hour, that stark unveiling, was silver with moonlight. She leaned over Bud to see if he would wake at her stirring. Underneath his eyelids, the bulge of his pupils roamed right to left. His breath came in ragged snorts. She slipped from the covers unnoticed. Her adrenaline overwhelmed the cold that met her outside. Bud slept heavily and didn’t use the woodshed often, two things for which Alice was grateful. The pups mewled and lapped the cold milk formula greedily. It had been too risky to heat it up with Bud sleeping upstairs. In the morning Alice would need to go back to work, but she had read online that the pups needed to be fed at least five times a day in order to survive. Their entire purpose at this stage of life was to burrow into their mother, suckle her dry hour after hour, to feed and grow and tumble gently onto their backs in sleep, build cells and glossy fur, break open the membrane that latticed their eyelids shut.
Alice thought for a moment about bringing the shoebox to work with her, sneaking it beneath her desk at the DMV. But for all the deep eccentricities that permeated that place, live animal husbandry seemed a step too far. Leaving them in the woodshed also seemed a risky proposition, but it was all she had at the moment. Alice had already ruled out the screened porch as a hiding place. She couldn’t bear to repeat what happened two summers back, when Bud had found some kittens abandoned on the side of the road and brought them home. She had nestled them into a cardboard box under a blanket, cooing, while Bud retreated. He came back holding an old pillowcase, dumped the kittens inside, and swung them repeatedly against the support beam in the screened porch until there was no more movement or sound. “That’ll take care of it,” he said. “Strays aren’t any good for anybody. Out of their misery now.” A bead of sweat traced his nose. Alice stood completely still, both hands cupping her mouth.
If she couldn’t take the pups to work with her, she would need some help. Janice next door was friendly but Alice didn’t know how to broach the subject with her. It felt absurd, the hypothetical conversation Alice constructed. “Oh, yes, could you do a small favor for me? I need you to feed some wild rodents without my husband knowing.” It sounded unhinged. Alice knew she was already an eyesore to the neighborhood these days, the way she schlepped from mailbox to porch in her sagging gray sweats, holes in her sweater elbows, hair snaking out from her head in wiry branches; Bud had made it a point to tell her as much.
The idea occurred to her that morning on the way to work as she drove past the pet store. She tugged the wheel and was in the parking lot before she could fully think it through. The teenage clerk was chewing her nails when Alice walked in. The girl looked up sharply, as if she’d been interrupted during a private moment.
“Hi,” said Alice. The girl was holding her hands behind her back now.
“Hey. You were in here before. How’s the kitten? We have some toys in the back if you want to see. Feathers and stuff.”
Alice fiddled with the strap of her purse and told the girl that she had a bit of an odd question for her. She asked if the girl knew anyone who might want some extra cash while on spring break, friends or something. It was a simple but sort of strange job that required little time but lots of commitment and discretion.
The girl leaned against the counter with her arms crossed as she listened. Her hair hung down in lank blonde ribbons, the roots a severe brown. She had one of those faces that was somewhere between strange and pretty, as if her features were still deciding. She nodded along, considering.
After a period of rumination that felt thick and awkwardly distended, during which a parakeet shrieked from the back of the store and Alice became painfully aware of the searing, red eyes of the rabbits that were stacked in cages next to the counter, the girl chewed her lip in a keen approximation of adulthood and said that she’d do it. She liked a good secret and she’d take any chance to drive her brother’s old car. Her driver’s license was freshly printed. She said that she wished she could bring the pups to the store, but that she’d surely get fired for introducing wild animals and their likely diseases. She only worked half days mostly, and when her co-worker came in to stock shelves, she could take breaks to go to Alice’s. Alice didn’t live too far from the store, anyway.
Alice gave the girl–her name was Tiffany–a key to her house and her phone number. She offered to pay her twenty dollars per day. She told her that if there was a truck in the driveway she was not, under any circumstances, to enter the house and she should call Alice immediately. Alice had been looking off to the corner of the store, but sought Tiffany’s eyes as she said the last part. She told Tiffany that she would leave the formula mix in the cupboard under the sink, behind the dish detergent box. The pups were to be fed three times during the day, at as regular intervals as Tiffany could manage with her schedule. Alice would take care of the early morning shift and the evening shifts. If anything went wrong, Tiffany was to call Alice. If any pups passed, their bodies were to be buried in the old pea patch behind the woodshed. There was a trowel affixed to the shed’s wall, the one with the blue handle.
As Alice was leaving the girl said, “One more thing, though.” Alice was prepared for the questions: Why mice? What’s the point? Why the secrecy?
Instead, Tiffany asked if it was all right if she gave them names.
“Of course,” Alice said. She would like that. She was suddenly grateful for children’s innate acceptance of the natural world in all its delicate obscenity.
The first day went smoothly. Tiffany texted Alice after each feeding, couldn’t believe how cute the pups were. She used many heart emojis and said that she couldn’t tell them apart, but would call them all Brutus for now.
Alice thought about that, the seething mass of pups as Brutus, one gooey, many-snouted being. The grasp that this larger, more significant Brutus had on life was much stronger than that of each individual pup; Brutus was a blind, amoebic ooze bent on suckling and metastasizing into a multicellular force redolent of ammonia and soft as a pussy willow’s bud.
“Brutus is perfect!” Alice texted in return.
That night, Alice cooked chicken heart stroganoff for the first time since her son left. She sautéed the red-brown hearts in butter and onions. They were perfect, miniature curls of muscle, unmarred by fat or striation, that came in a glossy, cellophane-wrapped pack at the grocery store. All lumped together, they looked like the eggs of some great insect. She used her mother’s recipe. When Alice was a child, she would put the hearts on the tips of each of her fingers like thimbles while her mother cooked. Her mother would lean down and kiss Alice between the eyes and tell her that she was a savage, a brutal little savage with no regard for living things, before she plucked the nodes from her daughter’s fingers and dropped them one by one into a spitting lake of butter.
Bud ate every noodle and every heart, but said little. Somehow, in her immediate need to distract him from her dealings in the woodshed, Alice felt closer to him than she had in a long time. In her desire to keep him fat and slow and ignorant, she filled the gulf between her secret and her actions with a tenderness that felt almost real in its urgency. She stood over him while he scraped the sauce from the bottom of his plate, kissed the top of his brindle head that smelled of hot aluminum and grease, the dull, incendiary residue of men’s work. “What’s gotten into you?” he said, reaching over his head to cup her jaw.
“There’s a big problem, I think.” Tiffany sounded like she was underwater, sounded like there was too much wetness in her mouth. “Your husband saw me and I locked myself in the woodshed but he’s trying to get in, I think. I heard him walk away but I think he’s coming back.”
The past two weeks had gone well. Alice saw Tiffany every day at the pet store to give her a twenty dollar bill and to check in. They would laugh about the pups, how they were becoming more alive every day, more like the picture of a mouse that you have in your head than the little globules of hairless tissue they had once been. Alice had needed to find a box with taller sides as they learned to crawl and grip and climb. Their eyelids had split open to expose the hard black beads beneath, which recognized the eyedropper and the attached hand as a mother, a balm to their constant hunger. Brutus had split into Brutus, Brutalina, Brunhilda, Bucephalus, Buster and Bret. The mice were virtually indistinguishable but Tiffany insisted she could tell them apart, had assigned specific personalities to each pup. Brutalina was the hog of the litter, sassy and self-absorbed. Buster was shy and reticent. Bucepahlus proud but forgiving of error. Brunhilda liked Nirvana.
Alice found herself taking longer and longer lunch breaks at the pet shop to talk to Tiffany. In her early adolescent near-sexlessness she reminded Alice of her son, when she was still able to see her son, before the court dates and proceedings and the slow and painful relinquishment of everything normal, the emptiness that became normal in its place. Tiffany played soccer and liked grunge metal and nestled herself inside enormous sweatshirts, was wildly self-conscious without having begun to adopt the necessary trappings of femininity, the paint and the lacquer. Her sloping shoulders showed the brunt of it. It was as if she knew she had something to be ashamed of, could smell it in every prolonged glance and in the half-dry ink of magazine pages, but wasn’t quite certain how to assuage it, how to change enough to be absolved of her in-betweenness. This innocence didn’t preclude her from having potent opinions though, about injustice, about the confines of school, the immutability of music and the vital, painful currents of beauty that stabbed at her from everywhere, that quickened her pulse and stunned her into everyday silence.
Once, Tiffany asked Alice why they needed to be so afraid of her husband; if Bud was a bad guy, was what they were doing dangerous? They had both been looking at a half submerged turtle as it tapped its face into the glass of its terrarium. Their parallel gaze towards the animal, un-meeting, opened an otherwise impossible intimacy between Alice and the girl.
“He’s not really bad, so much as he doesn’t see things like I do. I think sometimes his pragmatism overwhelms his ability to be kind and soft, to see the power in the frivolous, the divinity that surrounds us when we pay attention to small things,” Alice wanted to say. But then she thought about the careful way Bud had strapped his welder into the bed of his truck that morning, how he would wipe it down methodically later that evening, how she wouldn’t dare disturb him until he had finished a full can of beer in the driveway while he watched the sun set. Instead she said, “Not dangerous, exactly, no. He’s just a practical guy.”
Tiffany nodded as if she understood. “I’m glad you rescued them, you know, the mice. That was a really nice thing and most people aren’t that nice.”
Alice nodded because she didn’t know what else to do. In that moment she did feel like a nice person. Together, they watched the turtle paw at the edge of his world like a mime, scrabbling at the glass that he could see beyond but not pass through.
Now Tiffany was afraid because of Alice’s stupidity. She told Tiffany to stay on the line, that she would be home as quickly as she could. If Bud tried to break in for any reason, she should take the shovel and thread the handle through the latch on the woodshed door to reinforce it. Alice told her not to be afraid, to keep breathing. She pitched her voice low as if to soothe a spooked horse. She kept her phone on speaker in the passenger seat, as if she could keep Tiffany encapsulated and safe beside her. Alice’s whole body shook.
Bud was standing in the driveway in front of the woodshed when Alice pulled up. He had cracked a beer and was facing the door of the shed, but turned when he heard the car and started toward the driver’s side, jaw set. He looked overly tall and moved with the tight, concise gait of anger, his flannel shirt streaming out behind him. Alice scrambled to free herself from her seatbelt.
She started to say that she could explain while Bud said, “There’s a kid in our shed.” They stared at each other for a beat and then Alice walked over and tried to open the woodshed doors. They were secured from the inside.
“Honey, it’s me. It’s Alice. It’s okay to come out.” She could feel the heat and confusion emanating from Bud into the meat of her back. Inside the shed there was a slow, decrepit scraping, the sound of wood on wood as Tiffany removed the shovel handle from the latch. A black crack split the gray of the shed, from which Alice could hear the ragged breath of fear and the pristine stillness of a moment in absolute uncertainty, suspended, glistening outside of time in perfect, weightless balance.
“Hi, I’m Tiffany.” She emerged, a beacon from the darkness, trying on a smile. “I feed your wife’s mice.” Her candor was galling. It hit Alice right below the navel. There were deep sweat stains underneath Tiffany’s upper arms, which she held too close to her body. She jutted her hand toward Bud for a handshake. He walked past her into the maw, then emerged holding the box of mice, his face loose with bewilderment.
“What the hell is this?” Bud said. Alice’s limbs and lungs detached from gravity in one sharp click, floating in something between anger and the immutable urge to protect and fight that had passed through the forgotten people who made Alice, the people who had hammocked the fabric of the world together for her, whose instincts comprised her bones, circulated through her arteries and sang out in desperation whenever she failed to act. She lunged toward the box. Bud dodged and in doing so lost his grip. There was the sharp scraping of tiny claws on cardboard as the mice tumbled, twisting like cats in the air before they hit the ground.
The pups righted themselves, posed nose-up in stunned silence, almost indistinguishable from the gravel. The humans froze, too, tethered together by invisible vectors. After what felt like a very long time, Tiffany dropped to a crouch and extended her hand toward the pups beseechingly. “Come here,” she said. “It’s okay.” Their ribs bellowed in and out. One sniffed the air, its tail snaking behind it, and then all of them broke together like one being, flowing through the cracks in the fence and into the woods beyond the shed. Just like that, they were irreparably gone.
“Oh,” said Tiffany.
“Oh,” said Alice. She went to the girl then, saw the fresh, bright surprise of loss in Tiffany’s eyes, placed her hand on the slight, bony shoulder, then gathered the girl to her breast in a gesture that felt at once new and ingrained.
Bud watched for a moment, his can of beer attached unconsciously to his bottom lip. The afternoon was slipping easily into evening while the two strangers hugged in his driveway, the sun lighting them up. Unaware of how he could possibly fit into the abrupt, foreign shape of things, Bud shook his head, turned his back, and walked inside.