Phoebe hates them with passion, and every day we see at least one in our temporary apartment that’s actually the garage at Uncle George’s where we live since the fires. They scurry under the blue couch and run across the beams in the ceiling, little furry superheroes, somehow holding on to tiny wires or splinters or something we can’t even see, like hovercrafts or hummingbirds, almost like they are flying around up there.
“There, there, omigod, kill it, kill that little vector” shouts Phoebe, pointing and jumping up onto the couch. “No!” I shout back, even though I know Phoebe can’t get up there to kill it, and I know my mother won’t do anything to hurt the mouse because she has always been kind to animals and she isn’t scared of rodents because she used to hold my pet rats Anna and Elsa before they got the brain disease it turns out rats get. In fact on Elsa’s last night she put her in a shoebox on a pillow and laid it in the bed and even put her hand on Elsa while I fell asleep on the other side of the box, and we both woke up when Elsa made such a loud cry in the middle of the night like she was saying goodbye to the world or blowing the whistle at the end of a soccer game and my mother cried her eyes out, way more than me, and I heard her saying to her friend Jane while they drank their margaritas that Elsa dying was one of the saddest things she ever saw, the way her limbs stopped working and she couldn’t eat or move and her little paws curled up in front of her chest and there was nothing we could do.
My mother doesn’t seem to care as much about Curio who is still missing and she keeps making excuses about why we can’t look for him again. We barely searched when we went back, it was raining and smelled bad and there were police and fire trucks everywhere and Phoebe yelled out the window, “maybe you should have come a little earlier,” before my mom raised the window almost on her head. The houses were like campfires giants left by the road and after we got out and walked around and called here kitty, here Curio for just a little while my mom remembered she had a lawyer appointment and we drove away in a hurry, but then when we got close to the city she laughed and said “oh, the appointment is actually tomorrow, I’m such a space cadet” and we went to Arby’s and we haven’t been back since.
“The mouse is a potential murderer. He’s gonna’ rain poop all over us while we’re sleeping,” says Phoebe. “You might as well buy us poop umbrellas. They carry diseases, Mom. Like rabies and a haunting virus that can kill you.”
“What’s a haunting virus?” I need to know. “It’s from mouse feces and urine and spit. Which someone around here doesn’t seem to care about might get on us.”
“Both of you go outside now,” says my mother. “Stop.” I see Phoebe roll her eyes and my mom gets ten dollars out of her wallet. “Explore. Buy a treat. I’ll talk to Uncle George about a trap.”
“No traps!” “Stop yelling at me Spencer. If we get a trap we’ll get a humane trap. It doesn’t kill the mice, just catches them.”
“And when are we going to look for Curio? Huh? Huh? He’d scare away the mice,” but my mom pretends like she’s fallen asleep while sitting straight up.
Outside is baking hot and boring, but also it’s like being in a scene from a horror movie because floating above the houses and trees, and even down lower where we can’t see it but we are actually breathing it into our mouths and noses is a huge brown cloud of smoke, and I know for a fact that in the smoke are hundreds or maybe even thousands of dead animals and people from the wildfire that burned our house down. I even know some of them including:
Mr. Carl my old first grade teacher who died in his car which wasn’t fast enough I guess. Our class did our own musical and I was the boy who skipped up and down and yelled out that the king was naked and he played piano and sang the lines for me I forgot.
Our next-door neighbor dogs that got trapped in their house. Ms. Dalton was on tv in the middle of a black garbage pile which actually used to be her house, holding Baby Jimmy who was smiling and waving at the camera person, and a tear rolled down her face when she told how they couldn’t get back to the house from the mall to save Mutt and Jeff, or their house, or any of their belongings, but at least the family survived, thank god. Tank dah! said Baby Jimmy. Tank effing dah!
When I look up the clouds are like dog heads, panting. Mutt and Jeff would dig under their fence and run into our yard, they were diggers, those guys, shiny and reddish and big with wide pink tongues. Mutt would lick you real quick on the knee and they’d sniff around and dig some more, or just run out of the yard, tails wagging, tongues hanging out, and you’d hear Ms. Dalton calling them sometimes at bedtime, Mutt, Jeff, Mutt, Jeff, get back here, goddammit, get back here where the hell are you? And Mr. Dalton would yell something from inside about they were her stupid dogs, not his, and my mom and Phoebe would giggle a little without looking away from the tv because they were watching their favorite show about the Australian teenagers who could turn into magical mermaids. I’d walk around the neighborhood with Ms Dalton, calling “here boy” and they’d usually run from behind someone’s house or out of a bush with dirty snouts or stinky from rolling in something, a dead animal or sometimes green goose poop, and I would try and grab their collars.
Now they float up there like dandelion puffs or snow that hasn’t fallen yet or escaped invisible balloons, burnt bits and pieces of them, ashes, incinerated bones that are lighter than air now.
I try to breathe as little as possible. “Don’t you hate being outside when all the dead creatures are floating around in the smoke? You think we’re breathing them?”
“Ugh, you’re so creepy and morbid. I don’t want to think that way. I’m going to buy a glue trap to catch the mice.”
“Is that humane?” “Sure. They just get stuck in the glue and then you go release them somewhere out in the woods. It’s better that they get back to nature.” I have to walk fast to keep up as she marches quickly, her long smooth red ponytail bouncing left and right.
“What do you think Curio is doing?” I ask. “We should go look for him again.” “Hmm.” says Phoebe. “We did look.”
“Yeah, but you can’t just look once. He might be waiting like the dog that waited at the train station. Or stuck somewhere he can’t get out, like a well.”
“Oh my god, are you crying?” Phoebe stops walking and looks straight at me. She shakes me hard by the shoulders, three times. “Let me explain death to you, Spencer. It’s not so bad. Your body stops working, right? Your heart stops and your blood stops pumping and then your brain stops knowing anything and then that’s that, you are dead, and you can’t feel anything and there is nothing at all, it’s like before you were born. You don’t remember that, do you? It wasn’t bad not to be alive yet, was it? Right? You weren’t alive for millions of years.” I try to remember, but can only picture my baby self curled up in a chicken egg in a black starry swirly universe.
“But he probably is alive.” We’re in the store now, an old run-down looking place which hardly has anyone in it. There is a teenager behind a counter with long greasy blue hair and airpods watching something sexy-sounding on his phone and chewing on a Slim Jim. I look at the chips and then the ice cream and then the toys, which are no good at all, old toys behind plastic glued to slightly bent cardboard, things like parachute men which never worked, and metal cars and Pokémon cards and bubbles. Phoebe says it’s time to go.
“Did you get the trap?” “No, but I got hot chips and Oreos. You can have five Oreos if you stop talking about dead things for the entire walk home.”
That night I lie on my cot and listen to the creatures talking in the smoke. It’s hard to tell if they are actually talking to me or if I am just imagining they are talking to me, because either way it is just in my head, not actual voices coming down from the sky that anyone else could hear like god commanding them, but I hear animal voices and human voices, and even a voice from a pool once which was water talking about how it was turned into scalding steam, hiss.
They are all stuck together but if you listen very carefully voices start getting clear: Violet Peterson from the news, aged 7, three years younger than me, who died at home with her grandma who couldn’t drive. She had short curly black hair and played piano in the tv picture. Mutt and Jeff the dogs. John Somebody also from the news who had died trying to save his house by watering it down with a green hose. The names-not-disclosed-Family-of-Four-with- two-young-children, who died while they tried to escape the fire in their car but ended up burning inside it. Like Mr. Carl. The voices mix together. A worm says in a little Southern accent cartoon voice I burned so fast my body turned into a hard lil ol’ stick and then it melted. I roll over and hold still. Others start talking: it’s not fair, my dad should have saved me, why did he leave me with grandma, she never pays attention to me anyway and now I am dead and will never get to do anything fun again, and I am just little bits of ash (crying sounds with piano plinking); I made a mistake, I should have let my house burn and escape, but I just loved it so much, I built it with my bare hands; Woof woof, it hurt so bad when I caught on fire. I hate being dead and burned up here. I’m thirsty. Mr. Carl hums like he always did, but it sounds sad like an old farm man would sing while he dug up a field.
Then the Family of Four starts screaming, they just scream and scream kind of like on a roller coaster but different. I scream a whisper scream back to them.
“What are you doing?” whispers Phoebe. “Are you having a dream?” “No.” Phoebe gets up and rustles around in the food area. “What are you doing? Mom said no more Oreos.”
“Nothing,” she says, “don’t be like that, it’s annoying,” but when she comes back she has a sneaky look I can see even in the dark.
“What, what? What? Did you eat more Oreos? Not fair.”
“Nothing, just go to sleep.”
In the morning when I wake up my mom isn’t there and I try and go back to sleep but then the garage door opens by itself like it is possessed, and my whole body jumps, and the sun flows in and there she is, smiling with pink lipstick on handing us bagels and Jamba Juice.
“Kids, I found an apartment. You can go to school with your friends again.” There’s a silence while we all wonder if any of our old friends burned in the fire and then Phoebe and I ask a lot of questions until my mom says that’s enough. We start packing our stuff and rolling up our beds and that’s when I see the glue trap.
A mouse is stuck to a big piece of sticky paper on the ground next to the mini fridge, and its tiny legs and arms are stretched and he’s long and flattened out like he’s on the rack.
“Mom, Phoebe, Mom, Phoebe, look look, oh my god we have to help it.” “Don’t touch it!” warns Phoebe, “it might bite you and give you rabies. Or worse. Keep your distance.”
“What on earth, Phoebe? Did you buy that trap? I’m not going to kill it,” says my mom.
“We can’t kill it! We have to release it. It’s humane, right?” I ask. Phoebe is kind of dancing from side to side. “Spencer, get some warm water from Uncle George, we’ll see if that loosens him off.” I run into the house with a bucket and tell my Uncle George there’s a mouse in the glue trap and we need an inch of warm water.
“Do you want me to put it out of its misery for you?” he asks, looking up from his bowl of Froot Loops, his thick glasses drooping down onto the tip of his purple nose. I run back outside with the bucket and my mom lowers in the mouse on the trap.
“It’s OK little guy, you’re going to be ok,” I tell him. He sloshes slowly back and forth but doesn’t get unstuck. My mom reaches in with a big spoon and tries to pull him off but then some of the toes on his back leg start to tear off the glue.
“Oh my god, stop, you’re going to kill him,” I cry. “Phoebe, you’re going to be punished,” says my mom. Phoebe yells “that’s not fair!” and my mom throws the spoon across the garage and knocks over a spider plant and yells the F-word and says she is going to talk to Uncle George. I feel my heart start to beat harder like I might have a heart attack. Phoebe and I stare at the mouse and then I grab the bucket handle.
“I’m taking him to the vet. I saw a vet by the store.” “They won’t do anything,” says Phoebe. “Vets don’t save mice. Just wait for Mom.” A thought pops in my head written out in black typed capital letters, IT’S YOUR MISSION, and I have to get the mouse to the vet no matter what. I know Uncle George will say kill it. I speed walk down the sidewalk as fast as I can without splashing the mouse around too much, telling him everything’s going to be fine. Phoebe yells come back but I act like I don’t hear her. When I get to the vet’s office I pull on the glass door but it’s locked. The sign on the door has a cartoon dog and cat wearing doctor clothes holding up a big needle next to a rabbit in a diaper held by its rabbit mom.
“They open in five minutes,” says a mad-looking short old lady holding a broom, standing in the doorway of her laundry store which is down a step next to the vet’s office. “What you got?” She’s wearing a white mask for the smoke. “A fish? People bring all kind of animals here since the fire, even a burned parrot. This a good vet.”
I tilt the bucket in front of her and she wrinkles up her face and pulls it back on her neck like the mouse is something putrid and rotting. “This boy got a mouse stuck to a glue trap,” she calls to a man and woman who are waiting with their Golden Retriever. “Vet can’t save it.”
“Let me see,” says the man. “Oh, the poor little thing,” says the woman, kneeling down. “Don’t touch it,” the man says. “Frances, don’t touch it,” but she takes the glue trap out.
“Don’t pull him,” I tell her, “stop, you’ll rip his feet off!”
“I think he’s coming off,” she says, “hey little mousie,” and she is slowly pulling off the mouse from the paper, leaving a fur outline like police murder chalk, except with two more tiny mouse toes. Now there are other people crowding around and saying things like “what are you going to do with it?” “he’s going to bite you,” “what the hell?” and then the woman yells “shit” and drops the mouse on the sidewalk because it bit her right when she pulled it all the way off. She tosses the glue trap back in the bucket and the mouse looks around slowly.
“What were you thinking?” asks her boyfriend. “Do you ever listen to me?” There is a drop of bright red blood on the woman’s finger like Sleeping Beauty. Then Phoebe and my mom run up. My mom’s panting and there is strawberry smoothie all over Phoebe’s shoe.
“He’s free, he’s free,” I cheer. “Hooray!”
“Phew,” says my mom, and she puts her arm around my shoulders and Phoebe smiles and gives me the thumbs up like a happy Disney family. The wet mouse stays still for a second, his little whiskers twitching like he’s smelling the breeze, and then he runs down the side of the steps toward the laundry store.
“No mouse here,” says the woman. She sweeps him into her dustpan and steps up and tosses him back into the bucket, where he sticks to the glue trap in the water.
His eyes are like tiny soft dark marbles, his ears so cute, and he is spread out in a position that looks so painful I can’t stand it.
“Why’d you do that?” I shout. “No mouse here,” she says again, pointing. “Vet over there.” And the vet is unlocking the door, where there are more watchers and dog owners, and he looks at us and moves his mouth over to one side when I tilt the bucket at him, and when my mom starts to explain he says he’ll be open in a minute and goes inside. But then a huge man in a Hawaiian shirt with a bushy red beard holding a cat carrier says “things are just getting totally out of hand here,” and he picks up a brick lying in the grass and smashes it down in the bucket, very hard, with a squashing sound.
Everyone stops talking and I start to look in but my mom says “no, Spencer, don’t,” and pulls me away. “It’s dead, son. It’s better off now. And you,” the red beard man tells the lady who got bit, “you gotta take this thing to get tested for rabies.” Everyone starts talking and no one answers me when I ask “are you sure, are you sure he’s not alive?” and the man hands the woman the bucket with the brick and the mouse which I can’t see because the couple walk away yelling at each other. The Golden Retriever barks and wags his flaggy tail.
The woman with the broom goes inside.
“And the haunting virus,” Phoebe calls after them. “Get checked for that too. It’s terminal.”
My mom takes my hand and says “let’s get out of here you guys, what a nightmare. You tried your best Spencer.” The smoke cloud seems darker than ever, and the sun is bright red like the end of the world and I think I hear Curio, or maybe it is my own voice, saying It’s all Phoebe’s fault. Poor poor little mouse. So I pull away and grab Phoebe’s arm and yell “it’s your fault, you, you big, fat, you moron, you loser asshole dickhead!” Phoebe’s eyes open up super wide and her face starts to turn red and she is about to cry and says “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, all right. I was scared it might kill us.”
And I imagine the mouse is a tiny angel flying up and away into the brown clouds, and I hear Curio going: purr purr purr purr purr. Like a motor, or a lion, or the loudest cat you ever heard, like the best dead pet up there in the brown clouds in the sky.
Jamie Deiner is a student at Writers Studio San Francisco.
ZephyrZ is a computer programmer from Kearns, Utah, and a self-taught artist who uses code and a Generative Adversarial Network (GAN) to create modern art. Since artificial intelligence is already used to generate faces, music, and even poetry, his artistic endeavors continuously explore how machine intuition and program splicing can not only emulate human-created art, but push the boundaries into something original, too. The end result is an ever-evolving process of creation and destruction. Each workpiece is unique, with its own story and personality. You can commission original pieces on his website: https://www.zephyrzart.com.