The mouse had just begun to drift off when a loud bang from downstairs made it jump.
Mice tend to become accustomed to certain routines. This particular mouse was no exception.
The day would begin with scavenging for food. After the rumbling of its belly was satisfied, it would find a warm quiet place to nap. Upon awakening it would explore the nooks and crannies of the house at a leisurely pace before once again sleeping. It would then be time to locate dinner. A well-deserved slumber would cap things off.
The mouse had been forced to turn in a bit later than usual on this particular night. It had taken a while for it to acquire its supper. The cat had lingered by its food bowl, and the mouse had needed to wait for the much larger animal to leave before scampering into the kitchen to collect a leftover piece of kibble.
Because of this, the mouse was very tired and wanted nothing more than to curl up in the nest it had carefully constructed in the wall insulation and pass out for the evening. Its stomach was full, and the rain pattering against the roof was soothing. It put its head back down with a sigh and closed its eyes.
It opened them again when a scream pierced the quiet. The scream was high-pitched, and it lingered for a few moments before fading away. The mouse raised its head and flicked its ears. It couldn’t be sure, but it believed that the yelling had come from the woman, the one the other humans called Teri.
The mouse had never had much use for names. It had noticed the humans were seemingly obsessed with them, however. The three humans that shared the house with it all had names: the man was James, the woman was Teri, and the boy was Tyler. The cat, that dreadful cat, was called Allen.
The humans had even given a name to the mouse. It had gone into the man and woman’s bedroom one night when they were in the process of mating (although their mating was much different from the way the mouse mated, the sounds had made it clear what was happening). They had noticed it, and instead of yelling and screaming, the woman had laughed.
“Well, I guess we’ll have to start calling you Randy, you little voyeur,” the woman had said, and both she and the man had laughed.
The mouse hadn’t understood what was so funny.
The mouse stood up and walked over to a small hole in the wall. It sniffed the air a few times to make sure that the cat wasn’t nearby before poking its head out. The bedroom beyond the hole was dark, but thanks to the small night light plugged in on the opposite wall the mouse could just make out the sheets and blanket moving as the boy slept.
The mouse glanced back at its nest, but its curiosity had been piqued. It would not be able to sleep until that curiosity was satisfied. It hurried over to the bedroom door and, after performing another scent test, pushed itself through the small gap between the door and carpet.
The upstairs hallway was even darker than the bedroom had been. The mouse moved slowly, making sure of every footfall until it reached the top of the stairs.
The stairs were too tall for the mouse to descend in such poor lighting, but it knew of a different way down. A section of the baseboard located directly next to the top step had come loose, and using its nose the mouse was able to move it just enough to force its body behind it and into another tiny hole in the wall.
It was pitch black inside the wall, but the mouse had used this hidden passage enough times to know exactly where to go. It followed the wooden boards as they sloped downward. The incline flattened out and it felt cold rock underneath its feet as it reached the bottom. It turned to its right and felt along the wall with its nose until a soft gust of wind blew across it. The mouse pushed its way through the narrow opening and into the house’s entryway.
Noises were coming from the living room. The mouse hurried through the doorway and immediately darted under the plush couch that was just inside.
The humans seemed nice enough. They had never put out traps or poisons even though they had spotted the mouse on many occasions. They all had such very large feet, however. There was always a chance of being accidentally stepped on when they were nearby.
And, of course, there was always the cat.
“He just came out of nowhere,” the woman was saying, her voice unsteady.
“You’re sure that it was a person you hit?” the man asked quietly. “Not, I don’t know, a deer or something.”
“It was a man,” she replied firmly. “I saw him in the lights. I saw his face right before… before the car… He looked terrified. He just ran right out…”
“Honey, I need you to stay calm here, okay? Did you call the police?”
“No. I tried, but my cell phone isn’t getting any reception. The storm…”
There was a short pause. “Mine isn’t, either,” the man eventually said. “I knew we should have kept the landline.”
“What am I going to do?” the woman asked frantically. “What if he’s hurt? What if he’s dead? Oh God, I was so scared that I didn’t stop to check. Why didn’t I stop?”
The woman began to sob. The man spoke softly to her in comforting tones, but his reassurances didn’t seem to be working. A shadow passed in front of the thin cloth that skirted the couch.
“Where are you going?” the woman demanded.
“I’m going to try to find the guy,” the man told her calmly. “Like you said, he might be hurt.”
“We can wait for the phones to come back up,” she pleaded with him. “Please don’t go.”
“Hon, I know you’re scared. I’m scared, too. If he’s… If he’s hurt, he’ll need help fast. Not a lot of people use these old roads. He might not be seen by anyone before it’s too late.”
“Okay,” the woman relented grudgingly.
The mouse heard the front door open, and the sound of the rain grew louder.
“I’ll be back as soon as I can,” the man promised. “I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
There was a dull thud as the door closed. The woman began to weep again.
By the time the front door opened again, the mouse had returned to its nest upstairs and fallen asleep. It was a restless sleep, and it jerked fully awake as the vibration ran through the wall. It struggled its way out of the insulation and returned to the bedroom.
The hair on its back was standing upright. It listened closely while sniffing the air rapidly.
Something was wrong, but it didn’t know what that something was.
The mouse hesitated before squirming under the door. It crossed the distance to the stairs and peered down into the entryway.
The front door was open, and ran was splattering against the wood floor. A man was standing just inside. He was roughly the same height and build of the man who lived in the house. The smell was different, though. The man who lived in the house smelled like soap and sweat and cologne. The man who stood in the doorway now smelled like dirt and mold and rot.
The rotten man wasn’t moving. He simply stood there, oblivious to the water dripping off of him. The darkness of the entryway and the light from the front porch behind him made him seem like a featureless black specter. It could see that he was holding something in one hand, but it was impossible to tell what the object was.
The mouse glanced around. It felt exposed as it huddled all alone at the top of the stairs. It wanted to obey its instinct to run and hide. Yet it remained rooted to the spot, staring down at the rotten man while wringing its front feet nervously.
The mouse wondered where the woman was. It had left her crying in the living room, but it couldn’t hear her anymore. Something inside of the mouse told it that it was important to find her.
It went behind the broken baseboard and hurried down the slope just as it had earlier. Within seconds it reached the house’s lower level. It shivered in the dark.
Just on the other side of the wall was the rotten man. It could smell his stench with every breath it took. It was afraid of that smell.
The mouse slowly and cautiously pushed its way through the opening. The mouse flinched as a water droplet struck it just below the ear. Directly in front of it was the rotten man’s shoes. They were covered in thick mud, darker than any mud the mouse had ever seen. Fragments of what looked like bone were stuck in the sludge.
The mouse ducked its head down and ran as fast as it could into the living room before darting under the couch. It panted heavily as it regained its breath. It strained its ears to try to hear if the rotten man was following it, but the only sound was the rain drumming on the floor.
It crept forward as quietly as it could. When it reached the couch skirt, it stuck its head out and looked back towards the entryway.
The rotten man hadn’t moved.
The mouse emerged from under the couch. With one last glance back at the rotten man it went further into the living room.
The woman didn’t seem to be there. She wasn’t in the soft white chair, the one with the footrest that startled the mouse every time it was extended. She wasn’t sitting on the bench that was tucked neatly under the piano, and she wasn’t seated at the small play table that she and the boy often played blocks on. She wasn’t by the old grandfather clock near the doorway.
The mouse lifted its nose and sniffed. It could smell the woman’s scent on the still air. She was somewhere nearby, but it couldn’t see her.
It turned around and jumped in surprise. The woman was lying on the couch that it had just crawled out from under. She lying on her stomach as she slept.
The woman was much shorter than the man who lived in the house. Her entire body could lay flat on the cushions. The tall couch armrest was blocking her from the view of the rotten man in the entryway.
There was a noise somewhere else on the first floor. It was so quiet that it almost went unnoticed even by the mouse’s sharp ears. The rotten man must have heard it, however, as he started to move towards it.
His left leg didn’t bend properly, and it caused him to walk with a noticeable limp. He lumbered forward in the direction of the kitchen.
Just as he was about to pass the stairs, he dropped the object that he was holding. He didn’t seem to notice as he disappeared from view.
The mouse hurried into the entryway just in time to see the rotten man go through the kitchen doorway and out of sight. It still hadn’t been able to get a good look at him.
It turned its attention to the dropped item lying on the floor. It was a wallet, the leather old and cracked. The mouse sniffed the air as it approached.
The wallet had landed open. The mouse put its front feet on it and tilted its head. Inside a plastic sleeve was a picture of the man, the woman and the boy that lived in the house.
There was a loud hissing noise in the kitchen. It only lasted for a moment before abruptly cutting off.
The mouse sat still as its ears strained to hear anything. There was only the rain.
Hesitantly, the mouse crept over to the kitchen doorway. The light above the stove was on as it always was at night. It didn’t do much to push away the darkness, but it was enough that the mouse could see a distorted shadow stretched across the wall.
The mouse peeked around the corner of the doorway. The rotten man was standing with his back to it. He was as still as he had been in the entryway, and he was staring at the wall without making a sound.
The mouse could see him better now that there was light. He wore a flannel shirt and jeans, and a pair of heavy work boots adorned his feet. The shirt and jeans were torn in many places. Like the boots the rest of his clothes were covered in dark mud and a number of unidentifiable splotches.
The hair on the back of the rotten man’s head had a number of spots where patches were missing. The hair that remained was matted down from the storm.
The skin on his head and hands was wrinkled and loose, as if it was slipping off of the bone. It was covered in cuts and sores that had formed brownish green scabs.
The mouse pulled its eyes away from the rotten man and looked down at the kitchen floor. Lying on the linoleum, its neck bent back so far that the top of the head touched the spine, was the cat.
The ceiling creaked. The rotten man raised his head to look up at it. The mouse had heard the sound before: the boards on the boy’s bedroom floor were groaning under the weight of the bed as he rolled over.
The rotten man turned and started back towards the entryway, the boot of his good leg stamping down heavily on the lifeless cat.
The mouse bolted across the wood floor and under the couch in the living room. It had seen a brief flash of the rotten man’s face before it had run. One eye missing from the socket. Half his jaw torn off and hanging down, exposing the thick blackish tongue inside his mouth. Parts of his skull poking through tears in the skin.
The mouse shook uncontrollably.
It listened as the footsteps grew closer. They stopped for just a moment before there was a soft thump. It was soon followed by another. The rotten man was ascending the stairs.
Its heart thumping in its chest, the mouse looked out from under the couch skirt. The rotten man was already out of view. It listened as the footsteps continued up the stairs towards the second floor.
The mouse came out from under the couch and returned to the entryway, keeping its head turned towards the stairs. It stepped in something wet and gummy, and it looked down. It had touched some of the mud that had dropped off the encrusted boots.
It sniffed at the mud. There was another scent mixed with it. The sickeningly sweet and somewhat metallic odor of blood.
It turned its attention back to the stairs. It could just barely make out a silhouette in the darkness. The rotten man was halfway to the top. One of his hands was gripping the handrail as it continued upward. The leg that didn’t work properly was being dragged up each step. He moved at a slow but constant pace, and he would soon reach the top.
The woman coughed loudly.
The rotten man stopped moving. The mouse looked over at the couch and saw the woman’s head raise up above the arm for a moment before falling back down below. She sighed, and everything was still once again. She had adjusted her position in her sleep.
The step the rotten man was standing on groaned as he turned around on it and started back down the stairs.
Knowing that the rotten man was going to the living room, the mouse hurried over to the safety of an umbrella stand near the door. It listened as he came closer and closer. One foot would press into each step as his weight came down on it, and the other would drag across the carpet before banging down next to the first one. This pattern was repeated over and over, neither slowing down nor speeding up.
The first foot struck the wood at the bottom of the stairs. The mouse peered around the corner of the umbrella stand and watched as the rotten man turned to enter the living room.
He came to the couch and stopped. He lowered his head and simply stood there for what seemed like an eternity.
It had started to rain even harder, and the wind had picked up. A series of drops blew through the open front door and splattered on the floor next to the mouse, splashing it with cold water. It barely noticed as it kept its eyes locked on him.
The rotten man reached down over the arm of the couch.
The woman’s legs immediately rose up. They kicked wildly in the air as she struggled. The rotten man ignored them as he continued to hunch over the side of the couch.
The woman somehow managed to escape his grasp and roll onto the floor. Even from this distance, the mouse could see purple bruising around her neck. She opened her mouth to scream, but only a weak wheezing came out. She scrambled on her hands and feet further into the living room, the rotten man pursuing her. They went beyond the view of the doorway, and the mouse could no longer see them.
It didn’t dare leave its hiding spot.
There was a crash. The shadows of the two people appeared on the wall directly through the living room doorway. The small lamp on the end table had been knocked over.
The rotten man’s shadow was unmoving, its arms outstretched. The woman’s shadow was violently thrashing, the hair whipping around as she tried to once again break free from his grip. The rotten man turned slightly. There was a thud followed by a series of jingles as he threw her against the piano. The woman’s shadow stopped moving.
The shadows stayed locked together as the minutes ticked away on the grandfather clock. The mouse cowered behind the umbrella stand, unable to look away. Its body had gone still, and its head was lying flat on the floor. Its ears and whiskers drooped. It was barely breathing.
When the shadows finally moved, the woman’s shadow dropped down below the lamp’s light. There was a muffled noise as something struck the living room’s soft carpet. Two fingers poked out from the bottom of the doorway, slightly curled upward as if they were reaching for something that couldn’t be seen. As the mouse watched, tiny droplets of blood formed at the tips of the fingers and fell the short distance to the floor.
The rotten man came around the corner and once again returned to the entryway. He stopped at the bottom of the stairs and stared off into nothingness. There was a new stain on his clothing, one that had not yet had time to dry.
He turned his head to look up the stairs towards the second floor. The mouse did the same, and for a few minutes they both searched the darkness with their eyes.
The rotten man placed his hand on the railing and put the foot of his working leg on the first step.
Thunder rumbled in the distance. The rotten man turned slightly to look over his shoulder and out the front door. The rain was coming down even harder now. A steady stream of water was pouring down off the porch roof a few feet beyond the egress. The mouse couldn’t see anything beyond the sheet of rain.
With a final glance up at the second floor, the rotten man removed his foot from the stairs and turned all the way around. He limped across the wooden floor, his footsteps echoing in the quiet house. He crossed the threshold and disappeared back out into the night.
The mouse slowly came out from its hiding spot, its eyes never leaving the open door. It moved to the center of the entryway and sat up on its hind legs as it searched for the rotten man’s scent. Traces of the smell were all around it. It defiled every room in the house that he had been in, clinging to the rooms as a reminder of his presence. There was nothing wafting in through the front door but the smells of rain and ozone.
The rotten man was gone.
“Mom?” the boy called down the stairs.
Credit : Tim Sprague
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