by Heather Debel
At night, we hear mice scratching in the walls, soft like they are sharing a secret. We feel the mice moving around us, hear their nails scuff across the rafters. The house is alive—little vibrations, fingers on a waxed car, door hinges. Liz thinks they are playing with her, some game of hide-and-seek.
“We should get a cage for them,” she says, “so we can take care of them.”
I like the idea. I’ve never had a pet before. One peeks its nose out from a hole around the outlet.
“That one we’ll call Nosey,” she says.
She reaches her finger toward the hole in the outlet and says, “Here Nosey, Nosey, Nosey.”
I reach out too and touch the tip of its nose. It feels like a tiny bead.
Our Aunt Maggie has tried to get rid of them with mouse traps. They litter the cabin. Liz and I have to watch our step so we don’t lose a toe. Aunt Maggie doesn’t have the energy to notice her traps are not working. Most days she sits in her chair on the porch and drinks Majorska. We hear her rocking all morning, banging her bottle against the side of her chair.
We live in a cabin in the Adirondacks. The floor of the cabin is jagged. The cabin is infested with mice, among other things. But, we have a roof over our heads and food in our bellies and as Aunt Maggie likes to remind us, that’s more than enough for us ungrateful little rodents.
Aunt Maggie is a religious woman. She wears high-necked dresses, long enough to sweep the floor. When she’s not too hungover, she goes to church on Sunday. She says, “God only helps those who help themselves,” and “Some people need to take the plank out of their own goddamn eye.” Aunt Maggie used to work at a greenhouse taking care of flowers when a shelf fell over and broke her back. She collects unemployment and walks with a slight limp.
We should be with our mother right now in an apartment above A&A Deli in New Jersey, but a few months ago she robbed three Starbucks. The State of New Jersey picked us up from school, while I was sitting in science class and Liz was busy telling off her teacher who had tried to tell Liz the proper way to hold scissors.
As we got into her SUV, the lady dressed in black told us our mother was going to the big house. I told her I wanted to go to the big house with my mother and she said that maybe one day I will, but not now. She told us that it wasn’t our fault, our mother was bipolar, possibly schizophrenic. Liz gripped her fists and said, “You’re lying!” Our mother only ever suffered from one thing: a lack of funds. She used to tell us poverty stuck to her like white on rice. The DYFS lady in the passenger’s seat said we’d be living in Upstate New York with our Aunt Maggie. She turned around and looked at us with big pitying eyes and promised us our aunt was sober now.
My sister kicked the back of the seat, pounded the window. She didn’t quit, not on any of the trips we had to make before we got there. I watched the DYFS lady’s head bobble from my sister’s kicks all the way up and into the forest.
In my dreams, I tell my mother what it is like up here. I tell her about the crickets when it gets dark, how loud they are through the walls. I tell her about the lake always changing colors depending on the time of day. I tell her the trees are not like the ones at home. They are bigger, greener, thicker. Even the dirt, the dirt is a deep red and it is always getting in my hair, under my nails.
And the mice; I always tell her how Liz and I love the mice.
In my dreams, she holds me like she used to when I was sick. “Don’t you go rotten on me too,” she says. “The world is so rotten, don’t you go rotten on me, too.”
I have made one friend here, Ronnie. He has a birthmark that spreads like a web across his face. Everywhere else his skin is pasty like dry glue, but the web on his face is so dark, in the light it looks purple. Ronnie doesn’t look at me the way most people do. Kids upstate always look at me like there is a joke hidden somewhere in my face, within my clothes, or my hair, or whatever else might become a punch line. Adults look at me like I might give them an infection.
Ronnie likes to talk to me because I don’t make fun of his birthmark.
He comes over after school and we sit by the lake. It is spring and the Adirondacks are warm and breezy. He shows me how to skip rocks and though I am no good at it, I like watching him. The rocks leave his hand like rockets and dance across the water. I think he likes making me smile because he can skip rocks all day. Liz tries it too and gives up quickly. Instead, she throws the biggest stones she can find into the water and laughs when the splash drenches our clothes.
When we’re tired we sit in the shade. Ronnie puts his arm around me while we watch the speedboats. I ask him where he learned to do that. He says his dad does it with his mom when they aren’t fighting. I ask if he has any pets. He says his father brings home dead deer and hangs them up in the garage. His mom says their house is haunted; she can hear their hooves clicking around the house. I smile. My mother saw ghosts on her bad nights, too.
Aunt Maggie comes out with her dress twisted to the side and her hair out of the braid. She is swinging an empty bottle around her head. I can tell she’s angry. She comes next to us and puts her face by my cheek. “Did you do anything to my car?”
“No, Aunt Maggie. What’s wrong with your car?”
“You know what’s wrong.”
I look at Ronnie and Liz. Both of them are frozen.
“Were you playing with it? Crawling under it? Did you touch it?”
I swear to her I didn’t. She stands up and stomps over to the car. She kicks the wheels. She gets into the car and tries to turn it on, but it makes a click, click, click sound. “Damn it!” she screams from the car. “Son of a bitch!” She holds the key in the ignition, click, click, click.
She calls my name to get over here and so I do, embarrassed that Ronnie is watching. She says she needs me and my friend to ride down to the liquor store to pick up more Majorska. I can see hints of my mother in her, the pointed nose, the eye wrinkles. Like a shell of my mother without the love.
We get on our bikes and ride to the liquor store.
I like the speed and the sound of my bike. I can’t hear myself think about sad things.
The liquor store is a small, white house. It is covered by overgrown bushes and sits tightly between two trees.
The man who owns the store has to lean over the counter to look at us.
“It’s for my aunt,” I tell him.
“Let me guess. Good ole Mags?” he asks, and we nod. He shakes his head like he disapproves, but he has eyes that say he understands.
When we return, we barely walk into the house before Old Mags is pulling us close to her and kissing our heads. My head is squished into one dirty yellow flower in her dress design. I try to pull away, but the hug feels nicer than I would like to admit.
“You guys are the best, have I told you that lately?” she says.
At night, Old Mags passes out early. Ronnie sleeps over. We curl under the quilts and turn off the lights except for the flashlight. We wait for mice to come looking for food. We name the mice we see—Tippy, Shadow, Rex, Pinky, Curly, Baby, Lady—mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers. We make up stories for them. Our favorite stories are about Nosey, the mouse who is most adventurous. He was the first to say hi to us, the first one we’ve touched, so he is our favorite. Liz especially. I can hear her whispering into the night.
“Don’t be afraid,” she says to him, “There is nothing to be afraid of. I will protect you always.”
We talk about buying cages. We reason it would keep them safe from the mouse traps. We talk until our eyes get heavy. We listen to the mice squeak until we sleep.
“I will protect you always,” I hear Liz say over and over again.
We wake up to Old Mags puking in the bathroom. Liz and I stare at the ceiling from our bed and pretend like we don’t hear anything. I focus on the crickets outside. They sound like waves, loud and soft and loud again.
We go downstairs to make breakfast. There is a note on the table and a twenty—get some more on your way back from school.
We walk down the dirt road to the main road where the bus lady picks us up. The bus lady has red hair and is missing her left eye—from a fall when she was young, she tells us. We make up other stories: stab wound, a gunshot wound, perhaps she was a warrior in a past life. She smokes with the windows up in the heat. We hate her for it. There is a stop sign about halfway to school and the bus lady stops there for five minutes and tells us a story, something about New York City on a windy night, a movie theater, someone famous. I suppose she is lonely.
At the stop sign, Liz and I see an old antique shop. It is small and brown and has big windows. I notice a birdcage hanging in the front window. It is gold and the top of it is shaped like a palace. I point it out to Liz and she smiles. The mice would love it. How wonderful it would be to live someplace like that.
After school, the three of us have to run to the liquor store. I find the red bottle cap, the red and gold curtains. We drop the twenty in a hurry and bolt out of there to make it to the bus in time. I shove the bottle in my backpack and hear it swish next to my homework. The bus lady with her sunglasses glares at us as we walk on. Ronnie and Liz giggle behind me.
Old Mags is waiting at home for us with four glasses of orange juice. When I give her the vodka, she pours it in her cup and asks me where the change is. My heart drops to my stomach. Her face turns angry.
“Are you trying to steal from me?”
“I’ll get it tomorrow, I promise.”
The three of us chug our orange juice and run out to the lake.
“Don’t you ever try stealing from me! You’re just like your mother!” she screams after me as I run as far as I am allowed to go.
By the end of summer, Old Mags is drinking every day and the heat will not quit. The humidity sticks in our hair. Ronnie leads us to a trail that takes us around the lake and into the woods. I think Ronnie is someone who will stick around. I imagine what life we might live in a place like this. We would eat food together, wash the floors, have real pets.
We reach Ronnie’s secret lake, which isn’t really secret, just a lake smaller and more hidden than Great Sacandaga Lake. We take our shoes off and dig our feet into the sand. Ronnie turns to us and says, “This is a nude beach.” He takes off all his clothes and a part of me is a bit surprised that his birthmark is only on his face. The rest of his body is smooth, dull. He runs off of the dock, does a cannonball into the water. Liz and I look at each other. When I start undressing, she does too. Liz cannonballs into the lake. I follow.
We tread water for a bit, not knowing what to do. Ronnie suggests we play Marco Polo. We giggle a whole lot every time our hand reaches out and touches a bare body. We are acting wild and shouting too much. Liz and I have never known a place this beautiful existed. This is the world we create for ourselves without adults.
It is my turn to be Marco. I hear Liz breathing next to me. I keep reaching for her. Marco! Polo! Marco! I keep reaching and reaching until I run into the dock and hit my head. Liz is laughing at me and I laugh too. I rub the sore spot.
I feel a hand around my wrist. In one motion, I am yanked out of the water.
I see Liz too, hanging next to me. Old Mags is holding us, her face and eyes glowing red and sweating.
“Hannah and Elizabeth! What do you think you’re doing? Swimming naked with a boy? What is wrong with you? I’ve been calling your names! Where have you been?”
I smell stale liquor. I look at Liz, who is flailing in the air, her feet kicking nothing.
“I was calling your name! Why didn’t you answer me?”
I yank my wrist from Old Mags, but she clamps down like a pit bull. I pull my arm back and she pulls me forward, my feet dragging on the ground. I look back at Ronnie who is still in the water, horrified. Immediately, I am aware of my nakedness. My eyes burn with tears. I pull my arm as hard as I can, but Old Mags’ grip tightens. I try covering myself with my free arm, my feet keep tripping. As we pass our clothes, I lean down and pick up my shirt and hold it over me. She drags us all the way back to the cabin.
When we are in the house, she still does not let go of us. I hear Liz’s screams bouncing off the walls. They are loud and angry. She kicks every wall that is in reach, banging into door frames with her feet, kicking the floor if nothing else.
As Old Mags walks, a mouse skitters across her path. With one motion, Old Mags’ shoe crashes down on it. There is a crunch, like she stepped on a bag of chips. I hear the long, demon-like scream from my sister. “Nosey!”
To Liz, there is no way it could be any other mouse.
Old Mags throws us into our room and closes the door. Liz bangs on the door with her fists, her feet, like she wants to knock down the walls.
At night, my face burns with embarrassment. I cry still, thinking about Ronnie’s horrified face, the crushed mouse. The mice shuffling inside the walls keep us awake.
“We have to protect them from her,” Liz whispers. “I’ll be damned if she ever hurts another one of them again.”
Liz turns to me in the middle of the night and whispers, “I hate her. I fucking hate her.”
The sound of the word fuck rolling out of my sister’s mouth shocks me and feels right.
“I fucking hate her, too,” I whisper back.
Winter comes fast. It snows once and never melts. Aunt Maggie’s drinking is getting worse. Her hands are always shaking. She gives us more and more money. My legs beneath my knees freeze on the walk to the bus, on the walk to the liquor store, on the walk back home. Thawing my legs is the best part of the day.
Ronnie sleeps over most nights. We make forts in our room and sleep in them. It is warm there. We hear the mice. They are warm, too.
A snowstorm blows in sometime in December. The snow is so high it reaches our windows. The three of us eat whatever we find in the house. We play whatever we want. We get tired and bored, lay around, sleep, fight, laugh.
After three days, the snow melts enough for us to open the front door.
Old Mags bangs on my door early in the morning. She tells me I have to make a trip to the store. She holds out a fifty. She looks in bad shape, sweaty, her eyes bulging. I am tired.
“Later, Aunt Maggie.”
“No,” she says. “Now.”
School is still not open. The buses are not running. The store is miles away. Aunt Maggie’s eyes are red-rimmed and desperate.
Ronnie, Liz, and I dress, putting our clothes on slowly. We soak up the warmth as long as we can. Then, we begin walking.
The sun is rising. The snow is hard and dirty. It slushes around our feet.
“Hey Ronnie, if you could live anywhere, where would you live?”
“Under the Eiffel Tower.”
Liz says, “That’s silly. I would live in the ocean.”
“It’s cold there. I never want to live anywhere that’s cold ever again.”
“I’d be a fish, stupid. Fish don’t get cold.”
I only think of my mother. I say nothing.
After too many steps, my stomach growls. My head aches for food and rest. I think of a warm grilled cheese, a hot barbeque on a summer day.
We reach the antique shop by the stop sign. It is a square cabin with a pointed roof. The sign painted out front is wood and reads: “Tree-Eater Antiques.” We go in. There is no way we are making it to the liquor store like this.
Inside the shop is better than I imagined. It is all clutter—strange paintings, newspapers, taxidermies, old lamps and lanterns, old furniture and radios. We can’t move, don’t know where to go. Dust swirls around in the hot air being blown out of the space heater.
An older woman shouts from another room that she is closed. We don’t leave. The warmth has just started to seep into our clothes.
She emerges from the doorway. She wears a skirt with bright flowers and a dirty brown shirt. She has massive earrings and a bandana tied in her hair. Her glasses magnify her eyes. She reminds me of Ms. Frizzle. None of us know what to say. When she sees it’s just a bunch of kids, Frizzle lightens up.
“Are y’all hungry?” she asks. Our faces must give away our hunger because she laughs and says, “Come in! Come in!”
She disappears and hobbles around. “Did you know ‘Adirondack’ means tree-eater?!” she shouts from behind the wall. “It was meant as an insult between two groups of Native Americans! Tree-eaters they called each other! What a riot!”
I like her voice. Unlike most adults, her happy voice is sincere.
Each of us shuffle around the store as Frizzle continues to shout stories at us from behind the wall. Ronnie and Liz reach out to touch old radios, swiping the dust from dials.
I sneak around one of the shelves. I see the cage, long and thin, painted a dull gold. Ivy vines are engraved along the bottom and up some of the bars. It is small with a hook on top. Inside, I can see little swings. There is a small lock on the front of the door.
“…Meaning ‘porcupine’ which in fact is just an animal that eats bark, but the Mohawks had no written language so we can’t be sure.” Frizzle holds microwaved pizza. We can hardly wait until she puts it down. I eat quickly, trying to get more than Liz or Ronnie. I can feel the pit in my stomach filling, the hunger headache subsiding.
“You were looking at that birdcage?” she says, as she points to it with a heavily ringed finger. I look up and still keep eating. I nod.
“That one is as old as they come. Made in the 1880s and owned by a man who used to live up here before it was even a town. Paint is probably not safe for a bird, but it still is pretty to look at. Rumor has it, the owner held onto it until he died. Literally, he died holding it.”
I look at the birdcage. I want it. The want goes deep. It’s as heavy as the bread and cheese sitting in my stomach. I have never really owned anything.
“It’s about $100,” she says, eyeing me closely.
I look down at my pizza, trying to figure out how I can make the fifty in my pocket turn into a hundred. I reach into my pocket and pull it out.
“What do you have?” she asks, and I tell her.
“You can have it,” she says. “I like you.”
I feel Liz and Ronnie looking at me. I don’t care. I want the birdcage.
It still doesn’t hit me, what I have done, when we leave the antique shop. We walk in silence, Ronnie and Liz on either side of me. I hold my birdcage to my chest.
Liz whispers, “Old Mags is going to kill you.”
We stop walking and I turn to look at them. “She can’t kill us if we don’t go home.”
We walk to Ronnie’s house, where his father sits on the couch and watches TV.
“Hey,” he mumbles to us as we slip in. We have peanut butter sandwiches and we spend the night there, talking about how we might lure the mice into the cage. No one says anything more about the money or Old Mags.
When we finally go to school, I bring the cage with me and I carry it around all day to my classes. I am still scared to go home.
What I’ve done begins to weigh on me and I can’t sit still in my chair. The clock ticks, and every moment I forget about Old Mags is a blessing. But then, I remember again and my heart sinks.
I sleep at Ronnie’s with Liz and carry around the birdcage for three days before Mrs. Silbernagel asks me to talk to her after school. I go to her office when the bell rings. My heart throbs in my ears.
Mrs. Silbernagel is there with the school counselor and the vice principal. All three of them look more concerned than the next. They look at the cage. They look at me. The school counselor says she wants to ask me a few questions.
“It is all going to be okay,” she says.
Whatever these adults are planning, I want none of it.
“I just want to go home now,” I say. But, I don’t have a home.
I turn and I walk toward the door of the classroom. Slowly, at first. I shuffle my feet. I keep walking. When I get to the door, I run. I hear my name—Hannah? Hannah!—but I just keep running until I am out the door, the birdcage clonking like a ball and chain behind me.
I run to the nearest bus. I don’t care what bus it is.
I get off as soon as I recognize where I am. I have to walk another two miles to get to the house. I hug the birdcage.
When I get to Old Mags’ house, Ronnie and Liz are sitting in the snow, asking what had happened to me. Nothing, I tell them. The door is locked, they say, and they can’t get in. I knock. No one answers. I break the side window. I’m already in trouble for the cage and for not bringing Aunt Maggie the liquor.
When I walk in, Aunt Maggie is laying on the couch under blankets. There is a putrid smell. I walk over to her. She is white. She does not look like Aunt Maggie. Her teeth are bared in a stiff snicker. I touch her arm and know.
It is terribly quiet in the room when I turn and look at Ronnie. I see him take a step forward, like he might reach out and touch my arm.
“She’s dead,” I tell them.
Liz takes a step forward and looks herself. She tilts her head like she is trying to figure something out.
“Why?” she asks.
All I know is that it has something to do with the fifty dollars and a birdcage.
Ronnie takes another step and I wait for the weight of his hand on my shoulder.
“Good,” Liz says, “I’m glad she’s dead.”
Ronnie begins to back away. I see in his face he is scared of me. He is scared of all my trouble.
When he runs out the front door, something in me breaks. I am tired of people leaving me.
I am angry at Old Mags. I am angry at my mother. I am angry at Ronnie. I throw the cage after him. It hits the door frame. I hear it crack. When it hits the ground, it breaks again. Pieces of the broken cage lie on the floor. I can’t look at it.
Liz and I aren’t upset that Aunt Maggie is all empty-eyed on the couch. We have a different worry. We will lose the mice. Liz and I run into our room and bang on the walls with our fists. The walls are so fragile, they crumble in our hands. We keep at it, tearing the walls down. We can see the movement between the rafters. We pick up a whole handful of baby mice and load up our pillow cases. Some mice bite at us and we don’t care. The mice are screeching. We are screaming like mad and chasing the mice and putting what we can into pillowcases.
The police show up on our doorstep with the school counselor.
They look a bit horrified when they see Liz and me standing there with pillow cases full of mice, our faces covered in wall dust. We grip the bags in a way that says, Don’t you dare take them away from us.
It takes many officers to hold us and to pry the pillowcases from our fingers. We’re screaming and kicking at them. The school counselor tries to say nice things to me, but I scream so that I can’t hear her. The police put us into the back of their car while other policemen throw the bags into dumpsters. We sit in the car and push our crying faces against the glass.
The cops are too busy with Aunt Maggie to notice the first mouse crawl out of the dumpster. One after another they tuck and dive into the snow, their furry backs flowing like gray ripples over the white ground, squeaking something that sounds to me and Liz like freedom.
Heather DeBel holds an MFA from the University of Maryland. Her stories have appeared in Salamander, New South, The Masters Review, Contrary, Hobart, and elsewhere. She writes and teaches in New Jersey. You can find her work at heatherdebel.com.