CW: Small animal death
A persistent pinging tugged Bec awake. The clock at the end of her bed signaled two a.m., the red numbers cutting through the dark. She kept her left eye closed and brought her phone to her face. Bec flicked the hovering banner. A message opened.
Bec replied with three, flood-crying emoji faces.
Poor Jenelle. The little beasts were back. One month ago, Jenelle-from-Craigslist had moved into the vacant bedroom downstairs next to the kitchen, Chrissy’s old space. The last set of roommates hadn’t seemed concerned when Bec had found a kitchen drawer cluttered with tiny black teardrops. Mouse turds. Her investigation had next revealed a round, nickel-sized hole in her organic granola. Disgusting, but replaceable. Mice happened; she knew that. It was a fact of city life. But when she had discovered her handwritten family cookbook, she felt betrayed. Violated. The binding had been gnawn to flaking bits, tooth marks nakedly visible.
“Look, the little guy didn’t even touch my Oreos,” Chrissy had said, waving the pristine bag aloft. Her open-mouth laugh revealed gleaming teeth.
Bec had alerted the landlord. Then, she had placed traps at strategic intervals, attempting to channel the pathways of a small invader. The other roommate, Lyssa, the one who coated the bathroom with isopropyl alcohol twice a day, kicked the traps out of sight. She had shrugged at Bec’s warning. It baffled Bec how her OCD could manifest against invisible threats, yet deny the existence of an actual problem. Months passed without another sighting or evidence. Traps were tossed.
Poor Jenelle, Bec thought again. A creature darting through your living space dredged up a familiar dread. She sent a text to the man who lived below them who handled repairs. Shifting to her right side, she rooted under the bed until her hand found the neck of the bottle. One-onethousand, two-onethousand, three-onethousand; when she reached five-onethousand, she pulled the bottle from her lips. The bourbon haze raced from her throat to stomach. She embraced the warm waft down into unconsciousness.
The next day, Bec walked into the kitchen. A wide behind clad in cargo pants blocked the way to the fridge.
“That you?” a muffled voice said, the head concealed under the sink.
“Yeah, it’s me Larry,” said Bec. She saw the piles of steel wool next to him. Within a week of moving in, Jenelle had asked Bec if Larry reminded her of the father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Instead of believing in Windex as the solver of all ills, Larry, their maintenance man, chose steel wool.
“Do you have any traps?” she asked. “Poison?”
Larry inched his knees back and slowly pulled himself up. The kitchen cart wobbled on rickety legs as Larry leaned his weight into it. “Let me show you something,” he said. From one of his many pockets, he produced a small, square photograph. Creases ran like veins through the paper. He smoothed and showed Bec. “That’ll make ‘em drop dead. One look at that mug and any animal would give up the ghost.”
Bec pushed her head forward to look. “Is that—”
“My ex-wife,” Larry broke in. “That crazy bitch.”
Bec shook her head. Their overflowing toilet, the swampy shower water that inched up their calves, the endless roaches: all their household plagues could be blamed on the crazy ex-wife, at least in Larry world.
Bec found a screwdriver in the junk drawer. She opened the cabinet door above the stove. Larry continued talking. She found the loose screw on the handle and cranked it tighter. Maybe he’d notice, finally, how much was falling apart in the apartment.
The floor creaked as Larry moved closer. “A woman after my own heart!” he cried, interrupting himself. “If you only had been born thirty years sooner.”
Bec felt herself stiffen with annoyance. She tried to brush aside his casual creepiness. Was it issued to old men along with New Balances and Social Security? She turned toward him. “Larry, we need mousetraps. And poison.”
“And she sticks to the point,” Larry said, delighted. “One second, don’t miss me too much.” He clattered downstairs, his slippers punctuating each step.
Later, Bec heard Jenelle walk up the stairs to her floor. She opened her bedroom door. Jenelle held a towel around herself and stood outside of the bathroom. “Did you see what Larry set up in the kitchen?” she asked.
Bec shook her head. “A trap, or ten, I hope?”
Jenelle snorted. “I wish.” She rolled her eyes. “He told me he won’t kill animals. He left us one, live trap. Said he needed a pocket-sized beer and cheese buddy to watch Jeopardy with.”
Bec felt frustration mix with mirth. “Did he mention his—”
“Ex-wife?” Jenelle said, finishing the sentence. “Yes, yes he did.”
The next day, Bec walked downstairs to the kitchen. She checked the trap. A large mouse twitched and shivered.
“Larry, we got a live one,” she texted. She added a mouse emoji. A few minutes later, she heard his heavy footsteps clomping up the stairs.
“Time to do the dirty work,” he said, saluting her.
“Thanks, Larry,” said Bec. “Let him out far, far away please.”
Larry picked up the cage and walked down the hall, toward the bathroom. “Let’s hope he can swim,” he shouted.
“What?” She walked toward him. A splash paused her stride. She heard a flush; her heart zagged to her throat. She imagined the wide, round ears filling with water, then flopping down, ruined like a wind-shattered umbrella, the small body swirling away into the darkness. Her eyes itched.
“What the fuck Larry,” she yelled. “What was the point of a live trap?”
He stuck his head out from the door. “Come again?”
“Nothing,” she said. “Nothing.” She grabbed the crumbling cookbook from the shelf and walked toward the stairs to her room. “Thanks, Larry.”
The toilet flushed again. “And once for good luck.” Larry came around the corner and waved. “Always a pleasure.”
Nina Semczuk's writing has appeared in Rougarou, Too Well Away, The War Horse, MONEY, Tasting Table, and elsewhere. A recent story of hers was nominated for the Best of the Net Anthology and she has received grants from the NEA and Poets & Writers. Nina lives in Brooklyn.