The Killing of a Mouse
A muddy, dishevelled mouse ran into Smalls’ rodent-run pharmacy.
“Hide me!” the mouse squeaked.
Smalls’ whiskers fluttered. “This isn’t the escapee sanctuary,” Smalls said. “That’s down the way.” Smalls, a Gambian pouched rat, could always spot fresh lab escapees. He’d been one, but still felt annoyed that everything scared them.
“I won’t make it,” the mouse said.
Smalls spotted a pea-sized bump on the mouse’s back. Pity replaced annoyance. “What’s chasing you?”
“A house cat.” The mouse ran in circles.
“A house cat?” Smalls repeated, trying to avoid condescension. He was over twice the mouse’s size, and had a lifetime’s experience with felines.
“From nowhere, knocked me clear across the alley.”
“Calm down, son. You can catch your breath here.” Smalls gestured for his assistant, Becky, who brought peanut butter.
“Thanks,” the mouse said. He stopped running and looked around, awed at the gauze, pills and cans. “What is this place?”
“My pharmacy. I’m going to check you, okay? What’s your name?”
The mouse paused eating. “Ratty.”
“A mouse named Ratty?” Smalls ruffled his paws through Ratty’s fur. “Lab name you?” All lab rodents were orphans.
“Named myself. Makes me feel bigger.”
“Well, you did good kid. Escaping isn’t easy these days.”
Ratty twitched his whiskers proudly.
On Ratty’s back, near his tail, his fur was shaven and a pea-sized tumour sewn in. The skin near the stitches was suppurating and smelled sweetly of almonds, a sign of infection. Smalls rubbed in steroid and antibacterial creams. Ratty squealed and whipped his tail but his body remained still.
Smalls continued to the belly where something solid was just beneath the skin. Smalls pressed with his snout. “Does it hurt here?”
“No. Should it?”
“They injecting you much?”
“How did they make you feel?”
Smalls chewed off Ratty’s lab tag, then went behind the counter to his biological supplies database. Rodents were designed to have ailments from diabetes to anxiety. Ratty’s ‘model’ confirmed Smalls’ fears. “I need to step out briefly. Becky’s a street rat; she’ll protect you.”
Smalls’ pharmacy abutted an alley, its entrance covered by a large electrical junction box. Smalls shut the box’s door and scampered to Shaggy’s hardware store, which was hidden by a pair of garbage pails. Shaggy was a coypu, a ‘beaver rat’, with large orange incisors. Her shelves burst with everything from nesting materials to chisels that cut copper mesh.
“Shaggy, humans call them mouse avatars,” Smalls said wearily after sharing the basic situation. “Ratty was engineered to mirror a specific human’s genes. Then, they grafted part of that human’s tumour onto Ratty to test chemical treatments. The mouse has months left to live, whatever happens.”
“Monstrous!” Shaggy said. “Poor beast.”
“The refugee centres won’t, and shouldn’t, take him; he has a tracking device. They’ll exterminate the whole sanctuary nest for kicks.”
Shaggy chattered. “And you want him here?”
“I’ll remove the tracker.”
“How? You’re not trained. Maybe we stay out of this one.”
“Please, just seal my door. Buy us some time.”
Shaggy’s glassy eyes gleamed with sad affection. “You old pouch rat. Going soft, involving us with lab mouse problems.”
Within a minute, Shaggy had on her welding helmet and torch.
Once back inside Smalls’ junction box, Shaggy soldered the junction box door shut from the inside.
“Good. Hopefully they won’t want to damage another human’s wiring,” Smalls said.
“Smalls!” Becky called from inside the pharmacy. “He’s beeping!”
A loud mechanical beep emitted from Ratty’s belly.
“They’re accelerating,” Becky said.
“Will the noise attract the cat?” Ratty asked.
“No. We’re safe from the cat. The natural enemy of the lab rodent is the scientists. They put a tracker in your belly, and they are coming,” Smalls said.
Ratty’s eyes went wide.
“You have two choices: we can let you outside. They’ll find you, and test on you until you die. Or I can attempt an operation that might kill you. But be aware, I’m no surgeon.”
“I don’t want to go back. Gnaw it off me! Get it out!”
The beeping became continuous.
Something pounded the junction box entrance. Items fell off the shelves and shattered or rolled around.
Shaggy doused the door with flames. A human howled, then the entrance was struck so hard it dented inward.
Smalls turned Ratty over. Ratty winced, now lying on his tumour. “Smalls, if my human avatar dies, is that my fault? He talked like we were linked. He was so grateful I was helping fight his cancer.”
Smalls’ eyes narrowed. “He’s not your human avatar; he’s just him. You owe nothing.”
Ratty nodded. Smalls dipped his incisors in rubbing alcohol to sterilize, then went for the scar tissue. It opened easily. Ratty squealed and passed out. The taste of blood and metal filled Smalls’ mouth. The tracker chip was lodged in tight.
Metal screeched near the entrance. “Crowbar! Crowbar!” Shaggy shouted. She wrapped rope to a hook on the inside of the junction box, and she and Becky pulled. But the top of the box creaked open slightly anyway.
An object dropped through the opening. When it landed, Becky briefly disappeared in a cloud of gas, then her small body collapsed out of the cloud. Shaggy lowered her helmet and retreated into the pharmacy, dragging Becky with her. The noxious smoke flooded in after them.
Smalls’ head fogged but he resumed the surgery with new urgency, shaking the metal tracker like prey with a spine to break. As he yanked, a ligament popped and blood flowed out. The beeping whined to a stop.
Smalls fell, then was dragged backwards slowly. “You old bilge rat,” Shaggy said, depositing him behind the counter near where Becky lay unconscious.
“I’ve got to stitch the boy back together,” he said weakly.
“Boy’s dead. I’m sorry,” Shaggy said, wheezing. “Stay. Stay.”
She left Smalls and dragged Ratty’s corpse to the entrance. The gas dissipated and the sound of the crowbar returned.
A gloved hand reached down, and then Ratty’s body was gone.
Timothy DeLizza lives in Baltimore, Maryland. During daytime hours, he’s an energy attorney for the government. His novella Jerry (from Accounting) was published by Amazon.com’s Day One imprint. His prose was recently, or will soon be, published in Another Chicago Magazine, New South and Potomac Review. More: timothy-delizza.com