Ben doesn’t scream or cry or call for his mother when nightmares wake him up. He wails, a sad train whistle of a sound, something he’s trying hard to keep secret. Pipes clanging; animals moving through fallen leaves; a car door slamming down the road… he handles his fear on his own. He’ll only cry when Beth or I arrive at his bedside, and by then it’s more shame than fear.
“I’ll get him,” I say, when the sound finally stirs Beth from her sleep. I’ve been listening for fifteen minutes.
The hall is dark, its ceiling low. Every night I stand here. Tiptoeing through the house, hoping to tire myself out, I stop to stand still in utter blackness and listen to the wind. Goose bumps prickle my arms, tighten my testicles. The boiler’s broke, demanding eight hundred dollars we don’t have. Space heaters help out in the bedrooms, but the hallway’s just four walls to keep the wind off. Every night I listen, waiting for when the wind will pull the walls down.
“Hey,” I say, pushing open the door, “hey little man. Everything okay in here?”
I leave the light off. Sometimes he won’t sob if he can’t be seen.
The wail stops. I’m one more monster he’s hoping will go away. Finally: “Something’s in the closet.”
I squat down beside his bed, cup my hand to the back of his head. Its heat always shocks me: this thing is alive, it is a person. “Nothing’s in there, little man. You’re just—”
I hear: the wind. Ben’s hurried breath. His little heart beating, or is it mine? The space heater’s whine. And then, from the closet: the screaming of something very small.
“I hear it.”
We both listen. I’m shrinking in the darkness, down to Ben’s size, a boy again. I stand up quick, stomp towards the closet door.
“Don’t go in there. You’ll let it out.”
Opening, the door creaks. He cries “Dad, no!” and I’m sick at his panic, this terror I inspire. The light blinds me when I pull the cord. My eyes adjust and I see a mouse, stuck to my glue trap.
“It’s okay, Ben Ben. Just a little mouse. You know we have mice. You know we have to kill them. You know that, right?”
“Because it shouldn’t be in the house. They spread disease and scare your mother.”
“You can’t just take it outside and let it go?”
“It’s on there pretty good, buddy. I couldn’t pull it off the trap without ripping it open.”
His silence deepens; his five-year-old brain stretching to accommodate a new kind of suffering.
“I’m going to take it outside,” I say.
I stoop, and the mouse enters a new phase of frenzy. The skin of one leg tears; blood spatters back and forth. It would climb right out of its skin if it could. I grab the glue trap from the far end. For all its rage and pain, there is absolutely nothing the mouse can do to me.
“Leave the closet light on?”
“Sure, Ben Ben.”
Outside the wind feels weaker, whooshing through the pine trees instead of battering the roof. My house looks so little. What were we thinking, four years ago, when we signed a mortgage full of words we had never seen before? I set the mouse down and it stands still, adapting to the sudden cold.
My father loved to fish. I always begged him to take me, but I hated fishing. Stabbing a hook through a living worm; pulling a fish from the water by its gills; slitting them open. Dad showed me how to cut a worm in half and skewer it, but every time I tried I couldn’t. I’d cry and he’d reach over, pick up the worm, slice it in half between the nails of his thumb and index finger. And I knew, even then, that someday I would have to kill my own worms.
The foreclosure notice has come three times by now. My own mouse, screeching from a kitchen drawer. Screaming things like: principal reductions, inflated property values. Interest rates. It seemed like a reasonable enough expectation at the time—that we’d continue to make the same amount of money. Toilets would continue to clog. Business would never boom, but there would be business. Things would stay the same, or maybe even get better. Now I see that I’m a fool for thinking that we can count on anything to continue besides the wind and decay. In a month the mouse will come knocking on my door, with the sheriff and a moving van paid for by the township. Beth and Ben know nothing about it. I think of his moaning and I’m astonished at his bravery, and how alike we are. The keening wails we keep to ourselves.
There is nothing heavy enough to kill the mouse quickly. No logs, no rocks. I go back inside; my best bet is the dictionary Beth won for something in eleventh grade.
“What can you do,” Dad had said, watching half a worm writhe in each hand. Probably said the same thing when the factory closed. When the doctor said cancer. When Alzheimer’s began to blow my mother’s mind away.
A mouse is easy. I bring the book down, hard, feel the twig-snapping of the spine. Worms are simple. My father could cut a worm in half. He couldn’t go more than an hour without a cigarette, or come out ahead at the end of the month, or warn his son about what was coming, but worms he could handle. I stand on the book, and wait while my heart slows down. There’s joy in this, like sex or plumbing—the things we can do, that blot out what we can’t.
Sam J. Miller is a writer and a community organizer. His work has appeared in literary journals such as The Minnesota Review, Fiction International, Washington Square, Gargoyle, Fourteen Hills, and The Rumpus. He is the co-editor of Horror After 9/11, a critical anthology forthcoming from the University of Texas Press in Fall of 2011. Visit him at www.samjmiller.com, and/or drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org