I sat on the balls of my feet on the edge of the bed, looking into the moonlit cage at the small, furry creature that shrank back in terror at the sight of me. I was not me. I was something more base, something less complicated and wholly scarier than a man in his underwear staring at a white hopper mouse. For many nights in a row, I had fought to work the latches that held the cage closed. I wanted the tiny rodent in my hand. I wanted it in my mouth. I could almost feel it wriggling as it screamed and fought to escape my teeth, escape my bite.
But this was strange behavior for me. You might scoff and say, “Well yes, Jesse, this is strange—even psychotic—behavior for any man or woman.” And of course, you would be right. But more so for me, for within this body lives a terror unimaginable for mice. My fear of them is irrational. It is visceral and immense. My fear of them is born of a time when I was a child, and this fear was seated by the sound of a trap.
When my grandma lived there, I did not notice. I went to her house often and for long hours, but never did I see a single rodent. I was not aware of them at all. They did not show themselves in my life until she moved out, headed down to Missouri, and my family moved into her house.
Infestation is too calm a word for the situation in that house. The place was ruled by mice. It was owned by them, and though we paid the rent and we kept the lights on, it was their domain.
My first night in my new room was exciting until I heard them. I had a new room, bigger than any I had ever seen before. It was massive, and it took up almost two-thirds of the attic. When I moved into it, I was shocked and amazed, until the lights were turned off and they came out.
I heard them in the floor boards, their scratching, their mewling. I heard them across the room, eating something that crunched in their tiny mouths. Their shadows passed the crack at the bottom of the door as they crossed from one side of the attic to the next. They were everywhere and there were too many of them to count, far too many to kill.
The horror came back to me years later. More than a decade later, when I was in college, a full grown man with an ego and much pride, a man who had been in his fair share of scraps and had seen things, beastly and terrible. I moved in with a saint of a man I will call Johnson. He was a hippie, a cross country bicyclist and a fanatic about coffee. He was one of the greatest men I ever knew, and I was honored to live with him.
Over dinner of mac and cheese and bacon, he told me he had found a mouse in his room. He said it just like that, just how you read it. Found a mouse in his room, as if it were nothing to be bothered about. I stopped him.
“We have mice?” I said. “When did this happen? When did we get mice?”
“I don’t know, man. It’s not a problem. I will take care of it.”
“I can’t have mice,” I said, more to myself than him. “I just can’t.”
He nodded and smiled. “I got it, man. Don’t worry. I’ve dealt with them before.”
“You’ll take care of it?” I said. Was I talking too loud? I think I was. I think I was talking far too loud, and now I was sweating. He smiled and motioned to my mac and cheese.
“If you don’t eat that, I will.”
I shoved it across the table at him. He ate it with a smile.
A few nights later, I heard a loud clack. The sound came back to me like a bucket of ice water in the face. That was a mouse trap. That was not good. Mouse traps were not good at all.
I listened, gripping tight to my covers, and I heard the sound I dreaded. I heard the trap kick and tumble. It flipped on the floor and my blood froze. Long minutes went by before I heard it again. A tumble, crack, a flip of wood, and the scratching that could not be denied. It was still alive. It was fighting to get free. It was fighting to get to me.
This was not the first time this had happened.
Clack! And my nine-year-old eyes popped open. I had just about fallen to sleep. I was almost out. Had I been out, the snap of that trap would not have woken me. But I was awake. I tensed up around the covers for a minute before breathing deeply. Then the clack of the trap and a flip, the desperate clawing, and the trap was moving.
It was not dead, and it was coming for me.
I sat up in my bed, nine years old and quietly screaming in my pillow, as I heard it getting closer, as I heard it making its way across the floor and into the middle of the room.
The light switch was on the other side of the room, a string by the door. I could just get up and run to the light. I would know where the trapped mouse was and I could watch it. I could maybe get my sister to throw it in the toilet, but she was across the hall. I was trapped here. See, there was no leaving the bed. It was flapping and desperate out there. It was wounded, and a wounded animal was deadly.
I knew this absurd as soon as I said it, but could not drive the thought away. If I stood on the floor, I might step on it. It would rush up my leg, the trap flapping behind it, and it would run into my mouth and down my throat. God, the horrible things it could do within my body. I needed to stay right where I was. I had higher ground. I was safe here. But it kept flipping, and I stayed locked in place.
Years later in my house, my sophomore year of college, the same thing had happened again. But this mouse was in a trap in the kitchen. It could not get to me. But the house was old, and the door was high on the frame. The space under the door was a wide gap that could fit a mouse. I wanted to get up and stuff a blanket or a towel under the door. It would be a good idea, if I wasn’t bound up in terror, unable to get off my bed. It was flipping its way toward me.
This mouse did not go out into the middle of the kitchen floor to struggle for his freedom. He did not go into the dining room, or head left to my roommate’s room. What fun would that be, right? No, this demon flapped and kicked his way straight for my door. I could not be cornered again. I jumped to my feet and I kicked open the door. I leapt over the struggling beast and rushed out into the living room on the other side of the house. I stood there, terrified, and I did the only thing I could think of to do when I was scared.
I called Bekah.
When I called out on her answering machine that I needed her help, that it was life or death, she picked up the phone. I told her about my night as a nine year old:
I was up that night in my nine year old room, staring into the dark, watching for a creature that I would not ever be able to see in the pitch black. I stared, my eyes wide, my pupils dilated, and I searched the nothing before me, looking for the demon that would run into my mouth and down my stomach. I stared all night.
When the daylight claimed the room, I saw it there. It was in the very center of the room, a tiny gray mouse with its back paw trapped in a clamp. I jumped over it, snatched up some clothes, and burst out the door. I told my mom it was in the room and I slunk off to school, exhausted and relieved to be out of that room.
Bekah fought to calm me down. She tried to tell me it would be OK. She came up with many plans that I might try to get the mouse out of my room, for now it was trapped in the closet. She has a sharp and devastating mind, and her plans kept coming. But when I was unable to make any of them work, and I asked her for the tenth time to come take care of it for me, she flatly refused. It was four in the morning. She had class at nine, and I lived across the city from her. She told me the horrible news that I had been fighting back for hours, and she hung up, telling me she loved me.
I think it was the only time she ever let me down.
With nothing left to do, I walked to Johnson’s door and called out for help. He listened through the door to the story of my childhood, and he burst out of his door and hugged me tight. He let me retreat, and he threw the mouse across the yard. He talked to me the rest of the night. He made us coffee.
He was a great man. I am less without him in my life.
But now, I was crouched at the foot of my bed, looking at the mouse I wanted to stuff in my mouth and chew to a bloody pulp.
I had decided weeks earlier that I was going to write a story about a mouse that was suddenly struck with human intelligence. I had many scenes decided upon, but I needed to see a mouse up close. I needed to observe the habits of a mouse. So of course, it’s a good idea to go out and buy one.
As it stands, there are three great bungles of my life, three great ones that leave me scratching my head. This was one of those.
When we found the beast personality in my mind, we knew it was crazy. We had watched it snap up a moth, when I was in its grip, and toss it in my mouth. We had watched Teth do many horrible things. But when Job’s girlfriend, Chanel, caught me up and preparing to devour the mouse whole, she took it to her room.
Teth never did eat that mouse. I slept much better without the cage in my room.
My fear of mice is legend. I know that one day they will be the death of me. They will either jump in my mouth and devour me from inside, or they will crawl into my bed and eat my flesh while I sleep, or I will see one when I’m 42 and have a heart attack.
The fear I have of mice will follow me for the rest of my life. But I can say a few things. So far, they have not eaten me. And so far, I have not eaten one of them.