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Giant skeletons tower over the old house with long, bony arms. They sway in the freezing gusts. Their brittle wooden fingers break off and fall onto the decrepit, sagging roof. The shriveled-up corpses of last summer's flowers stick to the stiff ground from which they were birthed. From under his blanket, Joshua looks out the window. He sees a sky that is gray and dull like bones. His breath has settled and frozen on the panes of the rotting window. A tiny black-capped chickadee lands in front of it, searching for even the smallest scrap of food. The cold reaches for Joshua under his blanket, and he pulls the rough wool up to his chin and closes his eyes—just a few more minutes.

He hears them in the walls where they make nests from trash and twigs, where they huddle close, share crumbs, and rear their offspring. A defiant, never-ending supply of life hiding behind the crumbling plaster. He could listen to their persistent noises all day, but he fears what might happen if he stays in bed.

He throws off the blanket and sits up, his small wooden bed creaking in protest. His feet recoil when they touch the icy wooden floor. He puts on cold clothes and slips into stiff leather boots. He pulls out an old cardboard box from behind his bed, revealing a marble-sized hole at the bottom of the wall. It's an entrance to another world between the studs. The box is red and blue, the colors faded with age and worn with use. 'Light Olympia Beer' is printed on its side in big, bold letters. The font reminds him of proud Greek statues. Like a morning prayer, he silently recites the words on the box's lid: Twelve bottles. Twelve fluid ounces each. No deposit. He opens the box and retrieves a small potted plant. The terracotta feels cold and pleasantly rough in his calloused hands. He puts the plant on his lap and inspects it for damages.

He had won it at the raffle at their church's summer picnic, back when he could still smell the honeysuckle in the humid air. It now seems like a lifetime ago. His young sister Louise had spent her allowance and gotten them a ticket each. To his surprise and her delight, he had won something. The pastor's wife told him it was called a Snake Plant as she handed him the potted thing. He didn't see the resemblance. She went on to explain that they could survive in the worst conditions, even when severely neglected. They were impossible to kill, and wouldn't she know it, with her having two black thumbs. He didn't understand what she meant; her thumbs were plump and rosy, just like the rest of her. He simply smiled and wordlessly took the plant. He kept it close to his chest until they'd gotten home. His mother had let him keep it. If God wanted him to have a plant, she had said, who was she to argue, it would be dead soon anyway. He still hid it from her and only had Louise see it when she asked him about it.

He gets up and places the plant on the old writing desk in front of the small window. He opens it, breaks off an icicle, and quickly closes the window again to preserve the little bit of warmth left. He breaks the smooth ice into smaller pieces and covers them with his big, callused hands. Water drips onto the pot's dry soil, which soaks up every single drop.

When there is no more ice in his hands, he wipes them off and rubs them for warmth before he slowly opens his door to the dark hallway. The dim gray glow from the living room on the far end is the only other light source. Like the mice in the walls, he tries to be silent, but the old floor creaks with every step, the house betraying him.

He stops at his mother's room, the door still closed. He hears only the house's groans and continues into the living room; its dusty carpet soaks up the sound of his steps. Everything in here is brown, dull, and cigarette-stained. He flinches when he hears his mother's coughs, a sound like gunfire and food poisoning. He hurries into the kitchen, hoping she won't rise just yet. His steps turn into dull thuds on the worn linoleum.

In the corner sits the fat old lady with her delicate little feet. Black with dulled silver handles, she leans against exposed brick, and he knows she wants him to feed her the dried wood. It is stacked neatly on the opposite wall, but his mother forbade him to touch it. Too stupid, too much of a klutz, his head always stuck in the clouds. One day he'd fall asleep in a car like his father had – with the engine still running, and the garage door closed. He would burn down the house. Hadn't he cost her enough already? Is that what he wanted? He told her, no, but she still sent him out into the cold to split a whole cord of firewood without supper. When he was finally finished, his hands were numb and full of splinters, and his face burnt from the cold.

He bends down to open the stained cabinet door below the kitchen sink and retrieves a tiny prison cell. He picks up another from behind the trashcan and yet another from below the cradle filled with kindling. He places all three traps onto the swollen and warped kitchen counter. Each of the traps holds a small gray prisoner. Three pairs of black eyes stare out at him, awaiting his judgment.

Once, he had found a mouse in the cutlery drawer. Its back legs were crushed by a snap trap his mother had sat. It was in the process of gnawing off one of its shattered legs, desperately trying to free itself. He still vividly remembered it. The next day, despite the rain, he had walked into town with all the money he had saved up. It was enough for two live traps. He had been short a few pennies for a third, but Mr. Matthews had let him have it anyway.

Then he had thrown out mother's snap traps and replaced them with the ones he had bought. For this, his mother had given him a beating with the old shoehorn. He hadn't cried then; he had pleaded with her to let him use his traps instead. That was followed by a more severe beating. When the tears were finally flowing, she allowed it under one condition – he couldn't let them live and release them outside their house. They'd just come back only to piss and shit all over everything again. Satan had sent them, and they deserved none of her mercy. They were spreading plague and disease. They made her cough. Did he want to make his mother sick? Sick like his sister?

He picks up a metal bucket and places it under the faucet. With a sputter and a cough, icy water starts pouring in. While he waits, he bends down to inspect his prisoners. They never look evil to him, just scared, trying to survive in a hostile place. He smells no brimstone, just the oddly sweet smell of their urine, reminding him of stale popcorn.

He thinks of Satan turning himself into a snake to trick Eve into eating an apple. Honey-crisp apples are his favorite. Didn't snakes eat mice? He remembers that story when God let Satan kill Job's family. Joshua didn't understand why God had allowed someone to suffer that loved him. In his sermons, the pastor often said that God worked in mysterious ways, and he had told the same to Joshua after God had taken Louise. To Joshua, there was nothing mysterious about it. God had allowed it to happen, just like he had allowed Satan to kill Job's family. Joshua was no Job.

He shuts off the water and takes the first trap. He opens it above the bucket, and the mouse makes a run for it. With a plop, it plunges into the icy water. He repeats the process with the second trap. The panicked animal tries to climb along the wires, but he shakes it loose. With another plop, it joins its friend. The doomed creatures try to jump up the smooth sides of the bucket, but their little paws can't find any hold, and they slide back into the cold. He feels guilty for using the bucket.

The first time when he had caught a mouse, he had taken the trap onto the screen porch. He shook the mouse onto the floor where it sat dizzy and defenseless. Then he stomped on it, hearing the sickening crunch of bones, and all shape and life had gone out of the little animal. After that, he had cried for nearly a whole week, no matter how many times his mother beat him with the shoehorn.

He glances back into the living room; his mother's door is still closed. He takes the heavy cutting board and places it on top of the bucket. He grabs the last trap and makes his way back to his room as quickly as he dares, pressing the little metal box against his chest. He slips inside his room and closes the door behind him. Just in case, he slides the chairs back underneath the handle. He places the trap's door against the small hole in the wall and pulls it open. At first, the mouse sits frozen, but then it escapes into the safety of the crumbling wall. From the drawer in his desk, Joshua grabs a small paper bag with sunflower seeds. He had collected when it was still warm, and their parents had cried over his sister. He pours a few into his palm and places them gently in front of the small hole, hoping they will accept his apology. He knows it won't alleviate his guilt, but he doesn't know what else he can do now. 

He will sit and watch the hole until he knows there won't be any more noises coming from the bucket. Then he will empty it below the towering skeletons and set the traps anew.


Sven is a German ex-pat living with his wife, dogs, and chicken in Maryland. He is steadily working on improving his writing while being puppeteered by his Green Cheek Conure Wheatley.


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