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Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Clockwork Mouse

A dark short story about a very angry ten-year-old boy and an antique wind-up mouse.

A Clockwork Mouse

            Jacob Clay was already in a black mood when he got sent to his room by his grandmother early one Saturday morning.
            It had been raining for four days straight.  Under other circumstances, this wouldn’t have been a problem.  Had it been summer, rain was just an invitation to run around in the back yard wearing nothing but a pair of shorts, pretending to be stranded on a jungle island, fighting off wild animals, dragons, or cannibals, or possibly all three.  But the windy chill of October had settled in, and getting soaking wet when it was forty degrees outside wasn’t appealing.  Inside, there was only so much time you could spend reading and playing with toys, many of which had outlasted his interest in them.  So he had amused himself for a while messing with his grandmother’s stuff.
            This was always dangerous ground.  Grandma Connie was a stern woman with slim patience for children.  She could tell a mean ghost story, when she was in the mood, but she was not someone who simply enjoyed kids being kids.  So when she found Jacob in the living room, playing Jungle Adventure with her collectable porcelain animal statues, and discovered that he had already chipped the unicorn’s horn, she promptly sent him to his room with an adjuration to “Stay there until you learn how to respect others’ property.”
            Jacob stomped up the stairs, his face set in a twist of irritation, and plunked himself down on his bed and looked around.  There was even less to do here; if he was at loose ends in the whole house, what did Grandma Connie expect him to do when he was confined in his room?
            He tried, for about five minutes, to look through one of his books on dinosaurs.  Then he dropped that on the floor, and pulled out a box with a jigsaw puzzle with a picture of a puppy on the front.  He knew that that one had a piece missing – one of the puppy’s ears – and he shoved the box under his bed with his foot.  Then he sighed, listening to the rain slashing against the window.
            After a moment, he stood up, went to his door, and opened it, and listened carefully.  Grandma Connie was down in the kitchen, it sounded like – probably baking.  Whatever else you could say about Grandma Connie, her cookies, pies, and cakes were first-class.  He heard the clink of measuring cups, and then a drawer opened, and then closed.
            Jacob eyed the stairs at the end of the hall.  One set led down, back into the living room, where he was certain to get caught if he was heard.
            The other set led up to the attic.
            It had been a while since he’d been in the attic.  It wasn’t off-limits, not explicitly, but the one time he’d gone up there alone, his grandmother had said, “What were you doing up there?  Cobwebs and old books and spiders and god-alone-knows-what up there.  Nothing to interest a ten-year-old boy.”
            She was sorely misjudging what would be of interest to a ten-year-old boy, of course; just the fact that it was mysterious, dimly lit, and smelled like dust and antiquity made it attractive.  So did the fact that Grandma Connie obviously didn’t want him to go up there.  What, exactly, was she hiding?
            Jacob peered down the hallway.  There was no reason he’d get caught, if he was careful.  He knew from experience that once he was banished to his room, he was effectively forgotten, at least until lunchtime or dinnertime came.  He tiptoed down the hall, and then looked up the stairs to the landing.
            The stairs were wooden, and creaked, and he hadn’t been up them enough to know which ones were the noisiest.  But at that moment, Grandma Connie turned on a blender in the kitchen, and Jacob seized the moment and sprinted up the stairs to the landing, then turned and went up the last set to the closed attic door.
            He reached out and turned the doorknob handle, and pulled the door open at the same moment that the noise of the blender ceased.  The door hinges made an alarming groaning noise, and he froze, listening for the noise of footsteps.  When, after a moment, there was no sound of pursuit, he walked into the attic.
            The floorboards squeaked softly under his light tread, as he walked around looking at the bookshelves.  There were hundreds, maybe thousands, of books up here; a twenty-volume set called History of the World, a set of gardening encyclopedias that looked like they might be antiques, some books written in French and Spanish and Dutch and Swedish.  Jacob had heard Grandma Connie talking about her husband, Jacob’s grandfather, whom he had never met – Grandpa Charles had been a language professor, “fluent in everything,” his mother had once told him, but had died of a heart attack twelve years ago in his classroom.  Jacob wished he’d known him.  He sounded interesting.
            Further along were rows and stacks of boxes.  Some of them sounded boring – “Linens.”  “Christmas Decorations.”  “China.”  But then he happened upon one that said, “Toys – Jamie.”
            Jamie?  Who was Jamie?  The box was taped shut with strapping tape that was peeling and yellow with age, and the adhesive was mostly crumbly, and bits of it clung to the fingertips like damp flour.  He moved some other boxes aside, and pulled it out into the center of the floor, and then pulled the remains of the tape away and opened the flap.
            The items inside were old; Jacob knew that immediately.  There were stuffed animals, but not the shiny plush of the ones he’d only recently outgrown.  These were made of cloth, with button eyes and noses of felt, and when he picked one up, it was heavy and a little stiff, like it was stuffed with sawdust.  There was a game called “Bagatelle,” which had steel balls in a glass-topped wooden maze – the aim, it seemed, was to move the balls around and drop them down holes.  There was a Lionel metal train that looked like it had seen hard service – its paint was chipped and worn, and the one of the cars was missing the hook to connect it to the next one.  Jacob set all of these aside.
            In the bottom of the box was a mouse.  At first, Jacob thought it was a real mouse, and he felt a little flutter of fear, but very quickly he realized his mistake.  The mouse wasn’t very lifelike.  It was small, and white, but made of smooth metal, with painted-on eyes and whiskers.  It had wheels instead of feet, and a hole in its back for a key.  It, too, was well-worn.  There were some dings in the enamel, and one of the wheels was a little crooked.
            He picked it up, and all of a sudden, all of the angry feelings that had been building in the last weeks coalesced into one furious, needle-sharp thought; here he was, stuck with his grandmother because his parents Needed Time To Talk About Their Relationship, and anyway they had to work during the day, and Grandma Connie didn’t even want him around, and now he was stuck with rummaging around in some old junk in the attic to entertain himself.
            Bitterly, he tipped the box, and heard a low thunk.  He looked in, and saw what it was; the clockwork mouse’s key.  He took it out, fit the key into the hole, and wound it up, then set the mouse on the floor.  It began to scoot around in circles, making rhythmic squeaking noises that actually did sound fairly mouse-like.  Something about the way it moved made all the frustrated rage in him bubble to the surface – the mouse seemed to be carving a circular hole in the wood plank floor, a hole in which to pour all of his anger.  He felt its creaky little voice say, a voice only he could hear, Give me your fury, and I will make something of it.
            “I hate this,” Jacob said, watching the mouse scurrying in its pointless loops.  “I hate everyone.  I hate them all, and I especially hate Grandma Connie.  I wish she’d fall down and break her leg.”
            There was a sudden shout and a crash from downstairs, and Jacob looked up, his heart thudding in his chest, as the mouse wound down and stopped moving.

            Jacob’s mom came home from work just as the paramedics were lifting Grandma Connie into the back of the ambulance.  One of the paramedics asked Jacob’s mom if they wanted to ride in the back of the ambulance to the hospital, which sounded to Jacob like it would be fun; but Grandma Connie said, her voice thin with pain, “No, Eva, can you just clean up the kitchen?  I don’t want…”  She glanced at Jacob, and Jacob knew she meant, “I don’t want him bothering me when I have a broken leg.”  Then Grandma Connie looked at Jacob’s mom and said, “You can come down later.”
            So Jacob’s mom brought him back inside, and gave him a big hug through her tears and told him what a brave, smart boy he was, that he remembered how to call 911 and kept his head and took care of Grandma Connie.  Then she looked around her at the kitchen, wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, and said, “Well.  We better get this cleaned up, and then we’ll go down to the hospital and see how Grandma is doing.”
            The little step-stool that Grandma Connie used to reach high shelves lay on its side, and a glass mixing bowl was in sharp, multicolored fragments all over the linoleum.  Another bowl, with eggs and milk and cream and molasses, sat forlornly on the counter.  Jacob’s mom got a broom, and told Jacob to go put on shoes so his feet wouldn’t get cut.  Then they cleaned up the kitchen.  Jacob had a momentary hope that his mom would finish making whatever it was that Grandma Connie had been working on, but she upturned the mixing bowl with the eggs and everything over the sink, and ran some water into it, and then said, “I need to call your aunt and uncle and let them know what happened.”
            Jacob went back upstairs, and heard just the beginning of the conversation, “Hi, Susan?  It’s Eva.  I’m calling to let you know there’s been an accident.  Mom fell in her kitchen… yes, she’s going to be fine, but she broke her leg.  She’s been taken to St. Stephen’s.  We’ll be going down soon…  Jacob was home, he called 911… yes, he is…”
            The voices faded as he walked back up to the attic.  The door was still standing open; he saw his footprints on the dusty floor, the barefoot impression of toes, sole, heel, leading along the bookshelves and then to the box of toys, which still lay scattered on the floor.  He looked down at the clockwork mouse, still now, its painted eyes staring up at him.
            He looked at it for a long time, without moving.  The key still protruded from its back, and he could just see beneath it the misaligned wheels that had sent it in wild circles earlier.  He reached down, and picked it up, held it in his hand.
            “What else can you do?” he asked it solemnly.
            It didn’t answer.
            “Jacob!” he heard his mom’s voice calling from downstairs.  “Let’s go.  We need to go to the hospital, and see how Grandma is doing.”
            “Coming!” he shouted, but never took his eyes off the mouse.
            Then he thought of the way the weekend was being eaten up – his grandmother ruining the morning by sending him to his room, and now he was going to have to spend the afternoon at the hospital.  He’d been to the hospital before, when his Great-Aunt Judith had been dying of liver cancer, and mostly what he remembered was the smell of antiseptic and the color white and the boredom, great crashing hours of boredom, sitting still and waiting for it all to be over so he could go home.  And now, his precious weekend was being taken again, and looming on the horizon of Monday morning was the bulky frame of Mrs. Marshall, his fourth grade teacher, whom he and his classmates couldn’t stand.  Mrs. Marshall seemed to leer at him, waiting, waiting for him to leave the attic so she could confine him to his seat and make him multiply and add and read stupid stories about the Pilgrims and write down answers on worksheets.
            “Jacob!” his mother called again.
            Jacob quickly wound up the mouse, and said, “I hope Mrs. Marshall gets really sick.”  Then he set down the mouse on the floor, and let it run its squeaky circles by itself.  He ran downstairs to his bedroom, and was just putting on his jacket when his mother came up to see what was keeping him.

            Mrs. Marshall did not show up to school Monday.  The sub, Miss McLaughlin, let them have free read for as long as they wanted to, brought her guitar and sang songs with them, and art class ran a half-hour over into math before she realized what had happened.
            When Mrs. Marshall still hadn’t returned by Thursday, the principal, Mrs. Stefanovic, came into the class with a grave expression and said that Mrs. Marshall was in the hospital with pneumonia, and probably wouldn’t be back for a while, but not to worry because she was already improving.  The children, Mrs. Stefanovic said, could help her get better by spending art class designing a big card to send to Mrs. Marshall in the hospital.  Miss McLaughlin said they’d be happy to.
            Jacob walked home that day, thinking about how he would destroy the clockwork mouse when he got home.
            I can bury it in the back yard, he thought.  It’ll rust and the wheels will stick and even if someone finds it, it won’t run.  Then he thought about taking a hammer to it, watching the frame dent, the eyes skew, as the springs and gear wheels that drove its axles came flying out.  It’ll never run again, he thought.  It’ll never hurt anyone again.
            Then, another thought came to him:  What if the mouse won’t let you destroy it?  What if it tries to kill you?
             But this was such an awful idea that he started to repeat to himself the mantra he always used when he’d been scared at night when he was little – not real, not real, none of that scary stuff is real.  And by the time he got home, he had convinced himself.  None of it was real.  He hadn’t caused Grandma Connie’s accident; he hadn’t caused Mrs. Marshall’s pneumonia. There was no need to break the mouse, any more than destroying his book Ten Terrifying Ghost Stories would have made any difference to what he dreamed at night, alone in the dark.

            Grandma Connie came home from the hospital three days after her fall; she’d had surgery to pin her leg bone where it was broken, and Jacob’s mom had said, “Falls at that age are never easy to heal from.”  Grandma Connie was sterner and crankier than ever, and Jacob seemed to spend most of the time he wasn’t at school getting her tea, glasses of water, toast with butter, and turning the television off or on, turning the volume up or down.  When Jacob’s mom came over to have dinner with them, which she did every three evenings or so, she never stayed long.
            Jacob didn’t mention about Mrs. Marshall being sick. 
            Friday night, Jacob’s mom came for dinner, and after cleaning up the dinner dishes and helping Grandma Connie to her recliner, she took Jacob aside.
            “Jacob, honey,” she began, and then stopped.
            Jacob tensed.  His mother never called him “honey” unless it was bad news; she’d called him that when his other grandmother, Grandma Abigail, had died; she’d called him that when she’d told him he was going to live with his grandmother while she and Jacob’s dad Worked On Their Relationship.
            “What, mom?” Jacob said, his voice shaking a little.
            “Your dad and I… we’ve decided it’s for the best for everyone if, well, if we live apart.  Your dad… he’s been seeing someone.  Her name is Cecile, and he’s going away to live with her.  He’s moving to Baltimore.”
            “He just left me?” Jacob said, his voice coming out a squeak, like the wheels of the clockwork mouse.  “Will I… will I get to see him?”
            “Yes, of course.  When he’s moved in and settled.  He left this morning, and we’ll… you’ll… go and visit him soon.”  She tried to smile, and failed.  “But it means that you will come back to live with me again.  I know you’ll miss your Grandma Connie, but…”
            Jacob jumped up, ran out of the room, ignored his mother’s cry of, “Jacob, honey, wait…”, ignored his grandmother’s annoyed exclamation as he ran through the living room, passed the cabinet with the porcelain animal statues, and up the stairs.  He didn’t pause by his bedroom door, but continued up to the attic, slamming the door behind him, pulling the chain that turned on the single light bulb hanging by a cord from the ceiling, setting it swinging, making crazy rocking shadows move across the walls and floor.
            The clockwork mouse was still where it had run down from the last time; no one had been up here since.  Breathing hard, his face pinched with anger, Jacob grabbed the mouse, and wound it up.  He hadn’t even set it down before he snarled, “I hope my dad gets in a car crash on his way to Baltimore and has to stay in the hospital for five years.”
            The mouse’s wheels had only begun squeaking before Jacob’s mom appeared in the attic door, and she said, gently, “Jacob, honey, come downstairs.  We need to talk.  It’s going to be okay.”
            Jacob stood, hearing the clockwork mouse skittering over the floorboards behind him, and went to her, thinking bleakly, She’s lying to me, and she knows she’s lying.  It will never be okay.

            When the call came the next morning, Jacob wasn’t really surprised.
            He was up in his room, still in his pajamas, playing with his old GameBoy.  He tensed when the phone rang, and listened – and he heard his mom say, “Oh, god, oh, no,” and start crying.
            Her appearance at his door ten minutes later, with a tremulous, “Jacob, honey, there’s been an accident,” was met with a blank stare.  He already knew what she was going to say.

            After that, it took hours before he had time to escape, unnoticed, to the attic.  Family and friends came over, everyone wanted to talk to him and comfort him and reassure him.  Even Grandma Connie tried to be nice to him, offering to read him a story.  But eventually he was able to get away, and he padded barefoot up to the attic, crossed the floor to where the toy box was.
            The clockwork mouse still sat there, its emotionless eyes looking up at him.
            “You did all this,” he said to the mouse.
            The mouse said nothing, just kept staring at him.
            He picked up the key, and wound it three times, feeling the springs tense as they coiled inside the metal body.  Jacob looked at the mouse, and said, “I wish everything bad that has happened would be gone.  Grandma Connie’s broken leg, Mrs. Marshall’s pneumonia, and my dad… being in a coma.”  His voice broke a little on the last one, but he was able to finish the sentence, and he set the mouse down, and listened to its little squeaks as the mechanism inside it propelled it around on the floor.
            He watched it until it stopped moving, and he stood completely still for a while.  Surely, soon there would be some kind of shout from Grandma Connie that her leg was miraculously healed, the phone ringing that his father was awake and was going to be okay?
            Nothing happened.
            It didn’t work, he thought, alarm rising in him.  It didn’t work.  Maybe it can only do bad things.
            “You did all this,” he said again, anger rising in his voice.  He picked the mouse up, held it close to his face, and a thought came, seeming to come from outside him:  No.  You did.  You did all this.  Your anger.  Your rage.  You.  Not me.  And once done, things cannot be undone.  You chose, and that is all.
            “No,” Jacob said.  “It was you.  Why?  Why did you do it?”
            He looked into the mouse’s eyes, searching for some sign of life, some sign of recognition that he existed; but its expression was as lifeless as ever.
            I am only guilty as a knife used to slay a man is guilty.  I was only the tool that you used.
            “Who was Jamie?  Did he turn you evil?”
            I do not remember him.  If I was simply a child’s toy once, that is done now.
            “I’ll destroy you,” he whispered to it.
            It won’t change anything.  You will still have done what you have done, even if the tool you used is broken.
            Jacob fell to his knees.  A pair of tears slid down his cheeks, unnoticed.  He said to the mouse, “What can I do?”
            Nothing.  It is too late.
            Jacob inserted the key into the mouse’s back.  As he wound it up, he heard his mother call to him, “Jacob, honey, where are you?”
            He shouted, automatically, “Coming, mom,” and continued to wind.
            Too late.  I have done what I have done, and it is too late.  Too late for Grandma Connie, too late for Mrs. Marshall, too late for my dad.  And too late for me.
            The springs reached full tension.  He set the mouse down, and said, “I wish I was dead.”
            The mouse started its chittering run, and Jacob felt a sensation of being lifted.  He was on his feet, turning toward the stairs.  And he thought, It was lying.  The mouse was lying.  It’s not just a tool; it’s evil.
            He felt his legs being forced to move.  A part of his brain shouted, Stop!  Stop! but his body wouldn’t obey.  It was a monumental effort to resist it, but he was able to turn and snatch the clockwork mouse up from the floor.  He felt its wheels turning frantically, their vibrations tickling his palm, and that was all his conscious will could do; his feet began to move, walking, then running, toward the top of the stairs, not pausing as the precipice approached.
            He saw the open door, and outside it the narrow staircase, rush toward him; and with a last desperate shout he hurled the clockwork mouse against the wall.  He heard it strike the metal hinge of the door frame, and saw it explode – wheels, cogs, and springs flying into the air about him.  The desperate force pushing him stopped suddenly.  His frame relaxed, and a smile crossed Jacob’s face, but his momentum shot him forward like an arrow from a bow.  His body, as graceful as a high diver, flung forward into the air, and he fell headlong down the stairs.


  1. What a great story! I was absolutely spellbound. You did a fantastic job with your characterization, and that's not easy to do in a short piece like this. Super! Thank you for sharing.