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LJ Idol, Week Five: Build a Better Mousetrap

April 14th, 2014 (07:47 pm)

Short story for LJ Idol this week. I don't even know when I last wrote original fiction. Jumping back in with both feet, because there's no other way to do it, I guess.

Topic: "Build a Better Mousetrap"
Trigger warning: [select black bar to view] mental illness (bipolar disorder)


Build a Better Mousetrap

“They’re fighting again.”

“Ugh. Go back to sleep, Chelse.”

“But they’re being loud. They’re yelling.”

“So put on your headphones.”

“Our mp3 player is broken. You broke it.”

Ashley rolled her eyes, propping herself up on her elbow. “I did not. It fell. And quit it.” She slapped at Chelsea’s hand, nervously pulling at a thread on Ashley’s fraying blanket. "Get Mom’s earplugs or something. Just go back to sleep.”

“But...” Chelsea jumped to her feet. “I want to see.”

“Are you crazy? Why? It’s the middle of the night. They’re not going to like —”

“I have to see,” Chelsea said, and she was out the door.

Ashley flopped back down and pulled her pillow over her head. Her eyes stayed wide open, staring into the pillowcase.

Chelsea made her way downstairs quietly, skipping the stairs that creaked, not that her parents could have heard her. She paused at the bend in the stairs, hovering just out of their sight. “-- know what this means, Shannon?” came her father’s voice, cracking with excitement. “This is going to revolutionize rodent control. It’s completely humane, it —”

“It cost us six hundred dollars!”

“Drop in the bucket compared to what we’re going to make! That’s a promise. A binding contract. Take it to the bank. Look —”

“I’m looking. I’m seeing birdcages and wire and pliers and pulleys and these, what? These sensor things, whatever they are — and an iPad, Alan! We were seven hundred short on our mortgage already, and you go out and buy a goddamned —”

“Central to the design. Couldn’t be helped. See, the trick is psychology. No one has ever done anything like this. We’ve been baiting traps with peanut butter for a month, and what’s happened? They eat the peanut butter and get out without triggering the thing. They're too smart. But — “

“They’re not too smart for an exterminator, which we could afford if you —”

“I’m talking, Shannon!” Alan roared. Chelsea winced, shrinking closer to the wall. “Could you listen to me, could you do me that courtesy? I’m your husband, not a dog, not some kind of — of roach or something, something for you to squish under your heel, so could you show me a little human respect, just listen to me? I'll explain to you about the iPad if you just wait a second. OK? Just wait. See, the trick is psychology —”

“Yes, Alan. Yes, it is. The kind where you take your medications and —”

“And here we go with the fucking meds again!”

“Alan, would you listen to yourself! We have a seven-year-old and an eleven-year-old asleep upstairs —”

“You’ve been married to me for twelve years and you don’t know anything about me. You don't know anything about anything. Medications are psychiatry, not psychology. Psychiatry is bullshit. Psychology is real. Psychology is what’s going to make us millions of dollars here. Look, baiting the traps with things we think mice want doesn’t work. They can sense it's a trap. They know. They learn.” Chelsea heard the creak as her mother sank into one of the dining room chairs. Chelsea could picture her, slumped there wearily, head in her hands. “They don't want that dab of peanut butter enough to take the risk, see? They circle around, assess the situation. They’re not going for it. They're not buying. So we need to go back to instinct. Primal instinct. And what’s the most primal instinct of all? What instinct do all animals share? The instinct to protect children, Shannon.”

“Oh God, Alan! Do you ever think, even for one second, about our children? Can you even —” Shannon’s voice broke off and Chelsea tensed, preparing to run back up the stairs if their mother came to check on them. She did that sometimes, came up to the girls’ room, stroking their hair and watching them pretend to sleep. Usually she was crying. Chelsea risked a glance into the dining room. Her mother was crying, but she wasn't going anywhere. Chelsea eased back into the stairway.

“Shannon, that could not be more unfair. It could not be. Everything I do is for these children. I’m making this for them. It’s all about them. We’re going to have money, Shannon, real money, we'll be able to move out of this shithole, send them to private school, get them violin lessons from a real teacher.” Chelsea wrinkled her nose; she hated the violin. “We'll set up a college fund for them, no shitty state schools for them, good jobs, happy forever, they'll be set for life. So will we. So come on. Listen to me, okay? You'll get it when you listen. You will. Look. I got this app for the iPad, okay, it takes sound clips from the Internet, lets you download them as mp3s. Listen to this.” Chelsea flinched as a thin, horrible squealing noise drifted up the stairs. “You know what that is? Don’t cry, Shannon. Don't cry. Just listen. That’s a baby mouse, okay? It’s a baby mouse crying for its mother. Someone on YouTube had a pet mouse, put its mother outside of the cage and recorded it making this sound, they thought it was funny, and I think that’s evil, it’s torture, but it’s the key to this whole thing. See, you set up the iPad, right? You set it up to make that noise. And you set the cage up high, hanging, suspended with the wire and the pulley, and then the sensor goes here. It's an invisible boundary, right there. You set the iPad and it plays the sound on a loop, the baby mouse crying for help. And the mice will rush right to it. How could they resist? Look! Did you just see that, that mouse, it just ran right along the baseboard, came right into the room when that sound went off, I swear, it’s like magic.” Chelsea’s mouth dropped into a silent o shape, awed. “Just like that. Do you get it now, Shannon? Do you see? I’m filing for the patent tomorrow. I’ll have a prototype ready in a week. It’s going to take some seed money, sure, but we can get our hands on it —”

“Alan, please —”

“-- a second mortgage on the house, maybe —”

“Oh God, I can’t —” Shannon’s voice dissolved in a torrent of sobs. Chelsea curled in on herself, clutching her stomach. “I can't do this anymore. I can’t.”

“Whoa. Shannon. What’s happening? Talk to me. It’s okay. It'll be all right. Better than all right. I know you’re scared, I know this is scary, the money and everything, but —”

Chelsea heard a crash as something fell over in the dining room. “No, Alan. No. I — I have to...” The words were lost in sobs again.

“Sweetheart. Sweetheart, come here. I —”

“I have to — have to check on the children," Chelsea heard, and she turned and fled up the stairs. She dove into bed and yanked the covers up to her ears, squinched her eyes shut as she pulled a teddy bear against her cheek so her mother wouldn't be able to see her face. A second later her mother was there, trying to keep her sobs silent but letting on a low moaning sound. “It’s okay. It’s okay,” she whispered, pulling the desk chair next to Ashley’s bed. Chelsea heard her sister’s fake-sleep breathing, slow but shallow. “We’ll be okay, baby. It'll be okay.” Chelsea knew without looking that her mother was stroking Ashley’s hair. She’d do that for awhile, then go to bed. Chelsea lay in bed, her mind wide awake behind her closed eyelids, thinking of mousetraps and psychology and the thin cry of abandoned mouse babies.

Eventually their mother left the room. Chelsea opened her eyes; light from the hallway was still sifting through the crack in the door. She waited another few minutes, then got up and stole out the door, ignoring Ashley’s harsh whisper -- “Chelsea!” behind her. She made her way down the stairs barefoot, hesitated briefly, and then went into the dining room. Her father was still sitting there, head down, immersed in cutting a piece of wire with the pliers.

He looked up as he heard her coming, and his face brightened. “Chelsea! Baby! C’mere.” She ran to him, jumped in his lap. “How’s my little peanut?”

“Good,” Chelsea said, snuggling up against him.

“Did you hear your mother and me fighting?”

Chelsea hesitated and then nodded, resting her head against his shirt.

“Yeah? Well, don't worry. It’s all fine, really. I don't want you worrying. Your mom and me, well, we just, we’re not on the same page sometimes. She doesn’t understand. Doesn't understand me. But you understand, right, peanut?” Chelsea nodded again. “I know you do. You love your daddy for who he is. You don't want me to go back on those bad pills, do you, sweetheart?”

Chelsea shook her head, nestling closer.

“Because they're bad for me. They make me slow. They make me stupid. I can’t think when I’m on them, it’s like someone shoved cotton balls in my brain.”

“Like with Q-tips? You’re not supposed to use those in your ears. The package says.”

“Like Q-tips, but even bigger and badder. Giant cotton balls. Or marshmallows! Giant marshmallows in my brain.”

“That’s funny,” Chelsea said, and giggled.

“Sounds funny, doesn’t it? But it’s not funny when you’re living with it. That’s no life. Your mother just doesn't understand, she thinks small, God knows I love her, but it’s true, she thinks small and I dream big. Like this." Her father swept his hand across the table. “They think I’m manic. That’s what they say, ‘manic’. They think I’m crazy. They want to cure me — cure me of being me! This? This isn’t mania. This is genius. This is life.”

“I heard about the mouse. When the mouse came out when you played the noise. That was so cool.”

“Cool, right? Super cool!”

Super cool.”

“My best girl.” He kissed her cheek, ruffled her hair. “You know what, I was going to keep working on this, but I’m feeling antsy. The fight, I guess. I’m going to go out for a run. Howzabout it, peanut? You want to take a run with your old man?”

Chelsea glanced at the clock: 2:38. A grin spread across her face. “Awesome.”

“Right? See, you get it. You get me. You’re just like me, Chelsea.”

“You think I could invent things someday too?” she asked.

“I know you can. You’ve got it, kid. The sparkle. The edge. The genius.”

“I’m a genius?”

“Off the charts, baby. I know it.” Chelsea beamed. “Come on. Let’s get our sneakers.”

“Daddy? Will you tell me about the mousetrap while we run?”

He swooped her into a bear hug. “Every last detail.”


Two weeks later, Chelsea approached her parents’ bedroom door in mid-afternoon. No light showed between the cracks of the door; the shades were all closed, the lights turned off.

“Daddy?” she called. “Are you in there?”

She knew he was in there. He’d been in there for three days.

“Daddy, I need to —”

She needed to what? She needed to tell him that she had a new idea about how to string the wire on the mousetrap. She needed to tell him that she was alone in the house because Mom was working the late shift and Ashley was at a friend’s house. She needed to tell him that there were two suitcases lined up by the door, one filled with Mom’s stuff and one filled with hers and Ashley’s.

“I’m scared, Daddy,” she said instead, and began to cry.

Once she began crying she let the sobs swell in the air, fat and sloppy, because that was the way to make him come out and get her. It was instinct, primal instinct, he said so himself. He couldn’t resist.

She cried and cried, but he didn't come out.

Finally she fell asleep against the door, cried out. In her dreams she tried to figure out how to build a better mousetrap, but the answer never came.


Posted by: blahblahblah, whatever (kathrynrose)
Posted at: April 16th, 2014 01:43 am (UTC)

They think I’m crazy. They want to cure me — cure me of being me! This? This isn’t mania. This is genius. This is life.”


This is so well told.

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: April 16th, 2014 02:21 am (UTC)

Thanks so much. <3

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