The Traps – by Ella King

Third place in the Aurora Prize for Writing 2019 – Short Fiction category

The war against the mice started a few weeks ago. We saw them while we were watching a boxset; two raced across the living room and disappeared under the TV cabinet. Days went by without any further sightings until, on the evening of my fourteenth birthday, Mama saw one staring at her in the mirror while she was applying her lipstick. Something about that indirect seeing escalated her paranoia. Suddenly, they were targeting her, scampering in her walls, scurrying over her feet, climbing up her duvet. When a work colleague told her she’d once woken up with a mouse in her hair, Mama announced, with only the slightest tremble in her voice, that she was going to kill the little shits.

The traps are the best on the market, £25 plastic boxes that lure the mice onto metal platforms and electrocute them. Mama made me try the traditional traps first, the wooden ones you see in cartoons but instead of snapping their necks, the metal bars would spring down on their heads or ribs and then they’d scream until I knocked them out with a frying pan. The poison, a fluorescent gunge the colour of blue raspberry slushies, was effective but didn’t work instantly. The mice would die in their tunnels and for days, the smell of their bodies decaying in the walls filled my mouth whenever I went downstairs. So I tried electric. Mama liked the ‘100% kill rate.’ I liked that they were ‘no see, no touch.’ When the light on a trap flashed green, I would flip it over and empty it straight out. The only reminder that I was killing anything at all was the sound their bodies made when they hit the bin – dull clangs against the sides, thuds against non-recyclable plastic.

Usually, Mama is content with the basic details of my genocide – how many I’ve caught, which rooms they’re from etc. If she’s feeling agitated, she’ll ask more questions and then the history of my killing becomes important. My memory has sharpened over the last few weeks, as has my maths. I can recall how many I’ve killed, repackage those figures into averages or totals and extrapolate convincing predictions of my future success.

But things are different this morning. Mama and Daddy fought yesterday, not their usual skirmishes about how forgetful he is or how spineless but about the hundreds of secret photos he’s been taking of Francie, my brother Jacob’s wife. I’m surprised it took Mama this long to find out. Daddy’s infatuation has been going on for months and Mama is usually more attuned to the changing currents of our house – Daddy spending more time at Jacob’s, Francie inventing excuses for her absences. It might have carried on for longer if Francie hadn’t buckled under the weight of Daddy’s photographic advances and appealed to Mama to make it stop. Which was a mistake. Mama didn’t resolve. She exploded.

Now, the morning after, Mama is going to be worse than ever. She’ll be destabilised, craving wins against other enemies to wipe out Daddy’s betrayal. She’ll want to see the mice. She’ll want evidence of their deaths.

There are six traps downstairs – three in the kitchen, two in the living room and one in the hall. All the kitchen traps are flashing green. I use a food bag as a make-shift glove and snap open the traps. The mice always look better than I expect; they aren’t fried or charred or disfigured. They are perfectly preserved. Their noses and paws are a translucent pink and their whiskers quiver in the kitchen air. One has chocolate spread on its nose. Good. Mama told me to use own brand chocolate spread but I always give them Nutella. I want their final lick to be that glossy, Italian chocolate.

I lay three sheets of kitchen roll on the counter and turn over the traps. Bundled together, the mice’s tails drift towards each other like the hands of a couple. I want to leave them touching or at least cover their bodies with their tails, I don’t like the thought of them being bare and alone. But the bigger the enemy, the better Mama is going to feel about their slaughter. I separate the mice and centre each one on its own square of kitchen roll like I am mounting pictures in a frame. Then I start preparing breakfast.

‘We caught three mice today,’ I say, cheerily, when Mama pushes open the kitchen door.

She shuffles in wearing a fuchsia, velour tracksuit and sits with her knees pulled up to her chin. A band of stretch-marked fat bulges over the top of her sweatpants and her black hair, sparser in her late forties, is backcombed to give the impression of volume. She practices on me the look she’s going to use on Daddy – broken, like a whipped dog. I let her sob into my shirt.

When she tires, I ask if she wants to see the mice. She nods. I pinch the sheets of kitchen roll together to form a sling so I don’t have to feel their fur spiking against the paper. Still, their dead weight rolls into the middle, their tails brushing against my arm. I set them in front of her and hand her a pair of pink rubber gloves. She pulls them on, snapping them against her wrist with the anatomical relish of a surgeon.

            ‘Why is this one so fat?’ She holds up the mouse with Nutella on its nose and gives its tummy a poke.

            ‘Just greedy, I guess.’

            ‘They’re getting fat on the food here and they’re warm, which means they were here recently. What about the ones that are here at night? Why haven’t we caught any of those? Aren’t mice supposed to be nocturnal?’ She puts the fat one down and takes another in her hand to measure its body temperature. A tail trails out from her small, tight fist.

            ‘I’m not sure Mama.’

            ‘They’re mutating. Evolving. So they can be here during the day.’

            ‘Maybe.’

            ‘We need more traps.’

            ‘I’ll order some today. They’ll be here on Monday. Would you like scrambled eggs for breakfast?’

            She shrugs. She squeezes the mouse’s mouth open with her thumb and forefinger and with her other hand, scrapes her nail against its teeth before shoving a rubber-gloved little finger into its mouth. I busy myself fetching ingredients and locating a whisk.

Mama starts singing ‘A Bicycle Built for Two,’ a choice so odd for someone whose musical interests are limited to Celine Dion power ballads that I steal a glance at her. She is pedalling the mice’s legs like they’re dolls, so fast they might snap. I turn back, suddenly grateful for ordinary kitchen sounds – the crack of eggs, the thwack of the whisk against the bowl. Through the kitchen window, I see Daddy weeding in the garden, sunlight illuminating the three diagonal scratches across his face. I pretend I haven’t seen him and pour the mixture in the pan.

It’s not until I’m scrambling the eggs that I realise Mama’s stopped singing. I wait a few seconds before checking on her. Her eyes are on me like a slap.

            ‘Why are you making so much?’

            I drop the spatula. It’s her voice. She’s trying to keep it level, as if she’s asking an intelligent question but there is a tremour of excitement that trips an alarm in me. ‘You’ve used six.’

            I look stupidly at the cardboard egg carton, retracing what I’ve done through the arithmetic of broken shells. Twelve halves. Six eggs. Two for each of us. Mama, me. And Daddy. ‘I’m sorry, Mama.’

            ‘You’re making him breakfast!’

            ‘No!’

            ‘I thought you were on my side. I thought you loved me!’

            ‘I am Mama! I do!’

            ‘Why would you do that? After what he’s done?’ A mouse dangles from her fingertips, the fat one with Nutella on its nose. And then I know what she’s going to do.

            For a moment, I don’t believe it. It can’t be true. I did everything she said, everything she wanted and one of Mama’s promises, perhaps never spoken aloud but still taught to me over and over was that if I did those things, I would never be her enemy, I was protected. But in those seconds, with the mouse swaying in the air between us, my mind struggles to comprehend a new truth. I am not Mama’s commander-in-chief, her right-hand woman, not her favourite child. I am no more than a mouse, straying beyond a boundary I didn’t know was there, except I have no Italian chocolate to sweeten my slaughter, nothing to wrap over myself except my arms.

            But where my mind fails me, my body knows what I am, what I always was and I do instinctively what a mouse would do once it knew it was caught. I brace myself. I prepare for the feel of the mouse hitting me, for its hard, furry body touching my skin, for the brush of its tail tumbling under my shirt. Then I beg. ‘Please Mama, don’t throw it at me. I didn’t mean it. I didn’t think.’

‘No, you didn’t. You didn’t think at all. Look at me.’

When I meet her blank, fascinated eyes, I know exactly what it is that convinces her. It is my utter defeat. My complete surrender. She puts the mouse down. I pick up the spatula. When I finish scrambling the eggs, I throw one third straight in the bin.