Tiger saunters into the kitchen, a mouse crushed between his teeth. I curse him under my breath. I don’t have time for this right now; I’m already running late for my nephew Simeon’s third birthday party, at an indoor playcentre on the other side of town. My brother will be waiting for me to arrive before he cuts the cake, surrounded by the cluster of parents with thinned eyes and tight smiles standing shoulder to shoulder, keeping watch on their young.
I grasp Tiger by the scruff of his neck, thrust my fingers into his jaws and push hard until the mouse falls from his grasp with a plop, onto my cupped palm. I check it over. It’s still breathing, tiny gasping breaths heaving against its jutting ribs. Under the fluorescent kitchen light, I notice two puncture marks, one near the neck, and, when I turn it over, one buried amongst the flabby skin of its abdomen, alongside swollen nipples. She must have recently given birth.
Without thinking, I ease her up to my chest, under my shirt, and tuck her into the cup of my bra, where I know she’ll be comfortable. Maybe she’ll be okay. Maybe there’s a chance she’ll survive. She curls up against my nipple. So small, so warm, against my skin.
The play centre is pumping. Kids dart back and forth across the worn carpet, from slide to jumping mat to trampoline. High Five blares from a loudspeaker above my head.
At the Vehicles party room, my brother takes my present – the requested neon yellow racetrack –and gives me an awkward smile before greeting the next guest.
The parents are hovering over a laminated table, munching on deep-fried prawns and mini dim sims. Simeon is nowhere to be seen.
I watch a small boy squealing triumphantly as he plummets down a steep slide. Cyrus would have been about his age. Cyrus and Simeon would have grown up together, almost like brothers, I suppose.
‘What’s your son’s name?’ It’s one of the fathers, wiping his greasy hands on a napkin, then pointing at the boy at the bottom of the slide.
The prawn flesh is cold and raw beneath the batter. ‘He’s not my son.’ I swallow hard.
‘Which one’s yours?’
He’s trying to be friendly, I can see that. He’s leaning forward, scanning the raft of children spread out across the plastic equipment.
‘None of them.’ I raise my hand to my chest, checking to make sure the mouse is still there.
He looks at me out of the corner of his eyes.
‘I’m the aunt.’
‘The maiden aunt,’ he says. ‘There’s always one.’ He winks.
I think to lift the ring finger on my left hand, point out the diamond wedding ring, explain that I’m married, that my husband Steve’s away on business for the week. I want to tell the father that I would have been like the other parents, trading humorous anecdotes and battle-scarred stories of sleep deprivation; I would have been if Cyrus’s pregnancy hadn’t all gone to shit.
The hubbub of nattering from the mob of parents thrusts me back to the party room. In response to my silence, the father has turned away. I bring my hand to my chest and stumble from the room.
As I reach the play centre exit, my brother approaches. He catches my upper arm with his tight grip, asks me where I’m going.
‘I’m not well.’
His eyes droop. ‘Simeon will be devastated if you miss the cake.’
Before I can reply, I hear an elated cry. ‘Aunty Karla!’
It’s Simeon. He’s spotted me from the bottom of a slide and, with the full weight of his three-year old body, rushes to embrace me. As I stoop to hug him, I press my hand against my bra to ensure the mouse won’t be dislodged.
Around the cake in the Vehicles party room, the faces of parents and children glow gold in the candlelight. I could have, would have, been one of them, before Cyrus, before everything. There won’t be any more children now. My choice.
As we sing ‘Happy Birthday’, I try to remember when the mouse last moved. She’s been stationary since I first placed her against my breast and felt the flutter of her tiny paws against my skin.
My brother begins to cut the cake. I scurry to the playcentre bathroom and lock the toilet door behind me. I’m almost too scared to check. Pressing my back up against the bathroom wall, I peer down the neck of my top. She’s lying flat along my breast. When I try to move her, she gives a wriggle. Alive. For now.
I lift her out and place her on the edge of the porcelain sink, then offer her water from the tap, icy in my palm. She turns to one side, refusing to drink. I try to shimmy my finger into her mouth. She keeps her jaws clamped shut. Instead, she tries to shuffle across the porcelain but her legs won’t support her weight. She looks up at me, her eyes uncomprehending. My heart drops the length of my chest.
It was the same sensation with Cyrus, once the doctors told us it was time for us to let him go. I stumbled away from the nursery. It’s not what other parents would have done in the same situation, I suppose, but it felt easier somehow: wandering the city for the rest of the afternoon, window-shopping, pretending to myself that everything was going to be alright.
In the playcentre bathroom, I google. Sick mouse, mouse won’t drink water, mouse injured by cat. Baby formula, Google says. Hydrolyte. It gives doses, times, schedules. It says two- to three-hourly feeds around the clock.
I place the mouse back in my bra and stroke her fuzzy fur as she lies, unmoving, against my breast.
In the pharmacy, under the long rows of fluorescent lights, I find the orange-flavoured hydrolyte and two syringes. I skulk to the formula aisle and choose a tin of zero to six months formulation, the premium brand.
At the checkout counter, the pharmacy assistant glances at the tin. Her hair is crimped and sprayed into a tight hold, her tunic heavily starched. ‘For your little one?’
With a thin smile, I nod and pass her the cash.
She won’t leave it alone.
‘Maybe a few months.’
She cocks her head. ‘Maybe?’
‘It’s a mouse,’ I say through clenched teeth.
She stiffens, staring at me through wide, mascaraed eyes.
I grab the bag, and, holding it tight against my chest, cup my hand around my bra as I dart from the store in full flight, not lingering for the change.
Tiger wraps his tail around my shin as I walk in the front door of our brown-shingled townhouse. My mobile starts to ring before I’ve locked the door. Steve.
I head to the kitchen, flick the kettle on, ignore my phone.
There’s an empty shoebox by the back door. I ease out the mouse from inside my bra. Watching her on my palm, I can make out a faint rhythmic shift of ribs. Otherwise, she doesn’t move. I place her inside the shoebox and close the lid.
I scoop two spoons of formula into the measuring jug and add the boiled water.
I ignore the second call.
I stir the lumps from the milky liquid, suck some into the syringe and place it in the freezer to cool rapidly. I draw hydrolyte into the second syringe and rest it on a clean plate beside the kettle.
He calls for a third time as I’m placing the measuring jug in the fridge. I have to pick up, I know I do.
‘Karla. Everything okay?’
He gives a slight cough. ‘You’re not answering.’
I don’t say anything. Five years ago, after the doctors told us what was wrong, Steve strode out of the nursery, into the late autumn afternoon, before I could even draw breath. When I got back from window-shopping that evening, he still hadn’t returned. I was the one who had to let Cy go.
‘Did you survive the party?’
‘I guess so.’
‘Did Simeon like his racetrack?’
‘He didn’t open it.’ I pause, trying to remember the mechanics of a normal conversation; it’s been a long time since we had one of those. ‘How are things there?’
‘Good, good. Listen, I’m between entrée and main so I thought I’d say goodnight now—’
‘Goodnight,’ I say.
‘Goodnight then,’ he replies.
All evening, while Tiger paces the skirting boards in the study upstairs, I try to feed the mouse.
Every two hours, I warm the formula until I can’t feel it when I dribble it across the inside of my wrist. I open the lid, lift her lightly from the box and try to open her mouth. I get a drop or two down her throat before she clamps her teeth shut.
I keep trying the hydrolyte, too. She won’t take it at all, just lies immobile in my palm. Her breathing has quickened, almost audible in the silence of the house. Her belly skin remains cold.
It’s past my bedtime. I contemplate placing her inside my pyjamas, against my breast, sleeping with her like that into the night. Perhaps that would be going too far, I realise. I can only do so much.
Instead, I layer tissues across the top of the box, replace the lid, then settle the box in the corner of the benchtop, between the toaster and kettle.
Through the skylight over the stairs, the night settles into blackness.
Sharp claws paw me awake. Tiger, heavy on my chest. It’s been another two hours, my phone says. I suppose I must have slept.
In the kitchen, beside the kettle, the box looms large in the darkness. Part of me doesn’t want to turn on the light.
When I lift the lid, she’s lying so still that I think for a moment it’s over. Then a few heaving pants, a slight shuffle of a paw. She’s alive. Only just.
I cradle her against my chest. ‘I’m so sorry,’ I whisper.
I carry her out on the patio, under my pyjamas, pressed tight against my skin.
A pile of bricks is stacked against the back wall, cold from the midnight air. I contemplate angles, force, speed. I’ll have to use the flat edge, not the concave side.
I spread newspaper out against the cracked patio concrete and place her in the fold. She lies motionless. She’s so sick now, I’m sure she won’t survive.
The brick is heavier than I imagined as I heave it above my head. The newspaper dulls the sound of brick on concrete so it’s more of a thud than a crack.
When it’s done, I rinse the brick under the laundry tap, then drop it on the gravel path outside. I fold the newspaper around her remains like I’m wrapping a present.
After I’ve deposited the package in the wheelie bin, its the weight of the brick I can still sense in my hand, the coldness of it, travelling across the pores of my skin, creeping up the length of my arm, all the way down into the dense chill of my chest. Someday, I suppose, I’ll be ready to let the brick, the memory of it, its solid weight, go.
Premium brand received 2nd place in the 2016 Boroondara Literary Awards.