What woke us the first time was a wheezing squeak—though maybe, really, it was just the trap collapsing that startled us awake, and I only imagined the sound of a tiny life expiring.
I grabbed the flashlight. When we lifted the rock from the ground, the light beam showed a mouse there, on its side. A red-jelly glob of bloody matter on the grass next to its head. There were bits of dry cat food scattered all around. I know I shouldn’t have—bacteria and all—but I put a finger on it. The tip of my pinky on the mouse’s stomach. “It’s breathing,” I said. “Just barely. No, don’t look.”
I hauled up that rock as far as I could and smashed it down till I was sure the mouse was dead. Again and again, upon the soft furry body that lay between the rock and the grass. I had to. How could someone hurt a little thing like that on purpose? I asked myself, afterward. Maybe you never truly mean to hurt something. The bones snap without you really trying. Not an accident, exactly—more like an overflow of current, a leap too far, a fiery possession that makes you into someone else. It’s true: I didn’t mean to kill that mouse. But I did mean to set that trap. And I meant for the trap to work, no matter what.
“Don’t look,” I said again. Don’t look at the mouse, I meant; and don’t look at me. I was near to crying, my nose twitching with the holding back of tears. Crouched low to the ground, I picked the mouse up by its tail and tossed it toward the woods, less far than I would have liked. Lu threw around the flashlight beam for a second, till it found the mouse’s carcass near a scraggly, orphaned backyard tree.
We stood up, wobbly, and clicked the flashlight off. I hooked my arm through Lu’s. I put my head against her shoulder, an awkward angle, and she let me. Me: tall for fifteen, a freckled giant; Lu: short for twelve, a little woman—it was easy to tell us apart, and always would be.
I guessed it wasn’t even midnight yet; Lu said she didn’t want to guess what time it was. She shrugged my head off her shoulder with more force than needed, and she moved back toward the deck.
“Are you mad at me?” I said.
She didn’t answer. We lay down, shivering, again.
A car rumbled up the street. We held our breath. The car passed by; it wasn’t Mrs. Mallory. Up the hill, it slowed and turned into our drive—we could see the headlights. But I couldn’t tell from where we lay if it was Mom.
Lu saw too.
“I think Mom’s home,” she said. She sat up.
“We don’t know who that is. It could be Hammond.” Hammond was mom’s ex-boyfriend—nearly our stepfather, once upon a time.
“Hammond?” Lu scoffed. “He doesn’t even live around here anymore.” Mom must have told Lu more about Hammond than she told me. This didn’t surprise me, exactly, but it still caught me in my chest somewhere, a tiny aching shard.
“It could be anyone. And, besides, we promised Mrs. Mallory.”
“We didn’t promise shit.” When had she ever used that word on me before? I ignored the provocation.
“Timmy needs us,” I said. “You want to leave him out here to die?”
Lu inhaled sharply; it wasn’t fair, I knew, to put it like that. But oh, the forty dollars, I thought. The forty dollars and the camping cooler. Me and Lu and the camping cooler, out in the deep and silent woods. Just for one night or two, that’s all at first, and before the winter came: long enough to see that we could do it for even longer. That’s all I wanted—to show Lu that we could do anything, together on our own.
She crossed her arms over her chest—I could sense her elbows jabbing sideways more than see them.
“Mom’s going to kill us,” she said. “Let’s just go home. I’ll make something up to tell her.”
“It isn’t Mom up at the house,” I said. “It isn’t her. Don’t worry.”
“Who said I’m worried? I hope it’s Mom. I do."
“You don’t,” I said.
“Shut up,” she said.
I was thinking thoughts that jabbed like splinters. It might be Mom, and it might not, I was thinking. I was thinking: What if we don’t catch Timmy? What if we don’t earn the money for the cooler? What if Lu sees that we can’t make it even this one night outside? What are we doing out here on Mrs. Mallory’s back deck, our jeans trapping the chill and our legs weighing a million pounds, if Mom awaits us at the end of it?
I lifted my teeth from my tongue and practiced clamping my lips shut, like Lu was always doing lately. It did have a calming effect. My teeth stopped chattering.
No lights shone from our windows up the hill. The car up at our house was silent, or it was gone altogether. Maybe we had dreamed it after all. But no one was looking for us, that was the most important thing. Not yet.
I listened to the last of the crickets, wondering if they had stopped and then started up again, wishing I had paid them more attention. Maybe the crickets knew that dawn was coming soon. A dog barked its head off somewhere for a while.
I dreamed I’d left the shower on by accident. Water was up to my knees, and I couldn’t find my swimsuit. Lu, pointy-teethed, laughed at my legs; one was shaved, but not the other. Mom yelled my name, yelled and yelled it—frightened this time, not angry.
I startled from sleep, once, at the sound of rustling near the deck, a shuffling. Something on two feet, not four, it seemed. Who’s there? I called. Or whispered, really. But nobody answered; I told myself no one was there.