On Very Hot Afternoons
by Emma Smith-Stevens
There was a little girl who named her pet mouse after a noun, but every day the noun changed. One day the noun was Grass—that was her mouse’s name. The next day: Mercy. Each morning when the girl woke, a new noun appeared in her mind with the sureness of fact. Soap. Effort. Bandana. She never lost track; she always knew her mouse’s name. Window. Friendship. Eyelash. Punishment. That girl would grow into a woman, and though the mouse would be long gone, each day would bring with it a new noun—and whenever she heard it, whatever it happened to be on that particular day, she would think of the mouse.
One day, at a rest-stop with her family, the noun would be written on the tag hanging off of a cheap pair of sunglasses, which she would pick up but wouldn’t try on, and she would think of the mouse curled in the palm of her hand like a mothball in an empty dresser drawer.
The woman would move across the river to become an artist, only to realize she could see her childhood home from her new apartment, its windows lit yellow at nighttime. She would use the noun as an angry exclamation, immediately bringing to mind the slick, black pellets her mouse deposited on her denim knee.
One night she would be fucking a man she met at a bar, and he would cry out the noun, thereby releasing into the air the smell of a thousand libraries, that smell she’d known so well as a girl, cleaning her mouse’s cage.
Another man would spit the noun at her, enraged, and her fingertip would throb from a long-ago bite.
An especially kind and attentive emergency room doctor would gently speak the noun, inflecting as though it were a question, when they both knew that it was not a question, but a statement. The woman would look down at her gown, then at the sharp-as-needles hands of the wall clock, and would remember the wooden box she’d painted with pale watercolor, in which her mouse was buried.
In a church basement, holding a cup of coffee in her shaky hand, the woman would cite the noun as lacking in her life. Two years later, in a different church, a minister would say the noun, and she would repeat the noun, and then she would be married.
Along with her husband, she would decide that the noun was more important than having a baby, and so they would decide not to. But eventually it would become apparent that she felt this way more than he, that he secretly resented the decision, and because he couldn’t bear to resent her, he would resent that noun instead.
On a cruise ship named after the noun (preceded by the word “Lady”), she would mistake a golf ball on the floor of her cabin for a mouse, because the sway of the ship rolled the golf ball, and she had only seen it in her peripheral vision, and she would scream and then laugh.
The woman’s husband would die from a heart attack, and she would wonder if it had to do with the noun—the not having children because of the noun, which may have led to a deficiency of the noun in her husband’s heart. The irony of this would eat at her, bit by bit, and she would be reminded of the day her mouse escaped its cage, and so she devised a plan to catch it using a carrot, and how at first she still couldn’t locate the mouse, but did encounter tiny flecks of orange, gnawed-off carrot in the corner of her bedroom when she woke up in the morning.
In a retirement community in Delray Beach, Florida, the woman would be content to sing the noun to herself, most of the day.
On the fourth floor of a university hospital, a priest would whisper the noun and touch the woman’s damp forehead. Later, a distant cousin would send a metallic balloon featuring the noun. By this time, the noun would be all the woman had—all of her money had run out, everyone she’d known was gone. And so, she would opt against extraordinary measures, choosing only palliative care. She would remember the way, on very hot afternoons, her mouse preferred to stay in the shade of its plastic castle, and how she would make sure its water was cool, sometimes even adding a single ice cube.
Emma Smith-Stevens‘ stories have appeared in Conjunctions, Subtropics, Painted Bride Quarterly, Wigleaf, and elsewhere.