“That’s just what you get,” I said out loud to myself, staring at the body on the floor. “That’s just what you get for trying to be a good Domestic Partner.”
The corpse, unsurprisingly, made no reply.
“I told her,” I went on in despair. “I said I hated these kinds of jobs. I told her I’d probably mess it up. Those were my exact words: Lizette, can’t this wait, I’m probably going to mess it up. Did she listen? Nooo. And so here we are—I’ve killed you.”
Actually, Lizette had. She should have known better than to trust me with Fluff’N’Stuff. But somehow, I doubted she’d see it that way.
Lizette and I had been having a bit of a rough patch before she left for Paris. The thing is, we’d signed the papers to make us official Domestic Partners, so’s I could get her insurance and all, and after that I thought the rough patches were all over with. After all, becoming someone’s Domestic Partner is just about the same as getting married to them, and once that’s done with, it’s smooth sailing, right? Wrong.
Only a few days after the legal stuff was taken care of, she’d started nagging me again like she always did. Get a haircut, get a real job, start picking up around the house, etc etc etc. Especially the house cleaning bit.
“This is not a house,” I protested when she sunk her claws into me one morning. “It’s a third-floor one-bedroom apartment. A third-floor one-bedroom walk-up, for crying out loud.”
“That doesn’t mean we can’t keep in clean. It’s not that hard, Evan. Do a little laundry, wash a dish for once. Responsibility. Try it. I wonder how you can find anything in your half of the bedroom, it’s such a mess. How do you even know which of your clothes are clean?”
“Simple.” I pointed at the pile by the closet. “That’s the clean pile. Everything else is dirty.”
Lizette sighed and gave me that look she always gives me. “Sometimes I just wonder how I can really, truly, permanently commit to you, Evan. If you can’t take care of your home, how can you take care of the rest of your life, your family, your career, all the things that matter?”
“Well, we are kind of Domestic Partners now. That’s a commitment, isn’t it?”
“That was only so you can get on my medical insurance because your job doesn’t provide any. Seriously, Evan, when are you going to grow up?”
Then she went to Paris—not pleasure but business, some kind of convention for the bank she works for. Lizette thought it would be a big break for her career and she was all wowed about going. But all her happiness didn’t give her amnesia. “We need to have a serious talk,” she said the night before she left.
I pretended ignorance. “What about?”
“Remember when I went on vacation to Rome last year? For a week?” All sweet now.
“Of course I remember.”
“Remember how the apartment was a train wreck when I came back?”
“I wouldn’t exactly call it a train wreck,” I said defensively. So I’d left a few beer cans and pizza boxes out. So what?
“It took me a whole other week to clean it out,” Lizette snapped. “And Fluff’N’Stuff’s cage was filthy and stinking. And you’d forgotten to feed her. I’m surprised the poor thing was still alive.”
“Lizette,” I whined, “I don’t like rodents. I told you this when you bought that thing. You said it would be your responsibility.” I felt a little better being able to throw that word “responsibility” back in her face.
“Evan,” she whined back, her voice a perfect imitation of mine. “There is absolutely no reason you should be afraid of a little bitty mouse. Fluff’N’Stuff is, like, three inches long, and that’s only if you include its tail. It takes half a second to feed it—just take a handful of food from the bag and dump it in the food dish. And maybe two minutes to clean out the cage. Just take Fluff’N’Stuff out and all of its toys, dump the tray in the garbage pan, put in new wood shavings and put everything back in the cage. It’s really very simple.”
“Can’t the cage cleaning wait till you come home? I’ll probably mess it up. I’m clumsy like that. And it’s so dirty and so disgusting.”
“You should talk.” Before I could come up with a snappy retort she folded her arms across her chest and gave me that look she always gives me. “When I come back from Paris I expect this apartment—third-floor walk-up or no—to be spotless. And I expect Fluff’N’Stuff to have a full food dish and a clean cage.”
And this was what was flashing through my mind as I stood there and stared at Fluff’N’Stuff’s furry dead body on the kitchen floor.
I’d tried. I really had. Lizette wasn’t due home for two whole days and yet the apartment was pretty damn clean if I do say so myself. I’d used paper plates and cups to save washing dishes. I’d thrown out all my garbage, even the moldy food from the fridge. I’d vacuumed. I’d dusted. I’d washed the tapestries and the draperies and scrubbed the fire escape with a brillo pad. I’d even cleaned the toilet.
And then there was Fluff’N’Stuff’s cage.
I could not be faulted for lack of preparation. I’d put on a pair of surgical gloves to protect my hands from the mouse turds. I’d put on a pair of thick leather gloves over the surgical gloves so the mouse couldn’t bite me. I’d put on one of those germ masks over my mouth and nose so I wouldn’t inhale any exotic mouse microbes. I’d put a cardboard box on the table to hold it while I cleaned its cage. I’d made sure the box had really high sides so Fluff’N’Stuff couldn’t jump out. I’d laid out some antibacterial hand lotion in advance so I could scrub myself thoroughly right after I was done with the job, before mouse germs could get into me and make me sick. Yeah, I was well prepared. But things had just gone wrong from the very beginning.
Even under the best of circumstances, that mouse is so squirmy that trying to hold onto it is like trying to hold onto a bar of wet soap. And because I was wearing two pairs of gloves, I couldn’t get a good grip. I had just taken the little thing out of the cage when it squirted out of my fingers and made a leap for the floor and freedom. I’d taken a step, ready to chase it into a corner, and—bam. My foot and Fluff’N’Stuff collided at the same point in time and space. There was a sickening squishy crunch, followed by an equally sickening realization that there I was in the kitchen, looking stupid as hell, wearing two pairs of gloves and one surgical mask, with one very flat mouse under the arch of my Red Wing boot.
“I am so dead,” I said. I was worse off than Fluff’N’Stuff.
“I am so dead,” I repeated to Darryl that evening, after he came over to watch movies and I told him the whole sad story.
“It’s not that bad,” Darryl answered.
“What the hell are you talking about?” I moaned. “I might as well move out while I still can. She’ll throw me out when she comes home and finds out I killed her stupid mouse.”
“Chill, Evan, it was an accident. Lizette can understand that.”
“No, she won’t.” I grabbed another beer—my fifth. “She knows I’ve hated that thing from the beginning. I begged her not to get one. I said she could have a dog instead—or a bird—anything but a rodent. She’ll think I killed the stupid mouse on purpose.”
Pause. “Well, at least the apartment’s clean,” Darryl said lamely.
“I am so dead,” I repeated, and buried my face in my hands.
“Look on the bright side, Ev. Would it be that bad if Lizette dumped you over this? I mean, I like her and she’s hot and everything, but she’s got major control issues. Anyone who would dump their boyfriend over a mouse doesn’t deserve to have a boyfriend in the first place.”
I considered what he said, then shook my head. “Liz gives me a hard time sometimes. But I’m sort of used to her. I love her, I guess. I mean, we’ve been going together for like two years. And we’re Domestic Partners now and all. If we break up, I’ll lose her insurance and I’ll have to move.” I chugged the beer and wiped my mouth. “I’ve got to make it up to her somehow. Break it to her gently, maybe, and buy her a lot of flowers and two new mice. Do you think that would work?” I shook my head again. “Lizette is coming home in the day after tomorrow. God, I am so dead.”
“So where’d you put the little stinker?” Darryl doesn’t like mice either. I don’t think he’d ever even seen Fluff’N’Stuff up close, though he’d been to the apartment loads of times in the year since Lizette bought the mouse.
“Fluff’N’Stuff? In the freezer.” I’d picked up the little corpse by the tail with a pair of spaghetti tongs (which I threw out later) and transferred it to a plastic sandwich bag before I’d even touched it with my gloves. I’d started to throw it out, but thought the better of it: maybe Lizette would like to bury it or something when she got home. I imagined a little mound in the park across the street, with a funeral wreath or something—purchased by yours truly, no doubt, to make up for my sin.
“Did it know any tricks? I know some mice can do circus stuff, like trapezes and stuff.”
“I don’t think so. Fluff’N’Stuff seemed pretty stupid. It didn’t have much personality.”
“And it was a pretty normal-looking mouse, right? No funky birthmarks or anything?”
I shrugged and reached for another beer. “Just a mouse. What are you thinking of?”
“I’m thinking maybe you could go to the pet store and buy a replacement mouse before Liz gets back. One that looks just like Fluff’N’Stuff, so she’d never know the difference.”
I started and knocked over my beer. “Darryl, you’re a genius!”
The ringing phone interrupted my chorus of back-slapping and ‘you da man.’ “Lizette,” I said, feeling good for the first time all day, and grabbed the extension. “Hello, is this my best girl?”
“This had better be your only girl,” Liz answered. “Bonjour!”
“Hi, honey! I just knew it was my best, erm, only girl. How’s old Par-ee?”
“It’s wonderful. The French are so cultured, not like Americans at all. They have the neatest little bistros. And I think I’ve made some great networking contacts. Have you been drinking?” she demanded.
“Oh, no, honey. Not at all. Just sitting here on my ass, all alone, watching Full House, eating Ben and Jerry’s, and missing you.”
“You’ve been drinking,” she said with conviction. “And I bet you’ve got Darryl there with you.”
“When are you coming home?” As if I didn’t already know. “I miss you, Lizzie.”
“Thursday at nine in the morning. Delta Airlines flight 3529 and you’d better be there on time to pick me up!”
“Of course, baby. And I’ll have the apartment all shiny squeaky clean for you too.”
“I sure hope so, Evan,” she said doubtfully. “Let me talk to Fluff’N’Stuff.”
I pretended to carry the phone over to the empty (and clean) mouse cage, and Lizette started making all sorts of gushy cooing noises and talking in a weird high-pitched voice. “Oh, how’s my fluffy baby girl, do your miss your mommy? Yes, you do! I miss you too, baby. Don’t worry, I’ll be home soon and we’ll see how Daddy’s been treating you, yes we will.”
“Don’t worry a bit, Fluff’N’Stuff is safe and sound and I even cleaned its cage,” I told her when she was done being mushy.
Never before had I lied so well, and with such confidence.
The next day, Darryl and I hit the road bright and early, armed with Fluff’N’Stuff’s cold stiff corpse in the sandwich bag, and a directory listing of all the pet stores in the county. There were three. We figured that at least one of them would have a mouse that we could pass off as Fluff’N’Stuff. I felt quite good about Darryl’s plan and could have made the trip alone, but he insisted on coming along for moral support. I drove; he rode shotgun.
“So what exactly did Fluff’N’Stuff look like when it was alive?” Darryl asked. I glanced over at him. He was holding the sandwich bag up to the sun, squinting at it, but the bag had gone all foggy and it was hard to see what was inside.
“It was a white mouse with black eyes and a brown spot by the tail. The ears and the tail were pale brown, and the paws and nose were pink.”
“The reason I’m asking,” he explained, tossing the bag on the console, “is cause I think we only want to take the stinker out of the bag if we really have to. Like if we have what looks like a good match, we compare it to Fluff’N’Stuff. But not until we find a good match, yeah?”
A car honked at me. I turned back to the road. “Word.”
We had no luck at the first store.
“Oh yes, we have several mice for sale,” the cute teenage clerk assured me, smiling brightly, revealing braces on her teeth. “We stock albino mice exclusively.”
“What’s albino?” Darryl asked. I’d been wondering the same thing.
“An albino mouse is white with red eyes. They have no pigment in their skin at all.”
“If it’s got no pigment then how come their eyes are red and not clear?”
I half turned, grabbed Darryl’s shoulder and started to steer him out. “We’re not interested in albino mice,” I said to the girl as I left, pushing Darryl ahead of me, trying to keep him from running back and asking the pigment question again.
“I want to know how come they have red eyes,” he said grumpily after got outside.
“You can look it up later,” I said, practically shoving him into the car. “It’s not important anyway. We have to get that mouse before Lizette comes home.”
We thought we’d found it, at the second store. There was a white mouse with a brown spot near the tail, and we got our hopes up and Darryl took out the sandwich bag and opened it up, and pulled Fluff’N’Stuff out for comparison.
“What the heck is that?” the clerk squeaked.
“A mouse,” I said.
“I know that,” I said, trying to be patient.
Darryl put Fluff’N’Stuff on the counter. It was weird-looking, all flat and frosty, and I think its back was broken. He smiled at the clerk. “We just need to make sure this live mouse looks like the dead one. Put the live mouse on the counter and hold it still, will you? It will only take a second.”
Instead the clerk put the live mouse back in the cage and slammed the lid shut. When she spoke again her voice was shaking. “Get out of here before I have to call the manager. Don’t come back. And take that—thing—with you.”
“I think we need a new plan of attack,” Darryl said thoughtfully as we legged it across the parking lot.
“You can say that again. I thought she was going to sic the store’s tarantula on us.” We got back in the car, then just sat and thought for a few minutes. “Maybe next time we should go to a guy clerk,” I suggested. “And explain the situation. I mean, he might have a girlfriend like Lizette, right? And he could maybe take us to the back room so we can do our comparison test thing.”
“That works,” Darryl agreed.
I started the engine. “I just hope to god there’s a white mouse with a brown spot at the next pet store. Otherwise we’ll have to go over to Humboldt County or something. Man, I can’t let Lizette find out I killed Fluff’N’Stuff. She’ll dissolve our Domestic Partnership or something. She’ll lay an egg. She’ll go nuts.” And I’d have to move back into my parents’ garage.
“Well, third time’s the charm,” Darryl said cheerfully. Ever the optimist.
Turns out he was right, sort of.
The guy clerk was totally understanding when we explained my little problem to him. “As it happens, we have two white mice with brown spots,” he said, after checking the cage. He took both of them to the janitor’s closet, looked around to see if anyone was watching, and invited us inside. I don’t know like Darryl, but I felt like I was in some kind of conspiracy.
Fluff’N’Stuff had thawed out by then, more or less, and was kind of floppy and loose as we stretched it out on the floor. We put the first live mouse next to Fluff’N’Stuff and the clerk held it in place, but we could see right away that it wouldn’t work. Fluff’N’Stuff had a dime-sized, round spot on its back at the base of its tail. This mouse had a larger spot on its side. Lizette would see through it in a second.
We held our breath as the store clerk got out the second mouse.
“It works,” I said, letting out a breath I hadn’t known I was holding. “I think.”
“It definitely does,” Darryl declared. “The spots are in the same place, they’re about the same size, and they’re close to the same color. And the paws and eyes and tails match.”
Sure, they looked the same to us. But would Lizette, she who wuvved Fluff’N’Stuff sooo much and missed her wittle baby, think they were the same?
“I think this is your best shot,” the pet store guy said. “Either way, you can’t make things any worse than they already are.”
He had a point. “I’ll buy it,” I said.
Darryl and I carried Not-Fluff’N’Stuff home like it was nitroglycerin. We did not want to risk another accident. Very, very gently we tiptoed up the three flights of steps to my apartment, eased open the door, and eased across the floor to the cage. We took the lid off the cage, put Not-Fluff’N’Stuff’s cardboard box inside the cage, opened the box up, and shut the cage lid really fast. We saw a set of whiskers and then a twitchy pink nose appear over the side of the box, then Not-Fluff’N’Stuff emerged and began to explore its new home.
“Whew,” Darryl and I breathed at the same time.
“You saved my ass,” I told him. “I hope. Now do me one last favor.”
“Take Fluff’N’Stuff—the real one, I mean—and drop it off a cliff or something. Lizette must never find it or we’re both dead meat.”
“Sure thing. I’ll do it right now. Call me tomorrow and let me know how it goes. Good luck!”
I was a good Domestic Partner. I got up early, had breakfast, washed my dishes, put them away, and drove to the airport in plenty of time to pick up Lizette. She dropped her three suitcases and ran into my arms and kissed me like she does, and I suddenly remembered why I loved her.
“You’ll see,” I bragged to her as we went upstairs to our apartment. “I’m responsible after all. The apartment is so clean and shiny, it’ll blind you. And I even cleaned Fluff’N’Stuff’s cage. Fluff’N’Stuff really misses you. It squeaked all night last night.” Not-Fluff’N’Stuff actually had squeaked all night, and drove me crazy. Perhaps it missed its mouse friends at the pet store.
Lizette was suitably wowed when she opened the front door. She actually said “wow,” among other things, at the cleanliness of the place, but the suspense was killing me and I rushed her over to the mouse cage. It was now or never.
“So say hi to Fluff’N’Stuff, won’t you?” And as I always did, I ran into the other room while she took the rodent out of its cage. But I stood at the doorway and listened to her, my heart pounding.
“Awww, is that Mommy’s little girl? Did Fluff’N’Stuff miss her mommy? Yes, she—OMIGOD, EVAN, COME QUICK! SOMETHING’S WRONG WITH FLUFF’N’STUFF!”
What the hell? Not-Fluff’N’Stuff had been all right just a few hours ago. I’d even, very bravely, stuck my face in the cage to make sure the thing was breathing.
Ah, well, I’d lived in my parents’ garage before and it hadn’t killed me. I went back into the kitchen. Lizette was holding Not-Fluff’N’Stuff on its back, looking extremely pale. “I don’t understand, Evan—she’s got, like, cancer or something—how could a tumor grow this fast—”
Not-Fluff’N’Stuff’s enormous scrotum was sitting there like a watermelon. My heart sank. The one detail we hadn’t checked…
“I’ve got to get her to the vet right now! Omigod!”
I thought about it and realized I had only three options. One was to ’fess up the whole story, beg Lizette’s forgiveness, and plead that the deception had only been to spare her pain and grief. Two was to let her go to the vet and find out what the “tumor” was while I tried to come up with an escape. Three was to start packing my bags right now.
And I knew which it would have to be.