Tom’s wife Marla was carrying the supper dishes to the kitchen when she collapsed and died before reaching the sink. The plates broke into pieces, as did Tom.
Now she rested on the fireplace mantel in a midnight blue urn.
The doorbell chimed but Tom didn’t answer. It was probably Annette from #10-C with another lasagna and having been through it herself.
He spent Christmas lying on the couch, wrapped in Marla’s afghan that still smelled of her peachy perfume. A mouse scratched behind the wall.
Mornings, he dragged in to work. Evenings, he slumped home to Marla on the mantel. Sometimes the urn glowed from within, her essence shining through the glass.
One Saturday night, panicked with aloneness, Tom picked someone up at a bar. He rushed her past the urn to his bedroom with her coat still on. She kicked his ass with the heels of her feet and shrieked at him to fuck her harder.
Afterwards she lit a cigarette and puckered her lips, blowing smoke like kisses as Marla used to do. The cold city lights through the window colored her midnight blue. Tom’s grief welled up, he turned his back to her. A mouse scampered across the bed. The woman said she had to go.
Monday, Tom woke at noon. He was still home on Wednesday. On a trip out for bread he picked up a hamster wheel from the pet aisle. Mice scurried freely about the apartment. That morning, he’d opened the kitchen cabinet to find a big glossy boy eating oats. They’d chewed through the box, oats littered the shelf. The mouse put its twitchy BB of a nose out at him then went back to its meal.
They wouldn’t run on the wheel until he left cheese cubes on it. The wheel squeaked while he slept. His boss quit calling. Tom didn’t care because he had his twenty years in and wanted to die anyway.
They’d had a child once, a premature son who lived for three hours. Tom had a half dozen hamster wheels. Sometimes he lined them up, or put them in a circle. A mouse carnival, with mouse Ferris wheels.
He bought white PVC pipes and made them a tunnel from the living room to the kitchen, to the dining room, and back to the living room.
The doorbell chimed.
“I wondered if I could get my lasagna pan?”
Annette was shapely. He went to find her pan.
Tom pulled a mouse out of her hair. She rushed out without a word or her pan, which annoyed him. They were only mice.
The one in her hair was Marvin. Mickey had a white spot on his back, Minnie had blonde fur, and Big Boy was huge. But Marvin dominated. He crawled over the others, snatched their food away, and humped all the girl mice.
Tom decided to return Annette’s pan a couple of days later.
“Come in,” she said.
Her walls were deep gold. She had lots of mirrors and plants. “Nice place.”
A picture of her with a dark-haired man looked down from the bookshelf.
She returned with his drink. He said, “You seem to be coping well.”
“Ha. You should have seen me a year ago.”
He went on to the grocery store with a new sliver of hope in his pocket.
When he returned, his door stood open.
“I need to speak with you,” a policeman said.
He followed the officer into his apartment. Mice swarmed the floor, the sofa, the tables. They ran in plastic mouse tunnels and on hamster wheels. Saucers of food and water were scattered about. Two other cops were present, the apartment manager, and a maintenance man, who told the woman with the camera that he’d come in on a routine roach spray and found the infestation.
Exterminators in yellow space suits brought in a big machine. “Clear the unit, please,” one of them said. They spun the long attachment around and knocked Marla off the mantel.
The urn shattered on the brick hearth.
No one else seemed to notice. Tom fought a wild urge to recite “Humpty Dumpty.” Brown mice wove through the particles and blue shards.
The cops huddled together, discussing him.
“Sir, encouraging vermin is a public health hazard and there’s property damage involved here as well,” the one who had met him in the hallway said. “I’m going to have to place you under arrest. You can sort it out with the judge.” The officer handcuffed him.
Hours later, Tom was given a court date and released. He guessed he did not live at his apartment anymore, so he sat on a bench.
“Up for another round of it, neighbor?”
Annette. “Well, there doesn’t seem to be any choice.”
“Nope,” she said. “No choice. Come on, let’s get a pizza.”
Tom picked up the pieces of himself and followed her. He was glad at least that he’d thought to return her lasagna pan, and that it was made of metal.
Carly Berg’s stories have been published in many journals and anthologies, including PANK Magazine, Word Riot, Bartleby Snopes, and nominated for a Pushcart Prize as well. She lives in Texas.