The End of Summer and Other Things
by Ingrid Jendrzejewski
They’re all lined up, one next to the other: the bodies of seven mice, all nestled gently in straw padding. They’ve been placed on their backs, paws beckoning upwards, as if they had frozen in the middle of a merry dance. There is something about the way they’d been positioned that made me think it had been done with, if nothing else, care. But still, there’s something unnerving about discovering such a thing under a loose floorboard. I don’t like the idea of spending my nights above a mouse mausoleum, however delicately it’s been prepared.
Mary is still sniffling in the other bunk and I don’t yet feel like sharing my find, so I offer some chocolate instead – chocolate confiscated from the Oakley twins on their very first night at camp. We’re meant to destroy contraband sweets so as not to attract wildlife, but there are so few perks in a job like this that most of us pocket the tips, so to speak. Besides, I’m starving and she’s sniveling, and it’s a well-known fact you can’t eat and cry at the same time. Mercy me, it’s bad enough dealing with one of the kids crying, but when it’s a fellow counselor turning on the waterworks, well, what can you do but cough up the sugar?
I don’t know what’s going on with Mary, but I catch her now and then with her thin lips pressed together and her eyes as far away as a steak dinner. She does a good job putting on a show for the kids, but there’s been something off-kilter about her ever since she started receiving those letters. She’s private about things, Mary; she’s not the kind you can slug in the arm and ask what’s up. People like that make me feel like I want to be private about things too, so I wait until she’s off canoeing with the girls before I revisit the mice. Only by then, there are two more bodies tucked into that miniature vault under our floor. One of them looks smaller than the others, and its fur is damp.
Seeing it there, cozied in next to the others, makes something tighten in my throat. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a big fan of rodents or anything. I’ve put out my fair share of mousetraps in my time. But these are different, somehow. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because they’re so still, or because they’ve been so well cared for, at least after passing. Maybe it’s because they seem a little bit alive, as if they’re just waiting on me to replace the floorboard so they can get back to their dance. Maybe it’s because that little one looks like it was once so lonely.
I decide I want to ask Mary about it when she returns, but I can’t go through with it. As soon as she enters the cabin, her mouth goes slack and her eyes go blank. It’s as if she knows I know something that she doesn’t want me to know. She looks at the window, not out of it, avoiding my eyes.
Mary leaves halfway through the summer, with no forewarning, no goodbyes. One afternoon, I return to the cabin and her things are gone. In her place sits Layla with her guitar and a smile as wide as Kansas. Layla loves the woods and always gets the campfire started on the first try. I don’t share any of my contraband foodstuffs with her.
Of course, no more mice are added to the little crypt after Mary’s departure. I check every few days, half expecting some sort of tragic decomposition, but very little changes. The bodies harden and wizen. The little one’s fur dries out. I don’t know what they mean, but I can’t help but think about them from time to time.
The summer passes with excruciating slowness, but it does pass. Batches of girls come and go, and I keep singing the same songs and telling the same ghost stories around the fire. There’s always a homesick girl blubbering away somewhere in the trees, and she’s always the one who cries the most when it’s time to pack up for home. When it comes to my last camp fire, my eyes are bone dry and my lips are smiling. “It’s okay to cry,” says Layla, patting my back. My smile widens.
I’m clearing the fire-pit on my last morning when I come across them submerged in the bucket of water we keep near the fire for emergencies: the bodies of two mice, standing on their hind legs, forearms pawing at the side of the pail. They must’ve fallen in, drowning as they tried to climb out.
Even though I know there’s no hope for them, I hurry to dump out the water, giving them a chance to breathe. Their little bodies tumble into an awkward heap on the ground. They look as if they had been dancing. I want to swallow, but my saliva tastes too acidic and I feel a stinging in my nose. I suddenly feel homesick, but not for home.
Before anyone notices anything, I scoop up the bodies and take them back to my cabin. I remove the floorboard and nestle them in amongst their extended family. Lying on their backs like that with their arms in the air, they look as if they’re waving goodbye.
© Ingrid Jendrzejewski, 2015
Ingrid Jendrzejewski studied creative writing at the University of Evansville before going on to study physics at the University of Cambridge. She has soft spots for cryptic crossword puzzles, the python programming language and the game of go, but these days spends most of her time trying to keep up with a very energetic two-year-old. Some of her writing can be found at www.ingridj.com and once in a very great while, she tweets at @LunchOnTuesday.
The End of Summer and Other Things was read by Kate Chadwick on 5th August 2015 for Short & Sweet Flash Fiction