by I. Horsburgh
I’m looking for mice. There’s a fair few hiding about the shelves, and it’s their turn to shine. We’ve been through the cycle, piggies, bears, kitties, elephants, doggies, dinosaurs, and here we are back at the rodents. We’re Gruffaloed-out, to be honest, so let’s see what else we’ve got.
Here’s one about some things living in a mattress in a scrapyard: at first, I’d taken them for miniature lion cubs, but Paddy thinks they look more like hamsters. Let’s not confuse everyone. Mice are big, right now. Dressed-up mice, mice a bit rat-like, mice looking for lost mummies — we have to be careful with that, in case Mummy really is out of the picture for some reason.
This might do. Don’t know this one, it’s new and shiny; Pinky Patterpaws, no obvious author. Nice illustrations, Paddy agrees, but am I sure that’s a mouse? Yes, must be, and its eyes are bright candy pink. They like pink.
We know everyone who comes through the doors, all the tots on the estate. It’s warm here on these little chairs. The library has under-floor heating so anything you do near to the ground gets you warm, sometimes too warm, whereas the back room is perishing. This might be a ploy, to keep us from lingering there on our breaks, or hiding in there when our dearest customers like Mrs. Pethick come in to drain the joy out of the day. The building is smaller than some people’s living rooms, with our cubby hole grudgingly provided. There are a couple of hard chairs, a lot of boxes, and two inches of desk to eat our sandwiches off. We haven’t even got a sink for the coffee cups. Spartans would be aggrieved.
If we were handing out unicorns to ride around the building, Mrs. Pethick would be sure the hooves on hers weren’t sparkly enough. She would blame the Council. She’s over there, smouldering behind the Gazette. She can’t smoke in here, but she gives the impression of holding a metaphorical cigarette to emphasise points with, burning tiny holes in the air. She always says there’s nothing in the paper. There never is. It takes her an hour to read, complaining continuously.
Most of the customers tend to be very young or quite old, and in a confined space it can be hard work keeping them from annoying each other. Mrs. Pethick makes a point of coming in when she knows there’s going to be singing, and then grumping about it. Our jollier old ladies like to join in (the singing, I mean, not the whingeing).
Here they all are, ready for a story: the shy little Montague Sisters; Macey-Jane Renfrew, all huge ears and coke-bottle glasses; the sweet-faced Khans, who made Valentine’s cards for us all; the Brambles, who are all hell bent on getting into the back room, whenever our guard is down. If they ever make it, boy, are they going to be disappointed. It’s forever 1967 in there.
‘Applause, applause, for Pinky Patterpaws….’ I find myself yawning, and somehow, I’m on the last page of the book. I don’t even remember reading it. How did that happen? The mums sitting at the back have a bit of a glazed look, but that’s not unusual. They’re mostly exhausted. The tinies are all looking at me, quite rapt. I’ve never actually seen the Brambles all in one place and sitting still. There usually seem to be about eighteen of them, although according to the computer, there are technically four, that aren’t in custody right now.
Something thumps on the roof. That happens. There may be children around here who owe their existence to the flat roof of the library. It happens again, louder. Paddy goes out to have a look. She’s done ‘Baby Bounce’ and ‘Wiggle and Giggle’ with every kid for miles around, so she doesn’t stand for any mucking about.
‘Applause, applause for Pinky Patterpaws,’ I read.
‘He batters down your doors,’ chant the children. What? They sound as though they know it backwards. I don’t even recognise it forwards.
‘He scampers through your drawers,’ I read. There’s a cute picture of a mousie rummaging among socks in an old-fashioned dresser.
‘Victorious in wars,’ chant the children, loudly. Where does it say that?
‘He nibbles and he gnaws,’ I say, pointing to Mousie liberating some cambozola in the pantry.
‘All dread his mighty roars,’ they chant. I press on, remembering instructions to ignore attention-getting behaviour (I practise on Mrs. Pethick).
‘He snuffles and he snores.’ It’s now crashed out in the cat basket, using the moggy’s tail as a duvet.
‘And in his glorious cause, he slays both knaves and whores,’ they chant.
‘That’s enough…’ I begin, but really I’m impressed by the way Kai Bramble’s vocabulary has come on. Usually, when you ask him not to trash the knitted nativity (‘Step away from the manger, keep your hands where I can see them’), you get a hostile grunt and an insouciant swivel of the finger.
The phone rings. Paddy should be there to answer it, but she hasn’t come back. I go to the desk, laying down the book on the table. The noise overhead intensifies into a drumming so loud I can scarcely hear the voice. It’s paper-thin.
‘Laurence, run,’ it rustles. Is it Paddy? My ears are throbbing.
‘He scorns your puny laws.’ I look over at the kids. All of them, even the Montagues, have cochineal eyes. The mums are sitting rigid, staring straight ahead. I’m not sure they’re breathing.
‘This world’s no longer yours,’ comes the chant. The roof begins to cave in.
‘I blame the Council,’ snaps Mrs Pethick, not looking up from the Gazette, as a curtain of yellow insulation foam and lumps of chalky rubble descend, obscuring her from view. Dust whirls around us, clogging hair, skin, eyes, mouth with rancid-tasting grit. A chunk of mortar dashes the receiver from my grasp. I fling my arms over my head, crouching, as darkness pours in, the noise of destruction and the chanting rising to meet each other in a hideous conjunction. I can’t breathe, I can’t see, I can only hear:
‘Applause, Applause for Pinky, Pinky, Pinky Patterpaws!’
About the Author
I. Horsburgh lives in a village called East Boldon, in South Tyneside, in the U.K. and used to be a long-term carer (“caretaker” to Yanks). She now does casual work in public libraries. Any resemblance to the one in the story will be flatly denied.
More by the Author
“Housework” at The Casket and “Seven Trees” in Devilfish Review.
World’s Shortest Author Interview
What’s your favorite city?
I would choose to be frozen for future revival rather than become one of the undead. I’m afraid if I was a zombie I’d never be able to catch anyone to eat their brains, because I’m not exactly in great shape now and I don’t see me getting any faster when I have all my squishy bits rotting off. I’d like to wake up in the future and see all the cool new stuff, then get a sporty new robot body and break things in a fit of time-displaced angst. And I’m not calling you Charles, Charles. Why do you keep asking me that?
If you had to watch a duel, who’d be the fighters? Who’d win? What would your delicious viewing snack be, and how would you dress for the occasion? Potential details… with shoelaces, or without? Would you wear a cosmetic mole, alive or otherwise?
I’d like the duel to be fought between two of our Prime Minister (not clones, they haven’t done anything to deserve it, they both have to actually be him). I don’t care what they do to each other, but I will be eating Sainsbury’s dark chocolate and bitter lemon biscuits, which became obsolete some years ago. I will be wearing a Moonintroll costume, as we have a similar build, and it’s hard to imagine anybody being hostile to Moomins.
About the Artist
Our very own D Chang is a designer and game writer from Austin, Texas. His short fiction has appeared in Avast, Ye Airships! and the Cryptopolis science fiction anthology. He does most of the Space Squid cover designs.