This is just a little something I wrote for a class I took on fellowship. The assignment was to write a scene in roughly 800 words. I worked as a mouse tech for a few years before graduate school, and it was fun to revisit that world for this piece.
Mark stood in front of a tall metal rack of mouse cages, peering at the index cards taped to the front of each. A few strands of long black hair slipped from his hair net and fell loosely onto the shoulder of his powder-blue scrubs. The room – a mere cell in the basement of Harvard Medical School’s main building – smelled like disinfectant. It was cold and dimly lit — and quiet, except for the mice, squawking and scrimmaging around in the litter. Occasionally one or two of them pressed their pink noses against the Plexiglas, as if trying to sniff Mark out. He ignored them. He was focused on the index cards. He was looking for a very specific mouse, in a very specific cage.
There were six shelves on the rack, eight cages on each shelf, and four to five mice in each cage. That came out to about 200-240 mice. There was another rack caddy corner to this one, and three more in a larger room down the hall. That came out to 1000-1200 mice, for the entire lab. How many mice for the entire facility, Mark thought. But he cut himself off. It was the kind of pointless calculation he was always making; his mind couldn’t seem to help itself. When he was seven, he’d taught himself statistics on a family road trip by counting the number of blue and then red cars that passed by his window, and then trying to compute the probability that the next car to pass would be either red or blue.
C’mon c’mon, he whispered, snapping his fingers in front of his face. Focus. Where the fuck is this cage? It should have been second to last, third shelf down from the top. But the fucking animal techs that cleaned this room never bothered to put the cages back where they belonged, and so he had to start from the top and work his way down – index card by index card. At 6’3, he could just make out the cards on the top shelf without standing on the tips of his toes. By the time he got down to the third shelf, though, he was hunched over and his cage was still missing. Finally, halfway through the very bottom shelf – when he was convinced that one of the idiot techs had accidentally sac’d his mice – he found the card he was looking for: HSV-KO-23-27.
“There you are,” he said, pulling the cage from the rack and rising to his feet.
Inside, five white mice scrambled to steady themselves against the sudden hurricane force that had sent their entire universe hurtling. The water bottle dripped furiously; the litter slid to one side. The mice peed and squawked and bit each other. And then, in an instant, they found themselves on steady ground again. Mark had set the cage on the stainless steel table next to the sink. He removed the lid and looked down at the mice – cotton-ball-sized tufts of white fur, with tiny red beads for eyes and thin pink strings for tails. They were scurrying.
“Ahhh” he said. “C’mon, fuckers. Stay still.” He grabbed one by the tail, held it up to the light and inspected its ears, which were punched full of holes. “Nope,” he said. “Not you.” He checked a second and a third, until he found the one he was looking for. She had two holes punched at the top of her left ear — that’s two — And two more at the bottom of her right. That’s four. Mark grabbed a soup container from the shelf and dropped HSVKO-24 in, along with a bit of mouse kibble. He grabbed a lid, poked it full of holes and closed it tight over the container. He returned the cage to its proper place — second to last, third shelf down from the top. Then he turned the light off, and headed back upstairs, taking HSVKO-24 with him.
The lab was warm and bright. Mark dropped the soup container on his lab bench, and turned his attention to the ipod dock perched a shelf above his workspace. Moments later, Johnny Cash was singing a Nine-Inch-Nails cover. I hurt myself today….
“You going Sylvia’s tonight?” his lab mate Fernando asked. He was putting his coat on just a few benches away.
“Yep,” Mark said. “But not until like 9 or 10. Gotta plate these cells first,” he nodded toward the soup container; inside, HSVKO-24 scratched and nibbled. He grabbed a pair of rubber gloves from a box on his lab bench that dispensed them like tissues. He pulled them over his thin bony hands, snapped them at the wrists and smiled.
“To the gas chamber,” he said.
The chamber was actually a white, bowl-shaped apparatus with a clear plastic lid. It looked like something one might serve soup out of, except that the clear plastic lid had a spout, and the spout was connected to a thin rubber tube, and the thin rubber tube was connected to a CO2 tank. Mark removed the soup container’s lid. HSVKO-24 leapt up with a squeak and grabbed hold of the rim with both front paws.
She might have tried lifting herself up over the rim — and she might have succeeded — but Mark grabbed her by the tail, deposited her in the small white dish, and snapped the clear plastic cover over top. He turned the knob on the CO2 tank. Gas hissed out. Too much. He turned the knob back a notch.
HSVKO-24 circled the chamber, prodding the edges with her nose and paws, as if in search of exit. Mark turned away. He looked at his watch. Ten seconds… twenty… thirty…
“See you tonight then,” Fernando said, grabbing a bag from his desk and waving. “We’ll be there late, for sure.”
“Ok, man,” Mark said. Inside the chamber, HSVKO-24 had quit searching for an exit and was now chasing her own tail. At forty seconds, she gave up and laid down on her side. Her eyes grew wide and then shut. Her breath grew shallow. And slow. And then, finally, around 60 seconds, stopped altogether.
Mark removed the clear plastic lid, lifted HSVKO-24 by her tail, and held her up to the light. She was dead. Now the real work could begin.