18 - Mouse

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It was mid-morning by the time she dropped Liam off at kindergarten and made her way for the antique store. She had stopped along the way for breakfast burritos, and their scent filled up the car now, eggy and warm. She hoped that Liz would want to stay a while and eat with her, enjoying this early lunch before heading out for the errands that usually filled the time between lunch and picking up Liam.

In a few weeks, summer would be here, and then the routines would change. Nat would be spending more time at home, watching him, keeping him away from being underfoot in the shop. It had been the arrangement they agreed to, early on: Nat had quit her job at the book store in order to be the house wife, helping out part-time in the store and tending to more of the homemaking. 

Lesbos domesticus, the domesticated lesbian. Just the thought of it would have made her recoil a few years ago. She could practically see her college self, smoking a black-papered clove cigarette, shaking her head in disappointment.  

It was not a role she had ever filled. Most of Nat's adult life skills had been focused on keeping herself and a cat alive -- apartment-living, relegating the finer points of housekeeping to an ever-distant future weekend while tending to the here-and-now details of a job and dating and late-night takeout. 

All the same, a the time, the idea had seemed enticing. She envisioned it as an adventure, Romantic in some modern-revisionist sense. She would pen novels during nap-times and learn how to make jelly or cure ham or patch up socks with a darning needle. 

She had even imagined, briefly, that she might have a child of her own, a sibling for Liam. They could have used a sperm donor. Or maybe there would be some other way to do it, she would think to herself in those fleeting moments when she'd allowed herself to get excited. Medical technology was always doing amazing things. Maybe they'd get married, and in a year or two they could get pregnant, a baby that belonged just to the two of them. 

But now here she was, a year later, still trying to master domestic tasks, playing part-time mother to a time-shared child, and the sheen had worn off of her daydreams. 

The reality was not terrible. But it was different than she had wanted, and would never be quite what she'd imagined, and each day the reality of that had begun to rub abrasively against her like a pebble in a shoe; a small bother, a small unhappiness, not quite worth complaining about but impossible to be comfortable with. 

She pushed those thoughts from her mind the best she could as she pulled up into the rear lot behind the antique store.

The shop, named "Better Than New," stood at the corner of Jefferson and Hemlock — the border where the mostly-abandoned downtown area first started to become gentrified, one face among many scattered curiosity shops and hole-in-the-wall sandwich joints dotting the street. The building on the other side was a Tae Kwon Do academy, and in the evenings you could see the students inside sparring in their crisp white uniforms. During the day, though, it was dark and empty, a collection of trophies just visible behind the bars that had been pulled across the glass front of the dojo.

Nat parked the car and climbed out, juggling iced coffees and breakfast burritos and nudging the employee entrance of the shop open with her hip.

"Liz?" she called, squeezing inside and heading toward the small back room they used as a combined break room and office. It opened across the hall from their bathroom, a tiny one-room affair that Liz had tried — and failed — to make more welcoming by adding decor. Now it looked like the bathroom in an old lady's house, abandoned and dingy.

The office, meanwhile, looked lived-in; uncomfortably lived-in, even, as if some very large rodent had nested there. Boxes and papers were everywhere, following an organizational strategy that only Liz could understand. Nat had begged to reorganize, to file these things away into something resembling proper order, but it was no use. The only way Liz could find anything, she insisted, was in the chaos.

From the office, you could glance out down a short hallway to the register. A bell would sound if the door opened, signaling the arrival or departure of a customer. But during the week, the store was mostly quiet until after lunch, when the old ladies would grow bored with their day-to-day routines and venture down to browse, or else the antique hunters started to get off of work. Pausing, holding her breath to listen, Nat didn't hear the sounds of anyone moving around out in the store; they seemed to be void of customers for the moment.

"Liz?" she repeated, setting down the burritos and coffees and starting toward the register, craning her neck to see.

"Over here."

Liz was crouching behind a row of shelves that housed various small items: ceramic cats and painted spoons, tiny portraits painted inside metal lockets, silver thimbles stamped with illegible text, all hidden behind glass. She had the shelf pulled out from the wall at an angle, and she was pressed into the narrowing gap with her face close to the floor.

"What are you doing?"

"I heard something," she replied, voice muffled. "Thought it was that damn mouse again."

Mice were a problem in the antiques business. They liked the old fabric and papers. Sometimes, if you weren't careful, they hitched a ride into the shop in old furniture, nestled deep down in the springs of couches and chairs.

"Did you find him?"

"No." Liz sighed, pulling herself to her feet. She was covered in dust, and she made only a cursory attempt to dust herself off, leaving hand prints on her blue jeans. There were cobwebs in her hair. "But I could hear him out here. Rustling around. Little son of a bitch."

"Well, come eat. I'll lay out more traps later."

"...okay." Liz sighed, defeated, staring reluctantly down at the baseboards. She nudged the shelf back into position with some effort, grimacing as objects inside rocked back and forth, threatening to fall. But nothing toppled, and she pulled away and followed Nat down the hall to the staff room. 

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