Mia knelt under the kitchen table in her She-Ra pajamas, resting her chin in her hands. She watched a knothole in the baseboard as Mama’s sewing machine purred like a giant kitten above her. The floor was cold, and the pawnshop space heater did little to fight the draft seeping in from the sweating window frame. Mia sniffed and wiped her nose on her sleeve. The knothole was very small, but tiny teeth had worked at it over the winter until now Mia could stick her entire thumb into it, if she dared.
She scrunched up her face in concentration.
A twitching nose peeked out of the hole. A few moments later the mouse emerged, one white-tipped paw and then another, whiskers trembling as it gauged potential dangers.
The mouse sat up on its haunches and tested the air suspiciously.
“Hello, Mr. Socks,” Mia whispered.
His ears twitched at the sound of her voice, and she bit her lip to keep from giggling. He dropped back onto all fours, ready to dash back into the wall.
Mia’s eyes darted to the crust of bread she had left outside his home. This morning she was trying grape jelly on wheat bread. Mr. Socks preferred peanut butter, but Mia hated the new brand Mama bought from the health food store. It felt oily and gritty in her mouth and didn’t taste like peanut butter at all.
Mr. Socks saw the bread and started slinking toward it, keeping his body pressed against the baseboard.
Mia held her breath. The mouse was only inches from the bread when the phone rang, sending him back into his hole in a streak of gray.
She sighed melodramatically and blew her bangs out of her eyes. Rolling over, she stared at the underside of the tabletop, crossing her eyes until the crayon drawings on the rough particleboard split into dancing, blurry doubles of sad trees and dark houses and tall, angry men.
Mama sounded anxious. It must be Daddy on the line. He always made Mama anxious. He was a large man, even for a grownup, and he frightened Mama. Mia guessed she would be frightened of him too, if he hit her like he hit Mama. But he never did. He called Mia his “little mouse.”
“But you said you would take her tonight—she’s looking forward to it… Yes, I do have plans… A friend… No, I swear, we’re just friends… Please don’t call me that, it’s not true… I hate that word.”
Mia tried to stop listening and started humming, but Mama’s voice was rising in desperation. Outside, the afternoon coal train rumbled past on the tracks behind the apartment complex. Mia felt the vibrations from the heavy cars through the kitchen floor. The pictures shook on the wall and the glasses rattled in the cupboard like tiny chimes.
Mama had started crying now.
Mia hated when Mama cried. No matter how tightly she pressed her hands to her ears, or how loudly she hummed, she couldn’t drown out the sound of Mama’s voice.
“Shut up. Shut up. Shut up,” Mia whispered as she rocked back and forth.
The low rumble of the train shook the windowpanes.
“Shut up. Shut up. Shut up.”
The pretty vase of wildflowers jumped on the counter. Water sloshed onto the floor.
“Shut up!” Mia screamed.
The vase fell in a deafening crash. Bits of glass and wildflowers showered the room. Mama dropped the phone. It bounced on the floor and came to rest against the table leg; Mia heard Daddy shouting through the receiver.
He was saying the angry words again.
Mama bent down and carefully lifted Mia onto the table, inspecting her for damage. Mia felt scared, but she didn’t cry. She had to be the strong one.
“What the hell is going on there?” Daddy’s voice shouted from the floor.
“We had an accident,” Mama said as she picked up the phone. “No, she’s okay, just scared… Okay… Yes… No… How is that my fault? Why would you say that?”
Mia grabbed the phone from Mama’s hand. “Hi Daddy! The train gave me a fright again… I wish I could see you tonight… I know… Okay… Love you too!” She placed the receiver in the cradle and smiled at Mama.
“How about dinner?” Mama asked. “Why don’t you go play while I get things ready.”
Mia nodded, hopped off the table, and ran down the hall to her room. She sat on her bed and picked at the torn seam in her yellow bear, her favorite bear with the happy face on its tummy. On her bedside table She-Ra was cooking dinner on Barbie’s too-pink stovetop, wearing one of Barbie’s lace-trimmed too-pink aprons.
Dinner was Barbie’s head, with the hair cut off in ragged bunches.
Nearby, He-Man reclined in a too-pink lounge chair and watched television with Strawberry Shortcake. A thimble of beer sat on a thread spool beside him. Sometimes He-Man let Strawberry Shortcake have a tiny taste of beer when She-Ra wasn’t looking.
He-Man was tired from a long day at work and told She-Ra to move her lazy ass. He was hungry.
She-Ra’s face sported a large, purple Crayola-marker bruise. She said dinner would be ready soon. Would He-Man like another beer?
He grunted. Yes, he would.
Mia pulled Barbie’s naked, decapitated body from under her pillow.
“You tried to steal Daddy away from us, you stupid bitch,” Mia said.
Bitch was one of Daddy’s angry words, but it made him laugh when Mia said it, so that was their secret joke. Mama wouldn’t understand.
“Daddy will come back and we’ll be a family again,” Mia said to Barbie. “You’ll see.”
She squinted her eyes into angry slits. Barbie’s stomach slowly began to blister, like the time when Billy Dvoracek held his magnifying glass over Mia’s arm in the sun. Thin wisps of bitter smoke curled up from the melting doll. Bubbles broke on the surface, splattering Mia’s hands with burning plastic.
She threw the doll on the floor and walked over to the foggy window. Standing on her toes, she wiped away a circle of condensation from the glass. Far below, in the courtyard, children chased each other, throwing snowballs. In the shadow of the cluster of apartment buildings, lights began to come on in the other units.
Mia drew a smiley face in the window fog, frowned, and rubbed it away. Pressing her nose against the glass, she watched the children playing in the hazy yellow light of the courtyard lamps.
She saw their next-door neighbor coming home, struggling with bags of groceries. Mrs. Myrick was very old, older than Mia could imagine. She had wet eyes the color of faded denim and a face that drooped on one side. Mrs. Myrick frightened Mia. People called her a nice old lady, but Mia didn’t like her eyes. Every time the old woman caught her gaze, Mia felt as if cold fingers pried into the corners of her mind.
Shuddering, she turned away from the window.
Mia heard Mama’s voice in the kitchen, so she shuffled out into the hall.
Mama sounded frustrated, but she spoke too softly for Mia to make out words. Mia waited around the corner, out of sight. She chewed on the end of her braid and listened.
“…I’m sorry, I was really looking forward to tonight… Well, what am I supposed to do? I can’t make him see her… I know that… No… Yes… Of course he’s doing it to control me… No, I haven’t told him. He’d flip out… Okay… Yes, of course I want to see you… No, not yet, I don’t think she’s ready… I’ll try to get a sitter.”
Mama looked around the corner and cupped her hand over the receiver. “Hey, baby.”
She turned away, coiling the cord around her. “She’s here. I have to go… Yes… You too… I really have to go… Okay!” She laughed and hung up the phone before bending down to brush the hair from Mia’s mouth.
“Who was that?” Mia asked.
“That was Todd. Do you remember him?”
“He helped us move. Daddy doesn’t like him.”
“That’s none of his business.”
“Daddy says he’s your—“ She stood on her tip-toes to whisper in Mama’s ear. “—fuck buddy.”
“Mia!” Mama held her at arms length.
Mia shrugged. “Daddy said you’re a slut, just like grandma was.”
“What’s a slut?” Mia asked. “Am I a slut too?”
“No, you most definitely are not. That’s not a nice word, baby. It’s a very mean thing to say.”
“Is it an angry word?” Mia asked.
“Yes. A very angry word.”
Mia started chewing her hair again. “I don’t want a sitter. I want you to stay with me.”
Mama stood up and led her into the kitchen. “It’s only for a few hours, sweetheart. I’m making tacos. Are you hungry?”
Mia nodded. She climbed onto a teetering stool and leaned her elbows on the counter.
Mama chopped tomatoes and lettuce. She cut the tomatoes into perfect little cubes, and the lettuce into orderly strips, like streamers of confetti. A pan simmered on the stove, filled with spices and grey-brown hamburger. The smell of the spices made Mia’s nose itch. She reached over and stole a pinch of shredded cheese from a chipped china bowl before she hopped off the stool.
Mr. Socks was probably hungry again.
Placing a few pieces of the cheese near the knothole, Mia scooted back under the table and crossed her fingers. She crossed her legs and arms too, just to be sure.
Soon, Mama was on the phone again. The long cord stretched across the kitchen like a giant worm, undulating and wavering as Mama moved from one task to another. She was talking to Mrs. Harris, who lived down the hall.
Mrs. Harris smelled of lavender soap and turpentine, and she always scooped Mia up in suffocating hugs. Her daughter, Janet, watched Mia sometimes. Mia liked Janet, who still remembered how to play, and didn’t spend all the time talking to her boyfriend on the phone like the other sitters. Janet smelled like Christmas oranges and snapped her peppermint gum when she was thinking.
Mia stared intently at the small hole. Mr. Socks poked his head out, testing the air and looking around. His soft, velvety ears swiveled like miniature radar dishes as he stepped out and stalked the pile of shredded cheese. The cheese shivered and stood on-end when he approached, like iron filings attracted by a magnet.
The cheese slid across the cracked linoleum towards Mia, sluggishly at first, but gaining momentum. The mouse circled wide, attempting to cut off the retreat.
It was a game they played. Every day she got him to come a little closer. Soon, she would be able to feed him out of her hand, if she was patient.
But she wasn’t.
Biting her lip as he edged toward the cheese, she couldn’t help but reach for him, ever so slowly. Mr. Socks was so fixated on the fleeing meal that he didn’t notice the movement until Mia’s shadow fell over him. He bolted.
Mia jumped out from under the table to block his escape.
The mouse dodged around the mountain of girl, scrabbling on the yellowed flooring as he raced for his knothole. He ran over her arm, skittered past a fluttering curtain of She-Ra pajamas, and shot out from under her knees.
Mia rolled over and slapped the linoleum, barely missing the mouse. He slipped, but quickly regained his footing and leapt for the knothole. An invisible hand grabbed him and violently pulled him back. The little animal clawed at the floor, tail pinned down by an unseen force.
Leaning over, Mia picked him up in cupped hands, holding him so tight that she could feel the flutter of his racing heart and shivers of panicked breath.
That’s when he bit her.
She dropped Mr. Socks and put her finger in her mouth. It throbbed. Her blood tasted like the tops of old batteries. The mouse darted away and disappeared into the wall.
“You stupid bitch!” Mia hissed from around her finger.
There was a sudden, piercing squeal from the knothole, followed by a wet, soft sound like toothpicks slowly crushed in a ball of gum.
Mama turned around and put the receiver against her chest. “Did you say something, sweetheart?” she asked.
“Mr. Socks bit me.” Mia held up the injured digit.
“I told you not to stick your finger in that hole. Go wash it and bring me the Band-Aids.”
Mia put her finger back in her mouth and nodded, glancing at the hole. Darkness peered back out at her. She didn’t think Mr. Socks would come out again. It made her sad, but he had hurt her.
She got off the floor and went to fetch her little tin of Sesame Street Band-Aids. When she returned, Mama cleaned her finger with some iodine, which stung a little, but not too much. While they ate their tacos, Mama told Mia that Janet would be coming over and Mia could stay up late and watch television if she liked, if she was good.
Mia said that she would.
Her finger pulsed softly under the Big Bird bandage. She felt a sour ball in her stomach when she thought about Mr. Socks.
“Mama,” she asked, “is it okay to hurt things?”
Mama put down her taco and tilted her head. “What do you mean?”
“You know. Hurting things. Is that okay?”
“You mean like people?” Mama asked. “Of course not, sweetie.”
“What if you’re mad, and it’s an accident?”
“That’s no excuse,” Mama said.
Mia thought for a minute. “What if they hurt you first?”
“That’s called revenge,” Mama said. “That’s wrong too.”
The sour ball grew and flip-flopped in Mia’s stomach.
Mama continued, thinking out loud, “I suppose if you need to hurt someone to stop them from hurting you, to protect yourself, then it might be okay.”
“Why?” Mia asked.
“I don’t know, sweetie. I just know that if someone was hurting you, I’d do anything to make it stop.”
“Daddy hurts you.” Mia said. “Why don’t you hurt daddy back to make him stop?”
Mama looked down at the table and sighed. She was a small, frail woman, like a starving bird in winter. She seemed as big as the world to Mia, but she wasn’t much more than a little girl herself.
“I would, if I was strong enough,” Mama said to the tabletop.
“I can be strong,” Mia said. “I can protect you.”
“Oh, sweetie—“ Mama’s eyes grew wet. She bit her lip.
Mia worried Mama might start crying again. Mia felt like crying for Mr. Socks, but she didn’t. She had to be strong for Mama.
There was a knock at the door. Mia recognized Janet’s light, cheerful rat-a-tat-tat.
“I got it!” she yelled, jumping out of her chair and grabbing the taped and re-taped box of Chutes and Ladders from the cupboard. Mia liked that game. The spinner always landed on the exact number she needed. Janet said Mia was the luckiest little girl she knew. But Mia knew that if she were lucky—really, truly lucky—daddy would be with them, and not with that woman from his office with the plastic smile and skinny leopard-print dress.
Mia opened the door and shoved the box in Janet’s face. She liked that face. It was round like an apple and framed by wild hair the color of pennies—like the man on the television who painted the happy trees.
Janet laughed and snapped her peppermint gum.
“At least let her come in and take off her coat, baby,” Mama said from the kitchen doorway.
“Hi, Mrs. B,” Janet said. “Big plans tonight?”
“Oh, you know me,” Mama said. “Going to really whoop it up. Thanks for coming on such short notice.”
“Well, it was this or watch the Home Shopping Network with mom all night—and you know how rad that show is—so, yeah, tough choice, Mrs. B.” Janet laughed.
Mia tugged on Janet’s sleeve. “Janet! Mama said I can stay up and watch television with you.”
“Did she now?”
“Magnum P.I. is on tonight!” Mia said.
“Yum,” Janet said, winking at Mia.
“I said you could if you were good,” Mama corrected.
“Oh, she’s always good.” Janet stroked Mia’s hair. “Ain’t that right, missy?”
“Darn tooting!” Mia hollered, barging past Mama. She jumped into her chair at the kitchen table and pulled the lid off the box. Mama stepped into the hall to talk to Janet as Mia unfolded the board and set out the spinner and little standup cardboard characters.
She kicked her legs and drummed her fingers on the table.
“Jaaaaanet!” she screamed.
“Hold your horses, partner!” Janet called.
“I’m not getting any younger!” Mia shouted in reply. She could hear Janet and her mother laughing in the hall.
“So, you gonna let me win tonight?” Janet asked when she came into the kitchen.
“How’s Mr. Socks?” Janet asked.
Mia held up her bandaged finger. “He bit me. So I…I hurt him back. I think I hurt him bad—I don’t think he’s waking up again, not ever.”
Janet frowned and raised an eyebrow.
“I didn’t mean to,” Mia said, looking away.
“That’s very sad, kiddo.” Janet hugged Mia tightly.
Mia could be strong for Mama, but Janet was soft and kind and smelled like Christmas oranges. She made Mia feel safe. Mia didn’t have to be strong for Janet.
The apartment’s intercom buzzed. Mama answered it, and the static-filled sound of a man’s voice replied.
“I’ll be right down!” Mama said to the intercom. She poked her head into the kitchen. “Okay, kiddos. Be good. I’ll be back before eleven—hey, are you okay, sweetheart?”
Mia forced a smile.
“We’re righteous, right Mia?” Janet asked.
“Okay … don’t stay up too late, sweetie,” Mama said.
“Better book it, Mrs. B,” Janet said. “Don’t keep a good man waiting.”
“Okay, okay. Right. Booking it.” Mama blew them a kiss and ducked into the hall. They heard her grabbing her coat and tossing keys into her purse, the front door opening, and Mama’s surprised gasp.
Mia heard her father’s voice.
“Daddy!” She leaped off her chair and raced out of the kitchen, rushing past Mama and jumping into his arms.
“Hey, little mouse,” he said. “Did you miss me?”
Nodding furiously, Mia buried her face into his prickly neck. He smelled of sweet musk and sour hops.
Mama stared at him, clutching her purse between them like a shield.
“What are you doing here?” Mama choked out the words.
He smiled at Mia. “Just wanted to see my angel.”
The smile dropped when he looked at Mama. “I think one of your ‘friends’ is in the lobby. Better get going then, eh?”
“Hi, Mr. B,” Janet said, stepping out of the kitchen.
There was an awkward moment of silence.
“Janet, could you take Mia to your mom’s apartment for a few minutes?” Mama asked softly.
“No need.” Daddy rubbed Mia’s back with a warm, roughly calloused hand. “Let’s go pack your weekend bag, hey darling?”
He moved to pass, but Mama stepped in to block him. “You have no right,” she said. Her voice was trembling.
“Hey, Mia,” Janet said, “I think my mom baked some shortbread. Why don’t we go steal some while your mommy and daddy talk?” Janet shot Daddy a cherubic smile. “It’ll only take a minute, Mr. B.”
He considered his options and slowly put Mia down. “Sure. Don’t be long. Bring me back some, eh?”
Janet grinned and took Mia’s hand. “You betcha, Mr. B!”
She led Mia down the hall. The door to the apartment was open. Mia could hear her parents arguing. Daddy was starting to use his angry words.
Janet squeezed her hand.
Mrs. Myrick peered into the hall as they passed her door. She frowned at Mia. Mia tried to look away, but she felt herself drawn into the old woman’s eyes—past the decades—to the scared little girl that hid inside, a girl no older than Mia was now. That girl was cowering under a scrap-lumber porch, hiding from the man with cruel eyes who stood in a hard-packed driveway, looming over the body of a woman.
“Your mama?” Mia thought.
“Yes,” Mrs. Myrick’s voice replied, in Mia’s head. Not the feeble voice of an ancient woman, broken and slurred, but the soft, clear voice of a child. It came from everywhere and nowhere at once, crisp and cold and piercing, like the wind before the first snow.
“Daddy has a frightful temper,” little Mrs. Myrick said. “Mama made him awful cross today.”
“Your daddy hurt your mama too?” Mia asked without making a sound.
“He don’t take no lip from a woman what don’t know her place—says he’ll teach her a lesson she won’t soon forget. Mama, she fell down, and she ain’t never getting up again.”
The door to Mia’s apartment slammed shut. Daddy yelled, and Mama cried like an animal caught in a trap. Janet tried to pull Mia down the hall, but her feet seemed rooted to the threadbare carpet.
“Your mama ain’t never gonna get up, either,” Mrs. Myrick’s little girl voice said. “Not ‘less you do something about it.”
Mia looked up at Janet. “I have to be the strong one.”
“You are strong,” Janet said. “You’re brave. But we need to go—to get my mom and call the police.”
Mia pulled at Janet’s arm and struggled to return to her apartment. “I have to be the strong one.”
“Mia, no!” Janet fought to pick her up. “We need to get my mom. We need help.”
“I have to be the strong one!” Mia screamed.
The lights in the hall flickered and burst in a shower of glass. She scratched her way out of Janet’s arms and raced down the hall to the thin outline of light around her doorframe. Janet followed, crying for her to come back.
Mia stopped and spun around.
“I have to be the strong one,” Mia said.
Janet flew backward down the hall like a moth caught in a maelstrom.
Mia turned, calmly, to face the door. She took a deep breath as it opened slowly, bathing the black hall with yellow light.
Mama was whimpering, defeated and broken. Daddy was saying the angry words. Mia followed the sounds to the bathroom. In the tall, cracked mirror she saw the reflection of Mama on the floor, her body half hidden behind the toilet. Daddy was straddling her, closing his large iron hands around her neck.
“Daddy, stop,” Mia said quietly.
His muscles tensed. He spit out the angry words like an incantation, bearing down, hammering Mama against the linoleum with every spittle-soaked curse. Mia saw Mama’s eyes rolling back in her head, wide and bulging. Her blue lips murmured a prayer of deliverance.
He sat up slowly, taking his hands off Mama, who coughed and tried to pull herself away. Mama curled around the base of the toilet like a fetus, clutching her throat.
“Go to your room, Mia,” Daddy said, breathing heavily and flexing his fingers. The crack of his knuckles echoed like gunshots in the sparse room.
Mia swallowed the giant lump in her throat and closed the distance between them. “You shouldn’t hurt Mama,” she whispered.
“I said go to your room!” He lashed out and hit her with the back of his hand.
Mia tumbled and fell against the side of the bathtub. Her face felt numb, like when the other children held her down and smothered her with snow.
Daddy had never hit her before. How could he hurt her? She was his little mouse. She blinked out stinging tears and stood, clenching tiny fists.
“Don’t talk back at me,” he spat.
“Leave her alone!” Mama croaked, but Daddy grabbed a fistful of Mama’s hair and slammed her head into the porcelain. She buckled and fell, unmoving, as blood pooled around her like a halo.
“Don’t hurt my mama!” Mia screamed as loud as she could.
The bathroom light burst. The frosted window blew out. Freezing wind gusted flurries of snow into the bathroom. A shaft of moonlight fell on Mia’s face. Her eyes glowed in the darkness.
Daddy stood up in confusion, backing away.
For the first time in her life, Mia saw fear in his eyes.
His body tensed and stretched as he was lifted off the floor. He clutched at his neck, gasping like a fish torn from the water, clawing and flexing as he was drawn all the way up to the ceiling. His legs flailed, kicking holes in the plasterboard and smashing the toilet tank. Water cascaded down onto Mama, mixing with her blood and flooding the floor around Mia’s feet.
Daddy looked down at her, ashen faced, mouthing words that made no sound as his body stretched, every joint and ligament groaning in protest. Mia desperately wanted to stop what was happening, but she didn’t know how. Her emotions jumbled and tossed like ocean waves in a winter storm. She couldn’t separate fear from love, or hate from sorrow.
Daddy convulsed as his vertebrae splintered, one by one, like a string of firecrackers.
“I love you, Daddy,” Mia cried. “I’m sorry!”
She wept and stomped her feet. She wanted so badly to stop the hurting, but also wanted so badly to hurt him for every time he had hurt her Mama. She screamed into the howling wind until her voice tore at her throat like broken glass.
Slowly, the gale in the tiny bathroom ebbed away. Mia’s anger bled out into the night.
Daddy hung limply in the air, spinning slowly as if hanging from a rope.
Mia fell to her knees. Perfect diamonds of snow settled on her hair and face, twinkling in the moonlight. In the distance she heard the sound of sirens approaching.
“I won’t let you hurt Mama any more,” she said.
Daddy’s lifeless eyes gazed through her as she set him down on the bathroom floor. She brushed the snowflakes from his hair and caressed his sandpaper cheek.
“Not ever, never again.”
Mama whimpered. Mia lay down next to her, ignoring the freezing water and the sticky blood around them. She held Mama tight and closed her eyes.
“It’s okay, Mama,” she whispered. “I can be the strong one.”
Ryan Williamson is the author of numerous short stories. He is currently querying his first novel while writing his second. The short story “Little Mouse” received an Honorable Mention from the Writers of the Future contest in 2015. You can connect with him on Twitter @rywilwrite and check out his website at ryanwilliamson.com.