This page contains:
Sometime after midnight, I heard a mouse skittering across the linoleum floor. When I came down, there was only a cracker box on the counter, daintily nibbled around the corners. I dislike uninvited guests, no matter how gracious.
I could hear my sister snoring in the living room, making the little hairs on my arms stand up. I hate the sound of other people sleeping. We shared a bedroom for twelve years, and I spent a lot of nights staring at the glow-in-the-dark stickers stuck to the ceiling, wishing she were dead. I’m not proud of this. I think I can only love people with my whole heart in the daylight.
Outside, I heard a door shut, and I saw Ms. Tanaka emerge from her house with a garden trowel. She crossed her yard to the gingko tree and began to dig. It took her about thirty minutes, and when she was done, there was a hole in her lawn, and she was brushing dirt from the lid of a box in her lap. She opened it and lifted out all sorts of jewelry: chains, pendants, and earrings that glinted in her front porch light. A small fortune.
She stuffed her pockets until they were bulging, and buried the empty box back in the yard.
Then she went, I suppose, to sleep, as eventually did I.
Ms. Tanaka lived in a house overgrown with vines, and the roof dangerously sagging in one corner. Her living room was stacked high with shoeboxes, handbags, and dresses, though she never wore anything but jeans and an old floral blouse.
She was thin and pointy angled, like she ate only tuna fish from cans. Someone threw a rock through her front window, and she covered it with hot pink duct tape in a pretty but very visible way that bothered our neighbors.
She and I got along well enough. She brought me vegan pot brownies that tasted faintly of mothballs but were also delicious. She grew the marijuana in a little greenhouse in her backyard.
I told her about my mouse problem, and that I was thinking of getting a cat.
“Don’t!” she said, and didn’t I know that mice were kind? She said they know us more intimately than anyone else, living in the crevices of our lives as they do.
She was so alarmed that I promised her I wouldn’t get a cat.
“Maybe she stole it,” said my sister when I told her about the jewelry.
She had been living on my couch since arriving months ago, brimming with the intention to become a nurse. Now she dragged herself to classes, prisoner to her previous declarations of true self. She was not a woman who gave up. My living room was covered with diagrams of vivisected body parts.
I don’t think she really wanted to be a nurse. I wanted my living room back. We both had things we could not bring ourselves to say.
When I saw Ms. Tanaka digging up the box again, I assumed it was empty. But it was full of parcels wrapped in white paper. She unwrapped one with dirt-caked fingers, exposing its pale yellow-edge. Cheese. Maybe thirty pounds of it.
I watched her take a big bite and chew, mouth half-open, face upturned to the sky. My mouth watered, and I wished I were with her, knees damp, tasting salt and fat on my tongue.
She crammed her pockets.
The next day, when I came home, Ms. Tanaka was watering her garden, and my curiosity got the better of me. I crossed the street.
She lowered her voice and told me the story: the mice, she said. They lived in her shoes. She gave them presents: tiny homemade sweaters, bits of bacon wrapped in Velveeta, little paper boats for the mice babies.
In gratitude, they gave her gifts, though she told them it wasn’t necessary, of course.
“Somehow, they know just what I’d like,” she said.
“That’s wonderful,” I said.
“Brownies?” she said.
What I really wanted was some of that cheese, but I took what she gave me.
After my conversation with Ms. Tanaka, my sister sat vigil through the night, peeping out the window. She wanted to see these mice.
“What would you ask for?” she asked me, her face shrouded in cheap curtain. “No, I know: chocolate toffee encrusted with pistachios and a season of bad television about a heroine who lives in a haunted house but is too lazy to leave.”
It was true I liked these things, but I immediately vowed to never eat chocolate toffee again.
“I want a cute set of scrubs with penguins on them,” she said. As if fresh scrubs would change the fact that she was going to hate the person she was studying to be.
“I want gardenias for the front yard.”
My sister made a noise of disgust. She hated the smell of flowers.
“Can you not put your shoes on the pullout, please?” I asked. What I truly wanted was my sense of self restored, without the context of other people, but that couldn’t come in a box.
“I’ll wash the sheets.” She wouldn’t. She removed her head from the curtain and looked at me, eyes bloodshot and dull in the dim light. “Maybe what I want is a new car. Electric. With awesome speakers.”
I watched her wait for a sign.
“It’s not every night,” I told her, remembering what Ms. Tanaka told me. But she persisted in wanting things she didn’t want.
One night, I heard our front door shut, then saw my sister creeping across the street in her pajamas. Ms. Tanaka was opening the box, and I saw fine, silk scarves, colorful even in the dim porchlight.
She saw my sister and dropped the box, scurrying inside with the scarves. My sister examined the empty box, and then picked up the trowel and carefully buried it again.
“You could have given her a heart attack.” I told my sister.
“But it was amazing!” She unpacked a shopping bag full of peanut butter.
“I don’t like peanut butter,” I reminded her.
“It’s for the mice.” Humming, she took a knife and began to slather gobs of it here and there, on the banister, on the molding.
What to do? It was my house. But she was my sister, and she was going through a difficult time.
In fact, I wished I were as determined as my sister. She set out to do a thing and did it. She wore bright red lipstick. She knew how to have fun. Maybe this was fun.
Meanwhile, I went upstairs to watch a show about a girl who wakes up on a spaceship full of monsters she learns to love. The fragrant scent of peanuts lingered in my nose.
I slept badly. In my dreams, the house teemed with mice. They were having a disco. They were getting drunk on Skippy’s. In the morning, my sister denied hearing anything.
She went out each night and dug holes in my lawn, certain by now she had earned her reward. She tracked dirt all over the hallway, and in the morning, the yard looked like a cemetery. To the streaks of peanut butter on the banister, she added plump raisins and long, oily sardines. She dug holes instead of studying for her exams. She dug and dug.
I woke to screaming. My sister was in our yard, an opened shoebox on her knees. I ran to her.
Ms. Tanaka came out. “What have you done?” she cried.
It took me a moment to process what was in the box: bloody medical tools and syringes and bits of—fingers? I covered my mouth to keep from throwing up on the tulips.
My sister rocked, eyes tightly shut.
The next morning, she moved back home. She had decided, just this once, to change her mind, maybe work for a bank. I cleaned everything with a wet soapy cloth, happy to have my house to myself again.
In my room, I found, to my surprise, a small tube of cherry red lipstick next to my laptop. I opened it and dabbed some on my lips. It smelled like peanut butter. After a moment of hesitation, I inhaled deeply and reached out and stroked the walls and imagined them trembling with the movement of little furry bodies.
Editor: Vanessa Aguirre
First Reader: Shoshana Groom
Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department
Accessibility: Accessibility Editors