Sam Payne

Mama is on her hands and knees in the shed. Pregnant belly swinging low, she’s lifting wooden planks, sifting through small piles of insect husks, dead wood and shrivelled berries. We’re spying on her, Ava, Tommy and me. It’s forbidden, we’re to stay inside, but we’re hungry, ravenous, hollow-belly hungry, like we always are these days.

We’re crouching near the nettles, amid the smell of mould and old paint, and Ava, who’s twelve and always in charge, holds a finger to her lips. We stay silent. We hold our breath. We peer between the gaps in the rotten slats watching Mama shuffling around the shed. Light leaks in through the half open doorway and when she turns, we see it clearly. Her cheeks are full and puffed out, a long, thin tail flailing between pursed lips. Tommy gasps and Ava puts her hand over his mouth, his eyes bulging as she drags him away.

‘Women crave strange things when carrying,’ Ava tells us, as she pours the last of the cereal into two chipped bowls. ‘It’s normal.’

When Mama comes in, her cheeks red, sweat glistening on her temples, we bow our heads. She’s swatting the air as she walks as if there are flies buzzing all around her.

‘We need more food,’ Ava calls.

But she keeps walking. Like she doesn’t even hear.

‘She’ll be back to normal when the baby’s born,’ Ava says, turning back to us.

We believe her because she was in the gifted and talented class at school, before Mama told them we were moving away.

When traps appear all around the house, not the killing kind but the ones that keep the mouse alive, we make a pact to wake early and rescue them.

Day after day, the traps stay empty and we’re both glad and disappointed. Ava says it’s because mice only go where there’s food, so we find crumbs of stale bread at the back of the cupboard and add them to the traps. The next morning we wake to the sound of scratching and discover a pair of black, liquid eyes looking up at us.

Ava lifts the mouse and carries it outside. She tells us different facts, memorised from a book she’d once slipped under her jumper at the Salvation Army shop.

An adult mouse weighs twenty grams, the same as a baby’s heart.

A new born is called a pinkie.

Mice are always hungry, if they’re starving they’ll eat their offspring.

Ava lets us slide a finger through hers to feel the soft fur and then whispers, it’s not safe for you here. I don’t know if she’s talking to us or the mouse, but Tommy begins to cry because he thinks Mama might birth a cat and I imagine a skinny old Tom, farm feral, missing an eye.

‘No,’ Ava says solemnly, ‘it’ll be one of us,’ and she makes us touch our hands to our hearts and swear never to tell the baby about the cravings.

This story was a runner-up in the UNCANNY themed flash competition.

About the author: Sam Payne holds a BA in English Literature from The Open University and an MA in Creative Writing from Teesside University. Her work has appeared in Spelk, Fictive Dream, Reflex Fiction, Popshot Quarterly and Unbroken Journal. In 2020, she won 1st prize in Flash 500 and placed 3rd in the Bath Flash Fiction Awards. Sam is on twitter – @skpaynewriting

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