But Then the Mice Began
to Change

by Rachel Abbey McCafferty

The doctor hadn’t always wanted to be a scientist. Growing up, he had wanted to be an artist or a farmer or a mother.

He had always wanted to create life.

But he couldn’t draw, and he hated the smell of manure, and he didn’t have the requisite parts. He was good with numbers, so he set aside his dream and turned to the lab.

He was 47 years old and had spent the past 13 years of his life trying to grow a human brain. He started small, combining the cells of humans with that of animals. He was supposed to be growing lungs, but he had bigger ambitions. He wanted to create something of a blank slate, something that could house a person’s memories and knowledge. It wasn’t creating life, not really, but it was close enough.

But then the mice began to change.

He noticed it first with the way they seemed to hold his gaze. He thought he saw their little eyes tear up when he was taking their cage-mates to the lab to dissect their brains, but he chalked it up to a reaction to the chemicals in the air.

One day, he came into the lab after a long weekend and the remaining four mice had constructed a small table and chairs from pieces of the ledges in their cage. Three of them were sitting on the little chairs, nibbling bits of food from the tiniest of makeshift plates. The fourth was by the water bottle. He looked up and waved. The doctor passed out.

When he came to, his four intelligent mice were all gathered at the front wall of their cage, standing on their hind legs, squeaking and waving their hands about. When they saw his eyes were open, they calmed down and went back to their meal.

After that day, the mice no longer heeded his commands. They responded to him with increasingly angry, increasingly human sounds, and they ran and covered each other with tiny limbs when he reached his hand toward their cage.

He had stumbled into what he thought he had always wanted. He had helped life transform itself, and it frightened him.

The doctor gathered up the mice and packed them into one of the clinic’s white vans and drove them an hour out of the city to a nondescript suburb on the edge of the state. It was one of those suburbs masking as rural, with Friday night football games and country music blaring out of trucks, just enough farmland and quiet space to hide the monsters he had bred.

He parked the van in the state park on the edge of town and ventured into the woods. When it had been at least ten minutes since he passed another person, he set the cage down at the base of a particularly large tree, nestling it among the brush. And then he left.

The next day he returned with the birds whose calls had become less melodic and more like speech. Then the rabbits who had started standing to walk on their hind legs instead of hopping. The lizards and the snakes, which he had just recently started experimenting on, followed. He didn’t want to take any chances.

The animals were fine at first. The doctor had left them all locked in their cages, but he usually filled their food and water containers with enough to last at least three days. And though they frightened him, he refilled both before dropping them off in the woods. Call it habit.

But the animals soon began to realize their creator had abandoned them. After their food stores ran out, the herbivores reached through their cages and picked the nearest branches bare. The carnivorous snakes went to sleep. Things got dire.

But that’s not how the doctor’s story ends. It’s a story he tells to the children every year during trick or treat, an indulgence the parents allow. After all, he’s old now, and harmless.

The doctor tells the children that in the woods are wraithlike birds that swoop and peck out eyes, spectral snakes that slither down trees to strangle a stranger, ghostly mice that crawl up pant legs, biting the whole way.

When the children move on to the next house, the adults tell them the doctor’s stories are just that: stories.

But children can see the truth in stories. None of them know anyone who has lost eye or limb to incorporeal animals that shriek and laugh and lecture as they attack. But some of the children swear it happened to their cousin’s friend or to their aunt’s neighbor. They avoid the woods.

The doctor’s tales grow larger every year. He needs his warning to take on its own shape, to outlast his dwindling days.

He still wants to create life.

Rachel Abbey McCafferty’s favorite questions are “what if?” and “why?” She’s a newspaper reporter from Ohio starting to tell her own stories, too.
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