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The Mouse

Story by James Gianetti (Read author interview) June 19, 2023

Art by Prateek Katyal

My father asks the name of the boy who hit me but every word out of my mouth begins with a stutter. He wraps his fingers around my wrists and yanks them up to my ears like headphones. He says the Marvel superheroes on my bedroom wall are pansies in tights and four knuckles to the jawline, better than any magic powers, can turn boy into man or boy into mouse but this family has no tolerance for vermin. Mom whispers Hail Marys into the cross on her necklace, presses a bag of frozen vegetables against my right eye as my father examines the parts of my face tears have made moist, the parts he’ll bruise first. When his hand grasps hers and flings the bag away, my fists remain clenched at my ears. He shouts in their native tongue, one I barely know but I decode what I can, and he probably tells her she’s raised a pussy and it turns both of us porcelain and still. He says the best fighters are the ones who have the killer instinct and can take a punch as easy as they can throw one and he recites the greats his finger stabbing my collarbone. Pacquiao, Marciano, Chavez, because the black champs aren’t to be referenced in this house. He asks if I hit back and I lie and say yes and that too begins with a stutter. He tugs my wrists forcing my feet to shuffle then digs his nails into my cheeks. “Pégame!” he demands and Mom’s hand compresses her mouth endlessly bleeding “please no”. I hesitate so his clenched hand pummels my cheek and I don’t want to be an astronaut anymore and Santa Claus isn’t real and superheroes are just pansies in tights. His fists shove me into Mom’s breasts the same ones that have beaten cancer and her breaking heart thuds against my back. She shouts his name but he shoves again and again. He keeps yelling for me to fight back and pounds the part where I should strike. When his left fist slams against my ear hard enough to twist my neck my arms begin to fill the space in my sleeves and the shirt is snug against my swelling chest and my tongue presses the last few baby teeth against the roof of my mouth and I swallow but there’s new ones already in their place bigger with stronger roots. “Pequeno maricona!” I understand him because I’m older and taller and hairs sprout on my forearms and there’s a tattoo on my arm with a heart and the name Elena and I love her like I love Mom. He alternates hands using more force with the left. The constellation of fridge magnets holding report cards and art projects change to pictures of a young man in a graduation hat and in another he’s in a suit in a church with a pretty girl in a white dress and she looks like Mom. He deflects Mom’s right hand clawing at him over my shoulder but she lands one between his ear and chin and his head is stubborn and it’s like she’s hit a concrete slab because to be a great fighter you have to be able to throw a punch as easy as you can take one and I feel the release of her body as he yanks her to the ground beside me and there are calluses on my hand yellow and jagged and I dig my nails into my palms and my knuckles go white. When he delivers his next blow to my swollen eye his pupils dilate until they absorb the whiteness around them. His punches grow weaker suddenly reducing to a tap on the concrete between my ears and chin. Grey and white hairs overthrow the bloom of brown on his head and fill the places where it recedes then his beard and cheeks and neck and they stab through the gaps in his button-up shirt. Like the sidewalk slugs my friends and I poured salt on as kids his shriveling arms no longer reach my face. He stands in my shadow his face so close to mine the stubble on his mustache tickle my nose. By the time I pull my fist behind my ear Mom’s heart is already broken and when I swing I never feel his jaw meet my knuckles and all that remains of him are his clothes at my feet.

About the Author

James Gianetti’s stories and work have been published in Fatal Flaw, Hobart, Crow Name, and Hearth & Coffin where he received an Editor’s Choice Award. His debut novel, The Town of Jasper, was released in 2017. Beyond writing, James holds an M.A. in special education and teaches middle school in New Jersey. You can find him on twitter @Jamesgianetti or at www.jamesgianetti.com.

About the Artist

Prateek Katyal is a photographer from New Delhi, India.

This story appeared in Issue Eighty of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Eighty

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