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Go

Mouse

Henry is sitting as still as a statue. The morning sun is coming in through the blinds, making bands of light across the patient charts on his desk.

His desk phone rings. Henry makes no move to answer.

After a moment, there is a polite tapping at his door.

Henry stares straight ahead; even his eyes are locked in place.

The phone continues to ring.

“Henry?” someone calls from the other side of the door, “Henry… you there?”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

“Henry… Henry?…”

Henry had been looking down at the Go board for so long that, when he finally looked up, he was, for a moment, overwhelmed with the colors and textures of real life. He found Kenny sitting directly across from him, looking very expectant. He reminded Henry of a Chihuahua, or a rodent.

“One second,” said Henry. Between his thumb and forefinger he rolled a black stone back and forth.

“The only way to get better at this game is to make moves,” said Kenny, “You won’t learn anything if you just sit and think and never do anything.”

As a response, Henry placed his black stone onto the grid, enclosing one of Kenny’s white groups. There was nowhere for Kenny to run — he had him now! Henry found that his hands were trembling. He was finally going to beat Kenny.

Henry leaned back in his chair and rewarded himself with a sip of tepid coffee. The two of them were sitting at small table in a city park. It was a beautiful, early-spring morning. The trees everywhere were still bare and wet from rain. However, the cherry tree directly over their heads had already blossomed and was full of pink flowers. Occasionally it would drop pink pedals onto their board, as if wanting to join the game.

Henry looked at his opponent. Just the sight of him annoyed Henry. Kenny was now rubbing his chin, his brow furrowed in either confusion or anger, or both.

Once, Henry tried to pin-point the exact moment when he started to really hate Kenny. He had decided that it was during a Pictionary game years ago. It had been Henry’s turn to draw, but he only stood there in front of the blank sheet, while his friends shouted joke-guesses: “Polar bear in a snowstorm!”, “Invisible person!”, “Invisible castle!”, “God!”. In those agonizing two minutes, all Henry had managed to do was uncap his sharpie and produce several ounces of sweat. Afterwards, they all demanded to see Henry’s word. He showed them: “Imagination”. They all groaned and that’s when Kenny said, “Ahh, we should have guessed it. We all know Henry has no imagination.” The whole room then erupted into laughter. Henry excused himself and cried in the bathroom.

And yet, every couple months, Henry found himself getting coffee with Kenny. He had become a kind of success-barometer for Henry; if Kenny was failing, all was right in the world; if Kenny was doing well, Henry knew he needed to do some serious catch-up.

“How’s the pharmaceutical business going?” said Henry.

Kenny looked up from the board, his face lighting up, “Things are pretty exciting right now. Lots of exciting developments.”

“Oh,” said Henry. “Great.”

“How’s the clinic?” said Kenny.

“It’s going really well,” said Henry. In truth, it was not going well at all. In the past week alone he had mis-medicated three different patients. All his decisions were now scrutinized, and it seemed the more people watched him the more mistakes he made, until he didn’t want to make any movements at all. He constantly found himself stuck in a thick mental fog. But Henry saw this victorious game of Go as proof that he was finally breaking free of it.

“Oh yeah?” said Kenny.

“What kind of developments are getting you so excited?” said Henry, changing the subject.

Kenny glanced around the park. There was a woman walking a dog, and an old couple out for a walk. Otherwise, the park was empty.

“I don’t want to talk about it out here,” Kenny said in a hushed voice, “I’d love to show you the lab, actually. I’d be interested in your opinion, as a doctor.”

“Sounds great,” said Henry, “I’d love to see your lab.”

Kenny then turned back to the Go board and immediately placed a white stone down. Henry stared at Kenny’s stone in disbelief. Somehow, he had completely misread the board. Henry did his best not to scream out as Kenny removed several of his black stones from the board.

Henry walked briskly from the park with a sense of dread and failure hanging over him. He thought of a patient of his who recently had x-rays taken. Mysterious lesions had appeared along his spine. Lesions that suddenly had an uncanny resemblance to Kenny’s unstoppable white stones. Henry felt his heart beating rapidly as sweat ran down his temples —

Suddenly, a horn blasted — Henry turned and saw a semi truck hurdling straight towards him. He jumped back onto the sidewalk and clutched onto a light pole. As the truck drove past he heard the driver shout something at him. He continued to hug the metal pole, too dizzy to stand.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

“I’m not in my office right now,” Henry hears his own voice say, “But please leave your name and number and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.”

The answering machine beeps. Then: “Henry — it’s Kenny …I don’t know what you were thinking. We have security cameras in the lab, Henry. How could you be so stupid? Listen, just call me back as soon as you can…”

The polite tapping at the door has become a pronounced knock. “Henry?”

Henry is amazed he can remember the Go game in the park with such clarity. He can recall the placement of every stone, even the exact places where the pink flower pedals fell. He sees clearly how he could have beaten Kenny at the game.

Henry blinks. There’s a sticky noise when he does. He hasn’t moved an inch.

Behind his eyes, Henry’s brain is anything but stationary; it is a quivering mass of firing synapses.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Henry took two weeks off of work following his panic attack. It was a restful, rejuvenating time for Henry, interrupted only by Kenny, who kept inviting him to see his lab. Eventually, Henry ran out of excuses and agreed to meet Kenny.

The two of them stood before a modified mouse cage. Down the middle of the cage was a trench that was full of water. To the left of the trench was a small bowl of brownish gray pellets. To the right were piles of popsicle sticks, floppy discs, pencils, large pink erasers, and other common desk items.

“Are you going to tell me what this miracle drug of yours does?” said Henry.

“No,” said Kenny, “I’m going to show you.”

Kenny placed a white mouse onto the right side of the cage. It walked cautiously around the miscellaneous items, and then it pointed its nose upward and sniffed. The mouse b-lined to the food bowl, but stopped at the edge of the trench. It went up and down the trench, peering over occasionally, and then moving on. Eventually, it seemed to give up on crossing the gulf. Henry found himself sympathizing with the mouse.

Kenny then pulled a white plastic box from a drawer. From the box, Kenny pulled out an even smaller box — a tiny grayish cube. He fed the cube to the mouse, which ate it hungrily. Henry saw that the cube was soft like taffy.

For a while, the mouse just sat there as if sedated. And then it sprang to life: it went to the edge of the trench again and sniffed at the mouse food. It then began running around like mad, bumping its pink nose against the different objects. It pushed several popsicle sticks off the edge of the trench and then continued to bump objects all around the cage.

Henry looked over and saw Kenny staring down at the mouse with a very worried look. Henry was suddenly glad that he come after all. The “miracle drug” did nothing but make the poor mouse attack inanimate objects. He began thinking of ways to passive-agressively console Kenny, when he looked back into the cage and was startled by what he saw.

The mouse had, somehow, built a crude bridge made of popsicle sticks, pencil erasers, floppy discs and pencils — and was crossing it!

“There’s… no way,” Henry heard himself say.

“There is.” said Kenny, his voice strangely resonant, “…I am become Prometheus.”

Henry found himself not only intensely jealous of Kenny, but, strangely, of the mouse as well. one moment the mouse had been utterly stumped, and the next it had a massive breakthrough. The kind of breakthrough Henry had been waiting for all his career. He so desperately wanted that Eureka! moment.

Kenny picked up the mouse and put it into a cage that was labeled with the date and time of the experiment. The cage was on a wall that was filled with other cages. Each cage had a mouse that had eaten Kenny’s drug and gained incredible imaginative powers. They all seemed to behaved no differently than ordinary mice.

“How long does the effect usually last?” said Henry, his voice trembling slightly.

“It varies from subject to subject,” said Kenny, “We’re still in the early stages.”

“What’s wrong with that one?” said Henry. He pointed to a cage that was at eye-level. At the back of the cage sat a mouse that was skin-and-bones. Its eyes were red and and weeping. The mouse was breathing, but barely.

Kenny sighed and turned to the dying mouse. “Unfortunately, we don’t know…” He went on to explain what had happened to the poor mouse, but Henry wasn’t listening. He couldn’t. He could only hear his own blood thundering through his ears as he formed an insane idea. The white box was still open and within reach. Kenny was still faced away as he spoke of the dying mouse. Henry reached out a trembling hand…

The next morning, Henry arrived at work before anyone else. He spread out the patient charts on his desk. He then reached into his pocket and pulled out a blob of gray taffy. He threw it into his mouth and chewed on it. It tasted like mouse food. He dug into his pocket to see if he had any more, and found, down in the furthest corner, a smooth, hard object. He pulled it out and saw a glassy black Go stone. He must have taken it by accident when he left Kenny at the park. He rolled the stone between his thumb and forefinger as he waited for the drug to work.

Soon, he felt the first signs: his face became warm, then hot. A beam of white light seemed to shoot out of the top of his head. The light-heat then traveled down his spine and extended outwards until he felt like every part of him was glowing pink. The feeling reminded him of when he graduated medical school; he and his friends each had a bottle of champagne, and then smoked cigars while sitting in a hot tub. His head swam with thoughts and ideas, while his body utterly was relaxed. The memory was suddenly so rich and detailed that, for a moment, Henry forgot that he was still sitting at his desk. He felt he really were in a bubbling hot bath with his whole career still ahead of him.

Focus, Henry thought, The charts…

Henry didn’t even have to look down at his desk; the patient charts appeared before his mind’s eye in perfect clarity. He recalled the man with the mysterious lesions on his spine. Instantly, he understood: the man was having an allergic reaction to medication. The charts had been marked incorrectly.

Henry jumped to his feet. There was still time to save this man — as long as he acted fast. Henry burst through his door and ran down the hallway. It was exhilarating. He had become a super hero — in a very literal sense!

And then all at once the hallway faded away, and Henry found himself sitting back in his office. He hadn’t gotten up from his desk at all, only imagined it.

Strange, Henry thought uneasily.

Henry shook his head to awaken himself from the spell. He rubbed his face and found that he really was burning up. He scooted his chair back and stood up deliberately. He paused and looked around until he was satisfied that this was not a dream. When he reached his office door, he paused. Something wasn’t right. He turned his head and his heart sank. He saw himself, still sitting there behind his desk, in his tiny office. The sight reminded him exactly of the emaciated mouse he had seen in Kenny’s lab.

Henry’s mind went back to that moment:

Kenny was looking at the poor, dying mouse in the cage, while Henry was reaching out his hand to steal the gray cubes.

At the time, Henry hadn’t paid attention to what Kenny was saying, but now it came in crystal clear:

“Unfortunately, we don’t know.” said Kenny, “Every once in a while we get results like this. For some reason — we think it might have to do with the natural disposition of the mouse — sometimes they just freeze up. First they stop moving voluntary muscles, then bit by bit everything else goes. They stop blinking, then later they stop breathing…”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

There’s a very loud, authoritative knock at Henry’s office door.

Henry notices his vision is becoming blurry. His eyes feel like they are on fire and his cheeks are wet.

Henry puts all of his concentration into the task of getting to his feet. Use abdominal muscles to lean forward a little. Contract Quadriceps and Gluteus muscles to propel upward… It’s awkward and robotic, but it’s working! I’m on my feet! I’m doing it! I’m free!

Henry’s office door is kicked open. Two police officers enter Henry’s office, their guns drawn. They find Henry sitting at his desk, his eyes red and leaking fluid.

Between Henry’s thumb and forefinger, a black stone is held perfectly still.

THE END.

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Garrison Kammer

Short fiction writer from Seattle.

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