The estranged children of your city collect mouse skulls and wrap these in tin foil they save from discarded sandwich and taco packaging. The children do not collect the rest of the skeleton, and you and the other bereft adults are yet to receive an answer from the children as to the original location of the skulls, the production and harvesting of them, or any other information that would reveal how they procure them, or why they do so, or when the children will return.
The way the children display the skulls does not provide clues. They sometimes array them in patterns. Often, they leave them behind without thought toward pattern at all. For example, you encounter a tiny foil-wrapped morsel in the most unlikely of places: your medicine cabinet, behind the vintage turntable, in your sock drawer, your underwear drawer, the crisper drawer of the refrigerator. These locations reveal no scrutable intention, no matter how much you want to insist to yourself they do. They are not places one always finds live mice, for example.
And after you remove the foil-wrapped skull the crisper drawer of the refrigerator door is empty, save for a single desiccated leaf of spinach that you notice and abandon for another day, a day you know you will possess the wherewithal for cleaning. You smile, holding the tiny wrinkled tin ball in your palm. Why not the cheese drawer? Because mice.
You set the ball on the desk you never use to the left of the eco-friendly polished bamboo in-box and here you encounter a pattern though one, again, concealing its meaning: field mouse skulls encased in tin foil arranged in the shape of a heart. Seventeen of them—not seven or twenty or eight. The heart shape does not corroborate with other patterns or lacking patterns.
Ignoring does not help because the children are not around but you still have to go about your duties. You feel something odd against the big muscle of your right buttock as you sit in the desk chair at the emergency PTA meeting, the orange molded plastic desk chair intended for children, and so you fidget and attempt to maintain your gaze at your spouse who adjusts her spectacles to continue her notes on her yellow glare-free legal pad, like most notes, notes neither of you will see again, and thumb the bump under your cotton-protected buttock which you fear is a mouse skull encased in foil. It is not. It is a rivet. The pleasant teacher chairing the meeting smiles and can tell you the last reading scores from the state tests but has no answers about the children and the skulls.
On the ride home you sense something under your thigh and this time it is not one but two field mouse skulls wrapped in foil, tell-tale congealed mayonnaise from the foil’s previous life as sandwich wrapping leaving a greasy trace on your fingers.
“The children,” your spouse says, and you look up and make a halted stop at the intersection. In the tremor caused by the stop, a mouse skull covered in foil drops from behind the stowed sun visor on the passenger’s side where your spouse sits, and it drops into her lap. In another era she might scream, but she says, “We locked the car. We did.”
“We did,” you say. Neither of you asks when the children will stop. Or when they will return.
At home, the chyron on the news station you flip on reveals the statistics of the skulls. Then the live updates air. One gentleman who runs an independent air conditioner repair service says in his interview he took five hundred skulls, conservative estimate, from a unit at a condo complex with uniquely serene river views in the warehouse district downtown, a sought-after neighborhood, renewed or gentrified depending on your perspective. Either way, it’s a place you know you would avoid. The sidewalks are narrow there, the restaurants fussy, the parking complicated. When the children lived with you, they hated going there. The streets there are quiet and calm. Laughter there is out of place.
Laughter, like the kind you hear accumulating around your house this very moment, cackling and giggling, the laughter of children. When the laughter subsides, a few moments of silence pass and then you hear the crinkling of tin foil, the sound of tiny bones breaking, all of it gathering behind and around you. There is a sweet and rich and foul odor, like swelling, decaying, triggered and abandoned mouse traps. You are tempted to turn the channel, but you cannot take your eyes off the screen. You never could.