Mousetrap – a Short Story
She spent her life scurrying.
With red apples for cheeks, large buckteeth, and a perpetual grimace stretching the corners of her lips, she was quickly dubbed as “Pipsqueak” by her fourth-grade peers. It certainly didn’t help that she stood at 3’7” on a good day – with fists clenched to her sides and a furrowed brow, she learned to master the art of the quiet incendiary.
Her young mind whirred with indecision and plots of domination, feet planted on step stools to level herself through the course of her childhood and adolescence. Much to her disbelief, the growth supplements she had secretly been taking had little effect on her height; she was cursed with her smallness, seemingly doomed to an eternity of gazing up at people. Genetics were her greatest enemy – she vowed to someday invent a device that could infiltrate her biological code and rework her DNA. Make her taller. Stronger. Respected.
Oh, and maybe get into Harvard too.
With these aspirations bouncing about in her head, she charged through her schooling. Academically, high school was a breeze; however, she despised having to weave through the crowds between classes, books and papers piled upon her arms as she peered between the gaps in the pages. At a lofty, full-grown height of 4’11”, she spent her days ducking under arms and frantically darting between giant bodies – her peers promoted her from “Pipsqueak” to “Mouse”.
“Meredith, you always look friggin paranoid,” they would say, “It’s like you’re running from something all the time – you’re basically Jerry from ‘Tom and Jerry’”.
She had no idea what they meant. Cartoons were a waste of time.
It was over lunch on December 17th, a half-eaten cheese croissant resting beside next-week’s homework, when she noticed the e-mail: Harvard – Early Admissions Decision.
Gabe, who just so happened to be her only friend, peered over at her phone. “What?”
“They got back to me.”
Meredith shot him a look. “Who else?”
“Oh,” realization dawned on Gabe’s face, eyebrows arched. He whipped around in his seat. “What’s the news?”
Meredith got in of course. There was no other option.
Gabe began saying something, though Meredith paid no mind. Her eyes scanned over the e-mail, words blending into each other like artwork – “We are pleased to inform you…” – she felt powerful for the first time in her life. Yet, underneath this rush, though she felt her heart swell, something was missing.
“You’re a robot.”
She woke up at that. “Excuse me?”
“This always happens, Mer.” Gabe sighed. “Something fantastic happens to you, and you don’t even react. It’s like last year with the damn internship – you didn’t even smile!”
Meredith blinked. “It’s just the acceptance letter. I’ll celebrate when I graduate and get hired by Siemens Healthcare specifically as a biomedical engineer.”
Gabe paused for a moment, jaw slack, before he began picking up his things. “You know what? Let me know when you decide to actually start living.”
“No, don’t hey me.” he said, “Allowing expectations to govern your life isn’t healthy.”
“I’m ambitious, Gabe.”
He laughed dryly. “No. You’re running away from something and trying to convince yourself that it’s the other way around – that you’re aiming towards something.”
“You’re not.” he said, “I see why everyone calls you Mouse.”
The rest of the year whizzed by, littered with tiny, unexciting things like graduation and prom. These were all frivolous events, condiments to life’s main course. Gabe was practically out of the picture – Meredith held a grudge against people that insulted her, especially those that insulted her aspirations. For all she cared, he was dead.
Harvard was a challenge, but not an insurmountable one. She spent her degree sniffing out research opportunities, indulging in runt work and over-studying. This graduation was less satisfying than her first; not only did it drag on longer, but she felt strange.
This strangeness nestled its way into her belly on the morning of her interview.
She had picked out her best pair of high heels – tall but sturdy, the black leather wrapped her feet and hugged her soles. Coupled with her business outfit, she felt ferocious. Meredith had completely shed her jittery persona in her eyes – round ears, whiskers and all. She was a feline.
But as she sat before her potential employer, nose twitching with an unidentifiable itch, she knew that something had shifted.
“What distinguishes you from our pool of applicants?”
A muscle jumped in her jaw. “I strongly believe that my level of education and work ethic both in academia and beyond will make me an ideal fit for your company.”
“How do you believe your experiences have prepared you for this position?”
“I believe that…” she began to feel quite warm. “… the more difficult experiences that I have undergone have granted me exposure to many of life’s facets. The trajectory to success isn’t black and white. My understanding of that reality will make me an adaptable, efficient worker.”
The man paused at that, brow pinching together as he leaned back in his seat. “What is success then, Ms. Corvey?”
“Success?” she said, “Success is finding your use.”
She spent the next hour sobbing in her apartment.
With fists clenching at strands of her wet hair, bare back flush against the bathroom door, she mourned; Meredith desperately hoped that a scalding hot shower would numb the agony of her revelation. Steam clung to the mirrors, thick and colourless – it clouded the fluorescence from the single light that was hung above the sink.
She got the job.
She was going to be a creator, the hands behind magnificence. The catalyst of scientific change. The frontwoman of unimaginable biomedical feats that could alter the course of humanity.
And yet, she felt nothing.
Her tongue snaked over her lips – she tasted like salt.
With shaky hands, she grabbed at the wet tiles until her fingers managed to find her phone. Texts upon texts began flooding in – “Congratulations, honey!”, “You had it in the bag!”, or best of all, “You were made for this, Meredith!”.
She unlocked her phone and pressed the call button.
Meredith’s mouth felt dry. “Hi, Gabe.”
There was a beat.
“Why are you calling me, Meredith?”
She swallowed, eyes vacant. “I was always being chased.”
“You were right. All this time.” she said, “I am a robot. I have spent my entire damn life on automatic. Nothing means anything to me. I don’t even know what I want or what I am. I was always being chased by fear of failure.”
“You know I didn’t mean any of that, Mer – I was in friggin high school back then.” he paused, “I was jealous.”
“When you’re a kid, you dream big, right? You want the power to hold the world in your hands. But we’re not really anybody… aren’t we? We’re like mice in a maze. It’s a fight to be the first at the finish line, but what comes after that, Gabe? We spent our whole lives looking ahead. Everything is just a trajectory to us.”
He was quiet for a long time. “That’s just how it is.”
“You can choose to think of it that way.” he said, “But it’s the trap we all live in. You were just really adamant on getting to that goal before everyone else. You didn’t stop to think about it. Either accept it or don’t.”
Meredith’s eyes fluttered closed. “I don’t like it.”
“No one does.”
She peered down at her phone, watched as the seconds ticked by in silence before ending the call. She had spent her life relishing ideas. Ideas that could’ve easily been scuffled or dismissed by even the most minor of inconveniences. But here she was, with everything and absolutely nothing all at once.
So she sat, watching as the hot steam slowly snaked through the vents, feeling the weight of the present settle for the first time.