“Mouse House” by Shelby Switzer

Today is surgery day. Yesenia wakes up two minutes before her alarm goes off. Bailey is still sleeping, curled into a fetal position. Her face is flushed, lips open, silent and empty – so different than the night before.

Yesenia slides out of bed, in her practiced way barely moving the duvet. The mattress springs back into place as if she hadn’t been there, as if she hadn’t come home alone last night and lay down on her side, erecting a wall with her body against her partner she assumed would eventually return.

She navigates the labyrinth beside the bed, stepping between piles of books and Science magazines she subscribes to but never reads, around the cardboard box of clothes that Bailey has yet to unpack after sixteen months of living here, over pink catnip-stuffed mice, felled and lifeless on the carpet. She can’t help but notice the two vibrators still plugged into the wall, their battery lights a solid, expectant blue.

In the kitchen – which is technically the same room, a 200 square foot studio in Manhattan – she fills the bottom half of the moka pot with water, spoons the grounds into the filter, screws on the top, and sets it on the stove. She clicks the gas until the flame catches.

This morning routine has forged neural pathways in her brain that she bets she’d be able to image. If she were to cut her brain into slices, stain them, and mount them on slides, what patterns would the blue dye reveal? The aroma of the coffee as it forms, the taste of the dark roast tempered by sugar, the solitude of drinking it on the toilet, surrounded by nothing but cream-colored tiles and the lingering, dewy scent of lavender – all the neutral stimuli she is now conditioned to associate with that feeling of wakefulness once the caffeine kicks in, forming mappable, paintable pathways in her brain.

For the first time since she can remember, Yesenia feels awake before her morning coffee. If she doesn’t finish her ritual, she wonders how long it would take for her cells to realize they’ve never received their daily dose. She suspects she’d be fine without it, but today is surgery day. She doesn’t want to fuck it up. She pours the coffee, takes a sip, the taste bitter and banal.  Still, she’s struck by how novel this feels: the act of deciding, right now, in the moment, that she will drink it. The feeling that she has a choice.


On campus, Yesenia walks into the Mouse House, nodding at the security guard as she scans her badge and pushes through the turnstile. The new dean has instituted a policy of ambient music in shared spaces, convinced that minor harmonies would have beneficial effects on postgrads stress-walking from lab to lab, anxiously avoiding talk of fellowships and research progress, and anxiously unable to stop talking about them. The unmemorable notes of the piano are barely audible over the slapping of dozens of shoes on the polished floor. Words like “chromosome” and “depolymerization” and “Lambrusco” intermingle with the sound of Greenberg, a third year Ph.D., yelling to Yesenia from the side entrance. Yesenia ignores him and beelines to the elevator. She decides she doesn’t have time to hear about his undergrad escapades, which she suspects are just fantasies anyway.

As the elevator rises, her stomach grumbles. Typically she would be licking cream cheese off her fingers right now, after a quick drop-in to Ess-a-bagel’s express line, but as she neared the turn on 52nd this morning, she changed her routine just slightly to see what would happen. But she couldn’t think of a backup plan before she reached campus, so now she must work on an empty stomach. That’s okay, she reasons: if the mice who are running today can go without a meal for fifteen hours, so can she.

She scans into Room 384, where her specimens reside. They call this building the Mouse House, but its official name is the Comparative Bioscience Center. It holds some laboratories, but mostly mice, rooms and rooms of mice. Each room in the Mouse House contains walls of shelves, each shelf bearing a row of clear plastic containers, each container caging five inhabitants. One room on the fourth floor has rats, but Yesenia doesn’t work with rats: they’re too human-like.

She retrieves the box with numbers 3-7 and slides it onto one of the waiting carts. She notices the smell of the room for the first time since her first week here. It’s woody but funky, the fermentation of sharp yellow piss and cedar chips in a sterile environment.

Last night, Bailey lit incense to set the mood for dinner, a new kind that Yesenia had not smelled before, and later, at the concert, the pungent smell of feces had filled the stairs leading up from the street. The bouncer had insisted it was a gutter issue next to the venue, but Yesenia suspected the plumbing was backed up in the building. She imagined the overflowing pipes just inches away in the walls, leaking into the hundred-year-old beams, into the paint peeling off in ribbons. The smoke and the sewage – two heavy smells that stick out in her mind as the most memorable details of last night. Even more memorable than the fight with Bailey, which she realizes now was just a bigger, louder manifestation of something that was already there, a pattern that was already formed. Neural pathways that she has been living with for she doesn’t know for how long.

Yesenia wheels the cart into her lab in the next building over. She puts the cage on the counter. Three of the mice pace along the edge of the box, the wood chips not moving under their weight; two of them hide in the cardboard tube on the side. She reaches down and scoops up number 3. It immediately tries to crawl out of her hand. Two metal antennae stick up from the top of its skull, like miniature lightning rods, which are used to send and receive light between the brain and the machine.

The mouse’s soft head and flickering whiskers, the tiny paws with their tinier fingers, the quick huff and puff of its lungs that shake its whole body – all of this used to heighten Yesenia’s anxiety so much that she would shake as much as the rodent in her hand. Now, she is calm and steady, while the animal’s fingernail-sized heart races as if from too many cups of coffee. Does the mouse feel its heart racing? Is it unnerved by her hand? She’s been told that it’s unlikely. Generations of inbreeding to make the line genetically homogeneous have bred out intelligent characteristics, like the fear of humans. Unfortunately, that’s also made them bad at learning, and number 3 in particular has taken twice as long as the others to learn the task now at hand.

Yesenia gently drops the mouse onto the styrofoam ball inside the garage – the 2x3x3, heavy-duty box that opens on the side for access and observation. The styrofoam ball sits on an axle so that it spins backwards or forwards as the mouse moves. She locks the rods implanted in the mouse’s brain into the cable hanging from the ceiling of the garage, cupping her hand around the animal to keep it still. She moves her hand away, lowers the garage door, and turns to her computer. She can see through the small window that the mouse is struggling to stay upright on the ball, its front paws gripping a little bar for stability while its hind legs splay in different angles as the ball moves. She works quickly to turn on the VR, a video that projects onto the wall in front of the mouse, depicting a maze with various colors that the mouse navigates to find the sugar water, which, during the earlier conditioning stage of the experiment, was dispensed through a straw in front of the mouse’s mouth. Now the straw dispenses only plain water.

While number 3 and each of the subsequent mice run the exercise, Yesenia catches up on the family text thread. Grandpa is having a good day, her mother says, and the cherry tree out back has already produced a bowlful of tart fruit. Yesenia starts to text back that they’d better save her some, but remembers that Bailey is supposed to come with her on that trip, and she can’t find a way to finish the text.


Two years ago was Yesenia’s first time. It was her last semester at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, and she tried to believe the day was no different than the 8,453 that preceded it. She began with breakfast: cereal, an apple, and 24 oz of filtered water to wash it all down. Her commute to campus: a 3 block walk under the Nebraska sun, the street lined with scrawny trees and identical yards of grass.

Once there, she found herself filled with an unexpected urgency to read every single article in the day’s JSTOR newsletter. She re-wrote every email three times before sending. She took a long walk to the bathroom at the back of the neuroscience department for privacy; she cleaned her nails; she wrote an extensive mental checklist of the day’s tasks as well as the next day’s tasks and the tasks of the day after that.

She checked her phone for texts from Bailey, whom she had not told about her morbid task that day. Bailey had sent a single text, wishing her a good day with a string of sparkling heart emojis. She agonized over the best response until eventually, finally, it was lunchtime.

In the cafeteria, Yesenia couldn’t decide between beef lasagna and mushroom stroganoff. If Bailey had been there, she would’ve looked at her sideways until she picked the vegetarian dish. She got both. She tried to catch the eye of anyone she knew. Everyone seemed uninterested, though, except the sophomore assigned to her lab, who sat down next to her and badgered her with questions about the upcoming midterms. When her tray had been sitting empty for almost an hour and her eyes were going droopy, she realized she couldn’t keep putting it off.

In the lab, she found a note from the grad student who was supposed to be supervising, saying she had an emergency come up but that she trusted Yesenia to do it herself. Yesenia breathed deeply and decided to continue. She’d already come this far: four years, with a double major in biology and chemistry, carrying the image of her grandfather, birdwatching from the kitchen table in her parents’ house, where he lived now that his mind couldn’t keep up with the world around him. She would never be able to cure dementia if she couldn’t perform one of the most fundamental tasks of neuroscientific research.

She could only go through with it with the first mouse. She forgot to breathe as she injected the brown animal with the fluid that began the termination and preservation process. The mouse stopped moving. She reached for the scalpel and lifted it in her fingers and her fingers were shaking and this was the point where her vision started to get dark around the edges. She took deep breaths. She inserted the surgical blade into the skin over the heart. She managed each of the next steps until she dropped the brain into paraformaldehyde, and then she blacked out.

Afterwards, she went straight back to her dorm to lie in bed – staring at the ceiling and playing with a puzzle ball until she couldn’t take the stillness anymore. She left her room and walked to the shared bathroom. She hadn’t realized how sweat-soaked her clothes had become. The breezy hall made the wet cotton of her t-shirt cling to her back and chest, and she shivered. She stumbled into a stall and threw up. She felt her way to the showers. She peeled her clothes off, quickly, awkwardly. They stuck on her elbows and skull, and she contorted and pulled and fell against the wall trying to get free, her body wet-cold, and she stepped, blind, over the tile barrier into the embrace of hot water.

Bailey came over that night, and by that time, Yesenia was clean but still cold, looking at the TV. She wasn’t watching it: she was replaying the day, the moment she came face-to-face with something that was moving and breathing becoming suddenly and decisively not. When she told Bailey about it, Bailey shook her head.

“You know that’s how I feel whenever I see someone eating a hamburger,” she said.

“It’s not the same thing at all,” Yesenia said. Eating a hamburger didn’t contribute towards advancing science, or helping to prevent other people’s grandfathers from losing their memories as Yesenia’s had, or any of the good things, the important things, she believed she was signing up for with this life.

They held each other’s gaze. Bailey bit her lip. Suddenly Yesenia felt whatever remaining energy she had drain away, wrung out like from a washcloth. She let her face fall into her hands. Bailey’s hands found her shoulders, her back, and suddenly she was in Bailey’s arms.

“Shh, baby, you’re right,” Bailey murmured. She stroked Yesenia’s hair and their bodies shook together with Yesenia’s sobbing. “You are on this hard, hard path, and I’m here with you.”

That night in bed, Bailey held Yesenia, spooning her from behind and her face buried in Yesenia’s hair. At last Yesenia felt warm and dry. They fell asleep like that, their bodies pressed to each other, holding each other still, holding each other together, the bed sheets tangling around them.


Today is surgery day, and after running the five mice through the experiment in the morning, Yesenia must terminate them in the afternoon. In her department, they call it surgery: a euphemism that is still medical.

After they moved to New York, it really hit Bailey that she’d be living with someone who killed animals not just once or twice, but every month. Her words of support gradually became replaced with questions, and even, once, an argument, about how necessary this was for Yesenia’s research, or for humankind. Yesenia doesn’t talk to Bailey about surgery days anymore, but often thinks about her first time and the feeling of Bailey holding her in her dorm. She keeps that early memory close, like a medallion in her pocket that she could reach for, to help her find her way back to the feeling of security Bailey had given her in that moment.

Today, she doesn’t reach for it. She starts the surgery procedure. She cleans the lab counter, moving aside the papers and equipment another researcher has left behind. She buttons up her lab coat and fits a face mask over her nose and mouth and slides goggles over her eyes. She retrieves the first mouse and places it in the small box at the end of the counter. She flips the switch to fill the chamber with isoflurane and waits three minutes to be sure the animal has entered a state of deep unconsciousness. After she opens the chamber and removes the mouse, she pins it on its back to the dissection surface, limbs spread. Using a scalpel, she makes a thin cut down the mouse’s body and opens the chest to reveal the internal organs. The heart at the center is still pumping, though the animal is unconscious, almost to the point of death.

When she inserts the tube of phosphate buffered solution into one aorta and another tube, connected to the fist-sized pump waiting in front of her, into the other, she begins the perfusion process: the solution is carried from the left side of the heart through the entire body of the animal until it exits through the left, the heart and the pump working together to clear the body of blood. This is the point of no return – not that return was ever really feasible – and it is here that Yesenia usually feels her jaws unclench and her lungs able to breathe deeply again. Today, however, her jaws stay locked, her lips pinched tightly closed, as she tries to hold herself together.

A minute passes and Yesenia switches the liquid being pumped to paraformaldehyde. The heart is still pumping on its own, but now the noxious chemical will kill every cell in the animal’s body. It cycles through the body for seven minutes. The harsh, terrible smell rises from the workstation and through Yesenia’s mask, giving her a headache. When it is time, Yesenia stops the pump. The animal is completely lifeless in front of her. She cuts open the mouse’s head around the lines marking the previous surgery, when she implanted the metal rods. She extracts the brain and lowers it into a small dish of paraformaldehyde, where the brain will soak overnight.

Yesenia repeats the surgery with the remaining mice. Later, she will transfer the brains to a 30% sucrose solution, to prevent the tissue from breaking during the freezing process. She’ll know that the brains are fully diffused when they sink. Then she will freeze them at -30 degrees Celsius and use a microtome to cut the frozen objects into segments 40 micrometers thick. Then, she will stain 10 of the slices with the dye that intercalates the DNA and makes the nucleus visible. The other slices she will not stain. Once she mounts each stained slice on slides, she will let them dry and then take the images.

The images: what all this has been for. Fluorescent paintings of detected proteins in shades of blue, pointing to cells which, if stimulated, might help restore memory function.

After she rests the last brain into the paraformaldehyde, Yesenia sinks to the floor. On a normal day she would start a podcast and begin cleaning up, maybe go for a walk before typing up her notes from the morning’s experimentation. But today she can think only of the mouse bare and opened on the counter, and the heart cells, operating independently of the rest of the body, that pumped and pumped after the brain had died, and the moment – though she cannot pinpoint it – when the artificial pump took over completely from the organ: the moment when the heart stopped.


“Let’s do a clarity spread,” Bailey said, the night Yesenia learned that she’d been accepted into a prestigious research fellowship at Columbia.

Whenever there was a big decision to be made or one of them was feeling lost, Bailey brought out her tarot deck. Before they started dating, Yesenia hadn’t known much about tarot, or spirituality in any form other than her family’s Roman Catholicism. So much of Bailey’s life was intuitive, artistic, intangible, and she was smart: the insight she generated from things like astrology or a deck of cards turned Yesenia on. Yesenia didn’t believe in the literal truth of any of it, but she believed in the power of the mind to create realities – to kindle change, to see miracles, to make meaning – and that these realities were important and true in their own right.

The problem was, she never experienced this herself, no matter how much she tried. She remembered as a child, when she lost books or bracelets, her grandfather would take her hands in his and guide her in a prayer to his patron saint, Saint Anthony, the saint of lost things, and instruct her to recite the prayer every night, spinning around three times, until she found the item in question. She had seen this work for him, when his car was stolen and then recovered intact next to the river, or when his dog came back after chasing a coyote and disappearing for two days, but her own success rate never got above 15%. At such a poor showing, it seemed the divine was at best nonexistent, at worst working against her. She wondered if she wasn’t trying hard enough, or if there was a gene that was sequenced for spirituality and she simply hadn’t inherited it.

“Maybe some things just can’t be quantified, at least not with the techniques we currently have,” Bailey had said, when Yesenia told her about her most recent visit home. Every morning, Yesenia would find her grandfather at the kitchen table, happily fingering the beaded necklace bearing Anthony’s medallion, confidently praying for the return of his pocket knife. The knife was always in the same place, but each day, she found him praying again, each day grinning and praising God when he discovered it clipped onto his pocket. How could he remember Saint Anthony and his faith, but not the location of his pocket knife, which surely hadn’t changed in years? What was it like to feel a connection so deeply that your deteriorating brain never failed to access it?

“His belief is a fundamental rule of the universe,” Bailey continued, squeezing Yesenia’s hand gently. “Do people with Alzheimer’s forget the law of gravity and expect a ball to float instead of fall when dropped? Why is it any different with God, or with Saint Anthony?”

The night of the big news, in Yesenia’s dorm, Bailey told her to shuffle the deck and think about the research fellowship. She complied. Bailey took the cards and laid three on the coffee table.

“The Eight of Pentacles,” Bailey said, pointing at the first. “In the past position. This card indicates expertise and years of hard work. You have refined your skills and become a master of your craft.” She smiled. “Well, that’s obvious. You’re the top in your program.”

Yesenia let herself smile at the compliment.

“Next up is the Ace of Cups,” Bailey continued. “It represents the beginning of a new love or source of joy. This is the present. You’re entering a new phase of your life, and it’s going to be awesome.”

“So, the fellowship, obviously.”

“Possibly, but the suit of cups usually refers to matters of the heart or family. The third card I think might shed some light.”

Bailey pointed to the last card: two human figures embracing, each with a golden cup in one hand.

“The future is the Two of Cups. Love. Romance, usually. But it can be a friendship or another meaningful relationship. Whatever it is, it’s pure and strong.”

She looked pointedly at Yesenia.

“I wonder who that could be referring to,” Yesenia teased.

Bailey put her arm around her and pulled her in for a slow kiss. When she pulled back, her arms stayed around Yesenia’s shoulders, her hand stroking Yesenia’s arm.

“I love you,” Bailey said. “Even if you are making me move to New York City.”


Yesenia straightened and turned to look at Bailey.

Until now, Bailey had been noncommittal about any plans after the summer. Yesenia had caught her looking at New York apartments on Craigslist, but she’d also overheard Bailey telling her friends how much she hated the idea of living in a big city.

“Does this mean you’re coming with me?”

“Yes, silly.” Bailey laughed.

Yesenia looked away. Part of her felt relieved, another part worried. The decision seemed too easy. They’d barely talked about it. But then again, Yesenia had been told by multiple people that she tended to overthink things, and she did want her girlfriend, her best friend, to be in New York with her.

Light from Bailey’s candles flickered across the glossy cards and Yesenia felt an urge to get up and refill their wine glasses. Instead, she picked up the Two of Cups and studied it. Its two figures were naked, each resting their head on the other’s shoulder. Flowers and branches reached up and tangled over their bodies, and a winged lion hovered in the sky, both ominous and beneficent. It struck her that the lovers weren’t smiling. They weren’t even looking at each other. Their eyes were closed, as they held each other up.

She realized Bailey was watching her, a half-smile on her face. She glanced again at the lovers in her hand before setting the card back on the table, taking care to line it up perfectly with the other two. She decided there would be enough time for conversation before August. She decided now was the time for trust – in Bailey, in the universe, or at least in some promise shining on the surface of the cards.

She opened her arms to pull Bailey in. Their bodies came together and their clothes – a shirt now between them, another now crammed in the crevice of the couch, jeans scrunched around ankles and caught on heels – tangled with the shadows around them like vines, like a whole world. She closed her eyes.

Shelby Switzer is a writer currently based in Baltimore, but often found on trains. They have participated in the Lighthouse LitFest Advanced Fiction Workshop and OneStory Summer Conference, and their work has appeared in The Maine Review and the New Mexico Poetry Review.