I remember the day that I met Mortimer the Maus quite well; although I couldn’t have been more than five or six at the time. Even though the events of that day may be difficult for you to believe, they are forever etched into my memory.
My father had taken me to the amusement park that day, during the weekend when I visited him. He and my mother had been separated now for several months, and by then, the novelty of spending my weekends with him was rapidly losing its luster. In those days, I remember my father being remote and angry. “Distracted” you might say, skirting the frayed edges of neglect. Prior to the separation, my mother’s favorite refrain was: “He’s just become so distant.”
I suppose the divorce was as good a reason as any as to why my disappearance had gone unnoticed that day. Well, for that reason and the fact that my father’s new “girlfriend,” Coraline, had accompanied us to the park. For him, she was distraction personified. As she sunk her hooks deeper and deeper into the man, I became more of a hindrance — a reminder of his former marriage… his former life. I was, after all, very much like my mother and I am certain that she recognized that. The only thing that I remember about her now, all these decades later, was that she was a mean-spirited and spiteful woman. She never missed an opportunity to berate me about my behavior, pinching and flicking my ears whenever my father wasn’t looking.
But I wasn’t a bad kid, I was just a kid; prone, as any kid to doing childish things. Things like wandering off, I suppose. Over the years, I came to realize that it wasn’t me that she was punishing — it was herself she hated. Memory is legacy, or so they say, and such are the sad legacies of the evil people we are exposed to in our lives.
The amusement park we visited that summer wasn’t the world-famous one — no — but it did feature a bizarre array of cheap knock-off costumed animals and animatronics. The latter would swivel and pivot on squeaky joints, rattling to an abrupt stop whenever their routine dictated that they recite some canned catch phrase. All the children would stop and stare as the words buzzed erratic and out-of-sync from their chipped mandibles. Even to my young and innocent eyes, their sun-bleached plastic faces seemed tatty and vapid.
Whether it was to escape Coraline’s constant abuse, or whether I had simply wandered off — whatever the reason I had become separated from the two of them that day — I found myself quite suddenly adrift in a sea of floral-print dresses and plaid shorts, lost in the shuffle of the distracted masses that seemed to fill every inch of the park. I felt a growing dismay, staring at the crowds as they trudged past, hot and weary, their eyes ever searching for the good time that they had been promised; their children bawling, hot and overwhelmed; the vaguely angry look of the men as they plodded by, their nagging wives in tow.
Some very primitive and instinctual part of me recognized that here, by myself, I was vulnerable — exposed — which only served to deepen my distress. I sought the cover of some scant shade, there beside the walkway. I watched the throngs pass, an organism onto itself, hoping in vain that my father would appear from the crowd — angry, but relieved. Perhaps he would even castigate Coraline for her lapse of attention.
Hope springs eternal, I suppose.
There, eclipsed by the shade, I watched a performer on stilts stride down the narrow walkway, throngs of my peers at his heels. As he made his way toward me, I wondered if he ever misstepped, tripping over one of his ardent admirers, toppling onto the hot pavement into a pile of broken stilts and crying children. It occurred to me that the two clowns at his side were bulwarks against that unfortunate eventuality. They gently moved the children aside as the performer plowed awkwardly through their wake.
Despite the clown’s weary smile, I could see the sweat bead on his forehead, melting his gaudy face paint. It gave me the impression that his skin was melting, sloughing off in multicolored rivulets… splattering onto the children who surrounded him. What happens after all of the face paint melts, some morbid part of me wondered. For a moment, I envisioned the flesh underneath all that makeup likewise melting away in the blazing sun — drizzling down off his skull like so much rendered fat. A slight shudder passed through me at the mental image I’d conjured.
My mother would probably be aghast if she knew about the things that sometimes drifted through my mind. She often admonished me about my gruesome imagination (which, quite honestly, only encouraged me all the more). Then, as now, I wonder where such aberrant and unwholesome fascinations spring.
But I digress…
It didn’t seem at all that strange that afternoon to see the costumed mouse, the Mortimer Maus, walking some distance behind this costumed trio. Even at a distance, it was evident to me that this was a man dressed in a costume. A person pretending to be a mouse, pretending to be a person. Despite my excitement, for the briefest of moments, it occurred to me that such epiphany, such an obvious lapse in the suspension of disbelief, would have never been permitted at the premier amusement park. After all, in the magical kingdom, belief was everything!
Well, maybe not everything.
My father believed that the rides here were just as good here as they were at the premier amusement park, albeit, anyone could tell that they were not. Most of the rides at the Chippewa Lake Amusement Park would rattle to a start and shudder to a halt, all the while groaning deep in their rusted joints. The stench of the carnies manning the rides was only equaled by the smell of grease coating the hot overworked gears. Everywhere you looked, the paint on the rides was oxidizing and faded, that is, where it hadn’t been tagged by some lesser variety of vandal.
No… this was not a magical place. No amount of belief or wishful thinking would ever make it so.
And so, even though I recognized this as a costume — or as a man in a costume — I still found it strange the way that the figure moved. It strode along the walkway as though its joints were on backwards. It had an odd shuffling gait, incongruous to the patrons who jostled and jockeyed around it. For his part, the giant rat/man shambled down the street, oblivious to the crowds, seemingly intent on its destination. Children froze in the character’s path, struck with awe at seeing the famed Mortimer Maus in person. However, Mortimer didn’t possess the retinue of clowns that the man on stilts did; and so, the star-struck children had to be quickly pulled aside, lest they be trampled by the cartoon caricature. Parents and children alike stared at the figure as it staggered through the crowd, appalled by its heedless disregard.
I suppose then that it should have struck me as odd that I somehow drew its attention. I was a rather ordinary boy; albeit, I was far less excited than my peers to be at the park at that moment, immersed and alone as I was in the crowd that day. But my dismay at being lost was quickly overshadowed. Like the children around me, I was mesmerized as the figure approached — utterly star-struck by it. For as long as I could remember, I had watched Mortimer’s antics on T.V. Like most children my age, I could recite his cheesy catch-phrases and mimic his odd tittering laugh. I even had a Mortimer-the-Maus themed lunch box at home.
Inexplicably, its giant rat’s head pivoted toward me. It was as though I had suddenly materialized in the thing’s path, startling the suit’s occupant.
The thing’s comically oversized rubber shoes slowed, scuffing over the asphalt, until the creature came to an abrupt halt less than an arm’s length before me. The late afternoon sun dazzled me as I gazed up into the dense mesh that formed the thing’s eyes. Beyond that thin layer of mesh, I could hear labored breathing, a sort of dry rattle wheeze that whispered of an advanced case of emphysema or maybe the onset of heat stroke (although, admittedly, I knew very little about such things at the time). The figure awkwardly raised its arm and waved a thickly gloved hand at me. I returned the creature’s clumsy greeting cautiously, stunned and unsure what to make of the undue attention it was giving me.
Of course, I, like every other child in the park, had seen the commercials and animated specials featuring Mortimer the Short-tailed Maus and his retinue of curious friends: Oswald the Hare, Horace the Donkey, and so on. The other costumed characters that I had seen at the park were strangely reticent to speak, despite the fact that their T.V. personas never seemed to shut up. And so, I found it quite odd that this particular Mortimer groaned as he bent forward, as though to examine me more closely. Even through the thick rubberized costume, I could smell the performer’s sweat beneath. Well…sweat and something else. Something unpleasant. Something unlike body odor at all.
No… this smelled different.
There was a sickly sweetness to it. It was the sharp scent of corruption just before it ripened into reeking and rampant decay. The stench seemed to ooze through layers of foam, seeping through the heavy felt costuming. The creature extended its hand out to me, a thickly-padded, three-fingered glove bound at the wrist by a wide elastic strap. The glove, normally a dazzling white, was stained and mottled, as though something had leached through all the foam stuffing, and had seeped to the surface.
I hesitated, and the thing tilted its head — an unmistakable gesture of curiosity and bewilderment. Some of the other amusement park customers cajoled me to shake his hand, their phones at the ready to capture what promised to be an “adorbs moment.” I gazed into the thing’s mesh-filled eyes for some clue of its intent, but with the sun behind it, its eyes appeared to be dark empty pits, bored into the thing’s ridiculously bulbous skull. The darkness there was deep and impenetrable.
Again, I heard that dreadful wheezing emanating from inside its mask. Up close, the thing’s mesh eyelets gave vent to an awful miasma as the damp fetor inside the suit bellowed out. Before I fully realized what was happening, the thing reached down and forcibly took my hand, shaking it vigorously. Those patrons who had gathered around us chuckled at the gesture. Utterly stunned, I found Mortimer’s handshake jarring and none too gentle, but I was determined not to broadcast my unease. After all, how many kids could say that they met Mortimer the Maus — much less shook his hand?
Still holding my hand, the caricature straightened, swaying slightly as though the man inside was drunk. Its soft padded glove seemed to squish under my grip and I tentatively tried to pull away. Again, the figure glanced down at me, tilting its head comically in bewilderment — but, I suspect that I was the only one who heard its exasperated huff. A new more urgent type of alarm pricked at my awareness, displacing my excitement. Despite weeks of anticipation of visiting the park, I suddenly wanted to be home, far away from the noise and the rides and the people… and especially far away from Mortimer the Maus. Involuntarily, I pulled away, but the thing’s grip held me fast. Underneath the thick padded gloves, I felt something that couldn’t possibly be fingers writhe and squirm.
Panicked, I wrenched my hand free of the thing’s grasp. So forceful was my effort, that I fell backward into the throng of people who had gathered around the two of us. Several of the patrons tittered nervously, and I found myself being picked up and brushed off by a stranger standing behind me. “There, there…” the man behind me said. “There’s nothing to be afraid of, son.” He chuckled. “Morty just wants to be friends — right, Morty?” The thing in the giant rat costume nodded vigorously. Sensing my hesitation, it crouched stiffly onto one knee, its arms open wide. As one, the crowd around us “awwwed.” The stranger pushed me gently into the thing’s waiting arms. I remember him vaguely saying: “There now! That isn’t so bad, is it?” Some of the crowd applauded then, their cameras clicking and flashing around me.
Inside the suit, something dreadful gurgled.
Lost, overcome by excitement and by unease, confused by the stranger’s reassurances, I took the creature’s hand once again. You might say that I was naive, but I was a child! In retrospect, I believe that I was in a state of shock at that moment. There, alone on the sidewalk, it suddenly occurred to me that Mortimer — this particular Mortimer — had been sent out into the park to find me — to find me and return me to my father. Yes, that had to be the explanation! After all, there was every indication that Mortimer, this Mortimer was no professional performer — no! Judging by what I had seen, it seemed more likely that this was merely a low-level park employee, a rent-a-cop hastily disguised as the famous cartoon mouse. The park management would realize that sending a uniformed escort out to get me would only serve to frighten me, and so they had sent someone (something?) more familiar: a poor hot man dressed in a third-rate rat suit.
Yes… it all made perfect sense, as most things in children’s minds do.
And so, hand-in-hand, the two of us ambled down the walkway, through the sweaty throngs, and toward a cluster of carnival games and busker stalls. There, the multitudes gathered en masse, their voices struggling to compete with the barkers and bells; the whistling chimes and buzzers; the screams of the patrons as they competed in games they would never win. Mortimer pushed his way through the crowds, with me stumbling in his wake. So intent were the carnival goers that no one seemed to notice the giant costumed rat plowing through their midst’s, much less one with a small child in tow.
For my part, I was oblivious to the danger that I was in. My earlier unease had been nearly forgotten in the deluge of the crowd — lost amidst the press of bodies, the gaudy games and the flashing lights. Still, I found it unsettling when Mortimer pulled me out of the crowd, lurching between the stalls and into an abandoned alleyway. Again, I felt the creature’s clench tighten, something sinewy and wet shifting beneath the glove. At the time, it struck me odd that he would do that. I wasn’t going to try to run away anymore… didn’t Mortimer realize that? I mean, what sort of idiot runs away from their rescuer?
Removed from the crowds, it became increasingly difficult to keep pace with the creature. Every loping stride that Mortimer made, required four from me. My gasps for breath and weary entreaties for Mortimer to slow down were ignored as we navigated the seemingly endless back-alley mazes of abandoned carnival kiosks and shuttered stalls. The din of the crowd grew ever more remote, a susurrus of carnival noise, indistinct, punctuated only the occasional distant bell. I quickly lost track of our route through twisting alleyways and cluttered backlots, only vaguely aware of the parts of broken rides which lay scattered about, choking the narrowing path as we ventured deeper into the park’s scrap yards. Some weary and breathless part of me concluded that this was likely some sort of short cut — something that the man pretending to be Mortimer utilized to avoid the dense and apathetic crowds.
Rounding a corner, the creature staggered to a halt outside a weathered plywood structure, its surface cracked and peeling. Mortimer the Maus swayed for a moment, and from inside the suit, I could hear tendons shifting over bone as it rolled its shoulders. Did I hear the creature sigh or gasp as it did so — it’s hard to say. All I remember now is the stench that seemed to percolate from it, stronger and more pungent here amidst the forgotten byways of the park. What I initially mistook for a wall was in fact, merely a large plywood sheet. This the creature hefted aside, revealing a dark and ragged cavity in the facade behind it.
It looked as though something had clawed or chewed its way through the heavy chipboard. The tooth-marked edges were stained a dull and muddy red.
Before I could pull away, Mortimer huffed and shoved me inside. I stumbled over the jagged debris falling face first onto the sticky ground. Something jagged and sharp jutted out from the murky darkness, mere inches from my face. Through my sudden tears, I recognized it as a bone. A leg bone, judging by the gore-stained sandal attached to the other end.
I struggled to get up, but Mortimer’s heavy rubber sole found the back of my neck. With my face pressed onto the asphalt, I listened as he lifted the plywood sheet back into place. Here, on the ground, the stench was much worse. The crumbling asphalt was stained with sticky pools of vomit or excrement, I couldn’t immediately distinguish which. Flies and maggots swarmed over moldy piles of ragged clothing. The empty socket of a child’s skull stared crookedly out of the dank and writhing dark. I think I screamed then, but my cries were cut off by Mortimer’s thickly padded glove.
The creature hoisted me up by the head, lifting me bodily off the ground, its filthy glove pressed over my mouth. The latex tasted foul and synthetic. Dangling there, I struggled to free myself, kicking and squirming, but Mortimer the Maus held me fast. The thing seemed to be examining me, tilting its bulbous head to-and-fro as I struggled. One of my kicks connected with its ribs, resulting in a dreadful moist crunch. The creature bellowed in alarm and threw me across the small room. The impact with the rear wall knocked the breath from my lungs, and I landed hard on my hands and knees, facing the creature.
The thing in the rat suit gurgled menacingly.
Black sparks danced around the periphery of my vision and the room seemed to pitch and swivel. As I struggled to catch my breath, I gazed in horror at the spectacle around me. Suspended from the walls and hanging from the rafters dangled the corpses of a least a half-dozen children, each tightly wrapped — cocooned it seemed — in a web of thick sinuous bands. Decaying limbs jutted lifeless from some, dripping corruption onto the fetid ground. Some of the bundles had sprouted long spindly stalks of blue gray fungus, which culminated in black bulbous sporangia. These swayed ever so slightly in the still and humid air.
To my mounting horror, I saw one swathed bundle twitch. Again, I wanted to scream, but my lungs wouldn’t fill with air.
Once more, Mortimer appeared to roll his shoulders. The sickening crack of bones shifting and snapping into place filled the tiny room. The thing lifted its gloved hand again, and shook its finger at me in an oddly inhuman way. Then, it tilted its head forward, its comically gloved mitts lifting the mask away.
It’s difficult to describe the face beneath. It had once been human, of course… but looking into its eyes, I could see that its humanity was gone. It had been utterly subsumed — transformed into something else. The creature’s head had split open, from crown to nose, roughly down the center. Erupting from its gaping skull bulged a tangle of bluish-black roots, each culminating in the same satiny black bulbs that fruited from the bodies suspended around me. The creature’s clouded eyes regarded me, red rimmed and the color of pus. Its mouth hung open, slack jawed and gaping, its mottled gray lips stretched and ragged. A blackened tongue slid slowly over its brown and rotting teeth. A horrifying chuckle emanated from it — a deep wretched gurgle. I gaped in dread as it reached up to finger one of the ripened sporangia on its head. It burst open at the creature’s prodding, disgorging a viscous torrent of blackened pus and grayish spores. The fetid discharge sloughed down the creature’s face and over its gloved hand.
It took a step toward me then, but my body was already in motion. A terror unlike anything I had ever known propelled me squarely into the thing’s legs. I hit the creature hard and low, right below its knees. It staggered backward, tripping over its oversized rubber shoes. I rebounded from the impact, and found myself on my back, the same jagged leg bone I had seen earlier now jutting beside my shoulder. I yanked the bone free from the pile of maggoty remains. A swarm of flies burst from the pile, clouding the small shack. I rolled over and slammed the bone into the thing’s ankle with all the strength my tiny body could muster. My makeshift spear encountered little resistance past the felt padding and sunk deep into the thing’s foot.
The creature fell backward, howling in pain. I crawled past it as it writhed, tangled now in the thickly-padded rat suit. As I fumbled at the board that concealed the entrance, I could hear it pull the bone free from its wound and its infuriated wails as it struggled to stand. Desperate, I squeezed through the gap in the particle board wall, my shirt shredding on the ragged edges. I could still hear its gnashing teeth as it pawed along the crumbling wall behind me.
And, I can still feel its dreadful touch just as I broke free. Its sticky and filthy hand brushing the back of my neck.
I don’t know how long I ran, but I fled until my heart felt as though it would burst from my tiny chest. Eventually, my terror could carry me no further and my spent legs collapsed. I vaguely recall an alarmed cry and a crowd that gathered over me like a pall. Then a hazy darkness where not even dreams of a giant rat could intrude.
I awoke in the park’s infirmary, inconsolable and insensate, shuddering and wrapped in one of the park’s gaily-patterned blankets: Mortimer the Maus, emblazoned across the tangled, sweat-soaked sheets.
This story was previously published in the author’s anthology Corpse Honey: A Banquet of Gruesome Tales 2020.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Michael Picco has received numerous accolades for his brand of “literary” horror. Michael’s work has been described as “eloquently-written terror” and explores "the dark and disturbing recesses of what is possible.”
Michael received his B.A. in English from Western State College in Colorado. He is a member of the Denver Horror Collective, and the Colorado Independent Publishers Association. His most recent publishing credit, "The Horse Leech Has Two Maws" appears in The Jewish Book of Horror. He is currently working on "These Wretched Bones" — a revision and expansion of some of his most popular published work. You can find out more about him by visiting Michael Picco.