Loud as an air raid warning, the school bell shrieked. The surrounding neighborhood reverberated with the intrusion, but any students within earshot gave it little heed, except to frown or curse; they knew this was just a test run. Today was the last Friday of summer holidays. Bells, teachers, and school would have no authority until Tuesday morning, after the Labor Day long weekend.
No students had leapt into action at the sound of the bell, but there was ordered movement outside of the school: marching lines of tiny, four-legged bodies compelled to troop toward the red brick of the school’s gymnasium wall. Hundreds of mice, long columns of them. They flowed squeaking from the dense and overgrown ranks of catone astor and lilac bushes separating the school field from the houses edging the school’s southern perimeter. They emigrated from those same houses’ basements and from out of walls. They scampered out of drainage outlets and sewer inlets. Each mouse scurried along, following the mouse ahead—big ones, little ones; brown, black, and gray; old and young.
All mice living within earshot of the bell raced toward the school. The compulsion was not to be denied, like a siren’s call to sailors in a Greek tragedy. For fifteen minutes, the soccer field behind Bishop Vanier Junior High coursed streams of rodents that pooled in a swelling queue against the south end of the gymnasium wall. At ground-level, the mortar between two bricks had crumbled, allowing mice stacked three deep to squeeze into the school in frantic, rodent spurts. But all the mice wanted in all at once.
They tore at one another, a seething surge of desperation, living waves of teeth and claw foaming red with blood, squeak-squeak-squeaking agonized but determined screams. The rolling, shrieking struggle persisted until the last mouse able to squeeze itself between bricks disappeared into the school.
Outside the wall-crack, the dirt was sticky and dark like a tide-receded shoreline polluted with beached and gutted mice either dead or too ravaged to do anything but flop and twitch. Then a brigade of healthy mice poured from inside the school, out of the gymnasium wall to swirl around the shredded and broken bodies. Dead, alive, or somewhere in between, the mice lying in dirt and gravel were seized by their more robust comrades and dragged into the school. Mouths clamped tight around fleshy prizes, the squeaking vermin hauled their loads across an expanse of fresh-polished gymnasium floor, then under the stage and downward through murky cracks and dusty tunnels, disappearing into the school’s deepest darkness.
Preparation for the year’s harshest lessons had begun.