“Mortimer is dead.”
Sam looked up from his books. His little brother was standing in the kitchen doorway, and Sam saw that he was precariously balanced between the urge to cry and the excitement of such a novel occurrence. He opted to nip any histrionics in the bud.
“Well then, I shall do a full examination and postmortem.” Sam wanted to be a vet, and dissecting a rat would be an interesting exercise, although he was inclined to think that Mortimer had simply run the natural course of a rodent's life and died of old age.
“Right, I'll be up to your room in a minute. I just need to collect a few things. I wish I had some proper equipment. Would you like me to get him out of his cage for you?”
“Oh, I have him right here,” replied David, reaching into his pants pocket and producing Mortimer, who was obviously well beyond suffering from the indignity.
Sam suppressed a smile, and assumed the business-like demeanor he'd been practicing in the mirror.
“Right, if you'll just place him on the table, I'll have a look. Any symptoms or previous medical problems?”
David thought for a minute. “He's been sleeping a lot. And he hasn't wanted any biscuits lately. Those were his favorite. He mustn't have felt too badly, though, 'cause he's smiling.”
“He looks that way because his teeth are overgrown from not being able to gnaw, and because when you die your body stiffens up. It's called rigor mortis.” Sam was rummaging around in the kitchen for a suitable dissecting tray. He selected a small roasting pan, and felt the edge of a paring knife with what he felt was professional aplomb.
“Aren't you going to make sure he's dead, Sam?” asked David with just a hint of reproach. His brother hid his annoyance. “Yes, yes, of course.” He laid the rat in the pan and very carefully touched a finger to its eye, pulled back the lip, and then laid two fingers on its side.
“Yes, I'm afraid he's gone. Shall we proceed?” He brandished the knife. David was torn between interest and discomfort. Normally he wasn't squeamish, but he felt there was something a bit off about gazing at the internal organs of one's friend.
“Alright,” he said, voice quavering. Sam sighed inwardly. Then he remembered one must always be patient with clients. Perhaps a distraction was in order.
“Really, in my professional opinion, Mortimer just slipped away in his sleep. Rodents only live for a few years. And he has lead a happy and fulfilling life with you. Maybe we should just bury him in the garden?”
“Oh yes, we'll have a funeral!” exclaimed David, clapping his hands. “And we'll invite people and sing songs and have the Vicar come and speak and Mum can bake a cake!” Nothing brightened David's life like a party.
Sam mentally kicked himself. Now he'd have to play the big brother and “spoil” things by pointing out that Mortimer's demise was not going to be the social event David thought it would be. The little boy had already spotted a stack of hat boxes by the door.
“Mum said she's getting rid of these. We can pick a nice box to bury him in, and I'll go and get some flowers and make a little cross to put up in the garden.” He chose a small box, removed the hat inside and set it on the counter, then placed Mortimer inside the box and fit the lid on.
“Perfect!” he cried. “I'll be back, then we can go invite some people.” He left the box on the table and scampered out the back door. Sam gathered up his books and papers and trudged up the stairs to his room, wondering how to distract his brother from this new folly. Perhaps a new pet; tortoises were easy to find, and they lived such a long time that Sam would be well out of the house before it met its end. Yes, a tortoise would be just the thing.
Sam was hot and disgruntled. It had taken quite a bit of effort to convince David to leave off his new duties as undertaker to look for tortoises; Sam had imagined that they would spend just enough time to divert David, since he had a short attention span anyway. But, the little boy had proven both contrary and stubborn and they had spent a full hour traversing field and stream in search of a new boon companion. Finally, he had given up.
“I don't want one anyway. They can't play or do tricks or anything.”
“Then why have we been out here so long?” asked Sam in an irritated manner.
“You wanted to!” David snapped back. “It was your dumb idea. I just wanted to....oh no! We forgot about Mortimer!”
“I somehow doubt he's gone anywhere,” said Sam dryly. “Can't we just go home and get on with it?”
The idea of a funeral party had long since faded; David was tired, hungry and, to be perfectly honest, just a little bored with the whole proceedings. As with most small boys, the tragedy which had loomed large in his mind hours before had already become a distant memory. He tucked his grimy hand into Sam's. “Mum's promised lamb for dinner. I'm hungry.”
Sam smiled down at him. “You're always hungry.” He breathed a sigh of relief. Hopefully, they could get the dearly departed into the ground before dinner and call it a day.
He should have known that things were never that easy. They passed the church on the way home; the doors were open, and a few people were milling about. Sam saw the wheels turning over in David's head before he even opened his mouth. He had half a mind to simply sling his brother over his shoulder and march home, but David was already pulling at him.
“Let's ask the Vicar!” he said excitedly. His brother wearily followed him into the church, which was having one of its rummage sales. David spied the table of refreshments immediately and headed in that direction, all thoughts of Mortimer forgotten. Sam idly wondered if there were any nice girls about.
He spotted Mary Beth, a vivacious blonde, chatting with another girl in front of one of the tables. He sauntered over, and was just about to make a witty comment when he spotted what was on the table,
One in particular.
As Mary Beth reached for it, he snatched it away. She looked at him reproachfully.
“Sam, don't be a tease,” she said, giving his wrist a smart slap. “Now give it back.” He was at a complete loss. She gave the box a tug, and he clung to it, grimly and silently, wishing that the ground would open and swallow him. The Vicar, raising an eyebrow, walked over to them.
“Now, then, let's not have a ruckus. Surely you're not fighting with the girls over a hat? Or, perhaps,” he said with a wink, “you've chosen it as a gift for someone special?”
Sam felt his face growing hot. Mary Beth had turned away, and Sam with one quick movement lifted a corner of the box so that the Vicar could view the contents.
“Oh dear,” the man stammered, looking from the box to Sam's face. Just then, Sam felt a tug at his hand; looking down, he saw his brother, a ring of icing around his lips, looking up at him dolefully.
“Sam, I'm going to be sick.”
He wondered, not for the first time, why it seemed as though his brother existed simply to torture him. He looked about for a waste can and, finding none, came up with a solution. Turning his back, he deftly opened the hat box, snatched out the rat, stuffed it in his pocket, and used the box to catch David's offering.
“Ewww,” exclaimed the girls, backing away. Several women clucked sympathetically. “Poor boy,” “where's his Mum,” “shame, poor thing”. Sam felt no such emotion. “You silly little sod,” he hissed, “you've made a pig of yourself eating cake.” He proffered his handkerchief. “Blow your nose and let's get out of here before you do anything else to humiliate me.”
Sam wondered what to do with the hat box. The Vicar, who hadn't had such an interesting rummage sale in years, indicated the door. “The incinerator would be the best place for that, I should think,” he said, smiling. “Nothing wrong with cremation.”
“It's in my pocket,” whispered Sam.
“It's in my pocket,” he whispered again, more urgently. “You know, the...what was in the box.”
“Oh, that's MY BOX!” squealed David, fully recovered by now.
Sam had clapped his hand over his brother's mouth and was now hauling him out into the hallway. The Vicar followed, thinking what a remarkable day it was turning out to be. A grand story to share over a whiskey in future.
“Where's Mortimer?” shrieked David. Sam produced him.
“We wanted to have a funeral, with flowers and people...” David began. Sam cut him off sharply.
“OH, DO STOP GOING ON ABOUT THAT!” He passed a hand over his face and cleared his throat. “Sorry.”
The Vicar smiled at him and winked. Then he stooped down to David's level. “Shall I see that he gets a Christian burial?”
“Will I be able to visit him?”
“Certainly. You may visit him any time, especially after each Sunday's service.” Well, it was part of his vocation, encouraging regular worship. “How about near the roses, in the far corner of the churchyard?”
That would be nice,” said David thoughtfully. “He liked flowers.” Sam rolled his eyes.
“Then it's settled. He stood up and dusted off his knees. “See you in church Sunday.” he took Mortimer, now wrapped in his own handkerchief, and carried him at arms length toward the back of the church. David began to follow.
“Time to go home. I don't think you should watch.” Sam thought quickly. “It might make you sad, and Mortimer wouldn't want that. He would want you to remember him happy, climbing around his cage and sitting on your shoulder.”
David looked up at him. “You're right Sam. You're so smart. Let's go home. I'm hungry.”
The smell of roasting lamb greeted them as they returned home and opened the front door. Their mother sent them straight upstairs to clean up. “What have you been up to?” She sniffed audibly. “And change those clothes!”
They scrubbed up accordingly, and sat down at the table. David was already attacking his plate, shoveling in food as though he hadn't eaten in weeks. As Sam reached for the plate of lamb, his gaze went through the doorway from the dining room to the kitchen, and settled on the roasting pan atop the stove. He paused for a moment, and cast a surreptitious glance at his brother. Then he shrugged and helped himself.
“So, what did you boys do today?” asked their mother brightly.
David wondered if he'd be in trouble for throwing up at church. He guessed he would.
Sam wondered if any harm would come of eating dinner cooked in a pan in which the body of Mortimer had recently reposed. He guessed not, although he doubted he'd convince Mum of that any time soon.
The two boys looked at each other. “Nothing,” they grunted in unison.