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The Ballad of Captain Fantastic

by Mike Anton

College is one of those times where the unexpected seems to shape you forever.  Sometimes it involves a conversation with friends in a pitch-dark dorm hallway that changes the way you approach the world, or maybe a crazy party that ends up with you meeting your wife.  On one early weekday morning, on what was the windiest day of the year in Boston, MA, my life was irreparably altered from that point forward.  But this story starts two years before that, in Claflin Hall, part of Boston University’s West Campus facilities.

Freshman year was winding down and everyone on the floor was well on to fretting about Spring Break, finals, summer jobs and housing for next year, dreaming of something that isn’t a dorm before having no choice but to move back into a dorm.  While the rest of us had our heads geared toward the future, my friend and floor mate Zack was fixated on something entirely different.

As he lay on his standard-issue dorm mattress feeling a tad under the weather, he looked up towards his closet/shelving system and noticed something…moving?  He squinted his eye, trying to see just what it could be.  It was then he made direct eye contact with a mouse, who peeked his little head out from on top of his closet, through the thin sliding doors that held nothing behind it but unused space.  And there he sat.  According to Zack, this staredown went on for ten minutes.  Then, he scurried back in to the closet like an apparition.

It took months and months, but we finally had a floor pet, and Zack named him “Captain Fantastic.”

Ecstatic, Zack ripped through the halls like a child seeing Santa delivering his toys, telling everyone he could that he found a mouse.  His childlike exuberance was not matched by all, however, as finding mice as an adult leads to the realization that some diseased rodent was traipsing all over our personal belongings.  But the sounds were the same as if five-year-olds were prompted with the knowledge:  the girls went “EEWW!!” and the boys went “awesome!”

The legend of Captain Fantastic grew with each passing day.  Our frequency of hanging out in Zack’s room easily quadrupled, not to mention the attention paid to the far-too-high-to-be-useful storage cabinet above all our closets.  While we did get to sneak a peak at the li’l fella in Zack’s room from time to time, he never took the time to travel anywhere else.  No, the good Cap’n exclusively hung around Zack.  I’d say more on this peculiar connection, but he’s my friend and jealousy is an ugly beast.

Soon the semester had ended, and with it our floor’s eight-month long social experiment refereed to commonly as “life in a freshman dorm.”  There were many tearful goodbyes, like a barely-much-older version of the last day at summer camp.  I said goodbye to Zack, who was going back to Portland, Oregon and he said bye to me, headed back to New Jersey.  But we never did get a chance to say goodbye to Captain Fantastic.

It’s the early fall of 2006.  Zack and myself have finally made good on the promise of living together we forged freshman year (again, sophomore housing sucks).  We were joined by one of Zack’s friends, Ben.  We got an apartment together, right about where Commonwealth intercepts with Brighton (or, as the T stop refers to it, “Packard’s Corner” – go be hip and local, you’re welcome).  Our apartment was gorgeous.  We were convinced to move in minutes in to the guided tour we were given by Will Strong (I shit you not, that’s the man’s given name) and were sure that we wouldn’t live in a place that nice for some time to come.  As of today, that is still the case for me.

For all of its virtues, “space” was not exactly one of them.  It was a two bedroom converted into a three bedroom apartment after all; the low-lying chandelier plopped into our “living room” was a constant reminder of this fact, and led to constant bruising on my head.  But, like all plucky young’ens, we “made it work.”

The biggest issue was our kitchen, or lack thereof.  It was a long, narrow room, leaving just enough room to have two people fit between the counter and the wall and built short-sided enough to never be able to fully open the fridge.  Sixty degrees would just have to do.  This made us get creative with our set-up, purchasing a large bookshelf to place in the living room (next to the kitchen) to store our perishable food items, leaving the kitchen proper for pots, pans, and plastic ware.  It was a smart move, which naturally meant it was Ben’s idea.

Everything was going smoothly.  We all got along great, had a very cool landlord, awesome neighbors below and directly across (let us not speak of the people above) and we were quickly becoming a go-to spot for people who wanted to go out west for parties.  All in all, it was pretty swell.  So imagine my surprise when I went for a bag of Tostitos we had laying on the counter in the kitchen.

It was brand new, purchased hours ago from the Shaws supermarket just down Commonwealth.  I reached for the top of the bag to pop it open, but the air had already escaped; the seal had been breached somehow.  As I grabbed the bag tighter to investigate, a chip hit the counter.  Another rustle, another chip.  I turned the bag around to see a small hole in the back of the bag, chewed right through.  With that, I moved towards the living room to discuss this with Ben and Zack.  Before I could get anything out, Zack bellowed, “Captain Fantastic is back!!”  For whatever reason, this ridiculous, absolutely untrue idea warmed my heart.  It was Captain Fantastic after all; he just waited for us to return.  After a moment of talking myself into this as being plausible, I went out to buy more chips that weren’t covered in christ know’s what.

Normally when people find rodents in their domicile, they tend to freak out, become self-righteous (“how DARE other things inhabit this space!  I paid someone MONEY for this apartment!!  Don’t these mice RESPECT that transaction?!?  Do they respect ANYTHING?!”), and immediately call for an exterminator to take care of this problem.  Our guess was we weren’t the first to notice the Captain, which would explain while the basement was lined with mouse traps and poison which might have been set sometime during the Reagan administration.

By that same token, we weren’t the first to have to deal with a mouse in an apartment in a metropolitan area.  We liked having a mouse in the house (we did all have dogs at home whom we missed) but in a way most befitting of the short story, “The World’s Most Dangerous Game.”  Every time that mouse showed it’s little whisker-laced snout, it presented an opportunity to show off our basic, primal hunting skills.  The gauntlet had been thrown:  we were to capture Captain Fantastic.  There were rules, however.  No traps, no sticky paper, no elaborate Rune Goldberg-esque devices that mirrored the boardgame Mouse Trap.  We had to get that little bastard with pure imagination and spontaneous action.

Like any good hunters, we first had to track our prey and figure out its motus operondi.  After some time, we accrued his normal schedule.  Captain Fantastic would most likely pop up between 12:30 and 2:00 AM at least once every three days.  He liked to enter the kitchen from behind our stove, crawling on our counter top.  He’d leave through the same giant appliance, this time on the ground along where the stove met the bottoms of the counters.  If he was strictly on a garbage hunt, he’d come in from the bottom right side opening and leave on the bottom left.

It was like clockwork.  He never tried to go farther than needed for his food and always knew when to cut and run when the heat got too heavy.  He never got greedy, never got fat, and, in turn, never got caught.  He was as disciplined a creature I had ever seen (and was easily the second-most among the people who inhabited the apartment; I was third).  It got to the point where if he saw us look at him he’d turn right around.  He was mocking us, alright, each and every one of us.

Much like the space race, it was imperative for someone–anyone–to at least get a hand on our wily adversary, as he had alluded us like many a tackler seen in Barry Sanders clip shows.  Fittingly, Zack was the first one to have a real attempt and it happened almost on accident.  Apparently, he was in the kitchen cleaning our giant popcorn bowl while our friend Laura watched TV in the adjacent living room.  Captain Fantastic showed himself by the stove.  Zack yelled.  Laura screamed.  The mouse yelled then jumped up and down (he swears this occurred).  In a moment of Frisbee improvisation, Zack tossed the bowl over the mouse, trapping him under it and between the floor, creating a de facto holding cell.

I came in to this story (and our apartment) at about the time that Laura and Zack were doing arts and crafts with an old shoebox and some saran wrap.  He recounted the whole story (emphasizing the mouse jumping) and showing me the bowl where it was presumed the mouse was under.  I asked what the point of the shoebox is.  “Well we want to see him through the cut-out hole, right?”  Naturally.  The shoebox was nearing completion and the transferring of our prisoner was about to begin.  Rather than, y’know, help, I decided to get my video camera to capture this for prosperity.

After this harrowing event, Captain Fantastic kept his distance.  It would be six long months before we got close again.

It was nearing 2 AM, just making it March 6th, 2007.  This awful history paper was finally completed.  God knows how good it was, but it didn’t matter:  it was over.  That’s enough.  I rubbed my stomach, which was stuffed with Wing It, the wings place literally 3 buildings over from our apartment.  I crossed the hall to say good night to Zack, who just finished his first history paper with another 10-pager to go.  So it was less of a “good night” and more of a mocking “good luck.”  Ben, studious boy he is, was finished with his work by midnight and in bed some time after, ready to get up for work in the morning, as dancing boneless teridactil wings bounced along in his head.

I returned to my room, passing the brown bags filled with our dinner that sat beside our constantly-full garbage can, and gave a serene smile.  As soon as I re-entered my room, I couldn’t believe how cold it was.  Boston in March is abjectly terrible, like a hostage crisis that has gone on too long, and those assholes waited til the 5th month of winter to really turn up the wind.  So as I laid down in a hoodie and sweatpants, kept tightly under all my blankets, covers, comforter, and sleeping bag the thought ran through my head that I might never get warm enough to fall to sleep.  To add to the cold, the wind was banging on my window that faced Fordham Ave, only the second time that occurred in two years.

With this loud banging came a weird scratching sound.  Having the eye sight of Mr. Magoo, I kept assuming there was a bat that violently threw itself against my screen over and over again.  After a while, I had to check to see how this bat just kept flying.  My glasses went on…but there was nothing outside.  The checklist began:  super windy, creeking at the windows, bats possibly involved…all the makings of a horror story.  “Ah shit,” I thought, “I’m going to be ghost-raped aren’t I?”

As I laid my head back down in my dark room, the scratching noises continued, although they weren’t coming from the window any longer.  They were directly above me.  Soon, they were moving, from the window to over my bed, and kept moving more towards more door.  I prepared to fight the ghost (and my rectum) by scrunching up as tightly as possible in my cocoon of safety and presumed warmth.  Then, as quickly as it came, the sound was gone.  I turned over (ass away from the door, naturally) and tried again to fall asleep.

That’s when the rustling started.  And not the subtle “oohh there’s a spooky ghost moving a bit of wind” type of rustle, but a loud, “we’re doing the recyclables” thrashing of what sounded like a brown paper bag.  For a second I couldn’t believe it.  I got quiet, so did the sound…but then it happened again.  This time louder, more frenetic.  Groggy, I throw my glasses back on and head out to the kitchen, confused as to what Zack is doing with the trash when he should be writing a paper (as if playing with the trash at any other time is somehow more acceptable).

My door swings open revealing…nothing.  Well, no one, to be precise.  Zack’s room still has its door shut, light flooding out from under it, as the soundtrack to The Last Waltz faintly played in the distance.  Now I’m sure someone dosed me and it just made me pissed I couldn’t enjoy it more since I had to go to bed.  As I planted to make my way back, the bag moved.  I stopped in my tracks and peered down to see the unmistakable self-made entrance for Captain Fantastic at the bottom.

I ambled over as fast as one could possibly amble while still keeping quiet, knocking on Zack’s door, and scream-whispering with my retainer in.  *knock, knock, knock*zaaaaahhhhh!!!“  *knock, knock, knock*ZAAAAHHHHHH!!!!!!!“  He eventually opened the door, confused, prompting, “weren’t you going to bed?”  I attempt to tell the story in a hurried and whispered manner but was completely unintelligible.  You could tell by the blank face responding to me.  Frustrated, I take out my retainer (which never fails to be a disgusting endeavor for everyone involved) and whisper-scream “Captain Fantastic is in a Wing-It bag.”

It was as if it was 1954 and I said, “the Russians are outside.”  Zack sprung into action, making his way towards the kitchen in nothing that resembled an amble.  I stopped him, fearing a quick escape, so we decided to come up with some strategy.  It might have been the best critical thinking we did in four years of college.  We couldn’t just pick the bag up, throw it in the trash, and take the whole thing outside because of our constant bag-taking-out negligence left us with an assuredly full trash bag.  There was an escape hole in the brown bag and there was no way to secure that let alone that the entire thing could be turned into an escape hatch. The only proper action would be to grab the bag, throw it in the trash, grab the entire covered trash can, bring it outside, open the top, and out he goes. Mission accomplished.

Now, for all of the months we had to prepare for trying to get this mouse it’s shocking how little preparation occurred.  But here we were, looking down the barrel of destiny, sure that this had to be the moment.  The certainty lingered in the air.  Here he was, the most careful rodent ever witnessed, and he just slipped up.  Big time.  We had to capitalize, or we’d never live it down long as we lived.  Slowly, the two of us lanky bastards made our way over to the feasting mouse and moved to open the garbage can.  It was incredibly full, evening out just along the top of the brim of the bag, just as we had feared.  This would be a problem, but we had gone too far to think that measly “issues” like physics and properties of matter could get in our way.

We were ready to go.  Zack and I looked at each other, doing that double head nod that you only see in movies about former marines brought back into action.  Clearly locked in, Zack went to lift the bag and out went Captain Fantastic, darting under our food shelving system and staying there. It happened so fast I barely saw him go.  It took him no less than three seconds to 1) recognize the danger 2) find an escape route 3) hide in safety.  We were dumbfounded, but the situation was still the same:  we were two able-bodied, evolved humans with opposable thumbs and the like, and he was still trapped away from his comfort hole.  Or something like that.

Phase Two of our take down was soon upon us.  Zack started grabbing everything he possibly could that was flat and had some weight to it.  His idea was to slowly funnel him into a receptical, leaving him no where else to run but the wall or our capture device.  It was fairly brilliant, especially at 2:30 in the morning.  Carefully, we both started taking items from around our apartment and building up a wall to keep him contained.  First was the living room table (“if he touches it, we have Pledge, it’ll be alright,” Zack studiously observed), then the cans of beans that were never eaten in our two years of residency, and finally shored up all the holes with various bottles that laid about.  For a second, I felt like one of those workers in New Orleans, trying to keep everything sturdy while safely taking the flow and the issue away.  And if that was the case, then Katrina was right around the bend.

After a good twenty minutes of building support from the bookcase out, including a final destination of the now-de-garbage-bagged trash can used as transport, we decided it was time to get him to move.  So we shook the bookcase.  Nothing.  Rattled it some more. Nada.  Moved it out a couple of inches to dare him to go.  No sign.  Like the Bush administration, eventually we moved on to water games, pouring liquid down the back to try and flush him out.  We saw a tail moving laterally for a moment, but nothing more.  Zack and I both looked at each other with resignation…and the little varmint darted out of the bookshelf towards our living room, scrambling under the radiator behind our futon.

We both hit the deck, trying to see if he was still under there and if there was a way to escape the apartment from the heater.  After some preliminary views, we couldn’t see the mouse and couldn’t fathom a way out.  This was the final straw.  That quick-thinking little fucker had some sort of innate ability to know exactly when we wouldn’t be paying attention and make a break for it.  All he did now was piss us off and prolong the inevitable.  There was no way we were going to bed unsatisfied, without a figurative mouse head to hang over our mantle.  Now it meant war.

The heavy building began.  We blew our opportunity to keep him in close quarters, so we decided to quarantine the entire area.  Anything that was heavy and flat was utilized.  The same mistake would not be repeated.  If we had steel and smoldering equipment, you bet your ass we would have reinforced everything.  Over the next hour or so, we carefully made everything in the room solid…or as best we could.  As we neared our building completion, pssshhh, off he zoomed, running towards the kitchen.  We were caught totally off guard–yes, again–but our table/cutting board/DVD crates security system worked like a charm, forcing the Cap’n to seek refuge just behind our TV.  The walls close in further, fortified by couch cushions and dreams.

Then, we waited.  He wedged himself in with all of the electronics, foiling any attempt to throw water back there to force him out (see? we’re somewhat levelheaded).  We would try and fake him out by discussing things that were not mouse-related at all, like “hey, what time is it?” as we both took our eyes off of him and looked toward the clock, musing aloud, “I WONDER IF THE MOUSE IS MOVING NOW WHILE WE ARE LOOKING AWAY?”  But he sat, patiently waiting for us to move on.  How little he knew us.  We continued to build and fortify, build and fortify, surely ready for our next dance with the Fantastic.

Our main strategic focus placed on the exit that led to the other side of the apartment, featuring thebathroom, Zack’s room, and, most importantly, Ben’s room.  Sweet, sweet Ben was still asleep, blissfully unaware of the character-defining saga his roommates were embroiled in.  That made his room completely off limits, cause if that mouse ran under his double doors…we couldn’t guarantee that we wouldn’t burst right in.  And, considering what a mess Zack’s floor was, there was no way we’d be able to find him in there, either.  This room was our last stand and that corridor was our only weakness.  That’s why it got the heaviest stuff:  a giant, novelty dog paw, a DeWalt drill case, and countless numbers of empty beer cases.  In front of that, the interior wall that kept the mouse within the playable living room space.  Thank god it was too cold for us to drop off our recyclables – we would never have come close to having the necessary building blocks.

At around 5:30 AM, Captain Fantastic made his move.  He ran back towards the radiator, finding the couch cushions strategically in his way.  He made a quick left, headed behind the couch, ostensibly to run along the wall behind it, only to find that area was closed down.  Zack was quick to jump up and move our table into place:  there he was, trapped in an area no larger than a couple inches.  Easy pickings.  Finally–FINALLY!–we would have him.

…So how do we do it?

There he is, plain as day, unmoved, surrounded.  Do we pick him up with our hands?  Let him bite us or pass along the bubonic plague?  Or some sort of advanced, Boston-based diseased that would lead to everyone nationwide talking like an asshole?!

We frantically tried to find anything that could contain him and was small enough to dip in to the hole…all to no avail.  Finally, Zack remembered the stupid toy robot arms he purchased when a Boston gag shop closed down.  He was much more adept than me in using the plastic cyborg grips, so he would go and extract the animal while I held a big box to close and trap him in.  Then, we would take it outside, set him free, high five, and return to normal, like soldiers flying home from ‘nam (I assumed Ben would be spitting on us).  Zack got onto the couch; I kicked off my shoes and jumped on the futon in my socks.

The end was nigh.

What we neglected to realize then, and with all other attempts to capture Captain Fantastic, was just how high the stakes were for the li’l guy.  To us, it was more of a sport, a dangerous game that could lead us to lose bags of chips.  For him?  It was life or death.  How would he know what we want to do?  Look how big we are!  And with such magnificent beards!

This fact became acutely clear as Zack went to grab the mouse and he screeeeched like we were ripping him in half.  It was one of those sounds that penetrates you until you have to literally try to shake it off.  After about three attempts, Zack didn’t have the heart to keep going and I didn’t have the hearing left to listen to him say that he was giving up.  Moving on to our next tactic, we would loosen his “cage” a bit to get something to scoop him in to.

No sooner than when Zack tilted the table did Captain Fantastic take off like greased lightning.  Zack yelled “GO!” and I jumped off the futon, right in step as Fantastic effortlessly burrowed through the first security wall.  As I went to hop in the in between of the wall he was already through the indestructible force last-gasp outpost.  The outer wall had been breached.  He was free to roam the apartment.

Not on my watch.

I leapt over the main wall (dog paw and all), landing on my right foot, then pivoted on my foot, putting my chest towards the living room, using the best blocking out technique I never showed on the basketball court.  After the impact, my head whipped down to try and locate the mouse.  There he was, directly in front of me.  But he wasn’t going anywhere.  In fact, he was shockingly still.  And then the blood slowly began to ooze from his head.

Somehow, I perfectly timed my jump and landed directly on his li’l noggin just as he tried to speed by towards Ben’s room.  At the moment I realized that he was no more, Zack made his way over, excited to see what was happening.  He looked down and his face dropped.  A silence hung over the air, until I noticed Captain Fantastic’s hind leg start to frantically move up and down, twitching outragouesly.  I grabbed Jacques, our french parking cone, and covered our fallen friend.  I hit the adjacent wall, trying to grasp what I had done (yes, that links to a picture of the dead mouse).

Zack took care of most of the clean up.  This mostly involved disposing of the body with the robot arm, which went from shockingly useful to bitterly comic, picking up our li’l buddy and putting him in two plastic bags.  Sadly, the force of impact had also knocked his tongue out of his mouth and onto the ground.  That get a separate robot arm pick-up.  It deserved it, really.  It was a good tongue.  Then, Zack Fantasticked (yep) the shit out of the robot arm, the floor, the cone, and the surrounding area as I tried to come to grips with accidentally killing a living thing.  It might have been all the combined exhaustion, but I nearly started to cry.  Poor li’l fella.  He didn’t deserve a head crushing.

With heavy hearts, Zack and I put on our coats, ready to give him a proper burial in our communal dumpster outside.  We would say a few words of reverence, share some stories, then close the lid, forever.  The sky was bright blue now, that shocking color that you only see when you realize you haven’t slept all night.  We slowly went down the main steps of our apartment, both to avoid the loud, creaking back stairs and for our flair for the dramatic.  We reached the lobby and, after a pause, we nudged the door open.  It was then ripped from our hands by the 50 mile an hour winds that still roared while we were preoccupied with our game. Ah, shit.

Zack, our sole pallbearer, took off towards the burial ground, the body whipping behind him like the flag from the statue of Iwo Jima.  I ran after.  Zack unceremoniously tossed Captain Fantastic into the trash can like it was a hammer throw; a small thud that accompanied his contact with his final resting place.  Then we hustled back towards the front door, more focused now on not getting immediate hypothermia then proper rodent burial procedure.

Upon our re-arrival in our apartment, we took one last look at what we had wrought.  In that instant, I became incredibly tired, threw my coat down on the floor and headed to bed.  Zack turned back to his room, ready to start that essay that he needed to finish.  Both of us, though, were left feeling a profound sense of loss.  The long, strange two year journey had been completed.  That day, we were changed.

And man was Ben confused when he woke up.

Mike Anton is the Editor-In-Chief at The Inclusive. Mike writes movie reviews and interview pieces for The Film Stage as well as screenplays, sketches, and the like. He lives in New York City and though he's an avid beard and flannel enthusiast, he does not consider himself a hipster. Contact him at mike.anton[at]theinclusive.net or @mpants