I left Bill there on the bench. I wish I could have taken his precious medal, or him, to a better place. I wish I could have buried him with honor, or made the damn humans do it. I hated being a mouse.
A drug addicted, drunkard, worthless, old mouse.
So I picked up my nest, full of my stuff, and tried to carry it with me back toward the pharmacy, but it was too big and unwieldy. Leaving it behind, I felt as I had that day the bully's cronies had devoured my momma's precious honeycomb. Everything I owned was inside it, even my beloved slingshot. I stashed it just inside a sewer entrance, beside a large oak tree, and wept as I abandoned my last possession. It felt like losing my very last friend.
Naked, with no armor, weapon, bed, food, or drugs, I went back into the city to destroy my life utterly.
Days of sneaking around, cold and sometimes wet, always hungry, followed. I found the pharmacy again. It had been shut down. The lab had failed after losing all their animals, and I guess they owned the building. Served them right.
But I felt a pang of regret for the kind human that had tried to save me, even though she was afraid of mice.
I went to another pharmacy, but couldn't find a way in. I was twitching at random by now, going into withdrawals that would probably kill me. I couldn't see well, and every step felt like a hundred. I became delusional for short periods of time, and I would do strange things, not remembering why or how afterward.
One evening, just as dusk settled in, I went past the art school. I sat there in front of it a long time. It seemed to be doing well. I wished I was inside, drawing. Fed. Warm. Having fun.
Then I saw a car pass by, and the kind human - the kind human who owned the safe house - was in the front seat with Heide! As I stared in shock, the car stopped at the corner of the block. Mice and rats got out, and some got in. I ran for them as fast as I could, and they waited there a good few minutes, but long before I reached them, the kind human scoured the street with his eyes and slowly got back in the car. I squeaked as loud as I could. I ran till my lungs burned, right out in the open street.
But I was too late. Too old, too weak, and too slow. The car drove off without me. I finally stopped and stared, huffing and puffing my lungs out, watching them drive away. I remembered the terrible abandoned feeling of watching the same kind human drive off after leaving me in the city at the beginning of my pilgrimage. I felt lightheaded, blacked out, and woke up wandering down the middle of the sidewalk hours later. Out in plain view at night.
Feeling sudden panic, I swerved for the wall, an alley, any kind of shelter, but again I was too late.
I felt the impact of talons close around me, knocking the breath out of me and pushing my guts up into my throat. Then I was off the ground and being carried to my gruesome death by an owl.
It was a very young owl. Not the old one Nemo knew. This one was hunting for food, and had found easy prey. I could barely breathe as it squeezed me. I had nothing to defend myself with. My teeth didn't penetrate the owl's thick talons. We were hundreds of feet above the city now.
I realized this was it. The moment of my death was coming. The owl would land, hold me still, and crush my body in with one great blow of its beak. If I was lucky, it would hit my head first. If not, I would live long enough to see my innards being eaten before dying.
I thought I was having a heart attack. I felt pain in my chest. With no way of knowing whether it was anxiety, drug withdrawal, or my heart failing me at last, I thought it funny underneath all my horror. Maybe I wouldn't see my legs picked off my torso by a merciless predator after all. I took one last look at the city below me. Everything looked so peaceful. I thought of all the mice that would go on being abused for years to come.
Then I faded away into spirit land as my gift, free of the blocking drugs, returned.
I was in the clouds. The full moon shone down and glittered upon the soft tops of the white sky mountains. All of it sparkled like silver glass. It was beautiful beyond compare, and mystical. Magical. Far below I could see the earth. I felt detached from everything, like at the pier. I thought about the pier. My master said I could go there anytime I wanted now...
I turned and saw Michael sitting next to me, his legs crossed, his wings folded behind him. In his true angelic form, he looked no less majestic for it being night. Silver light surrounded him. His halo glowed softly against the star filled sky. On his knee sat Bigfat.
I growled. Bigfat chuckled.
"Yeah, you wanna bite my ear," he said.
"Both ears!" I squeaked. "Clean off, you big dummy!"
"We came to offer you freedom," Mike said to me.
I perked up. "Whassat mean!"
Bigfat hopped off the knee, bouncing like a big water balloon on the soft cloud ground, and waddled over to me.
"You're quitting on us," he said, putting a hand on my shoulder. When that hand touched me, my mind cleared like magic. I felt the effect of two months of drugs lifted from my soul. I came awake. Doubtless he did that on purpose.
"We understand you're traumatized," Mike said. "It had to happen."
"What did?" I asked in bitterness. "The trauma? My master's death? My momma's? My children? How about fifty thousand faithful warriors? How about Favorite, who never hurt a soul?" I stared at them both with naked anger. "Which one had to happen, huh? All of it!?"
"Yes," Bigfat said, no longer smiling.
"Oh, that's so much crap," I said. "You're both all powerful. None of it had to happen."
Bigfat looked ready to protest, but Mike interrupted. "Yes, that's right," he said. "None of it had to. They all chose it, Squibble. Every one of them."
"Stupid!" I chirped. My version of bullshit.
"They chose it," Bigfat said. "He's right. In the spirit world, where the body and the suffering of the heart no longer matter, Squibble, they all decided what they wanted. Long term. For their children. For all mousekind."
"They chose to have a chance at equality with humans," Mike said. "They chose to have a chance to end the abuse and cruelty that they all suffer every day, and they willingly paid the price."
I peered at them as if they were trying to sell me a used car.
"It's true," Bigfat said. "I wouldn't lie to you, punk. All mice chose this. All mice everywhere. They knew it would cost them. They knew the enemy would come and challenge their claim to have souls, happiness, and eternal life."
"They chose it anyway," Mike said. "And a small handful of mice, some tiny number out of the billions on the earth, like fifty-two thousand, chose to be the heroes that would bear the brunt of that trial."
"And a small handful of those heroes," Bigfat said, "chose to lead them. Chose to bear the heaviest of the load on themselves and give up all they had, which was much, so that all mousekind might gain."
"And one of them," Mike said, "chose to be their champion. Above all the rest."
"And now you're quitting on us," Bigfat spat. "When you're almost over the last hill. Just like before. Just before you've made it. Quitting."
I sat there, mind clear, seeing it all, remembering every word my master had ever said to me. I myself had said that most mice quit just before they succeed. Time was meaningless now, here, in this cloud place, so like my sacred pier. I saw it all very clearly.
"So we came to let you go," Mike said. "If you want out now, you can go."
I looked up at him in silence.
"No punishment," he said. "God does not punish his children when no evil has been done. You may go to your master and spend eternity with him. Right now. Just say the word."
"But... I have done evil..." I whispered.
"Get off it!" Bigfat slapped me. It hurt, further waking me up. "You've been sad, and down. You've been depressed, and sick. You've been mad, and with good damn reason. But that's far from evil! We knew this would be hard on you. We knew it would bring you to the edge of despair and crippling pain. We knew, and so did you."
"But... But then... why did this... all this horrible stuff... happen to me?" I whined. "Why was it so... so damn hard!"
"You're forgetting something, you ridiculous snoot," Bigfat said.
(Heard something!) I stared at him, aghast. "Whassat?" I asked.
"Are you serious??!" I yelled. "Gratitude? For what!"
He gave me the stare of power, right down into my ailing soul.
"One million mice," he said. "Out of one million mice, one will have a chance to be a loved pet. One. And out of those, only one in a thousand is actually loved. You know what happens to the rest." He frowned. I couldn't break eye contact. He was doing some Mousegod thing to me, I was sure of it. I had to listen.
"You grew up in a loving home, with loving friends and family, with a loving human who gave you treats every time he even passed by your cage. You grew up in a house where all the animals were loved. Where the odds were all beaten.
"Everybody dies, pal. Everybody. No one goes on forever. But your life was spent basking in love and adoration. You had it absolutely as good as it gets, you ingrate. No one has it that good, and you don't hear them complaining. No mice get what you got. You are a loved mouse!
"Death comes to all - it's what happens in-between that matters. Most mice will never have the memory of being kissed, or groomed, or told one kind word, ever. You've forgotten how lucky you were, Squibble. Your depression and self loathing has taken you far from home. The way back is to be grateful. Grateful for every day of your thankless life being so cherished, so loved, by so many good mice and men."
My eyes, now full of tears, could not blink. My heart came alive after a long, cold sleep, and I knew he was right. I knew it was the truth. My life had been magnificent. I was an ingrate. Hardcore. I had forgotten my blessings, and in doing so, had lost them.
"You brought yourself to this point," Mike said. "No one forced you. Ever. No one did this to you, Squibble. Those with no power take the victim's path. It is an illusion. It is not for those with integrity."
"Yeah," Bigfat said. "Those with integrity, like your master, take responsibility for everything that happens. By doing so, they stay in control of their own lives." He waved his hand and I saw myself standing before the hordes once more, addressing them, asking them to go to war for all mousekind. "As for why you, Squib?" he said. "Because you could."
Mike nodded. "You were chosen because you could accomplish the task, even with all the burdens it carried," he said. "You asked to be the one."
"When I agreed to be the champion?" I asked.
"No," he said, face stone. "Before you were born."
I sat in starlight and silence. He was right again. This was much bigger than it had ever looked when I was down on earth. I had lost my way. But only once. Through all the hardship, only once. I looked up, free of all earthly pain and fear.
"And I can go now, with no consequences to anyone, including myself?" I asked.
They both nodded.
"You'll choose another champion?"
"I can go to my rest and see my master again?"
"My... My momma? Favorite?"
Long minutes passed.
"Or I can finish my work."
"Yes," Mike said.
"In hardship and pain."
"If you choose it to be so."
"Kid," Bigfat said, "you know the path you chose."
"Well, now you get to chose it all over again. If you've changed your mind, this is the last door out. No one wants a reluctant champion, and God won't have you saying he forced you into anything."
"You're the Mousegod," I said, still thinking heavily.
"Oh, yeah. Okay," he scoffed. "You ain't gonna blame this on me, then. Capiche?"
"We await your decision," Mike said.
I knew that below, my body was being carried to its death. I had only moments to make up my mind between the duty of a great hero and the desperate wishes of a hurt little boy.
I lifted my head at last to meet Mike's blazing eyes.
There was a crunching, jarring impact. I felt the cold wind around me once more. The talons let go and I was falling. When I looked up again, I saw a great raven locked in combat with the owl that had taken me as food. As I plummeted in freefall, I saw two other ravens join in. Then they were lost to my sight among the clouds. I turned over to see the ground fast approaching. Panic filled my body, and the worries of the flesh consumed me once more, shoving all spiritual peace right out the window. I was going to die!
The pure realization of it was a shock to me, even though I'd been in many situations where death seemed certain. Maybe it was the owl thing - being food, falling - primal fears. Whatever it was, it effected a radical transformation in my soul that my spirit had just moments before initiated. In a single moment I lost the drug-induced illusion that death would be better than life. I had thought I really wanted to die. Now I knew different, and I had learned it, as usual, the hard way.
In that moment time seemed to slow down. I barely remembered my time in the clouds with Mike and Bigfat. I couldn't remember what I'd said when my mind was so free and clarity was mine again. I couldn't remember my answer. As the pavement raced up to greet me, that was going to be my last thought.
What had I said!?
On the ground, I saw Death. In his white robe, he was reaching out to me, grinning.
But I felt another set of talons close around me at the very last moment, plucking me from Death's reaching claws. The raven holding me banked sharply and desperately, fighting every ounce of gravity to escape the same fate that awaited me. We missed the ground by two inches. I wished I'd had the fortitude to stick my tongue out at Death.
Nice try, sucker. Maybe later.
The raven landed and was soon joined by his two brothers, who looked badly beaten. They spoke not one word. They didn't need to.
I knew what my answer had been.
"Thank you," I said through quivering lips. To them, to Mike, to Bigfat, to my master and all the others. I meant it. "Thank you very much."
They flew off as dawn came. I smelled on the air that spring was over. Winter had finally given up, but only to summer. It had won against spring. I was trembling and tingly. I felt no strength in my legs.
Clear of the drugs, like magic, and taking hold of blessed clarity once again, I looked around me. I had been set down right in front of Heide's alley. I almost laughed.
"Of course," I said to myself and any spirit listening. "It's about time." My strength came back with my acceptance of what had to happen now.
I walked into the alley, head up, tail rattling.