On the way to the pet store Heide talked to me. She seemed happy to have someone to talk to. She told me she belonged to a rat and mouse club. They had a web site and fairly regular meetings she used to go to with Tiny. She said now that she had Fred she might go back. Without a pencil lead or computer, I could only listen, sitting on the dashboard watching the city go by at speeds I couldn't begin to hope for on my own. It made me wish I had a mouse sized car.
She told me about the members of the club, and how the club was world wide. She was talking about thousands of kind humans. Amazing. I couldn't wait to get home and tell my master what I'd found. I'd be famous in my own right then. My pilgrimage wasn't turning out so bad. I figured I'd already been gone three weeks or so. Hard to tell. I wondered what was happening back home. I missed everyone.
Then we stopped.
"Pet store," she said. "None of the pet stores around here are very good. I try to avoid shopping at them. I hate how they treat their mice." She opened the door and carried me to the sidewalk. "I'll wait here," she said.
I nodded and hobbled to the door. I squirmed under it with ease. The cast was most problematic. I had to squish it down, which hurt like crazy. I felt sticky, hot liquid squirt out of my leg and soak the cast. It smelled bad. That odor would attract predators from everywhere. It screamed "Sick mouse! Free food!" I would have to take care of that, and keep my nose alert for trouble.
It took me hours to search the store and find the mice. Once I did, it required a climb up to some bookshelves. It took me another two hours to accomplish it. The entire time, my leg felt like it was on fire. The pain ran from my toes to my back. My belly felt weird. It felt much worse when I got to the mice.
There was a ten gallon aquarium, crammed full of mice. There must have been fifty of them in there. Their food was soiled, their water was dirty. The males were fighting and many of them were wounded. Some were dead, half buried in the moldy bedding. But it wasn't that which held my attention.
It was the two ridiculously small cages next to the ten gallon tank. They must have been no bigger than eight inches long, by four high, and five wide. Not even enough space for a mouse to stand up! And within were not one but two mothers. With children. Two in each cage, with over twenty babies. The bedding was filthy. The water was a tube crammed into the bars of the lid, and the food was strewn everywhere. It was a nightmare. My master had told me things were worse than I knew, but to see it was heartbreaking. Those mice had nowhere to go! They didn't even have room to stretch. My eyes welled up with tears.
"How long have you been here?" I asked one of the mothers.
"Where?" she asked, looking fatigued, her fur messy, her energy spent.
"In...in that cage?" I said.
"As long as I can remember," she said. "I was born in it."
I put my hands over my mouth. Wrongness!
I leapt up on the thick wires and struggled with all my might. I could not bend them. There was no release mechanism. No loose lid, no way to rescue them. The cage was sealed tight. The metal top had to come off somehow, but I saw that it was clamped solidly onto the cage sides. It was going nowhere. I was powerless to help these poor mothers. Frustrated, I hopped about, squeaking.
"You'd better get back in the cage," the mother mouse said with weariness. "They punish the ones they find escaped."
"I didn't come from that other cage," I said. "I came from outside."
"What's outside?" she said. I gritted my teeth - this was so hard!
"Freedom. Space to move around. Clean food. Fresh water."
She sighed and squinted. "Oh, I'd give anything to be in that big cage over there," she nodded toward the ten gallon aquarium next to her with the fifty mice in it. I gaped. "They have so much room. And so many friends. Maybe someone would help me take care of my babies."
She hadn't even heard me. She was lost in her enslaved world. To her, the hell next door was heaven. I shook my head. "What happens here?" I said.
She looked at me. I saw she was old. Or maybe the captivity had aged her. "Humans come. They take my babies. At first I tried to take them back. I tried to bite. I tried to pull my precious children back into the cage, but the human hand was too strong. Too strong. They took all my babies. Then they put a mouse in with me for a few days. The only company I get, though it's always a different mouse. Then I have more babies. Then they come to take them away again. I always fight the hand, but it is too strong. Too strong. I hope my babies have good lives. I hope they aren't put in tiny cages."
Her babies were fed to snakes. I couldn't tell her.
"How many times has this happened?" I asked.
"I can't count that many," she said.
"Can you count?" I asked. She nodded. "How high?"
"I can count to twenty, because I once had that many babies."
I felt something in my stomach heave. How could humans be so cruel! They act like they're the only animals on the whole damn planet!
"Does every pet store do this?" I said to myself, horrified.
"Where I come from there are thousands of mice, and all of them in cages like this one," she said. "I hadn't seen such a huge cage like that one until I came here."
My cage, back at the safe house, was 25 gallons. Full of toys, good food and fresh water always available. I had it all to myself. And I could leave anytime I wanted to.
"I want to help you," I said, eyes blurry from tears, "but I can't. I'm not strong enough."
She smiled at me slowly, as if drugged. "I don't need help."
I leapt off the cage. I couldn't take it anymore. I searched madly for drugs. I sniffed for them, I looked in every nook and cranny. There was nothing. I finally went back to the mother mouse and described the smell of antibiotics. It was near dawn. I was taking far too long. The human was probably gone by now.
"I knew that smell," she said to my surprise. "Back where I came from. Where all the tiny cages were."
I swallowed. "Was it called a...a lab?"
She nodded. "That's what the humans called it."
Oh, I didn't want to go there. I wanted to go home. I wanted my mommy more than I ever had! The evil and horrors of the world were beating my soul down. At every turn was some new terror, some shocking, sick surprise. Why? Why was everything so wrong?
My first instinct was to blame humans. They had made the world what it was. But something told me to hold off on my judgment. There was much I didn't know. I might be wrong. BJ always said assumptions were stupid. For stupid mice.
Weary with pain, frustrated, disappointed, and terribly saddened by the mothers' predicaments, much less having to leave them there, I went back out toward the street. I had seen great evil. There was no doubt about it. And yet, I felt that I had not yet met my true enemy. The thought was daunting.
Flashing red and blue lights assailed my eyes. I ran forward to the glass door of the pet shop and saw a car had pulled up behind Heide's. It had different colors and had flashy lights on top of it. It had a powerful beam of light that lit up Heide inside her car. There was a man in some sort of uniform talking to Heide through her window. Heide seemed to be arguing. The man got angry and said something loudly, handing Heide a piece of paper. Heide looked frantically at me, at the door, because she couldn't see me, and then started her car. Oh, no!
She drove away very slowly, looking back the whole time.
The man got back into his car and stayed there, writing inside. He stayed for a long time, eating a donut.
I had lost my kind human. I was growing sick. I had a broken leg. I had to go to this horrible place called a lab, that I feared with all my soul for the things I had seen in my dreams. The black mouse was born there....in the lab. I didn't even know where it was. Not even a general direction. I had no equipment, no food, no water, and I smelled like bait to every animal within miles.
To quote TV, I was up the creek without a paddle.