I sat there, unmoving, looking pathetic. My head sank and I stared at the floor.
"What kinda sick?" I asked softly.
"The kind that she won't recover from," he said. "Cancer."
Something hurt me inside then. It shot from my chest out in lightning bolts down to my toes and fingers. It left a black, empty, burned place in my soul that got worse from then on and I have carried as a scar ever since. It started then, in that moment I was told my mom was going to die.
"Cancer?" I asked.
"It's a disease," my master said.
"Yeah," I said. I sounded sheepish. Stupid. Sad.
"She's almost gone." He came carefully and put a hand on my cheek. "She was waiting for you to return. She's held on an awful long time."
I shuffled slowly to his feet. "Master, you have to save her," I begged. "She's my momma. You have to save her."
My master's gaze fell to the floor, then slowly rose back to meet mine. His eyes were full of willpower and tears.
"I'm sorry, Squibble," he said, choking out the words. "This time I'm gonna let you down."
I ran from him, past the other mice. From the looks on their faces they knew already. Of course they did. That was why they hadn't said anything at first. They were relying on my master to break it to me. I ran past them and up the shelves to my mother's cage. It was still there. Nemo was sitting outside it, looking sick himself. He said nothing as I whipped past him and into my mom's nest house.
Inside, I sucked in air at the sight of my mother. She was rail thin, just skin and bones. Her eyes looked tired and she looked like she was two years old, when she was actually less than half that...in her prime. I could hear her shallow breathing and smell the sickness in her lungs with every breath. Her mouth was moving a little each time she breathed, and I hear a pitiful whistling sound coming from her throat. She didn't smell me. Her face looked depressed, her once bright eyes dim. I wouldn't have recognized her by sight. That failing shell...she was barely in it.
"Momma," I said, gentle and soft.
She turned her head and stared at me. It took a moment for her to register me there in her dark nestbox, then she smiled. "Hello, kitten," she said.
I began to cry at the sight of her, the sounds of her choked voice. "Momma," I repeated, and came over to her. I went to embrace her, and when the armor got in my way, I tore it off my body like some parasite I loathed. I hugged my momma. She squeaked in pain though, so I backed off and instead licked her lightly around her sad eyes. She licked me back. It felt so good, and then that feeling was interrupted by the horror that this might be the last time I'd ever feel that. Reality had finally come to me. It did not come in the city, when I was beat up, or in my search for drugs to save my life, not in the lab, nor in the nest when I was commander of a thousand mice. It came then, in that nest, holding my dying momma who was more precious to me than anything on the earth. Nothing could ever replace her, and nothing could save her. I was utterly powerless. I begged Bigfat to help her, I begged Mike to intervene. I whispered to her sweet things and told her about all the high points of my pilgrimage, making it sound like a grand adventure instead of a lesson in fear and pain. She was so weak. She could barely talk. It was all the energy she had to stay awake, and finally, as the night grew very dark, she couldn't. I held her anyway.
Sometime in the night, hours later, my master came into the nest box. I smelled Nemo still outside, sitting there meditating. I smelled other mice just outside the cage, nervous and not knowing what to do. My master sat with me a long time. An hour or more, without saying anything. He put a hand on her back and groomed her a little. She moaned in her sleep.
My head hung low, my eyes had changed. Inside, I felt as though I was the one dying. I know that's so terribly selfish, and believe me, it got much worse in days to come, but at that moment, I felt I had come home to hell. The thought crossed my mind that I had been better off not coming home, but no. Then I would never have seen my momma again. At all.
"Do you want to be here when she goes?" my master asked.
I just looked at him, not able to shake off my shock.
"It won't be pretty," he said grimly. "Nemo thought to spare you the ugliness of it. I said it was your choice. She's your mom."
I just stared. My eyes were full. He looked as though I were seeing him through a glass of water.
"It's up to you, Squib," he said. "It's up to you. You're grown up now."
He turned and left the nest. I heard Nemo stir, and they both left. Shortly after, the other mice below left also. I could smell the last two to leave were Scratchy and that strange, lanky female mouse that had been with BJ when I came into the house. I was alone with my dying momma, and soon I would just be... alone.
"I'm so glad you're alright," she croaked. She petted me once before she hadn't the strength anymore. "I was so worried."
"I'm sorry, momma. I'm so sorry," I said. It hit me then how selfish and stupid I had really been. Every day she must have looked out the window into the fields and wondered how I was. How could I have done that to her? I had literally worried her sick. This was my fault.
If you want to remember her beautiful and free of trauma as I wish I could, then skip ahead. Because I did stay for her death, and as my master had promised, it was not pretty. It was only me and my master there in the end. The human had put her on anti pain drugs, but hadn't the heart to euthanize her. It was the first time he had lost one of those mice closest to him. Out of several hundred, I guess you could only choose a few to be really close to. My mom was one of them. He used to take her out for hours at a time, with my master, and let them play on the bed together, crawling endlessly over the mountains and in the tunnels made from the blankets. My mom, she was always more interested in crawling on the human, spending time with him, same as my master, and that endeared them both to his heart. She was his most affectionate mouse, he always said.
In the end, she suffocated. The cancer in her lungs cut off her air, and she choked. I would like to not have seen it, and would probably be better off if I hadn't, but then I would have wondered the rest of my life. It began with a clicking noise, and then she began to gasp for breath, opening and shutting her mouth as wide as it could go. Her eyes were bulging from their sockets in terror and pain. I couldn't bear to watch it, but something wouldn't let me turn my head. My master and I were both crying. Neither of us had imagined it would be so terrible. In retrospect, a violent death at the hands of a snake or animal would have been more merciful.
She twitched once, then again. She panicked. She sprung up onto her legs, on strength she did not have, and ran outside the nest. We followed her out. Mice know they're dying, and will use their last strength to get as far from the nest as possible so their body doesn't attract predators to the living mice. Almost no mouse dies in bed.
Outside, she spasmed and convulsed so violently that her head hit several of the toys hard. She jerked and leapt almost a foot into the air, only to land painfully and spring up, trying to run away again. Trying to run away from her death. Sheer animal terror, with no conscious thought attached. I prayed that she was somewhere else already, and that her body was all we were seeing, in its last throes of struggling to survive. A futile struggle she had already lost, and didn't know it.
My master and I couldn't hold her down. Her body was flopping around like a fish out of water. Desperate and full of horror, she flung herself blindly all over the cage. Finally, mercifully, she landed and was still, eyes bulging grotesquely, legs still twitching. Still trying to run from the Reaper.
But she was dead. Her mouth opened and shut a few more times. Her chest heaved a few more times, then she trembled all over, her eyes squinted in agony, and she was still forever.
For the first time in his life, my master broke down. It had been too terrible. He heaved deep, mournful sobs and doubled over my mother's corpse. In one of his exhalations blood sprayed out of his nose and all over his face, my mother's back, and onto the floor. Too horrified to do anything at all, we both ignored it, but I knew it was his lungs. My dreams had shown me this way ahead of time. His scarred lungs where blood would clot and finally burst in times of stress, spraying out of him like a fountain. He had not achieved his dream without a dear price. His safe house, his kind human, and his holy quest had crippled him. Seeing him there, wrecked and dispirited, crying on my dead mother was all I could take. Something snapped in me then - broke outright - and I knew I would not be the same after that. I could feel it in me like broken glass grinding into an open wound. I stared like a retarded child, not comprehending what I was seeing. It was as if something finally gave in me that had been waiting six months to do so. All at once, the dam broke.
I saw golden light. White, blazing, golden light shining into the house from the window. It was the light of dawn, but it was more than that. This light was too pure. And all around us, there were softly glowing mice. Many mice. Little mice, too young to be away from their mother, all standing around Tree and her broken mate. Then I saw my mother, glowing and lit by radiance not of this world, step out of her body and take her dead children to her. They had waited all that time. Waited for her.
Above us, I saw Michael standing, holding open the gates of the sky. He was looking at me. Not at my mother, but at me. I looked back, bright as he was. I had nothing to say at that moment. His face was full of compassion and strength. His power was beyond anything I had ever beheld, as he guided the tiny little mice to the first step in their journey. I watched all the spirits go, walking into the sky on their way to the shoreline, slowly, reluctant to leave this place. Reluctant to leave...
My mother turned when Michael pointed and looked down at me. She smiled sweetly. Her face, now full again and not sick or sad, was more spectacular than it had ever been.
"I will be back when it's his turn," she said, and looked down upon my master. "I love you, my dear son." Then they were gone. Mike went last, sorrow for me and what I had ahead of me, I guess, showing on his chiseled face.
At last it was dark. My mother's body and the sounds of my master's racking sobs were the only things in my world.
Sometimes later I remember mice coming and bearing away my mom's body. Nemo was looking at me like Mike had. A knowing look, full of sympathy and concern. I didn't care. BJ and the children came and put their paws on my master. Percival, Branch, Leaf, Muadib and Gaia all surrounded their father. They were all grown now, every one of them. All beautiful, healthy mice. Each one a mirror of their parents. None of them looked like me. Branch turned and gave me a knowing look also, like Nemo had. He was only three months old. If his genetics were anything like Percival, they were all Ubermice. Destined for great things, and blessed with many amazing gifts. Maybe he could indeed see whatever it was Mike and Nemo saw. I didn't care. My senses were stunned from the blow of my mother's poor death. The vision afterward, which was still with me now (I saw many mouse spirits all over the house, many of them walking with us, but clearly not living) did not change things. My heart was broken. It would not heal anytime soon.
It was the beginning of my descent into the underworld. It was the start of my spiritual pilgrimage. I felt my happy-go-lucky self leave me, and depression took its first cold grip on my soul. I walked in tiny shuffles, my eyes downcast, and heard not one word anyone spoke to me. I almost felt my spirit falling. Falling into darkness and despair.
All that bright sunny day, it never hit bottom.