At Last I Get to do Something Right
(Or, "Better Late Than Never")
The ride home was swift. I noticed more construction just outside the city. It made my gut feel stricken.
Human civilization is built on the bones of mice, Bill...
I thought of how many mice those tractors and earthmovers had buried alive. The mothers, the babies, the fathers desperately trying to dig their families out while suffocating. So many mice that wanted only to live... I felt sick. Entire tribes of field mice wiped out in days. One mouse family in every ten feet. Hundreds and thousands of acres turned to brown dirt from living fields.
I remembered my trip to the safe house with Heide and seeing the same things. I remembered thinking someone had to do something. For the mice. I remembered fearing that this someone would be me. Now I knew it would have to be, no matter how immense the task, because no one else would do it. Like Mike said, I was the only one capable. I was chosen. If I didn't do something, humanity would continue to crush mice, but worse, one day they'd find out we could read and write. Sooner than anyone wanted them to, I felt. I could feel the intense importance of my calling now. I hadn't felt it before because I'd been too self-absorbed. My past was full of nothing but Squibble and Squibble's problems. Now, seeing the barren flat miles of wounded earth, it was impossible to ignore the suffering that lay underneath. I felt sad that the little happy-go-lucky, selfish child Squibble was gone, as if he'd been buried underneath all that churned up dirt with all the other mice. I felt old and worn out looking at the edge of construction encroaching on the fields of fate.
I was chosen. And I would have to do something. Thinking back, I had always known this. I'd even prepared for it, kind of. Without realizing I was doing so.
Deep melancholy settled on my soul and I felt the damage of the last year all through my heart, aching like an infection that's been there too long. But at least I could feel again. I guess it was progress.
I realized after the bully that I would never again see reality the same way as I did as a boy. That time, that way of seeing things, was gone forever. I didn't want it to be, but it was. I was a different mouse than the one who left the safe house riding on the back of an owl. The spirit world was my other home, bullies were just hurt children, and time was a million sparkling reflections on an ocean of possibilities. Nothing would ever be the same again.
The kind human must have sensed it, driving us home. He kept looking at me sitting there perfectly still, so unlike the young mouse he had adopted long ago. He was worried. I could smell it. He probably thought I was sick. I guess I had been. Now I had to heal.
When I came home, the house felt different. It smelled different. It was clean, quiet, and alien to me. The word spread like lightning that I had come home with the kind human, and rodents scrambled madly to assemble in formation before the door. I was already past it, crawling into the living room. I passed by rats and mice that I knew, and the elite still wore their sashes with honor, but most of these new ones I didn't know. Most of this house no longer knew me at all, and it showed in their faces. Like the faces at the new kingdom. Awe. Fear. Lack of understanding. I looked and smelled so bad... I must have frightened them. They whispered "ghost," and "spirit of Squibble," and other such things. I went past them all, not even bothering to look around, and found my nest under the human's drawing table. Nobody had touched it. It was still all there.
Standing next to it were some familiar faces. I saw Shiva and Thor, who had their cage set up right on top of the drawing table, perhaps on purpose. They were standing on the edge, high above, looking down. They saw me and began the decent.
Stompy, Ghost, and my daughter Squibette were crawling across the floor towards me from the other corner of the living room where they had a cage. It was wonderful to see them. I thought they had died at the hands of the black mouse.
But the most emotional reaction I had was to the tiny mouse standing at attention in front of my nest. He was older, and scruffier, but it was Scratchy, same as he ever was. He was still wearing his squire armor, and holding a brand new shield for me with a brand new sword. He stood there like he'd been waiting since day one, and he probably had.
I stopped in front of him. It looked like he'd been living in my nest, which explained why everything was exactly like I had left it. He had defended this place with his own hide, sure I would someday return. Short of my master, no mouse had ever had more faith in me.
He stood there, rigid, expecting a harsh comment, a scathing inspection, or perhaps to be kicked. Instead, I reached down, dirty and stinky as I was, and hugged him, picking him up off the ground.
He squeaked in alarm. He probably thought I was going to try to kill him, but I held on and kissed the side of his face.
Shiva and Thor stopped dead in their tracks. Stompy, Ghost and Squibette did as well. Scratchy's eyes got so big I thought they'd pop out of their sockets. He stared at me as if he, too, finally believed I'd gone insane. I set him down and smiled at him.
Everyone just gawked at me for long moments. For all of my damage and need of healing, something had broken in me, and it broke the hard way. I could explain it not one bit, but instead of hatred, I now felt nothing but love for the tiny cripple that had given his entire life to me. He was as old as I was. We were in what was almost always a mouse's last months. And here he was, still guarding my things, because I wasn't there to be guarded. Through his armor I could see a hairless spot and scar where he had been run through. My master had been right. I could not ask for a more loyal servant. But his servant days were over, and should have been long ago.
I drew the sword I had in my belt, the one BJ had given me, and said, "Scratchy, kneel."
He slowly did so, staring at my sword as if I were going to lop off his head for something bad he was unaware he did. Instead, I placed it on one shoulder.
"In the name of Nemo," I moved it over his head to the other shoulder, "King BJ," moved it again, "and my master," I realized I should have used his name, but old habits die hard. "I make you a knight. Rise, Sir Scratchy!"
Well, half the house had gathered by then to see it. There was dead silence as he stood up, shaky and tentative, a worried look on his face as though he was going to be punished yet. He looked around at the crowd as if to see if he was hallucinating.
Shiva and Thor began clapping first, then Stompy, then Ghost and Squibette, then the rest. Everyone applauded loudly for the old knight who had finally gotten what he deserved. I breathed a sigh of deep thanks to Bigfat that I was not too late. I had thought Scratchy dead; one more tragic crime etched upon my soul that I would bear to the end of my days. But no. This one I got to fix, as much as a story so sad could be fixed. As Scratchy began to smile, realizing this was not a cruel joke, I felt sorry for him. The only thing he had ever wanted, and he had gotten it, but only in the very sunset of his years. I knelt down before him, and whispered where only he could hear me if he'd been able to hear, "Forgive me, little friend. You've been so faithful. You deserved better."
He might be deaf, but he got the message. He put both paws on me and helped me up, as if he were still my servant trying to save me from humiliating myself by kneeling before a crippled midget. He looked me in the face and smiled. He waved his sword around happily, his message clear. He was happy, and saw no sadness in the moment at all. He handed me my shield, dutifully. I handed it back.
"Yours, now," I said. "You can use the crest if you want. We're in the same family, after all. You can wear blue or green, your choice."
He held up his chin and pointed at my blue, tarnished cape with great pride. I smiled and hugged him again. He hugged me back. I felt karma ease off me just a smidgen. It was a wonderful moment, and everyone clapped and cheered again for the faithful Scratchy and his dream come true.
A tiny white mouse came skittering through the crowd and zipped up to us, standing right in front of our feet. He looked up at Scratchy with awe, and then at me with the same expression. It was the same expression that Scratchy had given me from the first day. Scratchy smiled and gently turned the child around to face me. He held his hand out as if to say, "See?"
"It's Scratchy's son," Stompy said, coming up next to us. "His only child. Only one tiny mouse in the litter."
Squibette, Stompy, and Ghost drew their swords and saluted Scratchy as an equal, as if he'd been a knight as long as they had. His eyes watered up and he saluted them back as superiors.
I looked back at the little kid in amazement, then at Scratchy. He raised his chin again and proudly held his stance of attention. His son did the same, clearly trained by his father. Scratchy had a little boy.
I squatted down and looked at the boy. No sign of waltzing, no sign of illness. Just small because he was young. By the size of his paws, it looked as though that wasn't going to last long, either. It was rare for a female mouse to give birth to only one child. It made that child special, and Scratchy so clearly loved his special son. I felt the bleeding of my soul stopping. Maybe I would heal someday, seeing things like this. Roses from the ashes.
I petted the kid, who had probably heard many stories of Squibble, and was now looking at him. I kissed him on the nose and smiled up at Scratchy, who was trying very hard not to cry. His pride showed through that mask, though, and a smile cracked his tough outer countenance. I could tell he had dreaded this moment for weeks, and now was consoled. Not only did I approve of his son, I approved of him, as well. Finally.
I gave Scratchy the salute of an equal, before the gathered crowd, which let out one giant gasp of shock. He saluted me back as a superior. I handed my sword to his son, who took the huge thing in his arms incredulously and looked up at his father. Scratchy looked down, nodded, and looked at me. He held out his hands at his son and pointed at me, then at the boy. He wanted me to take the kid as my Squire.
Of all the things that have surprised me in my long mouse life, that remains one of the most powerful. Here was this mouse, whom I had abused and ignored all his life, offering me the most treasured thing he had in all the world - his own son. I started crying. I couldn't help it. That he would trust me so deeply with so much was overloading my newly awakened heart. I couldn't believe it. I was stunned, along with everyone else.
I shook my head at him slowly, trying to convey my thoughts. Surely not, Scratchy? What if I treat him as I treated you?
Scratchy shook his head swiftly, sure of himself. No, master, his face said. I know you will treat him as well as I do.
I told him I would consider it, and that seemed to satisfy him. He smiled broadly at me, at his son, clapped his son on the back, and looked at his sword with new eyes. The crowd parted and Vulcan brought out a brand new suit of fresh made lobster/snake hide armor with metal fasteners and chain mail underneath. It was made to fit Scratchy, and looked as though it had some dust on it. Shiva and Thor took it from the old smith, brought it to Scratchy, and laid it before him.
"We had it made long ago for this day," Thor said.
"We knew you'd make it, little buddy," Shiva said.
Scratchy, eyes leaking like a sieve, took off his old armor with delicate reverence and donned his new suit. Vulcan offered him a blue or green cape with gold fasteners. He chose the blue, looking in my direction as Vulcan fastened it around his neck.
When he was dressed, he looked three inches tall, instead of one and a half. He looked as tall as Percival. He drew his sword and faced the audience, receiving another round of applause and many weapon salutes, every one of them made to a superior.
His son was crawling around in his old squire armor, looking very cute, wishing he was big enough to put it right on. Scratchy bowed to me, and then to the others. Everyone bowed back, even the crowd. His little son stood up straight and bowed to his knight father. His daddy faced him and bowed back to his son.
Vulcan then presented to me a box of medals he had cast, complete with ribbons. Squibette told me what they were all for, and I chose several for Scratchy, pinning them on him myself. I gave him medals for valor, for bravery in the heat of combat, for fast thinking and for loyalty. I gave him three purple hearts for being wounded, and one for being a great fighter. I gave him one for defeating many opponents. Then I saw it. Vulcan had copied it perfectly. The Silver Star.
I looked at Stompy. She nodded.
"No mouse has ever received that one," Vulcan said.
I gingerly took it out of the box. I had wished when Bill had died that I could have taken his medal with me, to keep it safe for him. Now I was given that chance, in a way, and no one in the house deserved it more than Scratchy, who had time and time again cast himself in harm's way for others and miraculously survived.
I placed the Silver Star around his neck. It hung all the way down to his belt.
One last round of thunderous applause shook the floor. I thought I could feel my master smiling, all the way from Avalon.
As the others celebrated, I withdrew to the bedroom, an hour later. Nemo's cage was dark, but I smelled him in there. I climbed the blankets of the bed and hopped down to the front door, left open as always.
I stood there, listening to his breathing. It was shallow and light.
"Master Nemo?" I said.
He lifted his head from the corner pile of blankets. Wearily he focused on me.
"Squibble," he said in a tired voice. "I dreamt you had fallen far."
"I did, sir."
"You have risen then?" He asked me.
"Yes, Sir. I am on the mend at last."
"Like the phoenix."
Like a smoking, charred mouse what tried to be a phoenix by lighting himself on fire, I thought, but I said, "Yeah."
He struggled to rise. He looked thin, like I did, and not much better off. His health had plainly deteriorated. His ribs showed as if he'd never put any weight back on after his coma, and his face was gaunt. There was light in his eyes, though, and they were crinkled at the corners, smiling at me.
He hopped sluggishly over to the doorway and put his nose to mine.
"It's good to see you again," he said. "Most thought you dead."
"I pretty much was," I said.
"It had to be, Squibble," he said.
"I know," I told him.
His tired eyes widened some. "Really?"
"Yeah. I do," I said. "And I'm gonna need your help, and probably the help of the old owl, too, in the coming months."
"You know what you must do," he said as matter of fact.
"Yeah," I said. "Only took me forever, but yeah."
"I will help you any way I can," he said. "I am slow and sick, but I can help."
"Can nothing be done for you?" I asked.
"No," he said. "I have maybe a year or a little more left. Will that be enough time? I made a promise to Death."
"It will have to be," I replied. "I will be three then. That's just ridiculously old for a mouse." I looked at him and squinted my eyes. I saw his aura, dim but clear. "Why did you trade your life for my master's, sir, knowing he was going to die anyway?"
"Because you were not ready to lose him Squibble. I did it to ease your burden as much as possible, even if all I could do was but a little."
"But the price!" I said.
"This is what was supposed to happen," he said. "I knew the moment of my death from the first month I had prescience."
I had never thought of that. Once I got good enough at it, I could look forward and see my end. The most likely one, anyway. The implications were frightening.
"Do you think you'll do that?" He asked, reading my thoughts.
I looked at the ground, then at him.
"No," I said. "I want it to be a surprise. I don't want to worry about anything anymore."
"Very wise," he said. "I wish I had done that." One of his ears rotated to face the bedroom door. "What's all that noise?"
"Oh, they're celebrating," I said. "I knighted Scratchy."
I saw his whole body twitch, as if someone had stuck a cattle prod to his tail. His face lifted, his eyes opened all the way. He stayed like that a long moment.
"Is that so," he said at last.
"Yeah," I said, "but it's so sad. He's as old as I am. He has barely any time left to enjoy it, and nowhere near enough time to have adventures, like mine... like he always dreamed of. I messed up."
Nemo smiled. "No, little one, you haven't. I have seen Scratchy's future, and he will outlive you."
It was my turn to start. "Really!"
"Yes. And you shall yet have the time you need to accomplish your task. I daresay the gods will not let you die until you're done. Scratchy shall see his adventures, I promise you."
I breathed a sigh of completeness. "That's so good to hear!"
"You have done well, Squibble. The worst is over, and you have prevailed."
"I feel like I messed up absolutely everything," I said, lowering my eyes.
"Listen." Nemo looked back toward the living room. "Not everything."
I cocked my ears to the celebration and thought of Scratchy's face as he looked up at me, full of joyful tears.
No. Not everything.