The flight was long. I did not have one thought on the way. My mind was empty, like my soul, and like the body I carried with me. The air rushed past us. Below, I saw the fields. Then I saw the freeway I had rushed across desperately, with my master, Bigfat, and Michael, all of us young friends. Beyond it was the city, and we flew over that too. From so far up, it looked smaller.
From up there, everything looked small.
At long last, just as the sky was turning red and yellow, we saw the beach. The sun was just over the water. Mike felt the desperate jump of my heart in its cage, and banked steeply to plummet to the shore. The beach was empty. I could not see one being, human or otherwise, even from the sky.
The angel landed so lightly I couldn't feel it. As the hand lowered I slid off, tumbling to the ground with my master's limp body. I got up quickly and ran to him, picking him up and dusting his face off. Silly of me, but I couldn't help it.
"I cannot come back," Mike said. "Your kind human needs me now. And soon after that, my side of this is almost over."
I nodded, knowing I was being abandoned, but I had chosen my own fate.
"Fare thee well, Squibble, may you have light when all around you is dark." His feet left the earth, and he was gone in moments.
The sun inched its way down. A light fog drifted toward shore from the horizon. The beach was silent.
"Master?" I called.
Only the waves answered me. They sounded sad. The whole world, in its bright and beautiful colors, seemed miserably hollow.
I looked up and down the beach, holding my master's limp body to my chest. I could not leave him. Oh, how stupid of me. Miles and miles of beach, and I assumed he would be exactly where I came to. My head fell to my chest. I was so tired.
Souls travel to the sea, and wait there for the dawn, or the sunset, depending on which sea...
I picked him up, putting him over my back like I did in our journey across the frozen Fields of Fate. I would search the beach. I would search forever until I found his spirit. If I was too late, then this would be my fate, to search the beaches forever, lost and alone, carrying his body on my back. That sounded like one of the stories he always used to read to me.
How long does it take?
I began to walk the long length of the beach. He was so heavy, but I couldn't drop his stuff. His hard earned armor, now cracked and chipped. It meant so much to him. Like his precious encyclopedias, which he would never read again.
Well, it takes awhile to get to the sea, little mouse, and on the way the soul has time to think on their life, and what it meant to them.
I stopped. I couldn't do this. I just couldn't. I sat down and started to cry bitterly. My master was dead. He was really gone. The sunset was so pretty. The weight that had been bearing down on me for many months was, at last, more than I could take.
I looked at the water. Gritting my teeth, I forced all of my willpower on one thing. I bent my entire soul to one task. I would not accept failure, for I could not. I needed this now. I need my gift. Serve me now, power. I am your master. Serve me!
The spirit world faded into view all around me, softly joining my picture of reality. The beach was full of souls, but most of them were very dim. Almost completely transparent. Some humans, some cats and raccoons, some coyotes. Thousands and thousands of mice. There were angels. All of it dimmed down, like someone had put fog between them and me. Spiritual fog. I focused deeper. I took on my chi gung breathing.
The whole world took on a golden tinge to it, and the waves sounded like songs.
So many mice. Too many. Some brighter than others, but none that stood out. I would never find him in all that. Never.
I felt a soft breeze, coming from the sea, and when it circled me, I smelled Bigfat and Mike, as they used to smell. It brought me back to our good times. I remembered playing all over Mike. I remembered biting Bigfat on the ear whenever he displeased me. I giggled. Then my master's scent came to me, and I followed it in the real world, carrying his body.
I found him almost at once. There he was, sitting on the sand, gazing at the sunset, wearing no armor, no sword, nothing but his handsome fur. He turned his head and saw me. We met.
"Squibble," he said, smiling as I loved to see him do. He looked carefree and happy, his burdens gone, his eyes bright, his quest fulfilled.
"Master," I said, my eyes full of tears.
"You remembered," he said.
"Yeah. Yeah, I did."
"How did you get here? It's been months."
"It's been less than a few hours, master," I told him.
"Oh. Really? It seemed like I walked for almost a season. I walked a long time."
"Nemo says time is different in the spirit world, master," I told him. "I...I think you took as much time as you needed to, to work things out."
He smiled again. He seemed completely at peace.
"Yes. Yes, that sounds right. It feels right."
"Did you work everything out, master?" I asked him.
He looked up at me, then out at the sunset, then back at me.
"Almost," he said. "I was waiting for you. I didn't know that until now."
I felt loved. "Thank you, master."
"My pleasure, my best friend. I couldn't leave without saying goodbye to you one last time."
We stood looking at each other in silence a long time. His spirit was gorgeous. Radiant and beautiful. His light held everything that made him him. I could look at it forever.
At last, he said, "You have a long journey ahead of you."
"I wasn't planning on going back to the house," I said. "There's nothing there for me anymore."
"That isn't what I mean," he said. "You know that."
I looked down at my feet. I set down his body and sat.
"Yeah," I said. "I've wasted so much time."
"No," he touched my face. It felt like electricity, soft and warm. Through it, I could feel his caring. "You did exactly what you had to do. You did perfectly. Not one step did you miss, my magnificent squire."
"I'm...I'm old," I said. "My life is almost over. I feel old."
"That's the grief," he said. "I felt it when Tree died. But you are not old, Squib. You're young, because you're young at heart. And you have so much life left in you yet - I can see it. You will live another year and more."
"A mouse living three years?" I said. "Almost unheard of."
"You'll live until everything you have to do is done," he said. "Believe me. You'll make it."
"Not sick and crippled or nothin..." I said, suspicious of prophecy at this point.
He laughed, like a choir of bells. "No. In good, solid health. I promise."
I relaxed. "Oh...okay then."
"Your job is so much more important than mine ever was," he said.
"I don't even know what it is," I said.
He grinned and slapped my side with his tail. "Yes you do."
I looked at him, then back at the city, looming behind me.
"Yeah," I said. "Yeah. I guess I do."
"You've known all along."
"Yeah. I guess I have."
"Not easy being a champion, is it, my dear friend?"
"I don't wanna be a hero no more," I said, my voice depressed and wretched. "No one told me it would suck so much. I thought it would be fun and glorious." I wiped tears from my eyes. "I thought it would be cool."
He sat next to me.
"It's pretty cool to those you're saving," he said. "Don't give up yet, little one. Not just yet. For me, okay? My part in this story is done. Yours will go on."
I didn't answer him. Instead, I said, "I brought your armor and stuff."
"I don't exactly need it anymore," he said.
"But you loved it so..." I said.
"Who knows, maybe I'll have some use for it yet. Thanks, Squib."
"Take care of my encyclopedias for me, Squibble. They're yours now."
I nodded. The sun was halfway down. He got up and squinted at the horizon. "My ride's almost here." He looked at me gently. "I have one last gift to give you, Squibble, now that I am able, for all the months of faithful service you gave me."
"You don't have to, master..." I began.
"I know," he smiled, and everything around us faded. It all faded away into light. I smelled roses, and grass, and water. I smelled old wood, and heard trickling. I smelled plants and trees.
We were on my dock. The magical dock from my meditation. The perfect place of utter, complete peace I had only ever been able to reach once. The water was silvery glass. It ran past us with fluid beauty. The setting sun tinted it gold.
I felt no pain.
I felt no fear, no worry, no sadness. I was with my beloved master, sitting on the dock in pleasant warmth, and that's all there was.
"This is a powerful place you've built, Squibble," he said to me.
I felt nostalgia slink up my spine.
"I didn't know I built it," I told him. The evening was perfect. The moment was as fine as any could ever get. I had not one care in the world, and everything was clearer and sharper than anything had ever been.
"Oh yes," he said. "You did. This is your eternal place of safety."
That made sense. I nodded, happy.
"My gift to you is this," he said, waving his hands around. "You've locked yourself out of it, feeling unworthy, but I am going to give it back to you. Because you need this place now. You need a place to rest and feel safe."
"I locked myself out?" I said.
"Everyone judges themselves harsher than anyone else ever does," he said. "You think you've failed in life. That's just what the black mouse wants you to think. If you think that, you set yourself up for failure in the future. It's a vicious cycle, this self loathing, Squib. It stops you from being happy, and from treating yourself well. I'm going to begin a stop to that downward spiral, though it may take awhile to heal, and ultimately it will be your choice. But at least..." He waved his hand around the beautiful place, "at least this you will have, and nothing can take it from you again."
It clicked in my mind. I knew it was true. Everything here was true. It made me glad.
"This is your refuge," he smiled sweetly. "Here, everything is clear. Nothing can trick you, nothing can hurt you. You can rest here. And now, you can come here at will. For the rest of your life."
"I thought no one could do such things to someone else against their will," I said, quoting Nemo. He had said no one could control anyone else's free will. Their decisions, good or bad.
He grinned playfully.
"Sometimes you gotta break the rules."
Yeah. I nodded, feeling love swell in my delicate, wounded soul.
"Thank you for everything you've done for me, Squib."
I had no words to answer with. I just gazed into his lovely face, the sapphire gold water casting shadows on his white fur.
"Will you come back?" I asked him.
He looked out to the horizon.
"I don't know. I think so. But I want to just be a regular mouse. No big destiny. A normal life."
I chuckled. "Master, you know better than that. Some souls are too big for little things."
He turned to me, mocking surprise. "Haven't I earned it, Judge Squibble? Can't I have it? Please? It's all I ever really wanted."
I tilted my head slowly side to side, thinking.
"Ohhh, okay, I guess so," I told him. "But let's compromise."
"Alrighty," he said cheerfully.
"Do one last thing for me in this next life, and then it's yours."
He pretended to think about it, playing the game.
"Okay. Sounds fair."
We laughed and shook on it. His face slowly became serious again. He was still smiling, though.
"We will meet again, Squibble. Don't worry."
"I know. I won't."
We looked into the peaceful waters, traveling under us on its way to eternity. I imagined I could see my entire life in those waters. My momma, my friends, all the toys I had played with. Everything, drifting downriver. All the good times and the bad. Drifting. Going.
"Squibble, life is like a beautiful river, passing us by under a bridge, or a pier. We see all kinds of things from that place where we watch. We see things on the water, in the water, in the air. Sometimes we can pick up a few treasures as they float by, but mostly we watch as everything passes by, on its way to someone else's pier. We watch everything in life, the very experience is all we have. It's all we take with us in the end, because once things float on by, Squib, they're gone."
He turned to me and put a paw on my back. He stroked my fur.
"Our lives float by, with the river, and then they're gone, Squib. They're gone."
I turned to him.
"You told me this before."
He met my eyes. "Remember it. Treasure this life."
"I'll do my best, master."
Then the pier faded away, and the beach came back. The sun was almost gone. He was standing next to me. The spell of that perfect place left me, and I felt the impossibly heavy weight of heartbreak and trauma on my broken spirit. He kissed my cheek as a tear ran down it, then slowly turned and walked toward the water.
He turned once.
"Squibble?" he said.
"Yes master?" I whispered.
He smiled kindly, one last time.
"I have a name you know," he said to me. "It was all I ever wanted for myself, and I earned it through great hardship. I wish you'd use it more than once."
I was stunned. I realized that I had not used it, by voice or in my writing, ever. Not once in my entire life had I said his name aloud. More than once? To my knowledge, I had never used it. I hadn't deemed myself worthy. It awakened my sleeping spirit all the way, that fact. It was the moment of my enlightenment somehow.
My throat felt tight. Choked.
"Love you, Squib," he said.
"I love you..." and at the moment I was going to call him by name, an owl cried out in the dark city, and I turned suddenly out of instinct, half fear, half wondering if Nemo's teacher had come back for me after all. But the sky was dark and empty. The city was silent.
When I turned back, just a second later, my master's body was not on the beach any longer.
He was lying on the rear deck of a mighty ship, sailing just past the waves. It was silver and gold, with sails of starlight. The setting sun turned it into a silhouette, but I saw clearly my master laid upon an altar of stone, wearing his armor and shield, a sword across his still breast. His eyes were closed in peaceful rest. About him were three lady mice, glowing with power. One young, one old, and the one in the middle was...my mother.
She looked across the waves at me and smiled. Then the three of them held up one paw each, and the ship sailed slowly into the sun as I watched. It passed on with the sunset, and faded from my sight.
Our lives float by, with the river, and then they're gone.