Winner, January 2014 Writing Contest
The sun had set a while ago. I watched silently from a small burrow as Man and Woman’s long legs filed awkwardly out of the building. The doors of the smaller buildings residing in the large space began to close, and I knew that was my cue. Nimbly, I slipped along the walls, hugging the dirtied side. My grayish fur traced a melody at the foot of the wall, slowing the beat at each sharp turn. It was cold out here without Man.
Man’s ways were strange. Man was strange. When I had first found this colony, I had wondered why Man had built such a marvel. But then I understood.
They called it the Food Court.
I traced the familiar trail with pinked paws, noticing as more and more of my brethren slipped from their burrows. Their paws raced with greed in their beady little eyes.
I suppose I looked the same. But I didn’t run so quickly to get first pick at the food. I ran for The Man.
Nightmares of The Man had been ingrained in me as I listened to young mothers twist words into lavish, dark stories of him. He was the only one who stayed after the lights turned off. He was the one who brought down upon our community the Great Darkness. It had washed out a generation of our people. Those who survived had fled from their homes. The Man had done this. Poisoned the food, set traps on unsuspecting innocents. Before knowledge of the traps had traveled, too many mice had died. Those who fled were the only survivors, for then came the Great Fog.
He was not only The Man. He was The Informer. He was the first to kill, and when he didn’t kill enough, he had others kill. That is why I run from The Man.
The moon didn’t reach the halls. It was just darkness, and cold. But my eyes were used to the darkness, and I knew the path well. Before long, each of us crowded into the dark halls of the Food Court.
“Romeo!” A familiar squeak came. I knew who it was, for no one else called me that name. In our community, we didn’t need names, but for the Greats. But in my youth, I had wanted to be more like Man. Secretly, I and another had found our names in the place that held what Man called Books.
I nestled the familiar body next to me. “Juliet.” I smiled. Her scent was familiar, and I found myself breathing it in.
“I haven’t seen you for awhile,” She remarked, pushing closer. Our fur had intermingled, a rusty red streaked with dull grey.
“I looked for you.” My face turned to her, and I could see creases of worry that had not been there before. A tiny pocket of air appeared between us, bringing the rush of the night.
“I wasn’t there. Sensible has been…he has been trying to train me.” I nodded. Juliet’s father, Sensible, was one of the Greats. I always knew Juliet would be expected to follow in his footsteps. Her glossy red snout turned to the floor. “But I haven’t let him. I don’t want to be a Great, Romeo. I just want to be Juliet.”
I wasn’t surprised. Juliet had never lusted after power, as others had. That was what made her such a great leader. I began to walk, and she fell in step beside me. “Let’s eat, and then we can go to the Books, as we used to.”
The walk to the Books was longer, less hurried, as Juliet and I simply enjoyed walking together again. I found myself continually looking at her. Imagining my old friend as a Great. It seemed odd at first, but she settled into the role comfortably in my mind.
The creases I had caught in her face earlier seemed to fade as we talked. She was acting normal again, happy and curious and free. Her laugh was contagious.
We soon reached the glass doors to the place of Books. Casually, we slipped through a chink in the defenses that had been there since we were children.
Juliet’s face lit up. She ran to the shelves of Books, brushing her fur against the long spines. I could only read so much of the Man’s words, but Juliet was amazing at it. She had taught herself while sitting in the store for hours on end. I had only learned from Juliet.
“Romeo!” She called loudly, for here we needn’t be secretive. This was our sanctuary. “Romeo, help!” She was running her paws excitedly along a thicker Book, tracing the title with short, clawed fingers. I found my way up to her, and we struggled to pull the Book from its place.
“You couldn’t have gotten a smaller one?” I grunted, pulling the spine. Juliet was beside me, panting gently. The Book finally began to give, and it struggled from its burrow.
We repeated the process for hours. Taking the book from its shelf, sliding open the pages, and reading until Juliet was bored with it. She insisted we put the books back after she was finished. It was tedious, but worth it to see Juliet smile.
Finally, I could see the darkness outside grow just a bit lighter. “Juliet!” I whispered, poking her to look up from the ink. She raised her head wearily. “It’s dawn, Juliet!”
She licked her lips gently, pushing the cover of the book closed. “Dawn already?”
I snorted. “Already? We’ve been here for hours.”
Juliet shook her head, and I could still see the words swimming in her eyes. “Alright. Let’s just put this book back and-"
I stopped her. “No time. Man will be here soon.” She didn’t argue. We weaved between furniture, making our way to the chink in the armor. Slipping outside, I adjusted my eyes to the brightness of dawn.
But, no. It wasn’t dawn. The light was too artificial. I blinked, looking upward.
No. No, no, no. Juliet was behind me, her features frozen in shock. Run. I tried to tell myself, but I couldn’t. Leave. Go.
I was so hurried to leave. I thought the light was dawn. I never looked at it properly.
Juliet was the first to move. She ran, tumbling over me and pulling me from my shock. I ran, I ran faster than I ever had. No thoughts came through my head. All I could do was run.
We made it to my burrow, Juliet slipping through first. We sat there. We didn’t say anything for what seemed like hours.
The first words were from Juliet. They were simple words, and I knew them already, but they still sent a jolt across my body. “He saw us.”
The Man. The Man saw us.
“We have to warn the others,” She continued. I nodded, but I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay here, with Juliet, nestled in my burrow. I didn’t want to go outside.
I don’t think Juliet wanted to, either. Even after she said the words, she didn’t move. She just sat there. Both of us sat there. We stayed, relishing each other’s warmth. Relishing the peacefulness of the burrow. The peacefulness we knew would never last.
“What are we going to do, Romeo?” Juliet moved in further.
I laid my head down. “I don’t know.”
Juliet sighed, a deep sigh, and her body relaxed. The pressure that had been building in the burrow released, and I found myself sighing along with her.
“It isn’t dawn yet.” I remarked lamely. I didn’t exactly know what I meant, but Juliet somehow did. She stood up.
“Yeah,” she nodded, understanding more than I did. “We have to go tell them.” She looked as disappointed as I felt. I nestled her gently.
“Come on, let’s go.”
We walked out together, moving quickly, but staying close to one another. The silence, which was usually comfortable between us, had grown tense.
It felt like forever until we reached the Food Court. Juliet and I made our way uneasily towards some very old and fat mice that stood perched on one of the tables. Smaller, shabbier mice kept pushing past us in their hurry to bring offerings to the Greats.
“My daughter!” One of the skinnier of the Greats looked towards us as we climbed the table. He shared Juliet’s rusty coat. His voice was quiet, yet regal, and the tone was neither surprised nor angry.
Juliet bowed deeply at the paws of her father, her forelegs bent and snout level to the table. “Father.” She had adopted his neutral tone. “We have news.”
For the first time, the other Greats noticed me. I must have looked as the servants, grey and small, with a shabby coat. I began to feel very self-conscious. Taking Juliet’s lead, I bent my forelegs, bowing to the leaders of our colony.
Sensible was the only one who didn’t look my way. His cold black eyes stayed focused on his daughter, no emotion shining through. “News. What an ambiguous term.”
Juliet didn’t waver. Her eyes turned as emotionless as his, and their resemblance was uncanny. “Yes, Father. News.” She didn’t seem anxious to tell him the news, but I was reminded we were in a hurry. Pushing away their fierce glances, I stepped forward.
“The Man has seen us.” I stood awkwardly, awaiting the gasps. None came but from the servants.
“I see.” Sensible turned to the Head Great, awaiting his reaction. But Brave was still as stone. Sensible might have let out a sigh, but it was so small I couldn’t sense it. He began to part his lips when Logic interrupted him.
“What were they doing going where The Man could see them?” Logic was much louder than Sensible. He sat next to Brave, and held his head higher than him.
If Sensible was annoyed about the interruption, he didn’t show it. He turned to us as if he himself had asked the question.
I swallowed, but Juliet was solid as stone. She raised her head to look into her father’s eyes. “We were in the bookstore,” she said blandly, setting her jaw. She never looked away from him.
Sensible waited, saying nothing but raising his brow slightly.
Logic looked down at me, his nose pointed at a slight incline. I watched him and the other Greats with awe, but besides Logic, all seemed to have their eyes on Sensible and Juliet.
“The bookstore.” Sensible said quietly. It wasn’t a question, just a repetition, as if he was turning it over in his mind.
A female mouse piped up. The sight of her made me smile, for she was the one who made the case for me to stay in the colony when I had first come here. “Does it matter where they were going? What matters is the case at hand. The Man has seen them, and if we do no act quickly, we will have another Great Darkness on our paws.” She winked at me after all the other Greats had turned their attention from her. I smiled back.
Brave attempted to straighten up from his slouch, which was difficult for his twisted back. He didn’t seem like much, scarred and crippled, but what I had already thought was silence grew quieter as he brought himself up. “Forgiveness is right. We must act.”
Brave’s speech didn’t receive feedback as the others had. When Logic spoke, his voice was softer, humble, with less anger. You could tell he didn’t like the submission, but he did it anyways.
“My Great,” he licked his lips, “What do you expect us to do? Evacuate the whole colony?” Some of his arrogance came back after the joke.
The scar around Brave’s eye grew white with anger. He looked as if a sour taste had entered his mouth. He obviously was not fond of Logic. When he spoke, though, his gruff voice did not grow emotional. “Perhaps.” Logic looked shocked at the word.
Brave threw his paw on the tabletop next to him. It created a thump that silenced all of the Greats. “Do not talk back to me, Logic. Do you forget that I am the Head Great and will be so until I resign?”
“Or die,” I thought Logic muttered, but if Brave noticed he didn’t show it. Louder, Logic submitted, “Yes, My Great.”
“Good.” Brave turned to Sensible. “What do you suggest, Sensible?”
Sensible wasn’t surprised at being singled out. He answered simply, “What do you determine is worth more? Your home or your life?”
Brave nodded, as if understanding. His sparse, dark grey coat rustled at the movement. “It’s settled, then. We will evacuate the colony.”
Logic looked as if he was about to retort, but he bit it back. He ruffled his golden fur in annoyance.
The Greats dismissed. Many passing by looked annoyed, and gave me glances that pierced through me. Forgiveness stopped by me after all but she, Brave, and Sensible had left.
I began to bow, but she stopped me, laughing. “Hello,” she paused, leaning in. Her voice grew soft. “Romeo.”
Her eyes sparkled at the look of confusion on my face, and I knew if I asked she wouldn’t answer. “Forgiveness,” I said politely, before she silenced me with a sigh of exasperation.
“Didn’t I tell you to call me Elizabeth?” Her eyes sparkled brighter, shining out against the black fur of her face. I noticed she was young for a Great.
I remembered the time so long ago when I had first came to this colony. Forgiveness- er- Elizabeth had helped me to stay, had given me advice, and, in a fleeting moment, given me a token of friendship by telling me her own name she had thought of as a child. I nodded gently, smiling at the memory. Elizabeth’s sweet laugh broke through me.
“Do you know why I helped you that day, Romeo?” Her face grew as serious as it could with her ever-bright eyes. She didn’t wait for my answer. “You reminded me of Brave when he was young.” I was puzzled. She was too young to know Brave as a child. Standing in confusion, I watched her make her way back to Sensible and Brave. Juliet came to greet me.
“Hey Romeo,” she smiled. It was strained. I smiled back, but my eyes swerved back to Elizabeth. She was speaking to Brave. Brave lit up like a candle, the lines of his grey face disappearing in Elizabeth’s light. They walked together, closely, as old friends would. And only then could I see how young Brave actually was.
As they passed us, I could hear between bits of conversation the name Elizabeth, and yet another one. It was an odd name, really, and sounded to me like Darcy. No, Mr. Darcy.
Sensible strode up to us, sliding comfortably between Juliet and I. I walked tensely by him, feeling odd in his presence.
“When are we leaving?” Juliet didn’t look at her father now, but directly ahead. Sensible didn’t answer for a while.
“Tomorrow.” He said finally, looking straightforward as Juliet had. We walked in silence for the rest of the way. I was afraid he would reprimand us, but he said nothing. He left us only to the pit of guilt in our stomachs.
Juliet told her father she would walk with me until dawn. He said nothing, but silently moved to the entrance of their burrow. In his absence, Juliet filled the space between us. I began to feel more comfortable, sharing her warmth. Without her all I had felt was cold.
We went into my burrow in silence. Juliet laid her head on my back, and we sat there a moment. My burrow was no longer filled with artificial peace. Now the air spoke freely of guilt and fear.
“I’m cold, Romeo,” Juliet whispered, adjusting her head on my back.
And it was cold. It was so cold.
The next night I woke to Juliet’s head still on my back. I lay, not wanting to wake her. Eventually, she shifted to consciousness, and blinked away the day. “Did I sleep here?” I could see the grogginess in her eyes, and smiled gently, nodding.
I got up and stretched, allowing the cool air of the night wake me up. Juliet sat there lamely, her paws tucked firmly under her rusty chest. I bent low to her, saying gently. “Get up, it’s evacuation day.”
She groaned, hauling up her slender body. “I don’t want to leave.” I nodded unconsciously. This was our home. No one wanted to leave.
“Come on. We have to.” I tried to nudge her out.
Juliet looked up at me, and I could see tears forming in her eyes. I stopped nudging her, and just sat there a moment, my head against hers in silent comfort.
“Juliet,” I whispered. “Juliet, we have to go.”
“I know.” But we didn’t move. We savored for just a moment each other, our warmth, our company. Finally we broke from each other, and crawled tiredly out of the burrow. Juliet’s paws stayed just a bit behind mine, but she was able to keep my pace fairly well. As we walked we saw the trickle of mice turn into a river, and eventually a sea. They were all heading for the Food Court for further instructions.
The Food Court had a different feel than it usually did. The warmth and brotherhood had been washed out with a flood of confusion and fear. Last night the message had been carried out to all families that the evacuation was to take place the next night, and to stay inside and avoid all things that resembled a trap. I noticed some of the familiar families had not come, and were unwilling to leave their homes. Most mice, however, crowded the Food Court.
I searched the tables for any sign of the Greats. Only bored daredevil youth occupied the tables, taking reckless jumps into the sea of mice.
Before long the crowd cleared, and out in front came Brave, his scarred face set in a serious tone. He was followed by Logic and the rest of the Greats, third being Sensible, and Elizabeth last. Despite her taut features, she winked at me when she saw my face in the crowd.
The Greats moved gracefully to the top of one of the tables, the older, fatter ones being assisted by servants. Despite his serious manner now, I couldn’t help seeing Brave as that young mouse I had seen with Elizabeth. He seemed odd seated above the older mice. Behind his scars and premature creases, I could see a mouse in the prime of his life.
Brave cleared his throat, and the Court grew silent, except for an adolescent scream that emitted from the badly timed jump of a youth. A few of the younger mice giggled, but grew silent at the sight of Brave’s stoic features.
“My dear friends,” Brave’s voice rang out. He seemed to be looking at each one of us, and for once, I could see the true emotion in his eyes. “We have grave news. There has been a sighting of-of some of us.” Then I was sure he was looking at me. “Two of our brethren have been seen by one of man. This man is one you refer to as The Man.” A few gasps circled around the Court. “The Council has decided that for your safety, we will host an evacuation of the colony.” He paused. “With this precaution we hope to be able to prevent a second Great Darkness. We hope this evacuation will be short. But we believe it will allow us to continue to live in peace.” His glance at Elizabeth I wouldn’t have noticed before, but I found myself catching the fire that lit up in his eyes. She was the first to begin applauding, followed by the rest of the Greats, followed by the hoots and shouts of the whole colony. I found my own paws pounding furiously, pressured by the enthusiasm of the crowd. Juliet smiled at me, clapping loudly. I smiled back.
After the applause died down, Elizabeth and Sensible slid to the front of the table. My trained eyes caught Elizabeth gently brush Brave on her way to the front. They continued to give out instructions to each of us, followed by more applause.
Brave rose one more time, gave a short concluding speech, and every mouse began to file out of the Food Court to the front of the building.
Juliet and I walked behind the pack, every so often brushing against each other. We didn’t talk, because there was nothing to say. I watched the Greats that walked in front of us. Brave walked with Elizabeth, and he was laughing. Sensible didn’t walk with them this time. Most of the others walked with Logic, not laughing, but walking regally, their noses upturned. Some, however, strode loyally behind Brave. He didn’t seem to notice them. He didn’t seem to care that he was behind very unprofessional, laughing shamelessly. His eyes were only for Elizabeth.
Juliet seemed to be brushing me more often, but I didn’t mind. She was familiar to me, which was what I needed when I knew we were walking into unfamiliar territory.
The glass front of the building was larger than I expected, and it was illuminated by the cool light of the moon. The glass was covered in harsh metal, but that didn’t seem to bother the Greats. They slid through the halted crowd easily, Brave still deep in conversation with Elizabeth. Each of the Greats disappeared when they reached the door, only to reappear on the other side. One by one, the other mice followed them through the crack in the wall. Juliet and I were the last of them, and we followed the small family in front of us through, into the cool night.
It had been years since I had been outside, and the freshness of the air pierced me with nostalgia. Juliet sniffed at it as if it were a new brand of food, before inhaling it deeply. Everyone in the colony except for the Greats were marveling at the stars, or the air, or the small plants that adorned the sides of the walkways. A few mice were sticking out their tongues, as if tasting the night.
“It’s beautiful,” Juliet breathed, looking at the sky. I nodded, connecting the dots of the stars. Before long, we were all pushed forward again, though many mice couldn’t pull their eyes from the fabric of the sky. They moved forward, heads tilted and mouths open, gazing at the studs of diamonds that blazed against the darkness.
I remembered a children’s book Juliet and I had read, about the Moon being made of cheese. I laughed, gazing at the tarnished silver.
“Romeo,” Juliet whispered in my ear. I turned to her, and the stars still hadn’t left her eyes. She didn’t say anything more, she didn’t need to. Together we walked, our heads still turned to the stars.
I didn’t watch for our destination. As we walked, more mice began to break off, following orders and scouting out a new burrow. Juliet and I didn’t care to help, but we were shepherded off with a young couple, who had a small child on their back. I recognized them vaguely.
The female didn’t speak. Her eyes had turned wide and afraid, even as she calmed the child. I felt as though the words of comfort weren’t only said to the child, but also to herself. Her mate synthesized bravery and authority, but he was just as scared as the child. I could tell he was hanging on to every word of his mate.
Juliet had slipped in closer to me, and her fur tickled my side. I found myself breathing my own words of reassurance into her ear.
The black ground began to give way to brown as we approached a more plant filled area. Eventually the grimy black just stopped, and our paws reached the cool, brown earth. The couple didn’t slow down, though the wide-eyed female tripped over her own paws at the end of the black. Juliet and I walked leisurely behind them, for I was no longer afraid. Memories of the Outside had filled me, and I relished each one as it passed through my mind. It had scared me as a child, alone in the cold, but with Juliet by my side, the remembrances were embraced as old friends.
We finally reached a small clearing, with holes forged into the ground. A memory passed through me. There had been a colony there. They had rejected me then.
The others stopped, and I took the lead, lowering my nose to the cool earth. The smell was familiar, but I could sense no mice other than our group. I poked my head gently in a hole, sniffing the sides.
“I don’t smell anything.” I thrust my head out of the burrow, turning to my companions.
The male in the couple moved forward, sticking his own head in the burrow. We waited while he sniffed at it. He walked back, shaking his head gently. "I don’t smell anything, either.”
We spent the next few minutes exploring the burrows, snuffling and testing the old tunnels. It was kind of eerie, with no evidence of other life in the darkened tunnels. I caught myself shivering.
The male straightened up, having tested the entrances to almost all of the tunnels. “Should I tell the others?”
The rest of us nodded, and he set off with a hurried goodbye to his mate. Her eyes had softened, and she seemed so much different than the frightened creature we had first walked with. She nodded to us, and walked to one of the burrows, setting the child among the cool dirt.
Juliet and I were left alone in the starlight. I could hear her steady breathing against the song of the night. The sound of her felt warm in the chill.
“I’m kind of glad we left, actually.” I could almost hear her gentle smile. “All my life I’ve missed out on this.”
I myself was smiling, and a certain understanding passed between us.
“Do you think we’ll ever go back?” She whispered.
I shook my head. “I don’t know.”
“Do you want to go back?”
I never answered.
We sauntered around the burrows, not speaking much. It was a comfortable silence, though, and neither of us dared disturbed it.
I was the first to break it. “What do you think happened to them? The mice that lived here, I mean.” It was Juliet’s turn not to answer.
Finally, the male came back, colony in tow. The Greats were at the head with him, Logic in the very front. It seemed odd, as he wasn’t the Head Great. I let it drift out of my mind.
At the sight of me Logic’s nose crumpled, turning into a sneering wrinkle. I never looked at him, but turned my head to Brave, who seemed completely unaware that I was there.
“Is this the place?” He nodded towards the male, who shivered in a way that may have been a yes. Brave took it for one, and began inspecting the burrows. I saw a look of- concern? - pass over his features but I may have imagined it. He began nodding, turning to the colony. “We shall gather here.” He stated. “Until the Darkness has passed. We will assign burrows tonight.” He turned to a Great I hazily knew as Charity. “Will you do the honors?”
We spent the rest of the night in our assigned burrows. Mine was small but deep, and I liked it that way. Juliet had snuck into my burrow just before dawn, because we both knew neither one of us would be sleeping that day. We spent the day talking and laughing of childhood, trying to forget that we were in an unfamiliar burrow, in unfamiliar territory.
Juliet had turned serious after a space of silence. Her creases returned, but they were less weary now. Now they just looked determined.
“We have to do something, Romeo.” She whispered my name out of habit. I let my snout fall to the floor, pausing for a while.
“I know,” was all I could say.
Night approached again, and I watched from my burrow as the sun set. Juliet had refused, and sat deeper in the hole, gazing wistfully at the dirt-lined walls. I didn’t look at her, didn’t want to, for I knew all I’d see would be that look of sadness I couldn’t bear.
I just wanted to see her smile.
When the last rays of the sun had passed the horizon, I found myself crawling back to her. I lay beside my old friend, sniffing her in greeting gently. She gave a half-hearted smile. My nose buried deep into her fur, and I rested my head softly on top of her own. “It’s going to be okay, Juliet. I promise.”
She didn’t speak for a while, just let herself sink into me. “We started this, Romeo. It’s our fault.”
I didn’t say anything. I didn’t have to. We both knew it was true.
“We have to be the ones to end it.”
We sat in the night. The moon was absent.
It was a dark night.
“Romeo.” A soft voice drifted through my dreams. “Romeo.” I could faintly feel myself being nudged awake. My body finally obliged, pushing me out of consciousness.
“Urgh,” I protested. I suddenly felt someone hit me.
“Romeo!” My eyes blurred open to Juliet’s anxious face right above mine.
“Yeah?” I licked my lips blearily.
I could hear a faint sigh. “Romeo!” Another small nudge to my side. ? “Huh? What is it?” I opened my eyes again, fully this time. It was still light outside.
“I’ve been up all day thinking.”
I nodded, closing my eyes. “That’s nice.”
She sighed again. “I’m not done.”
She shook her head gently, laughing. “I was thinking about the evacuation. We can end it, Romeo. We can get our homes back.”
I pushed myself from the embrace of sleep. “How?”
Juliet’s eyes had lit up in the matured rays of the sun. “We’re going back. Tonight.”
I still wasn’t getting it. “How?”
“Romeo, that is how. We’ll go back, clean out the burrows, make it look as though no one lives there anymore. Only one problem, The Man has seen us already. But only us.”
I realized what she was saying. “Wait. Stop. Juliet, do you want us to sacrifice ourselves only to end the Evacuation a few days early?”
“I don’t know the Evacuation will end, Romeo. The Greats are cautious. I’ve heard them talking. They all think we need to stay, especially the older ones. We’ll never see our homes again, never see those mice we left behind. And it will be all our fault.”
“Exactly. The mice we’ve left behind. Man has probably seen them already.”
She sighed. I could tell she was holding something from me.
“Romeo, I’ve already spoken to them. I-I went back last night.”
I raised an eyebrow, but she stopped me. “It wasn’t a big deal. It was just to ask them about everything.”
“It’s okay. Look, if you really think this’ll work, I’m going with you.”
She looked relieved. I felt terrified.
I smiled. “Together.”
The night was warm. I could see the artificial light of the building flicker off. Even after all these years of living there, just a few days outside made the building looked alien. Juliet and I waited a bit longer until we felt ready.
I followed Juliet to the front of the building. I heard her take a deep breath. “Together?”
The building floor felt odd compared to the earthy texture of the outside. I allowed my paws to get comfortable to the slippery surface before picking up my pace.
“Romeo!” I looked behind me to find Juliet at the entrance to a burrow. I scuttled backwards, slipping in after her.
The burrow was obviously a home to many mice. It was messy and large, with scraps of food everywhere. A small female sat in the middle of it all.
“Oh! You’ve come,” she breathed, finishing up her hurried work of cleaning the mess. Juliet smiled sweetly at her.
The female was exasperated, and only stopped speaking to take bright breaths. “I thought you would never come, and everyone else left, and I was supposed to stay here to wait for you, and it was so lonely, and I tried to clean, but, oh, it’s still so messy, and I was just waiting here, and all of my family left, even my mate, and he said you would be coming, and I did volunteer to stay, but I didn’t really want to, oh, but now you’re here-”
We waited patiently, until finally Juliet set a paw on the poor girl. The female smiled gratefully.
“Thank you,” she closed her eyes.
“Go on. Thank you for waiting for us.”
The female scurried out. Juliet gave a deep sigh, looking at the messy burrow. “We’ve got a long night.”
We worked the rest of the night, cleaning burrow after burrow. By the end of it, none of the tunnels or burrows looked like they’d been lived in for years.
We worked past dawn, cleaning and rearranging. We worked awkwardly at first, but as the night went on we began to move in unity. When we had finally finished, the sun was high in the sky. I slumped against Juliet.
“We’re done?” I turned my head to her. She nodded lazily.
“Yes. We’re done.”
We were in a strange burrow. It was large, and now empty, excluding Juliet and I. Juliet shifted so she was leaning against me, and her familiar weight and warmth allowed the tiredness that had pestered me all day wash over my body.
We found ourselves closing our eyes, drifting into the blackness of sleep. I could taste dreams on my lips.
The sun was gone. Man had left. It was dark and warm in the burrow. Juliet groaned, and I was close enough to hear her dreams. I smacked my lips.
“Romeo,” Juliet groaned, and I turned to her. Her face was worn, and I found myself whispering comforts to her.
She rolled in her sleep, twitching. I laid my head on her cautiously, afraid to disturb her.
“Juliet,” I whispered. “Juliet, wake up.”
Fitfully, she twisted under my head. “Juliet.”
She groaned again. This time I could see her waking. Her breathing quickened its tempo slowly, until her eyes had opened.
“Romeo,” She yawned, stretching. “Is it time yet?”
We slipped from the warmth of the burrow. This time we disobeyed instincts and didn’t hug the walls. We needn’t hide now. Now we wanted to be seen.
We wandered for a long time, speaking softly every so often. It was freeing to no longer cringe at every corner. Juliet and I stood at a bit more of a distance than usual.
It took hours until the familiar artificial light filled the halls. I was no longer afraid. Juliet and I shared a glance, and we knew this was it.
Two hands grasped each of us. They were large, covered in a sort of rubber. The rubber felt uncomfortable on my skin, and I fidgeted under the harsh grip. The Man was hairy around his mouth and chin. His eyes were cold, uncaring, and he held us mercilessly.
“Found ya, you little rats,” His grip tightened slightly, before we were placed in a netted cage.
Juliet huddled next to me. I could only feel her breathing, and everything else was dark. We were thrown across the cage as the hands grasped the sides, and jostled while the Man walked.
I felt my stomach jump to my throat as we were thrust down, smashing hard against the ground. Two male voices seeped through the fabric covering the cage, and I could barely make out the words.
The fabric was taken off the cage with a flourish, revealing a clean cut Man along with the other Man. I realized suddenly that the smooth faced Man was The Man. He looked at us with no emotion, almost with boredom.
“Yep, that’s them,” he said with contempt, flipping the tube of light into the air before catching it.
The hairy Man nodded. “I’ll check for more tomorrow. What do you suggest we do with these?” He jostled the cage harshly, forcing Juliet to slam against me.
“Gas ‘em.” The Man smacked his lips uncaringly, not even looking in our direction. “When you find the others, do the same. We had an infestation a few years ago, and we need to clear them out as soon as possible.
I didn’t like the idea of “gassing” us. I looked to Juliet, hoping for her support, but her eyes held the same fear I was feeling.
The hairy Man hauled us out of the room, bringing us to the front of the building. He looked down at us with what might be called a sneer. “Don’t worry, fellas, it’ll all be over soon.”
I took a breath, watching as he unlocked the armor of the doors. He thumped into the night, his awkward gait making the ride even more uncomfortable.
He threw us in the back of something. It was one of what we nicknamed a Creation, that is something made by Man. I looked at Juliet, allowing my paw to find hers.
He was back soon, his hairy head nodding gently to a beat that was in his own head. He walked to the front of the Creation, jingling something to an unpleasant rhythm. His gruff voice turned into a flat whine as he sang lyrics to a song he didn’t know.
The Creation rumbled softly, almost purring, as it rolled on the black ground. There were no other Creations around, and the ride went fairly smoothly, if it weren’t for the singing of the hairy Man.
Juliet and I stayed close for the whole ride, relishing the warmth we knew wouldn’t be there for long. She still smelled like the night, and I let her overwhelm my senses. She was the last thing I had left.
The Creation slowed, pulling into a building much less grand than the one we had called home. It was large, nonetheless, but dirtier. Colder.
The hairy Man looked back at us, giving a yellow smile. “Come on, guys, I’ve got a surprise for you.”
We were in the air again, supported only by the cage below us and the Man above us. I didn’t mind it when Juliet was forced closer to me.
The building doors were wooden as the trees, not the clear glass of the other buildings entrance. It seemed odd, but that was what I noticed as the Man led us to what would be our death. I didn’t even hear the harsh breath of Juliet, or the way the smell of the night had turned sour in her fur.
He took us to an extension of the building. It was cold and white, with walls as smooth as the floor. We were set on a grey table.
“Sorry, guys, captain’s orders.” We were set in a chamber. It was sleek and cold, like the rest of the room, but the walls were silver, not white. I looked at Juliet, wanting her to be the last thing I ever saw.
She was crying. I nestled her gently, letting my snout press to her forehead as hers had to mine. “Smile for me, Juliet. Please.” She closed her eyes, giving me a wet smile. I gave her a humorless laugh, pushing against her closer, allowing my lips to press against her back, her shoulders, her head again. She lay there, crying softly, letting me hold her.
“Together, Romeo.” Her tears slowed their pace, giving her a chance to place her paw on mine. “Together.”
I nodded, not letting her go. We would wait for the end together.
It was a cold night. I realized that I could feel the night. I was supposed to be dead. No. We were supposed to be dead.
“Juliet,” her name escaped my lips as if it were a familiar tune. I could still taste the feel of her on my lips, but she was nowhere.
But where was nowhere? Where was anywhere? I looked around, tasting the familiarity of outside. Why was I outside?
“Juliet,” my voice was louder now, more confident. I stood, kicking the shakiness from my legs.
I walked in circles, regaining feeling. My mind was still fuzzy. Where was I? I looked around again, and noticed something I hadn’t noticed before. A cage. The cage.
“Juliet!” I was yelling now, running to the corners of wherever I was. All I could see were trees and stars, and the cage. Everything was blurry. I knew it was nighttime, and it was cold. But where was I?
More importantly, where was Juliet?
I found her lying in the brambles of a bush, on her side and murmuring my name. I shook her awake, wanting to see her smile again, wanting to hear her voice again.
“Romeo?” her eyes were open. Those beautiful black eyes. They were looking at me, scared.
“It’s okay,” I whispered, sniffing her in greeting like I so often did. “I’m here. Together, remember?”
She nodded like she understood, but her eyes were still fuzzy.
“Come on, Juliet. We have to go.” I didn’t know why, but I knew it was true. My head was still fuzzy, but it was clearing quickly. “Come on.”
I pushed her to her feet, tugging her along. We walked until we reached a clearing. I recognized it.
“Come on, Juliet, we’re almost to the Colony.”
We started running until we reached the familiar burrows. I ran and ran past mice through the tunnels into the Hall. All I could think of was Brave.
The meeting room was covered, but I burst through, interrupting an argument between Logic and Charity. Logic looked at me furiously, but I only looked to Brave. It took a minute to explain everything, and by then I finally had surprised the Greats.
It was moving day. Mice piled up in groups, their children and mates by their side. I stood alone, for Juliet was with her father today.
Brave stood above us. He looked at regal and proper as ever. Beside him was Elizabeth, and I could see in his eyes he had something important to say.
Elizabeth looked weary, but happy. I hadn’t seen her in a while, and she looked fuller, brighter. Her wrinkles were less pronounced.
Brave cleared his throat. “Friends,” he began. “Today we leave to our homes. However, it has come to my attention that during these days in the outside, some of us have felt more at home here than anywhere else.” I looked to Juliet, but she was focused on Brave. “So, the Council and I have come to a conclusion. We offer each of you a choice. To stay in the outside, or to return to your homes.” His statement met some murmuring. I found myself unsurprised, yet a flutter filled my stomach. “Those who choose to go will be governed by the newly made Head Great, Logic.” His voice stayed calm, though his eyes flickered.
Much chatter broke through his speech at this point. He said nothing, but simply waited. It died down quickly. “I have an announcement of my own.” He glanced at the other Greats, lingering on Elizabeth. Though they kept a straight face, I could tell the Greats knew not of his announcement.
“I will be resigning from my own station.” Pause. “The one to replace me shall be called immediately after my leave. However, I have my own nomination that I think should be considered by the Council.” I looked at Elizabeth, and knew why she looked so happy. She was to be promoted to be Head Great. “I nominate the daughter of my dear friend, Sensible.” It took me a moment to process this. Juliet. He was talking about Juliet. Brave paused for a while, letting it sink in. Once again, he cleared his throat. “I also bear news of the resignation of Forgiveness.”
Elizabeth smiled, a young smile. It made her look young and small and bright. She turned to Brave, who gave a ghost of a smile back, obviously trying to maintain his properness.
“So, my friends, this is the last I will speak to you. At least, the last I will speak to you as your leader.” He smiled now, and he too looked young, and bright, and free. “I will now only be known as a citizen of this Colony. I resign in hopes to carry on my life, with my mate and our child.” Another smile at Elizabeth, and now the fullness of her face made sense; she was with child. “I hope that you may also carry on your lives, under the rule of whoever shall be your new leader. I now step down from my post.” He slid nimbly from the rock, taking his place beside Elizabeth. He looked youthful in the light of her, and I noticed as he traced a steady tattoo along the side of her belly with his paw.
Now Logic stood, and for the first time his face was not in a sneer. He looked proper, like a leader. “The Council and I have spoken of the new Head Great.” He looked at all of us, lingering on Juliet. “And we have come to the conclusion to accept Brave’s nomination, and receive Sensible’s daughter as Head Great.” Juliet strode to the rock as if she weren’t surprised. Her nose was twitching madly, though, and I knew that that meant. “We also have decided that, in replacement of Forgiveness, we will ask the son of no one to stand in her place.” I suddenly recognized the name, and realized it was I. My eyes wide, I stumbled to the rock, tripping into place besides Juliet. I could see the hint of a smile at her lips.
“Shall you now be known as Determination,” he nodded at Juliet, “and as Loyalty.”
Juliet smiled at me, and she looked beautiful in the moonlight. I felt her grasp my hand. She turned to the Colony. “We will take the honor of protecting and caring for you, my family.” I could feel her snout breathe into my ear. “Together.”