A mouse is told to fear white mice, until they have a scary encounter with a dog!
Grandma’s reaction is sharply focussed and etched permanently in my memory. Only a beat after he had scampered past, she swivelled round, her whiskered face contorted as if she had taken the deepest suck on the tartest of lemons, and with the venom of a thousand vipers squeaked two words. “He’s unlucky”.
All I understood was that there must have been something deeply wrong with that mouse to provoke such a reaction from someone I loved so dearly. I hadn’t given much thought to ghost mice since then. I don’t know how, but it just became something I – and all the other mice I knew – accepted; you were not to associate with them if you could help it. If you did, you deserved what was coming to you.
On my first day of training, my older sister, Miranda, was coerced into accompanying me. We left our home in the ceiling cavity, squeezing through the gap in the plaster. Miranda paused to sniff for danger, then took off along the rafter. I followed as closely as possible. Down below, a streak of white caught my eye. Running along where the wall met the shop floor was the second ghost mouse I ever saw. It was dark, but his white fur stood out, regardless.
“What are you doing?” Miranda called.
I snapped back to the present and ran to catch up.
“You’re so weird!” she admonished.
She looked down, and when she saw the ghost mouse, made a hissing sound through her teeth.
“Why are they unlucky?” I asked her.
“Dunno,” she grunted, as if it was the stupidest question ever. “It’s always been like that. Everyone knows, you get near a ghost mouse and you get what’s coming to you. Come on, we’ll be late.”
By night, the marketplace belonged to mice, but it was still a perilous place. Danger is ever-present in our world. During day, humans set up giant piles of delectable produce. You’d think they’d share a morsel; they certainly have enough left over. But they pack it all up, then hose the whole place down. On a mouse’s 21st day, we join the night squad to train for ration raids. We learn to scour the market for treasure troves of food while avoiding getting into a pickle.
Training was held within the drain by the market’s entrance. The ghost mouse was there when we arrived. As soon as we dropped through the grate my eyes zeroed in on him. He was hard to miss. A ring of space separated him from the rest of the group like a moat around a castle. Miranda nudged me away from him as we moved past.
Major Max called the squad to attention. Pride and apprehension tumbled around inside of me as he welcomed us. He lectured us in an authoritative drone, and I scanned the other newbies for their reactions. Pairs of eager black eyes were trained upon him, along with one red pair.
“For the well-trained nose,” the Major intoned, “the marketplace is a bounty of tasty tidbits. But… danger lurks in some places more so than others. Tonight, you will explore the safer, Green Zones. When you’ve proven yourself up-to-snuff with Green, you’ll move on to Orange. And finally – only once there’s no doubt of your capability in situations of high pressure and risk – Red.”
We were split into groups of three and assigned an older guide, then sent off to commence Green Zone exploration.
“These drains are the perfect place to start,” Molly, our guide explained. “They score highly for both safety and abundance. Most scraps are washed down here and not much else can enter besides us. You just need to be wary of flash flooding when it rains. Over this way…”
Molly led on, continuing her spiel as we walked.
Mia, whose family’s nest was close by ours, rolled her eyes at me.
“Won’t find me down here,” she whispered.
“Why not?” I replied. “Mama collects most of our food here.”
“Soggy filth,” she returned, screwing her nose up in disgust.
The ghost mouse, the third in our group, spoke up. “It’s fine. We eat from here too.”
Mia’s face oozed disdain. “I’d expect that,” she scoffed.
Mia’s cynical commentary continued throughout the training. At any opportunity, Molly’s instruction was unsubtly punctuated with sniggers, sighs and head shakes. All this was pitched in my direction as if I was a co-conspirator. It took all the energy I could muster to clamp my mouth shut.
By break time, we were back above ground in the loading bay. I moved away from the others to get some much-needed alone time.
It was the ghost mouse.
“Fine,” I answered curtly, turning away.
“She’s pretty intense. You must be exhausted.”
I didn’t reply. He took a step closer. Instinctively, I stepped away.
“Want some?” he offered.
I glanced at his outstretched paw. A chunk of cauliflower. I wanted to take it but was prevented by an image of Grandma’s face in my mind.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he said, “about luck. You don’t believe it, do you?”
“Of course not,” I huffed, and took the morsel from him.
We sat quietly for a bit, nibbling.
“I’m Myles,” he said.
“Marco,” I replied, tucking my unswallowed mouthful in my cheek. “Thanks.”
“What are you doing?!” It was Mia. “You’re not sharing food with him, are you?” she said accusingly.
Myles looked at me, waiting for my reaction, but I remained silent.
She spat on the ground and dragged a paw across it, marking a curse barrier between herself and us.
I opened my mouth in defence but movement at the head of the loading bay stopped me short. It was a dog, silhouetted by the streetlight, its shadow stretched across the ground. It padded our way, snout down.
Grandma’s face reappeared in my mind. Sensing the heat of her burning gaze, I dropped the cauliflower.
I could see Molly back where we had left her, crouching in the gutter behind a chip packet, frozen, just like us. Her leg muscles twitched, ready to dash. I knew the risk assessment she’d be going through. If she stayed still long enough, the dog could turn and leave. But, if it came close enough, it could pick up her scent. How close could she allow it to get, while still being sure she could outrun it?
The dog stopped in its tracks.
“Go Molly…” Mia whimpered beneath her breath.
The dog snorted. It crouched down stealthily, its entire body focussed. Hunting mode.
“Please go,” Mia pleaded from afar, “please, please…”
It crept, painstakingly slow.
With only a pounce’s length left, Mia could contain herself no longer.
“Goooooooooooo!” she screeched.
Molly ran. As did her hunter. In terror, we watched her zip by us, her foe hot on her heels. She darted behind a pile of boxes. The dog barked and pawed at them, nudged them with its nose.
“Let’s go!” Mia squealed in panic and took off down an adjacent alley.
The dog’s attention shifted. It left the cardboard jumble and, its paws skidding on the cobble stones, took off after us.
My feet barely touched the ground as I hurtled down the alley. I don’t know what was faster, my scurrying feet or my pounding heart.
I heard Myles call from behind. “It’s a dead end!”
He was right. The back doors of the meat hall were ahead, but firmly closed.
“What do we do? What do we do?” Mia panted, pulling up to a halt, her eyes wide as she watched the dog bearing down on us.
By the doors was a gigantic metal dumpster. Myles scurried into the gap underneath. I followed shortly behind. Mia was left no choice but to do so, too.
From our fortress, we watched the dog’s paws traipse back and forth round the perimeter of the bin. Its muzzle appeared and it barked its frustration. I could see saliva oozing between its fangs. Trying another tack, it stuck its paw into the gap. We pressed ourselves against the wall to avoid its swiping claws.
“What now?” I asked, not really expecting an answer.
“There,” Myles said, pointing.
Above us, in the corner of the dumpster’s rust-corroded underbelly, was a hole.
“We’re not going in there,” stated Mia, shaking her head adamantly, “that’s Red Zone. We go in there, there’s only two ways out. Back out the same hole and be swallowed by the dog or wait till morning and be swallowed by the garbage monster.”
“What do we do then?” I asked.
“We’ve gotta run for it.”
I peered beyond the barking dog’s jaws along the long stretch of alleyway, then at Myles. I closed my eyes. Those two words of Grandma’s echoed through my brain. I shook my head and reopened my eyes.
Myles’ red eyes glowed. “Trust me,” he said.
He made a run for it and leapt into the hole. I didn’t wait for Mia’s permission, I followed immediately after. The dog barked and swatted with its paw, but I was clear. We peered down at Mia and tried shouting over the dog’s din for her to join us. She kept glancing between us and the alley, but finally went for it. The dog swiped. Its claw clipped her hindlegs, sending her tumbling. She righted herself, scuttled desperately, then leapt. We grabbed her by the fur and pulled her into the dumpster.
Mia wailed at me as soon as she was on her feet. “This is it. Never trust a ghost mouse. There’s no way out of here. We’re done for!”
“Quit it Mia,” I ordered. “Give him a chance.”
Myles took no notice. His nose twitched, taking in our surroundings. I took a sniff, too. One smell dominated all others. Food! We were at the bottom of a massive mountain of refuse; the biggest cache of grub I had ever come in contact with. But we had no time to stop and wonder. We made our way upwards through the maze of rotting food scraps and packaging; squelching, sliding, clambering and squeezing. It became lighter as we climbed, and the air, fresher. At the summit it became apparent why. The dumpster was overfilled; its lid was not completely closed.
We perched on the rim and peered down at the dog far below. It was still on its belly, barking madly at the hole where we’d disappeared. Across from us was a drainpipe. The void between was vast, but there was no other escape option. Banishing all thoughts of becoming a dog’s dinner, I launched myself through the air in a wide arc and grabbed onto the pipe’s bracket at the end of my flight.
I looked back. Myles was trying to persuade Mia to follow, but she was adamantly refusing. Her arms were crossed tightly, a stubborn frown fixed to her face. I wanted to scream, ‘leave her!’ but dared not. So far, we had gone unnoticed. How long would that last?
I saw Myles speak in Mia’s ear. Her consternation amplified as she listened. She puffed up, then deflated again with a disgruntled sigh. She turned huffily away from him, teetered on the edge, then leapt. She caught hold of the bracket with her front paws and kicked at the drainpipe, scrabbling to get a foothold. I reached down and she snatched my paw. She clambered over the top of me; kneed me in the guts, stamped on my head. Without a squeak or a backward glance, she scrambled up the drainpipe and disappeared over the edge of the gutter.
Myles bounded across and soon we were also up the pipe and safe upon the roof.
Mia was nowhere to be seen. Probably trying to put as much distance in between her and the ‘ghost mouse’ as she could. And no doubt she’d be keen to get back and tell her version of what happened.
We sat in between two tiles, taking a moment to calm ourselves and allow the adrenalin to subside. We were wedged closely together, and I could feel Miles’ white fur brushing up against my own with every intake of air. This time, I didn’t move away.
“Myles,” I whispered, head down, “I’m sorry if I… You know… Being unfriendly before…”
“Let’s leave it,” he said. “You figured it out. That’s the main thing.”
We sat for a bit, long enough for me to feel I needed to say something before it became awkward.
“What did you say to Mia?” I asked. “To make her jump?”
Myles grinned. “I told her that she could stay. I told her she could even climb back down and chance it along the alley if she wanted. But if she did, I would stick right by her, like glue.”
Down below in the laneway, the dog’s barking quietened and finally ceased.
“And the dumpster lid?” I asked. “How did you know it would be open?”
He shrugged and winked one of his shiny red eyes.
“Just lucky, I guess.”
© Michael Morell 2020
1. Marco is not very friendly at first to the ‘ghost mouse’ Myles, because he is told bad things about him. Do you think we ought to listen to what people say about others we don’t know? What might be a better way for learning about a new person?
1. Myles is kind to Marco even though Marco is not very friendly to him at first. What do you think this might say about Myles?
2. Do you think people who are happy in themselves usually criticise others? Why or why not?
Illustrations by Rawpixel, with thanks.