Mouse’s Long Day
Chi-chi-chitt! Chi-chi-chi-chitt! No… sleeping. Mouse grabbed a pillow and burrowed beneath it.
“Ok, fine, Arthur.” Groggily he sat up, pillow and all, dislodging the disgruntled raccoon that had been perched on his chest.
“What? Need water?” Arthur eyed him reproachfully as if to say, isn’t it obvious? The pewter cup that usually housed the raccoon’s drinking water lay on its side, a damp spot on the stone floor attesting to the fate of its contents.
“Get water,” Mouse sighed as he pulled on a leather boot (Other one, where? Under bed, maybe) and hopped on one foot to search for the other one. Maybe he should listen to Mary when she lectured him gently about the untidiness of his chamber. But he knew where everything was! Well, nearly everything, he thought as he extracted the second boot from underneath a case of drill bits. But need space, room to make things! He put Mary’s reproaches out of his mind. He understood the need for tidiness and organization in shared community spaces where other people needed to find things, but Mouse’s chamber was just for him.
Once both boots were on, Mouse retrieved the cup from the floor and left the chamber. The best water came from the pools at the higher levels, so he headed up. Should keep chamber pitcher filled… forgot. Was there a way to get fresher water deeper Below? Water pipes… His groggy mind began to buzz with ideas.
It was early. Late, perhaps? Arthur was active at night, and Mouse often was, too, but the schedule of the community Below was mostly diurnal, with the necessary exceptions of the night sentries and occasional emergency work crews. And Vincent, of course. Mouse wondered if Vincent would sleep more at night if he didn’t go Above so much.
“Mouse. Good morning.” Startled, Mouse gave a squeak worthy of his namesake. Vincent had appeared practically at his elbow. It was early, then. Lately, Vincent went Above at dusk and rarely returned Below until shortly before dawn.
“Sun up? Seen Catherine?”
“It is still dark Above, but sunrise will come soon. And yes, I left Catherine sleeping.”
Mouse looked at his friend for a moment. “Mouse knows. Vincent happy.”
Vincent said nothing, but a tiny smile curved his mouth as he squeezed Mouse’s shoulder, and together they walked towards the pool.
Later, Arthur’s water cup rinsed and filled and a fresh pitcher of water installed in the chamber, Mouse couldn’t wait to begin planning his water supply. Pipes, here, he found on the latest diagram of Below. Tap in, here… need clean pipe…
He began scrawling a preliminary route to the Tunnels’ deepest chamber. He liked living far Below, because the noise, vibrations, and often smells of his experiments, as well as the strange hours at which he often conducted them, sometimes annoyed the more conventional residents. The drawbacks he had hardly noticed before. He loved his fellow Tunnel-dwellers, but he needed long uninterrupted spans of time to try things. New gizmos to help everyone. Not working, find out why, try again. Working, great, show Father. Sometimes Father liked, sometimes he didn’t. But anything must have a way to be done; Mouse just had to find it.
It was strange, remembering his life before Vincent found him. He was resourceful then, he was sure, but then the only things that mattered were getting food and warmth and a safe place to sleep. He was alone then, no one to help or be helped, no one to talk to… in fact, he didn’t know there was such a thing as talking. There were only feelings: hunger, cold, and what he supposed was loneliness, although then he couldn’t have known what loneliness was. But Father and Vincent, Mary and Sarah, all of them really, had changed all that. They had taken him in, fed him, wrapped him in warm blankets and clean clothing, taught him words, and showed him what sharing was. Sometimes he shuddered when he thought what his life would have been otherwise. The Tunnel community had saved him. It was his home now, and he would do anything and everything to make it better.
“MOUSE! What are you doing?”
Yanked from his reverie, Mouse looked up at Winslow glowering in the doorway. “Do you know what time it is?” his visitor boomed.
OK fine. Time again! That was the problem with living with others; somehow you were supposed to keep up with when they wanted to do things, which wasn’t always when Mouse was ready to do things. “What? Busy.”
“We have a scavenge detail at first light, Above. I have to go with you, for now, at least. You know why.”
“Scavenge! Yes. Need batteries.” Mouse jumped up from his work table, scrabbling for his leather carrier bag that Mary had stitched for him last Winterfest. “Ready. Find and take!”
“You got that right, Mouse. I’m dumpster-diving before breakfast with you, just to make sure you know what you can take and what you can’t, and you’re gonna learn if it’s the last thing I teach ya.” As they made their way Above, Winslow grumbled. “Now this can’t take all day. Here, I’ve got a list of what we’re looking out for, besides whatever crackpot junk you think you need for whatever the hell you’re doing. Pots and pans for William. Old clothes for Mary to quilt with. Anything made of yarn. Hey! Listen up! What are you looking at?”
Mouse was gazing up at the pipe network overhead. “Copper. Need copper. Make pipe.”
“Is that what you’re on to, now? Well, we’ll see what we can find. You probably could make it, at that, but we’ll check some construction dump sites. Yes, I know that’s what Father said, but there are ways to tell if something is being thrown away or not. I’ll show you. Come on, though. I’m not missing breakfast again because you found something you can’t live without…” Winslow’s comments faded to background noise, as Mouse once again applied himself to the idea of taking versus stealing. Never, even in his alone days, before words, did he physically attack any creature or person to take something that they had. Surely that was stealing? But if he found something unattended, how was he to know that it belonged to anyone else, if they were not there?
Vincent had patiently attempted an explanation. “The things in your chamber are yours, Mouse. You have gathered them, made many of them, and many more were gifts from your friends. Now imagine that you have left your chamber for a while, to eat perhaps, and when you return all your things were gone. How would you feel?”
“Never,” Mouse had protested, shocked. “Not Below. Below is safe. Above – different!”
“You are right that here we do not steal from one another. And Above, unfortunately, there are many who do. But it is wrong to steal just because something is not locked up and you can take it. You must ask yourself, does this belong to someone? And if it does and you take it, that is stealing.”
Mouse still wasn’t sure he completely understood. How could he know if something belonged to someone or not, if they were not there saying so? But he was determined to learn. Winslow said there were ways to tell if things were castoffs and then no one wanted them. Today he would pay attention when Winslow showed him, because… the Silence was terrible. He didn’t want that ever again.
Wasn’t it strange, it occurred to him, that after all the effort of teaching him words, that talking was the first thing they took away, to punish him?
He remembered, always, the first time he understood that there were names for things. It was wonderful! Vincent had taught him. It had been many weeks before he had trusted Vincent enough to take bread from his hand. Before, he skulked in the darkness, watching, until he realized that Vincent had always known that he was there. The big, gentle man would talk to him in a soothing voice, although Mouse understood none of it. Finally, hunger had urged him into the light, poised to flee in an instant if danger threatened, to accept the proffered bread.
Vincent later told him what he had said. “Come into the light, my little friend. No one will hurt you. You must be hungry. Come. You are like a little mouse, hiding in the dark corners. Here. Bread.”
The frightened feral boy had frantically stuffed the bread into his mouth, as if expecting it to be snatched away again. Vincent calmly offered another piece.
“Bread,” he intoned.
It was the same sound the man had made before. Did it mean something? Despite a mouthful of crumbs, he hesitantly gave it a try. “B…wead.”
“Bread.” Vincent placed the food in the boy’s open hand.
They beamed at each other.
“Water.” Vincent produced a flask, and drank from it. “Water.” He handed it to his new friend.
After that, his curiosity was insatiable. Everything had a name! There wasn’t much in the rough tunnel, but he dashed around touching things and Vincent told him the word for it. Rock. Wall. Floor. Foot. Boot. And then the boy, hesitantly, tapped Vincent on the chest.
“Vincent.” The boy stood in thought for a moment, then tapped his own chest.
The tall man had smiled. “Mouse,” he said gently.
It was all so long ago, yet he remembered it all. Vincent had been his constant companion, teaching him as many words as his brain could hold at each lesson, and showing him the ways of the Tunnel community and that the residents Below could be trusted. Soon he could use sentences, and Father and Mary also coached him in table manners, hygiene, and Tunnel life. He had never imagined that such a life existed. He had friends, a family. Words. Food and warmth. Finally, he had a home.
Mouse and Winslow made it back Below in time for breakfast, but just barely. “First come, first served around here, you know,” William reminded them unnecessarily as he cleared the empty serving platters that had held bacon and eggs. “Plenty of oatmeal left! Help yourselves.”
Mouse actually liked oatmeal and dug into his bowlful, paying no attention to Winslow’s complaints. They had had a good scavenge, returning with discarded clothes, spent batteries which Mouse intended to recharge, two dented saucepans and several lengths of copper pipe, protruding from the bag slung across his back like a quiver.
“I hope Father lets you go by yourself now. I’ll talk to him.” Winslow ate a spoonful of oatmeal, then pushed his bowl aside. “Maintenance meeting now. You coming?”
“Later. Feed Arthur first.” Mouse scraped the remains of the pot of congealing oatmeal into his bowl, after glancing around the deserted dining hall. It was apparent to him that this was something nobody wanted. Except Arthur.
It was mid-morning before the meeting in Father’s library concluded, and Mouse was drafted onto a work detail to reinforce one of the west entrances which was threatening to crumble. John and Kanin were also on the team, and Mouse liked working with them. “It’s mostly clearing away anything that’s loose,” remarked John as they walked to the job site, laden with tools.
“Easy. Done by lunch.”
“Maybe so, Mouse, but we aren’t taking any chances. We have to make this entrance safe, even if it takes a week. The children use it.”
The crew was finished by lunch, but not in the way that they’d hoped. Kanin’s pickax glanced off a loosened rock and broke from its handle, flying point-first into John’s leg. The scratch was serious enough for Mouse and Kanin to immediately help the limping John to Father’s hospital chamber.
“We’ll have you cleaned up in a trice, John, but you’ll have to stay off that leg for a few days.” Father peered through his spectacles at the gash. “Mary, some hot water and soap, please.”
“Right away.” Mouse watched as Mary bustled out of the chamber. Water again! Why did Mary, who did so much for all of them, have to haul water day and night? Why hadn’t he done something about this years ago? Wouldn’t it be so much easier for everybody, if only…
“Mouse help!” he exclaimed, following on her heels. He barely heard Father’s sigh of “What is that boy up to, now?” behind him.
“Hot water! Mouse knows where!” He wrested the pitcher from a surprised Mary. “Valve… this way!” He ran into a small storage chamber off the main corridor.
“Mouse, don’t do anything drastic, please. I can boil some water; I don’t mind.” Mary followed him in a vain attempt to get her pitcher back.
“Watch! Easy!” Mouse pulled a wrench from his belt, but then paused, glancing at Mary. Perhaps he did get carried away, sometimes. “Stand back, maybe.” The wrench clanged on the valve. He knew he was right! Hot water!
“That’s wonderful, Mouse! But shut it off, now. The pitcher’s full; that’s all I need.”
“Good as done!” Tightening the valve, Mouse felt a thrill of pride as Mary returned to the hospital chamber. He had helped Mary, saved time… Why wasn’t the water stopping? Oops. Coupler cracking. He should have thought of that! The fitting was old and hadn’t been loosened in years. Where was the main pressure valve? But in the meantime water was leaking onto the stone floor and steam clouded the small chamber. Worse than worse! Need help! At least he was close to a pipe, even if it was a leaking one. “K!” he tapped, knowing Kanin was still close by. “Buckets! Fast!”
At lunch, a sodden Mouse wrapped in an old quilt sat between Vincent and Father, sipping hot soup. “Mouse, we truly appreciate your suggestions,” Father began diplomatically. “But please remember, it is correct procedure to discuss them with us before you implement them.”
“But water… easy now! Good!”
“Yes, I agree, it is an improvement over constantly carrying pitchers. But we could have done without the flood.”
“Cleaned up now. Mouse fixed.” And he had fixed the pipe, while Vincent’s literature class, interrupted by the emergency, mopped up the water. As far as Mouse could tell, Father wanted him to talk more before doing things. Talking was so important to them. But wasn’t doing the most important? Would talking have kept the pipe from breaking? He didn’t know. As far as Mouse was concerned, the best way to know if things worked, was to try them.
Vincent, however, did not join in Father’s reproaches. “If you have finished your soup, I will walk with you to your chamber. You must change into dry clothes.” Mouse barely noticed that he was still wet, but felt warm because Vincent cared. Vincent was his friend. Did Vincent feel responsible for Mouse because he had first found him? Maybe, but if so, Mouse was glad. He certainly felt special concern for Vincent. That’s what friends did. Before, he hadn’t any idea what friends were, just like words. Then, it was only Mouse, but without even a name to call himself.
They walked together to Below’s deepest chamber. “I believe Father is actually quite pleased,” Vincent remarked. “We knew there was a water pipe there, but no one had found an access point. Especially for hot water, clean enough to use, and close to the hospital chamber.”
“Make better than close! Run pipe inside!”
“Into the hospital chamber? Clean water is badly needed there, but…” Mouse felt his friend’s warm hand on his shoulder again as Vincent paused, facing him. “Please let us help you this time. Father’s medical supplies mustn’t be… damaged.”
“Know how, now! Have pipe! Just drill through, make-”
“I believe you, Mouse.” Vincent interrupted. “I must leave you here, as I have but ten minutes until my poetry class. But you must put on dry clothes. Don’t forget.”
“Vincent worry too much,” Mouse muttered as his friend hurried back up the tunnel. But he had forgotten.
Inside his chamber, Mouse found a dry tunic wrapped around a glass beaker salvaged from Above and a pair of leather leggings under a disassembled hydraulic pump. Dressed in these, he hung his wet clothes near a space heater of his own invention, which needed testing anyway. They’d be dry in no time.
With the work on the west entrance now slated to be completed tomorrow, Mouse had the afternoon free to work in his chamber. Half-finished projects were scattered everywhere, but, undaunted by the morning’s mishap, he was eager to continue his water project. Show them! Water to Mouse’s chamber! No flooding! Rummaging for his pocket welding torch and the freshly scavenged pipes, he headed to the next level up. He knew where to close and drain the pipes first, now. And he had an assortment of valves. This was going to work! Then he could convince Father.
Almost to his surprise, three and a half hours had it done. A small pipe tapped from a larger one was threaded through the already existing hole in his chamber’s ceiling, neatly terminating in a gate valve. Reopening the valve in the larger water pipe, Mouse checked for leaks, then carefully opened the valve. A trickle of water became a steady stream into the large basin which stood beside his usual water ewer. He closed the valve again, and the water stopped. He’d done it!
“Mouse?” Jamie peeked into the doorway. “I came by to see if you wanted to go to dinner.”
“Show Jamie!” Mouse jumped up in such excitement, Jamie rushed into the room as if she thought something was wrong. “Look!” He operated the valve again.
“That’s great, Mouse! It really works!”
“Show Father now.”
“He’ll love it. But it’s dinner time now. Let’s go.”
Mouse enjoyed dinner, because William had made pizza. Mouse was fond of pizza. John hobbled into the dining chamber on his crutches to join their table. “I don’t care what Father says about my leg; I’m not missing pizza night!”
“Father said you are doing very well,” Jamie encouraged.
“He did, at that.” Winslow finished a big bite of pizza. “Reckon you’re not going to get more than a day or two off work, after all.”
Vincent came in, hand in hand with Catherine. Mouse watched as they collected their pizzas and sat down, holding hands across the table. He liked to watch them sometimes, and dream about having a love. It looked neat. He wondered idly if it happened to everybody, eventually. He didn’t know. He had been so used to being alone, that he had hardly realized before that such a thing was possible.
“Ready, Mouse?” William’s gruff voice interrupted his thoughts. “Kitchen duty tonight, remember? You and Jamie. And NO dish-washing gizmos this time. Just keep an eye on the youngsters while they clean up.” He’d forgotten about that, too, but wasn’t it everyone else’s job to remind him of things they wanted done, like William was doing now?
It didn’t take long. The younger children were performing in a concert in an hour, so everyone was anxious to finish their chores so they could get ready. Mouse and Jamie cleared plates and pizza pans, bringing them to Kipper, Brooke, and Geoffrey, who were on washing-up duty.
The kitchen chamber had been built near one of Below’s natural springs, so a plentiful supply of water was always at hand, and William kept a large cauldron of it simmering most of the day. “Hey, cut that out!” Jamie scolded as Geoffrey flicked suds from a dishpan at Kipper’s nose. “You’re supposed to be rinsing!”
“He started it!”
“Well, stop it. Mouse, come and dry. Are you coming to the concert for a bit before sentry duty?”
Sentry duty? Oh, right. He swapped with Jamie so she could go to the concert; she’d helped Samantha with her solo, or something. “Sure. Sit in back.”
“Good idea. I’ll sit with you until you have to leave. Thank you for taking my shift.”
“Good friend, right, Jamie?”
“Yes, Mouse, you are.”
They sat at the top of the spiral staircase, dangling their legs high over the heads of the spectators seated at floor level. Mouse enjoyed the music. He had never learned to sing or play himself, although he had learned to repair many of the instruments used Below. Tonight’s choral section was especially good, but also, he just enjoyed being with Jamie. He’d always considered Vincent to be his best friend, but Jamie always took his side. She was pretty, too…
“Time to go!” Jamie poked him in the ribs, whispering. Guess he wouldn’t hear Samantha sing. Gathering a lantern, Mouse stole out of the chamber.
He’d have a bit of a walk; his sentry post tonight was at a Chelsea entrance. It shouldn’t be too busy tonight; maybe he’d have time to work on his drawings. He patted his leather bag to make sure he had paper and ink. The map for this section of the tunnels was outdated. See? He passed a new junction not appearing on the old maps. He should redraw it all, and add the other tunnels he’d discovered. Maps are wrong! Need Mouse to fix them all! And he had another idea that he should draw out, about new steps down to the Mirror Pool… Absorbed in thought, he would have passed the Chelsea sentry post, but Cullen hailed him.
“Mouse! On time, too! Wonders never cease.”
“Brought pizza.” He’d wrapped some leftovers in waxed paper to eat later, but Cullen looked like he could use a slice.
“Well, that’s right neighborly of you. Thanks.” Cullen bit into the cold pizza. “I ate my packed dinner hours ago. Seems like it, anyway.” He brushed a few wood shavings into his bag. “So I’ll leave you to it. Not much happening here. Don’t forget your check-ins.” He slung the bag over his shoulder and strode away up the tunnel. Mouse wondered idly what new wooden knickknacks were stowed inside the bag; he knew Cullen whittled to pass the time on sentry duty.
After tapping out that he had relieved Cullen at Chelsea, he spread out paper and ink inside the cramped sentry station, which was concealed by a brick facade. He’d draw the steps first. He didn’t need a new map, anyway; that was for everyone else. Best map, Mouse’s head! It was true. But the new steps… His pen scratched away at the parchment. New access here, and here… He finished the plan view and began on an elevation. More drawings, convince Father. Mouse could picture what should be done perfectly in his mind, but he’d noticed over the years that the projects with elevation views were more likely to be approved.
The drawing seemed to be getting blurry; maybe he needed more light? He’d just rest his eyes for a few seconds. Arthur had woken him up very early that morning, after all…
Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap! He awoke with a start, finding himself face-down on his fresh drawing. Lifting his head gingerly, so as not to smear the ink, he saw Vincent next to him, tapping the hourly check-in for Chelsea.
“Fell asleep,” Mouse admitted. He wondered how much ink was on his face and swiped his sleeve across his eyes.
“Yes. I returned from seeing Catherine home, and Pascal told me you had missed your all’s-wells. I suspected as much. You have had a long day.”
“Father’s been in bed for hours; he won’t know. You should go to bed now, too. I’ll finish your shift; there’s little more than an hour left.”
“Vincent not tired?”
“Not at all. I am always awake at this time, even if I am in my chamber. The night gives me time to think.”
“Yes! Mouse works at night. Build gizmos! Make drawings! See?” He picked up the diagram he’d been working on. But something was wrong; it was blurry again…
“Shhhh.” Mouse found himself wrapped in Vincent’s cloak. “You’ve done enough today. You must sleep. Here.” He felt himself being settled onto the stone floor as Vincent folded the heavy cloak into a cushion and rolled the hood into a makeshift pillow. Vincent… best friend…
“Sleep now. I’ll be here.”
And the world faded away into dreams.
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