The electricity flickered, hesitated, and went out. Again. Nicodemus opened the top drawer of his desk and fumbled around for the book of matches he stuck in there just yesterday. Scissors, several pens and pencils, something that felt like a pile of dried grass, and finally his Zippo lighter. That would do. He lit a half-used candle that sat in a bulbous puddle of wax atop a small mirror on his desk. Normally the Rats’ electricity system gave them no trouble--except, of course, the trouble of diverting it from the Fitzgibbons--but in this heavy rain the long underground wires connecting the Rosebush to the Fitzgibbons’s mansion were prone to faulty behavior. Already the Rats had lost power three times that same week. With a wave of his weathered hands, Nicodemus fanned away the match’s sulphery smoke then drowned the tip of his pen in its ink bottle and continued writing in his journal.
“June 22, 1994. Jonathan Brisby was arrested today while helping with the Plan. For a long while I have feared something like this would occur, but still we were unprepared for it. And unprepared for it happening to Jonathan. I am lost in knowing how to help his wife and children. They know nothing of the Rats of NIMH and I think perhaps their lives will be better not knowing. Jonathan chose to shield them from us for a reason. Poor Mrs. Brisby. She will be waiting for you, Jonathan, and you will not return.”
Nicodemus put down his pen and with a deep sigh leaned back in his rickety rocking chair. He reached over to his bookshelf to turn on the radio, and after unavailingly pressing the “Power” button several times, he realized his error and grabbed a wooden box off the shelf instead. Dust coated the surface, obscuring the initials J.B. carved expertly through the veins of the oak. For a moment he hesitated, clutching the box to his chest. Sooner or later, Mrs. Brisby would have to learn the truth. Certainly she would hear about it at Jonathan’s trial, even if he couldn’t bring himself to tell her directly. And most likely the local news would cover it in some terrible exclusive: “Fugitive Jonathan Brisby, one of ten inmates to escape from the NIMH correctional facility twelve years ago, was captured today...” He didn’t want to imagine it, how harsh it would be for Jonathan’s dear wife to hear some news anchorman telling her for the first time about her husband’s secret life. Nicodemus could tell her, if he wanted... if he could muster the courage that not even Jonathan possessed. Or, better still, he could send another one of the Rats--Arthur perhaps, or Justin, who had both been close friends of Jonathan’s, or even Mr. Ages who wasn’t a complete stranger to Mrs. Brisby. Nicodemus almost reached for his phone to call one of them but a feeling of warmth from the box in his hands stopped him, drawing his mind inward to the raucous whir of memories of those restless days before NIMH. The box’s rusty hinges shrieked as he opened its lid. In the wavy candlelight, the amulet inside shimmered red and for an instant he thought he could see Jonathan’s face beneath the ruby’s glinting surface. No, he would not tell Mrs. Brisby about her husband. Not now. Someday the time would be right--maybe Jonathan himself would even tell her--but today he would respect Jonathan’s wishes. He shut the box and closed his fingers over the candle wick, preferring the darkness which seemed to stifle the clamor of the day’s events.
Jonathan Brisby. Nicodemus supposed he would never see him again--he could not risk venturing into public for the trial, sacrificing himself to the same fate as Jonathan. And after the sentencing--ten years? twenty? At eighty-nine, Nicodemus doubted he’d live to see Jonathan a free man again. Patting the top of the box as he returned it to the shelf, he spoke to nowhere in particular in the dark room: “Farewell, my friend.”
The Brisby family lived in the poor section of a large North Carolina city called Rocklin. After Jonathan Brisby’s arrest, Mrs. Brisby might have moved her children to some more welcoming place, to a safer place far removed from the crime and bustle and neon-lit buzz of the city. But the city, as much as she often despised it and cursed it, held something more for her. The city would always be the source of both her pain and comfort, but she had lived there all her life and couldn’t bring herself to leave it. It was where she had been born, thirty-two years ago in a tiny house near the city’s forresty edges; where she had met Jonathan, where they had fallen in love and married; where their four children had also lived all of their lives. Even when her parents moved, lured to the icy solitude of Alaska, Mrs. Brisby could scarcely imagine leaving the familiarity of her home--the police sirens screeching through the never-dark midnights, the green shadow of trees at the edges of parking lots and lawns, the thrum of crickets in those trees during the city’s rare moments of quiet.
And so she stayed through the three difficult years without Jonathan. She even remained in their same old building, though she moved to a smaller and less expensive apartment once money became tight. Jonathan hadn’t left her much. That alone had been an ordeal for Mrs. Brisby--forced by her meager income to leave what had been her and Jonathan’s home for twelve years, moving four rambunctious children into a one-bedroom apartment. Freezing in jackets and earmuffs through the frequent heating breakdowns last winter, she really would’ve moved if she’d had just a little more money--to a better apartment if not a new neighborhood entirely. This rugged section of town frightened her without Jonathan by her side, and that provided enough for her to fret over along with constantly fearing for her children’s safety. She truly wished they could grow up better as she had, with two parents and no worries; apart from the hopelessness that festered in all these apartment buildings downtown; playing in hills and trees instead of on stinking city street corners. But, Mrs. Brisby knew, the money Jonathan left them couldn’t be stretched any farther, and her own salary provided barely enough to get by.
On a chilly Thursday evening just a few days away from Spring, Mrs. Brisby trotted home from work a half hour late, still clothed in her unfortunately skimpy waitress uniform from The Burger Factory. Feeling the brisk wind penetrate the thin cotton of her uniform, she pulled her red jacket tight around her shivering body and picked up her pace. It was this particular kind of day that usually left her trudging home crying for Jonathan, though she always made certain to wipe away all traces of tears from her eyes before greeting the children. She might not have been so forlorn had she been able to visit her husband, but Jonathan had withdrawn from everything the moment he’d been sent to jail. Today however her mind was too exhausted to cry or to mourn the futility of her current situation. When she tore her sagging black stockings walking past an unkempt bush, she might have sat down amid the cigarette butts and beer cans in the gutter and cried, but she was nearly home and the children would be hungry for dinner.
The elevator was malfunctioning again so she jogged up the stairs and burst through the front door a panting and sweating mess, expecting to be met in the hallway by her children. When she saw no sign of them there, nor in front of the TV in the living room, she dashed into the bedroom in a panic. There, to her intense but momentary relief, the four of them saw on one of the little beds.
“Oh, Mom! I was about to call the Factory and ask for you!” Teresa said urgently. Lines of worry had been creased into her face for quite a while, Mrs. Brisby could see. “Timmy’s really sick. They sent him home from school early today.”
Sitting down on the bed Mrs. Brisby pressed the back of her hand to Timmy’s forehead and was shocked at its heat. At seven years old, Timothy was already quite a hypochondriac. The trouble had started a few years back when Timothy had gone chasing a squirrel in the park. Well, the squirrel didn’t much like its tail being pulled and it turned around and bit him in the finger. Two stitches and one rabies shot later, Timmy began developing an affinity for illnesses--both real and imagined. Mrs. Brisby suspected the squirrel incident was partly culpable for Timmy’s current state. He ended up much weaker and smaller than the other children, nearly as small as three-year-old Cynthia and only half as strong. He looked sickly too, lacking the dark ruddy complexion of his siblings and instead appearing a washed out shade of beige. Almost every week he imagined a new illness for himself. Two weeks ago it was an “ulcer” that turned out to be nothing more than the aftermath of spoiled lunchmeat. The week before that he’d scared the school nurse half to death with his self-diagnosis of tuberculosis after being hit in the mouth with a tetherball. The worst of it was that Teresa always had to take off school to bring him home--he was too young to walk by himself, and Mrs. Brisby had been fired from her last job for getting so many calls from his elementary school. Not that the present arrangement was working well either. Teresa, just fourteen, had developed the maturity of a forty-year-old, which wasn’t uncommon for children in this neighborhood but still saddened Mrs. Brisby. And because most of Timmy’s ailments tended to manifest themselves after lunch, Teresa could barely maintain a D- in History which was her after-lunch class.
Usually Timmy imagined his illnesses, or they were just a mild case of the flu, but this time he was indeed very sick. So raspy was his breathing and so fast was his little heartbeat that Mrs. Brisby might have rushed him to the emergency room in her arms (the car had been repossessed years ago) but she knew she didn’t have enough money. Their health insurance had been terminated not long after they lost the car, and without insurance a visit to the hospital might land them on the street. And Timmy hated the free clinic; he always came home thinking he had picked up dozens of new germs in addition to the illness he already had. If Timmy’s health worsened dramatically, of course she would have no choice, but for now...
“Teresa, watch your brothers and sister,” Mrs. Brisby said calmly despite her urge to panic. “I’m going to see Mr. Ages and ask him what he thinks Timmy’s illness might be.”
“Earlier when Timmy was awake he said he thought it was pneumonia,” Teresa said.
Knowing Timmy, he was probably right, and if so he definitely needed medicine. As she hurried out the door, she could faintly hear Martin say: “Timmy’s such a brat. He’s gonna get us all sick now.” Teresa consoled Martin by reminding him he’d get to miss school if he got sick.
Mr. Ages lived in the same set of apartment buildings as the Brisbys but on the opposite side of the property. To get there, Mrs. Brisby had to cross a courtyard, a parking lot, and an alleyway that ran between two of the apartment complexes. It was a fifteen minute walk, one that she’d made only twice before and both times with Jonathan, but she knew it wouldn’t be a waste of her time. Mr. Ages, it was said, could heal anyone. He was an old man of about seventy-five who had been a doctor back in the Sixties but had been fired for reasons the apartment residents could only speculate about. A bit of a hermit, he kept himself locked away in his room constantly working on the cure to some illness or another; that, or cooking up...other things in all the beakers and test tubes that were strewn about the little room. That was where most of his money came from, Mrs. Brisby knew, and there were some residents like Auntie Shrew who had nothing but contempt for the old man. Jonathan had trusted him though, and he’d never given Mrs. Brisby herself any trouble, so she had no reservations about going to see him.
When she reached his barbed-wire-covered door, she noticed a few puffs of smoke emanating from beneath it. That, however, was not unusual, so she ignored it and navigated her hand carefully through the barbed wire to knock.
“Read the signs,” a gruff voice called back from within.
Mrs. Brisby didn’t have to read them, remembering them still from her last visit: “Go Away! This Means You!” “Keep Out!” “No Trespassing!” “This property protected by guard dog!” and, her favorite, “Never mind dog, beware of owner.” She knocked again.
“Who is it?”
“It’s Mrs. Brisby,” she called. “I’m not sure if you remember me, I’m--”
The door flung open, issuing forth a small cloud of white smoke that smelled to Mrs. Brisby like a combination of incense and burning plastic. In the door frame stood a short barefoot man wearing overalls with no shirt, his stark white hair in a long straight ponytail down his back. Through a slightly bent pair of gold-plated spectacles, he stared intently at Mrs. Brisby. “Jonathan Brisby’s wife,” he finished for her, narrowing the opening in the door so that her view of the apartment’s interior was limited to a few glass jars on a table. “I remember you. I was sorry to hear about Jonathan getting sent to jail... Well, what brings you over here?”
“My son, Timothy, he’s very sick.”
“The kid with the squirrel bite?”
“If he’s already had a rabies shot, he should be fine. But you ought to tell him about chasing after animals like that. What do you expect will happen when he catches them, they’ll kiss him on the cheek?”
“No, you don’t understand. He’s very sick now. It’s not the squirrel bite, that was...” she paused to think how many years ago, wondering if the seclusion of his laboratory had given Mr. Ages no concept of time at all. The old man started to close the door even further but from between his feet a bulldog appeared, brown and white spotted, growling at Mrs. Brisby through the doorway. She took a careful step backward.
“I don’t see Timothy with you,” Mr. Ages commented, not bothering to restrain his pet. “There’s not much I can do for him if you didn’t even bring him with you.”
Mrs. Brisby sighed. For being one of Jonathan’s best friends, Mr. Ages certainly didn’t have much patience for her. “I would’ve brought him, but--”
“I don’t make house calls. Everyone knows that. Now if you’ll excuse me--”
“Wait, Mr. Ages, please.” She stepped forward until the dog’s growl deepened and his teeth bared. “Please, this is serious.”
“Yes, yes,” he said, turning his back to her as he began to close himself into his apartment.
Mrs. Brisby leapt at the door, sticking her hand into the thin opening before it could latch. She felt the burn of barbed wire scratching through her palm but she ignored it, a single tear dripping down her face in desperation rather than in pain. “Mr. Ages, please listen to me, this is an emergency!” In that instant a tremendous bang! filled the room and as she tripped backward she watched Mr. Ages dive over his bulldog to protect him. She dropped to her knees against the opposite wall, pulling her jacket over her head as a shield from the deluge of black smoke. For a full minute she remained perfectly still, until she heard Mr. Ages coughing and stumbling to his feet. She peeked one eye through the zipper of her jacket, just in time to see Mr. Ages wiping ash off his glasses. When she realized he hadn’t been injured in the explosion, she couldn’t help snickering at his appearance--his entire face was covered in soot except two pale circles where the glasses had protected his eyes. The bulldog, licking his fat tongue over his owner’s feet, seemed to have escaped clean.
“That--” Mr. Ages pointed a sooty finger through the now wide open door “--is an emergency!” He was right: shards of glass lay all over a large table in the center of the room and on the floor nearby; strange liquids of various colors and consistencies dripped into puddles on the carpet; the edge one of the blue curtains in the corner smoldered slightly. Muttering curses to himself, the old man went back inside to inspect the damage. “Thousands of dollars of my finest m--”
“Mr. Ages, please, I’m sorry to disturb you, but my son Timothy is really sick. We think it might be pneumonia. I can’t afford to take him to the hospital, and I would’ve brought him here but he’s too sick to move. Please, you have to do something.”
“Pneumonia, huh? Hmm...” He picked up the fractured remains of a beaker, sniffing its still-smoking contents. “What are his symptoms?”
Oh thank goodness, she thought. Finally he was listening to her. “His breathing sounds raspy, and he’s shivering even though it feels hot when I touch his forehead, and his heartbeat is really fast--like he’s been running or something, except he hasn’t been.”
“How high is his fever?”
Martin had bit the thermometer in half the last time he had the flu, otherwise she would’ve taken Timmy’s temperature. “I don’t know, but you have to believe me that he’s very sick. I’ve never seen him so sick since the squirrel bite.”
“You say his breathing is raspy?”
“Yes, raspy, and fast like his heartbeat, and earlier he said his throat and chest hurt, and he was coughing up all kinds of things.”
Tossing the beaker amid the rubble on the floor, Mr. Ages said: “That does sound like pneumonia. Could be bronchitis too--”
“I don’t care, just do something for him.”
“All right,” sighed the old man, waving Mrs. Brisby inside. “Come in, but keep your hands to yourself. And watch where you step.” He hoisted up the bulldog as he navigated through the smoky, glassy mess of the livingroom. Gesturing with his head toward a sofa, he said: “Sit down, I’ll be right with you.”
The sofa looked in worse shape than the rest of the room and had probably been that way even before the explosion. Its ancient brown fabric lay somewhere beneath coffee stains, countless empty pizza and Chinese food boxes, dirty clothing, and scientific reference books. Mrs. Brisby decided she’d prefer to stand, curious whether Mr. Ages had ever left his apartment in the five years since the last time she’d visited him. Perceiving the sting of the cut on her palm, she wiped her hand against her black waitress skirt and felt suddenly embarrassed to have come over here without first changing clothes. Not that Mr. Ages would mind, or even take notice. From somewhere she guessed was the bedroom, he reappeared without the dog, carrying instead a small manila envelope. He handed it to Mrs. Brisby then went to open a window.
“Give that to Timothy right away, as soon as you get home. There’s enough for two weeks. Give him one dose in the morning and one in the evening until it runs out. He’ll start getting better in a couple days, but you can’t let him go outside or be exposed to any cold air for... at least three weeks. Otherwise the cold air could kill him. People die from pneumonia, you know.”
Mrs. Brisby did know, and though the thought of trying to keep her son indoors for three weeks distressed her, she would do as Mr. Ages advised. “Thank you,” she told him genuinely. “I don’t have any money to pay you now, but maybe in a few weeks--”
“Nonsense, I would never charge Jonathan’s wife a dime.”
No, but you would try to shoo me off the premises, she thought with a half smile. “Thank you, Mr. Ages. Thank you so much for all the times you’ve helped us. I wish I could repay you somehow though.”
“Yes yes, now be on your way.” He ushered her toward the exit.
“Thank--” The barbed wire rattled as the door closed in her face. “Thank you again,” she said to the ‘No Trespassing’ sign. She turned to leave.
By the time Mrs. Brisby reached the bottom of the stairwell, the turquoise glow of twilight covered the city. She didn’t like walking around alone at night so she began jogging through the alleyway, anxious to leave the shadowy crispness of the outdoors and even more so to get the medicine to Timmy. As she approached the parking lot she heard a faint rustling coming from somewhere unknown but thought not much of it. Night in the city was full of all sorts of odd sounds and there was no use getting frightened over each one of them. Besides, she couldn’t afford to waste time being scared--she had to get back to Timmy quickly, ideally without looking anything but calm. But turning the corner into the lot she saw a dark blur dart out from between a Cadillac and a minivan and her heart began pounding against her chest. There was no time to move. Before she could even see the person’s face, he had run right into her, sending them both tumbling into the sharp thicket of weeds that sprouted from the edge of the pavement.
The next thing she knew, a boy’s worried face was looking down at her, his wide, bright eyes a contrast to his dark skin. “Are you okay, miss?” he whispered hoarsely, almost completely out of breath.
Allowing the boy to help her to her feet, Mrs. Brisby dusted herself off and pulled some dried weeds from her hair. “Yes, I’m fine,” she said shakily.
“Good. Sorry. Gotta go now.” The kid started to run in the same direction he’d come from, then reversed himself and headed for the alley. He looked no more than eighteen, if even that, and he didn’t seem like one of the usual tough gangster kids that populated the neighborhood.
“Wait!” called Mrs. Brisby. “What are you in such a hurry for? Is everything all right?”
“Dragon’s after me. Gotta run!”
She wondered what he’d done to get on Dragon’s bad side--probably something as innocent as walking on the wrong side of the street. “Here, hide behind this van. He won’t see you hiding, but if you run he’ll chase you forever.” The kid looked momentarily confused, taking an indecisive step toward her then another away from her but finally complying and ducking down beside her in the shadow of the minivan. Not ten seconds later Dragon lumbered through the parking lot, night stick in hand, dodging his bulky frame between cars and eventually disappearing through the alleyway. Once the thump of Dragon’s footsteps faded, Mrs. Brisby decided it was safe to surface.
Dragon was a huge, mean-tempered man with a long mustache, an eye patch, and around his neck a bold-colored tattoo of a serpent. The head security guard at the Fitzgibbons’s mansion, he’d worked there as long as Mrs. Brisby could remember and had a tendency to take his job very seriously, which was probably Mr. Fitzgibbons’s reason for hiring him in the first place. Usually Dragon could be found in his little booth at the Fitzgibbons’s front gate, but any time a suspicious person passed by the mansion Dragon would make sure the person knew whose territory it really was. As Mrs. Brisby’s children knew well, all a kid had to do to get permanently labeled a criminal in Dragon’s mind was to cast one lingering glance at the mansion. After that, Dragon would chase them away from the property at any chance he got. And that was just his treatment of children. If anyone who looked more than a teenager even walked on the same side of the street as the Fitzgibbons’ property, they’d be chased in a second. Mrs. Brisby was fortunate enough to have never discovered what actually happened once Dragon caught up with someone, but she’d heard the rumors. She’d been told of one man who’d gotten evicted, a few who’d been heavily fined, and another who’d been sent to jail for trespassing. Either way, she had no wish to find out.
The kid stood up, brushing the tan patches of dirt off his black jeans and readjusting his baseball cap. “Wow, thanks miss. You really saved my ass! I spit my gum out on the sidewalk, and man! Dragon was after me like...” He extended his hand from within a baggy sweatshirt. “Hey, I’m Jeremy. Who are you?”
“I’m Mrs. Brisby. Nice to meet you, Jeremy.”
“Oh, Mrs. Brisby. I guess you’re married then. Too bad.”
She laughed. “Yes, I’m married... sort of. But I’m afraid I’d be too old for you anyway.” No reason to even try to explain the situation with Jonathan.
“No way, man! You can’t be more than like twenty-five. Besides, you look like... like Tyra Banks or something!”
“Well thank you Jeremy, but I’m probably old enough to be your mother,” Mrs. Brisby said, feeling herself blush. It had been years since anyone had complimented her.
“Oh... well... Well Ms Briz, I gotta get home or my mom will do something worse than Dragon, but thanks again. Hey, if you ever need anything...” He opened his backpack and dug around for a minute, then pulled out a piece of paper with some math problems scrawled on it and wrote something down with a purple hi-lighter. “Here’s my pager number. If you need anything at all, just give me a beep. I know people! I got connections!”
Sticking the paper in her purse, she thanked Jeremy and headed home. In her hallway, before she even reached her front door, she could hear the battle being waged inside--the continuous rattle of Auntie Shrew’s grating voice interspersed with taunts from Martin and warnings from Teresa. She might have sat down in the hall and just let them go at it except for the urgency of getting Timmy his medicine. At the sound of her key in the lock, the argument abruptly ceased and all four of its participants rushed to meet her.
“You went to see Mr. Ages?” Auntie Shrew gasped, and reluctantly Mrs. Brisby nodded. “That old hoodlum. He’s probably the one to blame for the mouth on that boy!” She pointed a fat finger at Martin, who stuck out his tongue. Auntie Shrew (Mrs. Brisby would never have called her that to her face) was an old lady who lived next door to the Brisbys, and Mrs. Brisby didn’t know how the family would have made it through the past three years without her. Despite what the daily arguments would suggest, she was the only babysitter that could handle the Brisby children, and the only one Mrs. Brisby trusted.
“How’s Timmy?” Mrs. Brisby asked Teresa, casting an annoyed glance in Martin’s direction.
“The same. He was cold so I gave him my jacket. Did Mr. Ages give you medicine?” Teresa said.
“Yes, and Timmy has to take it twice a day for two weeks. Remind me to give it to him, Teresa. You know you have a better memory than I do.”
nodded proudly, and Mrs. Brisby went into the bedroom to give Timmy his first dose. She sat with him for a few minutes, singing him a lullaby that her own mother had sung to her years ago, fluffing his pillows and blanket and trying to make him comfortable. She wished she could sit up with him all night, as she’d once been able to do when Jonathan was around, but it was 6:30 and she still hadn’t prepared dinner and tomorrow she’d have to wake up early for work.
“Brisby, your cupboards are bare!” Auntie Shrew called from the kitchen. Mrs. Brisby didn’t doubt it. The last time she’d looked, the food in the house consisted of a couple cans of soup, a half-emptied box of white rice, some stale Triscit crackers, and something green in a tupperware container in the refrigerator. Thursday was generally her shopping day but today there wasn’t enough time or money to go to the grocery store. As she shut the door to the bedroom, she saw Auntie Shrew heading out the front door. “My son brought me some leftovers this morning--beef stew and chicken casserole. You boil some rice and I’ll go get the stew.” She was out the door before Mrs. Brisby could object, not that the objections would have been whole-hearted ones anyway.
Mrs. Brisby had just put the rice on the stove when she heard Timmy coughing and ran to check on him. She stayed with him until his coughing fit finished, and not a second later Teresa’s shrill scream tore through the silence. The stove was on fire. Rice had bubbled out of the pot and sat in black smoking heaps on the stove top, and every few seconds a jet of flames burst out from somewhere beneath the scorched metal of the pot. Mrs. Brisby dumped a glass of water over the mess but that only made the smoke worse, and as she jumped back from the billowing stove she accidentally dropped the glass into the sink. “Shit!” she yelled.
Three year old Cynthia, behind her mother, echoed: “Shit shit shit shit!” and did a little dance around the kitchen. “Shit shit shit shit sh--”
“Cynthia!” Mrs. Brisby scolded.
Auntie Shrew pushed through the door, nearly dropping the huge dish of stew that she held between two potholders. As Mrs. Brisby attempted to push the rice pot off the stove with a long fork, Auntie Shrew heaved all her three hundred pounds up on a chair to try to dismantle the smoke detector. She knew the severity of the situation--only two weeks ago the Brisbys had been reprimanded by the super about setting off the smoke detectors. He’d warned them that if they caused even one more false alarm, they’d be evicted. The problem was that the stove--and all the electrical equipment in the apartments, for that matter--was old and quirky and tended to function erratically, and with four children Mrs. Brisby found it impossible to be at the stove through the entire time dinner was cooking. But leaving food unattended for even a few minutes had caused countless little kitchen fires, and once the Brisby’s smoke detector went off it set off every single smoke detector in the ten apartment buildings on this part of the Fitzgibbons’s lot. She thought the super’s warning a bit harsh, but remembering the sight of all the thousands of occupants out in the street waiting for the fire trucks to come, she guessed she could understand his reasoning.
After punching, slapping, and poking at the detector’s cover, Auntie Shrew finally managed to get inside to the wiring. “Where’s the ‘OFF’ switch?” she yelled.
The pot of rice, still smoking, fell to the floor and sent shards of blackened rice everywhere. “I don’t know,” Mrs. Brisby answered through a few coughs. “Is there one?”
“Then open the window! Quick!”
“No! The cold air could kill Timmy.” She opened the front door and used her jacket to fan smoke out into the hallway. “Teresa! Stick something under the bedroom door so smoke doesn’t get in to Timmy.”
Teresa did as she was told, and Auntie Shrew used the same idea--smothering the detector with her shall to prevent smoke from reaching it. For one eerily quiet second Mrs. Brisby thought everything would be okay, but then the tremendous honk of the alarm filled the silence, soon accompanied by all of the alarms throughout the rest of the buildings. Sinking down against the door frame, she buried her head in her arms and would have cried if she had the energy.
Three days. She had three days to find a new apartment before the super would physically evict her. The firetrucks had come and gone; the super had given his stern apology along with the eviction notice. On a small platform beneath the window, Mrs. Brisby sat looking out at the night through the rain-dappled glass. A few feet away in the still-smoky livingroom, Cynthia, Martin, and Teresa lay curled up asleep on the floor. She couldn’t risk letting them catch pneumonia too; moving one sick child was proving enough of a challenge, but four would be impossible. The truth was, she didn’t have any idea what she was going to do. She’d begged the super to let her stay the three weeks until Timothy could go outside, but he remained adamant that it was the best offer she was going to get. “Go to the Fitzgibbons,” he said, “and they’ll make it two days. Or one. They don’t want nothing to do with it.” And, he told her, three days was more than enough time to move the Brisby’s few belongings. That may have been true--certainly it wasn’t Mrs. Brisby’s primary concern. The problem was finding time to go searching for a new apartment, finding some way to move Timothy without exposing him to the cold air, finding a method of transportation large enough to carry her furniture to this new apartment, finding an apartment that wasn’t on property owned by the Fitzgibbons... She might have gone to the Fitzgibbons anyway despite the warning--they owned the apartments, and the super worked for them--but they had always shied away from the roughness of the neighborhood and never allowed themselves to get involved in any of their tenants’ affairs. She herself had never even met them, though she’d seen their cars drive down the street a few times. And Jonathan had disliked them with a passion, though he’d never let on about his reasons. Three days was bad enough and two would only make it worse, so she’d just have to think of some way to move. Auntie Shrew had told her to go ask Owl--a supposedly psychic old man in another building who seemed to have as many answers as Mr. Ages had medicines--and she’d go tomorrow, but she couldn’t get her hopes up yet. What could he possibly do for her? What could anyone do now?
“Oh, Jonathan...” she sighed, a couple tears sliding unobtrusively down her cheek and splashing on the windowsill. She wished he was there with her. He’d know what to do--he always did--and even if he remained as conquered by the situation as her, at least he would be there to comfort her. At least they would be together.
Wiping her hand across her face, she chided herself at this display of emotion. Jonathan, as she well knew, was not there and might never be again. Twenty-five years was an imponderably long time, and even if he got released at the first parole hearing it would be another seven years. And even then... Even once he was free, he might still persist with his isolation. Free or not, Jonathan had already withdrawn into a prison of his own making. He’d only spoken to her twice since his arrest, once to tell her about it and once to forbid her from coming to his trial. His last words to her were “I’ll always care for you,” but it was the ones before that which she would always remember: “You have to go on as if I were dead, as if I never existed at all. That’s how it has to be now.” A week later, the divorce papers came in the mail, leaving her everything except her husband. For three years she’d tried to imagine his reasons. Perhaps he didn’t want his children to see him sitting in some jailbird’s uniform behind bars. Perhaps he felt so ashamed, he couldn’t bear to face his family. Or maybe he cut off all ties with his family to ensure they were never suspected of being accomplices. If that had been his reason, it had worked: the week after Jonathan’s arrest the police asked Mrs. Brisby a couple strange questions about the chronology of her marriage but never mentioned anything about tax evasion, which was what Jonathan explained he’d been arrested for.
She sniffled and leaned her head on the window, the chill of the glass a relief against her hot cheeks. She stared absently at her hazy reflection--the tangled ponytail of dark hair swung over her shoulder, the creases of worry in her forehead and around her mouth, the puffy circles beneath her tired blue eyes. Tyra Banks indeed, she scoffed.
Right then she noticed the vague outline of a car moving very slowly down the street. Pulling the sleeve of her shirt over her hand, she wiped the fog off the window to get a better look and hoped she wasn’t being witness to another drug deal. What caught her attention first was the license plate; she’d seen it before, many times, taking the shortcut home from work past the Fitzgibbons’s garage at the back of their property. BETHFTZ--Beth Fitzgibbons’s pristine ‘57 blue and white Chevy sedan. Being stolen. She smiled deviously, deciding this a fitting punishment for the people who in three days were going to make her family homeless. Then she began to feel guilty for delighting in their misfortune, so she made her smile quickly fade but continued to watch the scene. At the rear bumper stood a bulky man dressed entirely in baggy black clothes, steadily pushing the car along the street with his enormous arms. He looked frightening and Mrs. Brisby ducked down a bit in hopes he wouldn’t see her. Leaning in to the wheel of the car through the open driver’s side door was another man, apparently doing the steering with one hand while helping to push with the other hand. Though not nearly as hefty as his accomplice, he was much more conspicuous--instead of wearing black, he was dressed in blue jeans, a white t-shirt, and a tan cowboy hat. Even from three stories up, Mrs. Brisby could see the wide smile across his face and it made her laugh. She truly hoped they wouldn’t get caught, though she couldn’t imagine where Dragon and the other security guards had been during the whole thing. She wondered if the two men knew how fortunate they were to have walked out of the Fitzgibbons’ property and down the entire street with Beth Fitzgibbons’s prize car, all without so much as a peep from Dragon. When they had passed her field of vision, she got up from the window and went to the bedroom to go to sleep, still smiling at the oddness of the event and briefly letting it stifle the previous moment’s depression.
After work on Friday Mrs. Brisby went straight to Owl’s apartment building. It was the tallest building around, probably twenty stories, and to the extreme distress of the acrophobic Mrs. Brisby, Owl lived on the very top floor. That wasn’t her first dilemma though. Before she could get up to the twentieth floor, she had to get through the front door which she found locked. She was about to start pressing random buzzers on the chance that someone would buzz her in (Owl never answered his buzzer or his phone, she’d been told) when suddenly the door opened and Jeremy strutted out, dancing almost in time with the music from the boombox on his shoulder. His eyes were closed and he nearly ran into Mrs. Brisby again.
“Jeremy!” she called, beyond relieved to see a familiar face.
“Hey, it’s Ms Briz!” he said, turning the music down to a low hum. “What are you doing here? Did ya come to visit me?”
“Not exactly. I need to talk to Owl--I have kind of an emergency and I need his advice--but the door was locked. Do you live here? Can you let me in?”
“Sure thing.” He dug through one of his baggy pockets, pulled out his keychain, and unlocked the front door. “I can even take you up to his place. I know him, you know. I bring him groceries once a week. He’ll talk to you for sure if you’re with me.”
“Oh Jeremy, that would be wonderful!”
“No problem, come on in.”
Though Owl seemed to be respected by everyone, he was very picky about who he talked to. He was more of a hermit even than Mr. Ages. Sometimes he could be persuaded to give a person advice if they brought him a present; sometimes, if he didn’t like the present, he’d toss it off his balcony and tell the person never to come back. Mrs. Brisby didn’t want to take that chance. The only potential gift she could think of was one of the greasy burgers from The Burger Factory, and she could already picture it dropping twenty stories through the air, wilted lettuce and soggy pickles flapping in the wind and flying everywhere.
After a jolting ride up in the old elevator, Jeremy knocked and opened Owl’s door without waiting for an answer, then led Mrs. Brisby through the dark living room to the balcony where Owl spent most of his time. She’d never met Owl before and had always thought his nickname came from how wise he was, but when she saw the old man sitting on a barstool wearing gigantic round spectacles that looked like two magnifying glasses, she guessed his name had a different origin.
“Owl, this is my friend Ms Briz. She needs to ask you a question,” Jeremy said quietly.
“Has she brought me anything?” the old man asked, his gaze never leaving the distant haze of the city.
“No,” Jeremy replied, “but she’s a really nice lady. She helped me hide from Dragon last night.”
“I see... Well, tell her to come in.”
Jeremy waved Mrs. Brisby forward and she hesitated at the boundary of the balcony, unable to see anything except sky around her. Her knees trembled and she grasped the wall for support, praying that if she fainted she’d fall backward into the apartment instead of toward the too-short railing in front of her. As she peeked around the corner, Owl turned his comically magnified eyes toward her.
“H-h-hello,” stuttered Mrs. Brisby. She might have shaken Owl’s hand but nothing could have made her release her grip on the wall.
“What is your question?” Owl asked in his deep boom of a voice.
“Um... I... You see, my four children and I got evicted last night, and...” she took a deep breath and closed her eyes as her vision began to blur. “And we have to be out by Monday but we have nowhere to go. My son Timothy has pneumonia and he can’t even go outside for three weeks, so even if we had the money to move, and even if we had a car to move our belongings in, and even if I could find an apartment not owned by the Fitzgibbons...”
“You must move anyway. Find someplace. If you try to stay, the Fitzgibbons will surely have you put in jail. What use would you be to your children then?”
She thought briefly of Jonathan and felt a wave of nausea overtake her. With another deep breath and a hard swallow, she managed to continue: “But if we move now, Timothy’s illness could get worse. He could even die.”
“Lose one child, or lose them all. Certainly you can find somewhere to stay, even if only for a few weeks. Stay with a friend.”
“I-I don’t really have any friends,” she said meekly. “I mean, with work and taking care of the children and everything--”
“Then move to a hotel for a couple of weeks while you search for a new apartment. You have to move somewhere, or you’ll be living out on the street.” Owl sounded like he was losing his patience for her, and Mrs. Brisby’s desperation started to grow.
“Please, you don’t understand. Timothy can’t go outside at all. I have no money, I can’t even afford groceries this week. And I don’t know anyone who could take in all five of us for as long as I’d need to gather the money--”
Jeremy interrupted: “Yeah, I’d totally let you stay with us, but I got eight brothers and sisters and my parents would have a fit if I brought you guys home.”
“I am sorry for your predicament, but I’m afraid that’s the only advice I can give you. Take it or leave it,” Owl said, his stoic stare returning to the pink horizon.
Mrs. Brisby sighed, her mouth slumping into a frown. “All right, I understand. Thank you for your time, Mr. Owl.”
“And good night to you, Mrs... I don’t believe I caught your name.”
“Mrs. Brisby,” she said, turning back toward the apartment to leave.
“You mean Mrs. Jonathan Brisby?” Owl asked with the first trace of emotion in his voice.
“Yes, Jonathan is--was--my husband. Do you know him?”
“I never met him but I’ve heard of him, and I do know some friends of his. Come back outside.” Mrs. Brisby’s heart leapt and she even forgot about her acrophobia for a few seconds as she ran back to Owl. “You never knew Jonathan’s friends, did you?” he asked kindly.
“Who do you mean? The Walkers? Jonathan would go play cards with them sometimes--”
“No, no, of course he wouldn’t have told you about them. Listen, Mrs. Brisby, I think I know of a way you can move your family safely, but you must promise to ask me no questions about it now and to simply do as I say.”
“Yes, I promise, please tell me.”
“You must go to the Rats, first thing tomorrow morning, and tell them of your problem. They’ll know a way to help you, and if you tell them you’re Jonathan’s wife I’m certain they’ll agree to do it.”
“I know this is a question, but I can’t do what you say unless I ask it. Who are the Rats? Where are the Rats?”
“They live in the Rosebush.”
“Oh... them.” She’d never heard them called the Rats before but that was what they seemed like, skulking about at nighttime as they often did. But she knew precisely who Owl meant: in a supposedly abandoned apartment building near the edge of the Fitzgibbons’ lot, once called the Rosebush for the beautiful plants that grew around its walls, a group of people now lived in hiding. She’d assumed they were merely a family of homeless people taking refuge in what would otherwise be an empty building. But years ago, driving out of town past the old building, she had often seen them looking quite a bit busier than homeless people should be--carrying things into and out of the building, driving cars through the iron gates--and only at nighttime. They were a strange crowd, but she couldn’t afford to be choosy. Help was help, no matter who it came from.
“The front gate will be locked,” Owl continued, “and it may look rusted shut, but it isn’t. If you look through the rose vines to the right of the gate, you’ll notice a key pad. The combination to it is 2-1-3-9. This unlocks the gate. Once inside, there will be a pathway winding through some trees, and you should follow this pathway to the front door where you’ll be met by a guard named Justin. Tell him you’re Jonathan’s wife and ask him to take you to Nicodemus. Then you can tell your story, and I’m sure they’ll offer you assistance. Tell them I sent you, and that I think they should move you to Lee. Do you understand?”
“Key pad to the right of the gate. 2-1-3-9. Justin. Nicodemus. Lee. Got it. But why Lee?”
“For someone who isn’t supposed to ask questions, you ask a lot of them.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, bowing her head.
Owl motioned for her to come closer. “Look out there. Do you see those hills at the horizon?” She saw them, distant and beautiful covered in all the pinks and oranges of sunset. “Right behind those hills is Lee. It isn’t a city like this, it’s only a little town. The Fitzgibbons own nothing there, and no matter where you live I am certain you’ll find yourself welcome... I myself grew up in Lee, many years ago. It is everything that this city is not. Nicodemus too came from Lee. He will understand why I told you to move there. You must make sure to tell him this, first thing in the morning.”
She noticed Owl had repeated this twice, and now wondered why it was so important. “But shouldn’t I go tonight instead of waiting until the morning? I get evicted in two days. I don’t have any time to spare.”
“No. Go early in the morning. Six-thirty, seven. That will give you enough time.”
“But why? Oh I’m sorry, that’s another question isn’t it.”
“The Rats have... business to attend to during the night. Nicodemus can explain this to you if he chooses. If you go to them now when they’re busy with something else, you’ll just be a nuisance. They might not be so eager to help you. Besides...” He peered down at the ground through his thick glasses. Mrs. Brisby suspected he could probably see ants on the sidewalk through those things. “Besides, Brutus will still be on duty for a few more hours before Justin’s shift. If you go now you’ll run into Brutus and won’t make it past the front door.”
“Who’s Br--” she whisked her hands over her mouth when she realized this was her fourth question.
Owl didn’t seem to mind though. He beckoned her forward again and put one of his wiry arms around her while pointing toward the ground with the other. She didn’t know what she was supposed to be seeing; from this height, everything below looked like it belonged in Cynthia’s dollhouse. “See that green square surrounded by a gray square?” She squinted at what appeared to be a building containing a very lush courtyard and nodded her head. “That is the Rosebush. See that dark figure right in front of the gray square?” Although she had no idea what Owl was referring to, she nodded anyway. “That is Brutus. He’s not the most quick-witted creature on the planet. You’ll want to try to avoid him.”
She wondered how in the world Owl could distinguish Brutus from anyone else, or even from all the trees and other objects below, but she dared not ask another question. Owl, however, seemed to know exactly what she was thinking, making her wonder if the old man really was psychic... or just perceptive. “I can tell it’s Brutus because he wears a black hat and Justin wears a beige one. And Brutus carries that rifle he has in his hand now, or sometimes a handgun, but Justin carries no weapon. I’ve lived on this balcony for twenty years. When you watch the world as much as I have, you learn to pick up on things... Now do you remember the things I told you?”
“Yes, I remember--2-1-3-9, Lee, Nicodemus, no Brutus, Justin. Thank you so much, Mr. Owl. I don’t know how I can repay you--”
“There is one more thing. Don’t let Nicodemus offer you anything to eat when you speak with him. If he does, politely refuse it.”
“Oh, I see...” she said as if she really did.
“He’s a nice fellow, a good friend of mine from years back... Just take my word for it.”
“I will, thank you. Good night.” Mrs. Brisby waited for a ‘good night’ from Owl, but he just stared down at the ground, his enormous eyes darting across the neighborhoods below. She gradually stepped back and left the apartment with Jeremy.
“Pleeease can I go with you?” Jeremy begged, skipping along behind Mrs. Brisby as she hurried toward the Rosebush the next morning.
“No!” she scolded. “Go home!”
“I won’t cause any trouble, I swear.”
“You’re making too much noise. Dragon’s still on duty. If he hears us over here, then what’ll I do?”
“I’ll protect you!” Jeremy almost shouted.
“Sssshhhh! Jeremy, for heaven’s sake, be quiet!”
“But you can’t go in the Rosebush alone. Those Rats... they’re weirdoes. You need a big strong man to protect--”
Mrs. Brisby reached up and put her hand over Jeremy’s mouth. Someone was coming toward them from the end of the block, and for a second she thought it was Dragon. She tugged Jeremy into a small crevice between two buildings and peeked her head out. Just a homeless man pulling a shopping cart full of soda cans. She breathed a sigh of relief and stepped back onto the sidewalk, suddenly having a clever idea as to how to get rid of Jeremy. “Jeremy, you’re right. I do need a big strong man--to watch my children while I’m gone. Will you do it?”
He thought about it, his face twisted in deliberation for a moment before he smiled hugely. “Yeah! You’re right! Someone needs to be with the kids in case there’s another fire like on Thursday. Besides, chicks dig a guy who’s good with kids, right?”
“Oh yes, we dig it a lot. Now get going, quick, before anything happens to them.”
He started to run back toward her apartment, then turned around. “Wait a minute, I don’t know where you live.”
“In Building G, room 305. Just knock and tell Teresa I sent you, and she’ll let you in.” Jeremy trotted off and Mrs. Brisby continued on her way, laughing at how simple it was to get rid of him. Never mind that Auntie Shrew was already watching the kids.
The gate to the Rosebush was just how Owl said it would be. Mrs. Brisby had driven by it many times before but had never given it more than a passing glance. She’d never noticed the rugged beauty of it--the thick, unruly rose vines that wound around the rusted bars of the gate, the little forest inside that already was green with leaves thought it wasn’t yet spring. Looking to the right of the gate as Owl instructed, she poked around through the leaves for a few minutes before discovering the keypad hidden in a thorny cage of dead vines. The keys were difficult to press but she managed to punch in the combination and the gate began to swing open with a terrible shriek of rusty metal parts grinding together. She stepped inside and followed the pathway, which was barely visible through the wild grass and unkempt garden plants that flourished along its edges. A minute later the trees thinned and she reached the Rosebush--a two-story apartment building that truly looked abandoned with its boarded-up windows and its ancient layer of flaking white paint. She could see the front entrance--two large wooden doors that were propped open with stones and framed by a vine-covered archway--but where was Justin? No one stood by the doors as Owl said they would. Through the open doors Mrs. Brisby could see a short tunnel and, past the tunnel’s shadows, something bright. Maybe that was the front door? She warily crept forward out of the shelter of the trees and through the tunnel, and when she came upon its end she stopped in her tracks. Before her was the most beautiful garden she’d ever seen--especially in wintertime. Like the front lawn, the courtyard’s vegetation probably hadn’t been trimmed in decades. All over the ground grew a thick carpet of wild grass, clover, and dandelions; around the edges, towering oaks and magnolias whose trunks were obscured by flowering vines. Bushes, also inexplicably in bloom, dotted the interior with every color imaginable. In one corner sat a wooden bench, overrun with vines, and in another corner a fountain bubbled water from a vine-covered spout.
So enchanted by the scene was Mrs. Brisby that she didn’t even notice the man who had walked up behind her until it was too late. Suddenly she felt her head jerk back and she looked upward into the snarling face of the tallest man she’d ever seen. With one hand he held her by the hair and with the other he pressed the barrel of a handgun into her neck. In the crisp air of early morning, the metal of the gun felt cold against her skin and she shivered involuntarily, unable to speak because of the angle at which the man held her.
“Who are you? What are you doing here?”
Mrs. Brisby made a coughing sound and tried ineffectively to wriggle free of his powerful grasp. He let her up a little, enough so she could speak, but he kept the gun pressed hard against her throat. “My name is Mrs. Brisby. I came to see--”
“I don’t care. How did you get in here?”
“Owl told me the combo to the gate.”
“I don’t know any Owl. And I don’t know you. So unless you want me to bust a cap in your--”
“Please,” she interrupted, her entire body trembling. “I have to speak with Nicodemus. My son Timothy is sick and Owl said Nicodemus could help us. I have to see him, please let me in.” The man released her and pushed her back a little toward the door she’d come in through. As soon as his grip loosened from her hair, she could feel the pain of her ponytail having been pulled on so tightly for so long. She rubbed the back of her head. Now that she was able to get a closer look at her assailant, she realized what the problem was. This, she guessed, was Brutus. Beneath his black baseball cap stood over seven massive feet of fat, muscle, and baggy black FUBU clothing. Despite his size, he had small narrowly spaced eyes that made him look not too bright. Over his ears were headphones that connected to a Walkman hanging from his belt, and even across the distance between them Mrs. Brisby could hear the music he was listening to--a song by Naughty By Nature that she recognized from among Martin’s collection of tapes. She wondered how Brutus had heard what she’d said to him, or if he’d even heard her at all.
“Leave, now. Forget you ever saw this place. And don’t ever come back here,” Brutus said, gesturing at the exit with the gun.
“Are you Brutus?” she asked more confidently than she felt.
“Bitch, how’d you know my name?” he yelled, charging at her and grabbing her shoulder so hard that it throbbed with pain.
Once again she found the gun pointed at her and she put up her arms as a shield. “Owl told me,” she cried in a trembling voice. “He said either Brutus or Justin would be at the entrance.”
Suddenly Brutus relinquished his hold of her and stuck the gun behind his belt. With his hefty hands he smoothed out the wrinkles his assault had left in her shirt. A goofy smile spread across his face. “Oh, you’re one of Justin’s girlfriends. Why didn’t you say so? You’re a bit older than most of them so I didn’t realize.”
“No, I’m not, I don’t know Justin. Owl just told me--”
When Brutus pulled the gun out again, Mrs. Brisby rolled her eyes at her mistake. She’d probably have been better off telling Brutus what he wanted to hear, but too late for that now. “You’re confusing me. Get out of here. Go on. And don’t come back because if I see you again I’m gonna shoot you.”
Mrs. Brisby hesitated for a second, opening her mouth to try once more to explain.
“Go!” shouted Brutus. “Now!”
He took a step toward her, and she didn’t wait around to see what he’d do next. She sprinted back through the tunnel, through the archway, and into the trees, no longer on the pathway but not caring much about that. Halfway between the building and the gate, she stopped and looked behind her. Brutus hadn’t followed. Crying and out of breath, she dropped to the grass and leaned against the gnarled trunk of an oak tree, burying her burning face in her arms.
After all she’d gone through, to be chased away by some teenage gangster-wannabe. She wondered why Owl had sent her to this place, what connection, if any, Jonathan had with it. Had Owl said the Rats were Jonathan’s friends? She couldn’t imagine him having been friends with the likes of Brutus, but then again there remained quite a few things she didn’t know about her husband. He’d always been a secretive man; kind and loving, but still highly valuing of his privacy. That was why Mrs. Brisby really had no one to turn to now--Jonathan went out for an occasional poker game with the neighbors, and of course there were his visits with Mr. Ages, but generally he never cared much for being social. As her tears subsided, Mrs. Brisby pondered all of Jonathan’s possible relationships with the Rats. Perhaps, she thought, they had done some sort of business with him; Jonathan had been an accountant, he’d met lots of people in his job. Or maybe he only knew them as neighbors. Either way, Owl had certainly been impressed by the mention of Jonathan Brisby. Why hadn’t Brutus been too?
She decided she wasn’t quite finished with the Rats yet--already it was Saturday morning, and at the moment they were her last hope. She couldn’t risk going back to the front entrance, but perhaps she could sneak around the back and find another way in. Brutus wasn’t likely to be observant enough to take notice, and she was certain that if she could only get inside then someone would listen to her. Just as she built up enough courage to stand up, she heard the slow shuffle of footsteps along the path. Brutus! she thought, and backed up against the tree to hide herself. But as the sound grew nearer, she could distinguish that its source had come from the gate and not from the building. Poking her head out, she was amazed to see Mr. Ages limping along on crutches with a splint tied around his right ankle. She must have let out a gasp, for suddenly the old man turned toward her looking as surprised as she did.
“Mrs. Brisby?” he asked in obvious confusion.
“Mr. Ages?” she echoed.
They stood there staring at each other for a few seconds until Mr. Ages collected his thoughts. “What are you doing here? I didn’t realize you knew about... What are you doing here?” He sounded annoyed, but at least he didn’t have a gun like Brutus.
“Oh, Mr. Ages, I’m so glad it’s you. I have to talk to Nicodemus, but Brutus chased me away and said he’d shoot me if I came back.”
“Well... but how did you know about this place? How do you know Nicodemus?”
“Owl told me. I went to see him last night. We--my children and I--got evicted for setting off the smoke alarm, and we have nowhere to go now. Besides, we can’t move now anyway, since Timmy can’t go outside. Owl said Nicodemus would know a way to help.”
“You should have dismantled your smoke alarms long ago. That’s what I did,” he said, then scratched his chin in thought. “I suppose if Owl told you, it’ll be all right. Yes, yes, come with me. I can take you to Nicodemus.”
“You will? Oh, thank you, Mr. Ages. But--Brutus--”
“Never mind him. He has a big mouth but he’s really quite harmless. He’s only sixteen, you know.”
Sixteen or not, he still had a gun. And her shoulder still ached from where he had grabbed it. But Mrs. Brisby didn’t object as she followed Mr. Ages up the pathway toward the front door. She might have asked about his injury--if not about why he had come to the Rosebush--but she thought it best not to annoy anyone who could help her.
They ambled along at Mr. Ages’s sluggish pace and finally reached the tunnel and the courtyard, where, to Mrs. Brisby’s intense relief, there was no sign of Brutus. She had just let her guard down when she heard a couple quick footsteps behind her and saw the blur of someone pouncing out from behind an oak tree. He nearly snatched Mr. Ages off his feet, and Mrs. Brisby’s heart pounded until she realized that this man was not Brutus--and that he was laughing instead of scowling.
“Reveal thy name!” the man commanded in a whisper, holding his hands (which were covered in grease and oil, as if from fixing a car) over Mr. Ages’s eyes from behind.
Mr. Ages struggled for a second, to no avail. “Justin! You jackass! Let go of me,” he growled.
Justin released his prisoner, and Mr. Ages turned around and hit him in the arm with one of the crutches.
“All right, all right. Only a joke,” Justin laughed. “I was just on my way to get you. I would’ve driven you over here, you didn’t have to walk.”
“The way you drive? I’ll take my chances walking, thank you,” Mr. Ages grumbled, wiping off the black fingerprints Justin had left on his glasses.
Justin started to say something in return but then abruptly turned his head toward Mrs. Brisby, apparently not having noticed her earlier. “Oh, who are you?” he asked casually, flashing her a charming smile.
“Ummm...” she mumbled as she stared up at him, finding herself suddenly speechless. When he jumped out at them a moment before, she expected another foolish-faced gun-toting teenager instead of the young man that stood in front of her now. Justin was tall but not nearly as huge and bulky as Brutus; he had the strong, lean build of a basketball player. A beige cowboy hat dipped down over his face, nearly covering his dark eyes. Other than that, he wore only blue jeans and a thin white t-shirt, and Mrs. Brisby wondered how he wasn’t cold. He had a very short mustache and goatee shaved close to his face; his skin was a medium tan, the same color as hers, but from his face she couldn’t tell what race or races he belonged to.
“This is Mrs. Brisby,” Mr. Ages answered for her.
“Yes...” she said inattentively, her wide eyes locked on his disarmingly handsome face. The second of silence that followed shook her from her daze, and her cheeks flushed bright red. “Oh! Yes, I’m Mrs. Brisby, nice to meet you.”
“Jonny’s wife?” he asked, surprised.
“Yes, I was his wife.”
“As if there was another Mrs. Brisby,” Mr. Ages said sarcastically.
Justin bowed formally, removing his hat and revealing dark brown hair twisted into short dreadlocks. “Mrs. Brisby, it’s truly an honor to meet you.” She giggled girlishly despite her attempts to remain collected.
“Mrs. Brisby, this is Justin, Captain of the Jackasses,” Mr. Ages said snidely, and Justin reached over and smeared his fingers across the old man’s glasses again.
When Justin put his hat back on, Mrs. Brisby took another look and suddenly recognized him. “That was you the night before last! With Mrs. Fitzgibbons’s car! I saw you out my window.”
He grinned smugly and nodded his head despite a disapproving glare from Mr. Ages. “You should see the car now. It’s really one of our better efforts.”
“What did you boys do?” Mr. Ages scolded.
Justin turned toward Mrs. Brisby so as to block Mr. Ages out of the conversation. “See, it’s such a nice car and she never even drives it, so we just thought we’d take it out where more people could see it, that’s all.”
“Oh,” Mrs. Brisby said, confused and moderately disappointed, hoping to hear something more exciting. “But I saw you pushing it down the street...”
“Yeah... well I’d swear Mr. Fitzgibbons can hear that engine a mile away, so we just pushed it over here Wednesday night, Brutus and me. Then we spent all day yesterday thinking of something good to do with it. I can show you what we decided on, if you want.”
Mr. Ages interrupted: “Mrs. Brisby has some urgent business with Nicodemus, and I have to get to that meeting, so if you don’t mind...”
“We disassembled the whole thing and brought all the pieces into that miniature golf place, then we put the car back together inside the clown’s mouth at the ninth hole. Took us all night, but it’s really something to see. We just finished a few hours ago,” Justin explained quickly, showing her his grease-stained hands.
“What in the world did you do that for?” Mrs. Brisby asked, laughing. She would have liked to see the car, but Mr. Ages was right--she didn’t really have that much time to spare.
“For laughs. Well, and Mrs. Fitzgibbons cost us a few hundred bucks last weekend, but I don’t know how much I can tell you about that... Plus,” Justin said, sticking out his foot and pulling up his jeans to reveal shiny new steel-toed combat boots, “She had enough cash in her glove compartment to finance these.”
“All right, can we get going already?” Mr. Ages grumbled.
“But what about Brutus?” asked Mrs. Brisby. “He said he’d shoot me if I came back inside.”
“Don’t worry about Brutus. He’s never shot anyone in his life. Besides, the gun isn’t even loaded. He just carries it for looks,” Justin explained. Mrs. Brisby found herself hoping she could move out of Rocklin before her own children decided to adopt this fashion.
Mr. Ages began making his steady way toward a door at the other end of the courtyard and Justin and Mrs. Brisby followed, walking side by side through the overgrowth of flowers and vines. As Justin held back the long, yellow-flowered branch of a rosebush that jutted out across the path, Mrs. Brisby looked up at him to say thank you but ended up blurting out “How beautiful!” in a breathy voice.
“Yeah,” Justin said smartly, “I know.”
“The-the flowers. The garden,” Mrs. Brisby corrected herself. “There’s so many flowers, for March.”
“Oh, that. Yeah, I guess they get shielded from the cold by the building or something.”
They entered the apartments and Mrs. Brisby gasped in surprise at how clean and modern the interior appeared. Not only that, but the electricity seemed to be working even though the building had been abandoned for decades. After passing through the lobby, they turned down a long blue-carpeted hallway that culminated in large room filled with tables and chairs. She could hear loud voices coming from within the room but there were too many of them talking at once for her to distinguish what they were saying. They sounded angry though, so she allowed herself to fall a few steps behind as they approached the open door. When Mr. Ages entered the room the conversation within ceased abruptly and a tall burly man in a black cape turned around, looking angry until he noticed Mrs. Brisby’s face peeking out from behind Justin.
“Mr. Ages, Justin,” the man greeted in a suspiciously polite tone, flipping the cape over his shoulder. “We, uh... we were just talking about you.”
“That’s refreshing, Jenner, usually you’re bitching about us,” Justin said, and some of the people sitting at the center table laughed.
Ignoring Justin, Jenner focused his eerie green-eyed stare on Mrs. Brisby and looked her over for a moment before speaking. “Mrs. Brisby--Jonathan’s wife, aren’t you?”
She didn’t know why but something about this man Jenner bothered her--perhaps simply how unusual he appeared, as if he contrasted with himself. Though his hair and his long goatee were jet black, his skin was so white that she wondered if he’d ever been outside in daylight in his entire life. Kind of Michael-Jackson-ish, she thought, which disturbed her even more. His attire too was odd--under the cape he wore a bright purple shirt, shiny black pants, and a dozen gold necklaces, and he carried a fancy white cane though he didn’t appear to need it and wore a white hat with a long feather stuck in it. When he smiled, she noticed a row of gold teeth. But beyond that was the rather sinister air Jenner had about him; he reminded Mrs. Brisby of the stereotypical badguy in old Western movies. “How--how did you know who I am?” she asked quietly.
“Jonathan showed me a photo of you years ago. I’d never forget such a pretty face,” Jenner purred, black eyebrows arching deviously.
Justin stepped in between him and Mrs. Brisby, peering into the meeting room. “Is Nicodemus in there? Mrs. Brisby needs to talk to him.”
“Since when does Nicodemus ever go to meetings?” asked Sullivan, a short chubby man standing at Jenner’s side. “Anyway, can’t it wait? This is important business and I don’t think it’s really appropriate for outsiders to be listening to.”
With a wave of his arm, Jenner batted Sullivan out of the way and took Mrs. Brisby by the hand, leading her back down the hallway. “Ignore him. I’ll take you to Nicodemus. His office is right this way.” Jenner was almost tugging her as she looked back to Justin and Mr. Ages for approval... or for help.
“Yes, it’s apartment 116,” Mr. Ages called to her. “Sullivan is right, this meeting is rather important, but I’ll find you again afterward... Oh, and Mrs. Brisby--take care that you don’t eat anything in Nicodemus’s office, okay?”
Thoroughly confused, Mrs. Brisby allowed herself to be pulled along like a toddler while she considered why two people now had warned her of that. And, of course, what any of these people had to do with Jonathan. She hoped Nicodemus wouldn’t treat her like an ‘outsider,’ that he’d explain everything to her or at very least tell her how she’d be able to move her family in the less than two days remaining. Jenner pushed open the door to 116 without knocking and ushered Mrs. Brisby into the lightless room.
“Go through that second door in the back, and that’s where you’ll find Nicodemus,” he told her.
“Okay, thank you,” she said, waiting for him to leave; she wasn’t about to walk into a dark room with Jenner right behind her. He seemed to get her message but that only confirmed his desire to stay where he was, so eventually she had no choice but to proceed into the darkness. After only one step forward she felt a firm slap on her behind and she broke into a sprint toward Nicodemus’s door without looking back.
The back room was lit only by a single candle flame which waved and jumped on its wick in the disturbance Mrs. Brisby’s entrance made in the air. The shadows swaying across the walls looked ghostly, but anything was better than being around Jenner.
“Is that... Mrs. Brisby?” a quiet voice asked from the far corner.
She tried to make out Nicodemus’s face as the candlelight flickered over him but all she could identify was wrinkled hands and a long white beard. “Nicodemus?” she said uncertainly. “Owl told me to come to you... We need your help. See, my family and I are kind of in trouble...”
A bony arm waved her forward from the shadows and she reluctantly obeyed. “Mrs. Brisby... I thought you’d find us one of these days, but I didn’t expect so soon. Here, sit down.” He gestured toward a chair opposite his own, beside a desk cluttered with, among other things, a large disco ball mounted like a globe.
“Thank you,” said Mrs. Brisby, sitting nervously on the chair’s edge.
“I’m very sorry to hear that things aren’t going well for your family. Of course we’ll help you in any way we can. Please, tell me all about your troubles. But first, have some cookies. They’re chocolate chip, just baked a half hour ago.” He reached for a plate on his desk and leaned forward to hand it to Mrs. Brisby, and for the first time she was able to get a good look at him. He seemed to be about ninety years old, if not older, but that wasn’t the most remarkable thing about him, nor was his white beard that nearly reached the floor. What truly astonished Mrs. Brisby was the outfit Nicodemus wore--with the tall, embroidered, pointed hat on his head and the matching cape and shoes, he looked like he’d dressed up for Halloween as a wizard...and had never removed the costume. He even held a wand in his hand, though it was really just a thin tree branch that had been sanded smooth. So entranced was Mrs. Brisby by his appearance that she forgot the advice given to her by Owl and Mr. Ages and she took several of the cookies. They were still warm and soft, and after she’d crammed them into her mouth she reached for a couple more; in her rush that morning, she hadn’t bothered to eat breakfast.
“Oh, thank you, they’re delicious,” she said through a mouthful of food.
Nicodemus gobbled down the rest of the cookies on the plate and handed the very last one to Mrs. Brisby before he asked her to proceed with her story. Feeling full and a bit more relaxed, she was able to calmly tell him of her problems with the smoke alarm, her eviction, Timothy’s illness, her visit with Owl, and her current financial predicament that had left her unable to afford a new apartment even if she could have moved to one with a sick child and no car. Nicodemus sat through this looking thoughtful but not worried, and when she was finished he immediately came up with the answer she was hoping for.
“Mrs. Brisby, I know just the way to help you.”
“You do? You can help us move to Lee by Monday?”
“Yes, and actually we’ll move you tonight. By Monday, you and your children will be safe and happy in your very own house in Lee.”
“A house? But how?” she asked, so happy that tears were beginning to well at the corners of her eyes.
“Well, the short answer is this: many years ago, I came across a large sum of money. It’s more than an old man like me knows what to do with, and were it not for your husband I might not have it anyway, so I’d be more than happy to give some of it to you. It will be more than enough to pay for the house and also for expenses as you get settled and look for work. Jonathan would’ve left you money, if he’d had any left. Anyway, as for the house--my grandson is in real estate in Lee and one phone call will have a brand new house waiting for you. We’ll load all your belongings in one of our cars and drive you out there tonight. There’s more to the story than that, and I will tell it to you, but first I thought I’d give you something.” He picked up a dusty box from the bookshelf and used his cape to brush off some of the dust layers, then handed the box to Mrs. Brisby. “Jonathan meant for you to have this, but I suppose he didn’t quite know how to give it to you. I’ve been keeping it safe for him these last three years, waiting for the right time.”
When she noticed what sat inside--a necklace made from the largest ruby she’d ever seen--she almost dropped the box on the floor in utter amazement. The stone was large enough for the necklace to have an engraving on the back of it! She held it close to the candle to read what it said: “You can open any door, if you can only pick the lock,” she read. Turning to Nicodemus, she asked: “What does that mean?” Right then she got an odd feeling in her stomach but dismissed it at first, assuming it was the usual wave of sadness and anguish she felt whenever she thought too deeply about Jonathan. But the feeling was more of a tingle than a pain and it seemed to spread throughout her body, making her head light and airy and her vision a colorful amorphous blur.
“Look over here,” Nicodemus instructed, and she could vaguely make out his hand pointing toward a large round object on his desk. “Closer. Come closer.”
She moved her face directly in front of where he pointed and watched him give the object a swift spin, and suddenly there were colors everywhere. From the center of the circular object blue light radiated in all directions, intermingled with golds and reds and oranges that leapt out at her and seemed to seep into her body and pulse through her veins. Her eyelids went wide and her eyes glossed over as Nicodemus began to talk, and each word he spoke became visible to her like a movie within the shimmering confines of the crystal ball.
“Twenty years ago, back in Nashville, I lived as a common thief. It was how I’d lived all of my life--stealing ladies purses, breaking into cars, pocketing things in every store I entered. It paid the bills, but after a while I started dreaming of something bigger. My final job. I wanted it to be something huge, something that would finance whatever I chose to do for the rest of my life, but I knew I couldn’t pull off something like that on my own. So I enlisted some help, some friends and neighbors who I knew I could trust and depend on. There were five of us in all. Your husband was one of them.
“It took a while for us to decide what our target would be, but finally we chose a few different things--a jewelry store, which is where that necklace came from; a video arcade, because Jenner always wanted his very own arcade games; and a bank because... well, because that’s just what people did. We put on masks and disguises and robbed all three places clean. In all, we got away with several million dollars in cash, plus a huge pinball game, pounds of jewelry, and more quarters than we could count. Well, I shouldn’t say we ‘got away’ with it. Wouldn’t you know it, they busted us for the pinball game. They had no idea about all the money and jewelry we stole, but they caught us redhanded with that blasted game and sentenced us to ten years in jail for it. Luckily Jonathan and I had decided to hide all the loot a week before, so the police never found it. The place we were sent to, NIMH, wasn’t really a ‘prison.’ It was one of those minimum security country-club jails where you get to go outside and use the gym and everything. It wasn’t really a bad life so much as it was just monotonous. And after five years, I couldn’t take another day of it even though my parole hearing was coming up in only a few months. That was when the plan to escape took root.
“Jonathan and I weren’t cell mates, nor were any of the five who’d originally done the robberies. We all had our own cell mates, so you can imagine that they wanted in on the escape too. Plus a repairman who we bribed to help us, and that made eleven of us. It was a risky plan, but to us it was worth it--outside there was freedom, women, and a few million dollars waiting for us to spend it. So we came up with a plan to escape through the ventilation system. The repairman--his name is Arthur--was immensely helpful here because he knew exactly where all the pipes went. The ones we took started in the cafeteria, so one night a few of us created a disturbance at dinner time and before you knew it there was food, tables, and chairs flying everywhere. We climbed into the pipes, which led to the roof, and at their end we came upon a metal grating that covered the exit. Arthur hadn’t known about this, as it had only recently been installed. At that point, we were so close to freedom that we probably would’ve tried to gnaw our way out, but Jonathan saved the day by being able to reach through the grating and unlatch it. His were the only arms small and agile enough to do it. Otherwise, we might have tried kicking the grating out or cutting through the pipes or something, but we probably would’ve been heard and captured again. Then we were on the roof at the edge of the property and all we had to do was jump down into a dumpster, wait for the security guards at the entrance to be called inside to help control the riot, and run out the front gate--which Justin had blocked open for us. And then we were free. You can’t even imagine how beautiful that night sky looked, seeing it for the first time without bars around or above us. After that, we ran off together--all twelve of us. We got the loot we’d buried, stole as many cars as we needed, and drove as far as we could that night, which was here. I used to live in Lee before I moved to Nashville so I knew this city pretty well and knew about this abandoned building, which turned out to be perfect for us. We might have continued traveling, or even split up, but on the news that next morning were all of our pictures so we thought we’d better go into hiding for a while.
“Well it was fifteen years ago that we moved in here. I guess we just got used to each other and to this place. Well, a few of us like Jonathan and Mr. Ages moved into the surrounding apartments for their own reasons, but we still all stuck together. At first we all thought we’d continue living our lives as thieves, but we realized quickly that we had enough money to take it easy for a while. A few of us pulled a couple of little jobs over the years, just for entertainment, and of course there’s the electricity we divert from the Fitzgibbons’s mansion, but other than that we decided to give up stealing all together. You see, we came to realize how lucky we were--not getting recaptured, not even having to work, spending our days lounging around, watching television, having our friends and our girlfriends and our children... I suppose we started to feel guilty for stealing unnecessarily. That’s what The Plan is about--ending this lifestyle of theft and danger. The statute of limitations has run out on our robberies, but if we get caught we’ll still have to finish our original sentence, I believe, along with whatever else they can pin on us for what we’ve done since we’ve been here. So what we’re going to do is move away from the city where we can live like normal people and not have to hide any more. Out in the country, in Thorn Valley where we’re headed to, no one will know us, no one will recognize us. We’ll be able to get jobs and own houses and do things legally for once in our lives...
“It was in helping with The Plan that Jonathan was recaptured three years ago. Whenever we need to ‘borrow’ something from the Fitzgibbons or get equipment for the move to Thorn Valley, we have to drug Dragon so he doesn’t see us coming in and out of this place. Otherwise, our cover would be blown. Anyway, Jonathan was usually the one to do it--he’d run up to Dragon’s booth and slip a sleeping powder in his coffee--but this one night I guess he missed the coffee pot and dumped the powder all over Dragon’s desk. He ended up having to stuff the powder in the center of one of Dragon’s jelly donuts, but while he was trying to clean it up, Dragon came back and caught him. He recognized Jonathan from that birthmark on his neck as one of the escaped fugitives from twelve years back and, well, you know the rest...
“Mrs. Brisby, I am sorry about Jonathan. We shouldn’t have put him in danger, knowing he had a wife and children to take care of, but the truth is he wanted to help us. He was planning on moving to Thorn Valley with us--of course bringing you and the children too--so he was as much a part of The Plan as anyone. He was going to tell you about his past someday, I know he was. And I know he has been distant from you these past three years, but he’s only doing it to protect you from his past. Perhaps once he gets out of jail again he...”
Mrs. Brisby couldn’t listen any longer. Her eyelids drooped and her mind was reduced to a dizzy whir, and the last thing she remembered was staring through the nearly blinding colors to see a young Jonathan Brisby reaching through the metal grating at NIMH to free his friends.
“You ate something, didn’t you,” Mrs. Brisby heard Justin’s voice say sternly to her. “What was it and how much of it did you eat?”
“Cookies,” she muttered. “I had about eight of them... But they were just plain cookies!”
“Uh...trust me when I tell you they weren’t,” Justin said.
Mrs. Brisby lay on a bed in an unfamiliar room, covered by her red jacket and being propped up slightly by Justin who sat behind her. Her head throbbed as if she’d been hit right between the eyes with some large and heavy object, and if that wasn’t bad enough she felt incredibly queasy and lightheaded. She wanted to get up and run to a toilet but she knew she’d faint if she tried to stand. As she moved her legs a little, she felt a stinging pain on the side of her left ankle and noticed that her shoe and sock had been removed. She stared quizzically at a dark blue blur right above her ankle bone until the details of it came into focus. It looked like... like someone had used a marker to draw a little mouse on her skin.
Justin saw her staring. “Cute, isn’t it? Now you’re really one of us!” He lifted up the sleeve of his t-shirt, unveiling a medium-sized tattoo of a wily looking rat holding a sword. Noticing Mrs. Brisby’s suddenly horrified expression, he explained. “Don’t worry, yours is a lot smaller and plus we made it kinda girly looking. And it’ll look a lot better in a few days. When Nicodemus said you wanted one, Jenner wanted to put it somewhere else, but uh... I’ve heard it’s painful there.”
“A tattoo...” she breathed, completely stunned. She’d heard about this kind of thing happening--waking up hungover with a man she barely knew in a bedroom that wasn’t her own with a tattoo she couldn’t remember getting.
“Actually it looks a lot like Jonathan’s. That’s why we did it that way,” said Justin.
“Jonathan had a tattoo?!”
“You never saw it? No, you couldn’t have missed it where it was... Maybe he got it removed or something, but yeah he had one a long time ago.”
Yet another thing she hadn’t known about her husband. She looked down at her ankle again. It was kind of cute. “Martin--that’s my oldest son--he’s going to love this.”
“Oh, that reminds me. You still look at little...not well. You probably shouldn’t go home like this,” Justin told her. “You can stay here until it’s time to drug Dragon--if you’re still feeling up to it.”
“Drug... Dragon?” she asked hazily.
“Yeah, Nicodemus said you volunteered to do it tonight. Was that before or after you ate the cookies?”
“No no, I’ll do it.”
“Are you sure? Because I wouldn’t want you to end up like Jonathan.”
In her already unwell state, the comment might have sent her into tears but she sniffed a little and managed to subdue the emotions. “I want to do it. It was Jonathan’s job and now it’s mine.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean... All right. But only as long as you’re feeling better by then.”
“Besides, I’m one of you guys now, aren’t--” She’d thought she was going to be okay, but a wave of nausea hit her and she couldn’t force it down. Urgently leaning over the side of the bed, she saw a bucket in Justin’s hand and tried to aim for it as she threw up, but she ended up primarily hitting the floor--along with Justin’s new boots. And he’d been nice enough to hold her hair for her too. “Oh, I’m so sorry!” she said, wiping her mouth on a tissue he handed her.
“That’s okay, it happens all the time.”
“Strange women puking on your shoes?”
His comment was cut short by Mrs. Brisby throwing up a second time, fortunately in the bucket this time. After that she thought there couldn’t possibly be anything remaining in her stomach so she rolled over onto her back on the bed and put her hands over her eyes, trying to recall her acceptance of the Dragon mission. What she remembered instead was Nicodemus’s story, especially the part about Jonathan having been in prison. It made sense to her, in retrospect. Most questions she’d ever asked Jonathan about his past had been conveniently dodged; that, or his answer was something so dull that she lost interest in hearing about it. She’d always guessed he’d been hiding something, but prison had never occurred to her. Jonathan--meek, well-mannered, unadventurous Jonathan the accountant--robbing banks and video arcades. Part of her still couldn’t fathom the idea of it, and part wished she’d been let in on the secret; she could almost picture herself with a handful of cash and jewelry by Jonathan’s side in a black ski mask. Well, maybe fifteen years ago, before they’d had children. At very least now she would’ve forgiven him had he confided in her.
“Why didn’t he ever tell me?” she asked, more to herself than to Justin.
“Jonathan? Well he wanted to but it’s kind of a hard thing to tell a girl. I mean, he was so happy when he first met you, he didn’t want to ruin it by telling you he was an escaped prisoner. Not a good way to start off a relationship, probably.”
“I realize that, but he should’ve known he could trust me. It’s just... prison! I can’t believe he was in prison!”
“It wasn’t really a prison; like it wasn’t one of those places where you go in and end up marrying your cell mate or something,” Justin laughed. “NIMH was pretty nice, as far as prisons go. NIMH--that’s the Nashville Institu--”
Mrs. Brisby rolled over and threw up again.
* * * *
By afternoon Mrs. Brisby felt almost better, but Justin was right--she still looked pretty peaked with her matted hair and sallow cheeks. She deliberated for a moment over what to do about the childrens’ lunch--Teresa could take care of the younger children, but today there wasn’t much food in the house. If she called home, Auntie Shrew would probably answer and would ask too many questions about where she was. But then she remembered that Jeremy was most likely still at the apartment, and she had his pager number in her purse. She beeped Jeremy with Justin’s cell phone, and when the phone rang a few seconds later she was surprised to hear Martin’s voice on the other end sounding uncharacteristically polite:
“You’ve reached Jeremy’s pager, this is Martin speaking, how can I help you?”
“Martin?” Mrs. Brisby exclaimed.
“What are you doing with Jeremy’s pager?”
“Jeremy’s tied up right now so he couldn’t answer it.”
“Oh good, he’s still there. Is everything okay? How’s Timothy?”
“Yeah everything’s fine. Timmy’s fine. I’m letting him play with my Sega.”
“Oh, thank you Martin, that was nice of you! Now would you do one more thing? Would you ask Jeremy if he can find something for you guys to eat for lunch?”
“I can ask him but he can’t fix anything. I told you, he’s tied up.”
“What’s he doing?”
“He’s tied up!” Martin yelled. “I told Auntie he was Teresa’s boyfriend, and she hit him with her cane and tied him to the recliner with some yarn.”
Mrs. Brisby rolled her eyes and sighed; she should have expected as much with both Auntie Shrew and Jeremy in the house. “Okay, then have Auntie fix you something. If she needs to buy something, tell her I’ll pay her back double--triple--later tonight. Okay?”
“She doesn’t have any money! Anyway, even if she did, she won’t do it. She’s guarding Jeremy. I asked her for lunch an hour ago and she said we’d have to wait until you got back.”
“Oh for heaven’s sake--” she began, and Justin tapped her on the shoulder. “Hold on, Martin.” She covered the phone so Martin wouldn’t hear anything.
“What’s wrong? Kid problems?” Justin asked.
“Babysitter problems. The children need lunch and between two babysitters no one can fix it for them.”
“I can drive you home, if you want.”
If the children saw her sickly appearance, they’d do nothing but worry for the rest of the evening. Teresa would ask too many questions for her to be able to leave again to drug Dragon. And if they noticed her tattoo...
“Actually, maybe it’d be better if I went alone,” Justin said, noticing her concern.
“I can go pick something up for them... Do they like pizza?”
“You’d do that?” she asked incredulously.
“Sure, no problem.”
“O-okay,” she agreed, then returned to the phone call. “Martin, a friend of mine...” It felt strange calling Justin her friend; she’d only met him a few hours ago. But she guessed that anyone who would volunteer to deliver lunch to her children after she’d puked on his boots was indeed a friend. “A friend of mine is coming over to bring you pizza, okay? His name is Justin. Tell Teresa to let him in when he gets there... And tell Auntie not to tie him up. And tell Teresa to give Timmy his medicine at six p.m. I won’t be home until later tonight. Okay? See you later.” She hung up the phone and went to wait in the library, giving Justin her address and warning him to avoid the portly old lady with the cane.
She’d been in the library for half an hour, curled up in a large armchair in the back flipping through a children’s picture Bible, when a young lady carrying a stack of books walked in. The books obscured Mrs. Brisby’s view of the girl’s face but she could see two short black pigtails sticking out from either side; probably the girl couldn’t see Mrs. Brisby either. The books she carried were all school books--algebra, world history, chemistry, biology, Spanish, and a few novels Mrs. Brisby remembered Teresa reading in junior high. On top of those sat a two-inch high pile of homework papers.
Nicodemus had mentioned some of the Rats having children after the escape and Mrs. Brisby guessed this was one of them. From the look of it, the girl was being home schooled. Most likely the Rats couldn’t risk sending their children out alone for regular school; someone would have noticed kids walking in and out of the Rosebush every day. She wondered if this girl had it better or worse than normal children, living among a group of convicts for her whole life, learning everything she knew of the world within the thorn-covered walls of this little apartment complex. The girl began removing items one-by-one from her stack and setting them on a nearby desk. A second glance convinced Mrs. Brisby that the girl was probably just like any other twelve-year-old--she looked happy enough standing there with her walkman, her bubble gum, and her pretty pink-painted finger nails. Mrs. Brisby then wondered whose daughter she was.
The girl took one look at Mrs. Brisby and threw all her books and papers in the air with a frantic screech. “Who the hell are you?” she yelled through a downpour of math and science.
“My name is Mrs. Brisby. Jonathan Brisby was my husband,” she said. Usually that line seemed to get her out of trouble.
“You’re not FBI, are you?”
“No, of course not.”
“Oh... My name’s Isabella. Oh! Jonathan Brisby! I knew him. He got sent to jail a few years ago.”
“Yes, I recall,” said Mrs. Brisby dryly.
“But what are you doing in here? Do the others know you’re here?”
“Yes, they’re helping me move tonight. I’m just waiting for it to get dark so we can drug Dragon.”
“Hey, that was Mr. Brisby’s job! Are you gonna be filling in for him now?”
“Just for tonight.”
“Oh.” She kicked a path through her books and papers and pulled a large leather-bound book off one of the shelves. “Wanna see some pictures? There’s some of Mr. Brisby. I have to go now.”
Isabella handed her the book, picked up her things off the floor, and then left, leaving Mrs. Brisby alone again. Usually she’d get all weepy when she pulled out the family photo album and saw the photos of Jonathan and the children together--the photos of Teresa looking like a child instead of a grown-up, of Martin being nice to his younger siblings, of Jonathan happy and unburdened. But she had a few hours before dark still, and she thought she’d very much like to see this side of Jonathan and what kind of life he’d led outside her presence. She opened the cover, expecting to see pictures of men with ski masks and guns but instead finding a rather charming portrait of a much younger Nicodemus with a woman and three children. The next pages were filled with similar things--family photos, pictures of children and pretty women--and when she figured out that the album was more or less chronological she flipped to the middle. Most of the faces in the photos were unfamiliar to her, but upon turning the page she came across what appeared to be the Jonathan section. There were literally dozens of photos of him (some of which showed him doing things she’d never have believed without this solid proof): sitting on a Harley; sitting high up in the branches of a pine tree; posing shirtless and flexing his wiry arms with a goofy expression on his face; eating dinner at a large table with a group of the Rats; getting a piggy-back ride from Brutus; drinking an oversized margarita; standing on a tall ladder painting a wall; smoking something she hoped was a cigarette; and finally standing in a group photo with ten or so others. Smiling distantly, she turned the page again. There were only two more photos of Jonathan. In the first one he looked very young--maybe only twenty-five--and he seemed to be playing frisbee with two children. One of the children she recognized instantly as Brutus, though only because of his height; the other one was about Isabella’s age...was it Justin? It strongly resembled him, but that would have made him only in his early twenties now. Mrs. Brisby couldn’t imagine how he could have been in prison if he’d only been a child at the time. In the next and more recent photo it was definitely Justin--cowboy hat and everything--who sat with Jonathan on a large boulder. This photo she gazed at for a long while. It was probably the least interesting of all of them; the two men weren’t actually doing anything besides sitting there staring at something in the distance that the camera hadn’t captured. But whereas Jonathan had appeared simultaneously entertained and harried in the other photos, in this one he simply looked...tranquil. She wondered then what the two were staring at, and even more where the photo had been taken. She’d thought at first it had been in the courtyard because of the vegetation behind them. In the background were trees and vines, but beyond those were hills--mountains!--and the bright blue sky of the country. Was this Thorn Valley? She hoped it was; she thought the Rats should end up in a place like this, a place of such serene beauty that could pacify even Jonathan’s troubled mind.
With a furtive glance around the room even though she knew she was still alone, Mrs. Brisby pulled the photo out of the plastic pocket that held it and slipped it into her purse. “Now I’m really one of them,” she told herself at the realization that she’d just committed robbery. She thought she’d frame the photo and hang it in her new house... if she ever really got there. The whole thing felt like a hallucination, and it was still too difficult to believe for her to get her hopes up yet.
Justin returned an hour later looking a bit miffed with a red welt on his cheek most likely delivered by Auntie Shrew’s cane. The rim of his hat looked like it had suffered a beating as well but he said nothing about it to Mrs. Brisby except to tell her that lunch had successfully been delivered. Since a few hours remained before sunset, Mrs. Brisby asked if he’d give her a tour of the Rosebush; if she truly was moving tonight, this would be her only chance to see it. Justin seemed more than happy to show her around so they headed out of the library. The library was in the same hallway as the meeting room and as they strolled down the hallway Mrs. Brisby found herself unintentionally eavesdropping on another meeting.
“...in a few more years maybe, but there’s no reason to stop any time soon,” Jenner’s angry voice resounded through the hall. “You’re a bunch of idiots if you think working for a living is going to be better than this.”
“That’s the meeting room,” Justin said, pointing quickly.
“It’ll be better than being in jail again,” someone else replied to Jenner.
“If we get caught. Who says we will? Or who says we won’t still get caught even after we move?” Jenner shouted.
“You foolish-- If he wants to give all this up for some dream, then let him. We don’t have to go with him. Besides, why do you believe everything he says? He’s probably senile! How do you know Thorn Valley is even real? Have you....” The echoes of Jenner’s voice faded as Mrs. Brisby rounded the corner into the lobby.
She turned to Justin and asked: “What’s his problem? I thought you all wanted to move.”
“We do--er, most of us do. Jenner and Sullivan have been opposing it lately, but I think they’ll end up going when they realize we won’t change our minds.”
“Why don’t they want to go? Nicodemus said Thorn Valley was a nice place.”
“Sullivan doesn’t want to go just because Jenner doesn’t want to go, and they’re old friends. Jenner has a... um... sort of a business here that he’s not real anxious to leave. I guess he could stay here if he really wanted to, but it’d be impossible for him to run this place all on his own... I mean, I know you think all we do is sit around on our asses all day, but it actually takes a lot of work to keep the Rosebush powered and guarded.” Justin laughed, obviously not taking the issue with Jenner too seriously, so Mrs. Brisby shrugged it off and decided Jenner must not be as bad as he seemed.
From the lobby they entered a hallway that was lit only by strands of multi-colored Christmas lights, and Mrs. Brisby noticed names instead of numbers on most of the doors. “Edmund & Sally; Nicodemus; Brutus; Brad & Debra,” she read.
When they reached Justin’s door, he stopped to go inside the room. “This is the hallway we live in. The other one’s empty. Well, it’s used for storage. Hold on a minute, I have to get something,” he said. “You can come in if you want.” As he turned his back to her, she saw that the back of his shirt was ripped as if someone had grabbed onto it--presumably Auntie Shrew.
Mrs. Brisby stepped inside and smiled in relief at noticing that this wasn’t the same room she’d been in earlier. She’d have felt terrible if she’d messed up both his boots and his carpet. She also took a bit of girlish delight in the fact that his door didn’t read “Justin & Somebody.” So at least he wasn’t married. But what was it that Brutus had asked her earlier? If she was one of Justin’s girlfriends? And not only that, but he’d said most of the girlfriends weren’t as old as her, which didn’t surprise her much since Justin was probably young enough to be her son. Touching the amulet around her neck, she started to scold herself on this silly attraction to Justin--reminding herself that she was moving tonight and most likely would never see him again, and that she still loved Jonathan even though they were technically divorced--when suddenly Justin pulled off his shirt and began shirtlessly searching for another one. Luckily his back was toward her so he couldn’t see her as she stared dumbfoundedly at him.
“Uhhhhh how old are you?” she asked, forgetting her previous reason for doing so.
“What did you say? I couldn’t hear you.” He didn’t turn around but instead bent down to look in the bottom drawer of his dresser.
Yes, of course, she’d been curious how someone so young could’ve been in jail. “I said how old--or I guess how young are you?”
“Umm...” He pulled a long-sleeved white t-shirt from the drawer. “Young enough to be your...younger brother,” he said with a dashing smile as he turned to face her and put the shirt on.
When she felt her entire face flush, she spun around toward the doorway so he wouldn’t notice. “I was just wondering,” she laughed sheepishly, “because you don’t seem old enough to have been at NIMH.”
“Oh, no, I’m not. I’m twenty-three.” They left the room and continued down the hallway, and Mrs. Brisby realized he had inadvertently been serious about the younger brother comment.
“How did you end up with the Rats then?”
“That’s a long story, but I’ll tell you if you really want to hear it.”
She nodded her head.
“Well, I was born in New... I was born in New York City, raised in a Massachusetts town...” he started singing. He had a terrible singing voice and Mrs. Brisby laughed, having heard the song before but unable to place it from Justin’s offkey rendition of it. “Okay, sorry,” he said. They exited through the courtyard and began walking around the perimeter of the building. “Actually I was born in New Mexico, but my parents sent me to live with my uncle in Nashville when I was a baby, and then they skipped out to Aruba or Tahiti or some place and that was the last we heard of them.”
“Oh, I’m sorry--”
“Nah, don’t be. I never knew them. Besides, growing up with my uncle was a lot of fun. He let me do all kinds of stuff kids aren’t supposed to do--he encouraged me to do it actually. See, my uncle’s kind of like Nicodemus--he’s spent most of his life doing things like shoplifting and snatching purses. He’s not a bad guy at all, he just never liked the whole nine-to-five thing. I mean, he had a few jobs on and off, but pretty much we stuck to stealing what we needed.”
“‘We’?” Mrs. Brisby exclaimed.
“Yeah,” Justin laughed, “once I was old enough, like four or five, I started helping him, and--this is our garden.” He stopped and pointed at a patch of struggling plants overrun with weeds. “I know it doesn’t look like much now, but by summer it’ll have flowers and fruit and stuff. A few of the guys’ wives planted it a couple years ago. Anyway--”
“Where are we going?” Mrs. Brisby interrupted as they headed away from the building.
“That was the grand tour. You’ve seen everything there is to see inside, so I thought we’d take a walk. It’s nice out today. I can show you the old mill.” It had turned out to be a pleasant day, not hot really but maybe seventy degrees, so Mrs. Brisby eagerly followed Justin down what appeared to be a deer path that wound through the wild grass and into the forest behind the Rosebush. “Anyway, so I used to take stuff from grocery stores and malls and everything. You’d be surprised how much a little kid can get away with without anyone being suspicious. We had a good system going until my uncle got caught lifting some jewelry from a department store and they sent him to NIMH. I was kinda homeless after that. We couldn’t pay rent on the apartment so I just moved out onto the streets.”
“Homeless? How old were you then?”
“Seven. Or eight. No, seven.”
“But that’s so sad! Didn’t you have any other relatives you could’ve stayed with?” Mrs. Brisby asked, deciding she would never have brought this up had she had any idea his life had been so difficult. It certainly didn’t show on him; the only time she’d seen his smile diminish was after the beating by Auntie Shrew, and even then only for a brief moment.
“I’m sure we had relatives somewhere but I didn’t bother trying to find them. I liked the street. All a kid has to do is sit on the curb looking pitiful and adults throw you money like they throw breadcrumbs to birds. Plus there weren’t cameras in most stores back then so I could walk in and take whatever I wanted to eat and stuff. It was kind of fun, you know? It was an adventure.” He seemed to like adventure, and the whole thing was affecting Mrs. Brisby more than it was Justin, so she refrained from further commenting on his unfortunate childhood.
They neared the back fence that enclosed the Rosebush and Mrs. Brisby saw a narrow once-paved road leading through the gate to a dense thicket of oaks and maples. They began walking along the fenceline, still within the Rosebush property. “You can’t see it from this angle, but that’s our garage,” Justin said. She tried to peer through the foliage but caught only a glimpse of what might have been a green-painted building. “Once it starts getting dark, we’ll come back here and get a car... Oh so anyway, I met the Rats when I was visiting my uncle in jail. I visited every few days so I got to know them pretty well. I’d sneak stuff in for them all the time. That’s when they gave me the first version of this tattoo, ‘course it had to be redone as my arms got bigger. A few months later, they asked me to help them escape. They were gonna sneak out the front gate but they needed some way to open it, so as I left one day from visiting my uncle I broke off a stick in the lock so it couldn’t latch--like I said, you’d be surprised how much a little kid can get away with. Well then a few minutes later the Rats were out, and I went with them. They put me to work real quick,” he laughed.
“You mean they had you stealing too?” She was going to ask what became of Justin’s uncle but decided against it in case there was a sad story behind it.
“Yeah, that too, but actually I used to have Jonathan’s job--well, he and I shared it. We were the only ones small enough to fit through the bars in the Fitzgibbons’s gate to drug Dragon. But I grew out of that about eight years ago, and--Here it is.”
They emerged from the cover of trees into a small clearing, in the center of which was a creek and a very old mill. A wooden waterwheel, coated in cobwebs and dried moss, creaked as the current turned it slightly. In the pool at its base, tiny fish darted around through the mossy water. Mrs. Brisby watched the amorphous colors of her reflection as it swayed with the ripples. “I can’t believe this is here, in the middle of the city. I never knew.”
“We’re actually at the edge of the city now. Out there--” he pointed toward the back fence and the green tangle of trees beyond it, “--is just a couple houses and farms and the rest is forest.”
She had to think about where she was for a moment, totally without any sense of direction in this foreign place. The Rosebush was a thirty minute walk from her own apartment, and she and Justin had been walking for maybe fifteen minutes now. She recalled the family vacations she’d taken with Jonathan and the children years ago and how they’d always driven out of town this way, past the Rosebush and then into the forests and hills in their old gray Toyota minivan.
“Well, and then about two hours away is Lee, and waaaay beyond that is Thorn Valley,” Justin continued. “That’s where we’re taking you, right? ...To Lee?”
She thought for an instant that he meant they were taking her to Thorn Valley with them, and her face drooped into a frown when he added on ‘To Lee.’ “Yes, Lee, that’s right,” she said. What a ridiculous idea anyway--moving away from the only city she’d ever known with her four young children to go live with a group of escaped convicts she’d only met that morning. Still, she rather liked the Rats. Well, Jenner and Brutus were kind of frightening, but the others--especially Justin and Nicodemus--she considered her friends. She really didn’t have any friends of her own, other than the Rats. There was Auntie Shrew of course, but she spent much more time with the children than with Mrs. Brisby. And now there was Jeremy too, but Mrs. Brisby couldn’t imagine herself having a constructive conversation with him. And all her other friends had really been Jonathan’s friends; that, or they had snubbed her after Jonathan got arrested. She wished she had more time to spend with the Rats, that Jonathan had introduced her to them years ago. She’d be sad to leave them tonight, and there were so many questions she still wanted to ask them, but then again Lee was only two hours away and maybe they’d visit some time.
When Justin walked over and gave the waterwheel a hard spin, Mrs. Brisby looked at the swirling blur of moss and wood and grew so dizzied she feared she would have a repeat of the morning’s episode. Quickly she turned away, holding her arms over her stomach, and went to sit down on a nearby rock.
“I guess I should tell you exactly what the plan is for tonight,” Justin said, sitting in the grass beside her. “At sunset we’ll drive over to pick up the sleeping potion from Mr. Ages, then over to the Fitzgibbons’s place. There’s some bushes right next to their front gate that we’ll hide in until Dragon leaves to make his rounds, then all you have to do is slip through the bars of the gate, reach into his booth, dump the powder in his coffee pot, and run back out to the bushes.”
He makes it sound so simple, Mrs. Brisby thought, but she knew it wouldn’t be. It was, after all, how Jonathan had been arrested.
“After that we’ll wait for an hour or so for him to drink it and then we’ll drive a couple cars over to your place and start packing. How much stuff you do guys have? I meant to take a look earlier but um... I didn’t actually get past the front door.”
“We don’t have much--two beds, a couch, a table and some chairs, a coffee table, a lamp, a small TV... other than that, just a few boxes of personal things--clothes and books and stuff. We don’t have to bring it all, if there isn’t time to pack it or if there isn’t room in your cars.”
“Nah, don’t worry about it. We’ll help you pack. We’ve got boxes and stuff. Plus we got a van, two big trucks, a station wagon, and a sedan, so it’ll all fit. I bet both beds and the couch will fit in the van, and the rest of it can go in my truck along with the six of us.”
“Six?” she asked. “Who all is going?”
“Well Brutus and Nicodemus will go in the van, but I figured I’d drive you guys up in my truck. I’m the only one who has a current license, and I actually worked for my truck--it’s not stolen--so that way if we happen to get pulled over we won’t get in any trouble. Plus you don’t wanna ride in that piece of shit van. It’s like fifteen years old and it smells funny.”
Mrs. Brisby wondered why none of the Rats had driver’s licenses but quickly realized that people hiding from the FBI wouldn’t submit their names and addresses to the state to apply for the license. Justin however wasn’t really an escaped felon, more like a runaway, so no one would take notice of him having a license. “What kind of job did you have?” she asked him.
“I’ve had a couple but my most recent enslavement was at Burger Barn flippin’ burgers for five bucks an hour,” he laughed, skipping a stone into the creek.
“I work at The Burger Factory!” Mrs. Brisby said with a huge smile. “I used to flip burgers too but then I got promoted to a waitress a few months ago.”
“Hey I guess we’re soulmates, huh?” he said jokingly, winking at her. “You’ll be able to find a better job in Lee though. Like maybe...a librarian or a dental assistant or something. I can see you doing that.”
“After this, I think I’d have to find a more exciting job than looking at books and people’s mouths all day.”
“How ‘bout something dangerous, like...an astronaut. Or a detective! Detective chicks are cool, with that tight trenchcoat and that gun under your arm and everything.”
“Sounds perfect!” she laughed. “I’ll apply as soon as I get to Lee. Now what about you? When you get to Thorn Valley you’ll need a good job too.”
“I’ll probably end up at Burger Barn again.”
“No, you should find a better job than that. Something more... you know... intriguing. Like a fireman or a construction worker. Ooh, or a pilot! Or how about a park ranger!”
“Hey yeah, a park ranger, that’d be perfect for where Thorn Valley is.”
“Anything as long as you’re not an accountant like Jon,” she giggled, recalling the stacks of paperwork he had often brought home with him.
“What? Jonny wasn’t an accountant. Is that what he told you?”
Her laughter abruptly stopped and the blood drained from her cheeks. “Please tell me you’re joking,” she said flatly. Justin shook his head. “You mean for the twelve years he said he was going to his office every day and...being an accountant, he was really...?”
“Well he handled most of our finances so I guess he was kind of an accountant... sort of. But yeah, he was over here pretty much every day. I think he had a couple odd jobs too over the years, but I don’t remember for sure. That’s why he didn’t leave you any money when he went to jail--he’d spent all of it already. A lot of it before he ever met you, and the rest on you and the kids.”
“I can’t... believe... Why didn’t he tell me any of this? Didn’t he think he could trust me? I was his wife goddammit.” She turned her face toward the ground and started kicking a hole in the grass with the toe of her sneakers.
“Hey, he was gonna tell you. He would’ve had to eventually since we’re moving to Thorn Valley in a couple months. He was gonna bring you all with us. Nicodemus told you that, right?”
“Yes, he told me,” she replied without looking up. She was grateful beyond words to the Rats for moving her to Lee, and she knew Lee was a wonderful little town, a perfect place to raise her children, but some part of her still wished she’d end up in Thorn Valley with the Rats. She could imagine it, though she didn’t even know what state Thorn Valley was in--her and Jonathan standing outside a little cabin by a creek, the children running barefoot in the yard, in the distance towering oak trees and the purple shadow of the mountains. They’d spend their days fishing or gardening, and maybe she’d have a job but it would be something she loved, and the Rats would be their neighbors and for once their lives would be really truly happy... She couldn’t be angry at Jonathan though; every time she had looked in his eyes she knew he had wanted to tell her his secrets, and every time she also knew he could not. She suddenly wanted to call her children to check on them but decided against it; they’d hear the concern in her voice and would worry about her, and their night was already going to be eventful enough.
“Too bad you aren’t coming with us,” Justin said casually. “You know, if it wasn’t for the fact that we’re all a bunch of criminals and stuff and that it’s probably not the best place to be raising your kids in, I’d take you there with us in a heartbeat.”
She wanted to see his expression as he said it, but she couldn’t--he was leaning his head back against a tree with his hat down over half his face. She sighed lightly, also leaning back against a tree and allowing the silence to linger for a while as she imagined life in Thorn Valley. Usually gaps in conversation made her uncomfortable, but she felt at ease around Justin as if she’d known him for years. Maybe someday... maybe once the children were older, or once Jonathan was released from jail, they too would go to Thorn Valley. For a long time she pictured them there as she watched the sun sag low beneath the branches of the oaks and maples. The last trace of sunlight gilded the distant mountaintops then extinguished itself beyond them, leaving the city dim and murky beneath the shadow of storm clouds rolling in. Mrs. Brisby looked up and realized Justin had fallen asleep. She collected a small handful of pebbles from the ground and began tossing them at his hat until he woke up.
“Sleeping on the job!” she scolded playfully. He yawned and stretched his arms. “Oh, you’ve been up all night, haven’t you!” She recalled him mention that when he told her about Mrs. Fitzgibbons’s car.
“Yeah longer than that, but that’s okay. Hey we better get going... Shit, I forgot my flashlight, I hope there’s one in the truck.”
It was eight o’clock before they arrived at the Fitzgibbons’s front gate, hidden in the cobwebby space between two juniper bushes right outside the fence. With a lot of Mr. Ages’s equipment in pieces in the trash can, it had taken him longer than usual to concoct the sleeping potion. Dragon had already done his first set of rounds and now sat in his booth reading a newspaper.
“He’ll leave again in few minutes,” Justin whispered to Mrs. Brisby. “He usually goes every hour. And if he doesn’t leave soon, I’ll do something to get him to chase me while you slip him the potion.”
“I can’t believe I’m doing this. I must be crazy,” she said to herself.
“Really, you don’t have to. We can find someone else. There’s this kid Isabella who’s been begging us to let her get in on some action.”
“You’d let that little girl do this?”
“She’s the oldest kid we have now who would fit through the fence, and other than kids the only one who’d fit is Nicodemus but he’s too old, and Mr. Ages but he can’t do it with a sprained ankle.”
“I’ll do it. I said I would and I’m going to. Anyway I wouldn’t want to contribute to the delinquency of some poor child,” she said, half joking.
“Delinquency? What do you mean?”
“Well Isabella doesn’t go to school, does she? And all her clothes and food come from stolen money, and she lives with her parents not having to pay rent in an abandoned building where even the electricity is stolen. There’s no need to get her started on any criminal activity of her own.”
Justin looked at her quizzically, as if he’d never realized the oddness of the Rats’ way of life before. In the dark she couldn’t see his face well enough to tell whether she’d offended him, but eventually he spoke. “I don’t know, I never went to school or anything either and I started being a criminal when I was a lot younger than her.”
“But... but don’t you regret it--always hiding, not getting to do the things other children got to do, not leading a normal life?”
“I got to do a hell of a lot of things most kids only dream about, and I wouldn’t change a thing. I don’t regret any of it.”
“Oh hey look, I think Dragon’s getting ready to leave,” he said, putting his arm around her as he pointed through the bushes and bars to show her. Dragon was standing up folding his newspaper. “Yeah, seriously, I don’t regret joining up with the Rats. I love this stuff. Anyway our lives will be getting more normal when we go to Thorn Valley, and... besides, I think I turned out all right, don’t you?”
As close as her face was to his then, she could see his typical smile, smart and handsome in the juniper shadows, and she wanted to say something--wanted to say a lot--in return but she didn’t have the chance to. Dragon stepped out of his booth and walked off toward the mansion in his hourly canvas of its perimeter. As soon as Dragon was out of sight, Justin handed her a flashlight and the envelope of powder and whispered: “Okay, are you ready?” She nodded quickly. “Leave your jacket here so it doesn’t get caught.”
Handing her coat to Justin, she crawled to the fence trying to control her chattering teeth. She looked around to ensure Dragon was really not nearby, then stood up and squeezed through the cold iron bars. It was a tight fit but a second later she was standing somewhere she’d never been before--in the middle of the Fitzgibbons’s driveway. She took three nervous steps toward Dragon’s booth then froze, darting her eyes around in all directions but not daring to turn on the flashlight yet. “Now!” she heard Justin call to her. Closing her mind to all the thoughts of what might befall her if she were caught, she ran toward the booth. When she reached it she turned the flashlight on and found the door, then searched around for the coffee pot. Opening its lid, she realized no one had told her how much of the potion to put in, but there was no sense going back to ask Justin. With a little shrug, she dumped the whole envelope in and swirled the coffee around, then replaced the lid and turned to leave. Not five steps down the driveway, a little boy appeared in front of her shining a flashlight in her face.
“Hi, I’m Billy,” he said, apparently not caring how she’d gotten through the gate. “Are you the babysitter?”
She might have just run away and hoped Billy’s parents didn’t believe his story about the strange lady intruder, but she thought she could hear Dragon approaching and feared he’d catch her. “Yes, I’m the babysitter,” she said, laughing anxiously. “I’m not late, am I?”
“Nope, you’re early. Mom and Dad are just getting ready to leave. Come on.” He took her hand and led her toward the mansion.
“Shit!” Justin said, creeping out of the bushes and out to his truck before Dragon got back to the booth. “I’ll have to come back for you later Mrs. Brisby,” he said toward her disappearing form in the driveway, then drove off back to the Rosebush to start preparing for the move. By this time the entire sky was covered in thick gray clouds and it was raining, though still very lightly.
Once inside the mansion, Billy released his grip on Mrs. Brisby with his dirty sticky little hand and instructed her to sit on the sofa. As she looked at her surroundings, she couldn’t believe the opulence the Fitzgibbons lived in. The mansion was filled with statues and sculptures and the kind of boringly elegant paintings that had to be rare and expensive. All the furniture was white and without a single stain on it, something Mrs. Brisby couldn’t imagine how the Fitzgibbons had managed with two children. Unless they kept Billy locked up in a closet, she thought sarcastically. She figured cleaning would be easier with a staff of maids like the Fitzgibbons probably had. It surprised her that such a pristine place could exist in the center of all the grit and graffiti of the poor section of town and wondered why they had chosen to live here. Perhaps their family had lived in this same house long before the city sprung up around it, or at least long before that part of town fell victim to the rule of the gangsters and druggies. She supposed she could understand the Fitzgibbons’s desire for security guards and fences.
Fortunately the Fitzgibbons had never seen Mrs. Brisby before, and she happened to know that babysitters almost never returned twice after watching Billy for an evening, so she didn’t have to worry about her disguise being blown. At least until whenever the real babysitter arrived, which hopefully wouldn’t be for a little while. Then she had no idea what she’d do--maybe make a dash for the door and hope Dragon didn’t catch her? She’d have to think of something quick. Her heart started racing as she saw Mr. and Mrs. Fitzgibbons heading toward the sitting room, but they were diverted by a phone in the entryway ringing. Mrs. Brisby had no choice but to listen.
“Hello?” Mr. Fitzgibbons answered. ...“Yes, speaking.” ...“Yes, we own the Rosebush, is there a problem with it?” ...“Really? It’s the FBI,” he told his wife. “How can we help you?” ...“Yes, we assumed homeless people occasionally snuck in there, but short of tearing down the place we didn’t know how to prevent that.” ...“Escaped convicts?! This isn’t a prank, is it?” ...“It’s not a prank,” he said to Mrs. Fitzgibbons.
“What isn’t, dear?”
“It’s the FBI. They say they got a tip that some escaped convicts are hiding out in the Rosebush.”
“Well I’m hardly surprised. This whole neighborhood is full of junkies and criminals and other street trash. Why should that be news to us?” She looked nonchalantly into a mirror and adjusted the dead mink that hung around her neck.
Mrs. Brisby found herself getting angry at Mrs. Fitzgibbons’s harsh words about her friends.
“Yes, yes, I’m still here,” Mr. Fitzgibbons said into the phone. ...“Tomorrow? Of course. We can make ourselves available. What time?” ...“Yes, that will be fine. We’ll be waiting at the gate.” ...“Yes, thank you. Good night.” He hung up the phone and turned excitedly to his wife. “They’re coming tomorrow morning at six to raid the Rosebush. We’re supposed to meet them at our front gate to give them the combination and either a blueprint or drawing of the property.”
“Hmm,” she muttered, examining her lipstick.
“I wonder if we should still go out tonight.” He lowered his voice so that Billy, sitting two feet from the television screen, couldn’t hear. “Do you think it’s safe to leave Billy here? Maybe we shouldn’t even stay ourselves.”
“I told you, I don’t know why you’re so concerned over it. Half our staff are probably ex-convicts, so why should we care about the Rosebush? It’s a mile away. Besides, where would we go? We’re safer here than at some hotel that doesn’t even have a security system.”
A lot of good the security system did them when Justin and Brutus ran off with their car the night before last, but apparently the Fitzgibbons hadn’t yet noticed it missing; like Justin said, they probably only drove it on rare occasions. They discussed their plans for another minute, even more quietly so that Mrs. Brisby could only make out a few scattered words, and then apparently they decided to still go wherever they had planned to go. Grabbing their jackets at the door, they waved goodbye to Billy and said thank you to ‘Ms. Martinez’ for being able to babysit on such short notice, then they set the security alarm and left.
Mrs. Brisby’s first thought was to warn the Rats about the FBI; she’d think of a way out of the mansion later. She remembered Justin’s cell phone number from when she paged Jeremy earlier so she used the phone in the entryway to call him. Five rings later she got a recording of Justin’s voice saying curtly “Leave a message.”
“Voice mail. Damn!” she said. She hated leaving messages, and this time she hadn’t even thought of what she was going to say. “Justin, this is Mrs. Brisby, I’m sure you noticed that I got caught by Billy Fitzgibbons. Anyway, I’m in their house now posing as a babysitter and I’m kind of stuck in here because of the security alarm. But that doesn’t really matter. What I wanted to tell you was that I overheard Mr. Fitzgibbons--” BEEP!
The answering machine cut off and with a few muttered curses she hung up the phone and quickly dialed again. “It’s Mrs. Brisby again,” she said in a loud whisper once the voice mail picked up, peeking into the sitting room to make sure Billy wasn’t listening. “Mr. Fitzgibbons was on the phone with the FBI and they said they got a tip that you guys are living in the Rosebush, and so they’re coming here tomorrow morning at six a.m. to raid the place. You guys have to get out, now! Don’t worry about moving us to Lee, just leave as soon as you--” BEEP!
That would have to do; she figured he’d understand what she meant... If he ever got the message. Why wasn’t he answering his phone? She hoped Dragon hadn’t found him too. Either way, she had to escape to make sure the Rats were warned about the FBI and that they got away in time. Then she’d find some way to get to Lee. With all the money Nicodemus was going to give her, she could afford to take a limo to Lee if it came down to that.
Getting past cartoon-fixated Billy would be simple, but the security alarm was a different matter; if she opened the door or windows the alarm would go off and most likely the police would automatically be alerted, bringing unnecessary attention to the neighborhood. She considered tricking Billy into disarming the system, but upon asking him she discovered he didn’t even know the code. So apparently both she and Billy were prisoners.
“Is there any way I could go outside without setting off the alarm?” she asked the boy.
“Nope,” he said to the television screen.
“But I left something in my car and I really need to get it.”
“Well if you really need it--”
“I do! I really really do.”
“You can do what I do sometimes and go on the roof and climb down the oak tree in the back,” Billy explained.
Mrs. Brisby nodded eagerly and he led her up three flights of stairs to the attic. She had assumed there was some kind of a door leading to the roof, but instead there was only a tiny circular vent near the top of the attic wall. Below were tall stacks of boxes forming an incredibly unstable-looking staircase to the vent. She didn’t even know whether she’d fit through the hole, but she had to give it a try. Hesitantly she began climbing, her feet often slipping through the folded tops of the boxes and landing on things that felt like books and clothes. When she reached the vent she discovered it was actually larger than it looked, but it would still be a tight squeeze. She pushed open the metal grating covering the hole and for a second felt quite a bit like Jonathan escaping from NIMH. The thought made her simultaneously want to laugh and cry, so she took a deep breath and tried not to think too deeply about anything except safely getting back to the Rosebush. Sticking her head out the vent, she noticed the rain had begun to fall harder. The small overhang of the roof right beneath the vent looked slippery so she took extra care not to fall as she wriggled out onto it.
Standing on the roof under the pouring rain, she looked down almost four stories to the ground for the first time and became so dizzied that she lost her balance. Instinctively she flung her arms out toward the wall and barely caught hold of the vent hole, scratching up her wrist on the metal grating in the process. “Brilliant, Brisby,” she told herself, lowering herself into a sitting position on the wet shingles of the roof. While she waited for her heartbeat to slow and her dizziness to subside, she held her arm into the falling rain to wash away the blood that was gradually emerging from the scratches.
Billy poked his head out through the vent. “What are you doing? Are you stuck?”
She shook her head, feeling rather silly to be terrified over something an eight-year-old could handle. Right below the edge of the roof ran a thick oak branch from which dangled a tire swing on a long rope. Mrs. Brisby decided this would be the easiest way down. She might try to climb down the tree like Billy had told her earlier, but the old weather-worn branches were probably more slippery than the roof.
“Billy, are there any towels in there? Or an old piece of clothing or something?”
He vanished and appeared a few seconds later with what looked like a very nice summer blouse of his mother’s. Mrs. Brisby couldn’t have cared less about the Fitzgibbons’s belongings though, so she took it and wrapped it around her hands as she prepared to slide down the rope. Don’t look at the ground, don’t look at the ground, she repeated to herself as she took the rope in her hands. There were a million things she could’ve thought about, but she closed her mind to any thoughts but the quickening tremble of her heartbeat. After saying a quick prayer, she closed her eyes and slid her bottom off the roof. For a second she felt weightless--the thick air of nighttime cascading through her hair, the rope so slick clenched beneath the blouse and between her knees that she could scarcely feel it there. So beautiful was that brief feeling of flight that she almost opened her eyes, but then the ground was abruptly at her feet and she tumbled off into the muddy lawn. Shaken but not injured, she stood up and attempted to brush off some of the mud from her side.
“Ha ha! Now you’re locked out! You can’t get back in!” Billy called from the attic. “Nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah! Ppppppbbbbbbtttttthhhh!” He stuck out his tongue and made a mocking face, then slammed the grating closed.
Not that Mrs. Brisby had any desire to get back in. She laughed uneasily as she hurried off toward the fenceline and slipped through it into the trees.
Justin and Mr. Ages drove to the Brisbys’ apartment in the old van and Brutus, Nicodemus, Jenner and Sullivan followed in the station wagon. The plan was for the Rats to start loading the furniture into the cars, then Justin would go back to the Fitzgibbons’s house and try to spring Mrs. Brisby. When she returned, Nicodemus would give her the bag of money he’d promised her and then they’d head off for Lee. They hadn’t planned on rain--it would make moving furniture a bit more tricky--but they’d been able to find a few tarps large enough to cover most of the items during the short trip from the lobby door to the back doors of the cars. Fortunately they’d noticed Dragon sleeping soundly in his booth, a cup of coffee spilled on the floor and a newspaper across his chest. While Mr. Ages went upstairs to check in on Timothy, and Justin and Brutus began moving the table and chairs, Jenner and Sullivan emptied out all the crap in the back of the van into a dumpster. Nicodemus kept watch from outside the lobby door.
“I don’t like this, Jenner. I don’t feel right about it,” Sullivan said. The two had ducked behind the dumpster, out of sight of Nicodemus.
“‘Oh, Jenner, I don’t feel right,’” Jenner mocked in a prissy voice. “What are you, a girl?”
“I’m serious. This is wrong. Nicodemus never did anything bad to us.”
“He came up with the Plan, or have you forgotten that little detail.”
“All we have to do is just stay in the Rosebush. Let Nicodemus do whatever he wants. But we don’t need to mess with him.”
“You agreed with me this morning, why are you going girly on me now?”
“I’m-I’m not. I just thought... maybe there’s another way, you know, where no one gets hurt.”
“If I had my way he’d get more than hurt, but killing him would just turn him into a martyr. Then everyone would be dead-set on following his wishes and going to Thorn Valley. Anyway, I’m not going to hurt him, he’s just going to get recaptured. And maybe there is another way, but we don’t have time to think of it now--moving this Brisby bitch is the perfect distraction. If we wait much longer everyone will be on Nicodemus’s side and we’ll never be able to convince them to stay here.” Jenner pulled out a bottle of chloroform from the pocket of his shirt and shoved it at Sullivan, who backed away a few steps. “Take it. You know what to do, right?”
“This isn’t going to work!” Sullivan whispered harshly.
When Justin and Brutus returned to the cars, carrying the Brisbys’ table and chairs under a tarp, Jenner hid the bottle and pretended to be busy emptying a box into the dumpster. Sullivan hid behind Jenner, knowing his face would give him away if anyone were to look him in the eye.
“What about Justin and Brutus?” Sullivan said to Jenner as soon as they’d gone back up for more furniture.
“Forget about them, they won’t suspect us of anything--Justin thinks the world is a good happy place filled with good happy people, and Brutus is as dumb as a donut. I’d worry about Ages if anyone, but if he starts looking suspicious we’ll do him too. Here, take it.” He withdrew the bottle, emptied some of its contents into a cloth, and pushed the cloth into Sullivan’s hands.
He ran blindly at first toward where Nicodemus stood by the doorway, then took a few more uncertain steps and finally froze in the middle of the parking lot. “I can’t--”
“Do it now!”
Shaking his head dumbly, Sullivan backed up until his back hit the alley wall. Jenner looked toward the doorway with a growl and then turned to Sullivan, slapping him hard across the jaw and knocking him into a puddle on the ground. “Bitch. I’ll have to do it myself.” He ran at Nicodemus. Before the old man could so much as turn around, Jenner muffled his nose and mouth with the cloth then dragged him behind a large potted plant and leaned him against the wall of the building. Around Nicodemus’s shoulder hung a backpack. He’d been talking about it all day, about all the money stuffed inside it and how there was too much to even count. As Jenner worked the backpack away from the unconscious Nicodemus, Sullivan cautiously approached, peering over Jenner’s back.
“Is he... Is he...”
“Dead? No you sissy, I told you I wasn’t going to hurt him. Hurry up and call the police.”
His hands trembling, Sullivan pulled a cell phone from his pocket and tried to dial 9-1-1 but ended up dropping the phone into a puddle. Backpack in hand, Jenner whirled around and grabbed the phone. “Do I have to do everything myself? Here, see how much is there.” He tossed the bag to Sullivan. The plan had been to steal the money then leave Nicodemus in the parking lot and then call the police to report seeing a wanted fugitive. The police would arrive and find Nicodemus, still dressed in his wizard uniform; whether they recognized him immediately or after fingerprinting him, they’d discover who he was and arrest him. The rest of the Rats would still be safe; after all, Nicodemus wouldn’t reveal their location, and the police would have no reason to assume he was still in connection with them after fifteen years. Jenner realized it wasn’t the most foolproof or well thought out plan, but with only a couple hours notice (and short of committing murder) it was the best he could come up with. Not that murder hadn’t crossed his mind. He had no moral objections to killing Nicodemus; the only thing stopping him was the fear that it would make the Plan more alive than ever. But if the Rats saw Nicodemus go back to prison, maybe they’d understand all of the Plan’s flaws--namely, that not even Nicodemus’s lofty ideas and good intentions could protect him--and they’d give up on the idea of moving to Thorn Valley.
As Jenner shook the water from the cell phone, Sullivan opened the backpack and stared drop-jawed at its contents. “Um... Jenner... You might want to see this.”
“The-the bag doesn’t have money in it. It’s filled with--”
Jenner snatched the bag. “Cookies?! What the f--” He was cut short by the wail of a police siren from the end of the block. The car was coming their way. Jenner wasn’t the best at thinking on his feet--he was more of a planning and calculating kind of person--but he did the first thing that came to mind. Grabbing a crowbar from among the many tools in the back of the van, he smashed in the window of a nearby Toyota, opened the door, ripped out some wires beneath the steering column, and shoved Nicodemus into the driver’s seat.
Justin and Brutus, followed by Mr. Ages, were just coming out of the building with a couch as the police car screeched into the parking lot. Ignoring that and focusing on getting the couch dryly into the van, they didn’t notice Nicodemus in the Toyota, nor Jenner and Sullivan hiding in the alley.
“We’re gonna have to get my truck,” Justin told Brutus. “This couch is bigger than I thought and there’s no way two beds are gonna fit with it in the van.”
“But everything will get wet.”
“We can put the cover on the back. It’s somewhere in the--”
“Justin! Get in the van!” Mr. Ages called, hurrying toward them as quick as he could on his crutches.
“What?” Justin asked.
“You guys, get in the van and let’s get outta here. Shit, where are Jenner and Sullivan?”
At the mention of their names, the two strolled innocently out of the alleyway. “What’s going on?” asked Jenner.
“It’s Nicodemus--the police got him,” Mr. Ages said, pointing to where a police officer was carting Nicodemus off in handcuffs. “Hurry up and let’s get out of here before they spot us too.”
“Nicodemus! Oh, no...” Justin said, starting toward the police car as if he could have helped him somehow.
Mr. Ages caught him by the back of his shirt. “Don’t be foolish, boy, they’ll get you too. Come on, we have to go.” Reluctantly the five of them returned to their cars and sped off to the Rosebush.
Safely out on the sidewalk, Mrs. Brisby started back to the Rosebush but noticed out of the corner of her eye a gathering of police cars in the front parking lot of her apartment building. Hoping Justin had received her messages, she ran toward her building; she had to make sure nothing had happened to her children, and the Rats would just have to wait a few more minutes for her. A small, umbrella-toting crowd clustered around the police cars, chattering about something she couldn’t completely follow. As he taped off a section of the parking lot, an officer in a yellow poncho was explaining to an old lady that a man had been caught trying to steal someone’s car. Mrs. Brisby approached the officer. “Was anyone hurt?” she asked frantically.
“No, ma’am. Everything’s all right.”
“I live here--my children are here! Are you sure they’re okay?”
“I’m sure they’re fine. The guy was passed out drunk in the front seat and we took him into custody without a confrontation. End of story. No need to worry about anything.”
Relieved but still on edge, Mrs. Brisby finally convinced herself that the Rats needed her at that moment more than her children did. She’d just run upstairs and quickly check on the kids, then either try phoning Justin again or head back to the Rosebush. However, upon opening her front door she found an odd and unexpected scene before her: Auntie Shrew, Jeremy, Martin, and Teresa sitting on the floor amid several empty pizza boxes playing Monopoly in the middle of a very bare living room. They all turned around when they heard the door open, looking surprised to see Mrs. Brisby.
“Oh, hi Mom!” Teresa said, running up to hug her. “I thought you were Justin and Brutus. They said they were coming back in a minute, but that was like a half hour ago.”
Mrs. Brisby scanned the room and what she could see of the bedroom through the open door. The beds were still there, with Timmy and Cynthia occupying them, but the couch, table, chairs, television and nearly everything else had already been moved.
“Good thing, too!” Auntie Shrew grumbled. “Those hoodlums, coming in here like they own the place. I told them what they could have if they came back!” She shook her cane menacingly in the air.
“They’re helping us move,” Mrs. Brisby explained. “We’re moving, tonight. They were Jonathan’s friends and they’re...” She saw Auntie Shrew’s relentless scowl and decided there wasn’t time to argue.
“I tried to explain it to her an hour ago but she wouldn’t listen,” Martin said.
“Hey, Ms Briz! What’s that you have?” Jeremy asked, pointing at the amulet around her neck. “Ooh! It’s so sparkly! Can I see it?”
“No, not now. I have to go find Justin and Brutus. It’s kind of urgent. Teresa, you said they were coming back here?”
“That’s what they said. They took the couch about a half hour ago and said they’d come back for the beds in just a minute. That was right before all those police cars came out front. They’re okay, right?” Teresa asked, suddenly worried.
“Yes, yes of course. They probably had to go get another car to fit the beds in... Timmy got his medicine, right?”
“Yeah, and Mr. Ages checked on him when he was here and he said he was doing better than expected. But when are Justin and Brutus coming back?”
“They probably took all the furniture and ran off with it!” Auntie Shrew interjected.
Mrs. Brisby ignored her. “I’m going to find them in just a second.” After quickly checking on Timmy, whose fever had vanished since that morning, she jogged back to the Rosebush. It was still raining, harder now than before, and even though she wore only a thin cotton shirt and muddy blue jeans she paid no attention to the weather or to her own exhaustion. She hoped she was correct about the Rats having to get a second car, but she’d only told Teresa that as an excuse. Really she had no idea what had become of them or if they knew the danger they were in.
As she neared the Rosebush she noticed Justin’s truck parked out front, along with a station wagon and an old van. She was very pleased to see Brutus and another Rat carrying a cover toward the truck, presumably so they’d be able to put furniture in it without it getting drenched. Isabella stood beneath a tree, soggy pigtails drooping over her shoulders, with a woman who looked to be her mother; Sullivan leaned up against the same tree rubbing his temples and looking rather dazed. But although she recognized these people she didn’t really know them, or any of the other twenty people standing around who paid her no mind as she searched through the crowd for someone to tell her news to. They all seemed upset over something--had someone been injured while moving her furniture?--and she hated to have to bring them more bad news. Just as she was about to settle for Brutus, she caught sight of Justin and hesitated, unsure of whether to approach him or not. Sitting on the curb with his forehead down resting against his knees, drenched and muddy with rain spilling off the brim of his hat in a sad spout, he looked tired more than anything else. He’d have to know eventually, but at the moment she decided not to disturb him. As she backed away she passed the station wagon and saw a very distraught Mr. Ages sitting under the cover of the hatch in the back. She ran up to him, stirring him from deep contemplation.
“Oh, Mr. Ages, thank goodness. You guys have to--”
“Mrs. Brisby, you haven’t heard, have you,” he said, his normally grouchy voice sobered. She realized they were speaking about different things and shook her head, deciding to let him go first with his news. “Nicodemus. The police got him. I-I don’t know what happened. We were in your apartment and when we came back there were two police cars in the parking lot. They said they caught him stealing a car, then they took him away in handcuffs.”
“What? Oh, no, that’s terrible,” she breathed, putting her arm carefully around Mr. Ages’s slouching shoulders. She grieved with him quietly for a second before being jolted back to her previous objective. “Mr. Ages, listen to me. You all have to get out of here, now.”
“Don’t worry about that, Nicodemus won’t blow our cover. It’ll take the police days to find out who he really is anyway, and even then they won’t assume he’s still in contact with the rest of the escapees.”
“No, you don’t understand. The FBI is coming here, tomorrow morning at six. I heard Mr. Fitzgibbons on the phone talking to them. They know you’re here.”
“What? How did you hear this?”
“When I was drugging Dragon. Billy Fitzgibbons caught me and took me inside, and I heard Mr. Fitzgibbons on the phone. The FBI called him and told him they got some kind of a tip that you’re in the Rosebush, and they’re coming tomorrow morning to raid it and capture all of you. I heard the whole thing.”
Jenner had appeared behind them, listening scornfully to their conversation. “A bunch of lies,” he spat.
“No, it’s true! You’re all in danger, you have to believe me.”
A few others gathered around, looking skeptical but frightened enough. “If it’s true, we’ll all go back to jail,” someone said.
“Of course it’s true, why would she lie about it?” asked another.
“If they realize who Nicodemus is, they’ll be here even sooner,” said a third.
“Don’t listen to her, she’s delusional!” Jenner yelled.
Disregarding Jenner’s opposition, Mrs. Brisby stepped forward to the others. “You’ll have to leave tonight for Thorn Valley where you’ll be safe--”
“Shut up! I’ve had enough of you!” With the back of his hand, Jenner struck Mrs. Brisby across the face.
The force of the blow knocked her off her feet and sent her stumbling backward until she slipped to the ground. As Jenner flung his cape off, preparing to fight, she tried to haul herself to her feet but was still too shaken to do anything but draw her knees to her chest and duck her head down. Mr. Ages swung a crutch at Jenner, not hard enough to stop him, and they wrestled with either end of it for a moment before Jenner yanked it away and cast it aside. Smiling menacingly, he pulled an electric hedge trimmer from the van and turned on Mrs. Brisby, delighting in the expression of terror on her face as he inched toward her. The other Rats merely moved back, widening their circle around the two, too stunned to intervene.
“Justin! Justin!” Sullivan called, waving frantically to him.
Mrs. Brisby crawled backward, unable to gain enough distance from Jenner to turn her back on him and stand up. The whole thing had taken place too quickly for her to worry as she usually did or to even consider what Jenner’s motives were for this attack. All she could think of was the pain in her jaw and how rapidly her heart was pounding. Suddenly she felt her head bump against something metallic and as she looked up she realized it was the side of Justin’s truck. Short of crawling underneath it, she had nowhere to go.
Justin had nearly been asleep, listening to the conversations around him without any of it really sinking in, but when he saw what was happening he jumped to his feet and grabbed a long oak branch from the ground. He was on the opposite side of the truck as they were so he vaulted over the side of it and into the bed, then jumped down between Jenner and Mrs. Brisby. “Jenner, stop it!” he shouted, raising the oak branch like a shield. Jenner easily shoved him aside and Justin tripped over Mrs. Brisby’s legs and reached for the truck’s side mirror to catch his balance. Jenner turned his attention back to Mrs. Brisby, and seeing the opportunity she rolled under the truck out of range of the long blade of the hedge trimmer but still not safe. As she did this the amulet, which had previously been tucked down into her shirt, came into Jenner’s view.
“The stone!” he whispered, green eyes wide with desire. Grasping Mrs. Brisby by the ankle, he started to drag her from her shelter but Justin stepped between them again and Mrs. Brisby kicked away Jenner’s grip and scurried out on the other side of the truck.
“Jenner, what’s gotten into you?” Justin demanded.
“Get out of my way!” growled Jenner, using the trimmer’s plastic handle to push Justin away. Mrs. Brisby heard the bang as Justin was flung against the side of the truck. He fell onto his back on the ground and lifted up the branch right in time as Jenner swung the blade at him, breaking the branch in half. Justin was never able to fully get to his feet; he managed to block a few more swings, but when Jenner thrust the hedge trimmer at his head he had no choice but to dive for the ground again, losing the branch in the process. Weaponless, he had no defense as Jenner struck him in the arm with the trimmer’s sharp teeth, which sliced through his shirt and tore a messy gash in his right shoulder.
“I want that stone!” Jenner said to himself, scanning the street for Mrs. Brisby who was dashing up the driveway to the Rosebush.
Mrs. Brisby whisked past a couple people who just stood there wide-eyed watching her, and she wondered for the first time why no one was coming to her rescue. Even though she wasn’t really one of the Rats, she couldn’t imagine them being this loyal to Jenner. Frightened of him, maybe. As Jenner caught her by the hair and slung her to the ground, she found herself wishing Brutus kept his gun loaded. Jenner dove at her, reaching wildly for the necklace as he batted her around in the mud.
“Give me the stone!” he snarled. She would have been happy to hand it over to him right then, if she could have gotten her hands free to remove it, but his attack was so forceful that she couldn’t do much of anything except try to shield herself.
Shaking himself off and retrieving one of the halves of the oak branch, Justin hurried toward the driveway. He landed a solid kick with his steel-toed boots in Jenner’s stomach, knocking him off Mrs. Brisby and sending him skidding backward in the slick mud. Jenner rolled around for a moment, obviously dazed from having the wind knocked out of him, but Mrs. Brisby knew this was only a temporary buffer. Not looking back, she ran stumbling to the first object of safety she saw--Brutus. She swooped behind him and was a bit surprised that he reached his arms back around her to protect her. Thinking Jenner was down for good, Justin dropped the branch and leaned against the gate. With his left hand he ripped off the torn sleeve of his shirt and tossed it to the ground.
“Justin!” yelled Sullivan, squeezing between two cars with a shovel in his hands. The shovel was about the same length as the hedge trimmer Jenner had, though not sharp, but it was the only weapon around and it would have to do. Justin looked up, first to Sullivan and then to Jenner who was also running toward him. Sullivan tossed Justin the shovel, yelling “catch!” and a second later Jenner made a wide swing, hitting Sullivan on the side of his head with the handle and knocking him out cold. Unable to find Mrs. Brisby, Jenner directed his fury at Justin.
In the middle of the sidewalk, beneath the pouring rain and the crashes of thunder, they began fighting with their weapons. Jenner had the obvious advantage: though only two inches taller than Justin, he outweighed him by sixty pounds. And Jenner was being driven by something--hate, greed, madness--while Justin was merely trying to avoid being hit. He managed to fend of all of Jenner’s attacks, but only by using both hands to block them; he was strong but no match for Jenner, and he had the added disadvantage of the injury to his shoulder. At first the duel remained pretty tame: Jenner would swing and Justin would block it as they paced around the sidewalk and driveway. By moving around, Justin had hoped to tire Jenner out and make him stop fighting, but when it became apparent that Jenner had every intention of fighting to the death, Justin had to get a bit more aggressive. Mrs. Brisby peered out from behind Brutus. Though the rain chilled her, her palms dripped with sweat as she nervously clutched the back of Brutus’s shirt. She could tell Brutus wanted to intervene and she prayed he would, but she remembered that he was only sixteen years old--just a child, really--and the fight moved around the street too quickly for him to do much anyway.
When Justin went on the offensive, Jenner was taken aback long enough for the fight to become a bit more even. Jenner took a swing at Justin’s head, missing him only by a couple inches and instead lodging the end of the hedge trimmer in the trunk of a tree. This gave Justin the opportunity to strike Jenner in the side with the shovel and then back away before Jenner could retrieve his weapon. Jenner turned around swinging wildly and eventually knocked Justin off his feet and pounced on him. They rolled around for a few seconds punching at each other before Justin wedged his knees in between himself and Jenner and kicked Jenner away, allowing them both to get back to their feet. They fought like this for a few minutes, fiercely going at each other with all the strength they possessed, until the fight degenerated into clumsy jabs and clumsier blocks. Both of them were swinging ungracefully, both of them occasionally landing a hit in the others ribs or arms, until eventually they caught each other in a headlock and for a second appeared to just stand there motionlessly like two battered statues. It became apparent to everyone watching that they were both exhausted, looking like boxers right before the end of a round. Finally Justin pushed Jenner back with the shovel and, each on one side of the bed of Justin’s truck, they paused for a moment to catch their breaths, though still on guard.
Leaning his head down while he rested against the truck, and keeping one eye on Jenner, Justin spoke quietly between sharp breaths. “It was you. You did it. You set up Nicodemus.” For the first time, his face looked as angry as Jenner’s.
“Yes, I did it. He was ruining everything.”
“All this just so you didn’t have to move to Thorn Valley?”
“The old fool was destroying everything we worked for. I should’ve killed him when I had the chance,” Jenner growled, softly so the crowd wouldn’t hear him.
Before Jenner could hardly finish his sentence, Justin leapt into the truck bed and took a swing at him that startled him more than anything but also nicked the corner of his ear. Keeping the weapon in front of him, Jenner methodically climbed into the back of the truck. They fought there for a while, and though Mrs. Brisby could barely see them through the rain she could hear the clanging of their footsteps on the metal and see the orange sparks of their weapons colliding. With a particularly hefty swing, Jenner aimed for Justin’s head again but Justin dodged out of the way. The hedge trimmer came down hard against the roof of the truck, sending sparks flying as it dented the metal. Justin quickly jumped atop the roof, trying to escape by climbing down the front of the truck, but Jenner swept the trimmer into Justin’s feet and knocked him off the roof, sending him spiraling to the ground a few feet away. Justin landed face-down in a three-inch-deep puddle in the gutter and immediately began coughing up the muddy water he’d swallowed.
Standing in the truck bed, Jenner smashed the passenger’s side window for effect. “I’ve learned this much,” he said as he steadily climbed down. “You take what you can when you can.” He raised the blade over Justin’s head.
“Then you’ve learned nothing!” Justin growled, rolling out of the way as the trimmer slammed into the asphalt.
Justin took a couple swings at Jenner, agile and well-delivered even though he used his left hand, and Jenner could do no more than back up with his weapon out in front of him like a shield. Finally Justin relented a little, and in that moment Jenner seized the opportunity and lunged forward. Justin was too quick for him though. As Jenner missed, the force of his swing sent him stumbling forward. Justin tossed the shovel to his right hand, raised it back behind his shoulder and, right as a blue flash of lightening tore through the sky, he swung as hard as he could. Mrs. Brisby flinched in shock, ducking all except her face behind Brutus. The scene at once terrified and captivated her--the rage in Justin’s dark eyes, the angry gleam of the shovel blade reflecting the lightening, the reddish sheen of Justin’s bare arm coated in blood and rain.
Two gold teeth flew out of Jenner’s mouth and with a agonized grunt he fell off the curb and into the street. Justin stepped forward carefully, staring down bleakly, all the anger washed away from his expression. His chest heaving, puffing raspy breaths of fog into the air, he tossed the shovel aside and wiped his mouth on the back of his hand then turned around and walked away toward Brutus and Mrs. Brisby. He’d gotten barely ten feet when Jenner sprung up, dazed but enraged with the hedge trimmer raised above his head, and began staggering after Justin. Startled speechless, Mrs. Brisby opened her mouth to shriek but could only point, horrified, at Jenner’s lumbering form coming toward them. Justin whirled around, throwing his arms up instinctively as a shield, and an instant later both he and Mrs. Brisby watched as Jenner abruptly fell forward and landed unconscious on his stomach in the mud. They looked up to see Sullivan standing behind Jenner and holding a two-by-four.
“That’s for bitchslapping me earlier!” Sullivan said, spitting on the ground. “You... you... jerk!” He too was still a bit dazed. Dropping the two-by-four onto Jenner’s motionless back, he plopped down onto the curb and rested his head on his knees. Justin wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice; he pulled a piece of yellow “Caution” tape off the Rosebush fence and used it to bind Jenner’s wrists together behind his back.
“Tie me up to the fence or something,” Sullivan said gloomily.
“I was in on it. I knew about Jenner’s plan to get Nicodemus arrested, and I didn’t do anything about it. I’m not going to Thorn Valley with you guys, I don’t deserve to.”
“You’re staying here? But you’ll get arrested,” Justin said, seemingly more shocked about that than about Sullivan’s involvement with Jenner.
“I know. Let the FBI find me. That way they’ll think Jenner and I are the only ones who were living here.”
Justin wouldn’t have listened to Sullivan except that there wasn’t time now to argue. Sullivan had betrayed Nicodemus, and if he wanted to get arrested then Justin wasn’t going to waste time trying to convince him not to. “Not if they find a house full of our stuff, or if they find you tied up... As soon as we’re gone, torch the place, okay? We’ll leave Jenner tied to the fence but when the FBI gets here you can say you tied him there after he burned the building down.”
“But it’s raining...”
“Douse the inside in gasoline from the garage. It’ll burn enough to get rid of our stuff. Make sure you cover everything in gasoline, all the beds and the clothes and stuff, okay?”
“Okay, I’ll do it,” Sullivan agreed resolutely.
Justin nodded at him. “You’re a good man, Sullivan. Thank you.”
As the crowd came forward to stare, Justin hopped into the truck bed and leaned against the cab. “All right everyone, we’re leaving for Thorn Valley tonight,” he said commandingly. “Anyone who doesn’t want to come with us can stay here and get arrested. As for everyone else, we’re leaving in fifteen minutes. Edmund, Arthur--go get the other cars from the garage and bring them around front; and Brutus--finish putting the cover on my truck. Everyone else go inside and grab whatever you can carry and be back here in ten minutes or you’re gonna get left behind.”
The crowd dispersed, hurrying through the iron gates back toward the Rosebush, and Mrs. Brisby ran up to Justin as he jumped down from the truck. He looked terrible--his torn once-white shirt covered alternately in muddy brown and red splotches of blood, one sleeve missing and a hole in one knee of his jeans, and still a scratch across his cheek from Auntie Shrew’s cane. She was going to ask if he was okay but he smiled widely as she approached him, as if the duel had never taken place at all. “Mrs. Brisby, don’t worry, we’re still gonna get you moved.”
“Are you sure you have time? With all that noise, one of the neighbors surely called the police. They could be here any minute!”
He laughed. “Yeah, I can imagine how that call would go: Neighbor: ‘Help! Police! There’s a pimp and a cowboy fighting with construction equipment in the middle of the street!’ Policeman: ‘Welcome to Saturday night in the ’hood.’”
Mrs. Brisby giggled halfheartedly. “I’m serious though. If you don’t have time to move us, I’m sure we can find a way to Lee with all that money.”
“Oh, that reminds me--” He reached through the broken window of the truck to unlock the door, and then pulled out a canvas bag from beneath the seat and handed it to her. “Nicodemus was being more thoughtful than me. He told me to hide that for you. Anyway you’re right, it’s plenty to get you to Lee but we’re still gonna drive you. Not to worry you but you might want to get outta town tonight too, just to be away from this whole mess when it goes down tomorrow morning. The farther away you guys are, the less interested in you the FBI will be.”
“Oh, Justin, thank you!” she said, tying the bag closed and tucking it under her arm. I don’t know how to repay you guys for everything you’ve done for me.”
“Don’t worry about it. Just let us take you to Lee.”
“...Okay, if you’re sure. But won’t the FBI think we’re ‘skipping town’ or something if we leave tonight?”
“You got evicted! That’s bad timing, but I’d hardly call it skipping town. You have the eviction papers to prove it. Yeah anyway, Lee’s on our way. You guys can ride with me. We’ll stop by your place real quick and finish moving your stuff.”
Mrs. Brisby looked hesitantly toward Jenner where he lay in the gutter. “What about... him?”
“I guess we’ll leave him here for the police to find. We’ll tie him up good so he can’t get away.”
For a second this answer satisfied her--it seemed like the Rats had thought of everything and they’d soon be enjoying a new life in Thorn Valley--but she quickly thought of something else and her heart sank. “But he’ll tell the police where you’re going! They’ll come and find you in Thorn Valley just as easily as they’d find you here!”
Justin smiled. “Heh... Nicodemus--I’ve gotta give him credit. I guess he thought of that too.”
“What do you mean?”
“‘Thorn Valley’ doesn’t exist. I mean it does but it’s not really called Thorn Valley, it’s called something else, but that’s just what we named it when we first saw it. And anyway, Jenner doesn’t know what it’s really called or even where it’s at. He doesn’t even know what state it’s in. Nicodemus was careful to only tell a few people, in the event of something like this happening. Aside from Nicodemus and Jonathan, I’m the only one who knows where it is... Guess it’s good I didn’t get myself killed tonight, or the others would be kinda screwed,” he laughed.
Mrs. Brisby was relieved that the Rats would be safe, but she didn’t find his joke funny and she frowned admonishingly at him.
“I’m sorry, I was just kidding. Mr. Ages knows where we’re going too.”
“Oh, he’s going with you?” Upon considering it she didn’t know why he wouldn’t; maybe she was still shocked over his association with the Rats.
“Well he wasn’t going to originally but now I think he’ll have to whether he wants to or not.” Rats began coming out of the Rosebush, bags and clothing slung over their shoulders, dragging boxes and carts behind them. Justin looked a bit dismayed at their interpretation of “everything you can carry.” “I have no idea how that’s all gonna fit,” he said, jogging over to where the other cars were parked.
Somehow it all fit though, and five minutes later Justin, Mr. Ages, and Mrs. Brisby were headed in the truck toward Mrs. Brisby’s apartment. Brutus and a couple others followed in the van while the other Rats, all stuffed into the remaining three cars, waited a ways down the block. As they drove past the parking lot Mrs. Brisby could see a huge gathering of police cars by the front entrance. Policemen swarmed everywhere, some with high-powered flashlights, some with police dogs on tight leashes. They must have discovered who Nicodemus was and were now looking for his accomplices. Justin didn’t pull into the parking lot as he had planned but instead drove past the building and parked on the opposite side of the street a block away.
He turned to Mrs. Brisby. “I can’t go inside looking like this. They’ll stop me in an instant. They’re not looking for you though. You’ll have to go get your kids by yourself.”
“Yes, of course. But I can’t carry the rest of the furniture.”
“Then we’ll just have to leave it. You have enough for tonight and you can buy the rest tomorrow or have it shipped or something. Go up and grab the kids and whatever clothing and stuff you need, then hurry back down here.”
“Okay.” She opened the door to get out and suddenly noticed the broken window. “Oh! The window! Timmy can’t breathe the cold air.”
“Uh...” Justin rummaged around on the floor and found a roll of duct tape. “Don’t worry, we’ll have the window fixed by the time you get back.”
“Bundle Timothy up in blankets. Cover his face. He’ll be all right,” Mr. Ages said.
Ten minutes later Mrs. Brisby was running down the block, Timothy in one arm and a suitcase in the other. The children had been asleep and were still groggy but they saw their mother’s urgency and tried their best to help. Teresa carried Cynthia, and Martin carried two more suitcases. They had packed only a couple outfits of clothing and other than a photo album, some important papers, a few cherished possessions, and the blankets Timothy was wrapped in, they left the rest of their belongings in the apartment. Mrs. Brisby seatbelted Timothy in the front passenger seat and the other three children in the back, then got in the front middle seat and closed the doors to block Timmy from the cold. The window was taped up well; not even a wisp of the cold night air could get inside. Justin and Mr. Ages put the suitcases into the truck bed with the Brisbys’ couch then walked around to the front of the truck.
“There’s probably not room in here. You’ll have to go with Brutus. He’ll stop on the way so you can get your dog,” Justin told Mr. Ages.
“All right. But first...” He pulled a bottle out of a bag he carried and, while Justin was distracted waving Brutus over, poured the bottle’s contents over the wound on Justin’s arm.
“Owwwwwwww shit! You old bastard!” Justin yelled. Mrs. Brisby could hear him even from inside the truck and she laughed quietly.
Cynthia began bouncing up and down on the seat shouting: “Shit shit shit shit sh--” Teresa covered her sister’s mouth while Martin laughed hysterically.
Scowling, Justin got in the truck, motioned to Brutus that they were leaving, and drove off down the road. Mrs. Brisby took one glance back at their old apartment building, realizing it would most likely be the last time she ever looked upon it. In a way, it saddened her as she watched the building and all its surrounding sirens and lights fade into the cloud of rain. It was still almost unbelievable to her to consider everything that had happened that day. She had waken up in the morning unsure of what the day would bring, unsure whether these strange people The Rats would help her find a new place to live, and now there she was being driven to her own home in Lee by a man who she couldn’t help being attracted to. It was all too much for her. She wanted to cry--not out of sadness but out of a kind of overwhelming relief--but she didn’t want to worry the children.
“Oh I guess I should tell you what’s going on, huh,” Justin said. “A guy named Cal is gonna meet us at your place when we get there. He’s Nicodemus’s grandson... sort of, not exactly. I mean you don’t have to worry about the FBI connecting you to us through him. Anyway you’ll have to give him about a fifth of that money but then you won’t ever have to pay rent again. He’ll give you the keys to the house and some papers, and it’ll be yours.”
“And then... you’re leaving?”
She wanted to say something but couldn’t think of anything appropriate. No matter how many times she thanked the Rats, nothing could make up for everything they had given her. No matter how many times she said ‘I wish you could stay,’ nothing could make them able to. She had said a brief goodbye to Auntie Shrew and Jeremy, telling them to visit her in her new house as soon as she had it fixed up. But the Rats... she doubted she’d ever see them again after tonight. The finality of it occurred to her suddenly and she had to hold back the tears. How could she just go about her business as usual, never knowing what became of them? Over the next few days she’d be unpacking, buying things for her house, finding schools for her children, all the while wondering if the Rats made it to Thorn Valley safely. At least she’d have her children with her. If not for them, she’d feel totally alone in the world now that the Rats were leaving. She wished she could go with them. They’d been so nice to her--Nicodemus, Isabella, Brutus, Mr. Ages, even Sullivan in the end. And especially Justin. She didn’t know how she was going to say goodbye to him.
She looked up at him as he reached over to turn the heater on. She could tell he was tired and that his arm hurt where Jenner had cut him--Mr. Ages had tied a piece of cloth around the wound, but Justin still drove the whole way left-handed and kept his right arm motionless at his side, not even using it to shift gears. But dried off a little and with his hat back on, he didn’t look as exhausted as he had earlier; he actually looked rather alert, probably anxious to reach Thorn Valley. Mrs. Brisby hoped with all her heart that he and the other Rats would get there safely. As she allowed sleep to drag her eyelids down, she slumped against Justin’s side and fell into a deep slumber.
She knew she dreamt; her dreams were of something tranquil and warm but they drifted away as she awoke and the truck pulled up in the driveway of a little yellow house. “Oh, it’s beautiful!” she said, leaning forward against the dash board to get a better look. The children were all sleeping soundly and though she wanted to wake them up to see their new home, she decided to let them rest.
“Yeah, this is nice. Hey maybe I’ll skip Thorn Valley and move in here with you guys,” Justin laughed.
“You could be our new babysitter,” Mrs. Brisby replied, joking even though she knew she’d be in tears the moment the Rats left.
As promised, Cal was there waiting with the deed and the keys. While Brutus and a few other Rats moved in the few items of the Brisbys’ furniture, Justin helped Mrs. Brisby carry the children inside. And that was it--not fifteen minutes later Mrs. Brisby was standing on the curb leaning through the window of Justin’s truck, saying goodbye. She removed the amulet from around her neck and put it in his hand. “Here, I want you to have this.”
“I can’t take that! Jonathan always wanted you to have it.”
“You have to take it. What am I going to do with something like this? I’m sure it’ll go real nicely with this outfit,” she laughed, looking down at her muddy and still-damp clothes. “Anyway, if the police or FBI do happen to question me, what’ll they think when they see me with this?”
Justin though a moment then put the amulet into his glove compartment. “I guess you’re right. Right now they have nothing concrete to tie you to us, but they will if they find the amulet. Okay I’ll keep it for you, but only until you come to Thorn Valley.”
She didn’t know whether he was actually being serious for once, and she really didn’t want to discover that he was not, so she just laughed lightly at his remark.
“No I mean it! You’ll come to Thorn Valley one day, won’t you? At least for a visit.”
“But I don’t even know where it is!”
Looking around suspiciously to make sure none of the other Rats were watching, he leaned out the window and whispered something in her ear.
“Really?! That’s where Thorn Valley is?” she almost shouted. “I’ve always wanted to go there!”
“Yeah it’s a great place. We’ve got 500 acres of wilderness out there where the FBI will never think to look for us. And there will always be a place for you and your kids there, to visit or... whatever.”
‘Whatever.’ She wondered what whatever would be, and when it would be. Years from now, most likely, but at least now she knew this wasn’t goodbye. Yes, she would go there someday. Someday she would be there like in the photograph--under the sprawling trees, the sheltering mountains, and that endless country sky. Sitting on a rock as Jonathan and Justin had once sat, looking out past the camera at the wide valley around her, knowing she was home.
She brushed two tears from her eyes and lay her hands on Justin’s. “Promise me you’ll be careful. All of you. Promise me I’ll see you guys again.”
Smiling earnestly, he put his hand on her cheek. “I promise,” he said. Leaning his head out the window, he kissed her on the lips.
The brim of Justin’s hat blocked the view of their kiss from the other Rats, but Mrs. Brisby could still hear them hollering and whistling from their cars. Justin honked his horn and gave them the finger, and Mrs. Brisby laughed a little.
“You know, I just realized--I don’t even know your last name,” she said.
“Hmmm. Well we have to go now so I guess I’ll have to tell you when you come visit us,” he said, revving the truck engine and putting it into gear, then waving for the others to start leaving. “Besides, that makes us even ’cause I don’t know your first name.” He winked at her, turned his head toward the West horizon where the sky was clear and dark and starry, and drove off toward it. It was easier, she understood, than saying goodbye. For a long time she watched them leave, standing there in the drizzle with rain dripping off her nose and the flushed edges of her lips. It was this moment she would remember more than any other--saying goodbye to the Rats, staring down the road at the procession of taillights until they had long since faded into the steady flicker of fireflies and the dusky purple of the mountains.