Reese was thankful to the human who had spilt their tea in front of his burrow in the wall, and took it as a good omen while approaching it with twitching whiskers. He’d lived in the wall since he was a young mouse, but had only recently noticed the little surprises that peppered his days. The tea pond of today, the sugary snack stuck cleverly to a paper napkin yesterday, the cracked door of a few days past allowing easy access to the Outside, all hinted towards something more intentional. An idea had crept up along his thinly furred ears and into his brain—perhaps these humans knew he was around and, with the few moments they could spare, went out of their way to care for him.
He drank his fill, then did his best to jump over the small puddle. Tail damp, he ran across the border of the tiled room to a crack in the plaster wall. With a squeeze he was through to the Outside, and relished in the dew of the morning grass. Like most days, a newspaper waited wonderfully warm off to the side, and he clambered up it to feel the morning sun.
“Reese!” A thin voice whispered from within the green. “Get down from there! Are you crazy? Something might catch you.” A slender grey head popped up between the grass tips, then ducked away.
“Come on Darby, you know I’ve been doing this since before my spots came in.” The rat pestered him every morning, reminding Reese of the countless dangers out to get him. He’d shrugged Darby off as overly anxious many mornings ago, and although he liked company after a night alone, today he wanted the morning to himself. “Nothing’s going to hurt me.” My humans would protect me, anyways, he thought.
“Wrong. Nothing has hurt you, which means there’s plenty opportunity for something to hurt you. It’s simple karma.” The grass swayed erratically, and Darby appeared, latching hesitantly onto the taut rubber band. “The sun feels even better on the ground, in the safe grass. Come on.”
Reese settled further onto the paper, stretching out onto a well-warmed patch. “You don’t understand.”
“Yes, I do understand. You think some human is going to care about you? Don’t you remember Asher? Or Clementine? Papyrus never walked the same, could barely survive, after the humans got to her.” He dropped down from the rubber band, retreating. “I hope they don’t get to you, Reese. I hope you don’t let them.”
Reese let Darby go without a goodbye, but what he’d said stuck in his brain like a flea on his back. I hope they don’t get to you. Morning conversation was never chipper with Darby, but Reese couldn’t help feeling like a set of eyes were watching him from above after what he said. And what was that about “letting them” do anything? He didn’t make them leave surprises, and the house was always empty when he accepted them. The sunshine heated his brown fur to a burn, so he hopped off into the grassy shade and ran towards the back of the house to his favorite place: the vegetable garden.
He wiggled through the large wire, even more convinced it was a sign of the humans’ possible fondness for him. If their gripe was with him, they would pick a different wire, or raise the small plot of root vegetables. What was more, he thought, digging up a potato, it showed something they had in common—a dislike of those pesky birds, their beaks far too long and hard, their claws very frightening and strong. The vegetable garden was his little sanctuary and, assuaged, he ate his potato in peace.
Finished, he clambered out, far away from the garden to beneath the wooden stairs leading up the back porch. It was a cool place in the hot afternoons to rest, or a dry place when it was cold. His ears twitched at something bunched in the corner, and he approached slowly as his eyes adjusted to the dark.
He pulled with his paws and, sitting on his haunches, unraveled a long white sock. The gift, so thoughtfully left in his favorite resting place, was surely a sign of the humans warming to him, and possibly even growing to like him. After some experimentation, he found the most relaxing position was to rest his belly on its wide base, then curl the tubed section atop him, his tail warmly tucked inside. His thoughts wandered. If only Darby was here to see this. He burrowed his face into the fabric. If only I could be sure they liked me.
His thoughts churned within him like his stomach digesting sour cheese, and when he rose to return to his home in the wall he was less than happy. As the humans returned their rumbling chatter, usually so comforting, now frustrated him. What are they saying? He cleaned his nose anxiously. Are they talking about me? About the sock?
The sound of metal on tile meant mealtime and, positioned in front of his hole entrance, he took a tentative step forwards. One look from the burrow couldn’t hurt, could it? He closed the distance, poking his head out into the room. Partially obscured by the cabinets, he could see a couple sets of feet, one with socks on it just like his own. He stuck a paw out, then another. Soon he was halfway into the room, and from the new angle he could see at third set of feet, dangling high from the ground. A single piece of pasta with red sauce rested beneath its shadow. A gift, he thought, instinctually walking forwards.
I hope you don’t let them. Darby’s words paralyzed him like seeing a snakeskin in dirt. But why else would they set out a gift so deliberately, in the middle of their routine, if not to invite him to join? Just then, another gift—a half-eaten tomato—dropped to the floor, and with new conviction he made his way across the tile to the meal awaiting him. Sat beneath the table, he nibbled on the pasta, still warm.
He watched the legs of his humans as they crossed and uncrossed their knees and ankles, leaned forward or bent back. There was a napkin on a lap, and with some hearty rumbling from above it fell off. He watched as the human bent down, his heart pounding in his chest. A hand reached out, and for a second they made eye contact—then they were on their feet, screaming. He dropped his spaghetti and ran to the outer edge of the room. A socked foot stomped behind him, and his tail twitched. Overshooting the hole in the wall, he scrambled back and through it, narrowly escaping another stomp.
Suddenly the brightness of the room was partitioned of. Later in the night he would try pushing the blockage out of place; but now he tucked himself back into a corner, the lingering adrenaline making him too confused to be scared. How could I have been wrong? He thought. The signs—the spaghetti…
He wasn’t sure when night broke into day, but the pang in his stomach made him rise from his corner and slip off through a hole he’d dug at the back of his burrow. He didn’t dare go to the newspaper or the garden; instead he rooted for fallen seeds in the grass and slipped off under the wooden stairs. He gathered himself in the forgotten sock and dozed, trying not to remember the stomping from the night prior.
A shuffling from across the empty space rose him, and he braced himself, only to relax—it was Darby who had scuttled in, his larger frame struggling through the same gap in the wood Reese often used. He walked forward, sitting back on his legs. “I didn’t see you on the newspaper today. I thought something had happened to you.”
Reese turned his head away. “You were right.” He angled his ears back in defeat. “What was it you said? Simple karma?”
He heard Darby sniffing in the shadow. “I was just trying to protect you.” He inched closer, pressing against the tube of the sock. “That’s the problem with humans. They’re too busy with what they think about life up above that they never stop and consider life from down below. It doesn’t matter if we try and be polite, think about things from their perspective.” He backed away. “That’s not your fault, Reese. Not at all.”
Reese turned his snout towards Darby, resting his chin on his shoulder. “But they left such nice things for me.”
Darby paused. “No, Reese. You just have a particular knack of seeing the good in things. That’s what happens when you’re not so afraid. Like me.”
“Maybe I should’ve been more afraid.”
“Maybe. Maybe I should’ve joined you on the newspaper yesterday morning.”
Reese paused. “I didn’t think you liked me that much. You’re always yelling at me to hide.”
Darby straightened where he sat. “What do you mean? I was yelling to you to hide because I thought we were friends.”
Suddenly Reese’s perspective shifted, rushing from up high with his pretend human friends to down below, inches from Darby. He stood up, shaking the sock from his back. “That does make sense.” They stood, blinking at each other, and the blocked entrance from inside didn’t seem like such a catastrophe anymore. “Do you like potatoes? There’s a vegetable garden across the yard.”
Darby rubbed his paws together. “I don’t know. Will anything see us?”
Reese trotted past Darby, to the gap behind him. “Probably not. And we’ll be safe from the birds. Trust me,” he said, squeezing through the wood. “It’ll be the best meal you’ve ever had.”