The Cowards

Submitted into Contest #135 in response to: Set your story in a town full of cowards.... view prompt


Fiction Horror Friendship

As far as I knew, most of my mice friends and family members in our town suffered from some level of anxiety. This was not seen as a problem, but rather as a mouse tradition dating back many generations. Our species knew how to be terribly afraid of predators, of unpleasant weather conditions, of hunger, and, of course, of humans. We were at least slightly better off in terms of weather that month since we started spending the day in a building with advanced climate control. The building belonged to a new drug company called Comedicin, and we all moved in a few weeks earlier.

Comedicin was also the name of the drug developed and patented by the company's scientists. People in the company knew almost nothing about the drug, but they knew how much money the company was going to make thanks to it. In those days, the drug had not yet been tested on humans, so we cowards were chosen to be the first to test it.

My father's name was Ziger, my mother's name was Anush, my older brother Beetle and I had the nickname Rat. We were randomly selected in the company lab located on the top floor of the building. The only condition for the experiment was that we all become members of the same family and originate from the same mice town.

Dad was taken first. The new mouse catcher they started using picked him up first. (This is what we saw when Connie's family disappeared a week ago). Then they took out my mother, my brother, and then me. We were taken in order. We were each given a number so that if we mixed up, we could be identified. My dad was number one, my mom was number two, my brother was number three, and I was number four.

Our father did everything before we had to do it. He also got the syringes which get stuck inside the body and don't come out until the end of the experiment. He asked us to behave nicely and not make too much noise during this process. He said it would pass. We knew it would not pass, and that he was trying to encourage us, but we felt so much respect for Dad that we had to play the game. Even though Beetle pretended nothing was bothering him, I could see in his eyes how much he disliked being inside the glass aquarium with its two open round windows. They would put things into the right window, and then remove them from the left window.

Father started jumping up and down in front of everyone. He then lied on his back and complained that his legs hurt. He started crying. He was the first to fail in a game he wanted us to play, the game of courage and respect, but we succeeded nonetheless. And Mom and Beetle lay on their backs as their legs began to tickle, but did not shout or cry. I cried. I cried like Dad. And I thought about it how Mom always said that I was Dad's kid. To my surprise, I was happy to think about it. Despite all the pain, I managed to focus on one good thing.

It hit us then. All of a sudden, our body temperature dropped. Dad remained on his back, but Mom and Beetle and I rolled over onto our feet. Mom tried to get closer to Dad, but after a few attempts, the medical researcher installed clear glass partitions and divided the aquarium into four parts. Beetle and I were in the area near the window of the lab. Mom was in the middle of the aquarium, next to a wall, and Dad was on the far side, on his back.

As soon as they took out the syringes and wrapped us in a wet cloth that smelled like cats' breath, I yelled at Dad to get up and stand up straight. Dad said he would do it, but first he needed to get rid of the feeling he had all over his body. Dad inquired if his tail was trimmed. Beetle assured him it was fine. Though I tried as well to tell Daddy that his tail was all right, a sudden sense of mouse longing swept across me and my throat choked. I had no idea where it came from.

They poured green juice, which tasted like rotten vegetables, but had no odor, into a dropper attached to a tube, from which each of us could drink. My mother had a weakness for colored juices, so she sucked a quarter of the amount from the tube. Beetle drank some as well, but he did not take in too much of this. I drank, though I don't know how much; I felt weak, and all the thoughts became like a cheese spread someone forgot outside on a hot day.

I woke up to Beetle and Mom walking around each other. The lab people took down the partitions. Mom sniffed Beetle and Beetle sniffed Mom. They have always had this special bond. In the previous building (before we moved here), when Mom would go for long walks and return after hours, Beetle would wait for her. We had often seen him in that state. When she arrived, he was the first to sniff her, cling to her, and befriend her. Dad once said we might not need him at home when Beetle is around. This made Beetle and mom laugh a lot, probably because, as we say around here, the best mice jokes have a real slice of cheese in them.

Mom called me to join them, and of course I hurried to do so. They smelled bad. Their breathing was strange, and on Mother's body there were stab wounds that bled. Beetle looked fine and even ran happily between me and Mom, but he did not speak as usual. His silence was frightening. I talked to him, waiting for him to say something, but he kept quiet and stayed not too far away from Mom. At least his eyes are fine, I thought to myself, and on the other side of the glass, I looked for a reflection of my eyes. They felt wetter than usual, but other than that, I did not feel anything terrible. Similarly, the cold that gripped us all over our body dissipated, and we enjoyed walking on foot here and there, just to feel like we could walk. In all, I walked around the aquarium from one end to the other. 

In the lab, the lights were off and only the green light was left on for plants that grew nearby. Beetle taught me to eat from these plants, when I had nothing else to eat. Though usually the people of the company were kind to us and gave us the food on time, and sometimes even more than we could have asked for.

Then I suddenly stopped. 

I asked Mom, at the end of the aquarium, where Dad was, and she replied, "They took him now.". I asked where they took him, and I was already sad because within that glass cage was some nasty truth. Although I already knew they took Dad because he was dead, I probably had to do all sorts of things before Mom would tell that to me, such as walking from side to side without any reason.

"Dad died," Mom said, and I felt chills return to my body, albeit for a moment, and in a different way.

Beetle sat down next to Mom and pretended to encourage her.

“Is he really dead?” I said.

Mom sniffed at Beetle.

"For him, it is over," she said. 

It had never occurred to me to think about one thing for an entire hour before. Mice like us (and even braver ones, like those in the town near us) aren't particularly good at such tasks. But I still managed to think for an hour about Dad. Thinking about him made me feel better. Despite my sorrow, I clung with all my strength to a thin thread of memory. It was my hope that one day I would see Dad again, strong and healthy and loving. I will hear him calling me, and I will feel him cling to me or sniff me on cold nights. I wanted that to happen.

This did not happen. My father did not return. In any case, whenever I had time, I went to the corner of the aquarium, the one spot from which you can see the big sewer pipe, and mentioned his name, or placed my foot on the glass and made a mouse wish, or stuck my face to the tube without drinking, just to make them think. A whole lot of things that helped me remember my cowardly and beloved family.

And so, until our last day there.

March 01, 2022 16:42

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Michał Przywara
21:08 Mar 06, 2022

I think you did a good job with the mice, taking advantage of their mannerisms, like the sniffing. In that sense it reminds me of Watership Down and similar stories.


Tsvi Jolles
12:53 Mar 07, 2022

cześć, Michał. Being compared to other authors and their stories motivates me to read what they have written. The novel Watership Down was written in the year I was born, but you might be referring to the Netflix mini-series. I'm going to check it out. Thanks a lot.


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