of mice and boys

His mother didn’t come home again. 
      That made five nights in a row. There was no sign that she had come home in the daytime while he was at school, either. The pantry was empty. The ice box had melted down to a couple inches of stinky water. After an extensive search of the rundown house, the only food the boy could find was a couple cookies hidden in the back of a drawer in his mother’s room. 
      He didn’t like thinking of it that way, but there was no escaping it. 
      Their bedroom had been tidy…
      Her bedroom smelled like sour sweat. The bed was a tangle of blankets. Thick, wooly window hangings blotted out the light, except for a glowing triangle where a curtain rod had fallen askew. There the crooked beam clung to a single nail in the crumbling mortar. Littered across the ground must have been his mother’s entire wardrobe, scattered like foul landmines. 
      He could only hold his breath for about fifteen seconds. It was just enough time to get to the bedside table and back. On the first attempt, his fingers glanced against a crumbling treat. He had the presence of mind to be gentle, to keep it intact. Because he was careful, he happened to find the second one. 
      Back in the safety of the hallway, he sucked in a victory breath. What a prize! Then he hurried back to his room. In what had become a morning ritual, he took a seat next to the window. The swollen wood resisted, but with all his meager strength he jostled it open a few inches. The groan of rotting wood alerted his friend, who shimmied down from some hidden place in a tree to join Artie for breakfast. 
      The twelve-year-old broke one cookie into two unequal pieces. He set a small hunk on the windowsill. His squirrel friend had two bright orange teeth. With an eagerness that Artie playfully mimicked, they dug in. Within moments, all that was left was a few oat flakes and raisins. Artie looked down at the discarded scraps of their breakfast. He let out a long breath. “Are we crumbs?” he asked the squirrel as he poked at a raisin. 
      It only looked at him expectantly, chittered, and then sniffed his hand. 
      When Artie went to break the second cookie, it crumbled apart into a powdery heap. He sighed, picked out the raisins, and then piled it up into a pyramid for his friend. As he sat back to watch the squirrel eat, he tucked the raisins in a pocket. The critter went at his oversized breakfast with a ferocity that made Artie laugh out loud. When it was finished eating, it once again looked up at him expectantly. “Still hungry?” Artie said, surprised. He dug out a raisin and set it on the windowsill. 
The squirrel chittered in response. 
      “I don’t like them either,” he said, deciding in that instant to give it another try, if only to set a good example. He nibbled at the corner of the dried fruit, tasted bitterness, and immediately spit it out. 
      The squirrel chittered, flicking its tail in solidarity. 


Artie had a long walk ahead of him. 
      It was the last day of school – exam day – and he needed every second to get prepared. He wasn’t good at school. He had never been. Ever since he could remember, he wanted to be a hero like his dad. Even though he didn’t have a beast, even though he wasn’t very strong, it didn’t stop him from dreaming. 
      He had almost been prepared to give up after his dad died. If the strongest man he had ever known could fall to the Azighra, what chance did he stand? But then he started school again and who was his classmate? None other than Joan Daniels. She was a No-Beast like him, with one leg no less! And never once did Artie ever see her doubt herself. Of course, Joan’s dad was the greatest hero of all time. Something must have rubbed off on her, because she acted like heroism ran in the family. And if it did, if greatness could be passed down from parent to child, then Artie liked his chances. 
      Artie went to put a foot down but the ground wasn’t there. His shoe kept going, plunging into a puddle. Muddy water soaked into his pant leg. His knee collided with the jagged, crusty lip of the pothole. He tried to save himself from a fall, but he just wound up sprawled out on the gravel. As he stood up, he looked around. The street was completely empty. 
      Nobody saw. 
      (7) Hopefully. On the crossroad ahead, a tentonne ambled by. Artie thought he caught a glimpse of Joan on its platform. Her head was down, apparently reading, but she could be faking. She might have seen him fall and then pretended to bury her nose in her book. But…she does read a lot, Artie reassured himself. 
Deciding to play it cool, he picked up his pace. He ignored his sloshing shoe and his dripping pant leg. As he speed-walked toward school, every fifth step or so he jerked his leg, doing his darndest to fling any remaining mud away. If he hustled, he might be able to walk into school with Joan, and looking a little silly to bystanders was a small price to pay for that opportunity. 
      He came around the corner and saw the tentonne at its stop. He couldn’t tell if she had gotten off yet. He watched the ladder with bated breath as person after person after person disembarked. 
No sign of her. 
      (8) But then a blonde shock of hair appeared along the railing. He recognized the shape of her beginning to climb down. 
      “Hey Joan!” he shouted to her. “Joan! Can you believe it’s the last day of school already?” She had her back turned, plus the crowd was pretty loud, and so she did not appear to hear him. Oh no! As the group accumulated at the stop, Artie found himself swept up in a mass of people. He was being corralled away from his friend. “Joan! Um, hello? You’re stepping on me!” Before he saw it coming, the hoard swallowed him whole. By the time Artie fought free, Joan was nowhere to be seen. 


      Artie’s dad used to tell him, “Time away from you passes like the slow crawl of a glacier, and it’s just as cold.” Though Artie had never seen a glacier, nor had he ever been outside of Main City, the way the clock stood still throughout exams gave him some hint at understanding. 
      Each of his classes tied for the most boring. The information he was taught found no home inside his brain. None of it had stuck throughout the whole year. All of his teachers gave him the same speech: No matter how pointless it seemed, knowledge is power. Or something like that. But that idea didn’t match what was true outside of school. Might was power, strength was power, Aura was power. Heck, power was power. It wasn’t that Artie was dumb. He had just made up his mind about what he was going to be, and no boring subject would be allowed to worm into his mind. They were trying to fill his brain with math! And once they did that, they would probably tell him to teach it. As his math teacher scribbled symbols onto the chalkboard, he vowed to never let that happen. He squeezed his eyes shut, plugged fingers into his ears, and forced his thoughts elsewhere. He devoted himself to drowning out the teacher’s mathematical bellywash until he heard the marvelous sound of the bell ringing. 
But when Artie opened his eyes, his teacher was staring at him from two feet away. “Son,” he said. “You’re going to fail my class unless you take my exam. You understand that? Now I can give you a private exam, right here, right now. Math is important, son. I know it doesn’t seem like it to you, but math is everywhere. Knowledge is–” 
Artie stood up so fast his chair went skittering out behind him. He surprised himself with how fast he moved. His teacher was surprised, too. So much so that the two of them stood staring at each other silently for an impossibly long moment before the message from Artie’s brain arrived in Artie’s legs: Run!  
      And that’s what he did. 
      He ran out of his math classroom, down the hallway, out the front door, and into a grove of mammoth pines on campus. He hid in the forest where reason could not find him. He was not going back inside. There was nothing for him there. 
      There was nothing for him at home, either. 
      Artie had no parents, no food, no Calling…he had nothing. 
      He reached into his back pocket and took out the handful of raisins. He got ready to scatter the nasty, wrinkled pellets into a thousands unknowable places, but something made him stop. He wanted nothing more than to be rid of them, the raisins and all the other things he hated, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. “Come on, Artie! Just do it!” He tried to coax himself. 
      But he just stood there. 
      As he chastised himself, he heard noises. Somebody else was in the forest. Through the gaps between the fingers of some ferns, Artie saw capri pants, a long vest, a belt, a cascade of blonde hair, and…could it be? A girl with big, circular, wire-framed glasses. 
Joan Daniels. 
       (9) She moved with jaw dropping confidence. In as much time as it took Artie to sigh out his breath, she had slung her leather satchel over his shoulder and scampered up to a branch overhead. He watched her go, suddenly clear on the definition of nimble, until she was just a speck in the canopy. Before he could stay there forever, stuck in a timeless moment spent staring at that speck in awe, he was rudely interrupted. 
      An older student with a serpentine-beast kicked dirt in his face. “What are you looking at, No-Beast?” 
      Artie sputtered. “Nothing,” he said, unable to think of a better response. 
      “Well, then watch this.” The bully kicked another clod of spongy dirt at Artie before following Joan up the tree. (10) Quickly, but not as quickly as Joan, the boy ascended until he became a second speck in the canopy. 
      I should help, Artie thought. Maybe he could give Joan a warning. He could tell her that the boy had a serpent-type Explorer beast, and to be careful what handholds she chose because he might trick her into grabbing a false branch. A bully had done that to him once. Is that what he would do to her…? 
      But then Artie had a very different thought. 
      What if they were boyfriend-girlfriend? What if they went up the same tree to get some privacy? Joan wouldn’t go steady with a beastborn, would she? Not that Artie liked Joan like that. He just admired her – idolized her – more like a big sister than anything. Still, the thought stressed him out, made him feel crumby again. He tried to shrug it off, but he couldn’t quite shake it. It lingered as he stared up at those two specks, until he got dizzy and had to look away. 
      He didn’t actually believe the idea – Joan hated beastborns - but it had done its damage. “I wish…” he started, but instead of words, he finished the sentence with a huff.
The forest wasn’t quite the same after that, so he left. 


He found himself wandering around town. He was following his nose now, lured by the delicious aromas of steamy bread, burbling stew, sizzling vegetables, and fresh-baked pies. 
      He sauntered hungrily by a tavern. A group of revelers stumbled out onto the street. He peered inside before the door swung closed, searching faces for his mom. This is likely where he would find her, if he went looking. But he wasn’t looking for her. He was looking for a meal. 
      His stomach growled so loudly he could hear it over the music thumping inside. Another time he would have been amused, the growl from within his gut reminding him of his imaginary Calling – his sleeping lion-beast. He had growled with it before, pretending they were one, but today, he really wasn’t in the mood. 
      One of the drunken revelers held a chicken leg in the air. In Artie’s mind, seasoned steam curled off of it, caught an unlikely current of wind that delivered the full force of its tantalizing aroma directly into his nostrils. He could have cried. But the man took one single bite, and with a sporting flourish, launched the rest into the alleyway. Quickly, but not trying to seem like an eager street-rat, Artie scampered after it. 
      He found the drumstick lying in a pool of sewage. 
      Suddenly, the music and the jolly sounds of celebration loudened. A door on the side of the tavern squeaked open as a worker came out with a bag of garbage. He disposed of the trash in a dumpster before leaving Artie alone to consider his next move. 
There was very little thinking involved. His sleeping lion-beast growled in his belly and he moved obediently. Standing on two balanced crates, he heaved open the dumpster’s giant lid and wiggled in. 
      It took a moment for his eyes to adjust. In that dark minute, he became terrifyingly aware that he was not alone in there. His loud entry had created a temporary interruption in what, Artie feared, had been a pretty festive affair. Already there was peculiar movement in the dumpster. Not the predictable shifting and settling of garbage, but the telltale skittering of living, breathing critters, likely of the biting variety.  
      It was a sign of either bravery or hunger that Artie stayed. Once he had sight back, he pulled open a trash bag and began rifling through it. Food! Scraps of all kinds were his for the eating: hunks of burger, tangles of buttered noodles, rolls, chicken bones with morsels of meat, and a former salad that had mixed with cheese and stew and an assortment of miscellaneous juices. He tossed the latter to the other side of the space, but savored the bits that still resembled the foods he loved. 
Artie was so engrossed in his meal that he didn’t notice the two mice until they climbed up his leg. He jerked, but they held on. They had bypassed the soaked lettuce in pursuit of finer things. Artie could not blame them for that. Plus, the lion-beast in his belly seemed to be curling up for a catnap, which put Artie much more in the mood to share. 
      Together, Artie and his two mice ate all they could. The boy ate until he felt sick, and then ate a bit more. He was as surprised by these mices’ appetites as he was by his squirrel friend’s, and eventually, with enough meat and cheese to go around they established a similar rapport. 
“I should give you two names,” he said. “We’re friends now. Have you ever been friends with a human before? Probably not. You look too young to have met too many humans. Humans have names. My name is Artie. Humans also shake hands when they meet. Defenders grab each other’s forearms and say, ‘Until the world is safe.’ That’s called the Greeting. In this case, since we are not fighting a battle or anything, the Defenders would probably say, ‘Stand protected.’ It means, like, ‘Don’t worry, you’re safe with me.’ What should I call you two?” he went on. Looking at the mouse on the left, who was gnawing on a piece of fried potato: “Let’s call you–” 
      The lid of the dumpster swung open. Two snarling human faces sneered down at him and the two mice. The two boys looked at each other with viciousness. “Skut!” one of the boys hollered. A third and a fourth face appeared over the rim of the dumpster – one canine and the other simian – their Callings. They shimmered in violet, light-sucking Aura. 
      One of them dragged Artie out by the collar. “Hide!” he told his mice. The bully tossed him on the gravel. For a split second, there was a clear path of escape. Thirty paces away there were people on the street, and nothing in between them. But Skut, the canine-beast, was rummaging through the dumpster, hunting mice with an audience of three. “Leave my friends alone!” 
      “His friends!” one of them squawked, and then bent over laughing. 
Without thinking, Artie slammed the dumpster’s lid. It creaked as it swung closed, slamming down on one of the bully’s fingers. Startled and hurt, the bully flailed back. Inside the dumpster, his Calling rattled about like a nut in a tin can. These beastborn were only there to cause him pain, so why in the thick of a fight, was his instinct to apologize? “I’m so—” 
      A punch knocked the words from his mouth. A kick to the ribs removed the rest of his breath, and he curled up into a tight ball on the ground. He cradled his head with his hands, cinched his knees up close to his chin, and endured. 
      (12) They paused their beating to mock him. “Get up, No-Beast!” one of them bellowed. “Not so tough now, are ya?” 
      “Yeah,” the second chimed in, “Why don’t ya dad come save ya?” 
      “Back off,” Artie whimpered. “I said I’m sorry!” 
      “Did he?” the first asked. 
      “I never heard no sorry,” said the second. 
      The first snorted. “He can save his sorry, frankly.” Out of the corner of his eye, Artie saw the boy raise a booted foot. “I’ve had enough of No-Beasts trying to be heroes. You don’t have a Calling here!” 
      Artie tried to plead with them. “I was just trying to tell you to leave them alone,” he whimpered. 
      “Hey!” A girl’s voice cut through the raucous laughter of the bullies. He thought he heard a hollow thud. “Four on one isn’t that fair, y’know!” 
      (13) Now Artie knew he must be really hurt. He was hallucinating. He had to be. There was no way that Joan Daniels was standing before him, holding her ground, her twinkling pendant necklace dangling from her neck. If this was real, there would be some sign, right? A hair out of place? Some imperfection in the shape the girl cut against the sooty bricks of the alleyway? But no, she was exactly as he often pictured her: flawless and furious. 
      "What were you thinking, kid?” 
      This was some hallucination. The imaginary-Joan was talking to him. Hey, he might be pretty banged up, but he should probably talk back. “I was sticking up for my friends!” he told the apparition. 
      Through a swollen eye, he watched as his imagination ran wild. 
      Joan squared up in a power posture. 
      “Listen, kid, why don’t you scram?” 
      I’ll scram, Artie thought. Just as soon as I can find my feet. But Artie couldn’t even see straight, much less run away. His brain was still playing amusing tricks on his vision, showing him heroic Joan taking the bullies out one by one. It was a nice image, exactly the kind of thing his wandering mind was always cooking up, but it scared him just the same. Usually these visions came as he sat in class, or as he drifted off to sleep, or on his walk to school. Never before had such a vivid daydream presented itself on top of reality, at such an inopportune time no less. The dream stretched what could have only been a second into a long minute. Any second now, the bullies would resume their beating and he would be jarred out of his pleasant illusion. (14) But, the vision endured. 
      “I’ve been told I don’t listen,” imaginary-Joan said. 
      Totally something the real Joan would say, he mused. 
      “You’re forgetting we have something you don’t,” the bully said. “Skut!” 
      (15) The canine-beast appeared out of nowhere and latched onto Joan’s good leg. She screamed. The piercing noise startled him, and for just a moment, he forgot that the whole thing was his broken mind’s invention. “Joan, not your good leg!” Artie cried. He tried to sit up, managed to peel himself off the ground, but it felt like the weight of the world was on his skull. 
      His own pain made him dizzy. “Joan,” he mumbled. (16) “Joan,” he said again, finding his feet. “Joan…” Her name mixed with a moan. 
      “Shut up!” one of the bullies yelled at him. Why were they not pummeling him? Why were they so fixated on the Joan-apparition? Could it possibly be… because she was…real? 
      (17) “You beastborns think you’re special?” Joan shouted, an angry tear dribbling down her cheek. “That you can tell us how to live?” 
      “Us…?” Artie croaked. This was actually happening, wasn’t it? Joan was fighting for him. He wiped the blood and sweat out of his good eye and prepared himself to fight at her side. 
      “WE’LL PROVE YOU WRONG!” she yelled. “WE HAVE CALLINGS, TOO!” Her booming voice settled it for Artie. This Joan was real, and she was mad, and he couldn’t quite tell because one of his eyes was swollen shut and the other had blood in it, but was Joan’s necklace glowing with crimson Aura?
      Everything went blurry-red as some blood dribbled into his eye. 
      (18) When his vision cleared, Joan was sprawled out in the gravel. 
      “Idiot,” one of the bullies said. 
      Her necklace was glowing. “Wait…” he said, stepping forward. 
      He didn’t get one step forward before the bully had him by his collar. “One more move, kid,” he warned, “and it’s your last.” 
      “You’re so blind with anger you can’t face facts,” the other bully said to Joan. “Do you even see anything next to you?” 
      (19) She was quick with her retort. “You’re wrong!” She pushed herself up from the ground. “I DO HAVE A CALLING!” 
      As she stood, as terrifying as he had ever seen her, Artie felt the air prickle with electric energy. The glow returned to her pendant necklace, angrier this time, but this time pure and white. (20) It sizzled – he heard it – and blinded him so totally as if he was staring into the sun. Artie’s sight returned to see one bully staggering backward, while the other eyed her pendant necklace wantingly. He saw something else, too. The clear path. 
      He had to get her out of there. 
      He tried to take a step. To his relief, his legs held his weight. He went to her in a frenzy then, grabbed her by the shoulder and said urgently, “We have to get you out of here!” 
      The two of them turned heel and ran. 
      Every footfall hurt, but there was no stopping him. He ran to keep up with Joan. If she kept running to the end of the world, he would have tried to keep pace. Finally, in nearly as much pain as when he was being kicked, Joan stopped. (21) Tears had pooled in the corners of her eyes. She was mumbling something over and over to herself, “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know…” 
      It scared him, but he just had to get her to safety. “Joan, let’s get to your house. Quick!” 

Artie had never been to Joan’s house before. The girl was the closest thing to a human friend he had, but it was an abstract sort of friendship. With James being as famous as he was, it allowed Artie to feel like he knew the Daniels family. In reality, it was like he owned a painting of them, a two-dimensional construct of the real thing. So, the gravity of walking up their cobblestones and seeing Maji – real-life Maji! – lounging on the front lawn was far too much for him to handle. 
      “Woah, that’s Maji,” Artie said, starstruck. “Hey Maji!” 
      James Daniels was standing in the living room when they walked in. “Hey there,” he greeted in his heroic baritone voice. Artie blinked – blinked again – still not fully sure if he could trust his eyes. “Who’s this?” he said, his eyes flicking toward Artie. 
      (22) The boy ran up to the hero excitedly. “Ser James! Hey, Ser James! I’m Artie and I’M A HUGE FAN of yours, Ser!” He left it at that, wanting to appear cool. Artie had heard that famous people didn’t like it when you laid it on too thick. He stuck out his hand for a very professional handshake, certainly the type of gesture that would show James that Artie was one of the good ones. “Oh! Also Joan just got into a fight protecting me! We’re best friends!” 
      And then James Daniels took Artie’s hand in his and shook it. 
      When the handshake ended, Artie inspected his hand. It felt different. Healed, maybe. If it had been injured in the fight, which it might have been, it wasn’t injured anymore. 
      “Dad, the necklace, it…” Joan was saying. 
      Artie had been blinded by the thing once already, so he held up his hand to shield his eyes if it happened again. Good thing he did. 
      (23) The pendant burst open. James recoiled. Joan staggered backward. Artie was the first to see it. 
      There, sitting in the middle of the room with its legs crossed was a quiet, monkey-like creature. It had emerged from the seed within her pendant necklace, and it now looked up at Joan with two, gleaming eyes. 

to be read in conjunction with book 1: "Joan's Calling"