“Don’t let it escape!” Candace shouts to Doran from behind the industrial green door that he has just opened. He is startled into pausing, just long enough for a grey blur to streak past his sneakers. Doran follows the escaping mouse with his eyes, but decides that if one mouse has escaped, more might have also gotten loose in the long low building called “The Mess.” Not wanting to give any other mice the chance to escape, he watches the mouse scoot under a drainage pipe under the south roof even as his hands ensure that the door is closed.
“On it!” Doran shouts to his mother, as he takes off after the mouse, a hunter at work.
From under the cover of the lip of the building, the mouse ducks under the dumpster at the end of the building. Under here, it seems safe, but Doran knows better. Behind the heavy green container is a solid wall, utterly bereft of holes or other avenues of escape. Doran leaps up onto the back of the smelly container, being sure to land in such a way to keep from caving the heavy plastic lid in. Luckily, being short for his age, he also is slender and doesn’t weigh enough to crush the deceptively weak material. Leaning over the edge, he uses the strong muscles of his forearms to hang over the side, all the way down, so that he can peer under the container.
The mouse is trembling, as if fully cognizant that it hasn’t found a permanent freedom from the terrors of The Mess.
“Hi!” he says to it. “Trying to get away, are you? Yeah. I can understand that. I don’t think mice actually like being eaten by snakes. They appreciate it, though. The snakes. You know how it is. Some people like burgers and fries – I bet you do, too. But not our snakes. They like their food live. It gives them the impression that they’re still a part of the outside world.”
Doran’s reminder of the mouse’s potential fates seems to illicit the critter to make a break for it, dashing out from under the container toward the driveway. Doran throws himself down just behind the little animal and scoops it up in his hand. “Gotcha!” He quickly brings his other hand down to create a cage just big enough to hold the terrified little animal. “Sorry, kiddo, but it’s just the way it is. Mice just aren’t the draw that snakes are. You know, I don’t like it either, but it’s only business. So do your best to enjoy the time you have le-Yeowch!”
Reflex jerks Doran’s free hand back and the mouse plummets to the ground. As Doran has a lower center of gravity than most fifteen-year-olds, the fall is not far and immediately upon hitting the asphalt, the littler grey critter is dashing back to the relative safety of the dumpster.
“Right,” Doran says, shaking his hand after looking at the bite mark that the animal carved into his finger. “I should have expected that. I’m bleeding!”
The bite doesn’t hurt much, but the sharpness of it is annoying. He reconsiders his strategy. If the mouse was so quick to bite him once, that meant it would do so again. “You really don’t want to die, do you? You’re a survivor. That’s cool. Sadly, that’s not my choice to make. Those snakes have to eat, and at $4.00 per mouse, you know, we can’t let you get away. I’m not thrilled about it, but that’s the economy for you. Or so my mom says.”
Doran slips off his green employee tee-shirt. September has just barely fallen over the Titus Animal Sanctuary, and he has a long-sleeved tee-shirt under the token advertisement of his employment. If the mouse can’t get to his fingers, then he would have better luck catching it. Again, he leaps onto the dumpster and waits. Only a few minutes pass before the mouse tries to escape the same way as before. The little critter makes it only a few steps before Doran’s shirt lands on its head. Doran is there a moment later, scooping the shirt up with the mouse inside. He unfolds the shirt a bit to give the mouse room to poke its head out. As it stares up at Doran with its deep black eyes, it starts squeaking.
“Nope. Sorry. Time to go back in.” Doran turns toward the building. He envisions the remainder of the mouse’s life, trapped in a cage, without an exercise wheel, without the relative luxury that pet mice enjoy. Then, after a few days or maybe weeks, it would be herded into a small wire cage and taken out to the snakes. And that would be it. That would be the poor critter’s entire life.
“Not the best life, is it?” Doran looks down at the pointed little face with its abundance of twitching whiskers. “So what would you do if you I let you go? How long do you think you’d last out here? You’d probably find your way into our grain supplies and eat that, wouldn’t you? That’d really be a pain to us all. But what if you ran from here? What if you took to the woods and carved a new life for yourself out there?”
Doran hears something heavy hit the wall. It is followed by a muffled scream. He wonders how his mother is getting on with the other mice. If worse comes to worst, they’ll have to let one of the Sanctuary’s barn cats into the place to clear out the mice in the event that they reproduce. He looks back at the mouse wrapped up tightly in his tee-shirt.
“They’ll probably find you anyway.”
The mouse stares back and squeaks.
“But it would be a better life. For however long you manage.” Doran continues across the asphalt and into the grassy area surrounding it. This gives way to a small cove of trees that neither he nor the grounds-keepers ever touch. The trees stretch out from here, and eventually bump against the edges of the Monkey Kingdom. “This is the deal. You run out to the woods, and don’t come near the Mess or anywhere else in the Sanctuary. Ok?”
The mouse doesn’t squeak a reply. Not that Doran is expecting one.
Here, under the canopy of green that the oaks, hickories, and slippery elms create, he lowers his shirt into the undergrowth, and with a few flips of cloth, exposes the mouse into the wild.
The mouse pokes its nose around cautiously, takes several hesitant steps, and then, thinking itself in the clear, dashes forward, where it hides out under a fern.
“Good luck!” Doran quietly calls to it as he retraces his steps across the parking lot and back to the Mess. Opening the door to the building is done with far more caution this time. Letting one mouse go could be excused away, but enabling the escape of more than that would not be in his own best interest. Being one of the two administrators of the massive Sanctuary, his mother ran a tight ship, and when it came to the expenses of the place, Candace had little patience for negligence. His caution is rewarded.
There is another grey mouse just inside the door sniffing at the underside of a chair. Just as he did with the mouse outside, Doran hurls his shirt at this one and surprises it with the weight of the cloth. He then pounces and rolls it up as he did the other one.
“Any luck?” Candace calls to him from across the large, cement-floored room. She is closing the lid of the mouse cage. Lean and sporting long light brown hair that she almost always wears in a bun at the back of her head, Candace wears her 38 years as easily as the tan Titus Sanctuary windbreaker she has on. Her voice is matronly and stern, but without the bossiness that some mothers so easily fall into. Nonetheless, Doran winces. She is too close for him to carry this mouse to the freedom of the other.
“Yeah, I got one,” Doran says, crossing the large room with his shirt firmly in hand.
“Good. Is that the one that ran out when you opened the door?” Candace asks, quietly counting the mice in the cage.
“No. That one was a little too quick for me. Took off to the woods.”
“Pity. Still, only one gone isn’t that bad. Here, drop it in.”
Doran approaches the table with the wire cage on it. A quick glance within tells him that there are at least a couple dozen mice scrambling around on one another.
“Except for that one, did we get them all?”
“Just the one got away. And put your shirt on. If one of the visitors sees you like that, your father or I will get chewed out for unprofessionalism.”
Doran slips on his green Titus Sanctuary staff shirt after a brief check for small deposits uncovers nothing. Mice tended to leave such things everywhere. “Yeah. Yeah, it was the only thing I had. I actually managed to catch the little guy outside once, but he bit me.”
Candace glances at the injury. Blood has spread into several joints of the finger’s neighbors. “Looks bad. Does it hurt?”
“A little. But I think it’s worse than it looks.”
“Better wash it out and put some antibacterial cream on it.”
Doran nods and crosses the room to the sinks. The big one is set above a rinsing basin and is little more than a spigot set into the concrete wall. The other is an elevated metallic basin with both hot and cold water that is far more accessible to people. Doran can’t even begin to count how many meals he has mixed up in this. Popping open a warm stream from the upper basin, he washes his hands. Grabbing one of the cloth towels from above the sinks, he dries his hands.
“Let me see it,” Candace says, grabbing his hand. She flips the hand over and pokes and prods at it. There is some pain, but it isn’t awful. The bite swells with blood, but it is a slow process. “Good. It seems to be coagulating already. I wish I still healed as well as you. But once you hit thirty, the metabolism slows down, you stop shrugging off injuries and things all get a little harder.”
“Stop exaggerating, mom, your metabolism hasn’t slowed down at all.”
Candace smiles at her son. “You’re a liar and a thief.”
“I’m no thief,” Doran dutifully replies before putting his own twist on the adage. “That heart was stolen by dad, not me.”
“I can’t deny that. But who’s been my little man since then?” And with that, she wraps her arms around her son and kisses his cheek. Doran rolls his eyes at his mother and pulls away. “You may not like being hugged now, but trust me, boy, one day, you’ll be wishing you could hug the world.”
“Maybe,” Doran says, sidling over to the first-aid box hanging on the wall. Just about every room in the Sanctuary has one of these. No matter what precautions the staff took, accidents found their way into the lives of animals far more readily than any would like, and once the initial damage was done, it safety was about minimizing the fallout. Doran removes a bottle of topical ointment and spreads a dab of it over his finger.
“Band-aid,” Candace says as she busies herself with the cleaning of several feed buckets. Now that the evening feeding of the animals was all done, clean-up would take a while – not just for Candace here in the Mess, but for the other staff in other feeding stations spread across the massive compound.
“Mom, it’s just about stopped bleeding already. The thing will be fine in less than a day.”
“Fine,” Doran says, sighing at his mother’s tone. It wasn’t a shout, nor even a scream. If he were to describe it, it was more of a command that inspired utter obedience. It was the kind of tone that would brook no opposition, and Doran has enough experience with it that trying to worm his way past it was as futile as an attempt to ride a tapir. Cute they may be with their elephant-like noses, but they could buck with the passion of a rodeo bronco. With a sigh, Doran relents.
He makes a point to grab the smallest spot pasty that he can find. Doran had seen people who made a point to overstress every little problem. Hypochondriacs, he thought, recalling the name from somewhere. If he were a hypochondriac, he would probably smother his hand in ointment, slap on the biggest bandage he could find, and make an appointment with the doctor for rabies tests. Such people would then proceed to go around and show off the bandage and use it as a starter to a conversation that would include every ailment – real or imagined – that Web MD told them they had. Doran could never understand people like this. Though he was still only 15 years old, he understood that reality was very often a reflection of what happened in the mind. “So what happened here, anyway?”
Candace is scrubbing the bins at the lower of the two basins. “I wasn’t watching where I was going and ran into the mouse cage.”
“Let me guess, you were trying to avoid the stack of feed here.” Doran is referring to the large pile of grain sacks dominating the middle of the room. There is a wooden pallet set out on the concrete floor of the room, with about two dozen 50 lb. bags on it. Some are pellets for small animals, some are the meat-like pellets for omnivores, and others are mixed creations containing molasses corn, and a variety of grains. “This is a hazard just waiting to happen. Why is it here and not the warehouse?”
“Because we’re getting a shipment of hay tomorrow. We need the room for now.”
Doran shrugs at this just as a ringtone goes off. Doran’s mobile phone, an outdated flip phone that went out of fashion two years prior, is flashing the name of his friend, Mo Spencer. Doran flips it open and wedges it between his ear and shoulder. “Hey.”
“Hey, buddy!” Mo says, his deep voice chipper. “You got a couple hours to kick the ball around? I want to work on my shooting. Tryouts are on Tuesday, and I want to be top notch for them.”
“You still think you can make varsity, don’t you?” Doran asks his friend as he drops the paper stubs from the bandage into a flip-top garbage.
“There have been freshmen who done so before.”
“And you think you’ll be the next freshman soccer star, right?”
“I might. If you come over!” Mo says patiently enunciating each word of the latter sentence.
“Let me check.” Doran lowers the phone from his ear. “Mom…?”
“Mo?” Candace asks.
“Remind him that he’s got breakfast duty tomorrow.”
“It’s a school day. We don’t have breakfast duties on school days. Mind if I go over and help him become a better scorer?”
“As long as it’s soccer we’re talking about.”
“Mom!” Doran says, genuinely aghast that his mother would sink to such a low level. “What’s wrong with you, woman?”
Candace laughs as Doran tries to pretend that she hadn’t even implied romantic liaisons. She wasn’t allowed to talk like that. She was his mother. The thought of having a conversation with her about such things – romantic things – just felt wrong.
“Yeah. I’ll be biking over. The net all set up?”
“Won’t come down ‘til the season’s done, bro. See you then.”
“So are we good here?” Doran asks his mother.
Candace switches off the water and dries her hands on a towel. “Let me see your hand.”
“Seriously? You don’t trust me?”
“I do. But I also know you think you’re too good for a Band-Aid. Show me, mister.”
Doran crosses the room and holds up his hand. Candace nods and turns her cheek to her son. Dutifully, he kisses it and finds himself the spontaneous object of a motherly hug. He sighs and lets it happen. Then, once his shoulders free up, he dashes out the door.
There’s a small worn trail in the grass beside the driveway to the Sanctuary. It is on this that Doran makes the walk to and from the Titus house every day. Sometimes he rides his bike, but usually finds the walk to be a soothing break between life in the house and life in the Sanctuary. It gives him the chance to smell the foliage and taste the air. When he has feeding duties it can often be dark both for breakfast and for dinner, and the walk helps him combat sleepiness and to plan out what’s happening. The walk, all 400 meters of it from the house, give him the chance to recall any specific orders regarding the feeding. Having well over a hundred different species of animals at the Sanctuary often makes this a major task. The place is large enough to employ dozens of caretakers, but Doran is family. If he doesn’t have time for the animals, then why should others? Such a mantra is an important lesson instilled in him by his parents. It not only guides their roles as leaders of the facility, but also helps to define the lengths they will go towards the care of their animals.
The Titus house is a small two-story building connected to a short driveway near the foot of the Sanctuary’s entrance. White with blue shutters, it’s situated next to a small barn whose lower level has been converted into a two car garage. The upper level – the loft – has been segregated into two separate rooms: a private room for Doran to hang out in, and a spare storage area for the Sanctuary. As Doran dashes up the stairs of the barn to his loft, he itemizes the papers and cleaning supplies. Spare feed never finds its way here, but other non-perishable essentials, like these, always migrate up here. Doran passes these supplies and lifts the ancient latch to his room. He slips off his green staff shirt and replaces it with red tee-shirt, which he slips on over his long-sleeve.
Less than a minute later, he’s walking his bike out of the garage and fastening his helmet. Once upon a time, in the glory days of his youth, before the turn of the millennial clock, he was actually allowed to ride on the road without a helmet. But those days were long gone, and the paranoia of the general American populace started enacting more and more rules regarding proper safety. While Doran didn’t agree with the regulation of such safety precautions, he did agree with the general concept.
Was safety and well-being not a battle that he and his family fought every single day at the Sanctuary? Not just the animals, either. There were also the visitors. Each year, several hundred thousand tourists – local and far-ranging – found their way to the Sanctuary, and the Tituses had to ensure that beast and man all stayed appropriately far away from one another.
Doran crosses the small highway to ride with traffic back towards Capaldi. A small town of ten thousand people on a good day – when the local college is in session, and a good number of tourists are overnighting at the various lodges in the Sanctuary – Capaldi was only on a map because of Founder’s Industries. Founder’s employed roughly half the town in their various plants: the Weapons Manufacturing and Development facility, the Fertilizer Plant, and a pseudo-startup called Cyberocity. What isn’t dominated by industry are made up in commerce, with a number of strip malls, small local businesses, and a very simple main street whose aesthetics haven’t changed much in the past thirty years. Or so his parents say. Doran hasn’t been alive quite that long.
Mo’s apartment complex is about two miles west of downtown. As he travels, Doran is not thinking about safety. Instead, he finds himself considering the mouse he released. Chances are good that he will never see the little grey critter again, but he is not bothered by that. He wonders what kind of a life the thing will find for itself, now that it’s no doubt far, far away from its original habitat.
Doran wonders what it would be like to live in such exile. All he has ever known his whole life is Capaldi. With a life that is centered on the many many animals of the Sanctuary, there is never time for vacation. When he or his family have time to take short trips, the time away brings no rest – the family is always too preoccupied with what’s happening back home. There have been day trips, of course. Some trips even last a little longer, like the trip to New York, and to Milwaukee, where he got to stay overnight in a hotel. The hotel, itself, was not very impressive, but the novelty of being away from the animals was pretty cool. He wonders what it would be like to live in an actual city, far away from the cornfields and strip malls of the country here. Even Capaldi seemed so massive and foreign to him. And this is a place that he has been visiting for years, to see friends, to play sports, to see movies, to dine out, to go to school, and to partake in county fairs, holiday cheer, and just everyday shopping.
The twilight traffic isn’t bad at all, and he’s making good time. The ride to town is only about five miles – seven with the additional two miles to Mo’s home. A good bit of exercise, but not enough to build up much sweat. There are only two traffic lights in the first three miles, and it is just as he passes through the second light that he hears something behind him.
A car, turning his direction from the opposite left side, guns its engine to complete the turn before the oncoming SUV can ride across the intersection. Either the driver is unexperienced with the vehicle or else is distracted, because the car spins out from the opposing oncoming traffic and skids out behind Doran. The young man turns his head back and sees the speeding black vehicle bearing down on him. Doran has only a moment to consider escape, but there is nowhere to go.
The car’s collision with it turns the bike into a pile of crushed and bent bars and flying rubber. As it hits the bike, the car jerks to the right. It bounces off the railing and hurtles up across the ditch. It careens into a tree with a loud thud of forty-thousand dollars’ worth of heartbreak.