Beyond the Cover of the Wall
Soren woke a few hours later from a dreamless slumber. His eyes, slightly hazy, focused with more clarity with each blink. His brothers were still sound asleep, breathing peacefully in their beds. Soren rolled over onto his back and stretched. He could feel every muscle in his body constrict and release as he arched his back and pulled his arms down from over his head. He sat up and glanced around. No sign of Brady. [Typical.]
Soren stood and grasped his brothers’ shoulders, giving them a gentle shake awake. “Hey bobbins. Time to get up,” he said gently. Rey and Dorian both moaned and tried rolling over further into the covers, but Soren had seen this before and it wasn’t going to work.
Doing the only thing he knew how to do, he walked to the side of the bed and deliberately, but gently, fell forward onto his brothers. He caught himself with his arms before completely smothering them. They cried out in surprise, which was followed immediately by reluctant moans and smiles.
“No Soren!” Rey muttered sleepily. “Just a little longer.” Soren grabbed the top of the blankets and rolled, pulling them off of his brothers while simultaneously rolling himself in the blanket.
“Nooooo!” Dorian curled in tighter to himself, laughing at the sight of his brother rolled up in the blanket. “It’s cold!” Soren untangled himself from the blankets and tugged at his brothers’ ankles.
“None of that. We’ve got important work to do, remember? We’ll stretch and get going. You want to still want to go borrowing tonight, don’t you?” Soren’s request was met with a charged silence. It was obvious they wanted to go while also maintaining the warmth of their beds. They yielded and sat up, stretching as big as they could before putting on their shoes and stretching. Soren guided them through each stretch until he was satisfied they were limber enough for their trip. They grabbed their borrowing bags and headed off into the walls, but not before Soren took the two mice pelts and wrapped his brothers in them.
Going out was dangerous and being seen was even more so. It was a precaution to ensure the secrecy of the borrowers. If they were spotted, which was entirely unlikely, hopefully the human would simply think they had mice. Soren reminded himself he needed to teach them about mousetraps and how to get around them.
Soren nodded reassuringly before leading the way into the labyrinth of walls before them. Rey smiled nervously back while Dorian beamed with determination. Soren couldn’t help but, in this moment, remember his first time outside the walls with his father.
A stiff silence followed them as Soren guided them through the walls. There was an anticipation and nervousness clinging to them which every step intensified. Soren felt a hollowness pumping in the center of his heart as if to remind him that his brothers were relying on him and him alone to succeed.
Soren shook his thoughts from his head. He couldn’t think about Brady’s failures or the long-term goals. He had to think about the here and now. He squeezed through the boards, making sure his brothers were right behind him, before making the final trek around the wall to the electrical cover.
Soren stood at the wall’s edge, the beams of light illuminating his hazel eyes. He took in a deep breath to calm his nerves as he summoned the words, the same words, his father spoke to him before his first borrowing trip. He turned toward his brothers and knelt, beckoning them forward to his side. He grasped their arms and looked them in the eyes.
“Are you ready?” he asked. Dorian and Rey nodded, albeit stiffly. “It’s okay to be nervous and scared. Remember?”
“Rely on our instincts. Turn nerves into strength,” replied Dorian. Soren nodded before gripping his brothers’ arms just a little tighter.
“There’s something else,” he said. “I need you two to promise me something no matter what.” Slightly alarmed, his brothers nodded.
“The apartment should be empty. I’ve had my eyes on this place for a while and I checked it out earlier. Everything should go smoothly. Still, anything can happen. The human may come back early. They may still be in the apartment. Any number of things. When we’re out there, I need you to listen to everything I tell you to do without question.”
“We can do that,” piped up Rey.
Soren paused to look his brothers’ eyes. “This means everything I tell you to do. If I say hide, you hide in the safest place you can see immediately. If I say run, you run as fast as you can back to this place here. If I say leave me, you have to listen to me and run back here. Do you understand?” His brothers’ eyes filled with panic.
“No,” Soren interrupted his brother. “I have more experience than both of you. I know what to do in an emergency, most of them anyway. When we’re out there, you have to trust me. Will you trust me?”
The boys were quiet for a moment longer before nodding. “Yes.” Soren smiled.
“This is going to be fun and it is exciting. I don’t think anything is going to happen, but just in case I have to lay these ground rules.” Soren stood and readjusted his pack and his hook. “Alright, let’s go borrowing.”
Soren pressed his ear against the electrical cover and listened while Rey and Dorian watched intensely. It was clear their focus was at maximum levels. He listened closely. There was the hum of the refrigerator, which was overpowering, but Soren was satisfied for the moment. He gestured to the door.
“Want to listen?” he asked. They glanced to one another first before stepping beside Soren and pressing their ears to the cover.
“I don’t hear anything other than that hum,” said Rey, keeping his voice quiet like Soren had taught them. Soren nodded approvingly.
“This cover comes out behind the fridge. We’ll have to go out to see what we can find.” With that, Soren stepped to the side and opened the cover. “There’s another entrance that comes out beside the kitchen table, but that’s only for emergencies.”
Soren stepped through the cover, brothers at his heels, and crouch-walked until he reached the side counter. He listened again. Silence. He straightened and pointed in a broad, sweeping motion, to the kitchen.
“This is the human kitchen. If you’re looking for food, this is usually the best place to look. This human, however, tends to keep a lot of dried goods in that side room over there. Why do we look for dried foods?” asked Soren expectantly.
“It’s easier to store than fresh,” replied Dorian.
“Right. Humans also keep dried food in those cabinets. Why don’t we just put a line from here to there? It would be easier,” questioned Soren.
“Because a human could find it?” asked Rey, partially unsure of his answer.
“Right again. Now, to get to the side room, we have to run along the walls here, cross by the couch, and slide under the door. Okay? Don’t worry. We’ll take it nice and slow,” Soren said with a reassuring smile. Jittery, his brothers smiled back.
Soren waited for his brothers’ attention before taking a deep, calming breath and stepping out to instantly duck under the cabinet ledge. He reached around the corner and signaled his brothers to follow. They were on his heels in an instant. Carefully, he guided them around the side of the room, along the wall by the kitchen table, and quickly darted across to the couch.
Each step of the way, Soren made sure they practiced good habits – checking all directions, listening, staying low. The next move was longer, but only by a little. Soren could hear his heart pounding in his ears. A quick glance confirmed that his brothers were just as nervous as he felt; the main difference being they looked jittery and scared.
Soren smiled warmly before reaching over and giving both of them a quick tap on the shoulder. It seemed to be the nudge they needed. The three of them darted from the relative safety of the couch to the small gap beneath the door. Soren threw his bag onto the ground and laid on his front before sliding under the door. Dorian and Rey both followed, not half a fluid as Soren was when removing their borrowing bags and sliding under the door.
They were met with a much smaller room than the living area. It was like the back room they had practiced in for the month leading to this moment, except it was filled with numerous strangely shaped objects. Some were round with long sticks attached. Some were black and white rectangles. Some looked like big black boxes with netting across the front. Dorian and Rey both seemed to shrink and cling closer together after surveying the room.
Most importantly, the ground was littered with partially empty and opened chip bags and plenty of small trinkets the boys could choose from. Soren quickly checked the corners and the shadows. Nothing. It was quiet. [Today’s a good day.]
Relaxing slightly, Soren slung his bag back over his shoulder and headed for the nearest bag.
“Remember, don’t take what the human may notice. Let’s get some chips, then we’ll look around. Be sure to always stay in eyesight of me if you want to explore, okay?” said Soren. Dorian and Rey, daring not to leave their brother’s side, eagerly walked on either side of him. Dorian and Rey stared at the bag, eyes wide, as the opening was nearly double their height.
“Why do the humans have to be so big?” asked Rey rhetorically.
“That’s the greatest question of them all,” sighed Soren before ducking into the bag. He crouched and tested the staleness of the chips by bending them. Satisfied with their freshness, he began placing them into his bag. After gathering four or so, he stepped out and motioned for his brothers to go in and gather some for themselves.
Dorian ducked inside and began placing fragments of chip into his bag. “How can you tell the good from the bad?” He asked.
“Depends on the chip, but usually the quicker they snap in half, the fresher it is,” replied Soren. After filling their packs, they spent some time walking about the room. Rey and Dorian had dozens of questions on their mind, and Soren tried to answer them all – for what he knew anyway. Soren glanced around the room, noticing the volume of partially eaten chip bags. [This is probably why the mice came in the first place.]
While borrowing, both brothers selected a trinket which they believed the human would not miss. One of them being a thick piece of plastic which was rounded on one side and pointed on the other. It was a pearly blue color and it could fit on the wall or as a shield with the right holes. The other found a hard-plastic cylindrical piece. It was black and had strange symbols on it. It was tall in the middle and had curved edges which flattened out. Rey decided to wear it as a helmet.
Their borrowings successfully secured in their bags, they made the trek back across the room and under the door. They made it to the couch and back along the wall without incident. It wasn’t until they rounded the final corner and were within eyeline of the electrical cover that they heard something.
The sound of jingling keys. Both Rey and Dorian froze in their tracks. Even from behind the safety of the refrigerator, they began trembling in their boots. Soren felt his heart jump into his throat and his body tense. He forced himself to take a breath as to maintain the attention of his tagalongs. Soren, thinking quickly, pulled at their arms and toward the electrical cover.
“It’s okay. The human can’t see us from here,” Soren reaffirmed. “Still, we need to go.” Rey and Dorian nodded, allowing Soren to pull them inside the safety of the wall cover. A smile spread across their faces.
“We… we did it! We just finished our first borrowing trip!” Dorian and Rey cheered, jumping into a series of shoulder shakes and fist bumps. Soren let them have their moment before pulling them into an embrace.
“You’re official borrowers now. What do you think of that, bobbins?” Soren reached up past the mouse skin hoods and ruffled his brothers’ hair. Their celebration was brief, but the meaningful looks they gave one another meant the world. What he wouldn’t give to see the look in his father’s eye, knowing he helped train his brothers in their first borrowing trip. “I’m so proud of you two,” muttered Soren.
They stayed embraced for another few minutes before beginning the trek back to camp. Soren led the way and listened as Rey and Dorian talked about what they thought was the strangest and what they were going to do with their borrowings. It wasn’t until they were almost back to their camp when Soren heard Rey’s soft, kind voice call out his name.
“Yes Rey?” he replied.
“We… well… we were wondering… have you ever, you know, seen a human up close?” asked Rey. Soren stopped in his tracks for only half a moment before turning and walking backwards until he slowed to a stop.
“I’ve been pretty close a few times,” he replied. “It’s definitely not something you want to take lightly. Humans can be completely unaware, but some of them are very smart. You have to always be thinking ahead.”
“So, you’ve never been seen?” asked Dorian. Soren shook his head.
“No; at least, not that I know of,” he said. Soren felt his chest tighten as he thought about what his father told him about his encounters with humans. “Just remember, if you are seen, you can’t freeze.”
“What if we’re… you know, caught? What do we do?” asked Rey.
“We stay quiet. Like I said, humans can be pretty oblivious. They’re bound to think we’re not as smart as we are as long as we don’t speak to them. If something doesn’t happen instantly, they may try and turn you into a pet. If that happens, bide your time and don’t let them know you understand,” replied Soren. He remembered his father telling him about a cousin of his who accidentally spoke to a human. Needless to say, it didn’t end well. Thankfully, the secret of the borrowers was kept.
“We won’t say a word,” promised Dorian. Soren snapped out of his trance and let his lips turn up into a partial grin.
“You’d better not get caught then. Come’ere! RAWR!” Dorian and Rey shrieked and sprinted past Soren toward their camp, being chased the whole way there. Soren had to admit the trip had gone much smoother than he thought. The timing couldn’t have been better and what they borrowed would easily last them a few days.
When they arrived back at camp, after a vigorous wrestling match between the brothers, Dorian and Rey displayed their borrowings to their father who, for the first time in a long while, was back at camp. Brady, their father, seemed mildly impressed at their borrowings, but kept his complements to a minimum. Brady even had the audacity to mention that the entire trip should have brought back more food for their stores, which brought a distant hint of disapproval and sadness to the young borrowers’ eyes. His lack of complete praise for his two boys was enough to churn Soren’s insides.
[Figures. I know you couldn’t do better.] Thought Soren bitterly as he stored their food. “Okay. Let’s get you two some rest. Stretch, change, and lay down,” instructed Soren. Within a few minutes, the brothers were tucked snuggly under their blankets awaiting Soren’s arrival.
On days or nights when Soren went borrowing, he, without fail, would make sure to sit with his brothers until they fell asleep. He would sit, back against the baseboard, and let Dorian and Rey lay on him. Then, much like their mother, Soren would hum the melancholy melody of Soren’s father, Aaron, until they fell asleep.
Soren’s eyes lulled as he leaned back and hummed. Dorian and Rey were already fast asleep and curled into the crooks of his arms. As Soren fell into a restful slumber, he made a mental note to start laying out the thread to the different rooms. If his brothers were going to borrow, they needed to know how to get around the apartments.