Editor’s note: this serial short story was published monthly over the course of a year as an experimental community endeavor. Read the first volume here.
Chapter One: Happy Birthday, Max!
By Gavin Dahl
“Please tell me they got Cheetos again.”
Max isn’t necessarily supposed to, you know, eat Cheetos. But the lighting is right because it’s a full moon, and it’s his birthday. He knows a guy whose cousin’s neighbor is friends with a former roommate of the teenage bear who accidentally electrocuted himself downtown. That punk bear’s name was Phatty.
“Don’t be like Phatty. You got this Max.”
A two-legged student freed Max on his birthday so while it might seem cool that he’s a liberated middle school mouse, he’s been struggling to avoid starvation for an entire year now. The biggest leftovers mailbox on wheels in this neighborhood gets used by a lot of two-legged families. It’s light green with a black lid and behind a high square fence so those greaser teenage bears who live on the edge of town won’t keep causing such a fuss, getting themselves snatched or worse. The lid is plastic and hinges at one side to open and close with no lock. It’s too big for Max, even with help, to budge. But it’s bent just enough for him to squeeze inside. Max crouches on the decaying fence beam, singing himself the happy birthday song, psyching himself up.
“And many more!”
He plunges down and makes it to an abandoned scrap of carpet, where he can scan the leftovers.
“Yes! What do we have here? Why, it’s a Cheetos bag, peeking out from underneath a sideways paper bag, same side of the leftovers mailbox as last time! I’m getting better with age.”
He starts to use his tiny paws to shovel Cheetos dust into his mouth kernel by kernel, when he notices, too late to stop himself, that the pile of dust inside the Cheetos bag is red, not orange. Max sneezes Flaming Hot and knocks himself down from his precarious perch onto a loosely tied-off trash bag full of cat litter. He shudders. The smell of housecat waste is such a gross reminder of his girlfriend’s grisly murder the week the last snow melted. Feral cats bury their filth, at least.
“Yuck! Cats are such an invasive species! Ok. Ok. Ok. Easy Max. You got this.”
He is precariously balanced on a lumpy sack of stink and ready to get headed back before the sprinklers rotate and start blasting his most convenient path to his latest crash spot. Max jolts up and bounds like Sonic the Hedgehog toward the top of the pile, but he slips, no joke, on a banana peel that should have been tossed in the freaking compost bin and tumbles back toward the floor of the leftovers mailbox.
“Owwwwwwwwwww! Use your stupid two legs to recycle your stupid cans of stupid Le Crotch, you stupid idiots!”
Just like the incident that made his last birthday, the worst day in a year filled with too many bad days, even worse, Max looks down and sees that he has once again sliced his own leg open inside the mouth of a beer can that should have been recycled.
“So careless! How can they call themselves the smartest species when they keep mailing leftover aluminum over and over and over? Stay cool, Max, you got this.”
He takes a different route up the poorly sorted mess and exits the leftovers mailbox. He limps down the closely weed whacked grass line and thinks back to his last leg injury, and the circumstances that caused him to lose his house at the middle school. Liberation is for the birds. He remembers the incomparable joy that is a life of steady meals. A regular feeding schedule, even just the idea that a two-legged might bring food in the morning as the sun comes up, is a constant reminiscence for Max. Enough to keep him going even. Now he just needs to get across the street during a rowdy cruiser ride.
Chapter Two: Round and Round Max Goes
By Kate Phillips
The moon was just starting to peak over the ridgeline as the flashing lights whizzed by Max. Boisterous laughter could be heard as the second pack of mobile, mechanical stars was making its way down the road.
“All I have to do is wait for this pack to pass and I’m good to go”, Max thought to himself.
Having experienced multiple cruiser rides this past summer, Max was weary of crossing too soon. He patiently waited despite the tantalizing aroma of the compost bucket outside the local brewpub.
The group approached slowly. It appeared that this second group was larger than the first and contained more than the standard two-wheeled cruiser. Behind most of the cruisers there were small, wagon-like contraptions carrying teeny humans in them. The imagery reminded Max of a movie he seen last year showcasing an Egyptian queen being carried through a crowd of humans.
The memory stirred his stomach and an enormous growl erupted from his tiny body.
“Ohhhh.. I wish these goons would move faster!!!” Max moaned to himself.
The group finally reached his position, and as luck would have it they decided to stop… right in front of Max.
“You have GOT to be kidding me….”
Max scoped out the situation. Some of the larger two-legged humans were taking their offspring out of the wagons. They seemed non-threatening. They were also taking up a large portion of the road thus blocking traffic. This could work in Max’s favor…
Carefully, Max crept out from his hiding spot along the grassline and made his way to the road. He quickly swung his head left, then right, then left again to ensure no fume-spewing monsters were going to squish him. He had heard too many stories this past year of critters crossing the black tar only to meet their doom.
When the coast was clear, Max took a deep breath and attempted to dart across the street. He barely made it a few feet before the adrenaline wore off and a sharp pain reminded him of the gash on his leg. Fortunately, he made it far enough to regroup under one of the wagons.
Leaning against the wheel, Max took a few deep breaths.
“Okay. Okay. No big deal. It’s just a flesh wound. I’ve been through worse.” Max said in an attempt to keep his spirits high.
He peered out from underneath the wagon and noticed that about half of the group was already gone. They were lining their cruisers up along the fence of the brew pub.
Wanting to get a better look at the situation Max carefully climbed up the spokes of the wheel, dragging his leg behind him. At the top of the wheel he was greeted by a large piece of fabric attached to a metal bar. The metal bar looped to the top of the wagon. “That could be a good vantage point”, Max thought to himself.
He slowly made his way down the cold, metal bar, his leg aching with every step. At the turning point the fabric stopped and opened up to a wide, dark gap that reminded Max of an underground cavern he had seen in a geography textbook. Max’s jaw dropped, stupefied by the vastness of it all.
Suddenly, a great shriek erupted from the darkness, and before Max could react his body was enclosed by warm, little fingers.
Chapter Three: Toddlers and Tigers; Oh My!
By John Colson
Max’s first thought, after his heart stopped buzzing like a bee’s wings and he could think again, was that he needed to get free of these fat little fingers.
“I’ll just bite one of the fingers, that should do it,” he thought.
Unfortunately for Max (but maybe not so unfortunate for the toddler who had grabbed him), Max’s head was encased by warm and slowly tightening flesh, while his lower body and tail stuck out from the small-human’s fist — a very undignified position for any thinking being, whether mouse or dog or chimpanzee.
The shrieks continued, though it was hard to determine if they were from joy, amusement, surprise or fear, and the volume rose after the first one that had burst from the small-human’s mouth when he spotted Max inching down the aluminum tube harnessing his Burley trailer to his dad’s mountain bike.
In any event, Max felt he was in an untenable position — gripped by a young human hundreds of times his size, exposed to possible interference by a much larger human that surely must be lurking nearby (adult humans seemed always to be lurking, unless they were screaming and jumping onto chairs to get away from Max).
And if that larger human did chance to come this way to see what all the shrieking was about, Max was fairly certain the results would not go in his favor. Aside from the kindness done him by the two-legged student who freed him on his birthday, he could not think of a single episode in which human-mouse interactions had been helpful to him.
“Well, this is it,” Max thought disgustedly. “I’m a goner!”
But just then, two things happened — a ginger-colored cat (his name was Tiger) darted out from under the fence that surrounded the brew pub that the full-moon-cruisers had entered, and a large shape loomed out of the semi-darkness around the small-human’s Burley trailer, emitting noises that Max assumed were some form of, “Hey, kid, what the heck is going on?”
As Tiger slipped past the Burley, another large shape appeared beyond the fence, emitting noises of its own that apparently were directed at the cat. Max got the impression that Tiger was trying to escape an unwanted predicament as much as he was (Max, that is).
But then Tiger caught sight of Max’s bottom end and tail, and even worse for Max, caught the scent of a mouse in distress.
Now, cats being the carnivorous predators that they are, Tiger figured dinner was there to be had, if the small-human’s grip could somehow be loosened to permit Max a moment of freedom. The cat started to turn and move toward the burley, forgetting its prior predicament.
At the same time, the first large human approached the Burley, saw what her child had captured, and started shrieking on her own (it was, as you might have guessed, the child’s mother).
What happened next was difficult to make out and all a blur.
The small-human, alarmed by his mom’s shriek, opened his hand and Max bolted in what he hoped was the opposite direction from where he’d last seen the cat. Hampered by his wounded leg, however, he slipped on the slightly blood-smeared aluminum tube and fell to the ground, just as the cat pounced toward Max’s recently vacated perch on the tube.
Meanwhile, the other large shape (another human woman, if you must ask) leapt lightly over the fence, landed near the Burley, and began scolding the cat, which she thought had been making for the child as she had not even seen the mouse.
In the ensuing melee, with the two women arguing about Tiger’s apparent ferocity toward the small-human, the small-human yelling in response to the women’s argument and the cat bewildered by a sudden tornado of noise and human emotion, Max scampered across the street unobserved.
He was headed to another building, where he remembered there once had been a small Mexican-food grocer that kept a very tantalizing and invitingly easy to access dumpster in the back alley.
Chapter Four: Mary’s Iguana
By Collin Szewczyk
The aroma of sautéed veggies and grilled fish assailed Max’s senses. He rounded the corner and skittered into an alley just in time to see a beautiful Hispanic woman lowering a plateful of picked-at food into the garbage.
“One person’s trash is another’s treasure,” Max remembered a wise middle school teacher telling the little ones.
His stomach groaned with hunger. Mice living a sedentary life in captivity tend to get a little pudgy, but those surviving on their own in the wild burn energy at a far greater pace, and need to eat continually.
Max located a length of string running up the brick wall to the side of the “Dumpster,” as they call it, and began to climb. It was tied to a small bell adjacent to the doorway that jingled slightly as he ascended. It was a struggle for him to climb the string, but Max knew he’d be rewarded once he made it to the top. These trash boxes possessed a narrow gap on the top that allowed mice to enter freely, but were far too small for the prying paws of the local bruins.
As he approached the top of the Dumpster, anticipation of a well-deserved meal overwhelmed Max. To his dismay, he spotted Rick and Tongass, two raccoons that live in a cottonwood on Garfield Avenue, out of the corner of his eye. They frequent the alleyways in search of food, and were apparently out on the prowl.
“They won’t leave me a single bite,” Max thought with trepidation. He began to climb more quickly.
“Ring, jingle, ring, jingle,” the bell sang out.
As he neared the edge of the trash container, the screen door swung open hastily, catching Max on the behind and sending him sailing off across the alley and into another trash bin that some inconsiderate soul had left wide open. A man strolled out and gave the diminutive bell a perplexed look, before heading back inside the building.
Max crashed into several cardboard boxes, bounced off an empty milk carton, and rolled to a stop upon a scrap of grimy fabric.
“I was so close!” Max cried. “I’ll never make it all the way back to that delicious food before those trash pandas find it first.”
The little mouse was despondent; fate had provided a fantastic meal, and circumstance took it away just as quickly. He was feeling sorry for himself, when suddenly, Max caught a whiff of something he hadn’t smelled in what seemed like ages … chocolate!
He scurried through a maze of garbage and found a peculiar-looking morsel of food enclosed in a soft metal wrapping with paper crumpled around it. There were words on the paper that looked somewhat familiar.
One of the things Max loved during his time in school was learning to read, though he still didn’t have a firm grasp on all the two-legged creatures’ words.
“I’m unfamiliar with this one,” Max thought. “But let’s give it a try.”
The first letter was an M. That much Max was sure of. The last was an A, he believed. In fact, the word had three As in it.
“Mary’s? Is it something that was made by someone named Mary?” Max wondered. “The rest of the word is funny … iguana?”
He had met an iguana once, and he was very strange. A young woman in a multi-colored T-shirt was walking that iguana character around the park on a leash! Max had the sinking suspicion that the iguana was eying him hungrily, so he didn’t stick around to introduce himself.
“Is chocolate made from iguanas?” he mulled. “That would be gross.”
His thoughts were interrupted by yet another howl of hunger. Max was so famished, he decided he’d eat anything… including Mary’s iguanas.
Taking a nibble, he found that the chocolate iguana wasn’t too bad, and he gobbled it down. With his belly full, Max climbed back up the garbage pile, and pulled himself up to the edge to assess the situation in the alley.
Rick and Tongass were crawling out of the Dumpster, and appeared to have enjoyed Max’s ill-fated feast.
“You even look like thieves,” he said with a giggle.
The two raccoons walked down the alley very slowly. Max thought this was strange, but he was already watching a spider spin its magnificent web, and seemed to have forgotten about his lost meal.
The spider was a brilliant geometrist, and wove angles he’d only imagined in dream. The insect appeared to be bouncing to some unknown rhythm, when Max realized that the sounds weren’t imaginary.
Lights whizzed by the entrance to the alleyway as cyclists honed in on the music like moths to a flame. They were dismounting their cruisers at a building across the street and entering into a world of sound. The bipeds were twirling around to tribal beats and inspiring guitar riffs.
Max had to better understand this “music,” which he believed it was called. It seemed as if he was hearing it for the first time, and he scurried down the alley and across the black tar expanse to investigate.
Chapter Five: The End?
By Will Grandbois
The sun was setting and had barely touched an icy expanse north of an old brick building, anyway, but the music warmed Max.
He knew, too, that the longest night of the year had already passed. His birthdays (the handful he could remember, anyway) always seemed to mark the coldest, quietest part of the year — a time for cozying up in some secret corner.
But the humans seemed keen to defy the season with lights and noise. They were creatures after Max’s own stubbornly adventurous heart. And somehow, after eating that chocolate, the tones emanating from around the corner seemed even more appealing.
But wait… Under a set of wooden steps about halfway down the alley, something red and shiny caught his eye.
An apple, miraculously perfect despite the chill, crouched slightly akimbo as if trying not to be seen. It looked like the ones that had poured from the Mountain months ago, when the granite grandma had spoken for the first time in many mouse lives. Could it be? It seemed to Max that there was a strange, forbidden power to these fruit. He couldn’t resist.
He darted forward, closed his eyes, took the smallest morsel between his teeth and wished…
When he came to himself, Max was still standing in the alley, but something was very different. The ground fell away below him, impossibly far. He was balanced awkwardly on two legs and the apple, so large a moment before, fit comfortably into the palm of his hand. A human hand.
A passerby would have called him a little smaller than average, perhaps, but otherwise he passed perfectly. Well, except for being naked in an alley on a cold winter night.
Luckily, a black plastic bag close to hand proved to contain, among other things, a sweater, a pair of corduroy pants and some sneakers just about his size. So equipped, Max turned back toward the music, which seemed less intimidating with his new, strangely spiraling ears.
It was crowded inside as Max mounted a set of steps and pressed his face to the window. The humans were all decked out in shades of black and silver and gold and sort of writhing to the sounds coming from a series of throats and strange devices on a raised platform at the back fo the room. He couldn’t help but join in.
It was warm inside with all the bodies. More devices — instruments, he thought — hung from the ceiling like icicles. They didn’t melt, but Max did. He melted into the music, swaying and smiling.
A balding man in big glasses who smelled like all the things his parents had ever told him to avoid handed him a drink. A tall, elegant woman in pink and a heavyset bearded man wearing a set of knit stockings that seemed oddly familiar each gave him a knowing wink as they tangoed by.
After a while — it was hard to tell how long — Max began to wear out. He pushed his way out of the press and found himself in another room. A host of human images adorned the walls, but what really caught his eye was the cake and the couch. Stuffing some of the former into his mouth, he made his way to the latter.
A boy and a girl eyed him with interest.
“Hey,” the girl said, “How did you get in?”
“Quit it, Sophie. We’re here. Maybe Steve made an exception for him, too.”
He looked Max in the eye and nodded his head toward a sweet-faced couple slow dancing in the corner.
“My name’s Oscar, and we get to stay up late with my parents because it’s my birthday.”
“Mine, too!” Max exclaimed.
Sophie smiled, and beckoned him to sit down. For a little while, the three of them just sat, perusing the posters and odd instruments on the wall and listening to the sounds of music and merrymaking from the other room.
Then a hush fell, and suddenly everyone was counting down. Oscar and Sophie rushed to the front, and as their father lifted them up for a better view, cheers went up all over town.
And a little mouse snuck out the back door.