The basement was as far away as the darkest corner of the universe. It was a world of nightmares, of prisoners, and hidden dangers. Little five-year old Sam had to take the elevator all the way from the eleventh floor to the second basement level. During the long ride down, he held on to the cold and sticky handrails inside the ancient, rattling contraption. Sam almost choked on layers of stale cigarette smoke. The air felt ever dustier and older, reeking of mildew and decay, as if an entire mountain of his grandma’s oldest shoes was stacked up somewhere behind a wall panel.
When the elevator finally stopped with a jolt, the doors opened into a cold, barely-illuminated space. A large corrugated iron door across the hallway loomed over Sam. It was covered in layer upon layer of scratches. Sam walked towards it. He pulled with all his might. The door was so heavy, his arms felt as if they were wrestling with a guardian of the underworld. Sam’s little biceps straining, he was able to open the door just enough to slip through.
Clang. The door shut behind him.
Next came darkness so complete, it seemed to breathe on its own. Deep, resounding breaths. Not like Darth Vader. More like a swamp thing from the ages. Brooding, foul, camouflaged, and ready to snatch him up in an instant.
Sam’s mind conjured up threats so frightful, he could feel his heartbeat vibrating all the way from his toes to the tingling hair on his scalp. He forced his trembling fingers to feel along the wall and, finally, just as he thought the creatures of his imagination will grab and devour him, he found the light switch. Darkness receded and revealed a seemingly endless corridor with hundreds of doors leading away from it. The walls were a dirty yellow. Some parts even greenish-brown with age. Water dripped from the ceiling, adding the stink of dampness and structural decay to the mix.
Sam’s legs started to shake uncontrollably. He didn’t want to go on. But he had to. He was on a mission. And without him, innocent lives would be lost.
He forced himself to take a first step. A second. A third… The lights went out. Sam lunged towards where he had seen the next light switch on the wall. Breathing hard from the sudden surge of adrenalin, he hit it on the first try.
He pushed on. Passing door after door, Sam kept his eyes everywhere at once. He turned around every few seconds lest giant spiders or slimy monsters sneak up on him. Whilst pirouetting along the corridor and hitting a switch every minute to keep the lights from going out again, Sam also managed to check the dark corners in turn-offs as well as behind open doors.
And he found them… the cages… one by one, just how he had heard the maintenance man describe them to his dad.
Thankfully, the first cage was empty. So was the second. Sam took them in his tiny hands and smashed them against the wall with all the strength he could muster, until they splintered into a thousand pieces. When he came upon the third cage, he saw movement inside. Scared and intrigued at the same time, Sam went closer and saw a ball of fur, the size of a golf ball. Dark eyes gazed at Sam with a glimmer of the same fear he felt. He lifted the cage up gently. The tiny, light brown body, on four delicate, pink legs scuttled as far away from him as the bars of the cage allowed. Whiskers quivered. Wide-open button eyes fixed him with an intense stare.
“Hello there,” Sam said to the little mouse. “I’ll take care of you. I’ll get you out of here. Don’t you worry.”
As Sam turned around towards the exit, the lights went off again, reminding him of where he was. Dragons of terror swooped into his heart. Sam barely managed to not race off in a blind panic. Again, his fingers searched for the nearest switch. He scraped his knuckles, banged his elbow, and almost fell over parts of the broken cages. But he soon felt a square of hard plastic on the wall, instead of a rough, plastered surface.
When the lights came back on, Sam hit the ground running. The hallway seemed to stretch and grow before him as if he was in a nightmare with the exit forever out of reach no matter how fast he ran. When he did reach the iron door after what felt like an eternity, Sam grabbed the door handle with one hand and held the cage tight to his chest with the other. Then, he put his shoulder into it, focusing all his strength.
The lights went out once more just as the door surrendered to Sam’s weight and creaked open. He leapt into the hallway. His heart hammered against the walls of his chest and the bars of the cage, which he still hung on to for dear life. The mouse now looked even more terrified.
The elevator seemed to take ages to get down to them. Sam kept turning around, half expecting to see that imagined giant spider come to life after all, to prevent the little rodent and him from leaving her dark lair. Thankfully, no monolithic arachnids appeared. The elevator arrived. Sam jumped in, pushed the button for the eleventh floor, and breathed out deeply for the first time since he had set out on his journey.
Arriving at his floor, sunshine flooding through large hallway windows, Sam let himself into his family’s apartment, his new friend and protégé still firmly secured under his arm.
They spent the whole afternoon together, during which Sam tried to convince the little mouse with cheese, tuna, salad, and even vanilla pudding, that he had the best intentions. After a while, he played Beethoven on the stereo. When that didn’t work either, he tried Rihanna. The mouse did seem to relax slightly when Sam played some tunes from the Backstreet Boys. Mostly though, it huddled in a corner of the cage. Frozen. Listening intently. His eyes never leaving Sam’s.
“What’ve you got there?” Sam’s dad asked when he got home from work.
“It’s my new friend, Dad. His name is Mouse. I saved him from that awful basement downstairs and we’re going to look out for each other from now on.”
Sam’s dad eyed the fear-stricken rodent. Then he came closer and sat down next to Sam on the floor. “So you went down there all on your own?”
“Yes, I did Dad. It was horrible.”
“Well, I’m not sure the maintenance guy is going to be happy when he finds out you interfered with his mouse project. We’ll try and keep it a secret. Don’t go down there again though, ok?”
“But Dad,” Sam said, “It’s not a project. He is putting mice in prison. Look how scared Mouse is.”
“That’s the thing though Sam. Have a look. Does Mouse look happy to you, huddled in the corner of his cage like that?”
“Not really.” Sam had to admit. “But he is going to be my best friend and I’m going to take good care of him.”
“I believe you will,” his dad said, “but he is a wild mouse, used to take care of himself. If you truly want to do something good for him, then we should release him somewhere nice. Think about it, ok? We can talk more in the morning.”
Sam’s dad left his son’s room. Sam watched him go, then focused his attention back on Mouse. Sam felt lost, unsure of what to do. He wanted to do the right thing like the heroes of his adventure stories. The Avengers would never have kept anyone with them against their will. Sam kept thinking. He brought Mouse ever more delicious presents. He even offered to share a late-night chocolate Mars bar with him. But Mouse never moved.
In the morning, Sam and his dad took Mouse for a ride. Passing by in their car, they looked at streets, meadows, farms, and woods, wondering where their little survivor would be most happy. Had Sam separated Mouse from his family? Had he divorced a cute Mrs. Mouse from her husband by uprooting him from the cellar? Or did Mouse have a boyfriend or even husband? Could mice be gay, too? Was Mouse even male? Sam had assigned him a name and gender, but who knew…
For a moment Sam and his dad had considered just letting Mouse out in the cellar. But they didn’t want him captured again. They wanted to give him the best possible chance to start over and roam free.
After an hour of scouring the neighborhood, they stopped in the fields surrounding their town. Sam gently placed the cage on the ground. Since he had found him, Mouse had never moved from his chosen corner. If not for his constant, slight quivering, he could have easily been mistaken for a toy or the world’s smallest statue. Sam opened the cage door. He quietly retreated a few feet, waiting for Mouse to make his move. Sam’s dad stood by silently.
Mouse remained rooted to the spot. What was going through his head? Did he fear they were luring him into a trap? Was the sudden promise of freedom just as terrifying as being captured had been? Or did he sniff for familiar scents and, finding none, wondered if they would bring him back to familiar grounds if he just waited long enough?
After a while, Sam could see Mouse stirring. It was almost imperceptible, a twitch of his hind legs, a slight swivel of his ears, a tremor rippling through the fur on his back. Seconds later, Mouse shot out of his cage like an Olympic sprinter on steroids. One moment he was there. The next he was gone. No stirring underbrush. No sound. Nothing. Just gone.
Sam hugged his dad’s left leg like a mini-octopus hanging on to a coral block for dear life to avoid getting lost in ripping current. Whilst hanging on, he cried a little.
Sam was sure Mouse’s adrenalin was pumping as he ran through dense jungles of grass. He was running towards the edge of the woods in the distance, with their promise of acorns and berries. Most likely, he was tearing through fallen leaves on the way, breaking the sound barrier as he went through them, scattering them in all directions, thus releasing the strong scents of fertile earth and decomposing leaves. Each leaf a memory from the tree it once belonged to. It was a good life Mouse was hurrying to. Or maybe it wasn’t. In the grander scheme of things, it didn’t matter. What was important was he was free again and able to make his own choices.
Photo by André Sananoon Unsplash