Chapter 1: The Deadline nears

Madeline Brisby was happy, probably more than at any other time in her life.

On this late August day, she and her oldest daughter Teresa filled their baskets with wild blackberries from a thicket at the edge of the woods, within which, some 50 feet away, lay the family’s summer home. The two mice’s conversation ranged from their past experiences here and while living at past winter homes close to the nearby farm, to Madeline and their rat friends’ experiences in that strange realm where they’d found Johnathan Brisby, the one who once again made their family complete.

Yes, Madeline Brisby was happy; indeed, how could she not be? Her family was once again whole, now that she had her husband back; and her children were healthy and growing and had bright futures ahead of them. And yet, it was that bright future—hers as well as theirs—that lately had brought to her a degree of disquietude. She was acutely aware of its source, as well as its most likely, even inevitable outcome.

So it was that, for some four or five days, family members had almost completely avoided mentioning what they’d come to call the Deadline—as Teresa now did. It’s not as if it were a forbidden subject; no, far from it. Rather, there’d been many lively discussions, these four weeks past, about what they’d do after it had passed. They’d be embarking on an entirely new life, with new friends, new challenges, new worlds to explore; and they’d already had a taste of it a month ago, serving all the more to make inevitable what would follow the Deadline. Yet, for the most part, Madeline’s contributions to those discussions had been minimal; and more recently, she found herself unable to completely contain this feeling whenever the subject came up, for all she tried to hide it. Her family knew its source as well as she; it had hardly been a secret that out of all of them, she was the one most reluctant to leave her old life behind. There had been no pressure put on her or anyone else; but, though there had been no formal agreement to this effect, the entire family knew implicitly that it would have to be a unanimous decision in the end: all or no one, with everyone deciding as a unit whether to stay or go. The alternative—some staying and some leaving—simply would not be an option.

Now, as mother and daughter headed back home with full berry-laden baskets, Teresa said hesitantly, “Mother…you know that…it’s tomorrow, don’t you?”

“You mean the Deadline? Of course, dear.”

Teresa almost stopped in her tracks, momentarily taken aback by her mother’s casual-sounding reaction. “I thought…we all thought that maybe…”

"That I wouldn’t want to leave. I know, dear. But…isn’t that true of all of us, to some degree?”

Teresa nodded, smiling. “Yes, you’re right. It’s just that…we all knew how much you loved it here. We knew you wouldn’t want to stay if the rest of us wanted to move, but…it just looked to us like it was harder for you.”

“Thank you, Teresa, that’s sweet of you. But your father always said that we have to weigh the pros and cons of every situation. I guess it may have looked as if I were…troubled by the idea of moving to Thorn Valley, but there’s so much I want to experience there, just as much as all of you, that I really can’t see any cons at all. Of course I’ll miss this place, but I absolutely wouldn’t dream—couldn’t dream—of staying on here by myself.”

“I’m glad to hear you say that, Mother. I’ll miss it here, too, but it’s going to be so great for us there.”

“I know it will, dear. But…let’s wait until supper before we discuss it further, all right?”

“Sure.” After a pause Teresa added, “Dad probably already knows, doesn’t he?”

Madeline chuckled to herself. “I’m sure he does. But I think he may be just a little surprised that I’d agree so readily. I can’t wait to see the look on his face.” They both laughed as they continued hauling their goods home.

A short ways upstream, two tiny buckets, now full of water, were being raised from the slow-moving current up to the thick overhanging branch. The one who hauled them up paused to unhook the cords from their handles, coil them up and toss them over his shoulder; then he picked up the buckets and, once he’d made sure he was properly balanced, started making his way back to the bank. It wasn’t the easiest location for filling the buckets, but it did make for water that was clearer and cleaner, with less sediment, especially at times such as now, when there were mouse children—his as well as others—churning up the waters downstream.

Well, Johnathan, it hasn’t been all domestic bliss since you got back, has it? he thought as he hauled the buckets toward their home, some seven feet further downstream. Too bad we don’t have the means to have running water in our home; sure do envy the Rats right now.

Johnathan Brisby thought some more, as he wended his way up the path to the house, about those rats, and their own ties to his family, and about the final decision they’d all be making soon. Then, he saw Martin, his oldest son, at the edge of the bank, at a point where it dropped off sharply a few inches. He was still soaking wet after his swim, lying on his stomach, watching tadpoles and minnows swim by, with one of his arms idly dangling over the side and motioning with his hand over the water’s surface but still quite a ways from touching it.

“Hey, lazybones,” Johnathan said, his tone casual, “feel like expending a little energy and giving me a hand here?”

Martin looked up abruptly, though he didn’t appear startled. “Yeah, okay, Dad.” He got to his feet and took one of the buckets, grunting as he hefted its weight. Johnathan noted with a mixture of awe and pride how much Martin had grown physically these eleven months past, and possibly a little more just in the past month; it was clearly much less effort for him to carry his bucket than it would have then. They continued on together. The task of hauling water was one all of them shared equally, and Johnathan was sure Martin had done less than his share today, but he wasn’t about to lecture him about it; it was too lazy a day for it. A song lyric made its way into his head: “Summertime, and the livin’ is easy…”

“So…” Johnathan said casually, “anything on your mind, son? Something you need to get off your chest?”

“Mmm, no. Nothin’, really.”

Johnathan was sure that Martin actually had plenty on his mind, at least as much as he did himself, but didn’t press the issue. “I was just thinking about the Rats myself; how they don’t have to haul water like we do. Not that they have everything easy, of course; they did rebuild their whole colony from scratch, after all.”

He glanced down at Martin, who looked ready to say something. As they paused a short ways from their front door, they both set their buckets down. “It’s tomorrow, isn’t it?”

“The Deadline? That’s right.”

“Do you think…I don’t know, it looks to me like…Mom’s not on board yet, not completely. I know it’s not like she’s gonna stay behind, but still…”

“Oh, I wouldn’t rule her out. She enjoyed her stay in Thorn Valley as much as you kids, even if she wasn’t there as long. We knew from the beginning that she’d probably miss the old homestead more than the rest of us. But take it from me: she wants what’s best for all of us.”

Martin nodded, smiling. He and his siblings were well aware of the recent changes in their parents. Their love was as strong as ever, and it had been made perhaps ever deeper and more profound. Since the moment they were reunited back on Lahaikshe—when both were conscious—they’d established an empathic link, endowed by the Stone, that powerful object that had influenced their lives in so many ways. It had, in effect, “selected” them, and now their hearts were open books to each other, and—to a lesser extent—their minds as well. They’d made a vow of “no secrets,” but now it was almost redundant, because there was little they could keep from each other now.

Presently Madeline and Teresa came into view with their berry-baskets, followed closely by Timothy and Cynthia, both still damp and wrapped in towels after their swim. As they met, Johnathan and Madeline took a brief moment to embrace and kiss—a habit they’d fallen into whenever they’d been apart for more than ten minutes at a time—after which she and Teresa brought their berries into the house.

Johnathan turned to pick up his water-bucket and saw Martin looking at him with expectancy. He just gave a reassuring smile, nodding slightly. Martin gave a fist-pumping motion and whispered “Yesss!”

“What’s going on?” asked Cynthia, removing her towel to allow her fur to air-dry. Timothy did the same.

“Let’s wait till we’re all sitting down to supper, okay?” Johnathan said, and his two younger children seemed to grasp his meaning as well as Martin. He and Johnathan brought their water-buckets inside.

Less than an hour later, they had all just sat down to supper, and Madeline wasted no time. “Everyone…I know some of you have been concerned about me, and what my decision would be when…the Deadline came. I want to assure you all that I’m completely ‘on board’ with moving to Thorn Valley, and though I will…definitely miss this place, I’m looking forward to this every bit as much as you.”

Everyone expressed their relief—though at this point there was little doubt left—and thanked her with hugs and kisses. For now, none really felt the need or desire to talk about how much they’d miss their creekside home, so the subject of discussion was steered toward the things they wouldn’t miss: the sometimes arduous task of maintaining a steady food supply in the winter, the need to avoid the farm cat Dragon and contact with humans as much as possible…

“…and no more Auntie Shrew…right, Martin?” Cynthia said teasingly, nudging her big brother.

“What are you talking about? Leave me alone,” he replied, sounding only mildly annoyed.

“Don’t tease your brother, Cynthia,” admonished their mother. Out of all of them, only she and Johnathan were aware of the reasons for Martin’s uncharacteristically mild reaction to the subject of their part-time self-appointed guardian and Martin’s long-time nemesis. It had been this way since returning from their trip to Thorn Valley a month ago, and even when the shrew had visited them he’d been remarkably casual about her presence. But they’d promised Martin that they’d leave it to him to decide when to detail those reasons to his siblings, as well as when to actually discuss a particularly vital matter with Auntie Shrew.

They proceeded to discuss the many advantages to living in Thorn Valley, most of which they’d already seen and experienced first-hand. Predator activity had decreased dramatically, beginning the day Arthur’s advance party arrived on the scene over a year ago. Since then, the rats had waged an aggressive campaign to make a large portion of the valley their own and to convey to any creature that would prey upon them that they’d best look elsewhere for easier prey; and so predators had steered clear of the area more and more. There was easier access to a steady food source, with much that grew locally plus the Rats’ own agricultural successes; though of course the Brisby family would put in their fair contribution in tending to the crops and other food-gathering operations. There were the educational opportunities, which the children especially looked forward to resuming, along with furthering the friendships they’d already made among their rat contemporaries. Already they’d gotten the sense that these friendships would prove to be closer than the ones they’d made among the local mice, most notably Janice and Kory’s children—though they wouldn’t admit it to them even if they weren’t already sworn to secrecy about where they’d be moving to. But it was perhaps inevitable: it wasn’t just Johnathan anymore. The entire family was aware of all they held in common with the Rats of NIMH, a kinship made ever stronger with the discovery made four weeks ago of Madeline’s having been effectively “one of them” since she’d first met Johnathan.

Yes, the pros definitely outweighed the cons—as if there were any doubt—and so they began ironing out the finer details of preparing for their departure, and preparing the Rats for their arrival. They couldn’t very well pop up in Thorn Valley cold; Justin would have to be notified so that proper preparations could be carried out, though obviously they’d been expecting the family to make this final decision. In short order the subject of the Stone came up, and how it could be employed in this venture. It hadn’t been used at all since it had returned to Earth Johnathan and those who’d sought him out. It could be easily employed to move goods as well as people, so it was hardly a contest. Likewise, it could be used to make that advance trip to Thorn Valley to give the Rats a proper “warning.” The only real alternative—enlisting the Rats’ help in hauling their belongings by wagon, as they’d done with their own, was quickly agreed upon as imposing upon them, even though they’d likely be perfectly amenable to it. Enlisting the services of their crow friends Jeremy and Beatrice was likewise out of the question, because it was all their belongings making the move as well as themselves; plus, by now, the crows were very well along in raising their own family. They agreed, though, that they should try to get word to them to say goodbye before their departure, though they would have to be somewhat evasive about precisely how they’d be leaving.

All too soon, it was getting late and everyone was starting to yawn; everyone was excited over their plans, though they knew they wouldn’t be making the actual move tomorrow. So the family made ready for bedtime, under some protest from the children.

When the parents were in bed, some discussion continued, Johnathan bringing up the subject of how else the Stone might be employed.

“It occurs to me that we could even spare the Rats the hassle of actually building our new home,” he began as Madeline lay with head firmly against his breastbone. “We could use the Stone to actually dig it out. Why, with its rock-shaping capability, it’d be a…”

He paused, the darkness of the room not deterring him from what he’d just felt from his wife: a pang of something like uneasiness, apprehension. “Maddie, what’s wrong? Why…” Then he realized, placing his hand under her chin. “Wait…I think I understand.” He sighed. “I’m sorry, babe. I know it hasn’t been that long since…that business with Ghormfisk.” Well they both remembered the incident, in which the amulet’s rock-shaping capabilities were last used to create the cylindrical prison in which Madeline and three of their friends almost died.

“Oh, it’s all right, Johnathan,” she murmured. “I suppose I’m being a bit silly…”

“No, you’re not,” he insisted. “If using it that way again would remind you too much of that, then I have no doubt that Arthur and his crew would be only too happy to do the job.”

“Really, darling, it’s all right.” She turned her head upward to face him. “I know I’ll never completely forget what happened, but…I think it’d be nice to use the Stone in that way for something good, something that’ll benefit us, our whole family. Besides…we already used it that way, after we got it back from Ghormfisk.”

“Oh…you mean when we…‘cut it down’…”

“Yes. It wasn’t exactly the same way, but we were able to take what had done us harm and make it harmless. And anyway, I agree that it might be imposing on the Rats the other way.”

In the dark, Johnathan smiled to himself. This forthrightness of hers, so typical of her manner these days, certainly did much to endear her to him all the more. Perhaps she wouldn’t mind at all if the Stone were used to excavate their home. By no means did he doubt her strength, greater than he’d given her credit for, back in the “old days”; nor did he believe that she was no more than a delicate flower to be looked at. And yet…there was still that image, the one that would continue to haunt him for a long time to come, of Madeline lying on the floor of Ghormfisk’s prison, near death from the overpowering heat and little food or water…

He screwed his eyes shut; then opened them, shuddering. “Maddie…believe me, I know, intellectually, that you’d probably handle it just fine. But…just the thought that it might upset you, despite what you’re saying now…” He sighed. “I probably just put my foot in it, didn’t I?”

Madeline chuckled. “Don’t worry, darling. That’s sweet of you, but…let me worry about it, all right?”

“Whatever you say, lady.” Johnathan nuzzled her ear. She purred contentedly, re-settling her head against his chest. Neither wanted to argue the point, to be sure, but Johnathan still couldn’t help but think…then he forced the thought away. There was any number of times, these past four weeks, when he had to remind himself that it wasn’t the old days anymore, that he wasn’t making all the decisions for both of them and that he had to allow her the freedom to choose. As long as we’re alive and in love and all of us a family, he vowed as his eyelids grew heavy, I can accept anything about her. Tomorrow, he was sure, it would all look clearer.

* * *

Philip stepped out of the main entrance to regard this late-summer morning in Thorn Valley. It was still partly cloudy and the air still smelled damp from last night’s brief rain shower. He breathed in deep before walking over to his fellow Guard rat, who acknowledged his relief with a nod, looking ready for a good morning’s sleep.

“Top of the morning, Phil. Another day in paradise.”

“You bet, Walt. Wouldn’t want it any other way.”

“Maybe not, but sometimes—and I wouldn’t want the captain to hear me say this—I almost wish we hadn’t chased all the predators away. It doesn’t make for the most exciting sentry duty, even overnight. Anything to break the monotony, you know?”

Philip fixed Walter with a serious look. “I’d be careful what I wish for. You know there’s always a chance of an owl or bobcat that didn’t get it through its thick skull yet.”

“Hey, you don’t have to tell me. But the last time anything really unusual—”

A sudden flash of light, from a point almost directly in front of the pair, made both of them leap, literally, about two inches. Even as both were prepared for almost anything, their instinctive reactions gave way to the realization that such an event can only mean one thing; and it proved correct as the one whose arrival was heralded by the flash stepped forward boldly, the distinctive and familiar red amulet around his neck.

“Why, it’s Johnathan Brisby!” greeted Philip jovially. “Making a grand entrance, as usual!” Turning to Walter, he quietly added, “Hope that’s unusual enough for you.”

“Great to see you guys.” Johnathan shook the Guard rats’ hands, greeting each by name. Correctly anticipating their visitor’s most immediate request, Walter left to get word to Justin.

In short order, he was there, in his “Sunday best”: white linen shirt and brown-and-indigo vest, the same outfit in which he’d greeted Madeline and the children a month ago. As Justin approached through the arched main entrance, arms spread in greeting and laughing heartily at the sight of his oldest friend, Johnathan got the immediate impression of a Justin who’d had an enormous weight lifted from his shoulders and without a care, or at least especially serious ones.

Justin crouched to embrace Johnathan, each slapping the other’s back. “So, Justin, is this a bad time? If so, I can come back tomorrow…”

The leader of the Rats of NIMH—who by now were increasingly referring to themselves as the Rats of Thorn Valley—laughed heartily. The two had always shared much the same sense of humor; but now, as they came out of their embrace, Justin said to Johnathan, smiling but with an earnest tone, “Johnathan, my friend, these days I’m not sure that’s possible.” He straightened. “That’s not to say bad times are behind us, but things have been going very well for us lately, and we have much to look forward to.” He beckoned Johnathan to follow him inside, where his arrival had already begun attracting attention. “So…what brings you here today, besides the Stone? Though it’s not hard to guess…”

“Yes, it’s been thirty days; and yes, we’ve decided to move here permanently.”

“That’s fantastic, Johnathan!” Justin patted the mouse’s shoulder, almost throwing him off-balance. “You know we’d love to have you.” Johnathan made to thank him, but before he could utter a word, Justin went on: “Now, if you like, we could put you up in the guest quarters you stayed in before, while we set up something more permanent for you; or maybe even make it yours permanently if you like, after we expand it into the adjacent room. Or maybe...”

“…Or maybe something else I had in mind…” began Johnathan.

Justin put a hand to his forehead. “Good Lord, where are my manners? I’m sorry, Johnathan, these past few weeks have been…” Still in the entrance corridor, they paused, and Justin beckoned Johnathan to follow him back outside. After they’d passed Philip and walked out a ways onto the “front lawn,” Justin resumed. “I didn’t want everyone to hear this, but…these past few weeks have been…giddy, just crazy, but in the best, most wonderful way; just as much, I’m sure, as it was with you once, about three years ago.”

Johnathan smiled, nodding; he didn’t need the rest spelled out. “I take it things have been well between you and Isabella.”

“My friend, things couldn’t be better,” Justin replied without hesitation. “All those weeks—months, even, in fact, ever since the Move—I’d thought it was just infatuation. But, long story short, I love her and she loves me. It’s the real thing, Johnathan. And it’s your wife whom I have to thank for giving me the final push, to take the plunge. Yes, I know: it was the situation we’d been in, too, that reminded me that life was too short and I needed to seize the day. But Madeline gave me a lot to think about. I’ll have a lot to say to her when I see her again, but…for now, you can thank her for me, from the bottom of this rat’s heart.” He patted Johnathan’s shoulder again.

“Well, I’m glad we could be of help, Justin. I’m really happy for you both. So…what I had in mind for our quarters. You know, it’s almost ironic, given what you were just telling me…but what we had in mind was something like…what Ages has now.”

“Oh, you mean separate from our colony? No need to explain, my friend. We had already discussed it, Arthur and I, and we think we found the perfect location. Right this way…”

Justin led Johnathan south, following the Wall. In about five minutes they passed the home of Mr. Ages, Johnathan’s oldest friend; and just a little further past it, Justin stopped at a location where it was obvious some excavating had already been going on. A natural ledge rose a foot above Justin’s head, directly above the tunnel already begun. Johnathan could already picture it as suitable for several to sit upon and just chew the fat. Justin directed them closer, past a wide, flat stone that lay directly in front of the tunnel.

“As you can see, Arthur’s already had a crew down here. We knew you’d likely want a home separate from the Rat colony but not too far away, and—would you believe—Ages gave his wholehearted approval for it. I think he’s genuinely looking forward to having you for neighbors.”

“Somehow, I thought he might. Well, might as well give it the once-over.” He ventured into the excavation to find that a wide space had already been dug, one which he could already imagine as a future living room. Back outside, he climbed up onto the ledge and gazed back and forth, pleased with the view. There was a natural clearing directly in front, several feet wide and long, and a view of the lake through the woodland, which was sparser in that location.

“So what do you think?”

“I like it.”

“I’m glad, but let me remind you that by no means are you obligated to this one location. We can do some more scouting around, if you like.”

“Thanks, Justin, but…” He began making his way back down. “…as far as I’m concerned, you and Arthur have picked a winner, and I’m sure Maddie’s going to like it too.” Suddenly reminded of another important matter, he related to Justin some of his and Madeline’s bedtime conversation from last night. Justin admitted that the idea of using the amulet to carve out the Brisbys’ new Thorn Valley home hadn’t occurred to him. Well he understood Johnathan’s hesitance, having shared the experience that almost took her life; but he also believed that if she said she wouldn’t have a problem with it, then she wouldn’t, even as he admitted that he didn’t know her as well as Johnathan. Still…

“Johnathan, you seem to have your heart set on using the Stone for the dig; but believe me, we’d be honored to do the job, and it’d be no imposition at all. Arthur and his crew are ready to resume work anytime, and they tell me it would be finished within a week. It’s still entirely up to you and Madeline, of course. ”

Johnathan rubbed his whiskers. “Wow, you’re almost making me feel guilty here. But you know…since it would take a few more days, I think Maddie and the kids will approve. It’ll give us plenty of time to say our goodbyes, tie up loose ends…” He looked up at Justin. “I’ll tell you what: I’ll get back to you after we’ve discussed it. Maybe both of us will be back, but either way, I think the idea will go over very well.”

They continued with some more small talk; and throughout, Johnathan observed how Justin, however changed he may be these days in the wake of recent events that had changed everyone’s lives so drastically, was very much like his old self. Though no less committed to his responsibilities as leader, he seemed quite relaxed and at peace with himself, and there was no doubt that his recent good fortune in his personal life was a major factor.

With Johnathan again wishing Justin the best of luck on his new life with Isabella, he concentrated on the Stone for the return trip home.

The idea did indeed go over very well. When Johnathan told his family that the Rats had already chosen a location they believed suitable—with the provision that the final decision would be theirs—Madeline wanted, quite reasonably, to see it for herself, so Johnathan made another trip with the amulet to Thorn Valley, this time accompanied by her. She was indeed pleased with it; and upon seeing how willing and eager Arthur and his crew (who met them there) were to do the job themselves, she agreed to it. Furthermore, she assured Johnathan that she wouldn’t be averse to his using the Stone in that fashion, and that if some further need to use it arose—such as further remodeling of the house—they would do so. They visited Justin briefly; and he was true to his word, thanking her profusely for pushing him to actively pursue a relationship with Isabella. He also gave his own assurance that their doing the construction themselves was no imposition. And so with this much done, the Brisbys thanked Justin on behalf of their entire family and returned home, making this visit brief as they’d promised the children, who were perturbed enough as it was with being expected to stay home while their parents made a trip to Thorn Valley without them.

The children were briefed on all aspects of the excavation; and though they were predictably disappointed with the delay of five to seven days, they all agreed that it would provide plenty of time for them to bid their friends in the creekside neighborhood goodbye, and otherwise tie up loose ends. They all reacted positively to the news about Justin and Isabella, especially (and most vocally) the girls; and though Timothy was more reserved, Martin seemed to approve wholeheartedly, surprisingly so given his eye-rolling reaction a month ago.

They decided to give it another two or three days before actually telling anyone they were leaving, and they also planned out how they would handle their departure. They quickly realized it would involve more bending of the truth, as they’d done after Johnathan’s return, and it bothered them somewhat. All admitted that they felt as if they’d made closer friends among the Rats than among their fellow mice here or on the farm; but they had made friends here, after all, especially with Janice and Kory and their six children still at home. It wouldn’t all be an easy process, they realized; in fact, the easiest part was deciding on their method of transporting themselves and their belongings to their new lodgings.

* * *

Over the following days, the family continued their daily routines, working and playing as they had done since Johnathan’s return. And though no one believed that there would be any serious obstacle to their plans—or a minor one—some of them were finding the further delay in carrying them out to be a bit difficult. Any further time spent in the company of Janice and Kory and their children seemed to reinforce the point. Johnathan seemed to be taking it all in stride, but Madeline confessed to Johnathan that she realized that she’d miss Janice in particular more than she thought she would. All of the children were greatly looking forward to making the move, but the younger two admitted the most to having some reluctance to leave the creekside behind; in particular Cynthia, who had made perhaps the closest friends in two of their neighbors’ children, Lana and Lincoln.

Johnathan made periodic checks, using the amulet’s imaging capability, on the construction’s progress; and, five days after he’d made his last trip to Thorn Valley, made another visit in person. Arthur’s latest progress report was good news indeed: his crew expected to complete the project, with all work done and the new home ready for habitation the next day. After bringing the news home, there was of course quite a flurry of excitement, though all knew there was still work to be done. They could, however, allow a little more time for relaxation, with the entire family swimming and playing in the creek with their neighbors. Afterwards, they invited Janice and Kory and family to have supper with them in the evening.

It was then, toward the end of the meal, that they broke the news of their leaving tomorrow, describing briefly how they expected their departure to be rather abrupt and that they wished it to be as private as possible. The news elicited a mixture of reactions. Kory seemed to take it in stride, but Janice just sat silently, almost sullenly, for several minutes. Their children’s reactions were mixed: Sibelle and Dupree, the two oldest, were mostly curious about where the Brisbys were moving to; Lana and Lincoln moved closer to Timothy and Cynthia and started hugging them and crying; and the two youngest, Dean and Dewey, who were still just babies, didn’t really understand. The Brisbys gave their friends their explanation as they’d rehearsed it, and it was really a variation on the one Madeline gave to Janice and Auntie Shrew over a month ago about the family’s first trip to Thorn Valley: that they’d decided to move closer to Johnathan’s old friends, who lived further off to the north.

Most of them seemed to accept the explanation, even Lana and Lincoln; but Janice suddenly got up, looking angry but saying nothing, and walked right out of the house, leaving her family staring in disbelief. The Brisbys, though, had anticipated a reaction like this—though perhaps not so extreme—from at least some of them; and when Kory started after her, Madeline asked him to let her talk to Janice first, believing she could calm her down. Kory, easy-going as always, allowed this, telling her and Johnathan he didn’t hold them to blame and that Janice had been in some odd moods lately anyway.

Outside, Madeline found her neighbor sitting on a stone at the creek’s edge, long a favorite spot of theirs for quiet conversation or contemplation. “Janice, dear,” she said quietly as she approached, “may I join you?”

“I guess I can’t stop you, can I?” Janice replied without looking around, more than a hint of bitterness in her voice.

After she sat, Madeline said, “I’m so sorry, Janice. We didn’t mean to upset you.” She was, for a moment, unsure of what to say next. “But we really do need to make this move, and it’s not because of anyone here, least of all you. I know how you must feel…”

Janice abruptly turned. “How can you know how I feel? How can anyone?”

“We’ve all had friends leave us; and family, too. Sometimes they have to move away for good, and sometimes they—”

“I know all that! I just…” Janice looked away, then suddenly got up, moving resolutely toward the house, where Johnathan and Kory were already standing in the doorway. “Get the children together, Kory,” she said calmly. “We’re leaving now.”

Kory looked at Johnathan, shrugging as he turned. Some of his children had already heard and looked up in confusion. “C’mon, kids, let’s go home,” he announced. As they all gathered, he said to Johnathan, “I don’t really understand, but I’ll try to calm her down.” Johnathan wished him good luck as he and his family watched their friends depart.

Martin scratched his head. “Wow, why’d she get so bent out of shape?”

“Martin!” admonished Teresa, seeing their mother’s downcast expression as Johnathan met her at the door, embracing her.

“It’ll be all right, Maddie,” said Johnathan, stroking his wife’s head. “I bet she’ll have cooled off by tomorrow.”

“I guess. Oh, I know it’s not my fault. But I had no idea she’d react like that.”

“None of us did. But let’s not let it put a damper on our plans.” They continued discussing those plans as they finished off their dinners. Tomorrow after breakfast, their first order of business would be to gather all their belongings in one area in the middle of the front room, and then make a visit to the farm to attend to some unfinished bits of business. Final goodbyes to their friends would be in order, especially given today’s developments; and they realized that the precise way they’d be carried out would have to be made up as they went along if they wanted their departure to be carried out as privately as possible.

* * *

Before bedtime, Timothy entertained everyone with another storytelling session, one based on his and his siblings’ previous Thorn Valley experience but going off in more fanciful directions.

Predictably, getting the children to settle down to sleep took a little longer than usual. Once this was done, the parents did likewise, though they were certainly equally looking forward to the day to come. Madeline found she was still troubled by Janice’s reaction, while admitting that both it and her own reaction in turn were irrational.

“I want to help her, somehow. I know it’s not my fault, or yours, but…I don’t know, I can’t help feeling there’s more to it, some reason other than simply…having friends leave.” She sighed.

“I know, darling. But sometimes friends have to part ways, and I guess Janice is one of those who has trouble dealing with that.”

Madeline, head against Johnathan’s chest, looked up. “I guess so. Oh, I’m sure she’ll get over it.”

“Right. And maybe before we leave tomorrow, too.” He kissed her forehead, and they exchanged endearments and goodnights. Johnathan thought about how happy they’d both been since their reunion, and how it had done his heart proud to see Madeline smile and laugh so much these days—more, he believed, in this past month than she ever had before. It troubled him to see her troubled or displeased in the slightest, for all he was aware of the emotional strength that had always carried her through, especially during the ten months she and the children had spent believing him dead. It was their shared amulet-endowed emotional rapport, he knew, that was largely responsible; something they both welcomed when they learned of it, but which was proving to have its downside. Oh well, Johnathan thought as his wife began slipping into slumber,we’re still getting used to it. He yawned, feeling more relaxed himself.

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