Chapter 2: Breaking the old ties

“C’mon, you guys, it’s just a bit further! See? There’s the big stone right ahead!”

“We see it, Martin,” replied Madeline. “Don’t go too far ahead.”

Through rows of turnips, carrots, wax beans and other crops, the Brisbys wended their way, every bit as full of eagerness and anticipation for the new life upon which they would soon embark, but full of caution as well. For this was the growing season—albeit its tail-end—meaning they had to be on the lookout for not only the usual predators, but members of the Fitzgibbons family as well, when they’d be out harvesting or weeding or otherwise tending to crops. And there was Dragon, of course, who continued to patrol the farmyard like a roving sentinel. He’d been an even greater problem in the past five months since the Rats’ departure; or rather, the departure of the Rats and Mr. Ages and his sleeping powder, frequently administered to Dragon during many of the Rats’ larger operations outside their old rosebush colony.

This absence had meant taking greater care for the Brisby family—minus Johnathan—during this past spring’s Moving Day, which had been a semi-annual ritual for them over the past two years. It had been Johnathan’s idea, to bring them nearer to a more dependable winter food source, but it was also—unbeknownst to his family—partially a compromise between Johnathan and the rats, so that he’d be more readily available to help them with certain operations at least part of the year. It was just one thing Johnathan had come clean about since his return, and another of them was presently coming into view.

“Well, here we are,” he announced. The family emerged near the base of the big “wave stone,” so-called due to its shape, not unlike that of a large, curling ocean wave. The Fitzgibbonses had allowed the area surrounding it to become overgrown with a lot of weedy growth; and there, in the shade of the stone and largely buried, was their most recent home. As the children approached it more quickly, their parents hung back, regarding it silently for a moment.

“I think I’ll have more memories about this place than any other winter home we’ve lived in,” said Madeline with a sigh.

“I can imagine. Wish I could do more than just imagine, though. I know I didn’t have much choice in the matter, but…I really should have been here when Timothy caught pneumonia, and everything after that…”

“Well, you did give us this place, in a way.” The two approached the block, preparing to follow the children in climbing up to the roof and entranceway. As they did so, they recalled Johnathan’s story of how, before his disappearance, he’d used the red amulet to alter and reshape this cinderblock to its present form to make it into more of a proper home, intending to lead his family to it on their next Moving Day. That didn’t happen, of course, but he couldn’t have known that a month after that night, Madeline and the children would find the cinderblock on their own, with no idea of Johnathan’s connection to it; or that they wouldn’t question their new home’s somewhat odd characteristics, simply believing that someone else had probably just lived here previously, and they were lucky enough to have found one so suitable for their needs.

They followed their children through the entrance, down the stairs into the living room. Many of their belongings were still here: bedding, eating utensils, furniture, decorative things like the small wooden doll and copper penny.

“Well, I must say you kept a cozy little den here this past winter. Sure wish I could have shared it with you.” Johnathan sighed, and both he and Madeline thought briefly on how things might have been had he been here all this time, especially during last spring’s crisis. He’d already said that if so, he may very well have told all about their aging difference much sooner, and that crisis could very well have turned out much differently. It was all irrelevant now, of course, with the knowledge that Madeline was aging at the same rate as he, and with no real way to tell what could have been.

“Hey, are we taking everything out of here?” asked Martin, breaking his parents’ train of thought.

“Uhm…yes, we sure are, Martin,” answered Johnathan. “We’re not leaving anything behind, and you can bet we’ll have room for everything in our new home. I know we’ll all appreciate larger quarters.” He smiled at Madeline, recalling the discussions they’d had about possible future additions to the family—and more than discussions.

As they all began moving everything into the center of the living room, the children described some of their experiences living in this house and this area, good times and not so. There was, however, a noticeable lack of mention of last spring’s crisis, partially because it had been discussed plenty since Johnathan’s return, but he knew it was also likely to be due to the fact that the children almost didn’t survive it. For all that living here held pleasant memories, this house had, after all, become a death trap for the children and Auntie Shrew, sinking into the mud with all of them inside. And the risks their mother had taken… Small wonder that they now all went about their business quite matter-of-factly, with no great amount of waxing nostalgic or being overly sentimental about leaving this place for good. But then, they were used to frequent moves, though they all admitted that it was nice that this should be the last one.

After all their belongings were clustered together, Teresa suggested they go up above for one last look around the farmyard. All agreed, and a minute later they’d all made the climb to the top of the wave stone.

“You see the corner of the garden there, with all the flowers?” Madeline said, pointing. “That was partially to make up for the rosebush being torn out. Mrs. Fitzgibbons wasn’t happy about that at all.”

“And she wasn’t the only one,” said Johnathan with a laugh, noting how conspicuous the rosebush was by its absence. “I see they planted something in its place, too.”

“A couple of lilac bushes,” said Teresa. “You can’t see them too well from here; they haven’t grown too big yet.”

There was still some early-morning low-lying mist about, so it was hard to see quite a few things from their vantage point atop the stone; but it still provided quite a wide view. There was the farmhouse, the barn, the abandoned threshing machine beneath which lay Mr. Ages’s former home and laboratory, the rows of crops stretching away into the distance, the old mill, the portion of the creek upstream from their home, the woods where lay that home that they’d soon be vacating—far beyond which lay their new home. Robins called out loudly, voices ringing through the damp air. Barn swallows glided acrobatically about, catching insects on the wing. Voices could be heard coming from the farmhouse as the family prepared for work and school. A door could be heard opening and closing; was Dragon being let outside? Perhaps not, but they’d know for sure soon enough if he was about.

Looking about the area adjacent to the wave stone, Johnathan could more clearly see how the tractor had left it completely untouched, including the cinderblock. “You know…if I hadn’t been in such a hurry that night, I might have realized that it would be right in the tractor’s path where it was. Oh, well…one can never know everything, right? Though in this case…”

“…it was just as well,” Madeline said seriously, nodding; neither saw the need to elaborate. She started to turn around, looking down the slope back to ground level. “Well, I guess we can—”

“Wait a minute,” whispered Johnathan in a manner that prompted them all to grow still and silent. They all became aware of an increased hubbub in the corn rows; robins were scolding more loudly, and swallows were swooping low, buzzing something unseen. Soon the source of the commotion came into view, confirming their suspicions.

“They did let Dragon out,” whispered Madeline. “Let’s get below now.”

The children turned to start down, but Johnathan said, “Wait. I don’t think we’ll have to.” There seemed to be no sense of caution or alarm in his voice; instead, a look came over him that suggested he was planning something quite elaborate, even fun. He rubbed his whiskers, nodded slowly and chortled to himself almost insidiously. “Ooh, Johnathan, you are sooo wicked…” He rubbed his hands together.

His wife and children looked at him and at each other, baffled. “Johnathan, shouldn’t we be going? What are you thinking?”

“Don’t worry, we’ll be safe. This’ll see to it,” he said, holding up the Stone, “and to other things too.” Returning his attention to Dragon’s patrol of the garden, Johnathan suddenly began leaping up and down and waving arms, startling his family at first until they realized what he had in mind. They joined him in trying to catch Dragon’s eye.

They quickly succeeded; Dragon, still some twenty feet away, was now directing his most piercing stare right at them. Though they believed Johnathan’s assurance of their safety, it was still a most unsettling sight, especially as he began approaching slowly, deliberately.

The mice hardly breathed as the massive grey-furred figure crept closer…closer…until Dragon was a mere eight feet away. Johnathan concentrated, gave a slight gesture—which he later admitted was only for show—and suddenly, as the red amulet glowed, Dragon was moving in another direction: straight up! Madeline and the children at first blinked in disbelief at the sight, then looked at each other, smiling. Dragon looked all around, bewildered, legs akimbo, as he was raised higher, flailing about wildly. The mice found considerable amusement in this, seeing such a powerful figure as Dragon so totally helpless and confused, even frightened.

“Look at him! Look at his fat face! Oboy, is this great!” Martin was literally rolling with laughter. Teresa was ready to join him, and Timothy and Cynthia hugged each other with glee at the strange but funny sight.

Johnathan shook his head in mock pity. “Tsk, tsk, poor kitty. I guess this isn’t very sporting, is it? What do you say, everyone? Should I let him down?”

Madeline allowed her own laughter to subside enough to say, “Maybe you should, Johnathan. They might notice.” Pragmatic though she was, she couldn’t help being equally amused by the spectacle.

“Oh, very well,” said Johnathan casually; and with Dragon now suspended some eight feet off the ground, suddenly it was as if he’d fallen through a trapdoor. He plummeted straight down, landing most ungracefully and uncatlike, mostly on his side. In another instant he was on his feet and making a beeline for the farmhouse.

It took another minute for the Brisbys to recover before making their way back to ground level. “Boy, haven’t we waited a long time to see something like that?” Johnathan wiped away more tears of laughter.

“Yes,” agreed Madeline. “Even though he is a cat and can’t help behaving as he does, he’s had that coming for years.”

“He sure has. Well…are there any other bits of business to take care of here?”

“I was thinking…we really should say goodbye to Auntie Shrew.” All of the children except Martin agreed aloud that it was a good idea, and Madeline looked at him as if expecting at least mild dissent.

At the same time, Teresa nudged him and said, “You just knew she’d say that, didn’t you?”

But Martin only put up his hands and said, “What? I didn’t say anything."

Johnathan smiled to himself. He and Madeline, out of all of them, understood Martin’s lack of protest, but in accordance with their standing month-old agreement, didn’t address it directly. Instead, he said as they reached ground level, “Well, Martin, you can stay here while the rest of us visit her, if you like.” Martin just gave a noncommittal shrug.

Johnathan felt like admitting aloud that Auntie Shrew wasn’t very high on his own list of favorite people, but decided against it. He didn’t want to set a bad example, but he also had an amount of genuine respect for her. She had, after all, lent considerable aid and comfort to Madeline for several months after she’d lost her parents Martin and Teresa; and with getting her settled into her new situation, helping her deal with her sudden loss; and she’d been just as much help when Johnathan had been thought dead. True, she had made something of an obstacle of herself when he’d first met Madeline, due to her irrational distrust of him. Madeline actually felt it necessary to sneak away without her noticing on a couple of occasions during their courtship. But she soon accepted, albeit grudgingly, that the two wouldn’t let anything stand in the way of their mutual happiness, and that Johnathan genuinely cared for Madeline. Even after the two had moved in together, the shrew would regularly drop by, usually unannounced, to offer her services and dispense advice, usually unsolicited. It didn’t do much more to endear her to Johnathan, but he knew she meant well; and there were times when she was genuinely helpful, as on occasions when the children needed looking after when both parents had to be away. Neither of them—not even Madeline—had ever known, and probably would never know, why she’d ever appointed herself Caretaker of the Field, nor even how old she was. But they both now agreed that they owed it to her to let her know they were leaving the area for good, and possibly would never see each other again. They also discussed how much about their destination they should tell her, and about their relationship to the Rats of NIMH. Madeline knew she wasn’t usually home this time of day, but was sure they’d be able to track her down shortly if she weren’t. Since her home wasn’t too far, they decided they’d make the trip there on foot rather than use the Stone, as they did to get from the creekside to the farm.

With this much settled, they all prepared to leave—including Martin, to the surprise of his siblings, who just figured he didn’t want to be left out. They all made their way to the field’s edge, then began following the outer boundary of the cultivated area, which would lead them to the small copse where Auntie Shrew made her home.

“We’re still gonna say goodbye to Jeremy and Beatrice, too, aren’t we?” brought up Cynthia along the way.

“Well, they’re not always the easiest to get ahold of,” said Madeline, “and their nest is on the opposite side of the farm…”

“But they can fly,” added Martin. “And they can spot us from the air just like that.”

“We could use the Stone to get there fast,” Johnathan suggested, “once we’re through here.” He glanced up; then, having spotted something in his peripheral vision, he added, “or, unless I miss my guess, we can get someone’s attention right now.” He looked up and pointed directly at what he’d spotted—or rather who.

Sure enough, the distinctive, slightly jerky wing beats of the large, dark bird almost directly above them—which even Johnathan recognized by now—marked him as their good friend Jeremy the crow. Accordingly, they all called out and waved arms, swiftly gaining his attention. He replied with a happy caw and began circling for a landing—which all anticipated seeing, some almost hoping it would be a little on the klutzy side.

His landing was actually quite smooth; but as he called out to his mouse friends, he managed to trip over something—they couldn’t really tell what, and they wondered if he knew himself—sending him flopping onto his belly. They approached him, unable to resist a few giggles, though the crow’s high spirits weren’t dampened at all as he picked himself up. “Hey, Mrs. B, Mr. B! Hi, kids. What brings you all around here?”

“We’re here to visit a friend, Jeremy,” replied Madeline, “but we were hoping to run into you too.”

“A friend, huh? It’s not that crazy lady with the hat, is it? This is her neck of the woods..."

Madeline chuckled. “If you mean Auntie Shrew, then yes, it is her. But don’t worry. We let her know that you were helping us that time.” Inwardly, she added: Though whether or not it completely sank in, I couldn’t say.

“We’re going to be leaving this area for good, Jeremy,” said Johnathan. “We’re moving to Thorn Valley.”

Naturally, Jeremy was surprised and disappointed; but they reminded him that he and Beatrice could fly there for a visit anytime. He was actually very understanding of their desire to be closer to their friends the Rats, and thankfully wasn’t especially inquisitive about their precise mode of travel, though they made it clear that they had plenty of “stuff” that would be making the trip as well.

They chatted for a time about the crows’ trio of newly-hatched chicks, who were all doing well with very healthy appetites. Their need for near-constant attention kept both parents quite busy, and Jeremy regretted he and Beatrice couldn’t help the Brisbys in their move in some way. The mice knew well, of course, that at this stage their highest priority had to be their children, and encouraged the crows and wished them the best of luck. Both families were entering important new chapters in their own lives, and Jeremy wished them well in Thorn Valley, promising to visit them soon. The children especially looked forward to it, hoping more rides would be forthcoming. He needed to return to Beatrice and the chicks, but let the Brisbys know one more time how much they meant to him, an uncharacteristically serious moment for him. They said their goodbyes and Jeremy took off.

As they watched him sail aloft, Madeline thought about certain discussions they’d had recently. “You know,” she said as they resumed their journey, “We’ve talked about fate and destiny playing such a part in all that’s happened to us, and Jeremy is very much a part of that. Even now I can’t say exactly why I stopped to help him that day, since I had to get right home to get the medicine to Timothy. I guess it was because he seemed so…helpless, and I knew he’d be harmless to me. But if I hadn’t…it’s possible Dragon might have attacked me on the way, and then…” She shook her head. “And he was such a help to us later, taking me to the Great Owl; otherwise, I’d never have thought to seek the Rats’ help. I didn’t realize the…enormity of it all till later, otherwise I wouldn’t have tried to dismiss him a couple of times.”

“When Auntie Shrew got the drop on him, and tied him up,” recalled Martin. His sisters—Timothy having missed the incident and so much else, being ill at the time—still couldn’t think about the incident without some amusement.

“Yes,” said Madeline, sighing, “and when I sent him off to gather string to move the house, even though that was the Rats’ job. I’m just glad I had the chance to apologize to him for all that.”

They shelved further discussion as they drew close to their destination. It was an area familiar to them; though, Johnathan noted with some humor, they weren’t as familiar with it as its main resident was with their usual haunts. Auntie Shrew’s home was, like the Brisbys’ summer home, located underneath the roots of a tree, the largest one in the copse. They paused at its entrance.

“Auntie Shrew? Are you home?” Madeline called out.

“Brisby? Is that you?”

“Yes, it is. All of us are here. May we come in?”

“Ooh, just a minute.” There was an unmistakable tone of annoyance, and she could be heard moving about, rearranging things and fretting to herself. It was a long-noted fact that, while the shrew wasn’t averse to dropping by unannounced on the Brisbys and other local residents, she wasn’t too fond of anyone reciprocating.

“Well,” Johnathan said quietly, “it’s lucky we caught her at home. Almost odd that she’d be here this time of day.” Martin’s siblings half-expected him to add something along the lines of “…instead of sticking her nose into other people’s business,” but he refrained.

Soon she came out to meet them, walking-stick in hand. “Hmph! So all of you are here. Children…Johnathan. Do come in.” As the six mice filed in, the parents noticed her manner seemed more subdued than usual.

“Auntie, do you remember when you visited us last, and I said it’s all right to call me Madeline again? Now that Johnathan’s back, I thought that would be best.”

“Oh, yes, yes, I remember. You know I’ve always had so many demands on my time, so much to remember.” She gave a low grumble.

“Are you feeling well these days?” Madeline asked with genuine concern. “You seem a bit under the weather.” The family sat down on the pebble-lined floor of the small, one-room den, which had space for little more than a bed and a food preparation area.

“Oh, I’m all right…Madeline. Just slowing down a little.” She grunted as she sat on the bed. “Don’t get around like I used to. Landsakes, I don’t know how they get along without me out there.”

Teresa threw Martin a look, again expecting him to add something; but he just put up his hands with a silent “What?” on his lips.

“At least,” Auntie Shrew went on, “with those horrid rats gone, it’s made my job easier.”

“Now, Auntie,” said Johnathan, “we’ve already told you that the rats were harmless, and that they never meant any harm to anyone in the field. Just because they kept to themselves doesn’t mean they were up to no good.”

“Harmless, hah! Stuff and nonsense! After what happened while they were moving your house, you call them harmless?”

“It was only one of them who caused all that trouble,” said Madeline patiently, having made the same point to her before. “You know that.”

She grumbled again. “Well, I still say we’re all better off without them around. Always taking, taking, taking…”

“Auntie Shrew, you shouldn’t talk about the rats like that!” said Teresa emphatically and almost angrily, to everyone’s surprise. “They’re not like that at all. They were living off the farmer before, but they wanted to change, and they have. And besides, they’re our friends.”

The shrew stared in surprise, taken aback by this response from one who’d always seemed the least likely of the Brisby children to “talk back” to her in such a manner, who’d always deferred to her authority whenever she was in charge of them.

“I think Teresa speaks for all of us,” said Johnathan. “The rats do mean a lot to us, and our ties to them are quite strong, more than just those of friendship. In fact, they have a lot to do with why we’re here now.”

“What do you have to do with them? What are you on about?” Though her tone carried its usual amount of suspicion, there was genuine curiosity there as well.

The mice proceeded to explain—as they’d discussed before—all about their impending move to Thorn Valley, and how they’d come upon this decision. Previously, when Auntie Shrew had visited them at their summer home after hearing that Mrs. Brisby’s supposedly-deceased husband had returned, they gave the same nebulous explanation they’d given their other neighbors: that unforeseen circumstances had forced Johnathan away, and that his family had just happened to find him on their trip away from home. Since then, though, they saw little harm in telling her more; after all, the likelihood of the shrew telling any human of the whereabouts of the Rats of NIMH wasn’t too high.

And so, she was told of the human experiments that changed those original twenty rats and eleven mice that included Johnathan and Ages; of their escape and eventual founding of the Rosebush colony; of the strange and powerful amulet Johnathan had found; of their Thorn Valley Plan, and Jenner’s unswerving defiance of it; of Johnathan’s true fate the night of his “death” and his time as the guest of the sorcerer who’d sought a way to send him home; of how the rats’ internecine differences led to the difficulties in moving the Brisbys’ winter home, their leader’s death, and their hasty evacuation from the rosebush and flight to Thorn Valley; of the bizarre “impressions” that led Madeline to believe Johnathan alive, and the search for him that almost led to the deaths of her and three of the rats.

When the tale was finally finished, Auntie Shrew sat quietly for a minute, shaking her head, seemingly in disbelief; then she said, “Well…maybe I was wrong…about the rats…and about you, Johnathan. I know I even accused you of abandoning your family and pretending to be dead.”

Well they all remembered that scene, two days after his return, when she’d dropped by the creekside home and, before Johnathan could say a word, she’d directed that very accusation at him. Madeline and the children rushed to his defense, but he was able to hold his own, convincing her with some small difficulty that there truly were circumstances beyond his control that forced him away.

The shrew went on: “If all you’ve said is true, then perhaps you all do belong there, with them. For a long time, I considered you and your ways to be…well, strange and odd, as much as those rats. I guess I know why now.”

Madeline found her tone a bit disquieting. “Oh, Auntie Shrew, we really do want your blessing.” She sat beside her, taking her arm. “I know it’s difficult to learn all this, all at once. But this is what we really want, and…well, maybe I’m only speaking for myself here, but you’ve always been important to us, after all you’ve done, and you always will be. I do love you, and I need to know that it’s all right with you, what we do and where we go. We may not even see each other again after today. I know I’ll miss you, but this is what we truly want.”

The old shrew smiled, then gave a small laugh. “Why, Madeline, you cut me to the quick. Of course I approve. You’ve convinced me that your family has more in common with those rats than with anyone else around here. And besides, I couldn’t imagine you or even Johnathan making up a story like that!” The two were able to share a laugh over this, and Madeline thanked her.

The shrew continued: “Now all of you go on ahead and move to this Thorn Valley, if that’s what will truly make you happy. And don’t worry about me. I’ll keep busy like I always have, though…I may not be able to do as much, dash it all…” She paused to stare off to the side.

Johnathan found himself feeling a pang of sympathy. Their situations were radically different, especially since growing old and subsequently slowing down was something neither he nor Madeline would know firsthand for quite a while. But Auntie Shrew’s greatest joy in life was helping others, and her ability to do so was slowly being taken away from her. What he’d been through recently—being spirited away from his family and everyone and everything else he’d ever known—was quite a different experience, but there was much it had in common with her present situation; and Johnathan now felt the need to say something to cheer and encourage her.

Then he had it. Joining Madeline at the shrew’s side, he said, “How about this? You come with us to Thorn Valley. You’d be well provided for, and among friends; I’m sure we can convince the Rats to make accommodations for you as well.”

“That’s a wonderful idea, Johnathan. Auntie, you know we’d love to have you.” The children voiced their approval aloud; except for Martin, unsurprisingly, though it seemed to his father that he didn’t look especially resentful of the idea.

“That’s very kind of you all,” she responded, “but I’ll have to say no. Your Auntie’s too much a creature of habit. I’ve been here all my life; this is what I’m used to. And I realize that if I’m going to get tired sooner and have to slow down more, then so be it. I’ll just have to get used to that too.”

“You’re absolutely sure, Auntie?” asked Madeline. “You won’t reconsider?”

“No, Madeline. I must stay. Now please, go on ahead, I can see you want to get started on your move. Don’t waste any more time with me.”

“Oh, now, don’t go humble on us all at once, Auntie,” said Johnathan. “You’ve been an important part of our lives. You and we all know that. And besides, this doesn’t have to be a final farewell. Remember when we told you about how this stone will move us to Thorn Valley? Well, we could also use it to visit you anytime.”

“That’s right,” added Madeline. “You won’t be rid of us that easily. And anything you ask of us, you know we’ll provide, after all you’ve done for us.”

A round of farewells and well-wishing followed, with a reiteration that the Brisbys would be back for a visit in about a month or so. As they started to leave, though, Martin whispered something in Johnathan’s ear, after which he relayed it just as privately to Madeline. All of them except Martin filed outside, saying goodbye once more, but leaving Auntie Shrew rather bewildered.

“Why, Martin! I’d have expected you to be the first to want to leave. You’re not feeling ill, are you?”

Martin shuffled his feet and looked back and forth, up and down, avoiding looking her in the eye, looking ready to say something but unsure of how to start.

“Well, speak up, child. Landsakes, you fidget almost as much as—”

“Uh, listen, Auntie Shrew, I…” Martin sighed, wanting to get this over with but also wanting to get it done right. “I never…really hated you…not really. I just…I don’t know, I guess I…just didn’t understand.” He scratched his arm, a common nervous gesture. “It was kind o’ like…I was blaming you for Dad, for his going away…when you gave us the news about him, even though it wasn’t your fault. So…I just wanted to say…I’m sorry.”

The shrew was naturally surprised, but pleasantly, and a smile wider than Martin or his siblings had ever seen on her crossed her features. “Why, thank you, Martin. I honestly didn’t think you had it in you.” She patted his shoulder.

“Yeah, well…I thought I should say it. Well…goodbye.” He was finally able to look her in the eye, even giving a small smile; then he turned and exited, leaving Auntie Shrew sitting in wistful reflection.

Outside, his family waited, his siblings looking curious, even baffled. “What’d you say to her, Martin?” asked Cynthia.

“Now, sweetheart,” said Madeline, “I think your brother wanted some privacy for a reason. He’ll tell you when he’s ready, won’t you, Martin?”

Martin’s reply sounded unexpectedly cheerful. “Sure, Mom. Can we go now?” They all began the return trip to the cinderblock, which proceeded without incident all the way.

As planned, they wasted no time in proceeding with one last task. Earlier, they’d discussed the possibility of the farmer cleaning up this area more, which would most surely include hauling the block out of there. The possibility had actually occurred to Madeline before the last spring Moving Day, though she’d not discussed it with the children. They’d have had to seek out a different winter home come autumn, if so. The point was academic now, of course, but they still thought they should do something more with it now besides move out. Certainly there was the chance that the block would lie here undisturbed for years to come, probably becoming home to others; but just in case, they decided to use the amulet to return it to its original state, just as the Rats of NIMH had destroyed all evidence of their presence on the farm. Both realized that this entailed utilizing the stone-shaping capability, and remembered their earlier agreement on this matter; but this certainly qualified as a “further need” for this capability, though neither expected it to come this soon. Madeline reminded Johnathan of her earlier estimation that she would have no problem with this use of the Stone.

They again stood in the center of the living room with their possessions; and Johnathan again reminded the children of what would follow, and that they may not want to watch, knowing that they’d become, to some degree, attached to this place. None expressed any real reluctance, so Johnathan concentrated, and the Stone began to glow.

It was very much the reverse of the process that reshaped the cinderblock almost a year ago, but now all of them were witnessing it, and right in the middle of it as well. They watched with awe as the stairwell appeared to melt into the wall, the rooftop entrance seal itself over, the front and back walls open up to the daylight where the block showed above ground, the window disengage itself and float off to the side, the doorway connecting the two rooms fill itself in. The whole process took no more than a minute, and now the six mice stood, with their small pile of possessions, in the middle of an ordinary cement block. All of them, including Johnathan, looked around with wonder.

“Wow,” said Martin. “You’d never know it was the same place.”

“It looked like…it should have gotten hot,” observed Timothy with wonderment. “But it stayed cool the whole time.”

“In spite of what almost happened to us here,” said Teresa, “I guess I’ll miss this place a little.”

Cynthia found herself unable to completely hold back the tears. “Me too. I promised myself I wouldn’t cry, but…”

Timothy placed an arm around her shoulders. “I’ll miss it too, but just think of the fun we’ll have when we get to Thorn Valley.”

“It’s not just this place,” she said in between sniffles. “We’re leaving our summer home too, and…I guess I’m not as ready as I thought I was.” The others, even Martin, joined Timothy in consoling her, assuring her that they all felt the same to some degree and reminding her of all that awaited them.

Once she assured them she was ready, they prepared for their next jump with the amulet. This time they’d bring with them all the possessions they’d left here; and so, after another minute of reflection, they all joined hands in a circle surrounding their possessions. Johnathan concentrated, the amulet glowed, and the jump was made.

Back in the creekside home, and once the family had re-oriented themselves—with the physical symptoms considerably lessened from before—the possessions taken from the cinderblock were added to the ones already arranged in a pile in the living room. One more jump was left to make, and none of them could hide his or her reluctance and sadness about leaving—including Martin, who had all along been the most enthusiastic about the move—though they'd all done their best the past few days to prepare, making goodbyes to their neighbors as final as possible.

“We spent the best years of our lives in this house,” said Johnathan. “We’ll always have good memories of it, but…now it’s time to move on.” They all looked around at the interior of the home they were leaving behind for good and at each other. Though all wanted to get the move underway, and settle into their new lodgings quickly, none of them was able to completely hide his or her sadness. It took another few minutes, spent in mostly silent reflection, before all felt ready.

“I guess,” said Madeline soberly, “we’d best get this over with.” Everyone nodded their agreement.

They made sure no one was around, or approaching the house; they preferred their departure to go unwitnessed, to prevent their leaving in their wake any unpleasant rumors about The Family That Vanished Into Thin Air. Certainly, there would be some amount of rumor going around anyway, given their abrupt departure and their ambiguous manner when asked where and why they were moving.

Once certain no one was about, they again made a circle of themselves and their possessions. “Goodbye, house,” said Cynthia quietly, sadly; and Martin found he hadn’t the heart to even roll his eyes. Johnathan concentrated, visualizing their new Thorn Valley home’s site, by now quite familiar. The amulet began to glow…

…And there was a knock at the door, breaking Johnathan’s concentration. He briefly grimaced, and they all looked at each other, certain of the identity of this ill-timed caller. Johnathan broke the circle to answer the door and confirm their suspicions.

“Johnathan? Can…Madeline come out?”

“Uh…sure, Janice.” Madeline was already there, sidling past him. Seeing Janice’s already apologetic expression, Madeline smiled and took her arm, leading her away from the door, which Johnathan closed discreetly.

She took a brief look around, looking for Kory or any of their children, but apparently Janice had come alone. “How do you feel, dear?”

“Oh, much better, thank you. Madeline, I’m so sorry about making that scene yesterday. I just…I guess Kory told you that I’ve…been in some strange moods lately. I don’t know why, but…that was still no excuse for talking to you that way.”

“It’s all right, Janice. Maybe you were just having a bad day.”

“I suppose I was. Well…are you getting ready to leave?”

“Very soon now. Do you remember what we told you, that we want our leaving to be private?” Madeline was prepared for another possible adverse reaction, which thankfully didn’t come.

“Yes, I do, and…I’ll respect that. We all will, I promise.” The two soon-to-be-ex-neighbors did a bit of reminiscing. Madeline was a little surprised that Janice would agree so readily; then she remembered how, in the old days, she’d been much the same way: very accepting of whatever Johnathan would tell her about himself, his origins, his mysterious friends… How did he put it, back on Lahaikshe, while telling his story of his last night on Earth? “She was always so tolerant of my little secrets.” Yes, more tolerant than she should have been, she’d since realized. Because of this, and especially in light of their mutual vow of no secrets, Madeline couldn’t help feeling a pang of guilt by not leveling more with Janice. She reminded herself that this was in deference to the Rats and their wish to keep their existence and current location as secret as possible. They had, after all, already done some unbending for Auntie Shrew, mainly because she’d been a part of their lives for as long as they’d been a family; and while Janice and Kory were no more likely to reveal the Rats’ secrets, the Brisbys had decided it wouldn’t be necessary to be as forthcoming with them. It bothered them a little, but still and all, they weren’t lying to their neighbors; the information they’d given wasn’t a total fabrication, and it wasn’t important for them to know the full truth either.

Finally, Madeline told Janice that her family wished to spend a few more minutes alone before leaving their old home. Janice seemed to understand, and so the two friends hugged and gave final goodbyes before Madeline went back inside.

“So how did it go?” Johnathan asked as everyone looked toward her with expectancy. They’d kept her place in the circle open all the time she’d been outside.

“Pretty well. She apologized, even though she still couldn’t really explain her outburst last night. But anyway, everything’s fine now.” She rejoined the circle.

“Great.” Johnathan looked around at his family. “Well, barring any further interruptions, I guess this is really it.” Once again he concentrated on what would be their new home, the Stone again glowed red; and with a flash they made the jump, leaving this part of their lives behind for good, except in their memories.

* * *

Janice continued the short trek back to her family’s den, trying not to let what she’d just seen distract her, though she was still confused. She wondered if Kory might know something; might he have witnessed something like this before? It was certainly unprecedented in her experience, but maybe…

Just as her family’s home—which, like the one the Brisbys just vacated, was nestled beneath a thick tree root—came into view, she immediately saw him at the door, looking concerned. He’s such a dear, she thought; I’m so lucky to have him. It was a thought that she found herself having more and more these days.

“So how’d it go?” Kory asked as they hugged.

“Well…” she began tentatively, “they seem to have gone…for good, I guess.”

“Already? Really? Wait…so you didn’t get the chance to talk to them at all?”

“Oh, no, I did. I met Madeline, and told her I was sorry for last night. Then she went back inside; she said she wanted some more time alone with her family. I started to leave, but…I couldn‘t help it, I got curious. You know how they said they expected to leave quickly, all at once. So I kind of sneaked back, and…”

“Janice, we promised them we’d let them have their privacy.”

“I know, I’m sorry. I was going to try peeking in their window, even though…” She sighed. “But I didn’t get that far before…I saw a strange flash, like lightning, from inside the house. I wondered if something was wrong, so I went right up to the window, and…there was nobody there. None of the Brisbys, and all of their things were gone, too.”

“Really? Nothing at all?”

“No. It was almost like they were never there at all. Have you ever heard of anything like that?”

“No, never. I wonder how they did that?”

“They said they’d be leaving…abruptly, so…I guess they did, at that.” The couple could only shrug and wonder about this strange phenomenon which, like most mice, they were willing to just accept as one more thing they didn’t know or understand. It wasn’t a great concern, not when there were chores to be done.

They had no way of knowing then that, though they wouldn’t give the incident much thought in the days to come, the time would come when they and the Brisby family would meet again, and perhaps even find answers to the questions that still lingered today.

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