Chapter 3: A new home, A new life

They now all found themselves in a small courtyard in front of a den entrance neatly carved into the rock wall; the same which, further to the northeast, housed the Rats’ community. They again had to deal with the aftereffects of the Stone’s transporting capability: the slight ill feeling and disorientation, which had concerned the parents for its effect on the children, since they hadn’t experienced any of this before today. But just since they’d started, the effect had lessened, and they were taking it more in stride, not letting it dampen their enthusiasm at all.

What greeted their eyes was, in many ways, a miniature of the Rat community, with the same type of windows set into the rock face and a carved oak front door. Above the doorway, the ledge that Johnathan had so admired was left intact, as was the flat-topped stone that lay almost directly in front of the door. He jumped up on it and looked all around, admiring the rats’ handiwork, as well as the natural courtyard that was left largely untouched except for some minor landscaping work.

“So…what do you think, everyone? Do our friends deliver, or what?”

“Oh, it’s beautiful, Johnathan,” said Madeline. “And I just know the inside will be, too.”

Timothy looked up at his father, grinning impishly. “So…are we there yet?”

Johnathan gave a hearty laugh. “You got it, son. And I see where you’re coming from. I think I’ve had my fill of all these ‘jumps,’ too. What do you say we get ourselves moved in?”

As he hopped down from the flat-topped stone, they all gathered around their possessions, still in the same neat pile but now lying just in front of the front door. “This is it, isn’t it, Daddy?” said Cynthia. “We’re really going to live here for good?”

“For as long as it suits us, which I hope will be a very long time.” Midway through Johnathan’s sentence, the door opened, initially startling them, and a rat emerged, crouched slightly.

“Well, hello, everyone!” he said cheerily as he straightened. “Glad to see you could all make it.”

“Thanks, Arthur,” said Johnathan, shaking his hand. Madeline and the children came forward to greet him as well.

“I was just giving the place one last inspection, and everything’s all ready. So you know who to blame…”

“Oh, I’m sure everything’s perfect, Arthur,” said Madeline. “Thank you so much for everything.”

“That goes double for me,” Johnathan said. “Well, I guess we can take it from here…”

“I’ll get the word spread that you’ve arrived,” said Arthur quickly, already starting off toward the Rat colony. “Someone will be back here to give you a hand, and we’ll have a proper housewarming party, too. See you later!”

“Come on, Arthur, you don’t have to…” But the rat was already out of earshot. “…make such a big deal. Really.” Johnathan sighed and threw up his hands in mock frustration, grinning. “Guess I should know better by now.”

“Well, we’ve already seen how they celebrate here, Johnathan. I guess we can’t blame them.”

“I know. I mean, I’m not begrudging them their wish to celebrate. Guess I’m still getting used to their not doing things low-key these days.”

The children were a bit impatient from all this talk; and so, unnoticed by the parents, Timothy and Cynthia decided to explore their new home ahead of the others.

“I know what you mean.” Madeline went to the flat-topped stone, leaning against it and looking all around, admiring the view, sighing. “Oh, I just know the more we’re here, the more it’ll really feel like home to us.”

“I know. I feel it too.” Johnathan joined her at the stone they would come to call the “leaning rock” because it invited conversations conducted while leaning against it, though it was equally suited for sitting or lying back.

“It’ll seem even more like it if we started moving our stuff in...” a young voice chimed in.

“Martin!”

“It’s okay, Teresa.” Johnathan turned. “And point taken, Martin. I guess we should stop gabbing and make that priority one. But first, let’s check the place out, see what we’ve got here. Err…did Timothy and Cynthia already go in?”

Martin replied yes, and so they all followed the younger children’s example. Upon entering, they were instantly impressed by what the rats had provided for them. A short tunnel from the entrance led to the living area, at least three times as spacious as the one in the creekside home. Further in, a corridor led to three bedrooms and a large walk-in closet, each with one or two oil lamps and skylights which let in a generous amount of daylight. Out of one of the bedrooms emerged Timothy and Cynthia, waxing excitedly over what they’d found. As they and Martin and Teresa immediately fell to deciding who got which room, their parents could only walk around slowly in silent admiration and appreciation.

“Oh, Johnathan, I love it!” Madeline suddenly leaped to hug him. “They are just too good. How can we thank them enough, for going to all this trouble for us?”

“Hello, the house! Anybody home?” came a call from without.

“Guess you can ask our benefactors in person,” said Johnathan. Outside, they immediately saw Justin, greeting them in time-honored open-armed fashion, followed by more of their new neighbors. He bear-hugged the pair, and quickly afterward greeted the children the same way, after they’d emerged upon hearing the new voices. Bryant, who had supervised the exterior work, described briefly the landscaping they’d done to make the place more aesthetically pleasing, more befitting the home of ones of the Brisbys’ status.

“Now you just tell us where you want everything,” Justin now told them, “and leave the rest to us.” The Rats all gathered at the pile of belongings, prepared to follow the mice’s instructions. Johnathan and Madeline looked at each other, shrugging and smiling, knowing it would be useless to argue if they wanted to. And so they directed the Rats in placing and arranging all their things. In a matter of minutes, everything was in place, after which Justin invited them to the colony for lunch in around an hour or so. Johnathan insisted that the Rats not go overboard with any great amount of celebrating on their behalf, and made Justin promise to keep things low-key.

After the Rats left, the family proceeded to make themselves at home. They continued exploring their new quarters, marveling at how quickly they were actually feeling at home here, made easier by seeing all their familiar belongings in their new places. For a time, they all gathered in the living room, discussing what they could expect in the days to come: how they’d help with the harvesting, attend their school, what specific occupation Johnathan—and possibly Madeline as well—might take up.

At one point, Timothy brought up a matter which hadn’t been actually discussed at all, a fact they’d find surprising. “Dad…if we’re really a part of their…society now, why don’t we actually live with them in their colony now?”

“Hey, yeah,” said Martin. “It’s like you and Mr. Ages living apart from them back on the farm, isn’t it?”

“Didn’t you say,” brought up Teresa, “that it was like an old instinctive feeling?”

“That’s very true,” agreed Johnathan. “And you’re right; there’s really no other logical reason for it.”

“I don’t think it would bother me,” said Cynthia. “I like this house, but it might be fun to live with the Rats too.”

One may well ask, quite reasonably: if they are such good friends with the Rats of NIMH, why do they not simply move into quarters within their community? Both parents would admit that there was indeed a feeling, present in them both and best attributed to instinct, that rats and mice live separately from one another, for all they are the best of friends. It was a feeling shared by the Rats as well, which is why Justin had agreed so readily, even casually, to Johnathan’s request regarding where to make their new home. Intellectually, they knew it made little sense, especially considering that they’d made good friends among them, they’d be working alongside them, sharing meals with them, attending their school, and—perhaps most importantly—considering that they were equals to them in intelligence and emotion. It was a feeling which hadn’t really been discussed at any great length, even though it had been long-established and for the most part taken for granted, ever since the establishment of the Rosebush colony. But the time would come when the subject would be seriously questioned, even challenged. Perhaps both Johnathan and Madeline knew, in the backs of their minds, that this was so, given the fact that they expected to live among the Rats for the rest of their days. Could such a matter stay buried and go unquestioned for long, after all?

For now, though, they explained it to the children as best they could; and afterwards, all agreed that this was, at the present time, not a matter of great importance. They resumed discussing their future plans here in Thorn Valley. Arrangements had already been made for the children to begin in earnest their formal schooling with the Rats, starting tomorrow. For now, everyone had quite an appetite after such a busy morning, so they adjourned to the Rat colony for lunch. Along the way, they met many more of their new neighbors, all welcoming them with good cheer and giving them bits of advice and information. A few of them were heading for the new Brisby home to drop off housewarming gifts. It was abundantly clear by now—as if there were any doubt—that the Rats were doing all they could to make their new neighbors feel at home.

Upon their arrival at the Rat colony, the sense that the entire community had become one big welcoming committee continued, with seemingly everyone happy to see them and welcome them as fellow citizens and not just guests. Justin met them quickly, telling them he’d personally bring them up to date over lunch on what was new in Thorn Valley in the past month. Their appetites had been whetted enough on the way over, just from the memories of how well they’d been fed here on their last visit, but now the tantalizing odors drifting through the corridors from the kitchen were enhancing their appetites considerably.

They came to the serving line, where they found that there was little in the way of more elaborately-prepared dishes except for the “Thorn Valley Gumbo” whose aroma had drawn them in. But no one was complaining; there were plenty of fresh vegetables, fruit, nuts and grain; and as they moved down the line, Theodocia, one of the kitchen workers, told them she’d tell her boss Matilda, the “undisputed ruler of the kitchen,” of their arrival. Justin steered them toward the same sized-down table they’d used on their last visit, once more reserved for them, and he sat at the nearest standard-sized one.

Their lunchtime conversation began with Justin apprising them of new developments in a very general fashion; then, as on their last visit, Justin invited them to “ask away,” and two of the Brisby children lost no time in voicing the matter that had been foremost on their minds.

“Justin,” said Cynthia, “are you and Isabella married yet?” Beside her, Teresa looked a little dismayed that her sister had beaten her to it.

Out of habit, Madeline threw her a stern look; but before she could admonish her, Justin just laughed and said, “In every way but officially. Now, what I mean by ‘officially’…” He paused, inwardly relishing the looks of anticipation on his audience’s faces. “It’s something we’ve been planning for some time now, ever since the Rosebush, in fact. However…perhaps I should wait until my regular lunch date arrives.”

All knew who he meant, but before anyone could inquire further, he announced, “And speak of an angel…” They all turned to see Isabella, just coming off the serving line, bearing her tray.

“Hi, everyone,” she addressed her beau and the Brisby family in her familiar lilting tone. “It’s great to see all of you again.” They all called greetings to her as she set down her tray next to Justin’s. The pair kissed lightly, and then the children all came forward to take turns greeting her with hugs and kisses, Timothy the longest; since all had grown quite fond of her during their last stay, during which she’d been their primary babysitter and den-mother, and they’d come to occupy a special place in her heart as well.

After everyone was seated again, Johnathan said, “So, Justin...what’s the big revelation?”

“Ah, yes. It’s a new policy we’re instituting…I guess tradition would be a better word, since that’s what we’re hoping it’ll become; ‘it’ being a formal wedding ceremony, or at least one that’s more ‘official.’ And…Isabella and I will be the first, or one of the first beneficiaries.”

The Brisbys all looked at each other, until Teresa said, “You mean…you and her are…”

Justin nodded, beaming. “…going to be husband and wife…officially.” He leaned over to kiss Isabella.

The reactions were predictable, as the family congratulated the couple anew, with more hugs and kisses abounding, and loud shrieks from Teresa and Cynthia. Johnathan thought he detected a look almost of dismay on Timothy before he joined in wishing them the best. Virtually all eyes in the dining hall had turned toward this scene, and even those who had only heard the shrieks could easily guess what their leader and his betrothed had just told Thorn Valley’s newest citizens.

Of course, there were still questions, mainly on the matters of who and when. Justin explained that for all upcoming ceremonies, he, as leader, would do the honors of uniting each couple in matrimony; all except his and Isabella’s, of course. “So who did you have in mind?” Johnathan asked.

“Well…Arthur’s my unofficial second-in-command; but when he and I sat down to discuss the point, we came up with what we agreed was a more appropriate choice.”

“And that would be…?”

“You, my friend. Johnathan Brisby.” Justin grinned broadly, again relishing the look on his old friend’s face.

The entire family was thunderstruck. Teresa almost choked on the mouthful of corn she was preparing to swallow, Timothy almost committed a spit-take with the tea he was drinking, and the others reacted with less dramatic but genuine degrees of surprise.

When Johnathan finally found his voice, he said, quite seriously, “Justin…how, by any stretch of the imagination…uh, don’t get me wrong, I’d be honored, really. But still…”

“If you’d rather not, maybe your lovely wife would be willing.”

Madeline gaped, wide-eyed. “Me? Justin, I…well, like Johnathan said, I’d be honored too, but…we’ve only just come here, we’re barely even…I mean…”

“One of us?” Justin smiled knowingly. His tone turned serious, his more officious side coming through. “My friends…never doubt for a minute that you’re a part of this community, or that you always have been…all of you. Neither should you doubt that you’re worthy of holding such a high honor. Both of you hold a high status among us all, by virtue of all you’ve done for us in the past. Now, it hasn’t been put to a vote yet, but…we’re having a general meeting tomorrow, to welcome you more officially to the community; and we will put it to a vote then; but only if you two approve. But I can all but guarantee it would get a majority of ‘yes’ votes.”

None of the Brisbys could find words for another moment; then Johnathan said, “Justin…Isabella…either one of us would be honored and happy to do the job. I guess…it’s just that it’s so sudden.”

“Well, we have set the date: September 24th, about three weeks from now. I realize now that I might be putting a bit too much pressure on you, since I have laid this on you suddenly, but…”

“Justin,” Madeline interrupted as she reached over to squeeze Johnathan’s hand, “it’s all right. We want you to put it to a vote.”

Johnathan nodded vigorously. “And if it goes over…either of us would be only too happy to marry you crazy kids.”

The “crazy kids” beamed at each other and kissed again, looking very much the part. “Well,” said Justin, “after it’s approved, the next step would be to decide which one gets to do the honors.”

“We’ll have to draw straws, I suppose,” said Johnathan.

“Or rock, paper, scissors,” suggested Timothy.

“Or a wrestling match,” said Martin cheekily, earning a swat on the arm from Teresa.

Both parents just laughed; then Johnathan said, “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We’ll leave it till tomorrow, okay?” As he said this, they were approached by Matilda, who was clearly happy for the chance to welcome back “the five newest fans of her cooking.” None directly brought up the subject of what they’d recently found out about Jenner, her late husband, but the Brisbys’ impression was that she’d largely come to terms with the fact that it had been an outside influence that had driven him to murder their revered leader Nicodemus this past spring. Certainly her job had been keeping her occupied and quite satisfied; later, Justin and others would confirm that these impressions were accurate.

Matilda brought the family up to date on all things culinary, including that they had perfected their yeast-growing process and so were very close to perfecting their bread recipe; she’d remembered how much the children were looking forward to having fresh baked goods. For tonight, she announced, the main dinner entrée would be lake trout, which was regarded as a relatively rare treat. It was a pretty labor-intensive task to catch, clean, fillet and cook enough fish to feed the whole colony, though it didn’t appeal to everyone’s palates. Fortunately, it did for everyone in the Brisby family, so they looked forward to it eagerly.

It soon became clear that there were many others waiting for their chances to speak to the Brisbys; though there was no actual line, they had seen many familiar faces call greetings to them as they entered the dining hall, and many of them were taking seats as close by as possible, eager to jump in when the opportunity arose. Over the next forty-odd minutes, many did: Matilda’s son Melvin and his wife Judith (Isabella’s sister), who had developed a strong bond with the family after the experiences he, Justin, Willis and Madeline had shared in seeking out Johnathan in Lahaikshe; Simone, the school principal, who was ready and eager to get the children enrolled today so they could start their education in earnest tomorrow; chief engineer Arthur and Matilda’s daughter Melinda, who, Justin was proud to announce, would be scheduled for the first formal wedding ceremony which he would conduct. Madeline was especially pleased to hear this, as it confirmed just how serious she’d believed them to be when she first met them last month. The second pair Justin would marry would be Willis and Sabrina; they came by as well, and the Brisbys congratulated both couples heartily. Another couple that was close to committing to each other, but hadn’t set a date yet, was Brutus, the Captain of the Guard, and Deena, Willis’s twin sister.

And, of course, Mr. Ages, their closest new neighbor also spent some time with the family, bringing them up to date on his work on setting up the new fully-fledged medical department, which had become his pride and joy in the past month. He and his so-far small staff—Bernadette, Jemial, and Samara, who were each at various stages in their medical training, Bernadette being the furthest along, going back to their time at the Rosebush—were already at work treating minor injuries, writing prescriptions, dispensing advice. He told Madeline that he believed that she should be given a full physical examination, in light of her recent experiences on Lahaikshe and the revelation of Johnathan’s influence on her. She agreed to it, and he assured her it shouldn’t take up too much of her time. He also wrestled a promise out of her husband, that he submit to a physical as well, to be scheduled later in the week.

It became quite the full afternoon for the new citizens, as they were taken on “refresher” tours of the entire colony, inside and out. They were brought to the garden areas, where much late-season harvesting was in progress. At the lake, Justin told them how they’d finally decided on an actual name for it: Lake Nicodemus, a choice that pleased the Brisbys as much as the Rats, who’d approved of it with nary a nay vote. The children were ready for a swim right then, but soon decided to wait till later after school was out. The family was also shown the area the Rats were already informally calling Oak Park, which they were in the process of into a top spot for ceremonies including weddings, and leisure activities.

Back inside, the children were taken to Thorn Valley School, where Simone and Isabella took charge of getting them enrolled. Just as they were finishing with this, school was letting out for the day; and the children were thrilled to finally be able to get together with their new friends. The parents stood by, looking on with both pride and amusement as Hermione and Ophelia took turns giving Teresa a welcome-back hug, Lambert and Martin excitedly brought each other up to date, Cynthia was greeted by Natalie and Mary Louise as if they were the oldest of friends, and Timothy being whisked off his feet by Quincy in a bear-hug that would do Justin proud. All of them quickly made plans to meet at Lake Nicodemus for an afterschool swim, to which the parents would join them later. For them, it all reinforced the idea that the children would thrive here, where they were already accepted and would be intellectually stimulated as they never would have in their old neighborhoods. Both felt even more strongly now that they could let go of the children more and allow them an even greater degree of freedom and independence, which they clearly craved.

While Johnathan continued visiting with some of their new friends and neighbors, discussing future plans for themselves as new citizens of Thorn Valley and what their roles would be, Madeline reported to the new medical department as promised for her physical, which she found she actually looked forward to, herself curious as to what Ages and his colleagues might find. When it was completed, she and Johnathan went to join the children at the lake.

Nearly everyone who saw them there, both adults and children, greeted them by name; including those who were on duty as lifeguards who assured them, perhaps unnecessarily at this point, that the Brisby children were being well looked after. All four could be easily seen, too busy splashing and laughing and horsing around in the cove to even notice their parents’ arrival, along with many others, adults and children alike.

Johnathan and Madeline found a spot to settle, near the neatly-folded pile of their children’s clothing, and took a moment to take in the scene. Nearby, two young couples conversed as the females breastfed their babies; another young family engaged in a play-wrestling session, a sight pleasantly familiar to the Brisbys; others just basked in the early-evening sunshine. Out on Lake Nicodemus, the crew of one of the fishing boats was bringing in their last catch of the day, fresh for tonight’s dinner.

It was such a peaceful scene that they could only look at each other and smile, neither needing to elaborate on the feelings the occasion was bringing to them; instead, they just drew arms around each other’s waist, watching their children and their friends splash the day away.

After only a minute or so, Madeline suddenly felt prompted to say, “There’s something that’s bothering you, just a little…isn’t there?”

Johnathan looked at her, smiling. “Oh, it’s…I suppose it’s just me worrying again, but…well, look at all this. I mean…it’s just hard to believe that anyone among the humans could ever consider…these people, us, dangerous; even a threat to them, when all we want is just to…live our lives, raise our children, be in the company of our friends. No different than them, or at least…the best of them. And I have no doubt, none at all, that there are some humans who would accept us, befriend us even.”

Madeline nodded thoughtfully. She had no doubt herself that it was true, though her own experience with humans was limited to being handled by Billy Fitzgibbons before he placed her in the birdcage in the farmhouse kitchen. It was not a memory she relished, though she’d since realized how lucky she’d been that Billy was not inclined to be cruel to small creatures like mice, as she knew some humans could be. “If only there was a way we could know who those humans were, the ones who would be good to us, maybe even protect us from the ones who would do us harm.”

Johnathan looked at her, visibly impressed. “Nicodemus had the same idea. He knew that there could come a day when we’d come in contact with humans again, even with our living in a remote area like this. He’d always held out hope that by that time, we’d have a better idea of who our friends among them could be, and that we might even be able to actively reach out to them.” He sighed. “I don’t know, though; I don’t like playing the pessimist, but I have to question whether that’s even possible. I’ve felt this way for a while, though I always believed in the Thorn Valley Plan. We even discussed this at length, Nicodemus and I, one time after Arthur’s crew was already out here, and we pretty much agreed to disagree. I’ve since thought, though: could he have literally foreseen a time in the future, when such a thing would come to pass? Of course, I’d like to think so, since he would definitely have premonitions, including that early one that directly involved me, that probably saved my life; though he always insisted they were always more…immediate.”

“I guess…it’s just not something with an easy solution, is it?” Madeline looked out at the cove. “But, you know…have you noticed how we’re talking as if we’re truly part of the Rats here? We use the word ‘we’ to mean both us and them.”

“You’re right. Our interests and theirs are linked, more than ever now, for all time.” They both looked out to the cove, just in time to see Lambert give Martin a toss into the deeper water. It startled them a bit at first, though they knew Martin was a more than capable swimmer, this being confirmed when they saw their son surface and begin dog-paddling back.

They looked at each other, smiling. “Enough of this talk,” said Johnathan. “I think it’s high time we joined them, don’t you?” Madeline nodded; and, after she untied her cape and he’d removed his Rusay-style vest, they jumped to their feet, laughing as they dashed hand-in-hand toward the bank and into the water. The children and their friends alike were delighted to see them, and they paused in their games to talk about what they’d done today, and what they planned to do in days to come.

The conversation turned to Eric and Sarah, the native mouse siblings—“naturals”—whom the Brisby family had befriended last time. They had come by some two weeks before, Hermione and Ophelia had told them, asking for their new friends, and the Rat children had told them that the Brisbys would likely be back here in a few weeks. They hadn’t yet shown up today, though, but they knew well by now that this was to be their regular meeting place. When they did show, it was hoped, the family would find out where they lived and maybe meet their mother and assure her that these new “strange” mice only wanted to make friends, since they’d gotten the impression that their mother might not approve or even be fearful of her children socializing with the “strange” rats and mice.

It wasn’t much longer before everyone had quite an appetite for dinner, which everyone was looking forward to greatly; and so, after taking time to dry themselves completely, everyone at the “beach party” adjourned en masse to the dining hall. Lively conversation continued as everyone dug in with gusto to their fish dinner.

* * *

The next few hours were filled with more visiting, with everyone in the family going their separate ways for the most part, though they all agreed to meet at the main foyer at 8:00 p.m. After they did, they all agreed that it had been a long day—and tiring, too, but in the best way—and that they were all ready to return to their new home for a little downtime.

By 10:00 the children were in bed—though obviously this would be one more night, like many recently, where sleep might not come too fast, given how excited they all were about the day to come. Before the parents did likewise, Johnathan opted for a few minutes alone, which Madeline generously granted him. Though they still felt as strongly as they did a month ago that their love and their life together was newly strengthened after their reunion, and that they took their no-secrets vow very seriously, they had always respected each other’s occasional need for solitude.

So Johnathan ventured outside, looking up to admire the clear starry and moonlit sky. It was as beautiful a night as the first one he and Madeline had spent together almost three and a half years ago. How fitting, thought Johnathan as he hopped onto the flat-topped “leaning rock.” He lay on his back, staring upward, tracing the Milky Way with his finger, though his mind quickly fell to matters more down-to-earth. This day marked a new beginning for his entire family, and he thanked God, silently but with a lump in his throat, for the second chance he’d been given. The two halves of his life that were once kept separate, with the one he shared with the Rats of NIMH unknown to his family, were now irrevocably joined together; and so many things that had caused him seemingly no end of guilt and stress were no longer issues at all, hopefully dead and buried for all time. Well he recalled the many occasions, especially in the months leading up to his “exile,” when he’d be doing much as he did now, contemplating his life thus far and where it would go and what he should do. He’d largely succeeding in concealing from his wife and children the feelings of guilt, frustration and even self-pity that he’d been experiencing more and more, owing to his reluctance to leveling with them over the supposed aging difference. It had already occurred to him that if he and Madeline had shared their present-day emotional rapport then, there wouldn’t have been a snowball’s chance in hell that he’d have been able to prevent her worming the truth, or what he’d thought to be so, from him. As it was, there had been occasions when he’d react defensively to his wife or children when they’d ask him if there was anything wrong, sometimes speaking sharply but always apologizing afterwards.

But that was then. Now, with any luck, he would be sharing the rest of his life with the woman he’d first fallen deeply in love with, the one he thought he’d only have two to three years with at the most. He thought back to their reunion on Lahaikshe, especially the intensely passionate but tender moments they’d shared over the course of that day, and since. It suddenly occurred to him: that awful moment that signaled the start of their reunion on such a horrifying note, the one that had returned, unbidden, to haunt him so many times since, hadn’t done so at all for days, not since a few days ago when they’d first begun discussing their impending move. The realization renewed his feeling of hope; he knew the memory would never leave him completely, but he felt confident that it wouldn’t haunt him like it used to. Of course, there were still things that were uncertain, mysteries that were still unanswered, most notably the whys and wherefores of his “exile” on Lahaikshe.

Inevitably, thoughts of the amulet came to mind: how it had been responsible for that exile but had since done nothing but good for them; how Pharsal had endowed it with all these capabilities, as if he’d specifically intended it for them; and how it seemed to be theirs indefinitely, to use as they saw fit. Now he wondered how they may come to use it in the future, the ways it may benefit them; and a thought came, unbidden: that the next great need they’d have of it would be for something that would affect not only his family, but his friends as well…perhaps all of the Rats of Thorn Valley.

Johnathan again gazed heavenward. The tedious rhythm of chirping crickets seemed to cease for a moment, as if to lend an air of portent to his thoughts. He sat up. Whatever, let the answers come as they will, he vowed. It’s not worth losing sleep over. There was too much to look forward to, and he fully expected to be too busy just living this new life, enjoying the company of his family and friends, to worry about such things.

With that, he slid off the rock and went back inside. He briefly looked in on the children in their brand-spanking-new bedrooms before returning to his wife’s side, looking forward to feeling her warm and near beside him. He entered this room, still quite unfamiliar to him but which he was sure would come to feel like home in very short order. In the dim light that filtered through the bedroom window, he could see that Madeline was simply sitting up in bed, apparently just resting her eyes. It was a bit of a surprise; he’d half-expected her to be asleep already.

“Were you waiting up for me?” he asked smiling as he removed his vest, hanging it up on one of the wall-mounted hooks.

“Yes, I was,” she answered matter-of-factly, smiling as he slid into bed and snuggled up to her, kissing her lips. “I wanted to tell you…something that I thought would be better left until we were both alone.”

“Okay,” said Johnathan with curiosity but also a trace of uncertainty.

“When I met with Mr. Ages this afternoon, and he ran his tests on me, all of which I passed with flying colors…we confirmed something that I’d suspected for a couple of days now.” Madeline breathed in deep. “Johnathan…I’m pregnant! We’re going to be parents again!”

Johnathan could only gape, speechless…but only for a moment. He leaped almost straight up off the bed, no mean feat while lying on his side, so unable to contain his excitement was he. He caught his wife in a passionate embrace upon landing, almost babbling all the while.

The bedroom door opened a crack and Cynthia poked her head in. “What’s going on?” she asked innocently.

Her parents looked at each other; then Madeline said to her, “Something very wonderful, sweetheart.”

“And,” Johnathan quickly added, “we’ll tell all of you about it in the morning.” Madeline looked at him, a mite surprised, then with understanding. They all said their goodnights, and Cynthia returned to her and Teresa’s new bedroom across the hall.

“You wanted to keep it just between us for now,” said Madeline, “just like when we first found out, back on Lahaikshe, about my being like you.”

“That’s right. I didn’t have time to discuss it before Cynthia poked her head in, but I thought it would be nice if this stayed our little secret…at least until tomorrow morning.”

“Well,” she said as they settled into each other’s arms for the night, “I’m so happy now I couldn’t argue about that if I wanted to.”

The two quietly discussed the changes and adjustments they’d have to make to accommodate their new arrival—or arrivals, since she could be carrying twins for the third time. They brought up a point they’d discussed before: using the Stone to conduct expansion of their new home, since a new bedroom may become a necessary addition. Again she insisted she’d have no problem whatsoever with it, and he had no cause to doubt her. Likewise, she acknowledged that though this impending birth could be as difficult as the past two, she had no qualms; they’d known, after all, that this was virtually inevitable, given the many times they’d shared their love since their reunion—happily, willingly, and uninhibitedly. Soon, yawning, they gave final endearments to each other before slipping into slumber.

* * *

As had become his wont lately, Johnathan rose first, slipping out of bed without disturbing Madeline, and emerged from the front door of the new Brisby family home to regard the sunrise. At the creekside home, the surrounding forest didn’t allow an unobstructed view of the eastern horizon; but here, it was more open, with only a few taller trees blocking his view of the eastern wall of Thorn Valley and Lake Nicodemus. It was a habit he’d fallen into back on Lahaikshe, though not an everyday one: regarding the sunrise while losing himself in contemplation. Then, his thoughts would run toward his life back on Earth up till that point—regrets over the mistakes and bad judgments he’d made as well as the happy times, the love and fellowship of his family and friends; but also the uncertainty of how his family was getting along without him and how he’d square things with them after his return—or if they would even welcome him back.

But all that was academic now, of course. He’d been determined not to miss this first sunrise in Thorn Valley; and he wasn’t disappointed, as he viewed with admiration the cirrus clouds stained with crimson as he stood at the leaning rock. This session of morning contemplation was dominated by the anticipation of the day to come, and beyond. The future of his family was filled with so much hope and promise he could hardly contain his emotions. The children would finally get the education they’d long deserved and anticipated, with stimulating careers to follow upon its completion. Madeline, too, was looking forward to attending classes and was herself contemplating a possible future career. Johnathan too would likely have a specific job with the Rats instead of playing the occasional advisor or helper, or performing “temp” jobs like substitute teacher or cat-drugger, the latter of which he was tickled pink to have become a thing of the past. And not only were Justin and Isabella tying the knot, but he himself (or Madeline) would likely preside over the occasion. There were the larger matters of just how this colony, this new civilization they were now an inextricable part of, would grow and evolve over the years to come. His thoughts soon fell to Nicodemus, and how much he and many others wished he could be here to share in this new life, this fulfillment of his dream and vision.

And, of course, there were the near-future additions to the family, something of which the children were yet unaware. He smiled as he anticipated the looks on their faces, though he and Madeline both believed that at least some of them had suspected it could happen, since all were aware of “the facts of life.” Briefly, he thought of the still-unknown details of his “exile” on Lahaikshe; and of that strange hunch he’d had last night about future use of the Stone. Again he dismissed them. He was determined, more than ever just since last night, to keep from being overly concerned about these matters. There was just too much going on in his life, too much for his whole family to look forward to, to wrack his brain over something which may not even…

"Johnathan?"

The sound of Madeline’s voice broke his reverie. He turned and smiled upon her, standing in their new home’s doorway, looking serene and lovely as ever. Barely had he laid eyes upon her when the sun broke through the cloud cover low on the horizon, bathing her in orange. She shaded her eyes against the sudden invasion, but the smiles on both their faces were rarely broader. Both were instantly reminded of the day they’d met, when they’d emerged from the hollow log in which Dragon the cat had cornered her, and a shaft of early-evening sunlight had instantly spilled upon them. It was a moment they’d always looked back upon as the official beginning of their love. Now, here was a similar moment heralding this first day of their new life in Thorn Valley.

“Good morning, love of my life,” he said as they approached each other. “You know, you’re beautiful when you squint.”

Madeline laughed as they embraced. They kissed tenderly, and then met at the leaning rock to watch the sun rise over the eastern ridge. Johnathan detailed some of what he’d been thinking, and they discussed further the day to come, and beyond. The emotional rapport they shared enabled Madeline to feel as he did his enormous sense of optimism, but also his traces of uncertainty over what yet lay unresolved. They discussed this point now.

“I know it’s pointless,” said Johnathan, “but you know me: the original worrywart.” They both laughed. “Well, you don’t have to worry your pretty head. We’ve all got too much to keep us busy to worry about anything except—”

“Get ’em!” a youthful voice shouted before the next words on Johnathan’s lips—“—maybe a predator attack, however unlikely that may be here”—could be voiced. Barely before either could react, they found themselves under attack, but not by a predator; they were brought down to the ground by four laughing, shouting brown, grey and crème-colored blurs. Their children.

“Okay, I’m warning you hooligans, back off!” Johnathan said in mock sternness as Martin sat on his chest and Cynthia clung to his right leg. “All right, now I’m really mad!” He turned himself over, flipping Martin off to one side. Madeline was laughing herself silly as she tussled with Teresa and Timothy. This was the first they’d had a family play-wrestling session like this since they'd returned from Thorn Valley a month ago, and though the children were growing all the time, with young adulthood advancing ever closer upon them, none of them gave any thought about how much longer they’d indulge in sessions like this. Would it ever be a matter of being too old? Among the Rats, they’d seen how the adults, including the elders, maintained a sense of play into adulthood, both with their own children and each other. Such moments were much more commonplace these days; living in close proximity to humans had always weighed heavily upon them before, but there were none here, and so everyone was feeling more carefree and uninhibited, letting go of more and more of the reserve and sense of caution that had dictated so much of their behavior at the Rosebush. They’d seen so much of this attitude yesterday, and it had been perhaps epitomized best by the celebration of Johnathan’s return last month. And they all knew they could look forward to more such events in the future.

The parents hadn’t forgotten more immediate concerns, though; and so, as the dust began to settle, Johnathan said, “All right, kids, let’s take things a little easy on your mother.”

The children looked around at each other, perplexed. “Huh?” “How come?” “What’s going on?” “Are you all right, Mother?”

Madeline smiled knowingly at Johnathan. “Everyone,” she began, “in a few weeks, you—all of you—are going to be big brothers and sisters.”

As they all gaped, speechless, Johnathan continued: “Your mother is going to have another baby or two!” As expected, the news was met with a resumption of the previous pandemonium, minus the wrestling but not the decibel level, and with plenty of hugs and kisses. It was only the beginning, they all knew, of a full day of excitement and new experiences for all of them, and this day the first of many.

Once the initial excitement had died down, they went back inside to get dressed and otherwise prepare for the day to come. All looked forward to breakfast with their new/old friends, after which they would begin in earnest this day and this whole new life of theirs.


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