Chapter 38 - A strange malady

Jessica awoke, sighing as she immediately recalled the night just past. The sigh became a yawn as she turned her head to look upon the one with whom she’d spent the night, sharing herself so completely, each one fulfilling the other’s needs and desires, more than either thought possible. But he wasn’t lying beside her. Instead, he was sitting at the edge of the bed, apparently lost in thought. Jessica reached out to clasp his hand.

He turned to her, smiling, and helped her upright. “Ah, Jessica, my lovely. I swear, you are love personified.”

They embraced silently for a minute. Then she said, “It’s probably a bit later than my usual time to rise, isn’t it?”

“Yes, I believe so.”

Jessica looked at him squarely. “There’s…nothing troubling you, is there?”

“About you and me…no. Last night was all I could have hoped for, and more. And all the strange events of yesterday, for which I arrived late…in spite of all that is yet unexplained, I feel no sense that they portend any further danger.”

“But…there is something, isn’t it? Is it Boris’s vision?”

“Yes, it seems so. Though he could not even describe it as a vision in the usual sense, the overwhelming sense of dread and impending destruction he described, combined with your own description of his outward reaction, have left a lingering sense of unease within me as well. Though it hasn’t been enough to distract me from pleasing you.” Nicodemus stroked Jessica’s face and kissed her.

Again they shared a silent embrace, and then Jessica said, “I hadn’t thought much about that—Boris’s vision—after everything else. But now I’m wondering: what does it mean? His visions always seemed to have a specific meaning in the past. That one he had just before you first arrived here accurately described Rollo and you, or that part of you, meeting inside Rollo’s mind.”

“I guess what troubles me about this new one is that…I can’t help feeling there’s an association with…a feeling I had shortly before I began my journey back here. I dismissed it at the time, but…I had a sense of déjà vu, of being reminded of an experience that I’d since forgotten, with brief flashes of it surfacing.”

“Maybe it is just déjà vu. We’ve all experienced it.”

“On one hand I hope it is. But on the other...could this entity, this ‘presence’ be tampering with my memory? I am positive that it has been blocking my efforts to investigate more deeply into recent mysteries. And if it could create such as those anomaly-creatures, or a storm that was real only for those who believed in it, then who can say what else it’s capable of? Yet, I can’t help but hope as many others do: that we were being tested, and now we’ve passed.”

“I believe that, too. But do you really think we might still be in some kind of danger?”

“Even now, thinking about Boris’s vision, with his talk of everything having its life drawn out and crumbling into dust, still resonates within me; as if I’d witnessed such a thing for myself. Perhaps it is only a trick of the subconscious, but…oh, I cannot state unequivocally that danger yet looms, and it troubles me that I can’t. I still feel responsible, Jessica; for everyone here. I am truly thankful that for one night, at least, we were able to forget our troubles, lose ourselves in joyous lovemaking. But now…”

“I understand. We all need to…do what we must. And right now, I think we need to get some breakfast, and then let everyone who wants to know, know that you and I…intend to keep very close company in the next few days.”

They stepped off the bed, stretched limbs, and embraced. As they dressed, they agreed they should leave together and not be concerned with who might see them, so they did so.

As planned, they rendezvoused with her children at their family quarters, where they received an unexpectedly congratulatory welcome. Nicodemus especially was surprised that the children would be so enthusiastic about their mother taking him as a temporary mate; although in an earlier conversation, she had told him that, though they still missed their father Harley very much, they were very receptive to the idea of their mother finding someone to take his place. Diane even asked him if he was like their “daddy” now. Nicodemus replied that he liked to consider himself as a father to everyone here, but that she and her siblings were welcome to think of him that way. They went to breakfast together.

* * *

Tallus descended the beech trunk via the spiral staircase. Back on ground level, he paused to again admire his grandchildren’s handiwork, as relieved as they that there had been no real damage incurred yesterday.

He looked back down to see Justin and his family approach. They chatted about the treehouse’s progress and other things, such as the lack of any more bizarre occurrences for almost an entire day, and how Nicodemus had said he’d try out different approaches in his investigation.

“No one I’ve spoken to has seen him yet this morning,” said Tallus. “Evidently he had a busy night.”

“Well, however he spent it, I’ll be looking forward to some definite answers,” said Justin. “Even if we don’t get any more sudden storms or flaming snakes.”

“You can ask him right now, Justin,” said Isabella, pointing. They all looked to see a small group of mice approach, already attracting curious looks from passersby.

“That’s Miss Jessie,” said Mina from her perch atop her father’s shoulders.

“Indeed,” said Tallus, shading his eyes.

Nicodemus strode toward them arm-in-arm with Jessica, with her children flanking them. The group looked for all the world like a real family, with the two adults looking at each other with obvious affection and the children all smiling and beaming with pride.

Justin greeted all six mice by name. “Now,” he added, “I can tell there’s something you’d all like to share.”

“Oh, yes,” said Nicodemus. “Jessica and I have…found ourselves to be very much in love, and have decided to keep close company until the time…of my departure.”

None knew quite what to say right away. Then Isabella said, “Well, our congratulations to you both. And we’re glad to see the children approve of it, too. It’s just too bad that…you don’t have more…I mean…” She looked embarrassed. “I’m sorry, that didn’t come out right.”

“Be at ease, my dear,” said Nicodemus consolingly. “We have already worked through the less pleasant aspects of this matter, and have decided that our feelings for each other can overcome them.”

“He’ll be our daddy for a little while,” said Clifford proudly.

Justin, Tallus and others who’d listened in offered their best wishes; and after Nicodemus reported having no further luck in solving recent mysteries, he and his adopted family moved on, obviously prepared to have the foregoing scene repeated. Justin and Isabella were loath to discuss more of the matter in their children’s presence, but each were aware of possible further ramifications, mainly concerning the fact that Rollo would still remain after Nicodemus’s departure, and how Jessica and the children would deal with that fact then.

* * *

Just outside one of the Mouse colony’s entrances, Boris sat atop a flat rock with eyes closed, enjoying as best he could the feel of the warm sunshine through his fur and wishing it brought greater comfort than it did. He breathed in deep, hoping it would help relieve the aching in his heart. If only he could make sense of that damned vision from yesterday! Even he wasn’t sure if it could be called that, but whatever it was, he knew he couldn’t dismiss it, not when it affected him so strongly. He tried, really tried not to let it bother him so much, but after last night… He tried to swallow the lump forming in his throat even as he felt his eyes moisten. No, he told himself, she can’t stay mad at me. This has to work out one way or…

“Boris? Are you all right?”

He opened his eyes and looked down, blinking. “Ellis…Lilia. I’m…” His next words caught in his throat. He sighed. “No. Not entirely.”

“Can we help?” asked Lilia.

He hesitated, and then invited them to sit beside him. After they climbed up and sat on either side of him, he began, “Well, after Seelah and I left you last night, we were getting ready for bed and…well, you know she and I had been trying to become pregnant lately, and I told her that…the vision I had yesterday had gotten me thinking that maybe…we shouldn’t be trying so hard, until I know for sure what it means. It seemed to spell…such doom, impending destruction; and, obviously, I hope that’s not what it means, but if it does…what would be the point of bringing new life into the world if it…doesn’t even get the chance to live?”

“And,” ventured Ellis, “she didn’t agree, I take it.”

“She said that…even though she’d always taken my visions seriously, she couldn’t believe that this one could possibly mean anything that serious. ‘We have such a good life here,’ she said, ‘and we can’t just stop living.’ I said no, of course we shouldn’t, but until we know for sure, we should stop trying to have children. ‘It’s like our love doesn’t mean anything,’ she said, and…”

Boris paused, pulling out a handkerchief, dabbing at the corners of his eyes. Ellis and Lilia both stroked his back and shoulders. He thanked them for their comfort and continued. “Well, we went back and forth like that for a few more minutes, till we agreed we both had a lot to think about and maybe we should sleep separately. At least we were able to agree on that much. But…” Again he couldn’t hold back the tears.

“It’ll be all right, Boris,” said Ellis as Lilia rubbed his back. “My folks went through a period like that, and they worked things out.”

“I know that story. They almost…stayed apart for good, didn’t they? And it was a totally different situation with them, they didn’t have total destruction over their heads.”

“Er, actually, Boris, we did. Our old home was destroyed, and we nearly went with it.”

Boris looked at Ellis squarely, then hid his face in his hands. “Ellis, I’m so sorry, that was ’way out of line. I can’t believe I forgot that.”

“It’s okay. You’re upset. But you and Seelah will work things out, you’ll see.”

“But what if something does happen? What good would it do?”

“We still don’t know if it means some great disaster, or even small one. But you know Seelah’s right, we can’t all stop living and just let things grind to a halt. Especially after yesterday. Everyone’s so optimistic now, that we won’t let anything chase us out.”

“And I’d only ruin that, wouldn’t I? It’s okay, Ellis, I know what you’re saying. And I do want to believe as you do. I promise I will try.”

“He’s right, Boris,” Lilia finally said. “There are still things that need to be done, but we will all be safe afterward.”

Boris frowned. “You sound really sure of yourself, Lilia, like you know what has to be done.”

“I…only meant that…Nicodemus, and Gwinthrayle, too…will figure things out. And, I guess, Johnathan with the Stone, too.”

“She’s right,” said Ellis. “Let’s not forget Stuart and Shirley, too. We’ve got plenty of talented people on our side.” Inwardly, he wondered if there weren’t more to Lilia’s statement than just her echoing his own words of encouragement, similar to yesterday’s “worthy” statement. He and Reuben had chalked that up to her being tired, and now he concluded this one to be similarly innocuous.

“I’m just afraid,” confessed Boris, “that I’ve lost Seelah forever. We-we’ve never had a fight like this before, and…” He paused as tears began welling up again. “She’s been…everything to me since we lost Doris. I just couldn’t bear it, I don’t know what I’d…”

“Come on, Boris, pull yourself together. Look, go talk to my mom ’n’ dad. They’ll tell you that couples have disagreements all the time, but they still love each other and they always make up. Or any of the elders here; they’ll tell you the same thing, I guarantee it.”

Boris managed a smile. “I’ll do that.”

“Great.” Ellis jumped down from the rock. As Lilia and Boris followed, he added, “Say, speaking of couples, did you see Nicodemus and Jessica? Do you believe it?”

“I did see them,” said Boris, “though I haven’t talked to them yet.”

“Boy, I hope they know what they’re doing, considering what he’s planning on doing with Rollo. And he’s said all along that’s not going to change. Well...c’mon, Boris, let’s go look in on my folks.”

* * *

Ellis’s concern was, of course, shared by many others; and questions about it, whether unvoiced or not, had been anticipated by the new couple, who made a point of telling everyone that they had worked through the complications that could arise from this relationship, and that Nicodemus still had every intention of sticking to his plans for Rollo four days hence. In the course of these meetings, they were reminded of another important detail: tomorrow was the day they’d scheduled to recall the exchange party from Timphon early, so that they could meet Nicodemus before his departure.

In late morning they met with Johnathan and Madeline in the courtyard in front of their home. Quickly, the conversation Jessica had with them three days before came up.

“I know I’d said you’d find love again, Jessica,” said Madeline, “but I guess I didn’t expect that you and Nicodemus would resolve things like this.”

“Neither did we,” said Jessica. “But we couldn’t deny our feelings for each other, and we decided to just take things a day at a time.”

“Even if those days are small in number.” Nicodemus reached up to stroke her cheek, pressing her face close to his.

Though others had considered the subject today, Johnathan was the first to bring up what Jessica might do when Rollo is “in charge.” She took no offense and said that, again, she would take things one day at a time; and if she did find herself in love with Rollo, she’d be careful of his feelings, knowing that he’d be naïve and inexperienced in interacting emotionally and socially with others. Nicodemus described how he’d gone “within” and talked with Rollo just after he’d gone on his recent sabbatical. He described their conversation, especially how he’d told him how he’d come to care for Jessica and to be kind to her after “turnover.” He left out any mention of his concern over the possibility of his being within Rollo’s body longer, or why. He still thought it best to wait for Gwinthrayle’s report before sharing that reason why with everyone else here. Also going unmentioned was his pang of jealousy.

The four of them soon moved on to visit Kimball and Patricia. The new couple had already informed them of their decision, and had been invited to spend as much time as they wished this day with the parents of the “bride.” Nicodemus hadn’t yet seen Patricia’s progress on her art project since his return and eagerly awaited the chance to witness it taking further shape, and to offer further suggestions. In short order, he was standing at her shoulder as she sat in front of her easel, sketching out one of them with enthusiasm: background details of his Rosebush colony office, mainly the desk, chairs and other furnishings, including his viewing device. As she worked, she brought up how they had never learned what had happened to it after they’d vacated the rosebush.

“It had been disassembled,” Johnathan told them now from the nearby divan where he and Madeline sat, “and it’s been in Justin’s office ever since, still in that state. He decided to leave it that way after moving here, and after I returned we discussed possibly reassembling it, but we agreed to leave it as is. We both know that it operated as a conduit for Nicodemus’s power, as little as we understood it, so we didn’t think it would work, stay completely inert without him.”

“Rather like Johnathan and me with the Stone,” remarked Madeline, “except that we didn’t know it would work only through him and me.” Johnathan nodded his agreement.

“Ah…so when our Nicodemus returned, the subject came up again, I take it?”

“Exactly, Kimball,” Nicodemus answered. “But I declined to reassemble the device myself, mainly because I didn’t see the necessity, and I was busy with so much else. And when I visited Gwinthrayle, he presented me with a version of his Orb of Disclosure, which serves the same function, and more efficiently, I’ve found. Though I admit I’d found little need for it until I left on my sabbatical.” Going unsaid for now was how he’d tried using it to uncover recent mysteries here in Freethorn and elsewhere, but finding little in the way of results. Along with these efforts came the sense that they were being deliberately blocked by some unseen intelligence, possibly the same entity that appeared to have been responsible for those mysteries and anomalies. Not the least among them was that sudden climatic change, for which he still fought the urge to disclose to his friends now instead of waiting for Gwinthrayle’s return and approval.

The conversation steered toward the travels the Brisbys, sometimes accompanied by others, had made to other dimensions via the Stone, in many of them finding beings like them in physical stature; some of them, like Tugrelho and Kalfomenda, becoming the best of friends with them.

“I’d surely like to meet some of these friends of yours,” Patricia said as she worked, with Nicodemus’s coaching, on sketching his old viewing device. “So diverse in appearance, and so different from us, but with so much in common with us as well.”

“One thing we’ve found,” said Madeline, “is that love is constant among all these different races. You have two sexes procreating new life, with devotion to family being the most important thing. It’s really comforting knowing that even in all these different worlds, different universes even, that such things are the same.” She and Johnathan squeezed hands and kissed lightly.

In a neighboring chair, Jessica nodded her agreement. Madeline’s remark reminded her of how, after the Brisbys had consoled her three days ago, she’d thought about her being virtually indistinguishable from the Mice from NIMH and their offspring in their intelligence and sophistication of thought. “Well, on that note,” she said, “I wonder when Michael and Cynthia are going to make things official…at the risk of sounding like you, Mom.”

Patricia laughed, looking up from her artwork. “They are keeping a low profile lately. I think you’re right about their waiting to make a big announcement.”

“Waiting for what, I wonder?” mused Kimball. “Perhaps…tomorrow, when Norman returns…” Everyone looked toward Kimball and each other, grinning.

“Why, that has to be the reason!” said Madeline. “It makes perfect sense.”

“I agree,” said Johnathan. “But whether that’s the case or not, maybe we should keep mum about our suspicions. Let them have their moment.”

“Keep mum about what?” came a voice from outside the studio door.

“Louann! Teelo! Bring everyone in,” greeted Patricia. The young family approached her as they greeted everyone. After giving Sharla and Tess a big hug, Patricia apprised them and their parents on the painting’s progress, being as descriptive as possible for Louann’s benefit. They were especially fascinated by her new sketches, and Nicodemus stepped in to explain them. The others then went over their previous discussion and theory about Michael and Cynthia. Louann was reminded of the discussion some of them had almost two weeks ago, the day of the mhys’haspa’s visit. They recalled how upset Bertie and Tara had been over some untoward remarks directed toward their relationship, and—as found at the next day’s general meeting—toward the Mice in Freethorn in general.

“I hope all that’s been laid to rest,” said Louann.

“I think so,” said Patricia as she kept one eye on Sharla and Tess to make sure they didn’t get into any wet paint, though they were already well aware not to. “Look at Herbert yesterday. I know he was genuinely concerned about Stuart, otherwise he wouldn’t have been there.”

“That’s still hard to believe,” said Teelo. “Stuart, I mean. Like he was never hurt at all. But I saw it just like the rest of you.”

They discussed more about Stuart and Shirley—who were presently attending classes—and their “sibling power,” and how much they’d have to tell the returning exchange party tomorrow, with meeting Nicodemus being only the beginning.

“When we brought up that conversation from a couple weeks ago,” said Jessica, “and now talking about Norm returning, it reminded me. It’s…kind of embarrassing, admitting it now…but I actually felt a bit jealous over him starting to get close to Teresa. We’d lost our mates almost at the same time, and now he seemed to be finding another, and I wasn’t. When I’d given it more thought, I couldn’t believe myself, especially considering how Teresa had lost Eric.” She closed her eyes, shaking her head. “It’s all irrelevant now, of course.” She took Nicodemus’s hand.

“Jealousy, thankfully, is another emotion that has yet to gain much of a foothold with us,” said Nicodemus. “Jenner notwithstanding.” His own recent bout with the emotion, or possibility of it, crossed his mind, but he was still determined to discount it.

“And hopefully it never will,” added Kimball. “Getting back to that old discussion…one thing I definitely meant to say was that all I went through to bring myself to Thorn Valley was worth it, with all that’s happened since. I can’t say I don’t miss my right leg. But on those days when I find myself complaining about it, I just have Patricia pose the question to me: ‘Was it worth it?’ And it always puts things back into perspective. In a word: yes.”

There was a moment of silence; then, out of the blue, a young voice piped up, “Mommy thinks she might be pregnant.”

Louann and Teelo gaped as the other adults stared in surprise at her. “Sharla! Sweetie, you weren’t supposed to…” Louann sighed. “Oh, never mind. We wanted to wait until we knew for sure, but…yes, it’s possible. But save your congratulations till then.”

“We’ll keep our fingers crossed, honey,” said Patricia, thrilled with the news but promising to restrain herself.

Nicodemus approached Kimball, seated near Patricia’s easels. “Well, now, how many grandchildren would this make for you?”

“Hmmm…well, if Lou has two, then…nineteen.”

“We’ve got a growing colony, all right,” said Johnathan. “And we’re due for a bit of reorganization soon. We can expect Cynthia to move in with Michael, and maybe Lilia with Ellis…”

“Yes,” said Patricia. “Funny you should mention Lilia and Ellis…they were just here an hour or so ago, with Boris. He and Seelah had a bit of a fight, though he wouldn’t give too many details. We told him we were sure they’d work it out. The poor dear was so scared that it meant the end for them, but I think we reassured him enough.”

Nicodemus nodded with approval. “The foundation of this colony must always lie in the love and support we have for one another. I feel that where we are now, both physically and in this society’s development, this is more important than ever.”

“And I have all the faith in the world that that will never change, my friend,” said Kimball, laying a hand on Nicodemus’s arm. “Even long after you’ve…you…oooh…” His head swayed on his shoulders, and he looked ready to slide out of his chair.

“Dad? What’s wrong?” Jessica rushed to his side to steady him, followed closely by Patricia.

“What’s wrong with him? What’s happening?” Louann, standing near Nicodemus, turned toward Kimball, taking Nicodemus’s arm to steady herself.

“I have no idea. Maybe it’s just a dizzy spell. I’m sure it doesn’t mean—” Nicodemus heard Louann groan and turned just in time to see her collapse to the floor. Her family was at her side in an instant, and suddenly the whole room was infused with anxiety and worry.

Kimball was carefully laid out on the floor, and he and Louann were both found to be still conscious and aware of their surroundings but complaining of the same symptoms: lightheadedness, overall muscle weakness and a peculiar tingling sensation all over. Madeline dashed out to get word passed to the medical department. The others did their best to keep the two bizarrely-stricken mice as comfortable as possible, but couldn’t keep worry from their voices as they speculated on what strange malady could have struck them down so suddenly and almost at the same time.

In going over the events leading up to the moment, one fact quickly came to light: that Nicodemus had touched both of them before they collapsed.

“Well, that must be coincidence,” said Johnathan. “Isn’t it?”

“It’s certainly nothing that I was aware of,” said Nicodemus. “That is, if I’m responsible in some way.”

“No, of course not,” said Jessica emphatically. “Look,” she said, taking his hand. “Nothing’s happening to me.”

Everyone hesitated to speak for several seconds, as if waiting for something to happen to Jessica; then Patricia said, “No, of course not.” She took Nicodemus’s other arm. “There’s no way you would’ve done anything to hurt them.”

“Not consciously, at least,” said Johnathan, rubbing his whiskers.

Patricia gaped in disbelief. “Johnathan! How can you say that? He’s your oldest friend!”

“No, I’m afraid he’s right, Patricia,” said Nicodemus. “It may have been coincidence, but under the circumstances, and especially in light of recent events, we cannot rule anything out.”

“But…how could you have done this unintentionally…and why?”

“Perhaps, Jessica, if there is this ‘presence’ we’ve theorized at work here, then it may have made use of me in some way.”

“That ‘presence!’” said Patricia indignantly. “I’m getting very tired of hearing about this thing, but not being able to see it or respond to it or do anything but scratch our heads and wonder about it!” She returned to Kimball’s side, holding his hand.

Louann’s husband and daughters had never left her side the whole time, and now Tess looked up and said, “Mommy and Grandpa are gonna be all right, Aunt Jess, aren’t they?”

Jessica crouched between her and Sharla. “Yes, they will.” She stroked her nieces’ heads. “Even if we don’t know what’s wrong with them yet.”

Shortly, Madeline returned, with Merrill and Andrew on her heels. They’d determined that their patients could be simply carried up to Medical, so each rat picked up each mouse with great care, with Teelo fussing, albeit quietly, over how Merrill was handling Louann. Each was secured in a sling-harness that held each securely against each rat’s torso, leaving the rats’ arms free. Merrill and Andrew then left swiftly with their charges, assuring all they’d receive the best of care. The remaining mice paused a moment to reassure each other further before following.

On the way, Teelo said privately to Johnathan, “This never would have happened if we’d stayed where we were.”

“On Earth, you mean? Come on, Teelo, you can’t seriously be thinking of going back to the old rockpit.”

“Don’t make fun of it, Johnathan, it’s where I grew up.”

“I don’t mean to be insulting, Teelo. But you’ve all enjoyed yourselves so much here.”

“I know, Johnathan, and I don’t want to sound ungrateful. I do love it here, and a lot of that’s because Lou and the girls love it so much. I know everyone’s saying we have to be optimistic. But what am I supposed to think about…something like this?”

“Believe me, I understand your frustration. It’s frustrating for all of us. But we will get some answers one way or another.”

“Yeah, I know, but…it’s just like yesterday. One of us gets sick or injured some weird way, and…” Teelo suddenly looked lost in thought.

“What is it?”

“I just had an idea. I’ll tell you when we get to Medical.”

* * *

It was a scene almost exactly matching that of yesterday’s, at almost the same time of day and with many of the same participants as well. In the corridor outside the medical ward, a group of mostly mice, including most of Kimball’s children, sat waiting anxiously for further word from behind the door. Most were silent, reflecting on the bizarre and sudden onset of this mysterious and unknown ailment, and what it could mean for their loved ones and everyone else.

“We were all asking yesterday, ‘What next?’ I know it was the natural thing to wonder, but…”

“But now it’s almost like we jinxed it, isn’t it, Dad?” said Teresa with a sigh. She looked down at Sharla on her lap, stroking her head.

“Come on, Sis, let’s not talk like it’s because of something we did,” said Martin. “I know you weren’t serious, but…if it is something in this world that’s causing it, then what have we done to provoke it?”

“Martin’s right,” said Cynthia. “It’s like, ‘excuse us for living.’ That’s all we’ve done, isn’t it? Just live here?” None could disagree. Cynthia sat closer to Michael, and all were silent until others arrived: Louann’s litter-mate Marie and her family, Stuart and Shirley, and Timothy. Everyone looked optimistic that answers would be had very soon. After the newcomers were brought up to date, Stuart and Shirley were ready to go in right then, but they were reminded that they needed to wait until the staff allowed them in. All agreed it was a good idea of Teelo’s to bring them in on this.

Inside, Teelo, along with Patricia and Nicodemus, had been allowed in while the new patients were examined and questioned further, and the answers to some of the questions were indeed troubling. Both Kimball and Louann reported that the strange tingling and enervating sensations had not only come upon them when in physical contact with Nicodemus, but seemed to originate from the point where each touched him, quickly spreading throughout his or her entire body.

There was silence in the room after Ages made this report. Patricia looked at Nicodemus. “Then…I guess you did cause this, somehow; or you were the instrument of it in some way.”

“I cannot deny that now, even though I myself felt no such sensation at the time. I suppose now there’s little left to do, except…”

“Bring Stuart and Shirley in here, right?” interjected Teelo. “They’ll get to the truth!”

With nothing to lose by trying, Ages agreed and started for the door, then stopped. “Whatever else we may find, I don’t want any word of what we just discussed to go beyond this room, or those who were there when it happened. We can’t have any wild rumors flying about this strange affliction ‘caused’ by Nicodemus. For the time being, until we learn what’s really happening here, no one mentions Nicodemus except that he was there at the time. Everyone understand?”

Everyone did, so Ages opened the door to the corridor, instantly facing an attentive and anxious audience. After telling them there’d been no change in their condition and so far no cause for it could be determined, he asked Stuart and Shirley to come in. They were already through the door before he’d finished asking, and were soon at their mother’s side between Kimball’s and Louann’s beds, eager at the prospect of solving this new mystery. They joined hands, and Shirley took Kimball’s hand and Stuart took Louann’s.

“There is nothing wrong with them,” began Stuart. “They’re not really sick,” said Shirley. “They should be up and walking around.” They continued in this fashion, pausing after about two minutes to see if there was any change. There was none, but they carried on undaunted for another few minutes. Still no discernible difference. They looked at each other.

“I hate to say it, Shirl,” ventured Stuart, “But I don’t think it's working.”

Shirley looked at Kimball sadly. “I’m sorry, Grandpa.”

“It’s all right, sweetie,” he said weakly. “You both did your best. We’ll still…get through this…one way or another.”

Out in the hall, Justin and Isabella had stopped by and joined the others in silently supporting the twins’ efforts. Amidst this, Timothy nudged Johnathan. “Dad, I just thought of something we may have overlooked.”

Just then, the door opened. Ages and Jessica reported regretfully on her children’s lack of success. They filed past their mother into the hall, shrugging sadly. Everyone felt bad at seeing them so dejected, after their infectious optimism since the resolution of yesterday’s crisis.

Timothy stood, indicating he had something to share. “I don’t know if anyone’s considered this yet, but…maybe we should figure this from a different angle, like…what is it that Kimball and Louann have in common?”

It didn’t take long for the answer to come over nearly everyone. “Both of them sustained serious injuries that crippled and almost killed them,” said Justin.

Everyone reacted as if knowing that a hurdle had been cleared. “That has got to be a major clue, Tim!” exclaimed Lucy. None doubted this, nor that it could be the basis for understanding the whole situation.

“Well,” said Ages, “whatever this means for them or all of us, there’s little reason for all of you to remain here. They seem to be in no danger at this time, and we’ll certainly keep everyone up to date on their conditions.”

“We’ll still allow visitors throughout the day, but no more than three at a time,” added Jessica. As most began to leave, Nicodemus began organizing a group consisting of everyone present during today’s strange event, as well as Justin, Isabella, Timothy, and the medical staff present.

Back inside the ward, he explained for the newcomers’ benefit how the patients’ sudden illness seemed to have brought on by contact with him. “So now,” he continued, “I guess I should revisit the question I put before you the day I arrived: what will you do with me? Until this new crisis is resolved, perhaps I should keep my own activities limited, and contact with others as well.”

“You mean keep yourself shut away, like you were under house arrest?”

“Call it what you will, Johnathan, but it is necessary.”

“But you haven’t done anything wrong, Nicodemus,” said Justin. “You deserve better than that.”

“Thank you, Justin, but it is my decision to make. And we cannot say how long it will take until we get answers to this matter, or until it’s otherwise resolved. It could be a matter of days, or tomorrow, or later today. I will certainly spend the time making my own attempts to get to the bottom of it.”

With this much settled, they ironed out further details. The rest of the council would be informed of the possibility of Nicodemus having unknowingly been responsible for Kimball and Louann’s condition, and the reason for his “house arrest,” for which he would be confined to his own quarters all or most of the time. Everyone else would be told that the two mice had come down with an as-yet undiagnosed ailment which didn’t appear contagious, but not that Nicodemus may have had something to do with it. As for why Nicodemus would be spending so much time confined to his own quarters, they would be told that he needed more time alone to investigate recent mysteries, including this new one, and it would require extended periods of solitude. Before most of the group left, there was one more reminder that any possibility of Nicodemus being responsible be not discussed with anyone outside of the present group or the council. Teelo asked that he and Sharla and Tess stay a while longer. Nicodemus took a moment to further assure them that he would do everything in his power to solve this mystery and see the patients cured.

Nicodemus left for his quarters, accompanied by Johnathan and Madeline. They spoke little on the way, waiting until they’d gotten there before saying anything about what had been just discussed.

“I feel so bad for you, Nicodemus,” said Madeline as they all sat down, she and Johnathan on either side. “This can’t be easy for you.”

“I cannot deny that it troubles me, Madeline,” said Nicodemus, “but thus far they seem to be in no danger, so I will concentrate my energies on finding the malady’s source…though I fear my efforts may continue to be thwarted.”

“You mean,” ventured Johnathan, “like during your sabbatical?”

“Correct, Johnathan. I’d spent many sessions deep in meditation, attempting to glean the nature of the anomalies via my own sensitivities to Lahaikshe’s ambient energies, which enable me to perform the feats you’ve seen, to a greater degree than on Earth. Strangely, an exception seems to be the precognitive ability; but the fact that these abilities have ‘followed’ me, as it were, to this body, and in greater variety, has even led me to speculate that they may not have originated as a result of the NIMH treatments, as we’d always assumed, but from some other source entirely.”

“Mm-hm.” Johnathan rubbed his whiskers. “And that goes back to that all-important conversation we had the day I came to the Rosebush to announce my marriage to this angel here.” He paused to rub Madeline’s shoulder. “You thought then that it could have been something that came later.”

“Something that I ate or drank, perhaps, you suggested,” Nicodemus said with a chuckle. “But…right now, however these abilities came about is secondary to solving this present mystery.”

“Indeed.” Johnathan’s own tone grew equally serious. “And I can’t help thinking that something or someone’s been using you, as if for an experiment of its own. When you consider that we have no idea why you’re even here, now, in this body; and now, you seem to have been the delivery system for whatever’s ailing Kimball and Louann. I’d be willing to declare unconditionally that the ‘presence’ we’ve speculated on is behind it all. And some of us, I have to say, are getting downright fed up about it.” He described Jessica’s indignance yesterday following Stuart’s apparently-miraculous recovery, matching Patricia’s an hour ago.

“Yes, she told me all about that,” Nicodemus confirmed. “And, as I alluded, my investigations have appeared to have all reached dead ends; or at least that’s my perception. But I’ll not let it dissuade me from continuing my efforts.”

Nicodemus’s demeanor softened noticeably when the conversation returned to Jessica. He spoke glowingly of her generosity and kindness, and in describing their relationship was surprisingly candid and unembarrassed about details some would consider personal. He also acknowledged the shortness of their time together, still showing little outward reluctance to discuss the subject.

At length he told them he was ready to resume his efforts, and his friends hoped for the best, though they still questioned the need for him to be confined like this. He assured them he didn’t intend to spend all of it alone, and it may not last long anyway. He thanked them for the encouragement of two of his dearest friends, who then left him alone.

* * *

Word spread quickly of the new patients. The rest of Kimball’s grandchildren were informed that he and Aunt Louann were ill and they could visit them in small groups. As they and others did, it definitely lifted the patients’ spirits, though there was no change in symptoms that anyone could feel or see. Most took a wait-and-see attitude in speculating what was wrong with them, but there was no avoiding some amount of worry. What next, indeed? What purpose was all this leading to, if there was one?

“So…don’t forget to return for your followup next week. And congratulations again.”

“Thank you, Bernie. I just hope that…oh, never mind.” Seelah and Bernadette walked from the examining room to the ward.

“Did I overhear…some good news?” asked Kimball weakly from his bed.

Seelah thought for a moment and decided it was all right, given the circumstances, to tell him and Louann first. After she shared the news, Louann was ready to share some “possible” good news of her own when they received another visitor, Boris. He and Seelah looked at each other for a moment, neither sure of what to say; then Seelah told Boris she’d wait for him outside.

A few minutes later, when Boris had finished his visit with Kimball and Louann, she suggested they take a walk. They stayed inside the Rat community, just strolling through its winding corridors. Boris said little about his visit but did indicate early that he wanted to discuss more in private.

After sitting on a bench in a nearly-hidden niche outside the library, both began talking almost at once, each finding the other wanted to apologize. They shared a laugh. “I really am sorry I said what I did last night,” said Boris, embracing Seelah. “I sounded like such a selfish jerk. But I really thought, at the time, that I had a good reason.”

“I’m sorry too, Boris. I overreacted so badly, when I should have been more understanding. I know how seriously you’ve always taken your visions. But…how do you feel now?”

Boris thought for a moment. “I’m no closer to understanding what that one yesterday meant. But after talking with Kimball and Patricia this morning, and visiting him and Louann now upstairs…I realized we both overreacted. Kimball knew all about my vision, and what I thought it meant; and yet, there he is, lying there in that hospital bed; and Louann too, both of them sick for who-knows-what reason, not knowing what’s going to happen to them; and he’s reassuring me, telling me that in spite of all this, they’re both certain they’re going to be all right. If they could be that optimistic, with what they’re going through, how could I be any less? So…if you want us to keep trying, Seelah, then by all means, let’s.”

“I don’t think…that’ll be necessary, Boris; at least not until we’re…ready to try again.” She smiled sweetly.

Boris’s eyes widened. “Wha…you mean that you…”

“I’d already been having regular checkups, remember? And this time…”

“You are?” Boris clasped her shoulders.

“Yes!”

They embraced, laughing. “Oh, sweetheart! We’ve done it! A baby! Or two, or three…” Boris embraced her again, eyes welling up. “Oh, Seelah…I promise I’ll always keep a good thought, never doubt our future here. And I’ll be as good a parent as I can.” He paused to kiss her. “Oh, I wish Doris were alive to see this. And Vincent, too, even though we never knew him.”

They excitedly discussed future plans before moving on. At length Seelah brought up something Louann had shared with her: her own possible pregnancy, and how her current condition could affect it. They agreed it could be a problem, but they’d stand by her and Teelo no matter what happened.

* * *

The air inside Nicodemus’s quarters was heavy with the scent of burning dried ajaniph leaves, which had been recommended by Gwinthrayle as being especially conducive to deep concentration during meditation. Nicodemus sat on the floor in the center of the room as Justin and Johnathan sat on the nearby divan, waiting patiently for results. Some twenty minutes after he’d started, Nicodemus emerged from his trance, flexed muscles and stood. From his expression, his friends could tell he hadn’t met with much success. Nicodemus confirmed this, then said, “Perhaps this is a case where only time will give us the answers we need.”

“Just the latest case in a series,” added Johnathan dryly, “to all of the many questions we have these days.”

Nicodemus nodded. “Though this latest effort proved fruitless, I shall not give in to frustration. There may yet be other avenues to explore to find the answers. Indeed, I may prove to not be the one most qualified to find them.”

“What about what happened this morning, though?” said Justin. “Was there, maybe, some residual sign that you may have passed something on to Kimball and Louann?”

“If there was something within me, some form of mystical energy, then it left no trace that I can discern.”

“So we have to wait and see. Again. It just doesn’t feel right. We should be able to take some kind of action.”

“I know, but…I’d been thinking, while we were waiting for results…” Johnathan began walking around the room. “Stuart and Shirley seemed to prove that their symptoms were genuine, not a matter of belief, like with Stuart’s own. Kimball and Louann, while they have no understanding of their condition, nevertheless feel that it’s not especially serious and that they’ll get better. I think that means more than simple optimism. What if that feeling is an integral part of their condition, something else that was passed along to them, from this ‘presence,’ through Nicodemus?”

All agreed that this could be another clue as to the nature of their condition. As they discussed Johnathan’s summary, there was a knock on the door. Nicodemus welcomed in his latest invited guests. “Stuart, Shirley…come in, my friends. How are you feeling these days?”

“Okay, I guess,” said Stuart. He and Shirley greeted Justin and Johnathan; then he added, “It was a little disappointing up in the ward, but I guess it’s kind of good that it wasn’t an illusion.”

“It does make it a little easier to deal with, even if we don’t understand it yet.” Justin then excused himself, citing previous engagements.

After he left, Shirley asked Johnathan if he needed to leave as well. Upon hearing “no,” she and Stuart looked at each other, nodding. “Uh, Johnathan, we were thinking…” began Stuart, “since you have the Stone, you could use it to check on Lula, see how she’s doing and stuff.”

“He reeeally likes her,” said Shirley, nudging her brother.

“Just like you like Torrance,” said Stuart confidently.

“Hey!”

“Well, I see no reason why not; that is, if you two are ready.” Johnathan removed the amulet from around his neck. They all sat on the divan, with Johnathan holding the Stone in front of him and the others arranged so they could all see its face. “The last I checked was just after Nicodemus and I returned from our trip, and she wasn’t doing much. Apparently she’d hardly strayed from where we’d left her. Anyway, it’s definitely high time to check on her again, so here goes.”

Johnathan concentrated, and soon an image was visible. The others leaned in close. Sure enough, there was Lula, just sitting and eating in a dimly-lit cave space. Johnathan had the amulet illuminate the scene better and “zoom out” a short ways. Now they could see that she wasn’t alone; three other mice were seated in a circle with her, all engaged in an animated discussion.

“It seems our Lula’s made some new friends,” remarked Nicodemus. “Is that still Teresa’s old home she’s in?”

“I thought so at first, but it’s definitely not. It’s not familiar, but even I don’t know every inch of Thorn Valley. At any rate, she is safe and seems to be happy.”

“Do you…think she’ll want to stay there, Johnathan?”

“I wouldn’t worry about that, Stuart. Although we did promise to leave it up to her on what she wanted to do. Let’s check and see if she left her sign out.” He concentrated again, and a new image appeared on the amulet’s face: the interior of Teresa and Eric’s old den where they’d left her. However, there was no “I’M READY” sign visible, and it was also apparent that she’d vacated the place altogether.

“Apparently she’s found a new temporary home with her new friends,” suggested Nicodemus.

“Can we look in on her again, Johnathan?” asked Stuart, a slight edge of anxiety to his question.

“I guess so, but not too long. I’d feel like we were spying on her otherwise.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right. Never mind, then.”

“Are you sure? This was your idea.”

Both Stuart and Shirley agreed to end the “checkup” now, satisfied that Lula appeared to be in good hands. It was obvious, though, that Stuart wasn’t completely satisfied.

They chatted for a few minutes on other subjects: mainly Boris and Seelah’s good news, Timothy’s election to the council; but inevitably, the condition of the two mice with the symptoms that were baffling everyone came up—though the possible connection with Nicodemus wasn’t brought up in front of the youngsters. All admitted that the wait-and-see approach wasn’t sitting well with them but knew there was little else they could do.

After Johnathan left, Stuart confided to Nicodemus that he’d felt like asking Johnathan if they could go visit Lula in person as well as look in on her.

“Well, I’m sure he’d agree to have you accompany him when he does go to bring her back. I know I’m looking forward to hearing all about her adventures.”

“I’ll bet those new friends of hers have something to do with that ‘mission’ she was talking about,” suggested Shirley.

“I’d thought the same,” said Nicodemus. “And no matter what that truly is about, I agree with Johnathan that Lula will want to return, to those she’d embraced as family.”

“Yeah, I guess that makes sense.” Stuart sighed.

Nicodemus could tell Stuart wanted more definite and satisfying answers but decided not to press the matter, instead changing the subject to the twins’ friendship with Torrance and Hazel.

* * *

“…and best of all, no predators! It makes such a huge difference in how everyone lives, it’s like the difference between night and day! You’ll love it there, Marnie. It’ll be such a great place for you and Monte to raise your kids.”

“It sounds great, Lula,” said Monte, “but can everyone there do things like Eric can, with the way he brought us here?”

“Oh, no. But everyone’s very smart, much smarter than me, and can do so much, and come up with such great ideas…I can’t begin to describe it all here.”

“It sounds wonderful,” said Marnie, “but you sound as smart as anyone else here.”

“Oh. Well, thank you, Marnie. They do tell me, especially Mother Pat, that I put myself down too much.”

“Is there…anyone special waiting for you back there?”

“I’ve made a lot of friends, but…yes, I guess there is. I’ve thought about him lots of times since I’ve come here, and…I wish I’d given him more of a goodbye than I did. I’ve wondered if I might have hurt his feelings. Well, I guess I’ll—”

A sudden commotion interrupted the trio and quickly gained the attention of the entire chamber. They turned to see Eric at the cave entrance. He raised both arms and everyone quieted.

“Friends…we have another new addition to our group.” He paused and turned to welcome her in. “Don’t be afraid, we’re all friends here,” he was heard to say as his charge stepped forward a bit timidly. “Everyone…this is Wyn. She’s not used to such big crowds, so let’s all try to ease her into our group.”

Wyn returned everyone’s hellos with smiles and waves, already looking more at ease as Eric turned her over to Sibelle and Dupree.

As Eric moved into the crowd, two mice stepped up to him. “Is she the last one?”

“And if she is, that means we’ll be moving on, right?”

“I know you’re feeling cooped up, Kernin, and I can’t blame you. But honestly, I can’t say for sure. It does feel like I’m closer to gathering everyone, but I believe I’ll know for sure in a day or two.”

“Well, I hope so. I don’t mean to sound like a jerk, Eric, but…”

“He can’t help it,” said Adell, giving Kernin a playful nudge. “We just have to keep looking ahead, don’t we?”

“That we do,” agreed Eric. As he moved on to visit and chat with others in the chamber, a thought came, unbidden: Will I really know when the time is right? Will I even know what to do? Every mouse that he’d brought to the Safe House had been looking up to him and had trusted that he knew what to do and would lead them to this place of peace and safety that he’d spoken of. But could he really do it, and how?

Then he looked over to Lula, who waved enthusiastically to him from the back of the chamber. Surely, ever since her arrival, morale had improved greatly, with her stories and descriptions of her new adopted home; and, beyond a doubt, her presence had given his spirits a lift as well. With all he’d done so far, none of which he’d ever have believed he could do, he should—no, he will continue to know what to do, and when. All along, he’d felt guided, as if on a mission. Lula had felt the same way, though she couldn’t do all these strange and wondrous things that he could. If it was a mission, he knew it was one they both would see through to its conclusion. And the ones waiting for him, after that? Surely, though Teresa and everyone else there thought him dead, she would welcome him back with open arms, and her sons would accept him as well. Certainly, it would come as a shock to her, but…

A group of children paused in their game of tag and wended their way toward him, shouting his name. As he crouched and gave each a hug, he was again reminded that this was so much bigger than just him, that the future well-being of so many mice was riding on him, and that he could and would continue to meet the responsibility.


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Out of the Mist