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This was the bad part of town. From everywhere came the smells of unpainted walls and newspapers and forgotten garbage and the distant sounds of cans rattling the streets and humming power lines and steam from the sewers. The sky burned orange and burned the world below a deep orange.
Two young men looked away from it all, standing on a balcony three stories above the streets, facing a small apartment door. The taller man swallowed his throat and knocked three times on the door. The knocks rattled the walls of the apartment and echoed across the entryway. The doorknob clicked and rattled, and the door swung open with a loud whine.
"Hey, there," the woman behind the door said to the men. "Come on in."
The apartment had barely any comfortable accommodations; there were no paintings along the stone cold walls, no plants to soak up the humid musty air, no clocks to add movement to the sepulcher-like room. The room had two clear divisions: a carpeted living room, and a tile-floor kitchen. The kitchen was scantily stocked; all that decorated the kitchen were a countertop, a few cupboards, a gas stove with a kettle, and a sink. There were only two pieces of decor in the living room: a wicker chair, and a bird cage perched on a blue milk crate.
"I'm sorry," the woman said. "I know you two said you'd drop by, but... I'm having trouble with your names..."
"You don't remember?" said the shorter man. "I just told you a few --"
"I'm Jake. You know, Jacob Snow?" said the taller man. "This is Andrew Cantu? We were in freshman English together?"
"Er... I'm sorry, it's been a while..."
"Remember that group project on Romanticism? Or the homecoming dance?"
"Ah... I remember something about it. I'm sorry, would you like some tea? I've been drinking it, since I moved here."
"Sure," Jacob said. "What kind of tea?"
"Green tea. The Asian store three blocks away sells great homemade tea."
"I'm not thirsty," Andrew said, frowning as he sniffed the stale, sunburnt air.
"Well, you look like you're doing better since I last saw you, Jessica," Jake said. He glanced at Drew, who was shaking his head as he looked out the window.
"Just sit down, Drew," Jake whispered as he sat down on the wicker chair. "It'll only be a second."
"This place... is so cheap."
"I wouldn't call it that. It's not cheap, it's... simple."
There were a few pages of newspaper lining the bottom of the bird cage. They were several weeks' old. One of the pages, topped with a proud headline about a local riot in the area, quivered. A small mound of fur peeked out from under the paper and looked up at Drew.
"Is Pepper awake?" Jessica asked.
"Oh, I think so..." Andrew said. "Is that its name?"
"Pepper, yes," she said as she poured the hot water into the two cups. "I found him a while back, lost in the streets, and he's been living with me since then. He's pretty unique, actually. He comes all the way from Central Europe. Amazing, how a small piece of Europe is living with me."
The small mouse wobbled out of the newspapers and squeaked softly.
"Oh, dear, I should fill up his dish, too. He loves green tea. Only he doesn't like it hot... could you get his dish for me, uh... what was your name again?"
"Drew." He opened the small metal door on the cage and reached for the small, shimmering silver bowl in the corner. As his hand drew closer, Pepper stood up and sniffed at it.
"He doesn't bite, does he?" Andrew asked.
"Bite?" Jessica said. "Oh, don't worry. He only bites the people he likes."
"Well, I don't like the way he's looking at me..." Andrew slowly put his hand against the bowl's rim. Pepper suddenly darted towards his hand, and Andrew bolted his hand upward, lifting the cage off the crate and hurling it across the room.
"Whoa!" Jacob shouted as he bolted from the chair.
"Oh... oh my..." Jessica said, her hands setting down the teacup. "What happened?"
"That thing jumped at me!" Andrew said, pointing to the sideways cage beside the wall, still holding the silver bowl.
"Oh no, oh no," she said, rushing to the cage and searching through the newspaper. "Pepper? Pepper? Where are you? Are you okay? Oh," she picked up the small, quivering ball of fur. "Oh God, oh thank God, thank God, you're okay. Oh, Pepper, thank God you're okay." She cradled Pepper in her cupped hands. The small mouse peeked out of the cracks in her hands and latched its two front teeth onto her thumb.
"Look, Jake," Andrew whispered, "how long do we have to stay here? She's creepy, her place is creepy, and her pet rat's creepy."
"We can't leave her now," Jacob whispered back. "We promised we'd take her out for dinner."
"Jake, I don't care. You can take her out to dinner, but I'd rather head back to the hotel."
"He's okay," Jessica said as she nestled Pepper back into the bird cage. "Thank God..." she sighed as she lifted the cage and slowly set it down on the milk crate. "Here, I'll take his tea dish," she said.
"Sure," Andrew dropped it in her hands and walked back to Jacob's side. Jessica slowly poured some tea from her cup into the dish. Andrew slouched against the wall, crossed his arms, and stared down at Jacob.
"Once we're done talking with her, you can head back," Jacob whispered to Andrew. "But not until we're done talking."
"Okay, here," Jessica handed a teacup to Jacob. "You didn't want tea, right?" she said to Andrew.
"No," he said.
"Okay, then." She picked up her own teacup and took a sip. "Well, first of all, thanks for visiting me. I haven't had anyone over since I moved in here."
"I can tell," Andrew mumbled. Jacob shot him a disparaging look.
"So, how did college go?" she asked.
"Oh, it went by quickly," Jacob said. "You haven't gone back?"
"No, never found the time. Never needed to. I love this small town. This small space. Everyone's been so welcoming."
"But, this isn't a small town. It's a slum," Andrew said derisively.
"Well... I suppose that's another to see it," she chuckled. As she took a sip of her tea, Jacob turned and mouthed "knock it off" to Andrew.
"But I love the atmosphere," she said. "And I love packing fruit at the factory. There's such a lovely smell there... Well, you'd have to go there yourself, to know what I mean."
"I'm guessing it doesn't..." Andrew started, before glancing down at Jacob, who glanced back. "What I mean is, it must be hard to earn a living down there."
"Oh, it's more than enough. Too much, really, for me. I give most of it away. The people on the street need money more than me."
"For drugs," Andrew mumbled, before coughing loudly and looking away from Jacob.
"So, have you been keeping in touch with your folks?" Jacob asked.
"Well, no, not really. I don't even have a phone, see. Or a phone line. But I'm fine, without them. I'm happy, as long as I've got Pepper, I'm fine."
Jacob spun the tea in his cup slightly. "Do you have any friends around here?"
"Well... there's the merchants. The man at the bread store talks to me, every so often. And the woman at the tea store sometimes talks with me. But... the people here are very, very friendly, but I'm fine being here with Pepper."
"You spend a lot of time with him?" Jacob asked.
"Oh, yes," she said, staring at the bird cage. "We spend a lot of our evenings together... talking... playing..."
"Talking about what?" Jacob asked.
"Oh... whatever he likes to talk about." she said.
Andrew leaned in close to Jacob. "Can we wrap this up soon? I think I know enough now."
"All right, all right," Jacob hissed back. "Sorry, Jessica, but Andrew here is getting a little restless. How about we get ready to go now?"
"Oh. Well, let me get my coat... Pepper's tea should be cold enough now."
"Fine, fine," Andrew walked to the kitchen counter, grabbed the silver dish, and walked back to the cage. He slipped the door open and set the dish back in the corner, in front of a curious-looking Pepper. As Andrew pulled his hand back, the mouse leapt up and bit him on the hand.
"Ouch! Ow! Stupid, crazy monster!" Andrew threw his hand against the side of the cage, knocking Pepper off his hand. The cage teetered slightly, but Andrew restrained himself and slowly pulled his hand out of the cage.
"What happened?" Jessica looked out from her room.
"Your little rodent just bit me!" Andrew said.
"Oh," she said. "I guess he likes you."
"Yeah, right," Andrew scoffed, rubbing the wound. "Let's go."
Andrew and Jacob headed for the door, and Jessica glanced at Pepper for a few seconds before joining up with them.
Jacob came back to the hotel just over an hour after Andrew did. As he entered the room, Jacob said to Andrew, "Well, so much for that."
"Hey, Jake," Andrew looked up from the TV. "How was the date?"
"Oh, well... Jessica's sure not the same person I knew from English class. She doesn't care about art or writing anymore. She's lost that charming smile of hers, too. All she ever talked about was Pepper..."
"So, you're ready to dump her now?"
"What? No... I don't want to call it 'dumping her'. I mean... I know, she could have made it through college. She was smart enough for it. Even if she's fine staying here... I want to help her, somehow. I'm thinking, maybe we could get her a counselor, find some way to get her back on her feet..."
"Jake," Andrew said, "there are crazy people in the world. And they enjoy being crazy. And there's nothing anyone can do about it. If she enjoys being poor and living in a dump, let her live that way. And if she loves her mouse more than she loves you... go ahead and let her loose."
"Well," Jacob paused, "maybe you can snap her out of it."
"I told you, I'm not going anywhere near her again. What time are we leaving?"
"Erm," Jacob paused again. "Actually, how about we leave the day after tomorrow?"
"Why?" Andrew sat up.
"Well... right when I dropped her off at her apartment, Jessica asked me if you could meet her tomorrow night. She was very insistent, so..."
"You didn't," Andrew said, staring straight at him.
"I can cancel our plane tickets and get new ones..."
"Why did she want to see me?"
"I... didn't ask, but she told me she really wanted to see you again, before we left."
"Why? You're the one who's in love with her, not me."
"Look, Drew, just do it for me, okay? Maybe she'll open up to you instead of me. I don't know how to deal with people like her; maybe she'll make it easier for you."
"This had better not have anything to do with her rat liking me," Andrew groaned.
Andrew came back the next day, at the same time that he had left yesterday. The sky was cloudier and darker than the day before, and the street lights shone brighter. The apartments, however, were still as dark and cold as yesterday. Jessica stood outside her door, staring out at the balcony. She looked up as Andrew's steps rattled the floorboards.
"Okay, what did you need--" Andrew started.
"Downstairs," Jessica said. "It's better downstairs."
Andrew looked at her for a second. "Downstairs?" he asked, as Jessica walked calmly towards him and the stairs. Andrew followed her, and continued asking, "What's downstairs? What have you got planned for me? This isn't going to be a date, is it?"
Jessica just continued walking down the stairs silently, down to the sidewalks, and continuing towards the back of the apartment, and then turning toward down the alley, to where the dumpsters and trash cans lay. Various pieces of trash and rotten food creeped out of the bins, with their scratching smells writhing into the cold night. On top of one of the trash cans was a bird cage, with a small mound of fur squeaking within.
"Oh, no. So this does have something to do with your rat," Andrew said.
Jessica turned to him and said, "Pepper is the reason I came here."
"What? Did someone try to steal your rat and leave him here?"
"No," Jessica said as she opened the cage and let Pepper slip onto her arm. "He's the reason I left college. And moved here. This is Pepper's home, more than it is mine. I moved out here, because that was where Pepper wanted to be, and I wanted to be with Pepper."
"Hold it," Andrew said. "I just want to be straight with you on this: I don't really like you or Pepper that much, so whatever feelings you have for me, you should really give them to Jake, 'cause he likes you more than I do. Okay?"
"But Pepper doesn't like Jacob. He likes you."
"I don't care what Pepper likes. I don't like him, period."
"But Pepper wants you to be with me."
"No. No way. No. I told you, no way, I'm not doing what your rat wants me to do."
"Andrew... that is your name, right?"
"I don't know whether you can tell or not... Things aren't working well between Pepper and me. I pretend everything between us is fine, but... we're just not compatible with each other."
"Okay, this is just getting sick, now."
"I've tried so many ways to make it work between us, but he's still a mouse. But now... you're just like me."
"No, I'm nothing like you. I don't live in a junky apartment talking to a rat all day."
"When it first began, I was so afraid. The fear, the anxiety, the new perceptions. I was so scared of everything back then, I couldn't keep going at college. And it's much safer, both for Pepper and me, to live here than back in the city. Mice are much more accepted out here."
"Wait, what are you talking about now?" Andrew asked.
Jessica looked down the alley. The street lights were hidden in the alley; the alley was nearly as dark as the sky. But far off, to the east, a white light was growing in the haze just above one of the buildings.
"I used to stay in my apartment for these nights. But," her voice started to screech, "I prefer the outside to change."
Andrew suddenly turned to Jessica, and her eyes were bulging red, her fingers sharpening, and her skin rippling with dark hairs.
"What-- what-- what are you?" Andrew suddenly felt his own skin lurch and wriggle around him. "What did you do to me?!" Andrew screamed, his voice squeaking as his throat collapsed on itself. Andrew tried to run, but his legs, his arms, and the world threw itself upon him, and Andrew felt everything around him falling into the cold darkness. Throwing itself upon his flailing mind came a chill unlike anything else he'd ever known: a cold, petrifying, putrid fear that engulfed everything, swallowed it, and left a small, shivering mound of fur on the street.
The fear kept Andrew still for a long time, and Andrew struggled to retain his senses. He felt a nudge on his side, and tried desperately to ignore it. He barely heard a man's voice nearby saying, "At least he's not running around like you did."
"I don't know... Was it really right, Pepper, what you did?"
"What does it matter, now that it's done? I've seen it happen many times. He'll learn to adapt to his new mind. He'll learn to love becoming a mouse. He'll love his life as a mouse more than his life as a man. And then some day, he'll make that decision to become one of us for good..."
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