by Mary E. Lowd
Months of waiting turned into a week of hurried rushing, seemingly over one restless, sleepless night. All at once, Hedda declared the epsilon engine ready for field testing, and Captain Kipper handed out schedules to everyone. Their amorphous days of playing cards on the engine room floor while occasionally consulting on the designs were through. And suddenly, they were busy dawn to dusk with last minute health checkups, itemizing the onboard supplies to make sure nothing was missing, and most bizarrely — press events.
Yvette was used to being filmed at gymnastics meets, not just while performing but also before and after. Interviewers always wanted to know how she felt — was she nervous about performing? Excited? Disappointed that she hadn’t come in first? Relieved that it was over? What were her plans next? Would she keep competing? Keep trying for that elusive first-place medal?
Yvette had practiced answering questions like those gracefully for years. She knew exactly how to reluctantly admit that she was disappointed while carefully counterbalancing her disappointment with gushing happiness and excitement for her competitors who truly deserved their wins. Really, their performances had just been wonderful, top notch, and no one could feel bad about coming in second to such excellence.
But the questions were different here. None of that barely-disguised pity as the reporters tiptoed around saying, “You lost; how does that make you feel???”
It was hard to believe at first… but the dogs and cats of the press here were treating Yvette like the star of the whole show. Sure, the entire crew was lined up for the press, arranged at a long table with microphones for everyone; all four mice had tiny chairs on top of the table, arranged around a single gigantic microphone, nearly the size of a curled-up mouse. But after a few pointed questions for Captain Kipper and Commander Trugger; cursory questions for Hedda, Katasha, Freddy, and George; and some outright weird, creepy questions for Sequoia (mostly about whether she thought her beautiful tail would get in her way during zero gee); all the press wanted to do was listen to Yvette tell her story about Kipper and Trugger recruiting her, how she’d picked the other mice for the team, and what it was like to know she’d be one of the first moustronauts. (Apparently ignoring all the mice who already lived on otter space stations.) She told the story over and over again, at every one of the events, to dogs, cats, and even a sea otter man, all eagerly pointing cameras at her.
Sure, they probably would have focused on Obsidian, if the octopus had been there. But Obsidian didn’t do press events. He invoked his independent contractor status, as well as the physical discomfort involved in spending extra time out in the open air, in order to stay back aboard the ship in his personal aquarium.
So, the reporters treated Yvette like a star. She’d never felt like that before. She’d always been second best, being asked questions that were really, indirectly about the competitors who’d beaten her, when it came down to it.
Several times during the press events for The Lucky Boomerang, newscasters introduced Yvette as a “repeated gymnastics champion,” as if the difference between her second and third place medallions in silver and bronze and the actual gold medals she’d craved so badly had never mattered at all. She was the only one who seemed to remember or care that she’d never actually won first place. Those distinctions all got erased inside the expansiveness of the simple term “champion.”
Yvette had always thought of Josie as the champion between the two of them, with her first-place medal that had given her a ticket out of competing anymore. Of course, Yvette could have quit competing any time too. She didn’t need a first-place medal to give her permission. Not really. But she hadn’t quit. And somehow, her string of second and third place wins had added up to counting for more in these reporters’ eyes than a single gold.
Showing up consistently counted for more than winning first place.
Something deep inside of Yvette was soothed by that knowledge. Something petty and competitive, maybe. But still, something that was a part of her. Something that drove her forward and kept her going. Something that had kept her competing, even when it looked like she’d never win.
Maybe keeping going was enough. Maybe it was showing up that mattered most of all.
“Thanks for handling the press for us,” Mulberry said shyly after the mike was turned off at their final event. “I never could handle reporters with all their pushy questions. It’s part of why I quit gymnastics when I did. I liked the actual jumping and flipping… but all those cameras? All those faces staring at me? Expecting me to say words without putting my foot in my mouth?” The white mouse with dark markings on her paws and face shuddered, huddling deeper into her tiny chair. “I might be graceful in the air, but I am decidedly not graceful when I have to, you know, talk about it.”
Yvette shrugged dismissively, and said, “It’s nothing really,” before catching herself, remembering to stay graceful with her words, and adding, “But you’re welcome. I’m happy to do it. I have a lot of practice after all those years I spent chasing the gold.”
Josie snorted, but she didn’t have time to say anything. A dog came and asked them all to vacate their tiny chairs. He collected the mike and chairs they’d been sitting using, carrying the whole collection of four chairs in his paws at once, while other dogs folded up chairs from the audience. The audience chairs — which had been mostly for dogs and cats — were much larger, and the dogs could only carry one or maybe two at a time, folded and tucked under each arm.
Wendell shook his head. “It’s so strange living among giants.”
“You don’t notice it as much on the Boomerang,” Josie agreed. “Sure, there are more giants than–” She gestured at the other three mice. “–us. But we’re still a significant fraction of the crew, and the whole place is set up to accommodate us. Make us feel normal. Like equal members.”
Just as the dogs finished clearing the folding chairs from the room and started eyeing the table where the mice were still standing, Trugger came over and asked, “Anyone want a ride?” He tapped his shoulder.
“I don’t mind running,” Wendell said, hopping down from the table.
The car they’d come in was just outside the building, but the building was big. Mulberry hesitated a moment and then grinned big. “Actually, I think I’ll run too.” She’d been racing with Wendell a lot lately. She always lost, but the practice was increasing her speed. She was getting close to catching up with him, and Yvette had to admit it looked like good exercise.
Even so, when Josie said, “Yeah, I’ll take a ride,” and hopped on Trugger’s extended paw, Yvette decided to go with her.
Yvette and Josie sat on Trugger’s shoulders, one on each side, while he strode jauntily through the building, rudder tail swaying behind him. The other two mice raced each other at his feet. The rest of the crew — cats, dogs, and squirrel — followed behind at a leisurely pace.
Yvette wanted to ask Josie about whatever it was she’d been about to say… but it was too strange with an otter head between them. You can’t have a private conversation with someone when you’re both riding on the shoulders of a giant. And yet, if there was anyone who would be understanding about an awkward conversation happening on his shoulders — and maybe even capable of making it less awkward by interjecting some esoteric bird metaphor — that otter was Trugger.
So, Yvette leaned forward and peered across the otter’s navy blue collar at her friend. “Was there something you wanted to say to me back there?” she asked, trying to sound casual.
“What?” Josie asked, sounding startled.
“About chasing the gold,” Yvette clarified. “When I said I’d been chasing the gold… you, I don’t know, snorted? It seemed like you had something to say to me.”
After a few moments of awkward silence, Trugger interjected, “Sometimes a snort is just a snort. Like a feather is just a feather. No meaning behind it at all.”
“Thank you, Trugger,” Josie said, “but in this case, Yvette is right.”
Yvette’s stomach turned cold and hard at those words. She’d asked for this. But she wasn’t sure she actually wanted to hear it — hear Josie tell her off for her pettiness.
“I… still feel…” Josie said slowly and haltingly, before finishing in a quick rush, “…guilty that I won the gold medal that I knew you wanted. You wanted it so much more than I did. I just wanted us to be friends. And then… I ruined it. Because I felt so guilty, I kept pulling away from you. I’m so sorry.”
“What?” Yvette said, trying to deal with her understanding of the last few years turning upside down. She was used to turning upside down physically. Not emotionally. “I thought… I pulled away.”
“What?” Josie exclaimed in surprise. “You kept reaching out. Inviting me to lunch or just leaving little messages telling me about what you were up to. I’m the one who was always… pretending to be busy. I thought for sure you’d win a gold of your own, and then all the awkwardness would be over…”
“But I didn’t,” Yvette said simply. There should have been shame or bitterness in the words, but they were just facts. Now she felt even weirder about how much she’d wanted to win a gold medal, because apparently, if she’d won one, she’d have gotten her friend back? That was messed up.
Or maybe, if she’d just been able to get over her intense desire for one of those shiny gold medals — really get over it — she could have had this conversation with Josie long ago.
“This is heavy,” Trugger said.
Each mouse looked at him quizzically, pinning him with enquiry from either side.
“Oh, not literally,” he explained. “You’re still both quite light. I mean the conversation you’re having. Friendship! Competition! Estrangement! That’s a lot to be dealing with. It’s good you’re shaking it out of your feathers now. Gotta be light as the heart of a singing songbird for our takeoff tomorrow.”
Trugger didn’t say it directly, because his way was to obfuscate everything with bird metaphors. But he was right. The two mice didn’t need this argument between them while flying a brand new proto-type starship.
Maybe it was the impending weight of their first flight that had made old arguments and grudges too heavy to bear anymore.
“I’m sorry that I coveted your gold medal so much,” Yvette said, feeling lighter as the words left her. It was hard to apologize for simply being the person she’d been. But she wanted to be better. And that was the first step.
“So… we can be friends again?” Josie asked, a quaver in her voice.
“Aren’t we already?” Yvette would have said more, expounding on how wonderful it had been working together and playing cards together the last few weeks. But Trugger took a sudden, sharp turn around a corner, ducking into a nook next to a stairwell, off the path that the rest of the crew continued following.
The otter reached up with his paws, offering one webbed paw to each mouse, and tentatively, Yvette and Josie stepped onto the fuzzy platforms.
Trugger brought the two mice around to where all three of them — otter, gray mouse, and orange mouse — could look each other in the eye.
“This is a beautiful moment,” he said, “really it is. And I love seeing beautiful moments like this happen. Friendship is so important.”
The otter paused. Neither mouse had ever seen him look this serious. He was the levity to Kipper’s responsibility. Yet here, his round, bewhiskered face was set with complete gravity.
“But…?” Yvette asked, faltering in the face of his solemn expression.
“But I need to know that you can work together and that — whatever state your friendship is in — you are capable of staying professional during our upcoming mission.”
“Our half day mission to the moon and back?” Josie asked, tilting her head and squinting like she was trying to discern what the big deal could possibly be. “We’ve been working together just fine for weeks,” she added. “Why would a half day mission be such a big deal?”
Trugger chewed his whiskers, gaze darting from side to side nervously. “I can’t say, but… you need to be ready. Space is big and dangerous, and you have to take that seriously.”
“Okay,” Yvette said. Then she looked at Josie who still looked confused. She held out a paw, and Josie held her paw up too, like the orange mouse was a mirror of the gray one. Trugger moved his own paws closer together, close enough that the two mice could clasp their own tiny hand-like paws together. “We’re okay, and we’re ready to go into space. Aren’t we?”
“It’s the biggest adventure in the world,” Josie agreed.
“Bigger than the world,” Yvette said, a grin spreading her whiskers wide.
The grin spread contagiously from Yvette to Josie and finally to Trugger.
“Good!” the otter said. “Because… look… I can’t say. But you need to be ready.” He clearly wanted to tell them something.
“If it’s about the mission,” Yvette said, “then we’ll find out soon enough, right?”
“Right,” Trugger agreed, nodding. “Tomorrow can’t come soon enough.” Then he put the mice back on his shoulders and hop-skipped to catch up with the rest of the crew, heading back to The Lucky Boomerang.
Continue on to Chapter 7…