(700 word flash fiction)
Alfred stood on tiptoes to peer into the barrel, and tried to ignore the chill that ran down his spine like icy ants. Even in the root cellar, under feet of earth, the Overlords watched them always.
At the base of the barrel, through husks of last year’s corn, darted not one but two mice.
“Daniel, look! We can race them.”
Daniel, with the help of his combat boots, could see without stretching. “The big one’s mine.”
He shouldered Alfred aside and leaned into the barrel.
Alfred scuffed his bare feet on the dirt floor and listened to the mice skitter.
“Got him,” Daniel said.
The chill remained. The Overlord was lingering.
“We’re not doing anything,” Alfred muttered.
Daniel lifted the struggling mouse by the tail and poked its furry belly. The mouse grabbed his fingertip with tiny claws, but Daniel laughed and flicked its nose. “Grab yours and we’ll take them to the maze.”
Alfred stood on a crate and leaned over the side of the barrel. When he stretched, his fingertips brushed the bottom. The reek of mouse hit him in the face.
“Don’t fall in.”
Alfred snatched the mouse and clambered out before Daniel could shove him. He cradled the mouse in both hands, and felt the trembling of its tiny body and the fluttering of its heart.
They took the mice to the field behind the shell of the farmhouse, to the maze they’d built out of sticks and detritus from crashed aircraft.
“First one to get out wins,” Daniel said, “and no cheating. No touching your mouse.”
“And no getting in the way of the other mouse.”
They held the creatures side by side by their tails over the starting point.
“Ready,” Daniel said.
Alfred’s mouse twisted and clawed at the air, its tail leathery between his fingers. He turned it to face the right direction.
“Get set,” Daniel said.
The sky darkened and Alfred felt the familiar chill. He refused to look up.
They dropped their mice.
Alfred’s hit the ground and bounded in the right direction. Alfred ran beside it. “Come on, good mouse! That’s the way. Keep going. No, don’t climb the wall.”
Daniel’s mouse reached its front feet up the side of the starting chamber and sniffed the air.
“Bad mouse.” Daniel pushed it.
He had. He always did.
Finally Daniel’s mouse turned in the right direction. Alfred ran beside his, shouting encouragement, but Daniel’s mouse gained.
“Come on,” Alfred shouted.
His mouse reached a corner. The exit was left.
The mouse ran straight.
“Bad mouse!” Alfred waved a hand in front of it.
It turned, found the right corridor, and ran into Daniel’s mouse.
They sniffed each other.
Daniel stomped beside them. “Run!”
The mice ran. They rounded the last corner neck and neck. Alfred’s bounded towards freedom in long leaps. Daniel’s found a piece of grain and picked it up with both forepaws.
“No!” Daniel shoved his hand, fingers splayed, in front of Alfred’s mouse. “Get here.”
“You’re in the way,” Alfred said.
“I’m not touching. I’m calling my mouse.”
Alfred’s mouse sprang over the hand, won free of the maze, and vanished into the grass.
Alfred leapt straight up. “I win!”
Daniel’s mouse sat in the maze and gnawed its grain.
“You useless little squit!” Daniel stepped into the maze, raised his foot, and stomped right on his mouse. The heel of his combat boot crunched to the earth and he ground it in. “That’ll teach you.”
A shadow flowed across the field, darkening the wildflowers.
“He had it coming to him.”
Alfred’s heart pounded in his throat and he rubbed his palms on his trousers. “You shouldn’t have done that.”
“Ha!” Daniel galloped down the hill towards the abandoned farmhouse.
Goosebumps rose on Alfred’s arms. An Overlord’s ship materialised over the base of the hill. Alfred ached to dive into the long grass and vanish, but he remembered what his mother always said. Never run from the Overlords.
The bottom of the ship opened and something metallic descended. An enormous pillar, a stamp as big as a tank.
The pillar stomped on him once and retracted into the ship, which faded to nothingness.
The sun warmed Alfred’s back and the wildflowers swayed in the breeze.
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