“I’m Matchstick the Mouse. And, hey, I’m actually a mouse. Surprised? I bet you’re wondering how I got my name. You’re not? Wait! Where are you going?”
“Match, who are you talking to?”
“Why are your fans walking away from you?”
Matchstick raised a furry brow. “Good question.”
“Is that the style you want for your chapters of our memoirs?” Mischief reached for her satchel to pull out a pencil.
Matchstick placed his paw on her arm. “No work! We’re on vacation.”
Thunder cracked, and the sky above was starting to thicken with gray clouds.
The two were standing just outside the door of a shed, running their first and only errand of the day. Afterwards, it was lunch, and then the open highway.
The door opened, and Mischief’s friend walked out. “I’m ready for you now,” he said. “The calibration is complete.” He glanced between the two. “What were you doing?”
“Composing our memoirs,” Matchstick said with a grin. He bowed, raised a tail, and introduced him.
Mischief’s friend adjusted his glasses and returned the gesture. “The name’s Fabaceous—uh, Doctor Fabaceous. I’ve heard a tale or two about your adventures. I imagine your memoirs would be…compelling reading. Shall we?” He stepped aside to let Matchstick and Mischief pass through the doorway.
The inside of the shed was a vast space filled with a few standing tables that supported several heavy-looking instruments; shelves stocked with bags, canisters, and bottles of liquid; and several pots and beds containing plants. Bushes bearing purple five-petaled flowers, vines laden with tomatoes, stalks hanging with pods of beans. A skylight above let in the light of the late morning sun filtered through the gathering clouds.
“Not what I expected,” Matchstick remarked.
Mischief nodded. “It’s impressive.”
Doctor Fabaceous straightened and smiled. “Thank you for doing me this favor. This shouldn’t take too long. About thirty minutes.”
Doctor Fabaceous explained that he had invented a device that would allow mice to generate their own food by growing seeds quickly and in small batches. It would reduce—and perhaps someday eliminate—the need for foraging, a dangerous but necessary part of every mouse’s every day.
The Murine Authority rejected Fabaceous’s request to support the building and safe testing of the device.
“They didn’t think it would work, huh?” Matchstick asked.
“On the contrary, they seemed convinced by my blueprints and reports of the underlying theories of operation that it would work. Their concern was that it would require expertise to operate. It’s not ‘scalable to every common mouse.’ Their words, not mine. If operated improperly, it could cause trouble.”
“Fab, I should tell you right now,” Mischief said. “I get uncomfortable when scientists get vague with their language.”
Matchstick nodded. “Same.”
Fabaceous sighed. “Their fear is that the improper operation of the device could draw the attention of larger, predatory mammals, or encourage theft from rival rodents, or worse yet, draw the notice of…well, you know.” He pointed his paw downward and extended two digits, moving them alternately in a two-legs-walking motion.
“Humans?” Matchstick said.
He believed in his research, and his device, and his calibrations. And there would be no refining if no one ever built a prototype. He had tested the device a few times already with no problems, repeating the test with the exact same parameters. Now he wanted witnesses, and if all went well this time, he would appeal to the MA again. He might get in a bit of trouble for continuing his research despite their expressly forbidding him to, but he was certain they would be forgiving once they saw—and tasted—the results.
The only mice who’d been willing to sign their names to the good doctor’s unsanctioned experiments were Matchstick and Mischief.
Being in trouble with the Murine Authority was not exactly a new experience for the two.
Mischief crossed her arms and gazed at the plant bed that was to be the test subject. It just looked like a bed of dirt at the moment. “So how does it work, Fab?”
“That’s no ordinary plant bed. The whole plant can grow from seed to harvest without having to be transplanted. And…the whole construct is contained within an isolated chronon field. Basically, I’m going to create a temporal bridge for anything lying within this field. The bridge will lead from this moment in time to the moment in time where all the seeds planted in the bed would reach maturity. Typically it would take a couple of months. But the bridge will make it possible for the beans to be harvested within thirty minutes, give or take, or…give.” Fabaceous turned to them and smiled. “You can take some on the road with you if you’d like.”
Matchstick slapped Fabaceous on the shoulder. “Impressive, Doc. So it’s a plant growth accelerator?”
“I can understand why you would think that Mister Matchstick, but it’s actually not accelerating growth. It’s bridging the temporal gap that exists between the planting of the seed and the harvesting of the crop.”
“Time is moving differently inside that field,” Mischief said, reasoning it out aloud. “To the seeds, it’s normal. But to us, time appears to be moving faster. But…it’s not?”
Matchstick gazed down at the plant bed. “Aww, so it’s a miniature timeline? Or…wormhole?”
Fabaceous ducked away from Matchstick’s arm and walked over to the table where he picked up a device that looked like a small slab with buttons. He started punching some of the buttons. “Perhaps a demonstration would be more…uh, enlightening.”
Matchstick leaned toward Mischief. “Tell me you don’t get it either.”
Mischief shrugged. And a crack of thunder sounded above them. Rain began to patter on the roof and the corrugated panels of the laboratory and workshop.
Mischief glanced up at the rivulets of water running down the skylight. “Fab, should we wait until the storm passes?”
“No, no. That’s outside the environment of the experiment. Anyway the workshop is sealed to leaks. It should be fine.”
“Should be?” Matchstick asked.
“Well, I wouldn’t be a good scientist if I said I knew for sure. You are correct in pointing out that it’s a variable that didn’t exist during my previous trials. But I have emergency power, uninterruptible. And if anything goes wrong, well, you’ll just have to carry on with your vacation without the beans.”
Doctor Fabaceous turned on the device. The only indication that it was working was a blinking blue light attacked to the side of the plant bed. The three watched and waited for a moment as the rain began to drum and the lightning flashed above them, so brightly that it outshone the bright workshop lights.
Fabaceous frowned. “Something is wrong,” he said, leaning forward and punching more buttons on his control slab. “We should be seeing growth by now.”
“Anything we can do to help?” Mischief asked.
Fabaceous shook his head. “Give me a few moments to recalibrate.”
“Doc,” Matchstick said, “careful not to lean too far—hey!”
Fabaceous gasped and fell toward the plant bed. Mischief was closest. She grabbed him, but she had leaned too far forward to do so. She was falling too now, dragged by Fabaceous’s momentum. Matchstick leapt toward them both. He reached out but missed grabbing Mischief. She still had her satchel on. It flew back behind her. Matchstick managed to clamp his jaws down on it. He would yank on it when he landed, and pull them out.
That was the plan.
But things didn’t go according to Matchstick’s plan.
He never landed.
Each of the three called out to assure the others that they were alright.
A flash of lightning had hit, just as they were tumbling onto the plant bed. Their eyes were adjusting to the dimmer light that shone around them now. Their eyes were adjusting, and so too were their limbs.
“Match…I’m floating. Are you floating?”
Even as she asked the question, Mischief saw the answer. Matchstick was indeed floating in the air. As was Doctor Fabaceous. As was a metal screw that floated by, and then a torn piece of paper, and a feather that was fluffy on the bottom and smooth at the top, and cracker crumbs, and a dozens of other bits and pieces.
“What happened to gravity?” Matchstick asked, as he pushed his legs against a stone. The stone moved away from him, and he, moved away from it, and toward the other two mice.
Mischief reached into her satchel for her pencil and pad. “Fab, we fell into the isolated chronon field. Can you confirm?”
“I…” Doctor Fabaceous clutched the control slab against his chest. His eyes faced forward, but he didn’t seem to be looking at anything.
Matchstick placed a gentle paw on the his shoulder. “Are we on that bridge you were talking about, Doc?”
Fabaceous blinked and shook his head. “It’s not an actual bridge, Mister Matchstick.”
“Yeah, doesn’t look like one.”
“Are we outside of time?” Mischief asked.
“We’re not outside of time. We’re between time.”
“Okay, Doc. So how do we get back?”
“I don’t know,” Fabaceous said, gazing ahead at nothing.
Matchstick patted his shoulders. “Maybe we just need to cross the bridge.”
“The field is supposed to turn off in about thirty minutes, right?” Mischief said. “So we should rejoin the main timeline then? Will we age the way the plants will?”
Fabaceous shook his head and blinked again. He looked at Mischief. “No—uh, no the plants are anchored to the main timeline, through the…the bed, the dirt, it’s a long explanation. They will age naturally as they cross the bridge. But would be perceived to age quickly to anyone standing in the main timeline.”
Mischief scribbled on her notepad. “And we’re not anchored? How can you know for sure?”
“Yes, we’ve become unanchored from the main timeline. We’re…we’re stuck on the bridge.”
“So if we can re-anchor ourselves, we’re good?”
Fabaceous shook his head. “There’s no way to do that from inside the bridge.”
“If we can’t do that, can we cross the bridge?” Matchstick suggested again.
Mischief nodded. “Logically that makes sense. Fab?”
Fabaceous shook his head again, and clutched his control slab tighter. “I don’t know. I just don’t know.”
“Okay, Chief, the doc needs to rest for the time being. It’s up to us. How do we cross the bridge?”
Mischief gave Fabaceous an uncertain glance, then turned to Matchstick. “Well, if this was a typical bridge, we would first have to orient ourselves. Where did we come from?”
“Does it matter what direction we go in?”
“I don’t know, but I think the safer option would be to continue our journey forward. We entered the bridge from one direction. We should exit from the other.”
“Same as the plants.”
“Right—right!” Mischief snapped her digits. “Match you’re a genius.”
“Fab, can’t we use the plants to re-anchor ourselves, or hitch a ride? They are on the forward journey. I don’t see them now, but if we can find them, we can follow their growth pattern, and that’s how we’ll know what direction to go in. We just follow it, and we should emerge on the other side of the bridge. Right? Fab? Would that work?”
Doctor Fabaceous didn’t respond. He just floated. His tail was pressed against his body. His whiskers twitched. He might just have been thinking, might have just needed a moment, or he might be needing more help beyond being rescued from a time bridge. Mischief reached over and held Fabaceous’s paw in her own. She gave a gentle squeeze.
Matchstick put a paw on Mischief’s shoulder. “And if it doesn’t work, we cross that bridge when we get to it?”
For a moment, Mischief lowed her head. Then she burst out in laughter. She patted Matchstick on the shoulder. “I needed that.”
Mischief and Matchstick floated around for a while, dragging Doctor Fabaceous with them, each having hooked an arm through his arms, which were still clutching his control slab. They directed their motion by kicking off objects that seemed to be of a similar mass.
“This is getting us nowhere,” Mischief said. “We have no orientation. No way of knowing if we’re moving closer to the plant bed, or farther away from it. It’s like we’re in outer space except that there is an atmosphere. We can breathe and we can see.”
“Why is there a breathable atmosphere but no gravity?” Matchstick asked.
“Maybe the air is trapped here like all this other stuff.”
“All these items are terrestrial,” Fabaceous said, startling his companions. “This particular temporal bridge is connected to Earth. It exists in Earth’s atmosphere. Gravity does exist, it’s just weaker here, or else we’re floating within something.”
“So whatever we’re floating in is holding us up the way water would,” Mischief said. Fabaceous had been silent for a while. Mischief threw a hopeful glance at Matchstick, who smiled.
Fabaceous shuddered. “I don’t like water.”
“Not to worry, Doc. We’re not in water.”
“I expected the bridge to be emptiness,” Fabaceous muttered. “Nothingness. I never considered it to be filled with substance, only energy.”
Matchstick chuckled. “Yeah, well, this place looks like it’s where all the things that get lost end up.”
Fabaceous glanced up. His gaze followed one of the objects. “What is that? Looks like a giant disembodied paw, but it’s huge and flat. And where are the digits?”
“Relax, Doc. Haven’t you ever seen a sock before? It’s two-legger stuff.”
“Humans?” The doctor cringed and glanced around.
“Maybe we’re going about this the wrong way,” Mischief said, following her friend’s gaze. “Sorry, friends, I must not have been thinking clearly before. New plan. There’s a lot of technical debris in here. And even whole tools. Now Fab, we’ll need your expertise here. Is there enough useful and usable material floating around in this…temporal debris field that we could build some kind of device to get us re-anchored to the main timeline, or detangled from the bridge timeline, or whatever it is we need to do?”
“Build…a device?” Despite his hesitant tone, Fabaceous glanced around, and for the first time since they arrived, he began examining his environment.
“Yes, originally the plan was to wait for the isolated chronon field to collapse, and hope we fall back into the main timeline. But if that was how it worked, all this stuff wouldn’t be trapped in here. So assuming we’d be trapped too, we were hoping to hop a ride on the plant bed somehow, use it as our anchor maybe, but there’s no way to find it in time—unless we build a device.”
Fabaceous blinked. “Oh—oh, well there’s no need.” He held up the control slab. “I can find the plant bed using this.”
Mischief pointed at the slab. “Okay, new new plan.”
Matchstick clapped his paws together. “Let’s do it. This mini-timeline isn’t as cute on the inside as it was on the outside.”
“How do we know how much time we have?” Fabaceous asked, as he punched the buttons on his slab and pointed. The other two were still carrying him. They seemed to move faster that way.
“Chief always carries a watch,” Matchstick said. “She’s been tracking how long it’s been, just in case, but we weren’t sure if her watch is on mini-time or main time.”
“But we’d be able to tell for sure if we find the plant bed,” Mischief said, “according to how much the beans have grown.”
“Among the other features of this controller,” Fabaceous said, holding up the control slab, “there’s an application that can locate the plants according to a tracking beacon that I programmed into their genetic base code.”
“Wait! There it is!” Mischief pointed ahead of them.
Matchstick put a paw over his eyes. “Where?”
“That pipe just spun in front of it.”
“Did you happen to see how big the plants had grown?” Fabaceous asked.
“No, but I know I saw it. We’re close.”
Matchstick swept his arm in front of and behind him. “But are we close enough?” His attempts to “swim” didn’t get them moving any faster.
“If only we had some way to propel ourselves,” Mischief said.
“Like that?” Matchstick pointed to his right and ahead, where a motorcycle was spinning in place.
Mischief sighed. “That would be great. If it wasn’t just a toy.”
“Oh hey!” Matchstick reached out and grabbed the object that they just floated past. A matchstick.
“I wouldn’t risk igniting that in here, Mister Matchstick. No telling if the material we’re floating in is inert or…flammable.”
“Noted. Thanks for looking out for us, Doc.”
“There!” Mischief pointed again, and this time, they all saw it. They saw the plant bed, and the healthy green stalks growing in it. And they saw something else.
“Is that…?” Mischief trailed off as she gaze at the translucent green band that extended behind and before the plant bed.
“That looks like a bridge,” Matchstick said.
Fabaceous glanced up before glancing back down at his slab. “It’s not a bridge. It’s the trail of the plant bed as it changes and grows.”
“A slime trail then?”
“No—well, actually sure. It’s like a slime trail.”
“Those stalks look pretty grown to me,” Mischief said. “Does that thing tell you how far along they are?”
“It doesn’t. But I can tell even from this distance, they’re ready to emerge. We need to hurry.”
“Okay, but does anybody else see that?”
It just appeared some distance before the plant bed, right along its trajectory. The hulking shape seemed to be crouched on four limbs. Tufts of gray fur-like projections fluttered over its form. Its two ears were pointed. Its eyes shone green and yellow. And its cavernous mouth was protected by a row of sharp, curved teeth.
“What is that?” Mischief asked.
Matchstick stared. “Every bridge has a troll.”
“Why does it look like a—like a cat?” Mischief said.
“I think it’s the gate,” Fabaceous said. “And it’s already closing.” The plant bed was headed right into the mouth of the thing.
Mischief gaped. “You’re saying we’ll have to let that thing swallow us?”
“That goes against everything I believe,” Matchstick said.
Some force seemed to disturb the area around what Fabaceous had called a “gate” (and what all of them would call a nightmare). The debris that was floating close by began to move toward the mouth. As it did, the gate creature, or whatever it was, raised a forelimb and batted the debris out of the way.
“Yeah, I don’t think we’re supposed to let it swallow us,” Mischief said.
Fabaceous frowned. “If that’s not the gate then—“
“A gatekeeper,” Matchstick said.
Mischief exhaled as they too moved closer. “It’s sweeping all the stuff that isn’t the plant bed out of the way.”
Matchstick smiled. “So we do have to get rid of it. Now that’s good news.”
“How do you figure?” Mischief asked. “We don’t have any weapons.”
Fabaceous peered ahead. “I think I see the actual gate. It’s right in front of the—uh, the cat-troll’s mouth.”
“This way.” Matchstick pulled them away from their course, pointing toward that motorcycle he’d seen before. They were close enough to reach it.
“We don’t have time for joyrides, Mister Matchstick.”
“Match, that won’t work. No actual propulsion, remember?”
“I’m going to get on it, then push off. The bike and I have more mass, so I’ll get to the bridge first and distract the cat-troll—good one, by the way, Doc. Cat-troll.”
“Distract? But how? It’ll just bat you away like its doing to everything else.”
“Maybe not.” Matchstick pointed to the matchstick that he’d collected from among the debris.
“One match?” Mischief shook her head.
“You might ignite—“
“I don’t think so, Doc. If we’re floating around in Earth atmosphere, but without gravity—like you said we were—then this match will light the way we expect it too. But Chief is right, one is not enough to scare the cat-troll away, unless I get close enough to poke it in the eye or something.”
“Maybe we can look for more,” Mischief said, glancing around.
“No time, Chief,” Matchstick said, releasing his grip on Fabaceous. “Get the Doc to the bridge. I’ll be right behind you—well, I’ll be in front of you, and then behind—you know what I mean.”
“Alright, Match. I’m trusting my friend.”
Matchstick grasped the motorcycle, as Mischief and Fabaceous continued drifting toward the bridge. He pushed off the debris behind him to gain momentum.
Matchstick surged ahead of the others. When he got close enough to the gate, it started sucking him in, as it was doing with the other debris. He lit the match right as he arrived before the gate. He saw the glowing green eyes of the cat-troll shift toward him. He saw the huge gray forelimb rise. He started reaching out with the lit match, aiming toward the closest eye.
He was going to hit it. He could see that. His aim was true.
Then he started falling.
Some force was pulling him downward. He lost his grip on the match and swiveled his arms. He landed with a thud that knocked the breath out of him.
Matchstick rolled over onto all fours. He sensed a shadow above him. He skittered away right as a giant paw came crashing down onto the spot where he’d been lying.
He looked down. That green band was below him. And he felt like he was standing on solid ground.
Gravity was back. No wonder he had missed hitting the eye.
He looked around and saw that the lit match had fallen on the green bridge too. He dashed toward it, avoiding another crushing blow. He swept the match up in his teeth just in time to see something else coming toward him—zooming toward him along the green bad. Something green that spanned the whole band.
The plant bed!
He couldn’t even make out the individual beanstalks, it was moving so fast. But he didn’t see Mischief or Fabaceous.
Matchstick dodged out of the way, leaping to the side and back, as the plant bed zoomed past him.
He turned around, grasped the lit match in one paw, and stood upright.
The plant bed passed through the gate, just as a giant gray paw bore down on him. It was too late to run.
Matchstick held up the lit match and braced himself to be crushed. At least he would hurt the thing that was going to kill him.
But before the paw could strike, it turned into gray mist and vanished.
He turned to look at the cat-troll. Its whole form was turning to mist.
And the gate, through which he could see Fabaceou’s laboratory, was shrinking.
Matchstick could leap through before it closed. He turned around and looked for Mischief and Fabaceous. They were sprinting toward him. He grinned, but then he glanced back at the gate.
They weren’t going to make it.
He heard them yelling and turned back to them. They were both running upright now for some reason.
Fabaceous was just waving his arms back and forth.
Matchstick looked at Mischief. She made a fist with her right paw, and point to it with her left. Then she drew back her right arm and flung it forward, opening her fist. Then they both dropped to all fours and started sprinting toward him again.
Matchstick turned around. “Alright Chief. I’m trusting my friend.”
He drew back his own right arm and flung it forward, releasing the lit match, aiming it toward the closing gate.
His aim was true.
He hit the gate, and the flame from the match burst brighter, turning white. Matchstick glanced away for a moment. He held up his arm and looked under it to see if what he thought should happen had happened.
The gate was wider now and it seemed to hold steady, but then it started to shrink again.
“Jump through!” Mischief said.
Matchstick turned. Mischief and Fabaceous were almost there. The gate was closing again. But he figured all three of them had room to jump through together, if he started running as soon as they reached him.
He got on all fours, flicked out his tail, and started a slow run toward the gate. Mischief and Fabaceous caught up to him. All three mice dashed toward the closing gate, and leapt through it.
Matchstick, Mischief, and Doctor Fabaceous tumbled onto a plant bed amidst several fully grown beanstalks that brushed the ceiling of the laboratory workshop.
They helped each other out of the plant bed as quickly as they could, and checked all their limbs, and their senses.
“Tail’s still here,” Matchstick said.
Mischief held up her tail. “Same.”
Fabaceous reached a paw back to search for his. He nodded. “Same.”
“Fab said we needed a high-energy burst to force open the bridge gate long enough for us to reach it,” Mischief explained.
“How did you know the match would work?”
“We didn’t,” Fabaceous said.
“I think we’re rubbing off on you, Doc.”
Fabaceous smiled. “Lucky me.”
Matchstick gazed up at the beanstalks. “This reminds me of a two-legger story you told me once. About a boy who eats one of these beans and turns into a giant. And there’s a bird. No mice though.”
Mischief checked her watch. “It’s only been thirty minutes. I feel like we were in there for days.”
“I don’t know what to say,” Fabaceous said, looking between the two friends. “My experiment. I thought it was harmless, but you two almost…because of me.”
“Well, we all seem to be okay,” Mischief said, “but it’s time for us to call for some help.”
“Means we’ll have to stick around here for a while,” Matchstick said.
Fabaceous hung his head. “I’m so sorry.”
Matchstick threw an arm around Fabaceous’s shoulder. “Friends don’t have to say ‘sorry,’ Doc. They just have to say, ‘I’ll never do that again.’”
“And they have to mean it,” Mischief said, adding her own arm. “Next time you’ll get us into a whole different kind of mishap.”
Fabaceous shook his head, but he was smiling. “Next time, there won’t be any devices. Just a ‘thank you, forever’ dinner. And I promise, no beans.”
“What? Why not?” Matchstick said. “Those beans are what saved us.”
After helping their friend get the help he needed to investigate what went wrong, and being checked out for any chronon anomalies in their physical matrices, and being investigated themselves, Mischief and Matchstick had been allowed to go on their vacation on one condition. When they returned, they would face the consequences for their part in the misadventure of the time bridge.
They found themselves at last on that open highway, with Matchstick driving a vehicle with its own propulsion.
“Will this one end up in our memoirs?” Matchstick asked.
“Chapter Thirteen, Mischief gets Matchstick out of trouble.”
Mischief laughed. “Double meaning. Good one, Match.”
“I’m Matchstick the Mouse, time traveler, bean-rider, sidekick to my best friend, the mastermind known only as…Mischief.”
“And I’m Mischief the Mouse, memoirist, bridge-walker, sidekick to my best friend, the matchless Matchstick.”
“Nice! We should write this stuff down.”
“On it,” Mischief said, pen already in paw. “And then…”
The two friends looked at each other and spoke as one.
Copyright © 2021 Nila L. Patel