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“I got you a present, boy,” said the woman in the fuzzy sweater. The sweater was pink and as soft as a rabbit’s fur, and she was proud of it. It was her best sweater, the one she wore for only parties and church. Today, she was wearing it because she was going into town with her nephew, a special occasion. Now they sat on a bus together, right behind the driver. That way they could keep an eye on the road to look for unexpected bumps in the uneven surface.
“A present? What for? It ain’t my birthday, Aunt Clara,” said Lennie, confused. “Is it my birthday?”
“No, it ain’t your birthday, boy. It’s jus’ a present for bein’ good.”
“I been good, Aunt Clara. I been real good.”
“Yeah, you been real good. Here it is.” She pulled it out of her bag and dangled it from her fingers for Lennie to inspect.
“A mouse!” he exclaimed. He cupped his hands together and accepted the gift from his aunt’s tired fingers. “It ain’t a real mouse.”
“It’s a rubber mouse. I know you like mice, an’ I bought it special. It can’t never get killed. An’ now I don’t have to give you mice no more. I’ll give ‘em to Mr. Milton’s cat.”
Hesitantly, Lennie touched the toy’s gray skin. He frowned, unsatisfied. “It ain’t no good to pet,” he complained. “It ain’t soft like a real mouse.”
“Yes it is.” She reached over and stroked it roughly. “It’s real good to pet.”
“No, it ain’t,” he argued.
“Well, you better keep it. I coulda got somthin’ useful at the store but I wasted five cents on that mouse. Don’t lose it, now.”
Lennie lifted the mouse and dangled it from his fingers just as his Aunt Clara had, turning it so he could inspect every inch of the outside of the animal. He seemed to be looking for signs of life to prove that it was alive, but there was nothing. Surprisingly, he found no fur carved into the rubber. Even its tiny head was bald.
Holding it in his right hand, he lowered it by its tail and set it down in the aisle. The job finished, he twisted away from the mouse and tucked his knees up to his chin. He latched his fingers onto the fur-like fabric of his aunt’s sweater.
“Leggo of my sweater, boy. Now you go get that mouse.” Lennie showing no signs of letting go, she continued. “Don’t you lose that mouse. It cost me—“ She was interrupted by a substantial bump that shook the bus and shut everyone up. The mouse flew to the back of the bus. Clara put her arm around her nephew protectively and peered through the dusty windshield. There were still small bumps on the road ahead, but they were going faster and faster and hitting them harder and harder.
“Driver! Why this bus goin’ so fast?” she demanded.
A nervous old man answered in a strained, rusty voice. “The brake’s busted, ma’am. I can’t stop or slow down, ma’am.”
Clara’s eyes widened as she realized the problem. The bus was approaching a long downhill stretch, and at the bottom of that hill, there was an intersection. They were too far away to see any oncoming buses. If there was one, there was no way to avoid an accident except luck. Clara Small didn’t believe in luck. She turned away from the window.
“You gotta leggo of my sweater, boy. This ain’t gonna be fun and it ain’t gonna be real safe, neither. Now you leggo of my sweater and crawl right under this seat.” Lennie heard her and understood her, but his fingers were frozen with fear. The panic in his aunt’s voice terrified him. “Go. Hurry up. You gotta go under this seat.” Her voice rose to a frightened shout. “Go now! Leggo my sweater, Lennie!” He whimpered. Screams rose throughout the bus as passengers saw the danger. Clara, however, managed to take control of her emotions and calm herself. She spoke steadily this time, trying to soothe him and save his life.
“O.K., Lennie. You’re gonna be fine. Now listen to me. Leggo of my sweater and go set under this seat.” She was rewarded when Lennie loosened his grip. “That’s right. Keep goin’.” Finally removing his fingers from the comforting material, she guided him gently under the seat. “Now you set right there. Don’t move, you hear me?”
“Yeah, Aunt Clara. I ain’t gonna move.” Relieved, Clara sat up and looked out the window to her left. There was a bus moving behind the trees, also going quite fast towards the intersection at the foot of the hill. Having attended only elementary school, she had never been good at estimating distances and speeds and other things like that. But now, even she could tell that there was practically no hope for either of the two buses. Through all the chaos, heard a faint sound coming from under the seat. “Aunt Clara?”
“What is it?” she asked, leaning forward so Lennie could hear her.
“I’m real sorry ‘bout that mouse. Maybe I c’n go find it when this bus stops bumpin’ around.”
“Yeah, maybe. Now you stay right there. Don’t go lookin’ for it yet.”
“I won’t. I ain’t gonna move, Aunt Clara.”
“Good boy.” Slowly, she raised herself back up. As she turned her head towards the window again, it exploded. Glass and metal flew towards her, tearing her face and arms. The screams, mixed with the splintering of glass and shrieking of metal against metal, were deafening, but Clara heard none of it. The shrapnel buried in her back was making it hard to breathe, and the pain was overpowering. Lying on her stomach, she reached into her bag again, producing a scrap of paper and a pencil. She wrote with shaking hands:
Take care of my boy, George Milton
Reaching under the seat, she passed the paper to Lennie. She rolled over and unfastened the buttons on her prized sweater and gave that to Lennie, too.
“Aunt Clara!” he cried. “Aunt Clara!” He heard no answer, and tears trickled down his cheeks. He curled into a ball under the seat, nestling the sweater next to his face.
Jim Wells, a good friend of Mr. Milton’s, came running from the back of the stopped bus towards the only exit in the vehicle. He wasn’t expecting the glass on the floor, so his feet slipped out from under him, one of his heavy boots kicking something that wasn’t metal. Curious, he looked next to his feet and found a boy on the ground. Pulling the boy out from under the seat, he examined him. The boy had a face of a nine-year-old, but his size suggested that he was a bit older. Most importantly, he wasn’t dead. He was unconscious, due to a kick in the head, but he was still breathing. He was holding a sweater in his arms, and one of his hands was clutching a piece of paper. After a bit of pulling, the paper was recovered. Jim read it. A quick glance to the seat that the boy was hiding under was enough to show that the boy was alone now. Sighing, but still feeling heroic, Jim picked up the boy, taking the sweater with him. They left the ruined bus together.
Three hours later, a mechanic appeared at the scene to assess the damage and look for the cause of the problem. He was quite surprised to find a rubber mouse stuck in the brake.