Molly and Peaches had just met the night before, but already they greeted each other like old friends, with a nose touch.
"How was your first day at P.S. Forty-two?" asked Peaches.
"Terrific!" exclaimed Molly. "I really love it here. But sleeping was a bit drafty inside the wall. When I woke up, my nose was cold."
"Well, that's just -- "
Suddenly Peaches turned the pink of her long ears toward the classroom windows. "Hear that?"
Molly quieted her mind and listened.
"All I hear is a paper bag blowing across the playground," said Molly. "And..." Molly's eyes grew wide and alert. "...cat's paws on pavement! Could that be?..."
"You got it!" said Peaches. "Big Gray is on the prowl tonight!"
The mere mention of Big Gray's name set Molly's heart thumping like a tiny jackhammer.
"Are you sure it's him?"
Peaches nodded gravely. "I'm afraid so, dear. But don't worry. You'll be safe as long as you stay inside."
"Hey, Jake!" Molly called to her brother.
At that moment Jake was on the other side of the class-pet table watching guppies swim round and round in lazy circles. The back and forth swish of their tails and fins, and the green glow of the aquarium light had put him into a kind of trance.
"Huh?" he said without looking up.
"Over here!" called Molly. "It's important!"
Jake tore himself away from the guppies and sauntered over to Peaches' cage.
"Good to see you again," said Peaches with a courteous nod.
"Yeah," mumbled Jake.
Though brother and sister, Jake and Molly looked very different. Molly's fur was a slightly grayish color. Jake's was almost chocolate brown. Molly was small and thin with tiny ears, delicate features, and long, even whiskers. Jake was big and chubby with large leafy ears and short, crooked whiskers.
They were different in other ways too.
When Jake heard the news about Big Gray, he just shrugged. "That old mop doesn't scare me!" he boasted. "I outsmarted him last night, and if I have to, I'll outsmart him again tonight!"
"Oh, Jake," exclaimed Molly. "It worries me to hear you talk like that. Promise me you won't go outside tonight."
"Don't worry, Sis. We're making our nests tonight, remember?"
"Making nests?" asked Peaches. "Does that mean you're moving into P.S. Forty-two for good?"
"Oh, yes!" piped Molly. "Isn't it wonderful?"
"Hold on a mousy minute!" Jake brought a rear leg up to scratch behind an ear. "I never agreed to stay for good. Only to try it out."
"Yes! Yes! I know," declared Molly. "But you're going to love it here. I just know you are!"
"Maybe, maybe not," Jake slowly shook his head from side to side. "I'll tell you one thing. The old plaster walls in this place are, as Poppa would say, 'drafty as a slice of Swiss cheese.'"
"A nice cozy nest will fix that problem," said Peaches as she hopped over to her water bowl and took a drink.
"That's right," agreed Molly. "Like Momma always said, 'a house without a nest is not a home.'"
"Perhaps you two would like some of my cedar shavings for your nests?" offered the plump white rabbit. "My cage was cleaned this afternoon, so I've got a fresh supply."
Molly was just about to accept Peaches' offer when Jake spoke up.
"Thanks, but no thanks!" he said, sounding almost snippy.
Molly was stunned. "What are you talking about? Of course, we'd love some cedar shavings!" she exclaimed. "They smell so sweet!"
"Yeah, but we don't need them," said Jake. "Just look around. There's enough paper in this classroom to make a hundred nests."
"But paper is so ordinary!" declared Molly. "I want my first nest in my first real home to be special. Besides, we're not living in a deli anymore, Jake. This is a school! Paper is important here."
"Molly's right," said Peaches with a wink. "You wouldn't want to chew up someone's homework to make your nest. Would you?"
"Sure, why not?" answered Jake. "We're mice. Chewing things up is what we do best!"
"Speak for yourself!" gasped Molly. "Personally, I wouldn't dream of gnawing on anything that belonged to Miss Clark or one of her kids. Not to mention the fact that it would be like leaving a note that said, 'Yoo-hoo! It's us, the mice. We're moving in!'"
"So we take the paper from the wastepaper basket," said Jake. "That way nobody's feelings get hurt."
Molly squeaked a high-pitched yip. "Jake, I'm surprised at you! How many times did Momma and Poppa tell us never to go near wastepaper baskets?"
"Yeah, I know." Jake recited the rhyme his parents made all their offspring memorize:
"The wastepaper basket
Is a mouse's casket.
Jump and shout and thrash about.
Once you fall in, you never get out!"
"And what about Uncle Benny?" Molly reminded Jake of the horror story Poppa often told about his kid brother who starved to death at the bottom of a wastepaper basket.
"Yeah, yeah, but -- "
Suddenly a rumbling could be heard from Jake's belly. It got louder and louder until...
"B-U-U-U-R-R-R-P! Wow! That's got to be the loudest burp I ever made!" Jake grinned proudly. "Too bad I wasn't in a burp contest right now. I'd win first prize!"
"Too bad you never paid attention when Momma tried to teach you some manners," quipped Molly.
"So, are either of you interested in any of my cedar shavings?" asked Peaches.
"I am!" said Molly.
"How about you, Jake?" asked Peaches.
Jake heaved a huge sigh. He wanted to build his own nest in his own way. But he did like the smell of cedar shavings. As a matter of fact, he loved it.
"Sure, why not?" He shrugged.
"Then it's settled," said Peaches. "Just open my cage door and I'll kick some out for both of you."
A single block of pine kept Peaches' door shut. But neither Jake nor Molly, nor the both of them working together, could budge it.
"Don't worry," said Peaches. "We'll just call Gino. He opens my cage all the time."
"That old spook?" asked Jake with a grimace. "Do we have to?"
"Why not?" answered Peaches. "He'll probably drop by soon anyway."
"Where is that scruffy old ghost?" wondered Molly out loud. "I haven't seen him since lunchtime."
"Why, I'm right here," announced a voice from above.
Molly and Jake looked up and saw a mist hovering over their heads. While they watched, the mist condensed into a brownish lump. Then the lump morphed into a shaggy hamster with a big grin on his face.
"Hi Gino!" cried Molly. "How are things in Hamster Heaven?"
"Couldn't be better," answered Gino as he slowly descended to the class-pet table.
Text copyright © 2003 by Frank Asch
Illustrations copyright © 2003 by John Kanzle