Her passion is to empower children to think for themselves, to learn about the power and beauty of our diverse human family, and to walk the "Hero's Journey" in real life.
Having struggled with mental wellness as a youth, she seeks to empower young people of all life experiences and diverse backgrounds through her writing, art, and presentations.
“And now disaster is at hand...”
Gabriele de’ Mussis, lawyer, Italy, 1348
The rat dug a burrow in the most remote area of the Lower Tunnels that she could find. She dug feverishly, using tooth and claw, feeling as she did that eyes watched her from behind. Her baby was curled up, asleep—a blessing. Expecting at every moment to feel long, curved teeth sink into her shoulder, she shuddered, making her fur ripple up and down her back. Finally done, she climbed inside with her wisp-thin pup, pulling him close. Her tooth marks grooved the damp earthen chamber; dirt clung to her claws and trembled on the ends of her whiskers. The ever-present stink of the Lowers hovered in the air like a brown fog, but she didn’t care. Maybe here, at the end of nowhere, she and her baby could be safe.
The mother’s name was Nia.
She let out a breath that she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. Pulling her pup tight, Nia licked his head, his ears, his tiny pink paws.
“Pip,” she murmured. She’d named him Pip because he was as tiny as a seed. Seeds can grow into strong trees. “My sweet Pip,” she whispered in his ear.
Directly over her head, through thirty feet of dirt and rusting pipes, in the weak December sun, the harbour city’s popular market was bustling with people looking for last minute presents. Middle-Gate Market was festive with its potted evergreen trees and strands of blinking coloured lights. Shiny red balls trembled on the boughs of the tinsel-dressed pines as salt air gusted up the hill from the sea below and rattled the lights against the rafters where they were strung.
Watching over all of this, under the faux Gothic clock, stood Middle-Gate’s most famous tourist attraction: a brass statue modeled after the gargoyles of Paris’s Notre Dame cathedral. The monster stood on guard, a five-foot winged beast that stood meekly by while tourists thronged around it, snapped selfies, and rubbed the creature’s flared nostrils for luck.
That was the side of the market the tourists saw and the locals loved. They had no idea of the other side, the one that lay below. A distinct world, with its own ways, its own rules: a colony of rats.
Tunnels wound underneath the hill, tooth-carved thoroughfares, veiled from the eyes of humans. There were tunnels high up and tunnels below that snaked deep into the hill’s belly.
The Uppers were dug alongside the city’s swanky cafés and eateries, and food was never far away. But lower down the hill, below the heart of the market, it was different. Tangles of narrow tunnels limped through broken pipes, leaking sewers, and sodden earth, connecting scores of foul smelling, crumbling burrows.
No rat lived in the Lowers by choice. Except one, that is.
Nia had been staring, listening, for many beats of her heart. Nothing. Her son lay in the warm crook of her belly, snoring softly.
Nia’s eyelids drifted closed. She shook them open. But the warmth of Pip against her, his sweet, newborn smell, made her sleepy. Her eyelids wavered. So sleepy...
Her eyes flew open.
A brush of sound came from the outside tunnel. Nia pushed her pup down and stood over him, scanning the air with her nose. Pip squirmed under her with a squeak of protest.
“Shh!” Nia lowered herself and pulled him close, hardly daring to breathe. Her abandoned burrow in the Uppers still held the bodies of her other pups. They lay scattered around like dried leaves. On each of their necks a single bite mark, a red half-moon. She had not been able to save them, but here, now, there was still hope.
She kept her eyes on Pip.
“Nia?” A voice broke the stillness.
She gasped and fumbled to hide Pip beneath her. “Go away!” she cried. Tears bunched behind her eyes, threatening to spring.
A shadow filled the entrance hole. “You’re not still angry, are you? I had no choice!”
“No choice?” Nia laughed bitterly. “Yes, poor you. Poor helpless you!”
As she spoke, Pip wriggled out from under her. He sniffed the air like a wobbly snake. She grabbed him and pushed him back down. But it was too late.
The shadow hissed. “You hid one from me? You deceitful, conniving—”
“You can’t have Pip!” said Nia through gritted teeth. Tears dripped onto Pip’s head and darkened his fur like a bloom of blood. “I will not let you!”
The voice roared with laughter. “You won’t let me? You have no choice.”
“No!” she screamed. Nia coiled her back legs and leaped, claws extended, teeth bared. The figure met her mid-air. She dug her claws into his back and tore at his thick, ropy neck with her teeth but was flung against the wall. Pain shot through her. “Run, Pip!” she screamed, even though her pup was too young to understand.
The voice laughed. “Yes, Pip. Run.”
They rolled over and over, ripping, scratching, biting. Shrieks echoed off the wall. There was scuffling, a squeal.
Pip sniffed the air, his small, shell-like ears turning toward the sound. He was cold. Where was she, the one who was warm and smelled like milk? He nosed impatiently through the nesting and plopped out onto the dirt. He found her, and nuzzled against her paw, but it flopped back down. Warm, sticky fluid flowed from her and he wrinkled his nose and sneezed. He poked her again. Wake up! Wake up!
“Pip.” The voice behind him made him jerk his head around. Sharp teeth gripped his hind paw, yanked him across the floor. Pip squealed and scratched, but the cruel teeth bit through.
His tiny paw burst with pain, and he fell into darkness.
“A staggering number of people died...
In many towns only two people out of twenty survived.”
Jean de Venette, Carmelite friar, 1359–60
This way!” shouted Fin, as he scuttled up the column. Even with his bad paw he could outrun Scratch. He popped out on a rooftop that overlooked the market.
Scratch laboured up, panting. “Not...fair...Fin! Daylight... no good...can’t see! You know I can’t see!” Reaching the top, he stepped into the sun next to Fin. Scratch squinted at Fin accusingly. His blood-red eyes, almost blind in the daylight, watered in the hot sun, streaming down his wisp-white fur. Scratch was the only rat Fin had seen besides himself who wasn’t brown or black, but he was different even from Scratch. Fin had a ridiculous cape of grey fur that started on his head and continued down his back, and two large ears that stuck out. To make matters worse, he was as scrawny as a pup.
Scratch sniffed the air and froze mid-sniff. “We’re at the market? I said I didn’t want to go! It’s not allowed, Fin! Not allowed!”
“Stop worrying,” said Fin. “Come on!” He ran headlong down the column.
The market was busy, swarming with two-legs. Their noisy machines inched along the roadway next to the fruit stands, mixing exhaust with the smell of ripe cherries, strawberries, apricots, and other two-leg things.
Fin plunged through the sea of legs, which parted before him, shrieks ripping the air. Skirting around the bronze statue that looked like a giant rat with wings, he whooped and hollered. “Yeah! You run! You’d better run from Mister Fin!”
Ahead, an old two-leg sat on a bench, its withered claws resting on a curved stick. Fin veered for it and sprang onto its lap. It screamed, flapping its claws at Fin until it teetered sideways and fell off the bench.
Fin streaked under a market stall. Peering from under the overhang of a plastic tablecloth, he smiled, panting as he watched two-legs gather around the wrinkly old one.
Fin had caused that trouble. He, himself. Fin. The so-called puny nephew of the Beloved Chairman. Fin had heard other Tunnel Rats murmur behind his back, “The poor Chairman! Nephew looks like a mouse!” If only he could tell his uncle about this, tell everyone, but he didn’t dare.
What he was doing was against Tunnel Law.
Tunnel Law was clear: NO TUNNEL-RAT SHALL GO INTO TWO- LEG TERRITORY UNTIL COVER OF NIGHT. Fin’s uncle, the Tunnel’s Beloved Chairman, the one called “Papa” by every loyal Tunnel Rat, was the one who had made the law.
Back on the rooftop, Scratch flicked his ears and wagged his nose from side to side, his red eyes bulging with terror. Calling ultrasonically to Fin in a voice too high for the two-legs to hear, he cried, “Come back! If Papa finds out, the ARM will collect us. No, not us. I’ll be the one who’s collected! Me! That’s who! They won’t collect the Chairman’s nephew.”
Fin snorted. The ARM protected the Tunnels. Papa said so. He called to Scratch, “I told you, there are no collect—”
“Come back here right now! Right now, Fin! Fin? Do you hear me? Fiiiinnn!”
Fin shook his ears to stop their ringing. “Next time I’ll come alone,” he muttered. With Scratch still screeching in the background, Fin scanned the air with quivering nostrils, his nose high.
The smell of fish, old, stinking, putrid, curled up before him. Its scent-trail shimmered like a winding silver pathway, leading him further into the market. He followed it. He ducked in and out of shadows and under stalls. The silver wisp drew him forward, leading him, until it circled over one fish-laden stall. No, not over it, under.
The fish on top were fresh; the wisp snaked underneath the table. Whatever it was waited for him below. And it was guarded by an enormous two-leg.
The two-leg patrolled the fish stall, walking back and forth, its rubber boots thudding against the pavement. Something flashed metallic in its fist. Fin knew the ugly two-leg couldn’t see him where he hid, but even so his heart pounded in his ears. The silver trail danced and wove under the table, tempting him. But it was such a big two-leg.
He watched as another two-leg, this one much smaller, approached. The huge one turned, making barking, gibberish sounds with its mouth, its attention away from the ground. Fin darted from his hiding place and scooted under the table.
He slipped behind the table leg and froze, listening, sniffing. The two-leg was still jabbering.
It was dark and cool underneath the table, and the tile floor was damp. The silver scent-trail of old fish was thick here, so thick Fin could almost taste it. It hovered over a half-open box in the corner.
Fin took one hesitant step, his ears swivelling, his nose sniffing. Nothing. He took another step and then leaped, landing on one of the closed flaps of the box. It sagged under his weight, and he slid down, trying to get a claw-hold as the flap lowered. A mountain of fish heads rose up to meet him, but glinting amongst them, the gleam of metal. A trap!
Fin twisted wildly but crashed into the pile of fish heads, which toppled toward the yawning jaws of the trap. Tchik! The jaws crushed a fish head, squirting Fin with slime. He clawed frantically against the box flap, but it was wet and heavy. He lost his hold and fell back onto the fish.
“Scratch!” he screamed. “Help me!”
Two-leg voices shouted gibberish.
The floor shook. THUNK-THUNK-THUNK-THUNK... The big one was coming!
Scratch called, faint and far away. “Fin? Oh no! Oh no! Fiiinnnn!”
Fin hunched, quaking in the corner of the box. Fish heads cascaded onto him as the box flaps were torn back. The two-leg was monstrous. It spied Fin, and its mouth gaped open in a roar, teeth bared. Its eyes bulged, red-veined and popping. It swung its arm down hard. Fin dived to one side. A knife whooshed over his head.
Again, the knife swung down. Fin leaped out of the box, onto the two-leg’s bare arm. He vaulted off, soaring through the air, and landed on the pavement. His lame paw bent under his weight. He fell, sprawling.
The two-leg stood over him. Brought its boot crashing down. Fin jumped to one side. Too late. Pain shot through Fin’s curled paw. He squealed, tried to run, but his foot was smashed into the pavement. The two-leg raised its boot again. Fin curled close to the ground, waiting for the final blow, when a high-pitched scream flattened his ears. Jabberings of two-leg voices rose, shouting, screaming. Tree-trunk legs swarmed around him.
Digging in his claws, Fin yanked his glued foot off the pavement. Pain shot up his leg. He ran on three paws. Behind him, he heard—or rather, he felt—the thunder of boots. The two-leg was coming after him.
Fin leaped for the column. He climbed, dragging his crushed leg behind him.
Scratch screamed from the roof, “The two-leg is close! Hurry! Hurry, Fin!”
A boot whizzed by Fin’s ear. It bounced against the column. A second boot followed. Fin kept climbing. When he reached the top where Scratch waited, he collapsed.
“Thank the Old Ones you survived!” said Scratch. “But what will our Beloved Chairman say? Oh, what will he say?”
Fin’s eyes rolled back in his head, and he fainted.
“Gratitude is a dog’s disease.”
The market was crazy, even for a Saturday, but it was still one of Ananda Blake’s favourite places to be. She and her family had only lived in the city for four months after moving yet again for her dad’s work. Despite her frustration at having been uprooted for the millionth time, there was a life to this particular place that delighted her, even its underbelly—the smell of urine in the alleys, the cigarette-strewn gutters, and the night dwellers who came out, pale and blinking into the sunshine, eyes bloodshot, hair uncombed, bristling with piercings like edgy porcupines. Middle-Gate Market: a place where anything was possible.
Ananda waited by the newsstand while her father, Tom, browsed through the magazines and papers. Leaning against the railing, she watched a group of tourists pass. They spoke in what sounded like random noises. But their smiles she could understand. And the wonder in their eyes as they looked around this new and foreign place.
Where had they come from? What were their stories? That was one good thing about moving so much. It made Ananda appreciate other cultures. It was the only good thing, though.
Her dad was still nose-deep in magazines, so Ananda passed the time by making up histories about the people who filtered by. One woman was dressed in a hot pink draping of material with a band of gold on its edges that beautifully framed her dark skin. She looked to be of Indian heritage, like Ananda’s mom. Ananda took a mental snapshot. She’d try to recreate the woman with pastels on paper when she got home.
Her stomach growled. She glanced over at her dad. Tom was bent over a newspaper, his thick eyebrows drawn together.
“Dad, can we go now? Dad?”
He looked up, blinking. “Oh. Ready?”
She rolled her eyes heavenward like one of the martyred saints. “Uh, yeah. I’ve been waiting for you! I’m hungry.”
“Okay, okay! Let’s just take a quick look at the bookstore downstairs.” He paid for his paper, tucked it under his arm, and veered into the stream of people. Ananda sighed, then waded after him.
“I’m gonna tell Mom that you’re going to the bookstore again!” she called.
“No you’re not,” he called back.
They passed near a bakery stall. The irresistible aroma of baking bread made Ananda’s stomach gurgle. As she trudged after her dad, her eyes lingered on the trays of cinnamon rolls slathered with icing.
They walked down a broad set of wooden stairs, grooved by the generations who’d walked down before them, and entered the shop almost as if they were entering a church. Books were stacked as high as Ananda’s head. It was quiet in here, with that fusty smell particular to used bookshops. Ananda breathed in and smiled, tucking her hair behind her ear.
This was one of those little secrets between Ananda and her dad; they’d often sneak more books into the house even though Ananda’s mother, Perrin, had pronounced a moratorium on buying books until they’d read the ones they already had at home, waiting to be unpacked. Boxes of books followed them from move to move like old friends. But Ananda’s mother was a writer; Perrin couldn’t resist a good book any more than her daughter or her husband could.
Books were one of the few things Ananda and her dad could talk about anymore. She certainly couldn’t talk to him about his job—at least not without causing the start of World War III.
Humming tunelessly, Ananda slowly walked down each aisle, her fingers bumping along the book spines. In the “Art books, Used” section, her fingers stopped on Sketch What You See. She pulled it out of the leaning stack and read the back:
Learn to see things as they actually are, not how you think they are. “Did you find something?” asked Tom, coming up behind her. Ananda held out the book.
He read the back, nodded, then held out a thick paperback. “I found this.”
Ananda took it. A wavy-haired man smiled out from the cover, gazing into the distance as if he were seeing heaven itself. “Who is he?”
“Josef Stalin. One of the biggest mass-murderers in history. Want to borrow it?”