“You’d better come with us.” Pudgy turned and led the group back to the garden once again to discuss the new information. “I want Leo to hear it first hand.”
The small group of mice and not-quite-mice huddled outside the garden gate while waiting for Leo to come out.
“Back again?” he asked through a mouthful of green beans. “Oh, hey Chipper.”
“Wait,” said Pipsqueak. “You know each other?”
“Sure.” Leo picked at his teeth. “We’ve met a time or two.”
“Of course you have,” Pudgy grumbled. “Chipper and his horde have information on the strawberry thief. They’ll share it with us if we let them in on our deal and share the garden.”
Leo looked shrewdly at Chipper. “You’ve got more brains than I gave you credit for Chipper.”
“Enough!” Pudgy stomped his feet. “Let’s get on with it.”
“Well, what do you know?” Leo asked when Chipper was silent but for the twitch of a whisker.
“Not until you let us in on this deal,” said Chipper with nod at the garden. “How do we get in there without getting trapped?”
“Tell us what you know first, then we’ll tell you the secret,” said Pipsqueak.
Chipper looked from Leo to Pudgy to Pipsqueak. Gomer was chasing his tail. Again.
“Fine,” he said. “We were sniffing around the house, trying to find a way into the garage when we heard an odd sort of jingling sound. We scurried around the corner but all we saw was a shadow. A large shadow.”
The Three Tails and the chipmunks shared a frustrated look. This “new information” was not very helpful and here they’d agreed to share the secret of the garden. For one second, Pudgy considered not telling them how to get in, but his honor would not allow him to go back on his word.
With a loud sigh, he shared the secret with their new allies and trudged back to the garage with Pipsqueak and Gomer.
The winged creature buzzed around looking for a nice place to land and then turned to look at the row of angry mice. “I’m not eating your strawberriezzz.”
“Then what are you doing?” Pipsqueak narrowed her eyes.
The bee bumbled and buzzed. “I’m collecting nectar from the roses to take back to my Queen.”
They watched as the bee flitted from flower to flower. Before it flew off, it whizzed by the trio and showed it’s legs. “See? Pollen.”
(Illustration: Close up of the bee’s legs with tiny pollen particles and a definition of pollen in back matter? Maybe as a starburst pointing to the pollen?)
Pudgy sighed as the bee took off.
Birds flew by but either didn’t see the inviting strawberry patch or had plenty to eat from the multiple bird feeders throughout the property. As the sun sank lower in the sky, their stomachs started to rumble.
“I’m soooo hungry. Can’t I just have one?” said Gomer looking longingly at the strawberries.
“Not yet, we need to leave them as bait. Let’s see if anything is happening on the other side.”
As the mice wandered to the far side of the patch, Gomer felt something staring at them. “Uh…Pudge?”
Pudgy turned and saw a small hairy head sticking out of the ground. It jumped out of the hole and scurried over to the mice.
“Are you lost?” The creature’s voice was high-pitched and squeaky.
“No.” Pudgy raised his eyebrows. “Are you?”
“I’ve never seen a mouse with stripes.” Gomer slowly circled the critter.
“I, sir, am a chipmunk. Name’s Leo.” Leo dashed straight for the strawberries.
“Stop!” Pudgy shouted.
Leo turned back. “Yes?”
“You can’t eat those strawberries,” said Pipsqueak.
Pudgy stood on his hind legs. “I do!”
Leo shook with fear. Pudgy, as wide as he was tall, towered above him.
At that moment, Gomer’s stomach growled. Not a low quiet growl, but a loud GRRRRRRRRRMMMMBBBBLE!
Leo cowered and raced back to his hole.
“That was too easy,” said Pipsqueak watching as Leo’s tail disappeared into the ground.
“Yes,” said Pudgy with a frown.
Gomer rubbed his paws together and scuttled to the biggest strawberry in the patch.
Pipsqueak took one step and froze. “Pudgy. What’s that?”
POP! POP! POP!
(Illustration: The three mice stare at the empty yard. Suddenly chipmunk heads pop up everywhere.)
Dr. Warner cleared his throat. “My name is Dr. Silas Warner. I work for a large company that studies genetic modification.”
Jake’s mind reeled. “Genetic modification? What—?”
Let him tell his story, Jake.
Jake clamped his mouth shut, glaring at Dr. Warner. Pecky nodded to the doctor to continue.
“As I said, the company I work for HEN – Healthy Engineered Nature — studies and experiments with ways to improve plant and animal life through genetic modification. My team was working to create a breed that would grow quickly, but without injury.”
“Yes,” said Dr. Warner. “You see, a few breeds of chickens have been selectively bred for meat production. These broilers grow to full size in about 6-12 weeks, eating half the feed of the old-fashioned breeds.
“What does this have to do with Pecky?” Jake interrupted again.
“Well,” continued Dr. Silas. “Everything comes at a cost. Sometimes there are unintended consequences. Because these breeds grow so quickly, their internal systems—heart, bones and joints can’t keep up.”
“They grow too fast for their own good,” said Gilbert.
“Exactly. Legs and spines can twist, break or bow causing pain and an unwillingness to move. Chickens get trampled or starve,” said Dr. Warner.
Jake’s face blanched. “That’s horrible.”
“It is,” continued Dr. Warner. “But at H.E.N., we were coming up with ways to fix this problem. To make sure that all body systems – muscle, bones, heart – grow at the same rate. And we were successful…or so we thought.”
Confusion clouded Jake’s face.
“You see,” continued Dr. Warner. “There are always unintended consequences. Our modification awoke a dormant virus that is normally not harmful to chickens and it started spreading through the test groups.
Jake glanced at Pecky as Dr. Warner continued.
“Every day, we lost more birds. It got so bad that an employee from another division accused us of intentionally harming the chickens. When no one would do anything about it, he decided to remove the birds from danger.”
Wide-eyed, Jake asked, “What did he do?”
“He snuck into the lab and nabbed the latest group—inlcuding Pecky. He thought by hiding them in the hatchery, he was giving them a chance. By the time we figured out what he had done, all of the birds he took had died—except Pecky.”
Jake swallowed and looked at Pecky. “Why did Pecky survive?”
Dr. Warner looked at Pecky with an appraising and excited spark in his eye. “Pecky is different than the others.”
Jake snorted. “Well yeah, he can talk!”
“No, no,” said Dr. Warner. “You mistake my meaning. The others in Pecky’s group also started to develop social behavior, and they still died. But Pecky is the only one in the group with green legs. We thought it was just another cosmetic mutation…”.
Ahem. Pecky ruffled his feathers.
“…but now we think it may be more than that. You see, Pecky has lived well past the others in his test group. He is stronger and his communication skills are more advanced.”
Dr. Warner paused, looking Jake in the eye. “Pecky may very well be the key to curing this virus and saving future breeds.”