The sound of the worn plastic ice bucket slamming to the floor echoed in Oscar’s ears, and his eyes were wide with terror. A bruise was already forming on his forehead from slamming into a wall that hadn’t been there seconds before.
He was trapped. A human had spotted him while he ran desperately for cover in the motel room. They’d grabbed the ice bucket without a second thought, and in a few steps that covered distances Oscar would have to sprint for several seconds, stomped over to him.
The ground was still shaking. No, he realized, that’s just my knees.
Tears welled up in his eyes and raced down his cheeks. Oscar stood in carpet fibers that reached past his ankles, with almost no light leaking under the rim of the bucket. A circle of dim light ringed him in, an outline for how utterly trapped he was.
He hadn’t made it. After years of getting by on his own, keeping out of sight and collecting what he needed to survive, he hadn’t made it. It only took one failure to ruin everything, and the one failure had finally arrived.
Oscar never did adjust to the darkness inside the ice bucket. No light leaked in past the lid, giving him nothing. Even inside the walls, some light made it in. He was adapted to make use of it like no human ever could, but now even he was blinded.
He was curled into a tight ball, covering his ears to block the sounds from outside. An engine rumbled and a radio blared. Oscar’s own heart pounded. No matter what, he couldn’t protect himself from that noise out there. It was unfamiliar from so close.
Everything was a reminder that he’d been taken away from his home.
Oscar stumbled, but he barely hit the floor before he scrambled back up and kept running. Everything in him focused forward, across the long expanse of hardwood flooring. He ignored the rumbling in the floor and the gaping space overhead, unfamiliar surroundings all looming in his periphery. He didn’t know this house, but he didn’t need to in order to recognize an avenue of escape.
“He got in the floor,” Noriko explained, her disappointed voice muffled by the ceiling of wood over Oscar’s head. Some boards creaked under the humans’ weight.
“Lemme guess,” her boyfriend said, amusement in his tone. “Left him up on the table? You know they’re good climbers, Nori.”
There was a sound of a playful slap on a shoulder. “Just get him out, please?”
Oscar limped faster. The floor overhead creaked and groaned as the huge human man crossed the room. If he were to glance behind, he was sure he’d see the light from the knot in the wood winking out under a massive shadow.
Oscar was over halfway across the room from there. They’d never find him once he got into the walls on the other side. He was so close.
Oscar looked up from where he sat curled up on his bed, startled by the sudden burst of noise. Noriko was watching TV out there, enjoying her favorite show. Oscar never knew what made her laugh so much, but so long as it kept her attention away from him for a while, he liked it. Whenever Noriko paid him attention, she wanted to hold him in her hands constantly, poking at him or petting his messy hair.
He hated it. He hated it so much, but he knew better than to think things would ever be any different. Oscar was just her newest favorite doll.
It never helped to count the days since he was captured. Oscar’s waking hours blended together in a huge nightmare that even sleep couldn’t erase. His bruises from his first capture faded and healed. His ankle, twisted and sore after he tried only once to escape, improved with care until it too showed no sign of the hurt. Oscar had memories as effective as any scar to remind him of the painful failure.
Noriko and Thomas kept him physically healthy. He received food every day, multiple times a day, and wasn’t left alone until he ate his fill. They didn’t like his habit of stashing food for later. Noriko would scold him even as she took away whatever he managed to hide.
She’d made a lot of clothes for him. She had fun seeing him in new outfits and could never resist a new one. Oscar was well familiar with her squeal of delight. It always came right before she swept him up in a hand to kiss the top of his head or hold him close in a hug.
Oscar really was her favorite. Sometimes, his eyes brimmed with tears when he thought about her. How he was getting used to her.
Oscar’s first car ride had been terrifying, trapped in the plastic ice bucket. Then, he hadn’t had any idea where he was going or what might happen to him. The sounds of a car all around him had been foreign and strange reminders of his predicament.
This time, he knew what was next. Noriko and Thomas didn’t exactly talk to him, but when they talked over him he picked up more than enough information. He was for sale. Mina was the human who would buy him. For all of Noriko’s cooing and hugging him, fawning over how cute he was and pinching his face in her fingers, she was eager to make as much money as she could with him.
All that time, he’d tried to ignore it. He was being prepared, like some kind of fancy toy, to be presented to Mina so they could hope for the biggest payout.
The sound of Thomas knocking at the door died off, leaving him standing in the cooling afternoon air. The distant bustle of people at the out-of-the way hotel the meeting with Mina was set up for reached Oscar in his small box, all the sounds of life in the human world as they went about their day, never knowing the pain he endured.
Cars drove by on the distant road, birds shrieked offense at the restaurant goers that didn’t share their food. A placid setting for Oscar’s life as it continued spiraling out of his control.
Metal scraped on the inside of the door and a latch clicked open, and the tall door swung wide, a warm grin to greet Thomas at the ready.
“Thomas, dear,” Mina said as she beckoned him into the room. “Punctual as always.”
Oscar tried to squirm away, tried to keep himself in his protective curl. It was no use. Even with simple nudging, humans were far more powerful than he, and he found himself pinned and staring up.
The magnifier gave him a startling view of a green eye, cold and not at all interested in his discomfort. He shook and his breathing was ragged, but nothing relented. Oscar hesitantly placed his hands against the finger, giving it a shaky push, but of course he couldn’t budge it. He shuddered and ducked his head again.
Mina ignored Oscar’s struggles, going over him with a crucial eye. “He looks healthy enough,” she assessed. “Could probably use a few more meals in him. It’s amazing how little these gems can eat yet they still get by fine.”
One after the other, she pinched each of his arms and both his legs between her fingers to see that he was uninjured. She had enough training in handling the smaller folk to be able to find any surface injuries, though once she reached her destination with him, he would undergo a more rigorous examination to ensure he was worth as much as possible.
Thomas hummed thoughtfully even as he lowered his hand to the table. His tiny passenger, still covering his face, wasn’t prepared for the hand to tilt. He tumbled again, landing on hands and knees while Thomas deliberated.
Oscar looked up tentatively while the answer came. “He did take a little work to get him healthier. And like you said, not many are caught in their prime. Fifty five.”
Oscar pushed himself to his feet and shuffled backwards. The cold demeanor from both humans was almost tangible. His gaze fell to the camera in Mina’s hand and he shuddered. Cameras were bad news for someone like him. He took a few more steps backwards.
A huge hand dropped behind him and Oscar squeaked in surprise. Thomas pointedly pushed him back to where he’d dumped him to the table. “Don’t wander,” rumbled overhead, and Oscar winced, but didn’t try to step back again.