“What do you mean what should we do with them?”
Eyes closed, the disgust shakes through her gently, vibrating her neck and rolling through her shoulders and down her spine before settling in a wiggle at her waist.
Joey replies with a nervous smile.
“Yeah, what do you mean?” booms Matthew. “They’ve gotta go.” Matthew means to imply they will kill the young creatures and Colleen agrees with a fervent nodding, though in her mind she imagines driving out of the city, into the woods somewhere, to deliver the little beasts to freedom. Joey gives them both a slight nod to confirm his misaligned agreement as well. He is thinking about how to keep the creatures healthy while obscuring them from everyday life in the apartment.
Colleen, Joey and Matt watch the rats expend what seems like an endless energy through their rubbery legs. The roommates’ gazes are intent, as if they are trying to discern a pattern in the blurry lines the furry bodies create rushing around their corral. Colleen looms over them, her head cocked to one side, eyebrows heavy with pity. Matt’s stance is assertive, his jaw protruding over his crossed arms. Joey crouches close above the frenzied creatures, pupils practically popping past his lashes.
Matt clears his throat. “So where do we buy rat poison?” The other two heads snap towards each other. His eyelids bat, hers widen.
Hesitating, Joey says, “We’re not going to kill them.”
Matt furrows his brow. “What else would we do?”
Until this moment, Joey has been thinking about how to create a safe haven for the rats where they could live alongside the roommates, cohabiting the apartment peacefully and separately. He prepares to defend this idea, knowing that some argument will have to hold in the tears that are brimming in Colleen’s eyes while appeasing the hard line of disdain between Matt’s lips.
“We’ll keep them. They’ll work for us.”
“They’ll work for us?”
“Yeah, you know, they can… help us with things.”
“Jesus, Joey, what are you talking about? They aren’t exactly little fucking customer service reps are they? They’re rats. And they’re babies. They don’t even know where they’re going. Look at ‘em banging their heads back and forth.”
“Exactly! Look how fast they go! We’ll put them on little – those little wheels that hamsters run on and they can… power things for us. They’ll be like little engines for things. It’ll be eco-friendly.”
Matt rolls his eyes and grunts. He uncrosses his arms and looks at Colleen. She doesn’t meet his gaze. “I think we should just let them go.”
“They’re just gonna get back in here if we let them go,” Matt says in one long breath. He sits.
“I know!” She pauses. “That’s why we should drive them far away. We’ll take them back where they belong.”
“Where is that?” asks Matt.
“I don’t know, like a forest somewhere.”
Matt chuckles and shakes his head.
Joey pops up off his knees, claps his hands. He rubs his palms together as if moulding a plan to shape. He paces, feet shuffling, eyes darting.
“Ok,” he says, “ok.” He stops moving. “We’ll scoop them up, get them in a bag, we’ll get them in Matt’s car – in the trunk, tied in there tight. We’ll get on the highway and head west; we’ll get off on one of the rural roads. We’ll find some woods and then we’ll let them go.” He shivers slightly as he thinks about the rats escaping the bag and running over his shoes; he imagines one of them crawling up his arm toward his neck. He breaks away from this thought by running into the kitchen and runs back out with a trash bag. He stands over the rats silently, once again mesmerized by their loops and turns.
After a few seconds, Matt gets up and snatches the bag out of Joey’s hands. His big body looms over the rat camp. Under his shadow they each dart for a wall and huddle into little quivering fur balls. He scoops them into the bag in one swoop and swings the bag upright, quickly tying the top into three loose knots. The rats begin punching at the plastic with their bodies like corn kernels popping into foil on the stove.
Colleen looks on with trembling lips. Joey tries not to think, or look. He opens the door of the apartment and begins down the stairs. Matt follows, Colleen more slowly. They reconvene in the garage where the chilly air provokes their impatience and irritability. Matt throws the rats into the trunk; Colleen lets out a tiny yelp as they hit the carpeted floor. Joey is already in the passenger seat looking for maps in the glove box.
Matt and Colleen get into the car. The slam of their doors and the consequent bellow of the engine reverberate loudly within the garage. Through the thick windows of the old car their muffled voices bounce off the cold plaster walls as well. The voices get louder, and begin to compete with each other. They are spitting destinations and routes. They are sparring empty wallets and bank accounts. They are spouting social theory and animal knowledge. They are turning from words to groans and guffaws and, finally, sighs.
Matt wins, but not without concessions. They will kill the rats, but they will do so humanely.
They exit the car but leave it running. While Matt keeps a tight grip on the neck of the bag above the rats Joey works on undoing the knots. Colleen simply observes, her eyes a bit vacant. She can see the slight shaking of each rat’s body within the lump they’ve formed at the bottom of the bag. When Joey has untied the last knot he and Matt bend down and bring the mouth of the bag to the tailpipe of the sedan. They hold the bag at an angle so that gravity and slippery plastic keep the rats close to the ground. Joey holds the mouth of the bag around the tailpipe. They each stare into a different corner of the room.
They wait for what feels like an hour.
Finally, Colleen steals a look. Every other second or so a lump forms in the wrinkled plastic as the rats attempt to break through their shroud. They are weak. Matt turns to look and then Joey too. They all have the same reaction. Eyes glaze over with remorse, pity grows in stomachs, weighted, and guilt begins to itch at their necks.
Colleen stands abruptly and walks to a storage pile by the wall. She returns with a baseball bat and not a word. Joey stands, turns and grabs the empty guitar case at his back. Matt walks towards the front end of the car where a shovel hangs at an angle. When he’s back, Joey has already removed the mouth of the bag and tied a new, looser knot in its neck. The languid black bounces continue between their feet.
They go to work.
Later, when the grunts are over, when the sweat is gone, when the echoes of the beats and thuds have diminished and the salty drips of tears have dried from their faces, they dig a small hole in the frosty ground behind the house. When the bag is tipped and the bodies fall into the hard earth, the roommates feel released. Then, as they begin to toss clumps of frozen earth over the rats, one furry belly twitches, first like a sigh, slow and exaggerated and then faster and faster like a beat. Horrified, Matt uses his shovel to swing the body out of the hole and fling it across the yard. He quickly returns the rest of the soil to its place over the other bodies, and pats it awkwardly. The survivor inches to safety under the fence.
From time to time over the coming spring and summer, the roommates will see the mangled baby as it matures into a hobbling adult. Its mobility is limited to their yard and their neighbors’. Mostly, they will ignore it, not mentioning it, even inside conversations about vermin or other animals or pets or violence. They do not hear any rustles in the garbage or see any shadows cross the kitchen floor. They are deliberately, if subconsciously, oblivious.
Once in a while, however, Joey will leave some crumbs for it on the back porch, Colleen will pat its head when it peeks up close to her hands or feet; and when he sees a cat or raccoon or other threat nearby, Matt will react with just a little more vengeance than necessary. Each of their actions is like a light polish on the soiled glass of their guilt, creating a lens through which to view the struggling creature as one they did not create, but are obligated to benefit.
(c) Michael Sano, 2016
Michael Sano is an educator from San Francisco. Bostonian by birth, he has also lived in Spain, Panama, Australia, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic. Michael writes non-fiction and fiction around issues of identity, culture and place. His work has been published in the travel anthology, queer magazines and few other places.
Silas Hawkins continues the family voiceover tradition (he is son of Peter 'Dalek' Hawkins & Rosemary 'Emergency Ward 10' Miller). Favourite voice credits: Summerton Mill, Latin Music USA & podcasts for The Register. Agents: email@example.com / firstname.lastname@example.org. www.silashawkins.com