When she saw it floating in the toilet bowl, turning in the water's slow spiral current she believed it was a baby, a helpless baby whose mother or father had tried to flush away. She fell on her knees, unable to breath, and scooped it up in both hands, careful to support the spine, careful to cradle the tiny head.
She would have cried out for help, told someone to call 911, but she was stupefied with horror and fear and joy. It wasn't until she buffed the little body dry in the lap of her skirt and brought it to her face that she discovered it was not a baby, but a very large rat. But then it didn't matter, because her heart had already opened like a drain, sucking the little life down into its muscled chambers where it lodged, precious.
She kissed the rat, a gentle press and exhalation of breath along the slick fur of its tapered muzzle. Held to her face she rocked it like a baby doll. Then, because it was a rat, and not a foundling after all, she turned it on its side in a position more comfortable with the long pink tail tucked between its legs. The tip was very cold.
In high school she was a cheerleader, a lightweight, flung for the basket toss, who held an ankle high above her head at the apex of the human pyramid. She was not an oddball, not fat, or snobby, or schizophrenic. She was shy, despite her tiny ruffled skirt and uncomfortable mega-phone appliquéd sweater. She loved her friends and was good to them. She was good to humanity at large, but unlike a genuinely big hearted soul, one who could give and give and give and smile, she found people—even people she adored— slurped her away at her as if she were the dregs at the bottom of a frosted glass. She retreated from parties, always alone, on watery legs.
There were men, and friends, and a family, but they did not understand her. They swarmed her, "Coffee with the girls!" or swung out the bed, struggling with their pants, offended by her need to bathe immediately after lovemaking. "You're supposed to be basking, " they joked in voices edged with anger. Following such insistent contact she needed privacy. The bump of a sweaty elbow against her ribs made her queasy.
Her family—concerned for her—ground at her until she agreed to attend gatherings that swirled with such enthusiasm it left her joints aching. "I feel gnawed at," she admitted to her sister, who reported the comment back to their mother, who repeated it back to her shrilly every time they spoke. "Gnawed at? What does that mean? What should I think? Honey, I'm worried about you."
She saw her own selfishness. When she thought of her child it was creature as convenient as a robotic pet, purring to life for her enjoyment. Real babies frightened her. They were so small and slippery, their bones un-fused, shifting under paper skin like prehistoric continents. The idea of their soft skulls made her dizzy.
A flu was sweeping the complex. Her floor of the building was a pleasant ghost town, lights low, and the maze of cubicles quiet. Somewhere near the center someone played a radio, and drifting up from the far edge of the grid there was the clatter of typing, but her secretary and administrative assistant were both out sick. It was unusual she would do her own photocopying, but she could if she needed to.
Twenty copies into the project the machine began gagging then coughed a fine chemical mist into the air. Toner powder, black, with a hideous scent, streaked her hands. The public bathroom, for the workers in the cubes, was closer than her own.
She carried the rat into her home held to her chest. Already she had given it a hundred love names reserved for children. Boo, and Poo, and Baby, and Sweety-Pie, and Darling, and Precious, and Kiddo, and Mine. She lay the rat on her suede sofa, still, and bundled in her coat, put a pillow at the edge so that it would not roll and tumble to the floor, then went to her bedroom and upended the hat box holding all her gloves. She lined it with silk panties until it was a plush glistening bed. With all the tenderness of a new mother she lifted the rat, limp, but breathing heavy, rib shuddering breaths, into the nest.
"It's alright darling. Mommy's got you." She spoke without considering the words. "You're okay."
Rather than watch headlights late into the blue-pink light of insomniac nighttime she fell asleep right away. It was a light sleep, hovering at the edge of dreams. She was ready to wake at a twitch or stuttered breath, but she and the rat both slept until daffodil sunlight filled the room.
She kept the hatbox at her bedside, as is done with a baby in its basinet. When the rat scrabbled its blunt claws on the side of the hatbox she was awake, her hand skittering immediately to it, fingers petting the air just above it, sensing the miniscule movement of air, of warm rat breath.
Word travels through her office. There is a picture of the rat, close up, whiskers twitching at the camera lens, on her desk. Someone delivers a folder, staring in confusion, "Is that a rat?"
Her face glows, illuminated from the inside like the lamp left on to welcome you home at night after the sun has set, "That's my baby."
The women who work as secretaries, receptionists, and assistants, gossip behind cupped hands. They eat KFC in the break room, complaining lovingly about their husbands. Their faces assume similar expressions of distaste when she passes. They resent her slender frame, the good drape of her clothing, and her higher paying job that requires her to give them assignments—her rat-love is convenient justification for their dislike.
The slim hipped boys in the art department worship her as goddess of after-hours. They believed her pet rat to be the surface of her debauchery. Leaning against the wall outside the men's room they traded speculation about the location of her tattoos, how she shaves her snatch, her potential fetishes, whether she is a pagan or an anarchist.
Several of the boys made it through her door, where the rat, smoothing its whiskers and chirping, unsettled them in a way that withered their erections for days following the encounter.
Her family, her friends, they were thrilled. "Well there you go," they said to one another. Their pleasure seeped from their pores like sweat. Whenever she saw them they glistened. It pleased her to ease their concern. And she enjoyed the time she spent with the archivist, but the rat held her heart before him.
There were evenings when they sat together in restaurants, her face lovely in candlelight, his smile charming, crystal glasses sparkling with condensation set between them—romantic—and she excused herself from the table to go the restroom where she stood at the sink breathing deeply, straightening her slumped shoulders, hoping he would fall asleep quickly when they returned to her home.
She felt her heart buckle, its walls shivering as they hardened. She led him to the door with the rat held to her chest. As it closed behind him he heard the dead bolt—the low metallic ring—sliding into place.
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