Number 401

By Trevy Thomas

arvey scratched the persistent itch behind his left ear as soon as he woke in a culvert pipe under the bridge. Most of the humans who lived near him were asleep, and that was the best time to get to work on his route. He crawled up the steep grassy hill, his long rat tail held out behind him, until he reached the street above. He ran, sniffing for morsels of food and the smell of predators, all the way past the university lab down 32nd Street to the nicer part of the city. Some of the white coats from his former prison lived in these houses. He’d started following them when the night terrors and flashbacks came after they’d let him out. When he was first on the streets, he’d just expected to be caged and tortured again, but then, slowly, he came to see that they were done with him. He was alone and, lost in his freedom, had to figure out how to get his own food, now that the button that once supplied it was gone. He hadn’t been able to find a button like that on the streets.

It was cold tonight and warm breath streamed out ahead of him as he ran, long nails clicking against the sidewalk. Sometimes he missed the heat of the prison. Finally, Harvey reached Number 401 and turned down the alley beside the house. He jumped down beside the stairwell, landing on a sill in front of the basement window, and peered in. There was a lamp on that provided just enough glow to light the couch. Harvey felt disgust rise, and he chewed at the bar in front of the window. His whiskers worked quickly, ears moving this way and that, as he watched the couch. There, curled up on a wrinkled blanket, was a large white rat, fat belly rising with every carefree breath, a thin ribbon tied around its neck. The only rats he’d seen with bellies this big were the ones kept in the smallest cages in prison, lying on their side gasping for air as the white coats stood observing their last painful breath. Harvey had never wanted to be fat. It looked painful. But being hungry also hurt.

Harvey’s hands were tight around the bars, his feet dangling below him, as he pressed against the window to take in as much as he could. There across the room near the light was a pink and white bowl on the floor with a heart above the word CARL. Next to that was a plain white bowl that contained water. Once, when Harvey was early and there was still some light in the sky, he’d seen the fat rat drinking clean fresh water from the bowl. There was a picture on the wall of a man Harvey recognized from the prison, the one who’d opened a door and let him go.

By now, his muscles sore from hanging at the bar, Harvey’s nails scratched against the glass as he tried for a better grip. The noise woke the fat rat, and his eyes opened, immediately spotting Harvey: scrawny, with thin feet that dangled ridiculously, breath streaming like a dragon, a greasy smudge on his fur, and a crazed look in his eyes. The fat rat sat up and hissed. Harvey wanted to run, but he couldn’t get his back feet on a support, and the drop down was far. The fat rat jumped off the couch, ran across the room, and climbed up a chairback where he was practically eye to eye with Harvey.

Harvey hissed. The fat rat hissed back at him, but neither backed down. Harvey pressed against the glass for a better look, just as the human from the picture slid into the room.

“CARL!” he screamed as soon as he saw Harvey dangling in the window. Harvey had no choice now but to jump. He wasn’t going to get caught again. Harvey looked down at the steep drop below, squeezed his eyes shut, and let go of the bars.

The fall was quick and hard, but he landed on a pile of dead leaves that kept it from being fatal. With no time to indulge the pain, he tore off down the alley back to 32nd Street, his heart thumping in a familiar way.

* * *

The human scooped Carl up from the chair and peered out the window, but the other rat was already gone. He carried Carl back to the couch and sat down, stroking Carl’s head while holding him in his lap. “It’s okay, buddy. Your heart is beating like crazy. I’m sorry that vagrant scared you.” Carl looked toward the window, wondering where the rat went. He tried to imagine a life on the streets as he snuggled closer to his human. “I’d better check your tag to make sure the door stays closed when you’re in. If you want a friend, we’ll find you one at PetsGo.” His human untied the ribbon around his neck and fiddled with the nametag. “Everything looks good, but I’ll replace the battery tomorrow just to be safe. You should be fine now. Let me get you a chewy.” Carl jumped down from the couch and ran over to the cabinet where the Rat-Chewys were kept. “Here you go.” Carl snatched the chewy in his front teeth and ran back to his blanket on the couch. Thoughts of the strange window rat faded as he chewed his way back to sleep.

* * *

Harvey ran and ran, his rear leg now aching fiercely. He made it back under the bridge and slipped into the pipe he thought of as home. The street humans were beginning to make noise, and he knew it was best to stay hidden in the light. He’d passed opportunities for food along the run back home but had, for the first time, lost the urge to eat. Now his belly hurt as much as his leg. He was lonely too, even for the other suffering rats who were once his comrades. He curled around himself, tucking his nose under his tail, and drifted off to sleep with torturous images of the warm, well-fed rat. He heard the rattling of a paper bag nearby and caught a strong whiff of alcohol before finally falling into a troubled sleep.

When night fell again, Harvey woke up ravenously hungry. Tonight, he would not foolishly waste his meal-hunting time staring at the window of the idiotic fat rat. Harvey was a real rat, a soldier who’d survived the horrors of war, and knew how to fend for himself. What would a pet rat do on the streets? Probably beg with a can and a sign no one would ever read. Harvey knew how to feed himself, and that’s what he’d do tonight.

He scurried down streets and alleys, staying close to walls. He hid behind the trash bin at Kyoto Gardens until the men in tall white hats finished smoking, then tore a hole in the bag outside the dumpster and feasted on treasures of strong pink fish, slimy black skins, morsels of white rice. He’d learned to avoid the bits of green paste that made him feel as though he’d swallowed fire. The first time he made that mistake, his coughs were loud enough to draw the attention of a chef who chased him down the street with a fire extinguisher. Tonight, though, he ate and ate until he thought he’d never be hungry again.

His pace back home was slower now. He remained close to walls where his dark fur helped him to blend in. A woman in tall-heeled shoes looked right at him and screamed so loud that Harvey almost screamed back. Humans were unpredictable. Even with a full belly, this puzzling behavior was alienating. He paused at a dark basement window and gazed at his reflection, turning his head to see what was different about him. Other than being darker, a little dirty, and a lot thinner, he couldn’t understand what made the white couch rat so coveted while he was rejected.

Harvey had set off tonight with the intention of staying away from Number 401, but now that he’d had his meal, he couldn’t muster the same aversion. His trip back to the alley off 32nd Street was uneventful except for the sudden appearance of a gray cat. He jumped into a drain until the cat passed. Surely, the couch rat wouldn’t have been clever enough to do that.

Harvey arrived at the window with the bars and went down for a closer look. It was a perfect spot to avoid detection on the streets yet still have a laboratory-like view of the privileged rat. The last time—when Harvey saw the human come into the room and yell “Carl!”—he’d thought it was a warning, but now he realized it must be the rat’s name. Carl. What kind of rat has a one-syllable name?

The blanket was folded neatly and hung over the back of the couch. Carl was nowhere to be seen. Harvey looked at the food and water bowls, but there was no rat there either. Where could he be? Maybe this cozy room had been a setup, much like Harvey’s lab setting. Perhaps Carl had just been a victim in another kind of prison and, now that they were done with him, he’d gone into a smoking, foul-smelling incinerator in the back. Whatever the lab rats had undergone, no one wanted to be forced into that room. They never came out again.

Harvey’s old sadness returned. He’d lost so many friends now. Maybe Carl wasn’t privileged. What had he been thinking to imagine that a human would keep a rat as a pet? It was laughable. Humans only wanted two kinds of pets: dogs and cats. He’d seen that on the streets. Dogs tied to humans running down the street. Cats at stoops waiting for doors to open where they were welcome inside. But rats? Never. He’d never seen rats in anything but a cage.

He crawled, slowly this time, down the maze of bars on the window to the ledge below to sort out his dark thoughts, feeling the loneliness swell in him, missing his friend Carl. Maybe he’d just sleep here tonight. It wasn’t the safest place. Cats and humans could find him if they looked, but he didn’t want to face the empty pipe tonight. He’d rest here awhile.

Then, just as Harvey’s eyes were falling shut, he heard a noise inside the apartment. A scratching-against-metal kind of noise. It was persistent, so Harvey shook off his sleep and climbed back up to peer inside the window. There on a side table where Harvey hadn’t looked before was a cage. Inside it was Carl. He appeared to be in a state of panic, running and running on a wheel of some sort that never took him anywhere. Poor Carl. He was trying to escape!

* * *

Carl’s attention was drawn to the scratching at the window. He stopped the wheel and stared at his rat visitor in the window. He watched him drop down slowly until just his head was visible, turning his ears one way and another, tweaking his whiskers, cocking his head, all the friendly communications only rats know. Carl responded in kind. It felt so good to have someone who knew how to communicate with him. The human tried but it was all just talk. Rats had their own language. Suddenly, the other rat just dropped from view. Carl stood on his hind legs hoping for a glimpse of him, but he couldn’t see anything. He got off the wheel and settled into some straw in the corner of the cage. Why did he have to be in his cage tonight?

* * *

Harvey ran home with new determination. Who knew what Carl had endured in that cage? To think that Harvey had been jealous when, in fact, he was free to run where he wanted, eat what he found, and best of all, not be subjected to the confusing whims of a human. Harvey was determined to help Carl escape. He spent the rest of the next day in his pipe without sleep, planning and scheming. He waited impatiently for dark to fall again. When it did, he ran straight back to Carl’s apartment, skipping Kyoto Gardens—though the smell of tuna almost pulled him down the wrong path. “Stay focused,” he reminded himself. “Carl and I can have a meal later.” This sense of purpose and possibility of friendship motivated him away from his hunger.

Once at Carl’s, he skipped the window altogether and ran straight to the human door. There he began scratching and scratching, trying to make as much noise as he could. Finally, exhausted from his efforts, he sat back on the doormat for a brief rest when he heard rat-speak behind him.

“What are you doing?” It was Carl, standing on the very same stoop, frowning at him. “You’re going to wake the humans if you keep that up. Were you hoping for a broom to the face maybe?”

Harvey sat in shock. So focused had he been on his plan that it took him a while to accept the fact that Carl was already free, standing beside him. And rat-speak! He hadn’t heard that in weeks.

“They set you free?” Harvey asked.

“Free? What do you mean? I use the rat door when I need to take a crap, then I go back in. Humans don’t like cleaning poop.” He gestured with one manicured hand. “Look what you’ve done to the door.”

Harvey turned his attention back to the door and saw scratches through the shiny black paint. It was green underneath, decor from another era.

“I was trying to get your humans to open the door so I could run in and save you,” Harvey said.

“And then what? Dial 9-1-1?”

Harvey was puzzled. Carl didn’t seem to want his help. He just stood here like nothing was wrong, talking nonsense.

“I’m Carl. You look like you could use some food. I’ll show you the rat door. If you’re fast, you can follow me in.”

Harvey was not sure about this. Maybe it was a trick. But he was hungry, cold, and curious. “Rat door?”

“Yeah. It’s my door. It only works for me. When I stand in front of it, it magically opens. Then when I go in, it closes. There’s a gray cat around the corner who tries to make it work, but it never does for him. I think he’s got the wrong collar. Just stay close and follow me.”

Harvey followed Carl back down to the window.

“What’s your name anyway?”

“Harvey.”

“Harvey. You see that little door by the window?”

Harvey looked and, sure enough, there was a square opening he’d never noticed in the side of the wall.

“I’m going to stand in front of it. You stay right behind me, practically touching—don’t get any funny ideas—and it’ll open. I’m going to run in fast, and you stay with me. Got it?”

Harvey wondered if Carl had been drugged. They did that in prison sometimes, and it made the rats have all kinds of weird thoughts. But what did he have to lose? He’d been planning to go in anyway. At least this way, if it worked, didn’t involve running past humans.

“Okay, I can do it.”

“All right. Get in line and let’s go.”

Harvey positioned himself behind Carl, close enough to smell the weird human soap on him, and they stepped together to the window. They’d barely stopped moving when the little cutout in the wall magically opened.

“Run!” Carl yelled over his shoulder.

Harvey was scared, but he buried his face in Carl’s backside and stayed near as they both rushed through the opening.

All at once, there was warmth. Heat. The only good part of being in prison. He looked at the door they’d come through, now fully shut. His eyes bulged in a moment of panic. He looked at Carl and worried again that this had all been some sort of trick.

“Relax, kid. I’ll run you back out when you’re ready to go. Let’s get some grub.”

* * *

Harvey took his time looking around this place he’d only seen from the outside. There was so much more to it, so many soft, warm places to burrow, so many smells and dark corners to hide in, so many strange creaking noises. He could spend days in here just snooping around. It was better than a dream. It made him wonder what was wrong with the humans who lived near him out in the empty cold when they could be comfortable like this. What did it take, he wondered, to get such a perfect home?

“There’s plenty to eat,” Carl said, standing by the bowl marked “CARL.”

“Go ahead, finish it off. Humans will refill it in the morning. I’ll save you some Rat-Chewy too. I get at least one of those a day.”

Harvey approached the bowl and peered over the edge. The little brown balls had a funny smell, not as bad as what they served him in prison, but still off, like a fake version of something real he’d find at the trash bins. But he was starving, there was a lot of it, and he was warm and safe while he ate. He took Carl’s advice and finished it off.

When he was done, he joined Carl on the warm chair by the window, and they talked long into the night. It was glorious to share so much rat-speak, to finally have a real window into what Carl’s life was like. And Carl was just as curious about Harvey. A softness developed between them through their common ratness. Harvey began to see that Carl had had no more choice in the outcome of his life than he had. They’d been born into their circumstances by the uncertainty of luck. Or, in Harvey’s case, bad luck. Carl explained about the changes he’d heard his humans speak of, how rats had once been the only source of research for their own ailments, but now they’d learned of a more accurate way to do their studies without the use of rats and that explained why Harvey had been set free. Carl had been one of the new breeds, born into the luxurious life of a pet.

Harvey wondered about his timing in life, remembering the procedures he’d endured. It seemed too much compared to the incredible ease that Carl had known. His feelings were coming at him fast and hard, and Carl could sense this. But their friendship had already begun to form, and their mutual willingness to cross the boundaries of unfair circumstance was guiding them over the bumps.

Carl made him a promise.

“Look, I don’t know how the humans would take to you living here, but if they don’t like it, it could turn out badly. Let’s just keep this between us. I’ll hide you here, and they don’t have to know about you. But you show me the streets too. I want a taste of that fish you keep talking about, and I want to travel like you have. As long as there’s a rat door, you have a home with me.”

Harvey felt something warmer than heat. It was almost too much. It called him back to his fuzziest memories of being snuggled between baby rats against the belly of his mother, snatched away from him too soon. That feeling of warmth had been fleeting then, before the hard, cold reality of his painful life began. But here was an offer of it, a glimpse that maybe life could hold warm surprises if you let it.

“It’s a deal,” Harvey said earnestly, as though this were a fair trade. He pushed down the injustice of their circumstances in favor of choosing the gift being offered that would change his. From where he sat on this warm chair with his new friend, he was getting the best of it. Finally.

 

——————–

Trevy Thomas is an author whose work has appeared in The Dr. T.J. Eckleburg Review, The Coachella Review, Drunk Monkeys, Sliver of Stone, Woodwork Magazine, the 2017 River Tides Anthology, and as a feature writer at Friendspast.com. She lives in Virginia with her husband and four dogs, and can be found virtually at https://trevythomas.com.


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