Rats by Vee Weeks

“Carmella, come here,” Mama said through gritted teeth as I scooted to the other side of the sofa as fast as I could.
            My bare feet hit the floor and I was so close to getting up and running out of the living room, but Mama grabbed the sleeve of my red nightgown and yanked me back towards her. The yellow and red hairbrush glistened in her other hand as she held it over my head. The white bristles were like teeth, giving me an evil smile, knowing I could never get away from it now.
            Then Mama sunk the brush into the top of my mousy-brown hair, and I could feel the pinpoint of every single bristle in my scalp.
            “Ow!” I shouted.
            I tried to swat the hairbrush off my head, but Mama had a firm grip on it and raked it through the rest of my scalp, all the way down to the bottom of my hair, which ended halfway down my back.
            “Stop being so dramatic,” Mama snapped.
            “But you really hurt me,” I replied, making my voice as whiny as possible, like when a girl in my class fell off the monkey bars at recess yesterday.
            I even scrunched up my brown eyes to make Mama think I was crying. The hairbrush didn’t really hurt enough to make me cry, but I wanted Mama to think she hurt me that bad. But I guess I did that trick one too many times because Mama just sighed and stared up at the ceiling, like she was pleading with God to make me a better child or something. Sorry I don’t like having Mama brush my hair, God.
            “Carmella, we don’t have time for this,” Mama replied, sounding a little whiny herself as the brush revisited the top of my head. “We only have an hour until we have to leave and we need to brush your hair, and your teeth, and did you look through your dresses last night like I asked you to?”
            Uh-oh. I didn’t say anything and I didn’t really need to, because not talking was enough of an answer. Mama yanked the brush extra hard down my hair, and I bit my lip to keep from whining and making her angrier.
            “Why don’t you ever listen to me?” she asked. “We have to figure out which of those dresses still fit you. We don’t have time to….” Her voice trailed off for a second, then she shouted up the stairs, “Jeff, can you start running Carmella’s bath? And get her dresses out of the closet?”
            Daddy didn’t say anything, but a few seconds later, the pipes around the house started churning and I heard the sound of running water.
            “You have such thick hair. Do you know how lucky you are to have such thick hair?” Mama asked through gritted teeth. “You should take care of the things God blessed you with.”
            “Why can’t I be a boy?” I replied. “I’d rather be a boy with short, thin hair because at least I wouldn’t have to spend two hours getting ready for every little thing. Daddy’s been ready for a million years already.”
            “It’s not a little thing,” Mama gasped, running the brush through my hair three times really fast. “It’s your grandmother’s funeral, and I doubt your father wanted to get ready to look at his mother in a casket. So you keep your mouth shut, or else you’re going straight to your room after the funeral. Ugh, it wouldn’t take so long to brush your hair if you just held still.”
            It also wouldn’t take so long if Mama would let me cut it. Some of the other girls in my class had super short hair, almost like a boy’s, and they said it took thirty seconds for their mamas to brush their hair. But Mama said I looked “more presentable” with long hair so this was the way it had to be. I wanted to tell her all that, but I didn’t want to get sent to my room later and besides, I told her the same thing a million times already.
            “There,” Mama said after ten minutes of silence. Finally my hair was free. “Now go upstairs and into your bath,” she ordered, giving me a light push off the sofa.
            The next hour went by in a blur of Mama shouting orders while Daddy disappeared downstairs and sat on the sofa. I hoped he didn’t hear me call his mama dying a “little thing.” I felt bad about that now, and I only really said it because I was mad at Mama. I didn’t know Grandma super well, but she let me have ice cream and cookies when I did see her, and I didn’t like seeing Daddy so sad. I promised myself I would say sorry to him later, when Mama wasn’t around to ruin it and lecture me about “giving a proper apology.” Anyway, throughout all the order shouting and Daddy going downstairs-ing, I took my bath and scrubbed shampoo in my hair until Mama said I was doing it wrong and took over, then I tried on eight thousand different dresses until we realized only the purple one with the ruffled sleeves fit me. I was sad to learn my best favorite dress, the light pink one with big frills on the bottom, was too small now. I only got to wear it a few times. Truthfully I probably could have sucked in my breath and squeezed into it, but Mama said it “looked off” and then she packed all the dresses in a plastic bag to give to Goodwill. By the time we piled into Daddy’s station wagon, I was exhausted, and we didn’t even get to the super boring funeral yet.

            My dress was itchy and the church pew was hard as bricks and dug into my butt. I kept fidgeting around and trying to quietly lift my butt cheeks off the pew, one at a time, just to give them some air, but the pew was crowded and I kept bumping into these random grown-ups sitting around me that Mama said were my aunts and uncles, and they kept awkwardly coughing and trying to scooch over to give me space, until eventually Mama realized what I was doing and told me to stop making everyone uncomfortable. But what about me being uncomfortable?
            I tried my very, very hardest to sit still and pay attention to the priest, but he had what Daddy calls “a thick accent” and I couldn’t understand anything he said. Plus the church was super hot and I was sweating under the only pair of tights we found that didn’t have holes in them, and this choir kept singing about the Lord every time the priest stopped to take a breath, and I also just realized today is Saturday so that means we have to do church today and then again tomorrow. Now I’m really sad Grandma died because now we all have to do extra church, and I can’t even complain about it because Mama says we should never complain about taking time out of our day for the Lord. I told her once that the Lord never responds to us in church or anywhere, and if he’s not taking time out of his day for us, why do we bother building all these big churches and singing choir songs and playing violin music that hurts my ears, all for the Lord? And all Mama could come up with was, “The Lord works in mysterious ways.” Then I gave a really loud sigh, which was the closest I could get to complaining without getting in trouble, and slouched all the way down in my seat, and closed my eyes and imagined I was somewhere else, daydreaming about all the other people and things I could have been.
            I wish I was a boy, I thought to myself. I wish I was a cactus so I could prick Mama when she came at me with the hairbrush. Or maybe I wish I was a dog. But even then I’d probably still be cleaned and bathed constantly. Yeah, I should wish to be a dirtier animal. Like a…a rat! Yeah! Then I could live in dirty sewers all day and scare Mama and other people, and I could run around a big city and play with the pigeons. I guess I’d miss Daddy, though, and he’d be freaked out if I tried to visit him as a rat. But I guess I’ll have to give him up to get away from Mama and hairbrushes and church. Okay, God, if you’re listening at all, I decided I want to be…

            “A rat? What’s a rodent doing here? You said this restaurant was five stars!”
            My eyes fluttered open, and then they got really wide because I couldn’t believe where I was. I was still in a booth, but not a church booth, and this one had comfy, red, plush seats. For some reason I couldn’t see super well, and the bright lights were really hurting my eyes, but I saw people’s pant legs and could just make out the front door nearby. It was dark outside, other than the headlights of cars constantly driving past, and when I sniffed the air, my nose came alive. I realized I could smell everything really, really good, and I smelled a bunch of food. Like fries, and onions, and pasta, and some other vegetables that made me wrinkle my nose. I heard something sizzling on a grill somewhere, maybe a burger, and my stomach growled. I wondered if I ordered anything yet. Maybe I should find a waiter and order something.
            But when I got out of my seat, I realized three things at once. First I saw that my feet weren’t on the floor, and I was completely on the seat, which was really high off the floor for some reason. Then I realized I was in a weird position, and that’s when I looked down and screamed. Or at least I was supposed to be screaming. It came out more like a quiet, hissing sound. Anyway, I screamed because my hands were pink and…and…raw, or something. And very skinny and narrow, and I could see the veins popping through them, and when I stood up, I realized my feet were the same. Then I reached a pink hand up to touch the parts of my body I couldn’t see, and I felt fur! Well, now I really wanted to look in a mirror, even though it meant agreeing with Mama on something, so I stood at the edge of the booth until I got up the courage to leap to the floor, like jumping off the big, tall diving boards at the pool. I discovered I was actually pretty good at landing on my feet, and I didn’t feel any pain or shock at all like I expected to. But when I hit the floor, that’s when I realized the third thing. The pant legs I saw before moved away from me really fast, clearing a path for me. At first I thought it was so nice and polite, until I heard what everyone was screaming.
            “Rat! Oh my god, I thought you were joking. Someone get a waiter out here! Rat! Why is there a rat in here?”
            I also heard a couple of younger voices but still older than me, like they were teenagers or something, snickering to themselves and saying, “Whoa, man, it’s exactly like Ratatouille. Hey, bro, are you secretly helping a chef back there? It’s okay; we won’t tell.”
            Were they talking to me? It sounded like it. Why weren’t they afraid of me like everyone else? They also had this weird, strong, scent to them that Mama would call “musky”, and they were laughing a whole lot, definitely more than everyone else since they were all screaming. That was the third thing I realized, which was that no one wanted me here, so I should probably leave. Mama was always afraid of “overstaying our welcome” at family events, and rats aren’t really welcome anywhere in the first place. Someone was swatting my butt with something long and sharp, but I didn’t need to be told twice. It took my stupid eyes a second to find the front door, then I scurried to it, and luckily everyone gave me a nice, wide path, so I was outside in a second.
            Looking at the busy streets and the endless cars and all the lights and honking and people shouting, I thought back on everything that happened and gasped when I realized my wish in church came true. Maybe God did answer us sometimes after all. I wanted to tell Mama all about it, but I guess I wouldn’t be able to anymore. I was on my own now.

            Being a rat wasn’t as much fun as I thought. I expected that people wouldn’t like me very much, and that did happen every time I went inside to get warmed up, but it turns out rats don’t like each other very much. It didn’t take long before I was cold, and hungry, and asking God or whatever granted my wish if they could take it back and make me a person again. I asked every time I came to a garbage can where all the leftover food and good trash was already eaten, and every time I came to a garbage can where a gang of rats were already digging through it and they shoved me away with their pink claws that hurt worse than any hairbrush. I wandered around for hours, or at least it felt like hours, but I could only tell time from the moon moving in the sky and the streets getting quieter. Maybe I should have snuck into one of those teenagers’ pockets. They seemed to like me…But it also kind of seemed like they were making fun of me or something. I felt a little happier when I found one stray bread crumb stuck between the corner of an apartment building and the sidewalk with pigeon poop all over it, and I pulled it out and ate it. The good thing about being a rat is you get full really fast, so the bread crumb really did make me feel better, but I still wanted to go home and be a person. Looking at the pigeon poop made me realize I didn’t even get to play with pigeons, and it didn’t really matter anyway because they probably wouldn’t like me. I leaned against the apartment building, kicking my tiny, pink legs out in front of me, and stared up at the crescent moon.
            Please, God, please let me go home, I pleaded silently. I’ll….I’ll make a deal with you. I’ll eat all the gross zucchini and broccoli and Brussels sprouts Mama makes for dinner, and I’ll wear any dress she buys me without complaining about it, and I’ll sit still when she brushes my hair, and I’ll even ask her to go to church twice a week, if it means I can be a person. I’ll do anything you want. I’ll pray to you every night, and I’ll definitely, really say sorry to Daddy for calling the funeral a little thing, and I’ll never call a family event a little thing again, ever, and… I guess rats can’t cry, because as much as I wanted water to come pouring out my eyes, it just wouldn’t. And I’ll be nice to every rat I see from now on, and I promise to be the best little girl I can possibly be if you’ll just make me a little girl again.

            I don’t think I’ve ever been happy to be in church, but when I opened my eyes and found myself in that same pew, squished between Mama and an uncle, I had the biggest smile on my face. Then I remembered we were at a funeral so I stared down at the ground and hid my smile from everyone until it went away. I checked my hands and feet and legs and they were all in the right, human places, and a few seconds later, we all had to line up on the aisle between the two sets of pews and receive Communion, which meant the service was almost over. I held my hands out to take the wafer from the priest like a perfect little girl, then let it melt on my tongue as I went back to my seat. I sat up straight and made myself look serious for the last five minutes of the service, then waited patiently as the people sitting closer to the exit filed out, until finally it was our turn.
            “You did really well, Carmella,” Mama said, squeezing my hand as we walked into the parking lot. “You really got your act together in there. Let’s hope you can keep it up at the cemetery.”
            She gave me a smile that I think was supposed to be happy, but it looked kind of evil, like she was annoyed but forcing herself to be happy. Then she walked faster so she was ahead of Daddy and me, and we all went to the car.

Vee Weeks graduated from Purchase College’s Creative Writing Program with a Bachelor of Arts. She has been published in Italics Mine and Arlington Literary Journal, and is currently in the process of finding more homes for her creative work. When she’s not busy with that project, she spends her time drinking copious amounts of Starbucks and hanging out with her pet rat, who is a lot cuter than the rat in this story.



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