Rat Key (Updated Version)
Author's note: This is the revised version of Rat Key and let me tell you, it is much improved. I'm still... Show full author's note »
And so they name him Rat“Get back here, Rat!”
“The police again?” I say to myself, “They’d really hate for me to finish my meal in peace, wouldn’t they?” I had been sitting against a wall in what we from the Tunnels call Dinner Alley, a narrow strip between two apartment buildings where everybody puts their trash. We generally don’t get caught so we can eat. Didn’t work so well today. They found me…again. But there’s a big difference between ‘found’ and ‘caught’. Maybe one day they’ll actually catch me. Won’t that be exciting?
I rise from the dirty, grey ground, still holding my dinner, which of course consists of some stolen bread. It’s not like I can pay for anything and I tend to stay away from the trash heaps. I’m pretty sure that’s what they’re after me for on this fine, bleak day, but maybe it’s something else. In any case, I take off running because I’ve got a brain. Granted, it sometimes doesn’t work that great, but hey, it’s better than nothing.
“Stop!” they yell after me. Sometimes I wonder if they really expect that to work. You’d think they could come up with something better than that, but that may be an awfully high expectation for the cops of 2076.
“No thanks,” I call back to them over my shoulder. It sounds like two officers today, both slow, probably fat from cake and donuts. ‘Easy escape,’ I think, but then just as I’m about to lift the rusty grate and slip underground, an all-too-familiar face appears under it.
“What do you think you’re doing here, Rat?” he says, jerking his head to the side to shake some of his greasy brown hair from his face. Dirt stains most of his skin, dark circles have formed around his eyes and his face is riddled by acne. His entire body has an unnecessary layer of fat. The boy’s lips are cracked and his cheek is bruised and he just generally looks unsafe. It’s Green. Short for Gangrene, the disease he’s famous for introducing to the Tunnels.
“I’m going to rip open this grate if you don’t let me in right now, Green,” I tell him.
“Cops on your tail, eh Rat?” he asks, giggling at his own childish joke.
“You really love to waste time, don’t you? Let me in,” I demand through clenched teeth.
“Yeah…no,” he says, “You ain’t wanted down here.”
“And you are?” I lift an eyebrow.
“If I could fit my hand through this grate, I’d punch you,” he growls.
“Yes, I know, but you’re much too fat for that, aren’t you?” I say, “Now let me in.”
He spits at me and says “No can do, Rat.”
“I see. You’ve got orders not to. I suppose it was Grand?”
“There he is!” an officer shouts behind me. I look back at them to determine how much time I have to play mind games with Green. It’s a matter of seconds.
“Yup, he really hates your guts,” he says back. Good old Grand. You can always rely on him to ruin everything for you.
“Yeah, since I didn’t already know that. Thanks for nothing, Green,” I say as I take off running again.
‘Now where to?’ I think as I speed down the busy but still dead street. Bleak, menacing buildings stare down at me in disapproval. A few women scream as I shoot past them and a couple of men try to stop me, but I dodge their hands with ease. I run into a dark, tall alley and do my best to blend in with the shadows, hoping they won’t see me. The two officers scan up and down the alley a few times, before one of them says, “Gone again.” Then they exit the alley, taking one last look to be sure they had not missed me, which of course they had. Just goes to show what a rat can do.
I stay there for a couple of minutes to give them more than enough time to be on their way before I leave my hiding spot and sit in a little lighted corner that must have been part of a yard many years ago. I sit by a garbage can and continue eating, figuring that I’m actually with my own kind now.
I look up at the sky while chewing some of the bread. That blasted cap to the city is still that nasty greyish tan color and still clouded with smog and pollution. Hundreds of hulking machines buzz around the sky, hissing and screeching. “Lots of airships out today,” I mumble, my mouth half full, “Wonder what’s up.” One of the airships lets out an awful ringing noise that seems to echo in my mind even after it stops. “Those ships sure make attractive noises.” I take another bite of bread but stop when I heard a rattling within the garbage can next to me. The can falls over suddenly, the lid pops off, and a little boy crawls out. He’s wearing rags and is basically just skin. I’m not even sure if bones are in there. He freezes abruptly when he sees me, clearly fearing I’d hurt him.
“It’s alright,” I say, “I’m only here to eat.”
He relaxes a little bit and begins scavenging through the alley. Occasionally he stops and picks something up, putting it in his mouth without even knowing what it is. Watching him makes me feel awful, so I sigh and say, “Here.”
He looks at me real strange like I’m speaking another language, but when he sees my outstretched hand, he smiles and rushes toward me, eagerly taking the bread and biting into it. I decide to sit there with him until he’s done eating.
“When was the last time you had bread, kid?” I ask him.
“I don’t know,” he says between mouthfuls, “Been a while.”
“You should be careful, if you eat quickly, you’ll gain more carbs,” then I look at him, “On second thought, eat faster.”
He nods and takes bigger bites. Soon the bread is gone and he says, “Thanks a lot, mister.”
“Don’t worry about it. Looks like you’ve got enough to worry about as is. Got a home?”
“Nope. Got a name though,” he says. “It’s Wick. Or at least that’s what they call me in the Tunnels.”
“What’s a kid your age doing in the Tunnels?” I ask, quite surprised and incredibly disappointed in the gang leader that accepted him. The Tunnels are a dangerous place for a man like me, let alone a helpless kid.
“The Tunnels are all I’ve got.” He hangs his head and his dirty blonde hair drifts in front of his eyes.
“Where do you live, uh-” Wick begins. For the first time I look into his eyes, his starving, tired eyes. This boy can’t be any older than six and yet, he’s standing in front of me wearing rags and eating garbage. He seems content, though, makes it seem like it’s not that bad, like it’s completely normal. Maybe it is for him.
“Name’s Rat. I live in the Tunnels too,” I finish.
“Whose gang do you belong to?” he asks me.
“No one’s. You?”
“You don’t belong to a gang? How come?”
“Don’t want to.”
“Oh, okay. Well, I’m part of Hearth’s gang,” he says.
“Hearth, eh?” I say, “Not bad. One of the better ones, I’d say.”
“Yeah,” he says, “She took me in when I was dying and gave me food. So I’m very thankful for her and I’ll do anything for the gang.”
“That’s good, just don’t get yourself hurt, okay?” I tell him.
“I hope I do get hurt. Hearth told me that if I get hurt, it makes me stronger,” he responds.
“Well, I’d say you’re plenty strong already. Maybe not physically, but that’s not what matters to me,” I say. I don’t know where those words came from, but they just spilled out of my mouth like water. Who says things like that anymore? Not me.
“I don’t get it,” he says, looking at me vacantly.
“Yeah, I’m not sure I do either,” I laugh, “Well, Wick, I probably ought to go. Take care of yourself.”
“You too, Rat.”
At that, I get up and walk off to find something to occupy my time. ‘What a kid,’ I think, ‘At least he’s in good hands. Hearth is a good leader.’
After a while, I come across another grate. This time, a younger face appears. I look down into the pale green eyes of a redheaded teenage boy, his face dotted with freckles. He’s at least pretty clean though. “Now just how many kids are they letting into the Tunnels?”
“As many as need a home, Rat,” he says all professional and soldier-like.
“You know my name?” I ask, squinting my eyes at him.
“Yes, and I know that you are a thief and that you refuse to join any gangs, but you still live in the Tunnels,” he says. After a moment of being thoroughly disturbed, I requested his name. “They call me Ary. Short for Dictionary.”
“Fitting,” I say, “Now, are you authorized to let me in?”
“Is that Rat you’re talking to, Ary?” comes a voice from a little way under the grate.
“Yes, ma’am,” he says, quickly and almost nervously.
“Well, let him in!”
“Yes, ma’am,” he says, pushing up the grate, it giving off an unpleasant creak. I slip inside, the dirt walls of the Tunnels cloaking me like an old blanket and look to where the voice came from. It was Hearth.
“Hello, Rat,” she says. Many would say Hearth is a beautiful woman. Her auburn hair falls to her shoulders neatly and her black jacket fits her very well. She always wears a grey tank top underneath it and has the jacket unzipped to her chest. She wears dark blue jeans that are as ripped as they are rare and knee high black boots. “Get any dinner today?”
“Actually, I didn’t. I ended up handing my bread over to one of your men, er, boys, I suppose. His name was Wick.”
“Well, that was awful kind of you,” she replies.
“Don’t you think that you should feed him? The boy is starved. Said he didn’t remember the last time he ate bread. If that isn’t malnutrition, I don’t know what is,” I say.
“If you think he needs food so badly, why don’t you get it for him, or better yet, teach him to steal?” she asks, sounding slightly annoyed now.
“He’s not part of my gang. Not my responsibility,” I answer, putting my palms up in defense.
“See, Rat, you always tell people what needs to be done, but are never willing to do it yourself. No wonder everybody down here hates you,” she says. “Everybody in the half dead city lives in an age of accomplishment except you. Why don’t you just get used to it?”
I turn to leave at that point. I have no interest in getting into an argument with Hearth over something she’ll probably take care of anyway. She doesn’t stop me, so I walk to my private part of the Tunnels. Nobody besides me knows where it is, so I get to be completely alone there, which is both good and bad. Sometimes I love to be alone, but other times, I really want some sort of companion. I feel like, at one point, I had somebody that was always with me, but I can’t remember. ‘I’m probably just making things up,’ I thought to myself, before I arrive at my “den”, as I call it. I push on a small, barely visible crack in the wall after looking left and right for any sign on movement. The door gives way and slides open, allowing me to enter. It isn’t anything special; just a circular cavern I’d dug out and hid. It’s nearly impossible to see, but eventually my eyes adjust to the darkness and I can make out enough to move around. I keep everything I’ve stolen here, often wondering what the heck the things are used for, such as the collection of papers with random symbols on them. They’re all bound somehow with different colored covers on them. I have no idea what the symbols mean and I figure I’ll never find out. I also have a little blue box that can flip open and the inside lights up with a picture of two dogs. Every once in a while, the blue box vibrates and lights up the whole room. When I look at it, those random symbols appear instead of the dogs. I like the dogs a lot better. Then my favorite thing is actually a gift from some crazy old lady. I wear it around my neck on a string. It’s a golden key. I don’t know what it goes to, but the old lady said that I was the one to hold the key, so I took it and now I always have it. It’s kind of odd, though. What does it go to? ‘The rat holds the key,’ I think.
That makes me think back to when I got my name. I had just stumbled into this washed up city. I didn’t know where I’d come from or where I was. I didn’t know anything but how to talk and move. I didn’t even know how I got here. I do know that it was a rainy day and I had taken a sandwich from this lady who was sitting outside. I didn’t know that I wasn’t supposed to take it, so I didn’t understand when a man in a black uniform ran after me, shouting, “Rat!” over and over again. After a while, I got away from him and sat down in a dry alley. Another man walked into the alley too and he sat down across from me. His clothes were ragged and patched, but functional. His hair and beard were both wiry and thick.
“Howdy, stranger,” he said, “Where’d you get that sandwich?”
“A lady,” I told him while I ate.
“So you stole it?” he asked.
“I guess,” I said, “Some man chased me, but I lost him.”
“I see. So what’s your name, buddy?” he asked, “I’m Tooth.” He smiled and I saw why. One of his front teeth was absolutely enormous.
“What’s a name?” I asked.
“Well, it’s what people call you. Don’t you have one?” he said.
“What people call me?” I repeated, “Then I guess…my name is Rat.”
“Nice to meet you, Rat.”