The Effigy of a Drowned Rat
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The Effigy of a Drowned Rat is a short story from my
unpublished collection, Fletcher North. It is a fictionalized account of an
experience I had in the summer of 2000.
I sat quietly on the dormant wood stove and watched as Shannon flipped the small yellow pill into her mouth, followed by a sip of Coke. She grinned once at me quickly from across the dilapidated kitchen of her newly rented house.
A house it was just barely, the floor was coming up, there were holes punched into the flimsy sheet rock in numerous places by disgruntled visitors, there was a rat the size of a terrier living in the walls, and the dryer took three hours to dry a tee shirt and made moaning sounds like it had a demon possessing its sheet metal body. Allow me to explain the circumstances that led us to a summer of sin in this unforgiving environment.
This disgusting example of hack job carpentry and poor maintenance was one third owned by a dirty carpenter who worked for Shannon’s father. She had gotten pitched out of her previous residence, and her dad sure as hell didn’t want her moving in with him. He made a deal with Phil that Shannon could stay in one of the rooms and use the (quite limited) facilities there temporarily until she got back on her feet. After a week of her moving in, there were four other people living there full time, and at least a dozen others showing up to party every night. We called it the crack shack, much to Shannon’s dismay.
She liked to say she tried so hard to make that house respectable, but everyone knew that it was a den of drugs, scandal, and various other shady activities. At any given point in time there were people drifting in and out of the shack as sporadically as water from a calcified shower head. I must admit, it was a sweet set up. We kept the place reasonably nice, but after a while it got out of hand. The garbage piled up in the kitchen and the sink overflowed with moldy dishes and rotting food scraps. The smell was overwhelming. I think it was then the aforementioned rat moved in.
That rat was the bane of every shack dweller’s existence. It would make nightly journeys out of the holes in the wall to the kitchen to dine on the abundance of mess. A rodent should not have caused so much drama, but this was no ordinary rat. This was THE RAT. Shannon likes to play animal rights activist, so she bought a cat-sized humane trap and baited it with a slice of velveeta. This rat, however, could not be fooled. It never touched the velveeta. I guess it has better taste than that. That rat was never caught and only seen a few times, but I slept in the room where it was the most active at night. I could hear it scratching around in the sheet rock and chewing through the already shot insulation. It made my skin crawl.
If I recall correctly, which I probably don’t due to my mental condition during that summer, there were about seven people over at the shack on the night in question. Maggie was on the pleather couch in the living room playing tetris on the playstation, Eddie was passed out beside her, and Fletcher was asleep on the adjacent couch, which consisted of two futons thrown on a termite- ravaged couch frame. I can’t be sure, that cocoon of dirty floral quilt could have been anyone, but based on the unruly gold blonde hair spilling out onto the flattened pillow, it was Fletch. Everyone else was either tucked away in dark corners of the house to sleep, or had wandered off into the night to seek more exciting entertainment.
Shannon pulled a tiny translucent item from the fifth pocket of her ill- fitting jeans. Of course, at this point in her life all of her clothes were ill- fitting. They hung off of her like Spanish moss from a withered tree. Her eyes were glassy, her hair cropped short and badly dyed dark red. Her teeth were yellowed like a weathered document, her skin pasty and muted like a stain. She was the picture of adolescent waste.
Her pale, clumsy fingers reached into the small plastic bag and carefully pinched the little square piece of paper inside. She held it up to everyone triumphantly like a prospector presenting a golden nugget.
“Double dipped, baby!” She said excitedly, in an irritating baby voice. She held the paper on her index finger and pressed her finger to her tongue. She turned to me.
“Hey Lani, I’m gonna candy flip.”
In case you’ve never been exposed to the term, candy flipping is the reaction caused by taking Ecstasy and acid simultaneously.
She hopped up and down a couple of times, and in my mind her scrawny legs broke, unable to support the shock. She always seemed so drunk with joy when she held her drugs. She was more delicate and motherly to them than she was with her new puppy. In a way it made me nauseous, but I’m not one to judge another person’s priorities. If her drugs were that important to her, so be it. She was still my friend.
Shannon played final fantasy seven for about and hour while Brett brushed her hair. I sat beside her on her lumpy mattress and watched the glowing figures as reflected in the milky film of her eyes. Her mouth was open very slightly, her lips chapped and cracked. With every flicker of her thumb on the controller she became more mesmerized by her video game. The cocktail of hallucinogens was beginning to kick in. Suddenly she stopped playing her game, put down the controller, and shut the television off. She looked quite lost, in the same way that one looks lost in thought, but her vapid expression told me that her thoughts had become meaningless static.
“I have got to go take a shower.” Shannon said in a buzzing monotone and smiled eerily. She stood up and shuffled though a layer of trash and dirty laundry on the floor of her room to her white dresser whose drawers were completely without handles. She grabbed her blue towel from an open drawer and skipped off to the bathroom, fully severed from reality.
Someone turned the game back on and the white noise was reborn. I stood up and navigated the garbage laden floor toward the far wall. It was covered with drug induced drawings, and even select few sober ones. So I picked up a red marker and began my next masterpiece on the sheet rock.
After a half hour Shannon hadn’t come back. I could hear the water pipes squeaking in the wall. The shower was still on. Something told me to go check on her, but I ignored it. Just as I was reassuring myself as to her safety, Rob ambled sleepily into the room. He had been living in one of the smaller side rooms since he got kicked out of his parents’ place.
“Hey Lani, Shannon wants you.” He said, rubbing his eye with the heel of his hand.
“Huh? For what?” I asked, concentrating on my drawing, but still a little worried.
“I don’t know. But she’s screaming. She woke me up.”
I dropped the marker, neglecting to replace the cap. I bolted for the sliding glass door and proceeded speedily around the corner of the house and into the hall. I rapped furiously on the bathroom door.
“Lani?” A tremulous voice squeaked flatly over the thunder of the shower.
“Shan, you alright?” I put my ear to the door.
“It’s open. Come here. Please?” The squeak evolved into a pleading whine. I turned the brass doorknob. Sure enough, it was unlocked.
Shannon was curled at the corner of the tub, hooking her phantasmal fingers around the edge. Her knuckles were whiter than usual. She looked like a child from a starving third world nation, her eyes cold, black and staring. Her lower lip trembled. I knelt down on the linoleum beside the bathtub and put my hand on her clammy shoulder.
“I saw them. My mom and my brothers in coffins, right there on the wall. There was this noise and then the soap bubbles were laughing at me. I saw their faces, the faces in the coffins and on the bubbles.” She ranted, her jaw shaking violently as she spat out the words.
“It’s just the drugs, Shan. You’re having a bad trip and you’ve got the shakes real bad. You have to wait it out. What do you want me to do?” I spoke to her carefully; her eyes were watching my mouth move.
“I don’t want to be in here. Cold. I want to get out. My legs don’t work.” She took in a heavy breath of air and let it out in a whine like a slowly deflating balloon. “Help.”
“It’s gonna be all right.” I didn’t know what else to say. I always thought that phrase was just a space filler for people who were failing at comforting a friend, but in this case, in Shannon’s fogged over mind, it was what she needed to hear.
“Lani, thank you so much.” She sniffled a little now, I don’t know whether there were tears spilling down her face or droplets of water sliding down from her hair.
“You know you’re my best friend?” This scene was the saddest thing I’d ever seen. Her legs were crumpled lifelessly beside her, arms thrown over the side of the bath tub like an inert marionette, and her shockingly pale face stared up at me pathetically, pleading for help and pledging how much I mean to her. All due to the ingestion of two tiny items.
“Yeah. I know.” I said quietly. She looked suddenly serious.
“Do you have a knife?” She asked, genuinely curious.
“Uh, yeah. In my pocket. Why?”
“Will you be my blood sister?”
I don’t know why I agreed to this proposition, but I did. Given the situation at hand, I figured it was appropriate, I felt almost obligated. I produced from my pocket a little red Swiss army knife and made a small cut on my index finger. I passed the knife to Shannon and she sliced a matching incision on her finger. We put our hands together. Nothing was said, it didn’t seem the kind of thing to be proclaimed out loud, more a tacit agreement.
I watched a thread of scarlet spin into the drain and wondered whose finger it belonged in.
I helped Shannon into her clothes and we left the bathroom. I looked back in, and my eyes darted directly to a smear of blood on the mildewed shower curtain. It was burning there like a red mitten on white snow.
Shannon trudged off to her room to crash, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep. I thought I’d go wake Fletcher up and talk for a while, so I started to the living room, meandering towards the sounds of gentle snoring. The room was dimly lit and very still. The air was dry. Maggie had joined Eddie in sleep, letting the tetris blocks fade from the screen and join her in dreams, the colored pixels dancing in her closed eyes. The lump of quilt on the futon couch was silent, and as I lifted the quilt I saw that Fletch had gone. A sudden tiredness overcame me and I nestled myself into the surprisingly comfortable bed.
My conscious thoughts gathered themselves into the wings of my mind, dreams taking center stage. Just when I reached the turning point of wakefulness to sleep, a single phrase pressed itself against my mental view.
Remember what is sacred.
And I fell asleep.