ratSixteen Minutes

by Premee Mohamed

We got sixteen minutes of warning. Bastards. I bet the president knew hours ago, maybe days. I raced home on foot, sprinting across gridlocked traffic, and paused in the driveway. Cathy’s silhouette was at the window. Tim was at school, hopefully under a desk. Skeeter in the backyard. No time to get them. Already I heard the whistle of plunging metal. Revenge enclosed in giant pills, scribbled with the Commies’ backwards letters. No time. I ran for the bunker and slammed the lid behind me with so little time to spare that the impact knocked me off the ladder.

Even with my ears covered I heard the thunder of the nukes, torn air, innocent atoms becoming poison and death as I cowered against the cool cement.

When the shaking stopped, I groped for a flashlight. The generator hunched under its tarp; I whipped it off and shouted as something rocketed out. A stray can? No. The light revealed a huge black rat, tail just disappearing underneath the shelves.

“Well, partner,” I said, advancing on it with the heavy flashlight. “Come on. One quick swat and your troubles will end.” I lay down and swung the light back and forth. Nothing. An impenetrable darkness, a place the light never reached. Burrowed in, the little bastard.

With the lights on, I did a quick inventory: Vent working. Water purifier too, a reassuring gurgle. Iodine pills, Vitamin D for the four sunless weeks underground while the worst of it blew over. Ranks of cans, twinkling into the distance. I took the hatchet down from the wall and tugged off the stiff, new leather case.

***

Scrabbling, on the cusp of sleep. The radio? No. Too close. I held my breath, listening, and I felt a searing pain in my foot. As I jerked it back, it brushed across warm fur.

The rat scuttled away as I got the light on, its mouth rimmed red where it had tried to take off my toe. Not much to eat up there, eh? And in its hunger it had lost the normal fears.

The next day, I scraped my breakfast scraps onto the floor. Scientific principles. If I fed it, I wouldn’t be attacked. Like Leo Bloom with his cat: Feed her and she won’t mouse. Won’t kill.

But it only became more demanding, bolting its handful of scraps and staring till I gave it more. I knew the length and breadth of it now—the edge of its yellow teeth, every bump and nodule in the scaly tail, as long as my forearm.

By the second week, I assumed from listening to me, it began to speak, imitating familiar voices like a parrot. I had had no idea rats were so intelligent.

“Bill,” it said gently in the night as I lay cradling the hatchet under my blanket. “Bill, put that away. You don’t need it.”

“I know that, Cathy,” I said. “It’s just in case.”

“Bill,” it said, “You left us. You left us to die.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “If I’d gone into the house to get you, I would have died too. It would have been a shameful waste.”

“Oh.”

“And if Tim survived, he’d be an orphan,” I said. “A boy needs a father, Cathy.”

“Yes, that’s true.”

“And the world needs survivors.”

***

I felt its breath in the night sometimes, like the warm, moist breath of my son when he’d crawl into bed with us. “Dad,” said the rat. “Dad, I heard it. I heard the bombs.”

“Don’t think about it, Tim,” I said. “You’ll have bad dreams.”

***

Above the lid, I heard voices, even barking. I clamped my hands over my mouth to not call out for Skeeter.

“I keep hearing things, Bill,” said the rat. “I heard the dog this morning again. I know I did. And I heard men speaking. Maybe there was no bomb. Maybe the sirens were for an earthquake. The shaking cracked the floor, look.”

The crack was visible from my bed, where I now spent most of my time. But I craned my head to look anyway, and the rat leapt, sinking its teeth into my throat as I howled. I tore it loose and scrambled for the axe.

Chasing it was a farce—always a step behind, the axe blade burying itself in shelves, cans, floor, bed. Finally I gave up and retreated to the bed.

“Cathy,” I said. “How could you?”

The rat’s tongue slid out and ran languorously over its red-dampened fur. “This place is for me. Outside is for you.”

“I can’t,” I said. “I’ll get sick. The bombs…”

“There were no bombs.”

***

I couldn’t sleep now, the rat pacing, its shadow like some black, prehistoric thing on the wall. It would get me in my sleep. It wanted me gone.

I confirmed its plan the morning I jerked out of a guilty doze and saw it on the water purifier. The pump was shot, dribbling, chewed through. Under my bandages, my throat throbbed in a feverish roar.

“I’ll leave in a week,” I told the rat. “When the book said it would be safe.”

“It’s safe now.”

***

My wound oozes, smelling of the perfume Cathy dabs on every morning. She kisses me lingeringly over breakfast, canned beans and carrots; I feel my lips tear away in her teeth, spraying the plate with crimson. It is too hot in here. We will have to turn on the air conditioning soon. My fingertips run across her fur coat—yes, she must be even hotter than me.

I slide from the chair, cement cool against my face. Her hands touch my eyes. “Soon,” I tell her. “I’ll go back up. I’m sorry I left you. I planned it from the day I built the bunker. I’m sorry. But I’ll go up soon.”

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