A Pack of Rats

by Dan Powell

The government changed the names, but that didn’t stop demand.

Pack of Rats.

All the brands were like that now. Rats. Genital Warts. Shit Sticks. Doesn’t stop folks buying ’em. A rose by any other name and all that.

The till monkey pulled a face like he’d just eaten a shit sandwich then set about counting the coins I’d slapped on the counter. The packets lined the caged shelves behind him like inmates. My brand, packaging the bright red of a serious injury, badged with the silhouette of a dead rat, paws in the air, held my gaze.

“Those things’ll kill you,” chirped the till monkey, face all grin now.

He slid a pack of Rats over to me. I plugged my tracheostomy with a yellowed finger.

“Let me guess. Ex-smoker?”

I sounded like a wheezing Dalek but took comfort in the freaked-out face of the till monkey as I snagged my smokes. He could only nod.

The packet warning, funeral black on oblivion white, read: SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING: SMOKING KILLS. YOU’LL DIE ALONE!

Doesn’t everyone, I thought.

I lit up outside.

“You can’t smoke here.”

The till monkey stood in the store doorway, cell held out before him like a crucifix. He tapped out the number for the cops and held his finger over the green call button, eyebrow arched with a level of smugness only ex-smokers can achieve.

Filter pinched between the tips of index finger and thumb, I jammed my smoke into my stoma, pulling hard, leaving the cigarette hanging from the puckered hole in my throat for a moment before removing it to exhale. My mouth, no longer required in the act of smoking, was free the whole time to brandish a defiant smile.

“Jesus, man, you’re smoking through a hole in your throat. Surely
that’s quittin’ time?”

Something about the solid inarguability of what he said caused my head to flash. I was on him before he had a chance to react, toppling us both to the ground. I landed on his chest, bellowing at him but, with both hands wrapped in his shirt, shaking him, his head batting back and forth, I had no finger free to place over my stoma. The air fueling my screams trickled out through my throat hole, never reaching my vocal chords. The defeated till monkey buckled anyway, awed by my powerful, silent roar.

I shoved the butt of my cigarette in his mouth, clamped his lips and nose with my other hand. My weight on his chest holding the rest of him down, I forced him to take a pull. He gulped it in, hacking.

Once things calmed down we sat on the sidewalk outside the store, smoking our way through my cigarettes. He took the box from me, chuckled at the crappy dead rat with its legs in the air, ran a finger over the warning label. Retaking his place aboard the sinking ship, he threw back his head to exhale a beautiful blue cloud into the air.


Despite beardy appearances, Dan Powell is a soft machine capable of a minimum of three simultaneous and genuinely surprising emotions. If you find that hard to believe, go read his Yeovil Literary Prize winning short story Half-mown Lawn in which he displays at least two of them. He yearns desperately at danpowellfiction.com.
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