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       The Rat, p.1

           Beth Madden
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The Rat
The Rat

  Treading Twisted Lines with Darren, Maddi, and Kai

  Beth Madden

  Copyright 2012 Beth Madden

  Edited by Sandra Law

  Cover Design by Nathan Murray

  For Tomasina

  Titles Available in the Treading Twisted Lines Series (in intended reading order):

  The Chosen Voice

  Under the Bright Water

  The Rat


  The westward-sailing sun glinted on the windscreen of the sleek fastback sedan that thundered north-east far below. Though it raced away from the sun, the early afternoon heat intensified as the elongated car left the scraggly remains of mountainous territory behind, and struck out into desert.

  The rat was dozing heavily, curled up with his little head cushioned by the Father’s nice trench coat. It had been cool in the city, but barely an hour after he’d dragged the rat from bed and thrown him in the backseat, the Father began to bake. He had veered left and right on the near-deserted valley roads trying to pull the coat off, picking up speed as he swore and changed hands on the steering wheel four, five times. Finally he’d succeeded, and hurled the warm garment with force over his shoulder. It had flapped like a monstrous flat bird and smacked into the rat, enveloping him in a shroud. The coat’s large, triangular zip struck him in the mouth, and one tiny front tooth had tingled numbly until the Father stopped for fuel hours later, filling the car with diesel and tossing the rat a greasy paper bag of fried meatballs.

  Sunlight pelted through the windows. Jolted as the sedan seared across the relentless stretch of pitch bitumen, the rat’s shielding hand slipped from his eyes. Brightness struck his eyelids, startling his irises beneath. With a little yelp, the rat burst into wakefulness.

  ‘What’s your problem?’ the Father grunted, eyes as black as the road lifting to the rear-view mirror. The rat, disoriented, took a moment to remember where he was. Feeling the speed and the grumbling power of the sedan around him, he slowly smiled.

  ‘Na-fing,’ he replied.

  ‘Then keep your Gods-damn mouth bloody shut,’ the Father growled.

  The rat nodded. But though he squeezed his lips tightly shut at the Father’s order, his smile failed to melt away.

  The rat liked driving. He liked speed. He liked the jarring screech spinning tyres made against road when the Father swerved around sharp bends. He liked watching scenery bolt past his window: buildings and power lines, trees, and now a near-blank stretch of desert. The rat raced the continuous stream of outside in heated competition, whooping inwardly every time he bested it.

  More than all that, the rat loved cars. Maybe this was because he loved questions he couldn’t answer, marvelling at the mystery—how could so many separate things add up to only one? He loved the way each car part had its own special job, as well. Doors for opening and shutting—one, two, three, four, and one more for the sloping boot. Four wheels to roll, and another beneath the Father’s crafty hands that controlled their direction. Soft seats to curl up and snooze in. Windows to look through. Mirrors to look in. Windscreen wipers that swept industriously in rain and silty snow. A lighter to keep the Father’s cigarettes smoking. And the engine.

  The engine. That was the true marvel. The rat had seen it, once. A man, a stranger in yellow-brown overalls, had been leaning over the Father’s sedan as the rat hovered nearby, drawn downstairs by strange clanging sounds and the occasional revving rumble. He’d slowly crept right up to the man and begun to examine the tool box at his feet, rifling through its clanking contents. The rat hadn’t recognised any of the fascinating shapes it contained.

  ‘What’s dis?’ he’d asked, brandishing a thick black loop. It looked a like the chains he’d seen girls at his childcare house wearing, what with its fat, six-sided locket. Only theirs were yellow and small, and couldn’t be nearly as heavy as the chain he held.

  The man had smiled and taught him the name of each tool the rat hefted in his skinny arms, every one of them weighty and cool to the touch—screwdriver, pliers, wrench, and drill. Eventually, the man had balanced his spanner on the edge of the car and lifted the rat onto his hip, showing him the rubber, plastic, and metal maze usually hidden beneath the blue-blue sedan’s bonnet.

  ‘The engine’s what makes the car work,’ the man had said as the rat gaped with globular eyes, overwhelmed, trying to follow the snaking, rubbery black tubes, gaze alighting on tiny red levers and what looked like a monstrous, stretched out version of the battered octopuses he ate for dinner three nights a week. ‘Only we mechanics know how. So only we can fix them when they break.’

  ‘Are you a wizard?’ a spellbound little rat had breathed, leaning so close that another centimetre would have seen his tiny nose smeared black with grease. He’d spotted a white, squarish bottle half-hidden near the back, sealed by a round, yellow cap. What was it filled with?

  ‘All mechanics are,’ the man had confirmed, nodding wisely. ‘Car wizards.’

  The rat could have listened to the smiling man in overalls and marvelled at the enthralling engine for hours. But the Father had shouted from their window five stories up, and the mechanic had set the rat down in an awful hurry.

  ‘I’m not pay-ying yoo-tu feel-lup liddle boys,’ the rat half whispered, half mouthed in imitation of the old drifting shout as he tripped to his feet in the pitching vehicle.

  ‘What was that?’

  ‘Na-fing,’ the rat said again.

  ‘What did I say,’ the Father said, stuffing his half-puffed cigarette in his mouth and cuffing the rat squarely in the side of the head as he stumbled between the front seats, ‘about keeping your bloody mouth shut?’

  The rat clutched the padded edge of the Father’s seat, giddy from the blow. But he held himself up. The Father hadn’t hit hard—the rat’s neck had barely swivelled. And he’d been expecting it. So he didn’t cry. Instead, the rat sniffed, made a mumbling apology, and finished climbing over the gear stick, angling awkwardly over the Father’s thick arm and clambering into the front passenger seat.

  The view was entirely different, up front; it wasn’t long before the rat was back on his feet. He leaned on the dashboard, staring out the front windscreen, enraptured by the rushing road as it pointed their way, all the way. He got as close to the moving world as he could, shifting his folded arms nearer and nearer the windscreen until he balanced on the very tips of his bare toes and his bendy young body was stretched thin as it could go, draped over the dashboard.

  ‘Weird bloody kid, you are,’ the Father said, spotting the rat’s detached, content reflection as he jabbed his thumb against the flat switch just below his window. It slid down, and the Father flicked his smoked tube into the dusty countryside.

  Something black arced through the perfect blue sky ahead, swerving gracefully and turning, soaring past the car.

  A bird. A big one.

  He’d only ever seen pigeons on the streets and sparrows chirping at his window, never anything so huge and free. What kind of bird was it? What was it called? Where did it live?

  The rat climbed back up on his seat and shuffled excitedly on his knees, pressing himself against the window glass to keep the magnificent creature in his line of sight.

  ‘HEY!’ the Father roared. The rat’s collar strangled as the Father seized a handful of his shirt and yanked hard. He stumbled back, skinny little fingers coming away from the glass. They left ten fingerprints, slightly greasy from his lunch meatballs and crisped onion slices.

  ‘Don’t touch the glass, you’re getting your damn filth all over it! What’ll it take for you to do as you’re bloody told?’

  ‘Sorry,’ the little rat murmured, one hand soothing his assaulted neck. Quickly, he stuffed his other hand into his sleeve and began to wipe jerkily, trying to cle
an his filth away. The glass began to smudge and turn pale grey, grease smearing.

  ‘STOP IT!’

  The Father grabbed his shoulder and threw him down. The rat let out a single whimper as his right ear suddenly stung, smacked hard by a stinging palm.

  ‘Don’t bloody touch my car, got it you little rat?’ the Father demanded. The rat nodded over and over, hands working hard, twisting his sleeve cuffs in his lap until they wrinkled. ‘Just stay in your Gods-damn seat. Don’t touch anything. Stop bloody causing me trouble.’

  Mumbling nothing in particular, the rat nursed his scarlet ear. He meant not to say another thing. Not ever. But only ten minutes later, he started to notice the pressure that fast built in his bladder. Unwilling to speak, the rat endured it in increasing discomfort, biting his lip and gnawing on the inside of his cheeks, imitating his verminous namesakes. Then, he clamped his hands hard against the front of his trousers, trying to physically hold it in. But the small carton of grape juice he’d guzzled after his meatballs was determined to make its second appearance.

  ‘I hafta piss,’ the rat eventually had to say, squirming and dancing about on his buttocks, entire body clenched to hold back the onslaught.

  The Father was lighting another cigarette, and didn’t look up. ‘Wind down the window and let it rip, then.’

  The rat rushed to get the window down and fumbled with his fly. His downy, walnut-stained hair blew about violently as he climbed up on his seat, preparing to aim. Only then did he remember.

  Fast. They were driving fast.

  He would have relished the speed. But this was too fast. And he was too close. The entire world was spread out before him. And beneath him.

  He backed away from the savage rush of hot air, whimpering.

  ‘Get one drop of piss on my upholstery,’ the Father spoke up from behind him, ‘and I’ll smack you the rest of the way to Kuromichi. You’ll have to squat the whole drive home, little rat arse more tender than a prime-grilled steak.’

  The rat crept back towards the open window. Standing on his seat, only his ankles and scrawny shins failed to clear the window frame. One lone bump in the road would be enough to pitch him overboard. But he couldn’t reach from the floor, not even if he stood on his toes and strained, aiming as high as he could.

  ‘Closer than that,’ the Father said, giving the rat a shove between the shoulder blades. He cried out in terror as he lurched towards the hurtling desert. ‘Your weak piss won’t clear more than your own dick’s length.’

  Steadying himself on the padded handgrip above his head with one trembling hand, the rat adjusted his trousers and tried to aim, body stretched straight as an arrow, framed by the open window.

  ‘Too fast,’ he moaned in a scared little voice that the blistering wind stole and whipped away before the Father could hear. ‘I’ll fall …’

  The sedan hit three humps, one after the other. The vehicle bounced and shuddered erratically beneath the rat’s unsteady feet, and he clung to the handgrip. But the final jolt lifted him clean into the air. He shrieked as he came down, the angle his toes hit the seat throwing him forward. For a moment, he tipped out the window. Petrified, he gazed at the whistling road below, held only by his clinging little fingers on the handgrip.

  ‘If you won’t go, shut the damn window—you’re wasting air-con.’

  The rat’s collar tightened again, choking his cry as he was jerked back inside. Knees quivering, the rat stumbled in loose trousers that had slipped down his skinny hips, and collapsed. He began to sniffle, slowly wiggling and hitching up his trousers as his eyes filled with tears.

  ‘Scared you’ll go splat?’ the Father said, half-grin digging into his left cheek as he hit the broad switch to shut the window. It whooshed up neatly, shielding the frightened rat from the whirlwind of harm just beyond. ‘Don’t want to be a little piece of rat road kill?’

  The rat began to cry. The Father immediately scowled. ‘Quit your wailing, you’re fine. Shut your mouth,’ he said more dangerously when the rat clamped his hands over his lower face but continued to sniff wetly and whimper. ‘Shut it now, or I’ll shut it for you.’

  Taking a deep, shuddering breath, the rat held his cries in, face turning very red. Satisfied, the Father returned to his smoke.

  The rat winced, one hand creeping back to his still-unzipped fly. Standing by the window and so afraid, he’d almost lost the drastic need to relieve himself. But now, the urge painfully returned. He had to go. He’d burst if he didn’t! But he couldn’t wet himself. The Father cared for that car.

  Making his young mind think, the rat threw himself on the small water bottle at his feet. Sitting on the floor, he uncapped and drank what remained in a sloshing rush, and then hurriedly stuffed himself into the opening. Liquid struck plastic in a steady stream, and the bottle grew warm beneath his hands as it filled.

  Above him, the Father laughed at the rat’s huddled, pissing form, and flicked on the car’s Link radio to drown out the piddle of his water. The ancient grunge blared and crackled, too far from any service tower for a clear signal.
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