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Three Years with the Rat
Excerpt

The drapes are closed and only a little pale light filters in around their edges. I can see down the front hallway into part of the kitchen and living room. A blanket is neatly folded over the edge of the couch. Everything is tidy and unused, but it smells stale and musty and dead.
     I take a few more steps. Grace’s Bachelor of Science degree, framed on the wall. The standing coat rack, still buried under Grace’s jackets and shawls and scarves. The homemade shelf lined with their indecipherable textbooks. The only photograph John kept, its kitschy frame taken off the wall and now resting on the coffee table. And a flashlight sitting next to the photo.
     It quickly becomes clear that the apartment hasn’t been occupied in months. The refrigerator is a dank shock of rotten, twisted shapes and jars greening with mould. The garbage can is still full of John’s bloodied bandages. Though the apartment has been tidied one last time, the front closet remains jammed with newspapers. Bedding for the rats.
     It takes me a couple of minutes before I realize what’s wrong with the space. My attention is narrowed, grasping for strangeness in the tiny details, and the obviousness of it only comes to me when I sit on the arm of the couch for a moment. I breathe in sharply.
     The door to the second bedroom is open by a few inches.
     I stand and walk to the door, press my fingertips against the wood. The oversized key is in the deadbolt. John installed the lock and I strongly doubt he would have provided the landlord with a key. Why am I still holding my breath, trying not to make a sound? I push my arm out and the door swings open, bumping into something soft before the knob hits the wall. The toes of my shoes are on the threshold of the doorway. There is a faint division in the carpet, with the pile in the living room lighter than the bedroom. I step inside.
     The room is very dark and the light switch next to the door doesn’t do anything, so I flip open my cell phone for light. My eyes can’t understand the shapes inside. Some large piece of furniture dominates the centre of the room, all right angles and hardwood. I make my way around it to the covered window, peel the duct tape from the wall, and pull away the cardboard. Daylight floods in and for a moment I cannot see.
     In the centre of the room is a wooden box that is large enough to house a person, perhaps five feet in every direction. I circle it. The box is made from six identical, sanded pieces that seem to fit together without nails or hinges. The only noticeable feature is a handle at the bottom of the panel that faces me. Otherwise it is a perfect, symmetrical cube without any knots or imperfections in the wood. I have seen the materials of this box but never imagined what it might be when put together. It is a marvel.
     The rest of the room is no more comprehensible. A smaller version of the box, another perfectly sanded cube of wood, sits atop a TV-dinner table in one corner of the room. Instead of a handle, one of its sides has a hole lined with black rubber, and an additional slat leans against the table. Piled on the floor are little cloth pouches, their openings drawn tight with strings. They look like bags of marbles. Between the door and the wall is a large burlap sack with something dark spilled on the carpet around it, and next to it are some discarded tools.
     And last, I see the small table near the door. On it is a hardbound, sky-blue notebook, and resting on the book is a handwritten note. It is John’s writing.

I’m sorry to put this on you. It was my fault, all of it, and it was supposed to be mine to deal with. Don’t stay in there too long. Take the photo, the light, and one of those pouches with you. If you don’t see anything right  away, it can always be taken apart and put together somewhere else. This is the only way back for us. Thank you.
     Some vague story begins to thread its way through the last two years of my life.
     I put down the note and look at the large wooden box next to me. I reach down for its handle, first pulling outward without luck, then upward. The side of the box slides up a little and creates a crack of darkness at the bottom. I look down into that space, see movement, and jump back. A moment later I realize that it’s reflected light. The floor inside the box is a mirror. I tug on the handle again and the slat slides up by a few feet. The interior of the box is empty but completely covered in mirror, without frames or borders, the edges of the glass connecting seamlessly with one another. The entire inside of the box is reflective surface.
     I leave the second bedroom, pace the living room, open and close the fridge, sit down, stand up. I look into the master bedroom, then the washroom, but my thoughts are only of the box and John’s written request. I curse at myself and wring my hands. On the coffee table is the framed photo, John and Grace on the day they moved into the apartment. They are smiling without re- serve and I can see myself among the friends in the background of the picture. I grab the photo and flashlight and walk back into the second bedroom.
     I work swiftly. The picture frame comes apart without difficulty and I pocket the photograph in my hoodie. I pick up one of the small pouches and it is full of some malleable material. A quick inspection of the large sack on the floor reveals that it’s full of soft dirt. The pouch goes in my other pocket. I glance into the box, and after brief consideration I go back to the pile of tools. There I find the hammer, silver and shiny, and feel calm with its weight in my hand. I take one last breath, a pause to consider whether I am doing the right thing.
     Then I crouch and step inside the box, using my fingertips to gently lower the open face until I am enveloped by an overwhelming, total darkness.

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