The Rat King, by Kerry Cullen
I moved in with the rat king because things between my girlfriend and me fell apart. Of course, I mean this literally.
Six months in, she gave me a necklace that she’d made of silken string and sea glass—to commemorate our relationship. She held it clasped in her pressed-together palms for the whole drive to the beach. When she opened them, hinged at the wrist like a mollusk, her hands were damp and weak from clutching. Before we had even walked three more steps across the sand, the pendant had fallen inexplicably off its chain and shattered against a stone.
A year later, on our anniversary, she made me a dress. She gave it to me at breakfast; I stripped bare and pulled it on right then, leaving my t-shirt and jeans in a puddle on her kitchen floor. By evening, it was slipping off my shoulders, the seams loose, threads stretching in laddered patterns at my waist. In bed, she pulled it off me in pieces. “Easy access,” she said, but her smile was shaken.
I had been thinking about leaving her for some time. It was a hot, arid summer. The silverware burned our fingers. That evening, I put a mug—her coffee mug, the one I gave her, with the sunburst pattern that framed the one-eyed queen—of tepid water in the freezer and went to bed without thinking. When I woke up, it had cracked into three rough-edged pieces. I packed my things.
The rat king, a regular customer but not regularly very talkative, explained himself while I pulled his four espresso shots, pounding the grinds with the heel of my hand hard on the tamper. I didn’t believe him.
“Just wait ‘til dusk,” he said, pointing out the smudged window. “I’ll show you. You’ll see.”
He had stone-dark eyes, dark hair combed to one side, and a few days’ worth of stubble. His hands trembled. I figured he was high, or an artist, or both—in one way or another, he had chosen to teeter on the line of reason.
Sure enough, though, as soon as the sun had sunk full-on down, he sidled back up to the bar. I was cleaning espresso dust out of the machine’s cracks with a wadded up napkin, checking my phone, waiting for her to get home and notice the spaces I’d left. I was prepared for a slew of words, or a barrage of absence. I’d drunk eight shots of espresso in the past hour, and wherever I looked something lurked sharp and dangerous under a skein of blear. The rat king’s eyes were wide, the irises orbs of broken glass glued back together. He leaned over the bar, holding his whole weight up on his bony elbows.
“You wanted to see,” he said. I dropped the napkin, wiped my palms on my aproned thighs, and followed him outside.
He led me to an alley along the side of the shop. He stopped short; I bumped up against him. “So?” I asked.
A thick, lazy wind pushed through the alley, breathing on the sheen of sweat at the back of my neck. I pulled off my regulation baseball cap and shook my hair out. The rat king sat down in the dry sludge of hot dust. I crouched across from him, balancing on the balls of my feet.
He did nothing to invite them. He did not whistle; he did not reach out his hands. The first scurried toward him with aimless purpose, sniffing, flirting. It stepped forward, then back. The second darted up with purpose. It scampered across the rat king’s legs—back, forth, then settled at his elbow, curling up and falling asleep right there, its whiskers brushing his skin.
Then there was another, another, six more.
“To be fair,” I said, “This is New York.”
“They’re not touching you,” he said, jerking his chin at me, staring at the empty half-circle in front of my feet. His voice was simple; calm. He was right. When I said I had to go, he nodded and did not move.
I had planned to crash on the couches of a rotating cast of friends—mostly hers, so I was prepared for debates and half-hugs, for side-eyed sympathy and carefully chosen words. That night I was due at Jon’s, my manager at the coffee shop, who had given me the job based on her recommendation. He said he didn’t mind.
Jon was also a personal trainer and he was hot; older, moneyed women loved when he smoothed his strong hands over their flabby bellies, so he was loaded. Every surface in his apartment was lacquered or plush and the space brimmed with natural light; even after night fell, it held a soft permanent glow.
He lied to me, though, about minding. “Loretta,” he greeted me with a brisk nod on my ninth knock. He avoided my eyes. He scooped up a folded towel from its perch on the arm of the sofa, and trotted off to take a shower with barely a word except to call back, “I’ll be done in a jiff.” Two minutes later, he emerged, rubbing his golden hair dry, finger-combing it tousled. He grinned widely at me.
“I have to do some work,” he said. “If you need me, I’ll be in my bedroom.”
I stretched out on the bare couch and stared at the ceiling. The fan cast cycling rays of shadow around the room. I tried to follow one blade in a full circle, but they spun too fast for me to hold them in my eyes.
Lily-scented oil seeped out from strategically placed square vases tucked in corners. The smell was so heavy that I could taste it, but too sparse to feel filled by it. I took a few calming breaths. I imagined myself climbing the bookcase, pulling out book after book, letting them thump on the floor until Jon might come out in all his glossy puzzled glory and ask me what the fuck I thought I was doing.
And what would happen then? I imagined slamming myself against him in desperation, crawling all over his perfect body, running my hands across his chest, my thumbs over his jaw. He would try to resist, his hands fluttering against my rib cage, before giving in, his tongue an eel in my mouth. I imagined kissing down his neck and chest and abdomen, nauseous and unstoppable.
“i have to leave” I texted Jon, “she and i are working out some things”
“legit,” he replied, “good luck sweetie she’s a keeper”
I watched the bar of light under his bedroom door. Nothing shifted. I wondered if, in some unspeakable history, they had ever hooked up. My nose twitched as I considered the tan, athletic sex they would inevitably have had, in which they would have stared earnestly at each other’s strong jawlines while their flat stomachs skimmed against each other.
I let myself out without breaking the silence. I shook off the resonant glow of the apartment and chose the direction of the street where I’d left the rat king sitting on the stairs just half an hour ago. While I walked, I kicked a long, skinny shard of broken glass out in front of me until it hit a pole and split in half.
He was still there, almost obscured by a skewed shadow. He didn’t see me coming. He broke into a tense smile and patted the space next to him on the stair. “You’re back,” he said. “I had a feeling.”
“What are you still doing here,” I whispered.
“I live here,” he mock-whispered back.
He jerked his thumb at the door behind him.
“Why aren’t you in there, then?”
He pointed at the square-fenced sapling across the sidewalk. A small dove-grey rat, barely larger than an obese mouse, sniffed around the base of its trunk.
It turned away from us to scratch at the dirt. Its tail twitched in the dim light.
“Okay,” I said, “That one’s kinda cute.”
The rat king’s dimple tucked sweetly in his cheek. The sound of rustling paws crested and slowed in waves around me, but I couldn’t see any of them except for the one by the tree, pointing his nose to the sky in a searching way, mildly philosophical.
“Do you keep them? As pets?”
“Don’t need to.” He looked at me, his head tilted, dark hair falling down across his pointed chin. He pushed against the ground and stood up, fishing his keys out of his pocket.
“Are you coming in?”
My throat misted; clogged. I nodded. I put my hand in his and let him pull me up.