Three Years with the Rat by Jay Hosking is simultaneously a mind-twisting mystery that plays with the very nature of time and the story of a young man who must face the dangerously destructive forces we all carry within ourselves. (available January 24, 2017).
After several years of drifting between school and go-nowhere jobs, a young man is drawn back into the big city of his youth. The magnet is his beloved older sister, Grace: always smart and charismatic even when she was rebelling, and always his hero. Now she is a promising graduate student in psychophysics and the center of a group of friends who take “Little Brother” into their fold, where he finds camaraderie, romance, and even a decent job.
But it soon becomes clear that things are not well with Grace. Always acerbic, she now veers into sudden rages that are increasingly directed at her adoring boyfriend, John, who is also her fellow researcher. When Grace disappears, and John shortly thereafter, the narrator makes an astonishing discovery in their apartment: a box big enough to crawl inside, a lab rat, and a note that says This is the only way back for us. Soon he embarks on a mission to discover the truth, a pursuit that forces him to question time and space itself, and ultimately toward a perilous confrontation at the very limits of imagination.
THE PHONE RATTLES its way off the little square table and stings the hardwood floor. I shrug an arm from the sheets and bring the phone toward my face. The little panel across the back of it flashes between the time, just before noon, and a number with no associated name. I consider turning it off. Instead I roll onto one side, flip open the phone with my thumb, and graze my ear with the receiver.
My pillow smells like the grease from my hair.
“Hello?” My voice struggles.
“Eh, where is John and Grace?” It’s a man’s voice, accented, and there is something both distant and familiar about it. I can hear traffic in the background.
“I don’t know where they are,” I say. I clear my throat. “Who is this?”
The blinds on the window cut the sunlight into shards, bright fragments scattered across the dirty clothes covering my floor. The light causes a stab of pain along the back of my head. I squeeze my eyes closed.
The man’s accent is probably European. “He gave me this number.”
“What?” Suddenly my body is lurching awake. “John gave you my number? When? Who the hell is this?”
“The cheque bounced,” he says. “I call them all week and nothing.”
John and Grace’s landlord. I don’t say anything and he continues.
“I bang on their door and nothing. Another day and still nothing. I don’t like nothing. I think maybe there’s a problem and look inside. There’s a note from John and it doesn’t say ‘Here’s the rent’ or ‘I’m sorry.’ It says call you and remove their things. So now I call you.”
I writhe under the sheets, my guts turning over and over. How long would it have taken for John’s bank account to run out of money, for his post-dated cheques to bounce? How long has he been gone? I count backward until I reach last December. Eight months, more or less. A year and eight months for Grace.
I clench my stomach and pull up my knees. The sheets scrape my skin. My jaw aches as if I’ve been grinding my teeth in my sleep.
“Hello?” he shouts.
“What’s wrong with you?”
“Hung over.” It’s an excuse but also strictly true.
His voice gets deep and sharp. “Eh, I don’t give a fuck if you’re dying. Get over here and clean out the apartment.”
I can taste bile but I don’t say anything, only hang up.
* * *
I stall. Kick the clothes into one large mound in the corner of the room. Pull the blinds and crack open my tiny windows. Stand in the shower until the water runs cold. Select the least dirty clothes and put them on slowly, slowly. Sit on the edge of the bed, breathe, try not to be sick. My stalls run out and I leave. I have to duck a little to get through the door of my basement apartment.
Outside it is almost a proper early August day in Toronto. These last few months have been uncharacteristically cold and grey, but today the sun is out and the breeze carries warm air. The neighbours’ kids look like apes as they shake the hell out of my landlord’s persimmon tree. They stop and stare when they see me shuffle up the concrete steps to ground level. I grin and stare back, another dumb ape.
My car sits on the street in front of the house. It is unwashed, matte from years of abuse, and rusted around the wheel wells. A flood of hot air hits me when I open the driver’s side door, and I’m glad to sink into its murky heat and shut the door behind me. I sit for a few minutes, thinking, then throw all the passenger-seat garbage into the back. The engine turns over disappointingly quickly, as if the car is urging me forward.
At least there is no good way to drive from my house to the apartment. My street is a one-way and forces me into traffic. In this city, drivers are eager to complain about public transit but always polite enough to yield. I turn left onto Dundas Street, eastbound through the Portuguese and Vietnamese neighbourhood, and left again onto Bathurst, northbound past the neuropsychiatric ward of the hospital.
On the other side of the passenger window, people walk around in shorts and skirts, much of their skin bare and tanned. I am overdressed, jeans and a hoodie, and there is no air conditioner in my car, but still I am not hot.
Thoughts of John and Grace keep crashing in, unwanted. I turn on the stereo and Grace’s mix CD starts playing. I turn it off again.
My car grinds its way past College Street and Shifty’s, and at the gaudy, bulbed storefront of Honest Ed’s I turn right. Traffic is just as slow on Bloor as I pass the dingy entrance to the Fortress. Just past the club are the two sushi restaurants and above them, one window still covered with cardboard, is John and Grace’s apartment. My destination.
I find parking on the next side street, but on the way back, I stop at Features and order coffee and mashed potatoes. The potatoes come in the shape of a volcano, gravy pooled in the crater. I sit at a bench along the front window and feel my hangover ease. A stream of people moves along Bloor Street, couples smile and touch, friends carry bags of books or records and shout their opinions at one another. Everyone is so goddamned vital and happy in this neighbourhood. I finish my coffee and eat away one side of the potatoes, gravy spilling out onto the plate.
Only then, when I can’t possibly delay any longer, I make my way to the apartment.
* * *
“You get in touch with them?” the landlord asks.
He is paunchy, stained, and graceless. He meets me at the apartment door, between the two sushi restaurants. He does not recognize me, likely on account of my beard.
“I don’t know where they are,” I say. “Haven’t seen them in a long time.”
“Why he asked for you in the note, then?” The landlord’s finger extends, pokes toward me. He wants to press it against my chest but he is shorter than me and he isn’t angry enough yet.
“I don’t know,” I say.
“I have an idea. I think they don’t want to pay rent. I think maybe they found another place.”
“Maybe,” I say.
He smiles, unfriendly. “And I think they send you to clean up. Because they know me. They know I don’t take the bullshit.”
I say, “Look. I’m tired. I’d like to get into the apartment. I’d like to help you.”
His mouth hangs a little and his finger curls in. He pulls a ring with two keys from his shirt pocket and hands it to me.
“End of today,” he grunts. “That’s it. I’m gonna paint after that.”
He scuttles up the stairs and I follow him. The only light in the stairwell comes from a window above the front entrance. At the top of the narrow steps is the door. I unlock the door, enter, and lock it behind me, leaving the landlord in the hallway. And for the first time in eight months, I am inside the apartment.
* * *
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 reserve 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.
* * *
It takes only a click of the flashlight to see the care and precision that have gone into designing this space. I have stood between two mirrors before, in an elevator, and seen reflections of myself curving off into the distance, the mirrors not being exactly parallel. This is not what the box is like. By the pale beam of the flashlight, I can see that copies of my reflection are not turning but rather absolutely, perfectly straight in every direction. No matter where I look I see myself, hammer in one hand and light in the other. In the distance are some abstract and indeterminate forms that are probably still composed of parts of me. There is no background to reflect, only reflection that dilates space itself. It is geometric and infinite.
And something is changing. The temperature seems to be dropping and I feel the ache of wet, damp air. The sound of my small, shuffling movements enlarges within the box, just like my reflection. I have no free hands so I clear my throat to make noise, and it sounds as though I’m standing in a field instead of sealed in a tiny mirrored box.
Fear seeps into me. In this space is movement and breathing, so much that it could not possibly be mine alone. I am being watched. I turn around and around but see the same thing in every direction, my mirror image threatening and tight. It isn’t clear what I should do next.
I jam the hammer under my arm and pull the photograph out of my pocket. My toes are becoming numb. I am sure some thing is drawing close to me but I can see nothing but myself in the mirrors. John and Grace look at me from the picture and they have nothing to offer. I fumble and drop the photo, but instead of retrieving it I pull the hammer from under my arm, test its weight again in my hand.
Here it comes.
And then I feel it, as though someone is drawing a rough, curved line down my back. I shout, I twist around, but there is nothing behind me. I can feel the sensation where the arc has been made across me, and soon that touch on my back becomes an itch. The itch becomes burning. The burning becomes vivid pain. My shirt begins to stick to my back. I turn and scour the mirrors but again there is only my own image, my face calmer than I would expect. My legs become uncoordinated, weak. The pain is now torture and something wet is pooling in the small of my back. Worse, I can feel that thing approaching. Here it comes again. I do the first and only thing that comes to my mind.
I swing the hammer at a wall.
* * *
In an instant, the temperature jumps up and the space in the remaining mirrors compresses to reflections of wood and shattered glass. I try each wall until I find the one that slides up, toss the hammer and flashlight onto the floor in front of me, and crawl out of the box. When I reach my arm around to feel between my shoulder blades, I bring back a hand covered in blood. My body tries to vomit but only a little coffee and gravy come up. I wipe my mouth with my clean hand, bite my lip, and try to stop shaking. A sound catches my attention and I turn.
A black and white rat is standing on the floor of the box, docile, peering out, his pink nose sniffing up at me. I know this rat. Buddy.
This is the only way back for us, the note had said.
I find the rat cages stacked in the closet of the master bedroom, below some of John’s clothes. I remove my torn hoodie and replace it with his black jacket. The blood is already sticky along the wound, painful to the touch, but at least it only comes in waves. I return to the second bedroom with a cage and pick Buddy up as John taught me: thumb and middle finger pinched just behind his front legs, index finger lightly on the back of his neck. Buddy seems calm, happy to be back in his cage.
Next I remove the handled slat of the box and the piece opposite to it, the one with the shattered mirror. I use the hammer to clear the half-broken fragments from the wood and lean the two walls of the box against the couch in the living room. With the broom from the kitchen, I sweep the bits of broken glass into a corner. Then, piece by piece, I disassemble the rest of the box. John used grooves and notches rather than nails, so the whole thing comes apart neatly.
I move the walls of the box, the blue notebook, the smaller box with the rubber hole, the sack full of earth, the pouches, the hammer, and Buddy’s cage down the stairs and to my car. The wooden pieces are far too big to fit in the interior so I strap them to the roof using bungee cords from the trunk. I stack the six pieces of wood carefully but still worry that the mirrors will break. When I’m finished, the little car is nearly as tall and wide as it is long.
Last of all, I pluck the photograph of John and Grace from the bits of glass and put it in my back pocket, careful not to spoil it with my blood.
The landlord comes up the stairs as I’m preparing to leave the apartment for good. My head is foggy and the line down my back screams to be mended.
“Done,” I say.
The landlord looks inside the apartment, looks at me, then back and forth again. “What do you mean, ‘done’? It’s still full of their shit.”
“I’ve taken everything I can,” I tell him.
His lips pinch and his head lowers. “You clean the place, now.”
“I need to go to the hospital.”
“I don’t care if you’re dying—”
“Go fuck yourself,” I cut him off. “I’ve heard this story already. See you later.”
I begin to stumble down to the front entrance.
“I shoulda never rented to them,” he shouts. “I knew she was damaged goods as soon as I met her.”
I stop halfway down the stairs. The carpet is filthy with old bits of gum, flattened and black with time. I turn around to face him. My back sings with pain.
“What did you say?” I ask through my teeth. My hands are tight little balls of bone, one still coated in my own blood. “What did you say about my sister?”
His grin becomes nervous, hesitant.
I take a step up the stairs. Another.
“You go,” he says, crossing his arms. “You fucken get out. You think I want their trouble? You think this is no problem for me?”
“What did you say about my sister?”
He moves his mouth a little but all I can hear is my pulse in my ears.
By the time I reach the top step, the landlord has slid into the apartment. He closes the door and locks the deadbolt. I stand for a few seconds, spit on the floor, and make my way down to the car.
Copyright © 2017 Jay Hosking.
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Jay Hosking obtained his neuroscience Ph.D. at the University of British Columbia, teaching rats how to gamble and studying the neurobiological basis of choice. At the same time, he also completed a creative writing MFA. His short stories have appeared in The Walrus and Hazlitt, been long-listed for the CBC Canada Writes short story competition, and received an editor’s special mention in the Pushcart Prize anthology. He is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University, where he researches decision making and the human brain. He is the author of the novel Three Years with the Rat.