“What’re you doing?” the boy asked, and the man, still bent over, swung his head to glare at him.
“None of your beeswax. What’re you doing back here, anyway?”
Back here was a narrow alley between the rear of the chippie and a high brick wall, just enough space for a dumpster and a plastic chair. The chair had been white once, but now it was grimy with use, and a Lilt can ringed with ash sat next to one leg.
“I heard something,” the boy said. He was small, with the skinny uncoordinated look of kids that will grow tall and fast when they hit adolescence. His face was perfectly serious, the rain beading in his hair.
“Nothing to do with you, kid. You shouldn’t be back here.” He turned back to what he was doing, and the boy watched. The man was wearing a faded striped apron, and the sleeves of his shirt were rolled up over scarred forearms. He paused, feeling the boy’s eyes on him. “You still here?”
“What are you going to do with him?”
The man looked down at the trap in his hand. It was one of those humane traps, that just shut behind the rat, rather than smashing down on a leg or a neck, and the boy thought that was nice. It made him unafraid of the man, despite the roughness of his words.
“I’m going to get rid of it, aren’t I? Whatcha think – I’m going to keep it for a pet?” He gave a gravelly, barking sort of laugh, and peered at the huddled form of the rat. It was very small – the boy thought it was either very young, or not a rat at all.
“How are you going to get rid of him?”
“I’ve got a snake at home. Gonna give it to him.” The boy looked alarmed, and the man sighed. “Alright, no, I don’t. But I got a business to run, and I can’t have rats. You understand that, kid? They carry disease.”
The very small rat squeaked from inside the trap, and the man and the boy both looked at it, then back at each other.
“He says he doesn’t carry disease,” the boy said. “He says he’s very clean.”
The man gave a startled little snort of laughter. “And I bet he would say that, too.” He looked around, as if suddenly struck by the oddness of the conversation. “Where’d you come from, anyway?”
“I was just walking past, and I heard him,” the boy said, waving vaguely at the mouth of the alley behind him, where early morning shoppers were shuffling along the cobbles towards the Saturday market.
“You heard – forget it. Whatever. You with your mum, or something?”
“No,” the boy said, and there was a flatness in his tone that was both disconcerting and dismissive. As if the question was not only pointless, it was beneath him. He bent over, leaning closer to the cage, his small hands on the faded knees of his jeans. “How are you really going to get rid of him?”
“C’mon, kid. Don’t ask me that. Just leave it, okay? Go meet your friends, or whatever.”
“I don’t have friends,” the boy said in that same flat tone, and looked up at the man with eyes that were too old for his face. “Are you going to kill him?”
The man stared at him, uneasy. The way the boy spoke, his unnerving self-possession – it was odd. Weird. Like he knew more than he should, or saw more than he should. Like one of those kids in horror movies. He hated those movies – anything with kids in it freaked him out. He rubbed his free hand across his stubbled head. But this kid had a soft voice and the suggestion of dimples in his cheeks, and he was most likely just one of those poor wee souls that had seen too much, too soon. Which also sucked. But then, life sucked. Why should it be any different just because you hadn’t reached double digits yet?
“Yes,” he said finally. “If I don’t kill him, he’ll just come back. That’s what they do. Doesn’t matter he’s been in the trap – he’ll just remember the food.”
The rat gave a pitiful squeak, all wobbly edges, and pressed itself into the back of the trap.
“So why’d you use the cage instead of one of those snappy traps?”
“Because sometimes they don’t get killed outright. They lie there and suffer all night til I find them, and I don’t like that. Happy?” He shook his head in exasperation. “Will you get out of here now?”
“I think that’s really nice,” the boy said, looking up at the man with guileless eyes. “If you have to kill something, you should always give it dignity, and respect.”
The man blinked at him, revising the idea that the boy was harmless. “I guess.”
“But you don’t have to kill this one,” the boy continued, still fixing the man with that deceptively soft gaze. “I’ll take him.”
“Don’t be stupid,” the man snapped, and felt immediately guilty as the boy flinched from the words. “I mean – what are you going to do with it? Take it home? Your mum’ll love that.”
“I’ll make sure he won’t come back. That’s what you want, right?”
“Yes, but -”
“So give him to me.” The boy held his hands out, cupped into a bowl, and the man had the sudden, absurd thought, Please sir, I want some more. He shook it away.
“They carry disease.” He ignored the rat’s squeak. “You could get really sick.”
“I won’t.” The boy just stood there, hands cupped, and the man looked at his watch. He had to get going. They’d be lining out the door for bacon butties in ten minutes.
“Jesus – fine. Christ. But you can grab the damn thing, then, and hope it doesn’t bite you.” He placed the cage roughly on the ground and unlatched it, then straightened up again. “Don’t let it escape, either.”
“He won’t.” The boy crouched down, and opened the mesh top of the trap gently. “Hey, little guy. Come on out.”
The rat bolted forward, and the man almost cried out, thinking it’d be gone under the dumpster before he could stop it, but even as he reached for the trap, the rat was into the boy’s hands and running up to his shoulder. It crouched there, trembling, its black eyes wet and wide. The boy smiled, and reached up to touch the rat’s back softly. The rat leaned into his touch, still shivering.
“Holy crap,” the man said. “What are you – the rat whisperer?”
The boy smiled, and stood up. “Thank you,” he said. “I really will make sure he doesn’t come back.”
“You better,” the man mumbled, but with no real venom, as the boy turned away and started back down the alley. He didn’t look back, but the rat twisted on his shoulder and looked around, then raised a paw. The man raised his own hand, then shook his head and dropped it again. It was a rat, for chrissake. He watched as the boy slipped into the thickening stream of shoppers, and was gone. That kid was so damn small. He shouldn’t be out there alone, surely. He wondered if he should call social services or something, and he gnawed on his lip as he looked at the empty trap.
He started, and turned as the screen door squeaked open. His wife looked out at him curiously, a smudge of flour on one cheek. “You alright?”
“Sure,” he said. “Just – there was this kid.”
“Going through the bins?” There was sympathy in her voice.
“No – no, he – he just asked me not to kill the rat. He took him away instead.”
“He took the rat?” She looked puzzled. “What for?”
“I don’t know. He just – he said it was good that I used a have-a-heart trap, that all things should have dignity in death.” A deep furrow had appeared between Hank’s eyebrows. “He – he was really young.”
“Are you sure? He sounds like one of those new-age hippy types.”
“No, he wasn’t one of those.” He shook his head slightly. He couldn’t seem to fix the boy’s face in his mind. He couldn’t have said if he was fat, or skinny, if he had buck teeth or missing ones. All he could remember were those liquid brown eyes, and the rain beading on the thick, tight curl of his hair, and the uncertainty gnawed at him. “He looked too young to be out on his own.”
“So, what d’you want to do? Call the police?”
“I – no. I’m not – I’m not even sure what he looked like anymore.” That line between his eyes had deepened, and his wife stepped out into the alley, cupping his cheek with one knife-calloused hand.
“You sit down and have a smoke,” she said, concern making her voice soft. “I’m going to make you a cuppa. Alright?”
“We need to open,” he said, but his eyes drifted back down the alley.
“They can wait five minutes. Sit yourself down.”
He sat, and tipped his head back against the stained wall, closing his eyes, thinking about rats and boys and all the impossibilities of the world.
The boy had skirted the wilderness of the market, the hungry shouts of the stall holders and the jostling of the shoppers, and found his way down to the river. Now he sat down on the wall, his legs hanging towards the slow-moving brown water, and took the rat off his shoulder, cupping his hands on his lap. A small boy, alone by the river on a Saturday morning – it was the sort of thing that should draw attention. But the boy had found out long ago that people didn’t really notice him. Not if he didn’t want them to. So the shoppers trudged by, heads bent against the softly incessant rain, umbrellas sprouting like multi-coloured mushrooms among the grey buildings, and he addressed the rat.
“Are you hurt?” he asked.
The rat squeaked a no, and clutched the boy’s thumb in a grateful hug.
“What’s your name?”
The rat squeaked again.
“Gee-yame? What’s that?”
More squeaks, the rat flicking droplets of water off his ears.
“Well, why don’t rats in Portugal just say William, then? Why call it something different?”
The rat squeaked, somewhat indignantly, and the boy giggled. It made him seem suddenly younger, child-like, that odd self-possession fading.
“Okay, okay. I’m sorry. I’ve never met a rat from Portugal before. I’m Patrick.” He took the rat’s upraised paw between his thumb and index finger and shook solemnly. “So whatcha want to do? You can’t go back to the shop. I promised.”
The rat looked out across the rain-spackled river, then back at the boy, his eyes dark and sad.
“No one?” the boy asked. “They got all your family?”
The rat curled himself into the boy’s palm, silent, and he sighed.
“I guess you could come home with me,” he said finally. “But Mum still hasn’t got over the lizards I brought back last year.”
The rat looked up at him, waiting, and the boy could feel the small, fragile warmth of him against his palm, the rapid strum of his heartbeat. It seemed impossible that something so tiny could survive out here, in a world of cats and dogs and traps and poison. He nodded to himself quietly.
“Yeah. It’ll be fine. But you’ll have to stay hidden. No sneaking around the house, okay?”
The rat squeaked joyfully, and ran up the boy’s arm to his shoulder, whiskers tickling the soft skin of his neck and making him laugh. He was still giggling as he got up and headed down the road away from the market, a small boy in a jacket he’d almost outgrown, the rain turning his skin soft and slick.
There was pub not far from where the boy had been sitting on the riverbank, and there was a man sitting at one of the outside tables. No one else was sitting there – it was too early for most, and for those it wasn’t, they preferred the cocooned, stale-beer warmth of the inside to the cold damp tables on the street. Now the man pointed a rough-skinned hand at the boy as he wandered away, and said, “That’s him.”
His companion looked at him with cool green eyes, then back at the boy. “Him? Are you sure?”
“Yeah.” The man took a sip from his pint, and plucked a cigarette out of the packet, lighting it with hands that shook almost imperceptibly.
“He’s too young.”
“He’ll grow.” The man scowled. “I told you – once I find him, I’m through. He’s all yours.”
“He’s not old enough to be of use, Ben. At least give me a few more years. Give him a few more years.”
“No.” The man took another, bigger swallow of beer – more gulp than sip, now the first few mouthfuls had chased the sickness away. “I’m done with all this crap, Anna. You’ll manage.”
“He needs inducting, then training – there’s years of work to be done, and he’s barely off his mother’s teat. You’re just going to walk away?”
“I never asked for this, and I always told you that I was gone as soon as I found the next one.” He sounded aggrieved, and when he slammed the pint glass back down on the table, lager slopped onto his hand. He licked it off absent-mindedly.
“So what’re you going to do? Drink yourself to death and rot in the streets?”
He lifted bloodshot eyes to meet hers, and she could see a flicker in the blue, as of sharks swimming in shoal water. But then it was gone, and she wondered if it had ever, through all these long and uncertain years, been more than a flicker. “Screw you, Anna,” he said. “Screw you, and screw the Watch, and most of all screw the peacekeepers.” He got up, not entirely steadily, and looked down at her. “I’m done.” He gulped the last of the beer and walked away, the old break in his leg giving him the bow-legged gait of a jockey.
“Ben,” she called after him, and enough of her authority remained for him to hesitate, if not turn back. “You know how to find the safe houses if you need them. We won’t turn you away.”
He shook his head, still without turning around, and started walking again. She watched him a moment longer, then looked in the opposite direction, where the boy had vanished along the riverside path, and sighed, her head drooping a little. It never used to be this hard. But all things fade, and the harder she tried to hold them together, the quicker they seemed to die around her.
“Hey!” A woman shouted from the pub door. “What the hell are you doing? Get out of here – go on, shoo!”
Anna looked at her with the disdainful eyes of every cat told off for sitting on the furniture, then unwound herself languidly and jumped from the table to the floor, ignoring the woman huffing and flicking her dishtowel. She strolled to the edge of the river and sat there for a moment, picking up the boy’s scent, then was gone. In front of the pub, the landlady blinked. Damn cats. It wasn’t like they actually could vanish into thin air, but damned if it didn’t seem like it, sometimes. She turned back inside with the empty pint glass, and behind her the day continued just as it ever had, while a small boy who knew only that he saw things other people didn’t walked home with a rat on his shoulder, and a small black cat shadowed him, wondering if this time things would be better.
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