For three weeks, he lived under the couch, burrowed in a nest of old tissues and discarded candy wrappers. How he got in was anyone’s guess, but the foundation was hardly impregnable, the floorboards prone to cracks, inadequate border walls for small, flexible spines. Though the initial glance was fleeting, a dark blur glimpsed behind the bookcase, that night she came down with a flashlight and lay on the floor in her nightgown, searching, the ray of light cutting through the dust balls until he stood revealed, a small field rat cowering beside the sofa leg, whiskers quivering.
An exterminator was out of the question. Their household was vegetarian, their toothpaste and shampoo cruelty-free, and so the quest began for a humane trap. The only one available, designed for squirrels and skunks, proved ineffective, the rat’s weight too slight to trigger the release.
On the second day she named him Randy and started visiting each night, preferring the couch to the tired springs of the marital bed. While the rest of the house slept, she soothed him by singing old Tori Amos songs and serving dime-sized slices of organic cheese on a paper plate, a teaspoon of rice milk and three Craisins offered as dessert.
She cherished the routine. Trading the flashlight for the warmer glow of a candle, she watched him scurrying around his sanctuary, his furtive movements calmed by the sound of her voice. Within his eyes, she found poetry and grace, empathy for the creeping stigma of her aging body. Randy understood her, she was certain of it; he soon became her ally in face-offs with her teenage daughter, a sympathetic ear for her gnawing frustrations. He supported her tirades over societal injustices, complemented the blonde highlights meant to mask her frizzy grey. Her husband, normally patient but rat-phobic and irritated, retreated to the basement, the living room now off-limits to all but her and Randy.
When the ultimatum came, she feigned indifference (Let those fascists on the Board of Health just try, she thought), but cognizant of society’s abundant cruelty, she sensed their time was short. Her astrologer urged surrender, but when the witch doctor offered an alternative, she waited not a breath. She swallowed the powders, ingested the eye of newt, and shrunk herself Twinkie-sized, scurrying under the couch to take refuge in his lair.
At first, she was cold, her unclothed body not meant for window drafts and hardwood floors in winter, but as she cuddled against him in his nest, the old rumpled tissues proved adequate bedding, his fur a natural quilt.
The black droppings on the floor suggest the couple is doing well.
Chuck Augello lives and writes in New Jersey. His work has appeared in One Story, Hobart, Juked, Smokelong Quarterly, The Atticus Review, and other journals. He is an editor at Cease, Cows and a contributor to The Review Review. He publishes The Daily Vonnegut (www.thedailyvonnegut.com), a website exploring the life and art of Kurt Vonnegut.
The author prefers not to use a headshot.