It was not the teeth upon her tail that caused the pain of a thousand nails nor when her sister was whipped by a guard who jeered, “Take that, you lump of lard”. But her father as if he were only a bother yanked up by his leg they forced him to beg for mercy.
She remembered it looked like a screw being ripped from plywood. No mercy was shown, and her father had died with that word on his lips. Luena’s hope had died too. Her third eye was fried. There was no escaping the pain, except by giving in to the withering of her brain. Though school was still a necessary torture, she could not even do basic math problems, or write a decent sentence. She had kept trying, though, trying to do her best.
As Luena headed out the door on what turned out to be the last day of the life she had known, her mother repeated her frequent plea. “Please don’t forget to bring home dinner tonight. I know you’re disgusted, but we have to eat.” Luena thought of the humiliating wait in line for a measly pound of rat meat, deemed enough for a family of five, though they were now down to four. Rodent meat was all they could count on for food anymore, food that might possibly kill them should luck not be on their side when their portion was given. Luena wretched at the thought of eating another bite of rat. She could resist the hunger pains, but she had to take care of her mom and sisters.
Luena walked to the bus stop and waited for one of the open bed trucks used for transport. The trucks reminded her of ones used to transport soldiers, or worse, prisoners on a road crew. Her peers had nicknamed the trucks open buses, similar to the name given those short little yellow buses used to transport disabled kids in some of the stories they read in school. If you were on an open bus, you were probably going somewhere you’d rather not go; school for the lucky, or the crematorium for the unluckiest. An open bus pulled up and Luena climbed in for the ten minute ride to school. As the bus pulled into the school parking lot, Luena noticed activity near a side door of the school, then heard a scream followed by whimpering. A group of bullies had ganged up on one of her unfortunate peers, but all he’d lost was a tooth and a little blood. Nothing compared to the treatment her tribe of elves got from the police on a regular basis. Luena felt the familiar bellyache as she approached the school.
Luena went to all her classes. Additional ordinary bellyache. Most of her teachers hadn’t cared about or noticed the change in Luena over the last week. There had been one who would smile at her faintly as she handed her memorization exercises usually used for much younger students. The teacher was trying to help coax Luena’s brain back to normal so Luena wouldn’t be punished for failure to finish her regular work. This teacher had been the bright spot in the otherwise bleak school day, even though Luena wondered whether the teacher suspected it wouldn’t be a fruitful venture. As frequently happened to teachers, though, this one was hauled away in an open bus. A fate shared by many, especially those who were surrounded by others most of the day.
Every teacher carried a cane, used for intimidation and sometimes for impromptu paddling in the hall. There were no limits on the punishment teachers could dole out to students, as long as each student could walk out of school at the end of the day. So far this freedom to punish had not gotten out of hand.
On three of the five school days since Luena’s father had died, she had been sent to In-School Suspension. Classwork had to be completed there, even though you received a zero for it. The worst part about ISS was the time it provided for Luena’s mind to wander. The loss of her father was not the only loss she had suffered recently. Haunting images of Garry, the boy she had dated for only a month before he succumbed to the virus that was killing dozens of her peers daily, always entered her mind. The virus that assured you a trip on the open bus to the crematorium. She saw him foaming at the mouth, a green line forming around his lips. Garry had complained of chills, with goosebumps that would cover his arms and legs with increasing frequency, a few days before the end. His throat had begun to ache during the last day, before the vomiting began. He had been approaching the school; Luena had gotten there just ahead of him. He had doubled over, and green vomit spewed several feet around him. He caught Luena’s eyes just before the police arrived to haul him away with the unlucky classmates who had been hit by his puke.
There were two known ways to catch the green virus, now called the green plague. Some of the rats they were forced to eat were infected with it. If you dodged that bullet, you might come in contact with the vomit of a victim. Rats and mice had been the main source of food since the oppression of her tribe had begun. Luena had lost a third of her weight, despite her mother’s constant urging to eat. Her mother even seemed to look forward to the meals that included rat breast. What, did it taste like chicken, Luena wondered. Though her mother was adjusting to life without her husband, Luena knew she was in pain. But she was also driven by the need to keep her three daughters alive. Luena couldn’t accept the rat diet, even though she knew she was slowly starving. She had better luck eating the mice served at school, though even with dipping sauce she had to choke them down. Luena still didn’t understand why, but with the rats she felt a connection. She had even made a pet of one. So far she had succeeded in saving that one from being the evening meal.
Luena was jolted out of her ISS daydreaming by the force of the teacher’s cane ramming into the back of her chair. She tried to return to her work, but once again wondered why it even mattered. She noticed a chill over her body, and saw the goosebumps rising on her arms. Alarm changed to calm relief. So what? She hoped it was what she thought it was.
When Luena returned home that afternoon she followed her normal routine, except she avoided her mother and went straight to her room. Her mother always tried to tempt her with a snack after school, some sort of rat tidbit she tried to make as tasty as possible. It never worked. Luena wasn’t up to dealing with that drama. She could have the plague! Maybe not, so maybe she should do her homework, but why? She would almost certainly be in ISS again tomorrow, so all her homework would get a zero. Luena’s thoughts were racing, her mother was knocking, saying they needed to talk. Goosebumps covered her arms and legs again. She remained calm and opened the door to talk to her mother.
“What’s wrong, honey? Did you get our meat?”, her mother asked. Suddenly Luena knew she had to leave. Though she knew her mother was beginning to suspect something was up, she calmly said she had forgotten, and that she’d go harvest some of the tastier grasses. That was a lie, one of her sisters could do that once they realized she was gone. She closed her door and locked it, and began packing a bag. When she opened her bedroom window to leave, her mother must have heard, because she came back and began pounding on the door and yelling her name. Luena looked back at the door, then slid onto the window sill before making the short jump to the ground. By the time she was disappearing into the woods, her mother had used the key all her daughters knew she could use any time she wanted in their bedrooms. Luena was gone, though, and her mother watched and hoped she would change her mind and reappear. Another part of her knew she had to protect her other daughters.
She whispered, “Let’s just keep this to ourselves, girls.”
Luena was on the run, not sure if her mother would pursue her. Half of her wishing she would, saying they had to stay together no matter what. The other half knowing she wouldn’t. Self preservation, and more importantly, protecting her other two daughters, would win out. Luena wanted to stay in the woods, but she was having more and more chills, and was hungry, too. There were rumors that during the curfew hours, the police patrolling the downtown area ate like kings, and sometimes threw the remnants of their feast in the dumpsters. Luena was desparate enough to check it out.
Along with the patrolling police, the nighttime streets were full of rat cleansers. These were genetically bred cats with poison running through their veins instead of blood. A scratch or bite from one of them would inject the recipient with this poison. None of Luena’s tribe knew how long it took the poison to kill, since the victim was always hauled away to the crematorium. There was an antedote, but only available to the oppressors, should one of their own be an accidental victim of a rat cleanser.
Luena made her way to a dumpster, but heard footsteps. She noticed a rat cleanser on the other side of the dumpster, then heard someone say, “Hey, you’re out past curfew.” Luena ran in the opposite direction, but felt a sharp pain and the weight of the rat cleanser on her lower back. She screamed as the rat cleanser sank it’s teeth into her hip. The poison went to work immediately, causing a sensation she could only describe as lions gnawing all over her body.
She collapsed, and her vision began to dim. She heard the police guard say to the rat cleanser, “Good job 283, next stop the crematorium…hey wait, who’s there? Luena heard the police guard gasp, and heard his running footsteps fading into the distance. She also heard growling, hissing, and yowling just beside her. As she slipped into unconsciousness, her last thought was that she would be the evening meal for some unknown creature.
Luena thought she had died that night, but she had awakened to the sight of a rodent-like creature kneeling beside her. Luena could feel her own hands, feel the pain in her hip, feel the familiar hunger in her belly…she was alive! She said out loud, “How exactly am I here right now?” The rat creature responded in the voice of a girl, “You barely made it.” Luena said, “I had a rat for a pet once.”
The rat girl responded, “I had a human for a pet once.” Luena hoped the joking around, if that’s what it was, was a good sign, but the rat girl had disappeared. She came back carrying a contraption with tubes and guages, in a carrying case that looked like a backpack. The rat girl began hooking the tubes to Luena, but Luena was too weak to resist. The rat girl seemed kind, and gently warned Luena before piercing her forearm and attaching another tube. Luena summoned strength and blurted, “What the hell?” The rat girl explained,
“You’ve got poison in your system, you know that. This machine will monitor and control that poison, at least temporarily.” Luena was skeptical. “What, this thing?” The rat girl responded, “We don’t know how long you’ve got, but this is your best chance at making it long enough to find a solution to your dual problem”. Luena looked at the rat girl, realizing she had figured out that not only was there poison running through Luena’s veins, but the feared green plague lurked there too.
Luena had all kinds of questions, but no energy to ask them out loud. What exactly was this rodent-like creature? How could she speak like a girl? Is there really a way to save me? She drifted into a dreamlike state with these thoughts on her mind:
A night of the full moon I have felt a pulse in my veins. Like a lab rat, bitten to the core a situation I deplore, I am – a rodent locked in human flesh.