Northern Girls

toilet-roll-300x300We lie in the back of the car and play submarine.  Jamie has a periscope made out of mirrors and a milk carton. We take turns using it to see out of the back window.  No one comes.  There is nothing to look at.

“Want to see something?” Jamie asks.

I follow him over to his house, upstairs to Chuckie’s room. There is a small cage on the desk, full of wood shavings. Jamie reaches into the cage and picks up a handful of small pink things.  When he holds out his hand to me I see that they are baby rats —hairless, their eyes shut tight.  “He named it Mickey, but then it had babies.” The baby rats writhe, but make no sounds.  They look like fat pink worms, wiggling around in his palm.  I extend my finger, feel a rubbery body.  None of them is bigger than my pinkie.

He puts the baby rats in his pocket.  “Come on.”

“Aren’t you going to put them back?”  Mickey has come out of the cedar shavings and is standing on her hind legs, sniffing the air and twitching her whiskers.  Like my mother, I think, out on our front porch calling us home at bedtime.

He shakes his head.  “They’re mine.  Chuckie said I could have them.”

“Could I have one, too?”

“Okay.”  He lets me choose the one I want.  I hold it in my hand and watch it rooting around, blind and silent.  In kindergarten we hatched baby chicks with a light bulb, so I know that baby animals need to be kept warm.  I decide that my pocket is the safest place.  I name him Roger.

I know my mother won’t let me keep him, so I decide to hide him under the bed until he’s bigger.  Then she will be amazed at what a good pet he is, how clean and how little trouble.  At home, I look under my bed until I find the box my church shoes came in.  I liked the smell of the cedar shavings and wish I had some for Roger’s house.  Maybe later I’ll ask Jamie if I can have some.  I fill the box with bathroom tissue instead.

Then I have an idea.  Before I put Roger in his new house, I take him into the bathroom and wash him under the faucet so he won’t smell bad.  My mother always says that she doesn’t want a pet in the house because they’re dirty and smell bad.  I carefully dry him off with a handtowel and sniff him.  He has no smell at all.  By the time my mother calls me down for lunch, Roger is snug in his new home.  I tell him to be good while I’m gone.

I save a piece of cheese from my sandwich for Roger.  When I take him out of his box to feed him his lunch, his body feels cold.  I hold him in my hand, but he doesn’t move.

I go back over to Jamie’s house.  He is sitting on his back porch eating an apple.  “I need another rat.  Mine died,” I tell him.

He pulls the other babies out of his pocket.  They are all still and blue, like mine.  “Let’s bury them,” he says.

Dead, the baby rats look like pieces of meat.  I think about how it was when I held Roger in my hand and he was still warm and moving, how it felt to put him in my pocket and know that he was in there, helpless but alive.  I wind a strip of toilet tissue around Roger.  Jamie takes some too, and wraps up all the other baby rats.  They look like fat white cigars.  We put them in Roger’s house.

I don’t want to bury them, but Jamie says we have to.  “Otherwise, they’ll start to stink.  That’s what happens to dead bodies.  Worms come and eat them up, all except the bones.  That’s where skeletons come from.”

I would like to see Roger’s tiny skeleton, but worry that my mother’s nose will find him before the worms eat him up.  Instead, we dig a grave and bury them under the treehouse.

“How long will it be before the worms eat them up?” I ask.

Jamie pats the dirt down over the grave. “A hundred years.”

I’m disappointed that I won’t be able to dig them up and see the skeletons any time soon.

“Let’s play astronauts,” Jamie says.  We spend the rest of the afternoon in the treehouse.

The following day, Jamie can’t come out and play.  Bonnie says he’s being punished.  The next time I see him, I ask him if Chuckie was mad about the baby rats.

He shakes his head.  “He thought Mickey ate all the babies,” he says.  “Sometimes rats do that.”

Today the doctor is at Jamie’s house to see his father.  We’re supposed to stay outside, but Jamie wants something to eat, so we sneak into the kitchen.   We hear the voices of the doctor and Jamie’s mother in the living room.

“All we can do now is make him comfortable,” the doctor is saying.

Jamie’s mother says something we can’t hear.

I hear Linda ask, “What about the coughing?  Isn’t there something we can give him?  Sometimes he’s up all night.”

There is a pot of peeled potatoes sitting on the stove, waiting to be boiled.  Jamie reaches in, takes a big bite out of one, puts it back in the pot.  I have never seen anyone eat a raw potato.  He takes another, bites it, and puts it back.  He does this with about five potatoes.  Then he grabs a loaf of bread and runs out the back door.

I stand in the kitchen for a minute.  Jamie expects me to follow him, but the urge to tattle is very strong.  Kathy tells on me all the time.  I would love to tell on her, but she hardly ever does anything bad.  Jamie does bad things all the time, but he’s also my friend.  I don’t want him to be punished, because then we won’t be able to play together.

I hear the front door close, footsteps coming towards the kitchen.  I reach into the pot, grab a potato and run out the back door.

Up in the treehouse, Jamie is wadding up slices of bread and throwing them down into the neighbor’s yard.  I take a small bite of the potato and chew it.  It is sort of like an apple, but not sweet.  I spit it out over the side of the treehouse and throw the rest into the neighbor’s yard.

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