The ‘bad’ rat




“We just need to hold out a bit longer,” they said, “Just follow the rules, just believe without asking questions, and we’ll all get back to the world we used to know. Together” they said, “We can do it together.” They gathered around that old world like doctors in the ER. “We’re starting compressions. Ready for defib.” But I have stopped pounding on that unresponsive heart. I know a corpse when I see one. Even one that’s painted and dressed up with a hand up its back making its mouth move and make sounds, almost like words.

“We just need to hold out a bit longer,” they said, “Just follow the rules, just believe without asking questions, and we’ll all get back to the world we used to know. Together” they said, “We can do it together.” They gathered around that old world like doctors in the ER. “We’re starting compressions. Ready for defib.” But I have stopped pounding on that unresponsive heart. I know a corpse when I see one. Even one that’s painted and dressed up with a hand up its back making its mouth move and make sounds, almost like words.

Grief. That’s what it felt like. Still does, but it gets easier.

When I look back, I see the bridge – way off in the distance now – the one that used to separate the before world from this…. not a new world, not even close, a kind of….wasteland, no-man’s-land. There are no signposts here, and it’s dark as confusion you have to grope your way forward. It’s filled with a low buzzing hum that makes it hard to think straight. There’s a fog bank where the horizon should be, people stumble past me like they’re in a daze. Some of them bump into me. They’re easily startled, jumping at their own shadows. I’m not sure they can see me. Perhaps I’m a ghost.

I look back at the burning bridge that’s now collapsing into a river turned red from the fires and it’s like a knife blade in my heart.

I try to see ahead, but I can only make out a few steps in front. It’s chaos at first. I don’t know what to do here. I see some other people I recognize, but we’re all dislocated as if we’re talking to each through reinforced glass. Everything feels unstable, even the ground under my feet all all my senses are all upside down.

Gradually, I begin to see and hear more clearly. I adapt to the hum and the shrieking winds, the thin layer of blindness over everything, and the enfolding shrouds of emptiness. But the things I see sometimes make me wish I was blind or deaf.

I see with a growing horror how people have changed, mutated. They speak in slogans and platitudes. They seem afraid and dangerous at the same time. They stop saying hello, then they stop smiling. And then they don’t even look at me anymore. Eyes peeking over the edge, into the void, angry, terrified or frozen.

Only the children seem still alive. They can make eye contact with me, so I must still exist. It’s the only true life left. I want to protect it. But they’re being dragged around by the unseeing. I feel nauseas. I’m haunted by every dystopian film I’ve ever seen. Damn why did I watch so many? I tell myself to snap out of it, I consider that I might be wrong, I consider, very seriously, that I might be insane. I try to pretend that everything is normal, but it makes me feel sick to my bones. Even my marrow is in mourning.

A familiar face emerges from the haze. She talks as if nothing has changed, about her garden, something about floor tiles. I can see the bridge burning behind her head. I want to grab her by the collar and shake her and scream, “Wake up! Can’t you see what’s happened?” But instead, I say, “That’s nice.” “What’s new with you?” she says. I decide not to reply that I’m grieving for the end of the world and tell her, “Nothing much.” She seems unsatisfied. I add hurriedly, “I’m thinking about getting new floor tiles.” She nods approvingly.

I grieve in double-time – for the very space to think and say things that I truly feel. The space for others to do the same. Sometimes I try. But I get that look.  “Just one more sacrifice and we’ll be free again. Don’t be selfish, play your part in the experiment. It’s the only way back.”
And then their whiskers quiver in a threatening way.
“I hope you’re not a bad rat.”

I can almost hear their thickened blood gurgling.

Sometimes I can’t help myself, and I blurt out.
“But can’t you see the bridge is on fire?”
“Ahhh,” they say, but they’ve promised us a new bridge. Didn’t you hear? Follow us, we’ll show you the way.”

We reach a crossroads. One direction is lit like a shopping mall. It moves on some kind of conveyor belt. There’s all manner of things to buy and spectacles to watch along the route. Most are moving this way. They’re escorted by faceless entities that scan everyone as they pass through like products. I see some of the people pushing others off the conveyor belt into wide steel gutters either side that get washed out every hour and disappear somewhere underground. I wonder where those people go.

The other way stretches into a vast unknown but there is another light there. It’s familiar but I can’t put my finger on it. And then, I laugh because I realize it’s the sunrise. I instinctively turn towards it. There are very few who have gone this way, but they’re smiling and helping one another, and they’re walking with the power of their own legs, their own bodies.

Someone grabs me from behind.
“You’re going the wrong way!”
I recognize him as one of my neighbours. His eyes are blazing with fear. Be afraid with us, they burn into the air around them. I want to tell him that I am afraid, really afraid, but that our fears are very different.

 “They say, the new world might even be better than the old,” he says as he takes is place on the conveyor belt and removes his cap to be scanned. Just be a good rat and then you’ll see.”

“But who is they. Who is running the experiment?”

I look in the direction he’s going and I can see a dark opening at the ned, like a mouth with lips sucked of all colour. It extinguishes the light in each one that passes through it. Some are smiling as they go through, but it’s not a real smile. Just a hole in the face. “I can’t go down there,” I protest. And neither should you. This can’t lead to a better world. Come this way instead.” My neighbour peers suspiciously into the vastness behind me and shakes his head. “Together,” I say, “We can go their together.”

But I’ve exhausted his attention, and the conveyor belt has taken him out of earshot anyway. I watch mesmerized until his light goes out.

I continue on alone into the vast unknown. I spend my days sometimes wrapped in nostalgia, old memories resurfacing like scenes from dusty rolls of films from the Golden Age of cinema. I watch them laughing and crying like a crazy person, revisiting the departed, making my peace with it all. How fortunate I’ve been. How grateful I am.

And then, one day. It’s over. I wake up. My chest is free of the past. I meet more bad rats. We break bread together. We share our stories. We share our grief. And it gets easier. I still see the burning bridge behind every talking head, but I’ve learned not to dwell on it. I have found a way forward now, one step at a time, and my sights are set on that far off sunrise – with a few bad and beautiful rats by my side.

About subincontinentia

writer and eternal optimist
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