Hungry Rats - a novel by Connor Coyne

Chapter One

Your tender toes never felt such a flood but once. Your tender toes won't never feel –


but then again –


excuse me – you never were an excessive or flagrant girl.


Always well grounded.


Always solid, feet on the ground as they say, and your tender toes never felt such a desperate flood but once. There you stood. At the edge of Lake Michigan. Down on the dunes. Up on the beach. You might as well have stood at the ocean's side, what, the way those slow gray waves rolled in along that midnight shore. Sand black and heavy. Air thick with an afghan fog. Wet like the core of a deadhead log. You never thought yourself sensitive to things like these, but the waves were persuasive. Am I right? Everyone has to have a moment. I am right. Everyone has to breathe.


I know how that weekend must've gone. Nothing new. All recycled. You climbed in the station wagon when Bitty and Betty finished combing their hair. They thought maybe that the Spice Girls would commit suicide and reincarnate themselves in the skin of each twin. And Rodney? Rodney was all dressed up with two diapers: one on his bottom and one on his head. He drooled onto his stubbly chin. These three sat in the back.


Up front sat Mara and Mark, your mom and dad, not talking. You drew them in class sometimes. Your teachers caught you, smiled, and said, "great work, a beautiful drawing." But you knew your parents were easy to draw. Children owned by parents with souls might run into trouble, what with the rending of compassion and all.


You sat in the way back, sideways, seatbelt off, reading the finest of R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike because they were delicious and built from words the depths and drains you plumbed back then. Your brother and sisters screamed and kicked but you prayed to God for peace, and they let you be, and you read on in silence like your sweet Aunt Margaret taught you.


I-69 roped down, loose around Lansing, hooked into the cord of I-94 which ran the rim of Indiana and looped on into Chicago. But halfway down the Michigan coast, your parents left the expressway and drove to the Warren Dunes State Park. They paid five dollars to set up a tent on the parking lot by the beach. It was desert empty out there, and when the engine shut off the only sound was the slipping wind. Even Bitty and Betty quieted up, worn out from their hours of shouting.


"There rats out there?" you asked.


Nobody answered.


The sun began to set behind the lake. You pitched the tent in silence, bending the plastic poles against the wind. You asked your dad for help. He said you'd better not wet the sleeping bag or he'd make you sleep outside. You weighed the tent down using cinder blocks and chunks of asphalt. Your mom made sure the lifeguards had left and pulled off her shirt and bra. Your dad took out the fishing poles and walked off toward the woods. Bitty and Betty and Rodney screamed and ran in circles. You wrapped yourself in your shawl and walked away.


"Meredith! Meredith Malady, where you goin'?" your mom called.
"I'm twelve!" you yelled back. "I'm going for a walk."




Each day you'd planned your great escape. Not as a runaway but as a walkaway. A long walk with no looking back. You'd never taken the plunge. Tonight, though, you saw the hopeful lamp of a lighthouse, north, north, and far away, and it pulled on your little heartstrings and drew you away from the camp. A step in the sand. A step in the sand. Crunch. Steps from your mom. Steps from your dad. Bird feathers and seashells. Over the lake, a yellow haze on the horizon. Chicago?


But the air turned wet and twilight sailed on into night. It was black and purple out on the dunes. A mist steamed up the shore, making for a fog so dense that you lost the lighthouse ahead. The light had left you. It pulled you no longer. Now that you felt cold and alone, you thought: I'll have to go another time, and shivered, and turned back.


For ages you crossed great gray stretches of sand. Then, after thousands of footsteps and only halfway home, you heard a splashing sound. A fast and cutting sound that sheared the air just above the gravelly crash of the waves. You went down to the water, looking to find some rusted metal or maybe some floating bottles bumping against each other. Instead, the naked shore went straight out into the lake. Thirty feet out, three things stood, fluttering and translucent dark. They must be lumber stumps, you thought. How did they get out there? But the stumps raised their branches and the branches were arms, and you realized the stumps were people. They wore long black blankets that trailed in the water. The figures stood, a triangle of wet cold quiet. They murmured soft words:


“This direction...” they said.


They stared in searching.


You stared out with them.


You could only guess where the lake met the horizon, but where you guessed you found not darkness but a distant fire. The fog had, if anything, culled the brightest of Chicago's carbon glow from fifty miles away, making it flit and float, flare even, over the black lake, like fingers fanned, like an aurora dancing. The spectacle seemed so alive, so watchful, so very still and yet even approaching, that you knelt on the sand as if you could hide from it. Silly Meredith. You can't hide. Your blood pumped hard. Your eyes stung. A breeze brushed your brow. A wave rolled up and over your sneakers, and the water flooded the seams of your socks and the cracks of your tender toes. You only felt it that once? So this is why they came out, you thought. To testify to the fire. You wanted to join them. You wanted to throw a blanket over your own shoulder and step out into the lake.


But you feared.


You pulled your shawl a little tighter.


You turned and returned to the camp.




This vacation went on for four more days.


Your family sunned and sang and shouted and swam and fought and kicked each other. Betty got Bitty drunk and they built sand castles that Rodney kicked to dust. Your dad caught fish after fish and your mom drank her tea and sighed. You sighed, and each day you walked along the beach, looking for the same seekers. Each night you lay in the tent, packed between your snoring dad and drooling Rodney and listened to the wind hitting the vinyl like fists. Your eyes adjusted. The seams of the tent drew up above you, their lines dismal and utterly different from the shining horizon of the lake at midnight. Your throat clenched and the night seemed to draw out forever.


Finally, you all packed up and went home.


* * * * *


Years passed and other people moved and changed and therefore suffered. You practiced not changing. Not moving. You stood on a trapdoor after all, all day, every day. We all stand on trapdoors. A metaphor of course, not a literal trapdoor. But there you stood. The wood beams creaked awfully. They wanted to break. Staying cut your little heart to ribbons, but one step and you might fall through. Only one choice: to live and die here, at your home, with your family. You did your homework, made good grades, and read about ghosts and bloodwet murders. You washed the same dishes you'd washed your whole life and looked out at the same gray skies. You stood, and stood gingerly, spreading your weight as evenly upon the floor as you could.


Two years after the vacation, your family moved across the Eastside, from Jane to Maryland Avenue. At first, you liked the brown shingle house with its porch overhung. The front door opened into a bright living room dappled in green light from the summer sun on the elm out front. A broad arch led back from the living room to the dining room, and off to the right stood doors to the master bedroom, the bathroom, and another bedroom with stairs to the attic. At the back of the dining room, another arch opened onto a tiny kitchen that looked out over the backyard: two stumps, some ragged poplars, and an overgrown sandbox. Stairs from the kitchen descended past the back door and on down to the basement. You smiled the first time you walked through that house.


But the Maladys moved in quickly and completely. Clutter on clutter, empty animal cages, old coupons, broken rocking chairs, broken records, Hamady sacks and beer bottles, all over the porch, the living room, the dining room, even the stairs and the kitchen. Piles of junk covered the grass in the backyard. Your parents claimed the master bedroom, Rodney slept in the attic, and the twins took over the second bedroom. Your parents told you to move into the basement.


"Why do they get the bedroom?" you asked.
"Because you were an accident, and never even wanted," your mom said.
Bitty stuck her tongue out at you.
"I'll get you for this," you said, trying to make your voice hard.


A trapdoor opened. Rodney gave Bitty some raw pork and she ate it because it tasted “real.” One month later, she died from the worms. When the pain had set in, she'd been too embarrassed to tell or ask for help, but in the end she looked even more stupid with her lips parted around her buck teeth as she lay shining in her coffin. When 'the twins' lost all meaning as an expression, a bed had opened up and your mom told you to move out of the basement.


A trapdoor opened. After the funeral, Aunt Margaret borrowed Rodney for a visit, then stole him away to California. Your parents sat on the couch.


“If she wants him, she can have him,” your mom said.


Two more years. Another trapdoor. Your dad lost his job at the junk yard. He started up as a bouncer at the Vixens, drinking from noon until midnight and working and flirting until dawn. Another year and another trapdoor. The police arrested your mom. She'd spent some cold winter days with the fifteen-year-old neighbor boy. He'd missed school, and that was bad. When your dad called your Aunt Margaret, she said she expected probation. But your mom couldn't stop swearing and screaming throughout her trial. The court psychiatrist found her mentally unsound and your dad signed the papers to lock her away.


Another trapdoor. Three days before your seventeenth birthday, the Vixens fired your dad. Now he drank from noon until noon and slept on the living room couch, twelve feet from his bed. Soon the bottles of MGD and Wild Irish Rose outnumbered the old newspapers, and the whole place stank of dead flies and fermentation. Your throat was perpetually clenched and tight. You hated that house now, and my, but the trapdoors covered the floor.


Looking for solid footing, you moved back into the basement. The room was a small square with white cinder-block walls, but at least it was concrete-grounded. You returned the beer bottles and used the deposit to buy light bulbs. You cut pictures from the piles of magazines and coupons and pasted them on the walls. You lay on your bed and read and thought about doing daring things. Then, your best and only friend, Ashley Fulcrum, the girl you shared three classes with, called and said, "Your birthday was yesterday. I'm taking you out."


* * * * *


Ashley came by at seven. It was warm for early November, and you ran down the porch and jumped into her Sunbird. You raced away with rap crashing through the speakers, and the wind yanked and groped your hair until you'd almost forgotten your whole life. You went to see one of those Matrix movies, and you laughed and laughed, almost falling from your seats. Mothers glared at you over the heads of their angry kids, but you didn't care.


Afterwards, Ashley drove you back into town. You found a crumbling bridge in a park near a golf course, arching over a stream and overhung with willows. Ashley brought out a bottle of Jack Daniels. You both stumbled back and forth, your breath puffing, and Ashley talked of the music she'd hear, the movies she'd see, the cars she'd drive, the boys she'd seduce with dirty photos, and the mansions and jewelry they'd buy her in their lustful devotion. “Not only will I do all this, Meredith,” she said, “but I'm doing it all in the next year!”


What do you do in conversation with a girl like that?


You repeated some stories about your family. The ghosts and monsters sprouting on the past. You made your tales as lurid as you could. The rats and the pigs and the woods and the flies and the fires. You made her drink these stories like sugar tea and your own tongue thought they tasted sweet. Then you lay down together beneath an old oak in the shadow of the Interstate. A gust rose, and branches briefly grew and flew together for sudden kisses, short seconds, then fell away in a hungry dance. Your mind danced away. You remembered only the mist on Lake Michigan, and your throat unclenched, and you suddenly slept.




"Hey, hey, Meredith. Wake up."
Ashley shook you. There was no light.
"It's after midnight. You gotta get home. I can't take you, I gotta get home."
She leaned over you, dark. The sky had clouded over and a fog had drifted in.
Panic. "You can't leave me here!" you said.
"I gotta. I gotta get home now. I'm gonna get it."
"No. I mean. You can't leave me here. I don't even know how to get home from here."
Ashley stood straight. You couldn't read her face from the shadow.
"Okay. Okay fine," she said. "But we've gotta go now. Man, how'd we fall asleep?"
"Don't know," you said.


Ashley started the car, and together you rumbled away from the Westside to the East. She followed the sloping curve of Kearsley Park past the old pavilion and from there onto the forlorn strip of Lewis Street. You sat in silence. You'd unclenched your teeth that night, enraptured by the purity of the dark skies. The warmth that the sun left hovering in the air. The icy breath of the wind and the sharp sting of the whiskey. It all meant to you that Ashley meant what she said, that she was your friend and there were places on earth other than the ugly house where you lived. But now she was taking you back. The shadows crowded close. They made themselves into huge beasts and your throat tightened. Something pressed in back there, large and heavy and wet. The pain and strain of breathing brought tears to your eyes. Don't you know that a chestnut in the throat is the sign and seal of those with tentative footing?


"What's wrong?" Ashley asked.


A trapdoor opened. Up ahead, the fog lay thick against the pavement.


"What's that?" Ashley asked.


You'd reached the point where the mile-long strip of bars and party stores crumbled and fell and the houses stood scorched and naked wearing plywood belts, separated by great patches of empty. Where the weeds grew thick and tall.


"What's that?" Ashley asked again, an edge in her voice.


"What?" you asked.




A garbage bag lay in the street. No, it was several garbage bags stuffed with rotting clothes. No.


"My god!" said Ashley.


A hand and a wrist stuck out from the pile of plastic. A brown hand. A hand wrapped tightly around some shreds of a red-fringed shawl. The girl lay in fetal position, half in and out of the bag. Hanging strings like nobody's business! Ashley stared. She took her foot from the accelerator and the car slowed as you drew close.


"Is that –" she began.
"Drive," you said.
"But –"


Ashley turned fast onto Maryland and raced the last two blocks to stop in front of your house. You ran from the car and onto the porch, Ashley right behind you, and slammed open that door. You grabbed the phone and hit 911. Your dad woke on the couch and threw an empty bottle in your direction. It missed and shattered against the wall.
"Yes?" said the man on the phone.
"There's a girl in the street – on Lewis – on the Eastside."
Your dad rolled back to sleep.


You and Ashley were the first to learn of the stabbing death of Maria Puerta. She was two years older than you, but she'd been held back and you shared the same Algebra class. She argued with her teachers and covered her textbooks with postcards from Mexico. She'd followed her brother to a bar on Lewis, and he'd left her there. After that? No one knew. The police interviewed you, but they only gave questions. No answers. It was okay. You didn't have any answers to give either.


You cried that night.


Ashley had taken you home. She'd proven herself a true and loyal friend, and for once you felt "born of pure light," as your Aunt Margaret would have said. But while the leaves had lingered through October, they fell now. You cried for yourself and for the lump in your throat. You opened your eyes and what you saw cut your little heart to ribbons. Cinder block walls and coupon clippings. A basement with a concrete floor. But no. You saw your own personal trapdoor.


"Why do these things always have to happen?" you asked.


That night, as you lay in bed, the fog got thick, and flat clouds hung above the fog, and the rain fell. It drummed on the basement windows. In your dream, the drumming rain rolled together and became waves. In your dream, you stood in the waves.