[Image: Osvaldo Licini, “Rebel Angel on the Dark Red Background (Angelo Ribelle su Fondo Rosso Scuro)”]
Do not read about the rats who have spread themselves across every state and country except Alberta, Canada. Do not watch the news. Do not learn about antibiotic resistant bacteria or wonder about that weird, choking cough that hasn’t gone away since you contracted mono. Do not walk outside. Do not notice the eerie silence in the backyard. Do not miss the sounds of crickets, cicadas, or katydids. Do not read research papers that say 70% of all insects have died. Do not cup a beetle in your hands and whisper “please be okay” while it scuttles uselessly against the palm of your hand. Do not look up the range of the common rat and feel unsettled by the empty hole inside Alberta, Canada.
Do not visit your parents. Do not notice that their skin has become mottled and translucent. Do not feel like they are soft and breakable, like expensive china with human limbs. Do not notice that your father is losing weight, that he says things like “I’ve had a good run,” or “I guess this is it.” Do not ask your parents how they are paying for your mom’s seizure medication. Do not notice your mother’s frustration when she struggles to finish her thoughts, when she hears herself talking in cautious, staggered sentences as though the space between every word has gravitational pull. Do not ask if she is ok. Do not call your sister and tell her you are worried. Do not get angry when she says “don’t be such a worry wart,” and laughs stupidly.
Do not read about teflon chemicals that give you cancer. Do not stop cooking your scrambled eggs in a teflon frying pan. Do not read accounts of how the earth was once teeming with living things that weren’t rats: how sailors spent days traveling through pods of whales, how flocks of birds took three days to fly overhead. Do not notice that it’s harder to breathe now. Do not panic when you wake up in the middle of the night and have to cough up a thick, gloppy fistful of green mucous so you don’t feel like you are drowning. Do not read about the heatwave in France that killed 10,000 people or the one in Australia that killed 23,000 bats. Do not imagine what it would be like to stand outside at night and hear the bodies of thousands of bats thudding to the ground around you.
Do not yell at your sister when she announces she is pregnant. Do not tell her you think it’s cruel to bring a person into the world. Feel like you deserve it when she slaps you across the face, when she says you are an asshole. Look up flights to Alberta, Canada. Imagine what it would be like to live in a world without rats. Hear one scratching in the attic above your head at night and whisper “sayonara sucker” and make finger guns at the ceiling. Imagine the rat toppling through the ceiling and flopping against your chest. Picture it writhing there and splattering goopy blood over your chin while you wait for it to die.
Do not go see your mom in the hospital. Do not ask your dad why she wasn’t taking her seizure medication. Do not find out that she’s been expressing suicidal urges, that she’s told him earnestly she doesn’t want to be alive. Drive up to Northern Michigan to visit because you feel guilty. Ask her if she’s ok. Take her to see a movie and pretend not to notice when she falls asleep. Let her keep sleeping as the credits roll and everyone else files out of the theater. Feel comforted by the easy rhythm of her breathing, the rise and fall of her chest. Stare up at the ceiling and try to match your breath with hers. Swallow huge gulps of air until your lungs feel like two balloons ready to burst.
Ben Thorp is a part-time writer and full-time reporter getting his MA in creative writing from Central Michigan University. His story, “Apophenia,” was longlisted for the Glimmer Train new writers short story award. This is his first publication.