Twelve Years of Seduction
Originally posted on Short Story Showdown
Just a rat.
That’s what Jake had always been: just a rat. He was born two months premature, weighing little more than a couple of potatoes. In his baby photos his head was an awkward shape and covered in odd patches of thin black hair. He grew sinewy and small, with big front teeth like his father’s and tiny, delicate features like his mother’s. His eyes, nose, and mouth were all grouped together in the center of his face, like finger-holes on a bowling ball.
Jake grew up in a rattrap apartment on top of a Cantonese restaurant in Chinatown. It was two bedrooms, and he shared it with his parents, grandmother, and orphaned cousin. He slept on a bedroll in the living room that was balled up and stuffed under the entertainment center during the day, so it smelled like dust and shed skin and cat hair when he slept on it.
Even after Jake had struggled his way through high school—not because of the academics, which had never been a problem for his whip-quick mind, but because of the endless teasing and harassment for his embarrassingly good looks, or so his grandmother put it—he couldn’t afford college, and thus, like his father before him, ended up working as a line cook at the Cantonese restaurant below the apartment.
Jake found small pleasures to keep him occupied. He was an excellent sketch artist, so the restaurant commissioned him to design Zodiac calendar-themed paper placemats. He took the job very seriously, labeling each animal on the circular calendar with the years of its occurrence: the tiger, his best friend Lucas’s sign, the year 1986. The horse, his father’s sign, the year 1966. The dragon, his grandmother’s sign, the year 1940. The ox, the ram, the pig.
And last but not least, the rat. 1948. 1960.1972. And finally, 1984, the year Jake was born.
Jake had always felt a special connection with his Zodiac sign. The rat was an intelligent, underappreciated creature, like Jake. Rats ate the cockroaches and the bed bugs. They were always just underfoot, knowing that where humans lived, they could live. They subsisted where nothing else could subsist. Jake admired the resourcefulness of the rat, his community spirit, and his unwavering resilience.
When the Zodiac design was finished, Jake proudly brought it to the restaurant manager. But sales had been low since the restaurant received a bad review in the Chinatown Times last month, and the Cantonese Dragon Restaurant could no longer afford to print the placemats; so the design was shelved and forgotten about by everyone except Jake.
That had been it: his chance to make it out of here. He had poured everything into his Zodiac design, hoping some big-wig at a magazine would see Jake’s work and insist he join the magazine as the new head illustrator. Now Jake was just a line cook again.
It was late on a Friday night when Jake was closing up the kitchen. As he went to turn out the light, he saw a black shape scurry in the far corner, under the fryer.
“Is anyone there?” he asked. There was no response, but he saw another shape—larger than the first—go careening across the linoleum, followed by the screech of claws on tile and a low, growling meeeooowwww.
“Sam!” Jake followed the shapes to the back of the fryer. The restaurant owner’s cat, an overweight tabby with patchy black fur, was hunched in the corner and batting at something with his front paw. Jake pulled out his phone to use as a flashlight and crouched to get a better look, when he saw a rat whip past his right foot like it was on fire.
Sam was right on the rat’s heel, but the cat hadn’t anticipated Jake. She plowed into his leg, unbalancing Jake and sending them both sprawling with a feline howl. The cat righted herself, glaring at him, and raced off again in the direction the rat had taken towards the refrigerator.
Jake scrambled to his feet and ran after her. “Sam!” The cat’s furry paws slid on the linoleum and she sailed toward the far back corner of the kitchen, where Jake saw the rat cowering under the refrigerator door. She pawed at it, but the rat was just out of Sam’s reach. Jake grabbed the cat by her collar and summarily tossed her out the door, into the back alley. She was yowling and gnashing her teeth when he slammed it closed.
The rat hadn’t moved. It was shadowed by the fridge door, just a puffed-up ball of trembling gray fur. Jake kneeled on the floor and peered at it.
“It’s okay,” he told the rat. “She’s gone now.” But it didn’t move. Not quite brave enough to reach out and touch the thing, Jake stood up and rummaged around the overhead shelf for a handful of rice. He dropped some grains in a pile on the floor, a few inches from the door where the rat was curled in a protective ball.
Jake stepped back and waited. Slowly the rat lifted its head and sniffed the air. Sensing the rice, it uncurled and walked out from under the fridge door. Then the rat took a grain in one paw and sank its teeth in.
After some thoughtful chewing, the rat looked up at Jake and said, “Thanks for the rescue, bro.”
There was a long moment of silence. Jake’s expression was blank, but his eyes were wide as plates. His mouth opened and closed a few times. Then he asked, “Did you just say something?”
“What’s your problem, man? A little slow upstairs?” The rat shook his head. “Humans, I swear. El Tigre was right about you.”
“El Tigre…?” Jake winced. “But you’re a rat.”
“And you, apparently, are an idiot.” The rat finished his grain of rice and rose up on his two back legs. “Well, thanks for your help. Gotta get home to the wives before they start a ruckus.”
“You have wives?” It was probably the least incredible thing that Jake had heard in the last thirty seconds, but now he seemed to snap back into reality. “Wait, back up. You are a rat. Rats do not talk, last time I checked.”
The rat shrugged. “Most people don’t listen,” he said. “I thought you were different, but I guess not.”
“Me?” Jake sat back in a squatting position. “Different?” He’d always thought so, but only in the way that shy, scrawny losers were different than other kids in class.
The rat sighed in a manner that could only be described as exasperated. “Generally, humans are so self-absorbed that they refuse to hear what is going on around them. You know, like talking rats. It just sounds like squeaking, because people don’t want it to be anything else. But a few keep their ears open.” The rat shrugged. “Anyway, I really better get going. Ramona is making rotten fig pie tonight.”
The rat looked ready to dash, but Jake held up one diplomatic hand. “Hold on,” he said. “Just one question. Are rats the only ones I can hear?”
“Maybe.” The rat examined his cuticles. “Probably. You were born in the year of the rat, right?”
“Well, there you go. El Tigre says most people are only attuned to their animal. You’re receptive.”
“Who is El Tigre?”
The rat raised his eyes to Jake’s, and something mischievous twinkled in them. “The leader. After the last dragon died, someone had to take over. Just to keep an eye on things.”
“Take over what?”
“You know, the council.” Jake shook his head. He didn’t know. The rat reached up to massage his temples. “God,” he said. “It’s like talking to an infant. Look, man. I’m one of the representatives to the council. The Zodiac council. I represent the Year of the Rat. El Tigre? He represents the Year of the Tiger.”
Jake thought of his best friend Lucas. He wondered if tigers had ever talked to him, and maybe it was just too unbelievable for Lucas to have said anything about it.
“Anyway,” said the rat. “This was really a great little chat, but I have to get going.” He looked up and Jake thought he saw a yellow-toothed smile. “Take care of yourself, you dumb human, you.”
“Thanks,” said Jake, not sure if he meant it. “You too.” Then he had a thought. “Wait, can you hold on one second?”
The rat watched curiously as Jake got to his feet and reached to the overhead shelf again. He pulled out the design he’d done of the Zodiac calendar for the restaurant placemats and put it down on the floor where the rat could see it.
“I made this for the restaurant, but it’s never going to see the light of day here,” he said. “I think you and the council should have it.”
The rat peered at the designs of each animal arranged in a neat circle, with Chinese characters next to each one representing their names.
“Nice,” said the rat, pointing to the monkey. “He looks just like that. You even nailed that arrogant smirk of his and the crinkle in his tail.” He looked up. “Thanks, man. I guess you know more about us than I thought. I’ll be sure El Tigre gets it, and perhaps it will see the light of day after all.” The rat tapped his chin. “Ox writes romance novels under a pseudonym. Maybe she can get it published for you.”
The rat rolled up the paper and tucked it under his arm.
“Thanks,” said Jake.
“Yeah, man. You too. And watch out for tigers.”
Then the rat was off across the linoleum floor, and disappeared into a hole under the sink apparatus.
A year later, Jake had long forgotten about his chat with a rat in the back of the kitchen, until Lucas tumbled into the restaurant one afternoon with wide eyes and a mouth pulled back in a monstrous grin.
“What is it?” Jake asked him.
Lucas pulled something out of his backpack. It was a big white book with his Zodiac calendar painted across the front. The book was titled, “Twelve Years of Seduction.” The author’s name was “Abby Angus.”
“Look!” said Lucas. “Your calendar!”
Inside the front cover Jake saw his name printed next to the artist’s credit. Lucas was almost doubled-over with enthusiasm.
“Aren’t you excited?” he asked. “This book is selling really well, too.”
“That’s awesome,” said Jake. “Lucas, what do you know about tigers?”