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The Seventh Rat:
We’ve retired Mr. Bubbles Six. The new specimen is a field rat acquired from outside the main house. I’m pleased with the find. He’s two ounces heavier than Bubbles Six, who recently lost his fur in a small fire. I consider the extra mass to be advantageous. Bubbles Seven has slightly coarser and more tawny fur, but he comes to us already missing a toe. Will run the first tests tonight and report back findings.
* * *
Yesterday I didn’t win a Nobel Prize. I didn’t win one last year or the year before that, either. Each of these stacked up behind me in a neat little pile of non-Nobel-Prize-winning days. And I hated every one of them.
Marie Curie didn’t have a Nobel Prize when she was seventeen, either. But then again, Marie Curie lived in Paris, which might as well be located in a different solar system from Hollow Pines, a dead-end Texas town that sucked you in up to your ankles and held you there fast and tight as quicksand.
Seven feet belowground, in a tornado cellar dug beneath the soil of the world’s biggest cultural black hole, Owen Bloch and I toiled to fix our problem of scientific obscurity by extracting a dead rat from a jar of formaldehyde. Dressed in a dingy white lab coat that fell to my knees, I pinched the tail through a pair of latex gloves while Owen slid a metal tray under the rodent and sealed the lid on the rotten-egg smell that wafted from the jar. Drops of formaldehyde, the color and consistency of pus, dripped from the nose of Mr. Bubbles, the posthumous star of our experiment. Mr. Bubbles came from a long line of Mr. Bubbleses before him. The tip of his tail draped like an earthworm over my right wrist as I lowered him to rest, bellydown, on sterile metal.
A roll of thunder rattled the shelves already sagging under the weight of cleaned-out pickle jars and sent their contents sloshing against the glass walls, where they caused the floating animals inside—lizards, fish, and, in one case, a roadkill armadillo—to sway suspended in the murky liquid, as though to music. On the counter below, liquid bubbled in a series of Erlenmeyer flasks attached by rubber stoppers and glass tubing. Steam gathered in the bottle necks. A sticky red substance coated a microscope slide clipped on top of the scope’s stage.
A flash of lightning illuminated the cracks in the cellar door. The exposed lightbulbs hanging overhead flickered dark and then bright. Owen scratched the scalp beneath his shock of sandy-blond hair. “Not to be a cosmic buzz kill, but a wise man may consider, you know, not throwing down serious kilowatts in the middle of a lightning storm while standing on a damp floor.” He stared down at his sneakers, laces untied and dragging on the dirt-covered concrete. He was wearing a red T-shirt with the words Homo sapiens inside printed on the chest.
“Don’t be ridiculous. We’re too close,” I muttered. The chemical stench burned my nostrils as I bent closer to Mr. Bubbles to take inventory of our last experiment’s leftover effects. We’d only just begun using this rat tonight, but already he had a singed ear, which I marked down in my black-and-white-speckled composition book before gently lifting the curve of his snout to reveal the enamels of two teeth sticking out from the gums. I noted this, too, along with a spot on his right shoulder blade where the brown fur had begun to blanch as though it’d been bleached. I circled the location on the Mr. Bubbles diagram.
Owen slumped down onto a stool and lifted his glasses to rub at his eyes. “Here’s the thing: It’s midnight. On a night before which we have to get up for government-mandated compulsory education.”
I was in the middle of rolling over the dead rat to examine his belly but stopped to glare at him. “Was that Edison that said, ‘Try, try, and stop trying again after midnight’?”
His head drooped, and he peered up at me, forehead wrinkling and mouth crooked into half a smile. If Owen were an animal, he’d be a lemur, one of those long, slender animals, with concave chests and beady eyes. “You’re a little frightening.” He held his finger and thumb an inch apart. “You know that? Just a little.”
I lifted my eyebrows. I found it hard to carry a dead anything without giving off an at least slightly off-putting impression to the general human populace. Owen was different, though. I plopped the rat down on his back with a thud and got to work examining the claws. Owen slid off the stool, made his way over to a cluttered pile of discarded machinery parts, and began tinkering with an old clock. This was his thing. Owen liked to tinker. He kept a stash of old radios, model airplanes, desktop computers, and random car parts just so he could take them apart and put them back together in a new way. I was sure there was some psychoanalysis in this hobby ripe for the picking, but I never questioned his love for tiny machinery parts and the desire to know what made them tick. Instead, when I found a discarded DVD player on the side of the road, I just loaded it up and gave it to Owen as a gift. He was, as a friend, very easy to shop for.
“You should reset the rattrap.” My breath caused one of the whiskers on Mr. Bubbles’s nose to quiver. “We’ll need another one soon.”
I listened to the cranking of a ratchet screwdriver.
“But we just got this one,” Owen protested. “What about the test-animal application?”
I rested my chin on my knuckles and brushed a strand of hair out of my eyes. “That’ll take too long. Stop being such a baby.”
Only the first Mr. Bubbles had been secured through “proper channels.” As far as our biology teacher knew, we were still using the same one. Owen said sometimes he heard rats shrieking in his sleep.
I glanced up at the other jarred specimens, their eyes magnified in the curved glass cases, each one carefully preserved for laboratory study. I inherited the storm cellar from my father, where he’d kept his lab equipment in a shelter that was supposed to protect him from the very thing he was chasing. Once he was gone, Mom wouldn’t step foot inside. Memories, to her, must look like ghosts.
The cellar was a cluttered, misshapen hideout carved into the red dirt with a hatch door in the ceiling that let people in and kept tornadoes out. A worktable occupied the center of the room, still draped with Dad’s old maps and Doppler coordinates. In the corner, next to the chalkboard, sat an old, claw-foot bathtub. Shelves lined the surrounding walls crowded with weather vanes, old fan parts, wheels off a rusted tricycle, and dim jars of syrupy liquid. My father had collected other assorted items for his laboratory, too: a gurney, dusty Victorian-era textbooks—many first editions—a collection of surgical utensils, a generator, a transistor radio, clouded beakers, a model skeleton, a gopher skull, and a preserved pig heart. Much like a living, breathing thing, the cellar laboratory reflected a kind of organized chaos in which I knew where everything was and yet somehow always managed to uncover new treasures.
I stifled a yawn and drew myself back to the work, dragging my finger over the curling pages of my notebook. Inside, I’d scribbled a short list of variables: kilowatts, conductors, incision points. Each separate attempt had been crossed out. I was missing something. Something tantalizingly close and just out of reach, like a word tingling the tip of the tongue. The answer was there, buried in the pages of my notes, in the texts I read, in the diagrams I designed; it was all there—it had to be—and yet it may as well have been hieroglyphics.
The scent of burning skin still hovered in the room, mixing with the fresh chemical cocktail that was leftover from when a dead lizard had fried to the point of extra crispy earlier this evening. The reptiles never worked. Their scales hardened and their wiry bodies blackened around the edges, turning stiff and brittle under the shock. Still, I swore this time—I swore—that the lizard’s foot had moved just before he turned into an unappetizing, reptilian potato chip.
I drummed my fingers on the metal tray, trying to mentally unlock the answer from Mr. Bubbles as if it were hidden not in my careful methodology but there underneath his matted fur.
“It has to be more volts,” I said at last.
The clink of metal parts stopped. “More?” And then it resumed from Owen’s side of the room. The twisting of a screw and the sound of a tool being dropped onto a pile. “Maybe it’s the incisions,” he said. “Maybe if we attached the wires to the external layer of the epidermis, then—”
“No, it’s not the placement.” I’d studied the anatomy time and time again. I’d spent late nights trying every other point of entry for the wires, and no configuration came close to working except for this one. “At fifty watts I got his tail to move.”
“At fifty watts Mr. Bubbles started smelling like chicken-fried steak and Einstein tried to eat him,” Owen pointed out. Einstein was my bulldog.
“More,” I said. “It’s got to be more.” This time I didn’t wait for Owen to question me. I gathered a jar of brine water, our makeshift diathermy device, a bouquet of multicolored wires, and our scalpel. I cut back and forth across the room, weaving around odds and ends. Owen set down the clock and screwdriver and quietly joined me as I cleared a spot at the worktable.
Without further argument he bent over the kilowatt meter, calibrating it to measure out the correct level of energy—sixty watts. His tongue stuck out the side of his mouth in concentration. He positioned his back to face me as I made deep, fresh cuts in the hide of the dead rat, a part which always made Owen squeamish. A cord trailed from the generator to the kilowatt meter to which the wires were attached. One set of frayed wire ends dangled inside the jar, magnified by the brine water. I inserted another set of copper wires into the incisions.
Another rumble of thunder rolled through the cellar, this one longer and more menacing, like the growl of a feral animal. I pulled a cord above the worktable, and a lamp flicked on, spotlighting Mr. Bubbles. Owen looked up from the kilowatt meter, his tongue still squeezed between his teeth. He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose and tilted his chin as though to say, if you must.
I took a deep breath, savoring this moment, the one of possibility just before fates were made or broken, when everything felt balanced on a pinpoint. I took a deep breath, put my finger underneath the switch, and flipped it.
The dials on the rudimentary kilowatt meter sprung to life. Four small circles aligned on the face of the meter, each with matching needles that spun to different points like hands on a clock meting out energy. As with a spark traveling the wick of a dynamite stick, I saw the moment the volt hit the vat of brine water from the small twist of wire and the tiny ripple that grated the surface before the other wire began to tremble almost imperceptibly.
The smell of burning fur began to radiate. The rat’s good ear curled downward and then, so fast I almost couldn’t believe it happened, his tail swished from one side to the other. My eyes widened. The electricity built up and up. Mr. Bubbles shook violently. Nearby, Owen pulled his shirt over his nose. Then the tail that had just twitched began to blacken from the tip up toward the base until half of the pink appendage was charbroiled. His claws shriveled. His fur began to smoke. Coiled tendrils twisted, dark and shadowy, into the light.
“It’s going to work. It’s going to work,” I chanted, almost in prayer.
Smoke was now choking the room. The body of Mr. Bubbles was shriveling.
“All right, that’s enough, Tor.” Owen pinched his nose.
I flattened my palm over his arm. “No, wait, hold on.” I inched my nose closer. The heat dried my eyes. “Come on. Come on,” I urged.
It was Owen who broke. He hit the switch just as another crack of lightning blasted through the cracks in the hatch. The charge died at once and the needles fell back to zero position. Slowly, I stepped up to the edge of the worktable. I stooped down to peer at the shriveled rodent and, with my gloved finger, nudged him in his little rat ribs.
For a second, I had a harebrained hope that he might stir after all. And then … his whiskers fell out.
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