Rules of the Rats by Renee Agatep

He asks me over and over as he looks at his wedding ring what’s the harm in it, spending time. Under his collared shirt I’ve seen little Maria, tattooed on his shoulder, the one with perfect forehand strokes on the courts below. I don’t have the heart to remind him that in a past life, we were rats.

Let’s not talk of our rat lives before, where we lived and died in the walls. The rat in me sees the fighter on the bar stool, risen to upper middle-class splendor. I can still feel his muscle push back through the tips of my fingers, his torso decorated in Spanish streets named for saints.

In the rat holes there are unwritten rules. There is only supposed to be one like me, or like Hector, per hovel. Athletic, cunning, sleek rats of persistence. It is the same in these suburbs; not one of us can point to the other rat on our golf course blocks who has bruised his heels in shoes that could talk. There’s only allowed one on each conference call, one at this racquet club bar on a Wednesday evening.

He’d given himself away when we first met – not with coarse brown fur but unfashionable, unwearable shoes. No matter how he is disguised, I see him in the night vision of my blood, carried over from a lifetime spent tunneling through the dark.

Spawned in different walls, we were once creatures encased in cement, pig iron, studs, fiberglass, and sheet rock. But Hector and I were both the sort of vermin who refused the reality of circumstance, who knew without lamplight or path that we would escape. Without comprehending the thickness of the walls, we gnashed and chewed and clawed. One day, his open-rooted incisors collided with mine.

We’d spotted the same pinhole of light, and side by side we toiled in tandem, ever onward, thrashing our bare ropes of ligaments and bones. We kept our ears pricked and the pace for the other. The pinhole began to crumble, to widen, the light dilating our beady eyes.

We’d reached nothing more than a gap. The light shined in from tens of feet overhead, but within our reach was only another layer of wall.

We thought of scaling upward, but the potential of falling to our deaths was too likely. Tired and hungry, we turned to one another, afraid to lose what little we had. Our yellow teeth ached so we slept with empty bellies pressed together.

We stayed that way, conserving heat, sleeping without dreams. We went on to have our own litters. I spent my days tending to the smaller ones, the larger ones feeding and fending for themselves, losing track of their numbers. For generations we were starved and gassed, trapped and exterminated, crawling and rotting in those cinder block holes.

But in this life, we follow the rules. We never seek one another, we keep our distance, we emerge. We never breed and we don’t dare talk too long or stare too deeply at one another. Now we live where they live. We scurry through the halls of their universities, their cul-de-sacs, their board rooms. We recline with cocktails in their health clubs.

But we never adjust to the light, do we? We still squint into the middle-class fluorescence, shining a little too bright.

And for a moment, I’ve forgotten the rules of the rats. The sweet spot of racquets greeting tennis balls pop below. Once more I am staring back into Hector’s soft, vagabond eyes. Our bruxing teeth squeak of stock markets and mortgage rates. He has tales of his wife the human, the dot com executive.

Maria emerges from her lesson. Her dark waves of hair tied high fall to her back, swaying this way and that with every graceful step. She smiles in name brands and sparkles like orthodontics. The spell is broken, and we politely flee, terrified of our own reflections.


Renee Agatep writes of her rust belt beginnings but now lives in Florida. Renee earned her master’s at Northeastern University and currently studies creative writing at the University of Central Florida. Her work is found or forthcoming in Flash Flood, Dear Damsels, Malarkey Books, Dunes Review, and Perhappened.

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