* — August 30, 2016
Ruben
Sasha the Okay Photographer, 2013
We were feeding that rat for three weeks straight before it uttered a word.

“Messiah,” Lonny said after two weeks and a day, “you’re full of crap. We’re doing everything you said, the tamarind basmati, the glazed bacon, the popsicles, and nada. Not a word. All it does is run around and squeak. I got a bad stomachache, my woman’s pissed off, and I don’t know if you’re shitting me or what.”
“Patience,” Messiah said. Messiah usually spoke in single words.
The fog, with its peculiar, dull orange tint, rolled in and pressed against our windows. Every morning was foggy in those days, the world outside our apartment obscured.
When the end of the third week was approaching, we took up Cuban cooking. “If those plantains don’t do the job,” Lonny said, “I don’t know what will.” He didn’t mean to imply we might give up.
The first word was more. Lonny was not excited. “What if that’s all it ever says,” he said. “What if it just keeps asking for more and more food and never makes good on the prophecy? Then we become slaves, fucking rat-slaves.”
“More,” we heard again.
We looked over at the rat. It was sitting on its haunches, wiping grease off its whiskers with its right paw.
“Hot dogs,” Messiah said.
“What the fuck’s that gonna do,” Lonny yelled.
“Technically, that’s two words,” I said.
I was taking a break—I just had to—and was sitting on the velour sectional, flipping through the American Journal of Opthamology. I could feel the orange fog outside, a kind of damp presence seeping through the walls. I shivered.
“C’mon,” said Lonny. “We’re in this together.” He reached out his hand and pulled me up off the couch.
We fed it hot dogs and nothing changed.
“Messiah,” Lonny said, “we keep feeding it the damn hot dogs and it just keeps saying more, more. Bun, no bun, sauerkraut, onions—and it’s just more.” Lonny was imitating the sound of the rat’s voice when he said the word “more.” He was doing a pretty good job.
I said maybe we should move the rat’s cage from the kitchen island to the dining table, where he’d be able to see out the apartment windows. The rat pressed its face through the bars, took a look at the new view, then waddled back to its usual spot.
“More,” he said.
Lonny groaned.

 

      “Him,” Messiah said.
Things changed after that.
“I can’t just push a button and start thinking of it as some sort of person,” Lonny said, so we figured we needed a name. The naming process did not go smoothly. At first Lonny wanted to name the rat after his mother, Lucille. He didn’t care that it was a male.
“Names, gender, identity—it’s all fluid these days,” Lonny said. I crossed my arms.
He came around eventually, but we still couldn’t agree on a name. “Why should you get to decide,” he said every time I made a suggestion.
Then Lonny woke up in the middle of the night and shook my arm until I was awake too.
“I can’t believe I haven’t thought of it earlier,” he said, and he told me his idea. We named it Ruben after Lonny’s best friend who’d been killed in a car crash two years earlier. I was surprised at first; we never talked about Ruben. But as soon as Lonny said it, I knew it was perfect.

 

        Ruben responded very well to his name.
“Clearly the right choice,” Lonny said, sounding like a proud father.
“This fog is making everything look orange,” I said. “What is that?”
Lonny shrugged. “Emissions?”
Ruben started getting very specific in his demands around that time. There were no more plain mores—now he was naming specific cuisines. He developed exotic tastes, and Lonny didn’t mind the extra cost or effort. He wasn’t calling Messiah anymore either, and he stopped talking about how his prophecies were bullshit. He was completely invested in Ruben now, entirely convinced that we should allow him the time he needed, be supportive.
Ruben seemed a little less grumpy, too. One day he did head-stands and cartwheels for us and then giggled, clapping his paws. Another time he made a kind of self-portrait rat sculpture from the cedar chips that lined the floor of his cage.
Lonny ran through his cookbooks and began to go online to find the most interesting recipes. We went from Turkish to Greek and Armenian, Yemeni and Iranian, then Lebanese.
“He’s in his Mediterranean phase,” Lonny said in that tone again, as if this were our son who’d just graduated from an Ivy League college.
One day I got out of the shower to find Lonny sitting on the sectional, gazing at Ruben with a look I had never seen on his face before. It hit me then: I was starting to feel left out. Sidelined. Lonny hadn’t let me do any actual cooking in weeks. All I was allowed to do was measure out the dry ingredients and scrub pots.
The next morning, around dawn, I couldn’t take it anymore.
“Lonny,” I said. I shook his shoulder, which was slippery in his satin pajamas.
“Ruben….” Lonny mumbled in his sleep. “Ruben…..”
“Lonny, I’m going to make my cherry meringues. Remember the ones I made that New Year’s Eve when we had the bottles of water and the generator? Do you think maybe Ruben would like them?”
Lonny reached up and lifted his sleep mask. “What?”
“I’m going to make some meringues for the rat. And also some butterscotch pudding.”
“Are you trying to kill him?” Lonny said. He was wide awake now. The orange light of sunrise had begun to filter into the bedroom.
“I just think he might like a little dessert,” I said.
“He can’t process all that sugar,” Lonny said. “Don’t you know anything about rats?”
Lonny often didn’t remember things he said to me, things that seemed important and earnest at the time, but that in retrospect were just expediencies. Things like: We’re in this together. I got out of bed and opened the blinds. I stood there near the window, facing him but looking just past him.
He rubbed his eyes with the palms of his hands. He sighed. Then he patted my cheek.
“Can you make the pudding with Stevia? he asked. Or Xylitol?”

 

          Ruben loved the butterscotch pudding. In fact, after he had his first bowl of it, he said “Thank you” for the first time. Lonny beamed. That night in bed Lonny kissed me on the neck and blew in my ear and wrote his name on my ass with a damp pinky, just like the old days.
Things were good for a while. Ruben was eating well and becoming quite chatty. First he only talked about food. Then he started telling knock-knock jokes. Then he began engaging us in conversations about the weather and politics. We got him his own miniature velour sectional, to match ours, which we all found hilarious and adorable. Ruben added chortling to his repertoire. At night, Ruben lay down on the cushions, and we’d put a tiny fleece blanket over him. Then we’d go to our bedroom. Sex was like when we first got together, with the nipple clamps, anal beads, peppermint oil, and astronaut costumes back in rotation. We were tired from all the menu-planning and cooking, but the orgasmic flush kept us going.
Then, one foggy Sunday morning—Lonny and I were deep in the crosswords and Ruben was doing his jumping jacks, the way he did twice a day now to burn off some of the food—we heard a knock on the door. And I can’t explain it but all three of us just knew it was Messiah.
Lonny and I looked at each other. I put down the crossword and nudged Lonny with my toe.

 

            Messiah did not, of course, wait for anyone to open the door. He just sort of appeared in front of us, between the coat closet and the table with the pile of mail.
“My man!” Lonny said in a voice too loud to pass as happy. Lonny never knew how to play it cool; people used to ask me why he was anxious even when he was perfectly calm.
I had never seen Messiah before. It turned out I’d been imagining him all wrong. He was wearing some sort of gold, satin cape, but other than that he looked generic: thick, metal rimmed glasses, skinny denims, vintage sneakers. And he wasn’t tall or broad-shouldered or anything. I’d expected him to look like a man who used strength to get his way, but instead he looked like the guy you send to call for backup.
He and Lonny hugged, but Messiah’s eyes seemed dead. When he shook my hand, I felt like I was touching ice. Messiah signaled Lonny with his eyes and they started toward the kitchen. I followed, unsure if it was okay, but neither of them stopped me. I looked back at Ruben, thinking he might be tense, but he was midway through his post-workout stretches. At our kitchen door, I let them pass me; I could see and hear from that spot, but felt less intrusive. Messiah and Lonny grew up together; they shared the kind of intimacy men share when they wish they were brothers.
“Coffee?” Lonny asked as Messiah placed himself on the wobbly stool by our kitchen island. That stool always creaked when Lonny sat on it, but now it was quiet. Messiah looked at him funny in response, which is to say his eyes were more alive now and talking, but in a language I didn’t speak.
Lonny nodded and poured him a shot of rye, neat. He looked at me, and I shook my head. It was 10 in the morning. He poured another one for himself and sat next to Messiah, on the stool that I always thought of as mine. An awkward silence followed—both men drinking and staring at the floor—and for a moment it seemed that we would all be in that kitchen like that, wordless, until planet earth melted and died. Finally, Messiah looked into Lonny’s eyes.
“Enough,” he said.
“Don’t say that, man, don’t tell me that,” Lonny said.
Messiah said nothing, which I took to mean he was standing by his word.
“Ruben is my life,” Lonny whispered, so low and sweet I could have missed it. Messiah grabbed Lonny’s arm then in a way that seemed painful.
“Enough,” he said again, and then again, loud. “Enough!”
When Messiah raised his voice, it had a metallic echo. And there was a stillness that surrounded him—I don’t know how to describe it—a profound emptiness in the air closest to his body.
“Heaven?” Messiah asked. “Or this….?” He drained the rest of his drink and shrugged a skinny shoulder in my direction. It was the first time he’d acknowledged me since he shook my hand. Then he gestured with his empty tumbler around the kitchen and finally gave the air a jab toward the living room and Ruben’s cage.
Lonny asked me to give him and Messiah a moment.
I went and sat on the velour sectional.
Ruben was doing yoga. He finished the warrior pose and wiped his face with his little towel. Then he said he’d been wondering if Scarlett Johansson was actually smart or just good at playing intelligent characters. He also wondered how the Fed made decisions about interest rates, and related to that, where are dimes minted? He added that he would like a sea salt and caramel latte.
“I can’t make you one right now,” I said. “I wish I could, but you know Lonny’s in there with Messiah.”
Ruben nodded. We both sat on our sectionals then, waiting.
Messiah glided out of the kitchen after about ten minutes. He flashed me a peace V with his fingers and kept going right out the door. Ruben watched him leaving. I leapt up and went back to the kitchen.
Lonny looked awful.
“What is it?” I asked him.
He got out a new glass, poured some rye in it, and slid it across the counter to me.
“We have to…”
“What? What?” I said.
“We have to let Ruben go,” Lonny said. “He’s not here to be our pet or our friend. He’s here to fulfill the prophecy. Or he was. We’ve ruined it.”
The first sip of my drink burned worse than usual. I took another.
“The line between nourishment and decadence is a crucial one, and we crossed it,” Lonny said, sounding a bit like he was reciting a poem.
“So you’re blaming me?” I said.
“I didn’t say that,” he said.
“The cookies, the pies, the frozen yogurt,” I said, doing a mental inventory of everything I’d been making for him. “That’s the decadence, right?”
He looked at me, and for a moment I could see what he must have looked like as a young boy.
“I really don’t know,” he said. “I just know we’ve spoiled him. And now he’ll never tell us how to get to heaven.”
I tried to think fast. Should I confess to Lonny? I’d only used sugar twice, maybe three times in all those weeks since the first pudding. I knew—just knew, the way you know things about your family without being told—that Ruben could process the real stuff just fine. And when I proved it, I felt closer to Ruben, an invisible cord connecting our bellies. But could that be the problem?
“Lonny,” I said, “I have something to tell you.” Lonny seemed in his own world.
“A lesbian couple from Toluca,” he said. “They’re getting him next.”
“Mexico,” I asked, “or Illinois?” But I regretted my question right away. What difference did it make?
Lonny shrugged. “You can ask them when they get here tonight,” he said. He got up and zipped his jacket. “I can’t look at him,” he said. “I need some air.”

 

              I went back into the living room. Ruben was reading

Gone Girl

              —the book propped open and leaned against his cage. I stared at him but he ignored me. It was always hard to get his attention when he was reading his thrillers or watching his soaps.
“Ruben, something bad happened,” I said.
“Don’t ruin it!” he said.
“Not in the book,” I said, “right now, with Messiah.”
“I know,” he said, his eyes still on his book. “Don’t ruin it!”
I looked at him, puzzled. He was acting like a teenager, but one who seemed to have information I needed. I knelt in front of the cage and pressed my face against the wire.
“Ruben, can you please look at me?” He finally raised his eyes.
“Are you mad at me?” I asked. He shrugged, and I know that this is a strange thing to say, but I swear—in that moment, he looked just like Lonny.
“I’m sorry I fed you real sugar,” I said. “That may have caused some problems.” He stared at me, as if trying to hypnotize me. “Are you trying to tell me something?” I asked.
“I’m trying not to tell you something,” he said. I had no idea how to respond, and Ruben was quickly getting impatient. He put down the book. He shook his head with closed eyes, his little claws touching his forehead, pushing into his fur.
“You’re supposed to ask me,” he whispered.
“Ask you what,” I whispered back, because that’s what we were doing.
“Ask me for help,” he said, much louder now. “The two of you together. You’re supposed to accept that you don’t know everything, and ask for help.”
“Oh, Ruben,” I said.
“It’s not the sugar,” he said, his voice softer now. And his pointy features changed, became more gentle. He smoothed his whiskers with the back of one paw.
We looked into each other’s eyes then for what felt like a long time. I had never been so close to his face before. I had never noticed the whorls and cowlicks in his hair, nor his curly lashes.
He repeated: “The two of you together. It’s you and Lonny and the prophecy. This is just the beginning.”
I thought I might cry.
“Go to him,” said Ruben. I opened my mouth to say something—I’m not even sure what—but Ruben heaved Gone Girl open and began to read again.

 

                I walked slowly back into the kitchen. The Lucite dreidl that Lonny kept his weed stash in sat on the counter. The window was partway open. Lonny was sitting on the fire escape, with his back to the glass. His shoulders hunched forward; his hair fluttered in the wind. In his hand he held the green glass pipe that I’d given him for our first anniversary.
The fog had begun to clear. Scraps of blue sky peeked from behind the shredding orange mist.
I drank some water straight from the tap, then splashed a bit more rye in my glass from earlier. I knew I was dawdling, that some Mexican or maybe Midwestern ladies were probably landing at the airport, that I should make a move. But I felt a creeping paralysis. I moved my drink to my lips, sniffed its bracing fumes.
And it came to me at that moment, in the kitchen, looking out the window, watching Lonny, watching the pigeons flapping and the steam rising from the roofs of lower buildings and the helicopters buzzing in the distance over the harbor as the fog spindled away: something was going to change, no matter what we did. And not only that: everything is changing all the time.
I knocked on the window. Lonny turned around. He smiled. Yes, he smiled. I could tell he didn’t notice himself smiling, which made it even better.
I crooked my finger, beckoning him inside. He pushed the window open and climbed through, dropping to the linoleum floor.
“They’re going to be here soon,” he said.
“Listen,” I said. I reached for his hand and squeezed it. “We still have a chance. It’s not too late. We haven’t done anything wrong, I think. We just forgot to ask the rat the question.”
Lonny shook his head. “It’s done,” he said. “The lesbians from Toluca…” he sighed and trailed off.
“Listen,” I said again. “Lonny. Do you remember how fucked up we were before Ruben?”
Lonny met my eyes. “I guess?” he said.
“We were bickering all the time. You were filling up the dreidl like twice a week.” Lonny glanced in the direction of the dreidl.
“You were up every night buying shit on the internet,” he said. “It wasn’t just me.”
“Of course not,” I said, “that’s my point.” I grabbed Lonny’s hand, perhaps a little strong.
“Your point is that we were messed up?” he asked. He frowned the way he always did when he felt confused.
“My point is that we were stuck, but we’ve changed!” I said, and Lonny’s hand jerked because I was yelling. I cleared my throat, took Lonny’s hand again.
“Everything is always changing,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady. “Don’t you see, Lonny? We’re no different than this tree,” I said, pointing at our kitchen window, “or the sky, which was foggy, remember?—but now it’s clear and then it will be dark in a few hours, then bright again in the morning!” Lonny seemed concerned, or perhaps disappointed.
“What the hell are you talking about,” he asked. I wasn’t explaining myself well.
“Look,” I said. “If this tree asked you if it could keep its leaves, just for one autumn, what would you say?”
“I would say I must have smoked too much because I’m talking to a tree,” Lonny said, and I smiled because I thought he was being funny but his face stayed serious.
“You’d tell the tree it was asking for the impossible,” I said, “the unnatural. You’d explain that everything is constantly in flux, that change is beautiful.” Lonny looked in the direction of the window as if examining the tree.
“You’re saying we should just give up on Ruben,” he said, his words sounding more like an accusation than a question.
“No,” I said, “I think we still have a shot. I think we need to talk to Ruben together and see. And I think we need to thank him, to tell him we know that he’s changed us for the better.” Lonny looked straight at me now.
“You got it all wrong,” he said. “That’s exactly how we fucked up—by being so damn happy. We didn’t even ask him how to get to heaven! We totally lost focus.” Lonny seemed so sad and I felt an urge to hug him but I knew he’d resist.
“Is that what Messiah said,” I asked, though I knew the answer. Lonny nodded. We stood there for a bit; I looked up and tried to choose my words carefully.
“Lonny,” I said finally, and he met my eyes, “have you ever considered that Messiah might be jealous of you, of us?” Lonny seemed surprised, then shook his head.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “Why would he move us to the top of the list if he was a bad friend? We wouldn’t have gotten this chance in the first place if it weren’t for him.”
“Not a bad friend,” I said, “just jealous. I saw him today, Lonny. And I’m telling you: he came here to put an end to our happiness.”
Something passed through Lonny’s eyes then; I knew he heard me and I knew to wait.
“Yeah,” he said after a moment, and then again in a softer voice, “yeah. Maybe you’re right.”
He kissed me then. I tasted the weed and rye in his mouth. I opened my eyes and looked up at his, which were closed. Light flooded the kitchen. It was still morning, but nearing noon. The earth was turning toward the sun, and on the other side of the planet there were people closing their eyes to go to sleep in dark bedrooms.
Lonny opened his eyes. I took his hand and led him into the living room, toward Ruben’s cage.
“Okay,” I said.
“Okay,” Ruben said, putting down Gone Girl.
“Do you want to do it?” I asked Lonny.
Lonny knelt before the cage. I could see that he was trembling. Ruben nodded, jutting his tiny chin toward Lonny.
“Rat,” said Lonny—and I understood why he used that word instead of the name we had given the rat—“what is the way to heaven?”
Ruben’s thin gray lips stretched into a smile. He looked at me, then back at Lonny, then back and forth a couple more times.
“I’m so glad you asked,” he said. “I’ve been waiting for you to ask for such a long time. Don’t get me wrong—it’s been fun, the waiting. I’ve so enjoyed the glazed bacon, the hot dogs, the olives and falafel, the meringues and cupcakes. Frankly, this has been one of the top ten stays I’ve ever had in a human household. Though I never got my caramel latte this morning.”
I felt a little jab in my heart then. I’d known we weren’t Ruben’s first people, of course, but there’s always the illusion.
He continued.
“You seem to think that there is only one way to heaven, and that I will give you a simple answer. But there are many ways to heaven, as many ways as there are to get to a lake or a meadow or a volcano.”
I felt myself beginning to grow lighter, as if helium was pumping into my veins. Yes, I thought, then, Yes…?
Ruben spoke again.
“Heaven exists in layers, sort of like… like a layer cake.” He licked his lips. “The nearest ones resemble the life you know so closely, you might already be in heaven and not even know it. As you ascend from layer to layer, your experience becomes more and more exquisite and joyous, and you find yourself finally in a place with more dimensions and colors than it is possible for you to imagine at this moment.”
Ruben looked from me to Lonny once again.
“But some people want to bypass the layers,” said Ruben, and his voice sounded a bit stern. “I’ve never seen it do anyone any good in the end.”
I nodded. This made perfect sense to me: shortcuts are rarely good news. You can turn up the heat and cookies will bake more quickly, but they will also be dry and burnt around the edges.
“Other people get stuck in a layer,” Ruben went on. “They get too comfortable there, or they are afraid and don’t even know it.”
I couldn’t see Lonny’s face from where I was standing. I wanted to. But I felt frozen, waiting for Ruben to keep speaking.
And he did.
“Now, you two, I—”
Suddenly, Ruben’s voice crackled a bit, and he broke off and heaved a great sigh. He pressed his bare little palms together and began to walk in a circle as he picked up again. He took a deep breath.
“You do remember Ruben,” he said.
“You’re Ruben,” said Lonny.
“The other Ruben,” said Ruben.
“Yeah…?” Lonny said.
“Where were you the night he died?” asked Ruben.
I remembered the party up in the mountains. We’d all been having so much fun. It was everybody from the cooperative house we’d lived in the year that Lonny and I got together. Caroline made her amazing lasagna, and we danced and skinny dipped and everything felt perfect. I never want to go home, I said to Lonny that night. Can we move to the mountains? I’d asked him. He was the happiest of all—I’d never seen him dance with so much freedom, flinging his gangly legs and arms into the air.
I answered Ruben: “We were at that party.”
“And Ruben was, too,” said Ruben.
“Yes,” I said.
And I remembered Ruben—the human Ruben—drinking and laughing and doing those corny card tricks that everybody indulged over and over because they loved him. Remembering him was painful.
“Who did you leave the party with?” asked Ruben the rat.
Lonny answered, his voice very soft: “Ruben.”
“How did you get home?” asked Ruben the rat.
Lonny and I never spoke about that night. It was just too terrible, and it made him too sad. We had just wanted to move on. I remembered putting my sandals and shorts and halter top back on after the skinny dipping. I remembered grabbing my pink canvas tote bag. I remembered walking down the steps from the wooden deck with Lonny and Ruben, heading toward… heading toward Ruben’s Sentra. Ruben’s keys had jingled in his hand.
Lonny must have been replaying the same scene, because he answered.
“In Ruben’s car,” Lonny said. “We came home in Ruben’s car.”
I remembered getting in the back seat, with Lonny next to Ruben up front. The worn velour upholstery felt good beneath my thighs.
“In Ruben’s car,” echoed Ruben the rat.
And then Lonny turned to me and looked up from where he was kneeling. And I looked back at him, right into his eyes.
I remembered seeing the broken guardrail in the moonlight, the Sentra crushed and smoking, the trees broken where the car had bounced into them on its descent. I remembered the sounds of cicadas and peepers. But my body was no longer in the memory: I couldn’t situate myself in the picture of the car.
Ruben the rat commanded: “Remember.”
I saw a tote bag yards away from the car, its contents scattered across the scrub. Then I saw Ruben’s left arm, akimbo against the exterior, snapped at the elbow, dangling. I zoomed in closer to the open window and saw Ruben’s torso flattened between the steering wheel and his seat, and I saw what had been his head, now a bloody mass. My heart was racing now; my breath grew short. In the passenger seat next to Ruben was a male form, still except for one twitching finger, three lines of blood—one from each nostril and another from his mouth—congealing on his face. And in the back seat: curled forward and still, with its head between its knees and a bloody halter top, there was a woman.
In our apartment, now, I was still looking into Lonny’s eyes. His memory must have zoomed in, too. None of us said anything for a couple of minutes. Then Lonny looked away.
“Oh,” said Lonny to the floor.
“Oh,” I said.
“Yes,” said Ruben.
Then there was a noise, a familiar and jarring noise. I thought it was the sound of metal folding in on itself. But it wasn’t. It was the buzzer.
Lonny rose and went to the intercom near the vestibule.
“Hello?” He said.
A crackling female voice responded: “Hi there! It’s Mary Ellen and Sakinah!”
“No,” said Lonny, “no.”
“Buzz them in, Lonny,” said Ruben.
“No,” repeated Lonny.
I went over to him and I took his hand, and with my other hand, I held down the “door” button.
“It’s so much harder for pairs,” Ruben said from his cage. “Messiah’s a good friend. A bit of an ass, but a good friend.”
“But what do we do next?” I asked. I had begun to cry without realizing it. My face was wet and my eyes and cheeks felt hot.
“Well, you’re not ignorant anymore,” said Ruben. “It’s impressive how far ignorance has carried the two of you.”
“No,” said Lonny. It seemed to be all he could say. He was shaking next to me.
The doorbell rang.
“It’s open,” called Ruben. The door swung open. Two women, my age—maybe a little older—stood in the carpeted hallway.
“Hello, hello!” they said in unison. Each held a small wheelie carry–on bag. The taller one had long ringlets that curled around her cheekbones. The smaller woman was wearing a felt hat with a brim and carried a canvas bag with knitting needles and yarn sticking out of it. She noticed me looking. With a sweet smile, she said, “Best way to pass the time on a long flight.”
“We came from Toluca,” said the taller one. “I’m Sakinah. This is Mary Ellen.”
I turned from them and stumbled to Ruben’s cage.
“Oh, Ruben,” I said. “Please don’t. We’re not ready. I don’t understand anything.”
He said nothing. He just looked at me with his eyes dark and kind and unreadable.
“Ruben?”
He didn’t answer.
“So,” said the smaller woman, Mary Ellen. “That’s the rat? I guess we take the cage, too?”
“Ruben, do you want some gelato?” I asked.
“Or maybe there’s a carrier that fits under the seat?” said Sakinah.
I tried to take a deep breath.
“He was delivered to us,” I answered. “He came in this cage.” Meanwhile, I was thinking, they don’t know. These women have no idea yet.
“Okay if we come in?” asked Sakinah.
“Of course,” I said. I tried to make a welcoming gesture with my hand.
Lonny had been standing still this whole time, standing like a statue near the acute corner of the vestibule. But now he moved. He was fast. He dashed for Ruben’s cage. In a flash, he opened the wire top. He reached in and in one motion he scooped up the rat and stuck him in the pocket of his jacket. Then he zipped the pocket nearly all the way.

“What is he doing?” Mary Ellen pointed at Lonny.

“Hey—” said Sakinah.
But Lonny was already on the move. He pushed past the women and disappeared into the hallway. I followed after him, grabbing my running shoes from the vestibule floor as I went. I ran down the hallway. Lonny was stepping onto the elevator. I made it just in time. I stuck my hand in front of its electric eye, and the door slid open again.
It closed behind me. Lonny’s pocket bulged. The rat was not moving, as far as I could tell.
I looked at myself in the convex mirror that spanned an upper corner of the elevator. Then I looked at Lonny.
He looked back at me.
The elevator descended.

 

 

Originally published in No Tokens Issue No. 5. View full issue & more.
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Shelly Oria’s book of short stories, New York 1, Tel Aviv 0 (FSG & Random House Canada, 2014) earned nominations for a Lambda Literary Award and the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction among other honors. It was recently translated into Hebrew and published in Israel by Keter Books. Shelly’s fiction has appeared in The Paris Review and McSweeney’s among many other places, and has won a number of awards, including the Indiana Review Fiction Prize. She lives in Brooklyn and has a private practice as a life & creativity coach. www.shellyoria.com

 

Nelly Reifler is the author of a story collection, See Through, and a novel, Elect H. Mouse State Judge. Her stories have appeared in McSweeney’s, BOMB, jubilat, Story, and Lucky Peach, among others, and anthologized in books such as Silent Beaches: New York City’s Forgotten Waterfront and Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction from the Edge. A Recommendations editor at Post Road, she teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Saugerties, New York.