A stairway down...

The Rat Lieutenant is Dead

Posted October 8, 2013  ‐ 12 min read

I don't know why mental health professionals had warned me against ever taking a position of authority because I found it quite bracing.

Wait a moment, let me fetch some tea.

Right. Look, I don’t know. If you’ve been following my adventures, you might recall that a few months ago I had the temerity to resign from my Creative Director position at Harvard Medical School, after which I fled the country, almost immediately going to Spain for fear that I might fall prey to a moment of good judgment and thus go slinking back.

Over in Spain I holed up in the house of my Spanish hermano Paco and there I spent the days working on The Book.

I had liked being a Creative Director. I don’t know why mental health professionals had warned me against ever taking a position of authority because I found it quite bracing. A few things had bothered me, like Harvard’s strict rules about not throwing furniture at the people who report to you, no matter how much they might have it coming to them, but any job from which you leave of your own accord instead of being carted out by security can be chalked up as a success in my mind.

Look I made up the part about consulting mental health professionals - I make things up sometimes, please don’t worry, I am still perfectly sane, if not dangerously so – an accomplishment of which others who have labored for more than seven years inside the Harvard bureaucracy might be unable to boast.

But I left Spain after a month and returned to my little house in Cambridge, and rescued my dog from the company of her cousins Monty and Zola, with whom she has a love-hate relationship - by which I mean that they love her and she hates them. My dog was pleased to see me, but let it be known that she was seriously irked about being sent off to stay with relatives while I was swanning around Europe without her. My dog is named Chloe, and she is a proud, regal creature who often seems irked by things. She’s irked at me right now as a matter of fact; her eyes are regarding me with cool disdain due to her having overheard the word ‘walk’ in conversation an hour ago, about which she has now, independently, concluded must have been complete bullshit.

My house is small, as I mentioned, and, because it is mine, I will describe it as rustic and leave a full description to your imagination. It has a nice central stairwell under a skylight, and I like that, though that stairway, which leads up to the Dojo of Deprivation, is perilous and unsafe, and one of these days is going to collapse. So if Wrongcards ever goes very strange one day, it’s because the stairway collapsed and took me with it, and Byron has inherited the site, in which case I hope you will all remember me fondly.

Upon my return to Cambridge I decided it was high-time to deal with the rat problem. My basement wall is a crumbling mess of a thing, so it doesn’t pose any real inconvenience to the local rodent community who have been using the place as a sort of community hall for the past six months. Now, I like rats slightly less than I like clowns, and it pains me to admit that the regional director of the rat community, whom I call The Rat Captain, is the approximate size of a small goat. I wouldn’t like to go down there without half a bottle of rum in my system, which is why it’s such a pity I haven’t touched the stuff in years. I would never say I was afraid of rats, but only because I know that women sometimes read this blog and if my Nanna taught me anything it’s that emotional topics like fear, dread and uncertainty are not suitable subjects for a man to mention in the company of ladies unless he enjoys being smacked about the ears.

I did manage to catch one of the chief rat’s lieutenants though. Being somewhat, er, large, he wore the rat trap around his neck as an ornament and carried on with his regular duties, while I sat up here with my arms around my knees shaking for an hour. So I called up Byron, who I’ve already told you about, and he came over to lend a hand.

Again, I’m from rural Australia; I’m a bloke, and what’s more, the ladies often have told me that there’s something distinctly piratey about the cut of my jib. I suppose that the fact I have a constitution that is impervious to alcohol, and that I’m the veteran of three or four dozen fist-fights, has accustomed me to swaggering through life with the confidence of a retired buccaneer. But the thought of going down into my basement did something strange to me.

In short, my mind would stop working altogether.

The One With the Rat

I’d approach the door and stand there and forget why I was there, and then go and sit down and have a nice cup of tea. Then I’d remember the Rat Lieutenant and his grisly rat-trap necklace, and I’d approach the door again. Then brain waves would collapse and I’d find myself sitting in the kitchen wondering how I’d gotten there. I had no idea if I’d been to the basement these past two months because even if I am able to force my body to get near the basement door, my brain refuses to go with me. But I was certain I’d gone down to the basement this very day, because I was dimly aware of the Rat Lieutenant’s necklace. My mind was just being uncooperative. An act of self-preservation, I suppose. I called Byron’s cell phone and said: ‘help’ and hung up.

So, as I was saying, when Byron turned up I just looked at him in a stricken sort of way; I suppose I was unable to put words into sentences. I pointed at the basement door and made a gurgling sound, I think, and did a lot of shaking of my head. Then I said the word: ‘nup’ about a dozen times and stared at him in a pleading sort of way.

So down he went, and then he came back half a minute later.

“Maybe you should get a cat.”

“Byron, you know very well that those rats would eat the cat the moment it set a paw down there.”

Byron agreed and he thought about it for a while, and then he said: “What if it was a bobcat?”

I didn’t know what a bobcat was (I mentioned I was from Australia, right?) so I went and looked it up. Then I came back and said: “Only if the bobcat had had some sort of combat experience.”

Byron agreed with me, and we sat about trying to work out how to rent a bobcat. Ideally, we wanted a bobcat with a few battles behind it, a veteran bobcat with a few scars and a glass eye and a tendency to brood about old friends who had died at his side in places he could never bring himself to speak about.

“This is like a role-playing game,” said Byron. “You know how the first quest is usually like, clearing out a basement filled with giant rats?”

“You’re right, what we need is a wandering hero.”

“Well in this case, that wandering hero will need to be a level 25 sorcerer.”

“Well look, it can’t be me, man,” I said. “My brain keeps resetting whenever I approach the door.”

Then Byron surprised me. No, he amazed me. He said, “alright, I’ll go and do what I can.”

And down he went. I stood at the top of the basement stairs listening. I heard him reach the lower level, his footsteps crunching over the rotten timber floor into the dirt. It’s a really primitive place down there. The rat community has even taken to carving crude murals, dark depictions of religious rites along the lower walls; all very sinister and best left uninvestigated by scholars if you ask me.

I stood trying to listen over the beating of my heart. Then I had a thought; I turned and tiptoed into the kitchen and came back with a kitchen knife and stood waiting. Obviously I was concerned that Byron might suddenly provoke the Rat Lieutenant into single combat, which would inevitably result in the rat coming upstairs, covered in Byron’s blood, looking for vengeance. At least I could get a swing in, I thought, before my heart stopped of its own accord.

Ten minutes passed, I think. I wanted to call out to him, but I didn’t want to startle anything down there. At last I heard Byron’s soft tread and he came up the stair. He was holding something with two hands. My vision went grey around the edges and I tried to speak, and then there was nothing.

A little while later Byron was squatting alongside me, prodding my neck with his fingers and asking me absurd questions about my will. I was on the floor, leaning against the lower stair of my stairwell, just by the basement door, which was now firmly shut.

“I must have dozed off,” I said. “What happened?”

“I got it. I caught it.”

“You got what?”

“That Rat Lieutenant. I took it outside.”

“You … you released it there?” I uttered, feeling a rising horror. The fool! By now the creature would be in the basement and drawing its dark plans against us.

“No, no. I took it into the backyard and … you probably don’t want to hear this.”

“Tell me,” I croaked.

“I crushed its skull with a brick.”

I have known Byron for fourteen years, a mild-mannered, gentle sort of pacifist, a vegetarian sort of lad with a tendency to feel quietly upset by man’s inhumanity to man. This is the first time he’d ever done anything that I could not anticipate. Perhaps many will blunder through life feeling confused about the people around them, but I’ve always made a point of ransacking the minds of my friends for a deeper understanding of them. I think it’s because I don’t like being surprised by people in general, and when you know somebody very well, when you have a complete comprehension of the landscape that is their inner-life, you can get them to do things for you. So you can imagine how unsettled I felt about being surprised by Byron, whom I thought I had known so well. As another friend would later say in shock, after hearing this terrible story, Byron had been holding out on us. He was a stone-cold killer.

“Byron,” I said. “You know me and you know how I am. And you know I have always been River To My People.”

“Yes,” he said.

“So you know that from the moment you first met me, your life took an upswing for the better, and from the that moment that I saw you and threw a potato at you because I’d decided that you needed to be my friend, I have dedicated myself to improving your life whenever I could spare you the thought.

“And I’ve gotten you jobs and arranged opportunities with beautiful women that you’ve spectacularly failed to follow through with - but we both know that you have struggled through this past decade, weighed down by an awareness of being profoundly in my debt. I suppose, perhaps, because that’s what it means to be my friend.”

“Let me make you some tea,” he said.

I’ll admit it. This moved me. “Tea would be good. Anyway,” I called out to him as he fussed in the kitchen, “though I rescued you from a boring, untroubled life, and have engaged you as an accomplice on all sorts of capers - "

“Like when you got us arrested in Poland,” he reminded me from the kitchen.

“Precisely,” I said (I’ll have to tell you about that one day), “well, I want you to know that I have never held your lack of appreciation against you. I am sure that, in a parallel universe, there is another Byron who did not receive a flung potato to the side of his head because Alternate Me overlooked him, and that Byron is living a hapless life, married, possibly, and beset by the mortgages and responsibilities that I’ve spared you via quiet intervention on my part -”

“Is that what’s been happening?” he asked, rhetorically I suppose. The man has a sense of humor.

“Well, my point is that today, whatever obligations you may have justly felt toward me until now are at an end. We are square.”

“At last,” he said, returning with a cup of tea and setting it down on the lower stair by my elbow.

“For today,” I said.

Byron sighed. “Well, who knows what will happen tomorrow?”

“You know what? I really have to fix this stair.”

“I don’t know, it does lend an air of precariousness to the house,” he offered.

“Maybe I should fix the basement wall then,” I thought out loud.

“I think you’d better. I’m not sure but I think one of those rats saw my face.”

“Right. We better address that instead.”

And this is why I have not been writing my book for the past two months. I’ve been being a web-developer instead. Not the way I saw myself spending the autumn of 2013, but you haven’t seen the Rat Captain. A friend at Stanford offered me a job two weeks ago, and I declined in order to keep working on the book, because I’m an optimist at heart and I can earn enough to pay some masons to fix that basement problem for me, just by building stuff for some friends of mine.

Where will it all end, I often wonder. We’re living in troubled times, and it seems to me that the world is not hurtling into a happier, more prosperous era. That’s why I think we’ll all need some reasons to smile in the years ahead, which, to be completely honest with you, is why Wrongcards exists. Believe me when I say it: when you have a way to make the world even slightly happier, you bounce out of bed with a real enthusiasm for life. This is why I’m determined to finish the book and let you read it. I’m whittling away on it in my few spare moments - but though I’m only three weeks away from finishing it, well, there are rats hosting satanic orgies a floor below me and a crumbling wall to contend with, as well as the Staircase of Peril leading up to the Dojo of Deprivation on the second floor, and these things need money thrown at them unfortunately. So I’ll leave you with the promise that I’m writing you all a happy book, and trust me, no matter how odd it sounds I’m writing it for you personally. And if we’re all living in a wasteland next year and the libraries are all shut, I’ll make sure you can read it for free.