This story was written for the first Word Count Podcast episode of 2020. The prompt for this episode was a picture of a white rat. My mind went to the lab and into the maze.
Maze and Buttons
When Rat wakes up in the dark warmth of his nest, the first thing he looks for is his shirt—the blue plaid one, his favourite—but no matter how he digs into the wood shavings and shredded paper that lines his nest, he can’t find it anywhere.
By the time Rat has cleaned his fur, eaten the pellets from the dispenser, and taken a drink from the water bottle attached to the side of his cage, he has forgotten about the shirt. Except, when he stands on his hind-legs to peek through the bars into the empty, brightly lit space beyond, his front paws with the pink, clawed toes move up and down his chest, as if looking for a row of buttons.
Rat doesn’t know what buttons are, but his paws look for them anyway.
Rat’s cage door opens at the same time every day. And every day, Rat’s heart thumps hard and fast when it slides open, revealing the grooved, white tube he has to pass through to get to the Maze. The Maze is always there. It has always been there and always will be, and every day Rat must find a way through it, navigating its smooth, white walls and smooth, white floor while the excruciating, bright light shines from above.
Finding his way through the Maze should be easy since Rat runs through it every day, but the Maze is never the same. Every day, he finds that the walls have shifted, and that the scent he left behind on the previous day has disappeared.
Thinking about the Maze makes Rat’s head ache and yet, it is all he can think about once the cage door opens. As he enters the first stretch, a single word pounds inside his skull. It hurts to think it, but he can’t stop:
Five, Rat thinks. Five five five five. Five.
The word pulses in his brain, making his nose and ears twitch in agony.
Map five, Rat thinks, and for a brief moment, he almost, almost, understands what that means. Map. Five.
Rat takes the first few turns in the Maze easily enough. Doesn’t even have to stop or sniff or anything, just scampers through as fast as his pink paws will carry him. No dead ends. No sharp, buzzing pain in his paws. No loud noises. No sudden sprays of cold water. It’s as if he knows the way, can see it laid out before him, as clearly as if the Maze were a burrow he made himself.
It doesn’t last. Never does. Soon, Rat stops; hesitating. The Maze goes on forever. It is too big. Too bright. Rat is hungry and thirsty. He wants his nest. He wants his favourite shirt, the blue plaid one, and a cup of tea.
Curled up in the punishing whiteness of the Maze, Rat can almost remember what tea is, can almost taste it. But…
Five five five.
The word throbs behind his eyes and Rat curls up in the brightness, paws flittering up and down his chest, vainly looking for buttons.
“Magnus. What is he doing?”
“I think he’s crashing.”
Convulsions rack Rat’s body as he looks up. The sounds come from above, from inside the bright light.
The word jabs at his mind, piercing him from nose to tail. Then, there is nothing but the light. It envelops him, blinding him utterly. Something large and implacable descends from the light and pins him down. There’s a sharp pain between his ribs and the agony of it fills Rat up entirely until it is too big for him to endure. He opens his eyes. He runs.
Five. Map five.
He remembers now, but the memories are so big and so detailed that he cannot contain them. They split his head apart, fracturing everything, inside and outside. All he knows is that he must run faster. Must find his way through before he forgets. He knows he will forget. The pain helps him remember, but it will fade, and the memories will fade too.
Rat knows what that means now. He remembers everything. He remembers map five. Remembers where he left his shirt before he went to work. He remembers how to make tea. He remembers buttons, too.
Rat runs. He runs through Maze Map Five. He runs through the pain, through the unbearable brightness of the world, and when he finally reaches the pellet dispenser at the end, his legs fail him, and the light goes out.
Rat wakes back in his cage. There is water and pellets, bits of carrot and apple, and his nest is clean and warm and dark. He crawls inside and falls asleep.
Rat dreams. He always dreams.
Sometimes, he dreams about shirts. About his paws turned impossibly large and agile. About tea with milk. About the lanyard around his neck, and his lab ID-card, the one with the photo that looks like a mugshot, and his name, MAGNUS, printed in capital letters.
In his dreams, Rat knows there are five maps, five different mazes, and in his dream, he knows them all by heart.
“We don’t know to what degree the memory transfer will work,” Eva says in Rat’s dream and in the dream, he knows who she is. “No one knows how a rat brain will handle the load of human memories, or how its body will react to the injections.”
“Good thing we have lots of rats, then,” Rat says in his dream and in his dream, this sounds reasonable. He rolls up his green shirt sleeves, still wishing he’d found his blue plaid shirt this morning before work. “Let’s get started.”
When Rat wakes up, the first thing he looks for is his shirt, but he can’t find it. His tiny pink paws move up and down his chest, looking for the buttons. Rat doesn’t know what buttons are, but his paws looks for them anyway.
© Maria Haskins 2020
Cover art made by me, using Canva.