CW: Non-graphic representation of animal testing on rats in a lab environment
CW: Serious illness in a child
This is what I can do for them: keep their cages clean. feed them well. Treat them, occasionally. Keep them warm.
Give them something for the pain.
Praise them and rub between their ears.
I can give them a recognizable face, a reliable routine.
The rats value routine, I know.
Dr. Levy fired Rodney and the whole lab sighed in relief. Rodney acted like a Rodney. He’d yank the rats by their tails and jingle them like keys while they shrieked. Technically, I didn’t have the authority, but I’d throw him out of the lab whenever I caught him being cruel.
I like working with Joe, a part-time tech assistant who’d retired from something corporate. On his first night, Joe said he hated rats, but by the end of the week he was asking, Carlos, couldn’t I slip them some of my sandwich? I have a feeling he came around to me the same way.
Dr. Levy tries to help me out. She stresses my GPA whenever she introduces me to prospective students, which seems to assure them of something in my character and prevents the awkwardness of them assuming Joe is the resident and I am the tech. I don’t think people are unkind, but I think they are kinder when you satisfy certain conditions.
Each cycle I tell myself I won’t get attached, that rats are rats. But when you spend time with them you see their personalities—the one who likes to belly flop into the cage, the one who plays tricks on his siblings, the one who prefers carrots and the one who begs for broccoli. The one who beats every puzzle you hand to her. The one with extra long whiskers who taps his nose to your hand like a kiss when you weigh him.
Most people owe their health to rats. I do. When I was young my parents lived in a perpetual state of anguish over my epilepsy, never knowing when I’d collapse, haunted by visions of me shaking alone, choking on my own vomit or cracking my head open. The medicine I take was first borne by rats. It’s not infallible, but I haven’t had a seizure in nearly five years.
Don’t get me wrong, Joe jokes when I catch him being gentle. I still don’t want to take my work home with me, if you know what I mean.
My niece Sofia understands. She’s a miniature version of my brother, except she loves me. She’s fascinated by my kind of rats, the ones with red eyes, pink ears, and white fur.
Uncle Carlos, do you wear a white coat so that you match? she asks one night before we tuck her in. The question is so fresh, so childlike in its logic that I throw up as soon as I’m out of her sight and ask Hana, my fiancée, not to look.
I buy Sofia a picture book about rats and read it to her in bed before I leave for work. When I adjust her blankets, I try not to flinch at the whiff of grape-flavored syrup and iodine.
Rats take care of their sick family members, she sounds out.
That’s right, I say, sticking out my front teeth and pretending to nibble on her bandana. This delights her. Do you know what they call a group of rats?
A plague? Hana teases from the door, and Sofia laughs. We enjoy exaggerating our roles for Sofia, play-fight as Uncle Carlos the optimist and Auntie Hana the realist. We met when Sofia was born; we do not know life without her.
No, Auntie! Correcting her elders is one of Sofia’s favorite things. She and I fold our thumbs into our palms and curl rat hands at Hana.
I imagine the rats escape. I imagine they find a dumpster behind a bakery and eat like kings for the rest of their days.
This is what I can do for most of them, when the experiments end: give them Honey Nut Cheerios, their favorite, a big pile that elicits their happiest squeaks and chirrups. I let them feast a moment, savor a last taste. Then I turn on the gas.
There is debate about how humane it really is. On a good day the rats pass immediately, mid-nibble, but sometimes they rear up, twitch, struggle to claw their way out. They emit alarmed squeals at me, their supposed caretaker, calling for help.
What I can do: not look away. Witness.
When the researchers need to dissect their brains, we must decapitate them without anesthesia. What I can do: keep them calm. Make it quick.
It could be worse, Joe says in the quiet afterward. Some labs use dogs. How the hell does anyone live with that?
Joe says to them, forgive me, when they go. I don’t see the point. All I say is thank you.
Hana tells me I shouldn’t care so much. The rats would eat you, if they could! But she loves that about me. When Dr. Levy wrote my recommendation Hana wanted me to mail a copy to my parents, and I said, what are you, crazy? However he ended up, my brother Mat is the other, nobler-sounding kind of vet. Why would my parents want to read how their weaker son has an unparalleled compassion for rodents?
This is what I can do for Hana: let her send the recommendation to my parents. Surprise her at her desk at work with the mixed coffee drink she likes that’s all sugar and soymilk. Confront my brother when he acts an ass so she doesn’t have to. Nod when she holds Sofia’s face and whispers, you are dying because God can’t bear to be without you.
Dr. Levy fights the administrators constantly. Other universities cut corners and they’re jealous. They troll the lab, asking to “reevaluate” expenses, and why should they spend all that money on “the cancer rats” comfort. They are only going to die.
Dr. Levy shoots back: You are only going to die. Why should you be comfortable? What have you done for humanity lately? Then she threatens to report them and shoos them away.
That’s why Dr. Levy tries to convince me to take her place. I’ll graduate about the time she plans to retire. In addition to being the head vet at our lab, she holds several seats on national ethics and lab animal welfare committees. Politics repel me, but even I know that Dr. Levy’s retirement will leave a gap that more business-minded—“pragmatic,” they call themselves—people are eager to fill. People who won’t care so much if the rats are handled kindly, if their cages are clean or if the temperature is comfortable. Dr. Levy says the rats need an advocate who’s “been in the trenches.” Not just for the integrity of the experiments, but for a higher, moral call.
I don’t disagree with her. But this is what I can do for myself: leave when I graduate. Join the wealthy group practice where I’ve been interviewing for an internship. Soothe over-anxious owners who worry their cats nap too much or that their parakeet only sings on Wednesdays. See dogs in funny sweaters. Recommend heartworm medication and flea collars so they can better enjoy running outside in the sun.
Save patients instead of inflicting disease and suffering. I need that after my time in the lab.
There’s no escaping euthanasia, I know. The killing must be done. But if I must do it, I would rather say goodbye to pets who have been loved and will be missed, pets whose families treasure pictures of them and mark the passages of their own lives by theirs.
Dr. Levy moves Joe to another section and assigns a new technician to my shift. She confides that she’s uncertain. She doesn’t even have Facebook, Dr. Levy says, looking a little dazed.
Sam—I forget her last name as soon as I hear it—carries a face I can only describe as mousy. Joe whispers on break that he suspects she’s gay, but Joe says that about every young woman who wears her hair short. I don’t think he’s figured out that long- and gray-haired Dr. Levy is gay.
They trust you, Sam comments while I show her the routine. I always pet the rats a little before weighing, click my tongue, praise them for their soft, clean fur. They practically hop into your hand.
Well, I say, a little embarrassed. The rat I hold wraps one of his small hands around my fingertip, the gesture reminiscent of a child taking the hand of an adult. He turns his snout toward Sam as I chuckle.
A friend like you is hard to find, Sam comments with an odd sincerity. Do you ever want to set them free?
You’re not one of those, are you? I demand, humor icing into panic—at Sam’s strangeness, at the possibility that a radical activist has infiltrated the lab. Those “liberation” groups harm more animals—
No, Sam interrupts evenly. She presses a hand to the side of one of the wire cages. The rats approach her fingers without hesitation, hop and let out happy squeaks. I just want them to have a good life.
Something about the way she says it makes me believe her.
You don’t hold them by the tail when you move them, Sam says. She’s a natural but continues to study my every gesture. Why not?
Seems rude, I answer honestly.
Sam’s clothes are practically psychedelic, patches of bright colors under her white lab coat. Joe thinks she’s on drugs.
Maybe. She plays in some kind of band. I see her shove a rectangular instrument case into her locker every night before we put on our coats. I’ve never met a musician who didn’t push me to come to their show within the first five minutes of meeting them, but Sam never invites me to hear her play or to Like her page on Facebook. But of course, Dr. Levy had said she doesn’t have one.
It hits me hard that Sam probably considers me to be too old to appreciate whatever she plays. She’s early twenties, I think, and I just turned thirty, ancient to a twenty-something. I won’t say I miss being the youngest person in the room but being the old person isn’t much fun either.
A selfish thought: Sofia will not have the privilege of growing old.
This is what I can do for my brother: not a damn thing. That he’ll acknowledge, anyway. Mat served overseas for however many tours, got himself discharged without benefits, and then Sofia was diagnosed. This offends people: to live through that, and then have to live through that.
Though my sister-in-law Tracy meticulously ferrets out every financial easement program and charity, the bills are astronomical. They couldn’t afford to stay in their condo, so Hana and I squeezed into our small guest room and gave them the master—Sofia in the bed, Tracy on a cot. Mat collapses on the couch in the living room.
If it were my brother dying, he’d live in a hole in the ground before he’d ask for my help. But he loves Sofia more than he hates me. I hold on to that whenever I want to drag him by the collar and throw him out.
In some petty sense I’m sure my engagement irritates my brother. Hana is Tracy’s best friend and Sofia’s godmother. At Sofia’s baptism, Hana touched her forehead with just her fingertips, as though Sofia were a sweet cake in danger of falling in.
I take on tutoring raccoon-eyed first-years struggling with gross anatomy. Hana and Tracy juggle schedules and double shifts. My brother sits at my kitchen table and drinks. Curses me for new slights and old. He should know I didn’t ask to be epileptic, didn’t steal our parents’ attention from him on purpose—and even then, how many years ago was that?—but he thinks how he thinks.
Thankfully Hana and Tracy and Sofia get along. As long as the women of the house get along, I should count my blessings, I know.
This is what I can do for Tracy: not punch my brother. Feign agreement when she says, Mateo’s just dealing in his own way, that his discharge wasn’t his fault, that even with the way he is she can’t separate father and daughter, for either of their sakes. Never hurry her out of the bathroom, though her showers take longer and longer and we only have the one. Hana tells me that’s when Tracy cries, under the water. Love Sofia, which is the easiest and hardest thing to do.
Sam asks if she can practice while we distribute the feed, and I say sure. We often put music on for the rats. She starts to hum a strange-sounding song, a melody I’d expect from a child like Sofia. The notes start and skip and pause, as though Sam’s making it up as she goes along.
The rats are usually animated at feeding time, but when Sam hums they stand and lean against the sides of their cages with their front paws—as though they are concertgoers with closed eyes and swaying cigarette lighters.
She’s curt with Dr. Levy and Joe, but I’ve concluded that Sam and I are alike. The rats trust her, leaning into her hand when she reaches to pet them and staying still while we draw their blood.
She invites me to join the disjointed chorus, and I try. I’ve never been musical. She stops me after a minute. You’re terrible, she says, sounding disproportionately disappointed.
Do you feel sad when the rats die? Sofia asks. She reclines on a lawn chair in the sun.
I open my mouth and meet Hana’s eyes for a moment. Moustache the dog steals the opportunity to snatch the Frisbee and run the disc back to Sofia. She’s always wanted a dog. A small, curly-haired mutt, Moustache is a gift, albeit a temporary one, from one of Hana’s friends, and has proven herself to be the perfect companion. Past her hyperactive puppy years, Moustache is content to flop around on Sofia’s bed, lick her hands, play an occasional game and receive frequent hugs.
Sofia scratches behind Moustache’s ears as she takes the Frisbee and repeats her question. In some moments she’s quiet, curled up and miserable with pain. Others, she screams, kicks, cries. And then she’ll be like this, asking questions thoughtfully, reasoning it out.
Yes, I say, voice thick.
Even over the ones you didn’t know very long?
Yes, I say.
Hana takes a seat beside Sofia and urges her to drink juice from a straw, stay hydrated. That’s Hana’s way: to stay busy, stay helpful with the small things so she doesn’t have to grieve. The closer we get to it the less I know what I can do for her, for Sofia, for anyone.
Moustache trots over to me and rolls over, inviting a belly rub. Patting an animal I won’t be destined to kill is surreal, dizzying. Makes me realize how badly I need to leave the lab, get away from death. To save instead.
The veterinary practice told me they were finalizing my offer. Guilt tightens in my chest alongside the pain. Imagining anything after feels like a betrayal. I thought Sofia might like to see one of the dog training classes—all those dogs lifting their paws in sync—but she’s too weak to visit. The hospice nurse warned us that things would start moving quickly.
Will you feel sad when I? Sofia’s genuinely curious. Will you miss me?
Yes, I say. Always. Forever.
Please don’t cry, Uncle.
Sam doesn’t understand why I refuse to take Dr. Levy’s place on the boards. She brings it up again while I clean and refill the rats’ water bottles. She snaps them back into each cage. Why be a vet for pets? You’ll be beholden to stupid people and their finances.
Stupid people and their finances, I can’t help but laugh and gesture around the room at the equipment that Dr. Levy had to fight tooth and nail for. Not so different from here, I say, and hand her the next bottle to replace. Or anywhere.
She clicks it back to the side of a cage dismissively, persisting. You’ll see cats with burns. You’ll see dogs tortured within an inch of their life. You’ll see owners who want to put their puppy down because it pissed in their shoes.
Still, I say, cringing over the sink—though I know she speaks an unpleasant truth. There are many people who can do Dr. Levy’s job.
Not as many as you’d think. I’ve looked at the other candidates, Sam says, surprising me. She clicks another bottle into place. They’re not like you. They’ve gotten used to it. You never will.
I’ve seen enough suffering, I say, and feel my fist tighten. The feeling swells bigger than the words. I don’t want to cause any more.
Doesn’t that make you the best to speak for them, then? You have a great gift.
For what? I snap. For being useless?
Immediately I regret speaking so harshly and give a choked laugh to try to slacken the tension. I try not to let things like that escape; I don’t want to be the kind of man my brother is, barking at people who don’t deserve it.
Sam doesn’t rescue me; she pats a rat with her finger and lets my bitterness fill the silence for a full, awkward pause. I stare into the stainless steel sink, watch as a water droplet slides into another, and another, until they all disappear down the drain.
You have a gift for mercy, Sam says finally. You’d be surprised at what a gift that can be.
Rats are misunderstood, I say, hoping to sound diplomatic and shift the conversation to something less uncomfortable.
No they’re not, Sam scoffs. Rats are Death’s children. People fear Death, people fear rats.
I’ve never heard that. I speak lightly, unable to place such a belief to a religion. I hand her another filled, clean bottle to mount on the side of a cage.
Rat gods, Death gods can be found in every country, every culture.
It’s the sort of thing I’d expect if Sam wore heavy eyeliner with black nail polish, but she wears no makeup, or at least nothing flattering. Her pale face tints gray-yellow beneath the lights.
That’s why it’s so funny, when people try to use rats to cheat Death, she continues on without looking at me. She speaks with a certainty that makes it hard to breathe. Raises an eyebrow at me: They can’t, of course.
What about bargaining? I ask, half-serious. The droplets from the sink chill on my hands. I haven’t been sleeping. In my nightmares Sofia tugs on my hand and when she opens her mouth, I hear the rats squealing in pain.
I’ll pray to anyone who will listen, even whatever crazy thing Sam worships. Can you bargain with Death?
Never, she answers flatly.
The hospice nurse tells us that Sofia will likely not last the week. Tracy and Hana ask many questions, and talk of hosting a party with some of Sofia’s classmates to say goodbye. They’ve been stockpiling paper plates and napkins with Sofia’s favorite cartoon princess on them.
I fade out. “Comfort measures” is the only phrase that sticks. My work has come home with me, though not in the way that Joe meant.
Before I leave for the lab, my brother starts breaking things and I can’t let him be. In his drunken state I can take him, Mr. Tough Man, twist his arm behind his back the way he used to twist mine and march him out the door, calling back to the rest of the house that everything’s OK. A clot of drool sags from Mat’s mouth to the ground, and his face contorts as he heaves and retches. I angle his vomit trajectory away from the steps, keeping his arm pinned.
Hasn’t anything worked? he gasps finally, still face down, his clipped enunciation a whine. A drug or something, hasn’t anything—maybe they’ll let you take it from the lab?
All the heat and hate steams out of me, drying me out. I let Mat go, ashamed at how satisfying it felt to hurt him. He wipes his mouth on his sleeve. Though he never speaks of it, my brother knows death. We both chose to be killers, in our way. But he’s only familiar with the sudden kind. “Transitioning,” “comfort measures,” “saying goodbye”—that’s my arena.
It doesn’t work like that, I say, and think of Sam.
I find her leaning against the sink island with a rat sitting in her hand and her black instrument case sitting on the counter. She hasn’t shrugged into her lab coat yet and for the first time she wears a solid color—red.
Rats are smarter than most people, she says. She tilts her head, pets the rat affectionately. Her shirt matches the rat’s eyes. People bet on cockroaches to survive anything, but rats always make it too.
Something feels wrong in the air, but I’m not in the mood to chastise Sam for breaking lab dress code or to dwell on her quirks. I quickly explain my situation, flapping the paperwork Dr. Levy gave me for leave. Sam doesn’t respond, just considers the whiskered adoration in her palm. I regret not telling her about Sofia sooner—it can be hard for people to hear such a thing.
It’s not fair, I say.
Not fair? Sam laughs with more volume than humor. Her reaction startles me back a step, although if I think about it I shouldn’t be surprised at all. I glance around the room, grasping at last what feels so off. The rats loom dead quiet, staring me down the wary way prisoners eye wardens from their cells.
Death is the only fair thing you’ll meet in this world, says Sam. It comes for all.
But a child—
If a child fears death, it’s because some adult taught them to. A slight shift in Sam’s posture and the rat scurries up her arm to perch on her shoulder like a parrot.
My stomach twists. When had she trained the rat to do that?
Death is gentle. One song ending and another beginning.
You’re crazy, I say, and step toward her with my fingers in fists. My niece—
I’d hoped I could rely on you, Sam interrupts sadly. That you and I could be friends. You possess a great gift; and didn’t you think yourself that we’re alike?
I—had I ever spoken that aloud?
Sam crouches down and touches her finger to a cage. The rat on her shoulder keeps its red eyes on me. But I suppose I can’t convince you, can I?
I don’t answer, a realization freezing my tongue to the top of my mouth.
No matter, Sam stands abruptly and closes the distance between us before I can move, crossing her index finger under her middle one and pressing them to my forehead. A stabbing, electric sensation, and I fall back into something like a seizure, landing hard on my shoulder.
As I tremble on my side, Sam waves her hand, and the cages twist open. The rats leap to the floor and gather around her, tails and whiskers up. I hear the snap of some kind of clasps and Sam’s footsteps tapping around the sink island, followed by scratching scurries against the tile. She’s leaving.
Friends? I rasp at her back, struggling to keep myself still. I don’t think I’m truly speaking, but I know she can understand me. Friends help each other, I say. She doesn’t stop. Scraping, desperate, I burst out: Friends share their gifts when the other’s in need.
Sam halts, pivots and faces me again, her lips curving into a grin so wide I can see her deepest yellowed molars. Pleased, as though I’d guessed the solution to a riddle.
So they do, she says.
I hear a cheer as I wake. The fluorescent lights overhead make me think I’m still on the floor of the lab, but I’m not. Hana kisses me with reddened, tired eyes. The shorter, wispier hairs framing her face cling together, wet, probably from splashing water over her cheeks in the hospital sink. How long had Hana been waiting for me to wake up?
I tell her I love her. Oh, shush, she says, slapping my hand and blowing her nose loudly.
She speaks dramatically, as though for someone else’s benefit, and I still at a familiar giggle. Sofia vaults herself onto the end of my hospital bed and asks if she can press the button to flex me into a sitting position. She wears the puff-skirted princess costume she was going to wear for her goodbye party.
Everyone talks at once, but all I take in is Sofia. She looks like a child again, the skin on her face vibrant, her eyes bright. They don’t need to tell me.
The best thing to wake up to, I whisper, and that gets Hana and Tracy crying.
Sofia taps me with her plastic star wand. I’m sharing my miracle with you, Uncle, she says.
Your timing always sucked, Mat says from the doorway, arms crossed. He wears Sofia’s plastic tiara on his head.
I ask if I can speak to Dr. Levy, and everyone talks at once again. They tell me the rats are gone, that somehow Sam eluded security, and don’t worry, no one blamed me. I’m lucky; other than a couple of bumps on my head there isn’t any trauma, and I’ll be able to go home soon.
That girl, they say, that girl must have been one of those activists.
Yes, I agree, because in a way it’s not a lie. I open my arms and welcome Sofia’s jump into them. She doesn’t smell like medicine anymore, only apple shampoo and graham crackers. My tears spill all over her glittery costume but I don’t let go. My resolve will waver on some days, I know. I need to hold onto this, onto Sofia.
The only patient I’ll ever save.
One song ends, another begins. The new rats cower in cage corners, skittish from their delivery. I drag on my white coat, the fabric stiff and strained around the shoulders. Click my tongue. Feel the familiar tightening in my gut as they sniff the air, squeak and tentatively approach my hand. Oblivious to their inevitable fate.
Clever, very clever, that Sam granted a gift and not a bargain. A bargain carries strings, codes of honor, expectations from both sides and a finite debt. Yet, there’s only one thing you can expect from Death: that it will come.
But a gift? The rules aren’t set in stone. Maybe Sam gave me her gift freely. Maybe not. She knows I’ll never test it. A gift, after all, could be stolen back. She knows uncertainty binds me tighter than any bargain or contract written in blood ever could.
I’ve already turned down the group practice, agreed to take Dr. Levy’s place at the university and the national boards. I can’t save the rats, but I’ll give them the best life I can, again and again. Turn on the gas, witness, again and again. Like running a wheel in a cage. I won’t ever escape, I know.
That is what I can do for Sofia.
As Sam led the mischief from the lab, she finally revealed her instrument, tilting the flared end in my direction—the musical equivalent to a hat tip. Her solid red shirt seemed to glow. Two by two the rats trotted behind her, chirruping softly.
Until next time, my friend, Sam bid me from the doorway. Then she raised the pipe to her lips and resumed the song.
E.A. Petricone writes strange things, obsessively collects post-its and rocks, and when she’s tipsy she sends unsolicited science articles to her friends. Her work has appeared in Slice Magazine, The Writer’s Chronicle, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and other marvelous places. She lives in Massachusetts. You can find her on Twitter @eapetricone
Author of “One Song Ending”
What inspired you to write this story?
A few things inspired this story. My father used to serve on an animal care committee for a research facility, and he’d tell me stories. He (a local high school science teacher), along with a veterinarian, a lab tech, and several research scientists, would discuss research proposals. They’d address questions such as what researchers intended to learn, why they needed a certain type of animal to conduct their study, what would happen to the animals over the course of the study, how they would be treated and housed and fed, and how the animals would be terminated at the close of the experiment.
Then the committee would weigh in on whether or not they felt comfortable with the proposal. The goal of the committee was to reduce the animals’ suffering as much as possible.
I love animals; the research world fascinates me and wrenches my gut. While I was thinking about that staging, Carlos and the infamous figure from Hamelin just sort of swooped in and led the way.
As for Carlos, much of his voice—his cadence and rhythm—was inspired by an ex (who was the good kind of ex—not the one, but a good one). Good Ex said once that he tried to live every day as a man of his word, and that quiet core sound and philosophy seemed right for the narrator of this story.
What do you hope readers take from this story?
One of the most wonderful and vexing things about stories is that we all take different messages from them. That being said, I really like an answer that Suzanne Collins gave in an interview that she did for The Hunger Games https://clubs-kids.scholastic.co.uk/clubs_content/18829.
Similarly, if readers see something in “One Song Ending”’s world that reflects something real in our world, and it bothers them, I hope that they ask questions, learn more about it, and perhaps take action to change it.
To give other writers hope, would you mind sharing with us how many edits and/or submissions this story/poem has been through?
I’m learning (grumbling all the way) that I am a slow writer. I wrote the first draft four-ish years ago. My wonderful writing group pointed out the seams of that early draft and called me out on my bs (as usual—thank you, friends). I revised based on their feedback and started sending it out sometime after.
Like some other Apparition contributors, my experience was that this story got rejected many times (13 by my count!) but received really kind and thoughtful personal rejections. That feedback made me think, “OK, there’s something working in here, let’s not abandon the ship just yet.”
(An aside: from what I understand running a literary magazine requires a wicked high degree of grit, tenacity, and passion. I’m incredibly thankful to the editors who took the time to encourage me.)
I’m also a slow submitter (though I’m trying to get better at that one!). With every couple of rejections I’d put the story away for a while, and when I’d shake it back out I’d reread the feedback I’d been given before revising.
The loudest beats of the story stayed fairly consistent, but the details and execution evolved with each iteration. I’m thrilled that the creepy, whiskery result has found such a perfect home =)
Recommend something to us!
Since this is the time of the year when grief and possibility always pulse strongest for me (and maybe you), here are two authors who break my heart and build me up again on the regular: Isabel Yap and Aimee Bender. Both write short stories that stay in my blood and breath for ages after. I think I’ve read Yap’s “A Cup of Salt Tears” on Tor (https://www.tor.com/2014/08/27/a-cup-of-salt-tears-isabel-yap) and Bender’s “The Color Master” (in her story collection of the same name) about a million times.