Authors: Lynne Jonell
MMY STARED AT JOE.
Someone had spoken to her! Someone actually knew her name!
“Um â¦,” she said, stalling for time. How could she explain writing a note to a
Joe leaned over her desk. “Just watch out for his teeth,” he advised, showing a bandaged finger. “He bit me yesterday after school.”
“Really?” said Emmy, still amazed to be having an actual conversation. “How come?”
don't know. I was just trying to feed him a carrot. You'd think he would have been grateful.”
“Ha!” said the Rat indignantly.
Joe's head swiveled slowly to face the cage on the window ledge. His mouth opened. No sound came out.
like it,” the Rat went on, folding his paws over his chest, “if someone tried to mash a gigantic carrot into
Joe looked back at Emmy. “Did you just hearâ” He faltered, glancing uneasily at the Rat.
All around them, the classroom was noisy with banging desktops and shuffling feet. No one else showed any interest in the Rat as he picked up Emmy's note.
Joe was suddenly surrounded by his friends.
“Hurry up, Joe!”
“We'll have to run laps if we're late to soccer again.”
“What's the matter, you slowing down?”
Emmy gathered her books, unnoticed by all except Joe, who stared at her wildly.
She grinned at him through the jostling heads and shoulders, and then she was swept into the stream of children that poured from the classroom, through the hall, and out the big double doors that led to the playground.
The sun was bright and warm, and Emmy still had a little time before her ballet class. She slipped quickly between a hedge of bushes and the rough brick of the schoolhouse wall and squatted there to catch her breath.
The big lilacs screened her from everyone in the schoolyard. It was a perfect spot to hide, or just to sit and think. Emmy had sat there sometimes during
recess, making little faces in the leaves with her fingernail. It was sort of dopey, but it was better than trying to join a game and getting ignored, or talking to people who walked right past her.
But Joe had talked to her today. And he had heard the Rat, too. Why was that? Emmy wondered, crawling along the narrow space between the brick wall and the bushes.
One, two, three â¦ She counted windows as she passed. There was Mr. Herbifore's desk. Four, five â¦ She lifted her head cautiously and looked through the window directly into the Rat's cage. He had picked up her note and spread it against the wall of his cage, bracing it with his paws. And even though the bottom corner kept curling up, Emmy could read the note from where she crouched. It said:
I'm sorry I was mean. It didn't
feel as good as you said it would.
P.S. Is respect ALL you want?
The Rat's mouth moved silently as he read the words. He was so close that Emmy could see a small
patch of white fur just behind his left ear. She cleared her throat.
The Rat whirled around, glared, and instantly turned his back.
Leaves tickled Emmy's neck, and the sun warmed her hands where they pressed against the windowsill. “It's dumb,” she said at last, “to pretend I'm not here.”
The Rat tapped one foot lightly, saying nothing.
“It's not only dumb, it's mean.”
The Rat made an indistinct noise that sounded like “Huh!”
“It's the meanest thing in the world,” said Emmy severely, “to ignore someone. It makes a person feel like she doesn't even exist.”
The Rat lifted his nose. “I'll tell you what's mean,” he said to the air. “It's when certain people taunt imprisoned rodents about their â¦ substandard housing. And it's even worse,” he went on, his voice rising, “when I have to watch
!” He pointed over Emmy's right shoulder.
Emmy peered around the lilac bush. There was nothing much to see. Joe and his friends were on the soccer field, kicking a ball around. Beyond, through
the trees, Emmy could see the storefronts of Main Street and the little studio where she took ballet every Wednesday afternoon. Farther down the hill to the left, she could just see the third story of her house, and its red-tiled roof, and her bedroom window. And after that was nothing but lake and sky.
She looked back through the window at the Rat. “Watch what?” she asked curiously.
The Rat waved his paw irritably at the soccer fields. A distant ball rose in a perfect arc, white and black against the greening trees, and a faint sound of cheering drifted across the grass. “I could do that,” the Rat muttered.
“What? Kick a goal?”
“Be a star.” The Rat gripped the bars of his cage. “I've practiced in my cage. Other rodentsâthey play, out there, in the moonlight. They try, but â¦” The Rat drew himself up to his full height. “I'd show them how it's done. They'd be astonished. They'd elect me captainâ”
“Rodents play soccer?” Emmy asked, incredulous.
The Rat scowled. “Of course they play soccer,” he snapped. “What do you
they do for fun? Run
about, frightening elephants? Scavenge in churches for crumbs? Really, your ignorance is appalling. Modern rodents have
“Iâdidn't know,” Emmy stammered. “I'm sorâ”
“And don't apologize! You do that
The Rat sighed. “Shouldn't you be getting home? Won't your parents be worried?”
“They're out of town.” Emmy shrugged. “Anyway, Wednesdays I have ballet after school, and then French, so nobody's expecting me yet.” She stared out past the trees and toward the lake, and pointed. “There's my house.”
The Rat squinted. “What? That castle-looking thing?”
“It does look a little like a castle,” Emmy admitted. “My bedroom's in that top turretâwith the blue window.”
The Rat looked at her thoughtfully. “It's a lot bigger than the other houses.”
“Thirty-three rooms,” said Emmy gloomily, “nine bathrooms, a housekeeper, a gardener, and a chauffeur. Oh, and Miss Barmy, my nanny.”
“What?” the Rat said again. “No parents?”
“I told you, they're out of town. They've been gone for five weeks and three days, but they're coming back tomorrow night.” She looked at her watch, squinting in the bright sun. “I really should get going.”
But the Rat's attention was back on the soccer field, where Joe had just scored another goal. The Rat leaned forward until his nose was poking through the bars of his cage, his whole body tense with yearning.
Emmy, watching, felt something come over her. It was a feelingâunusual for herâthat she very much wanted to do something she wasn't supposed to do. Her hand drifted up through the open window â¦ her fingers found the latch of the cage â¦.
She hesitated. If anyone saw her, Miss Barmy might find out. If Miss Barmy found out, she would give Emmy's parents a bad reportâand then they might not come home at all.
There was a stifled moan from the Rat. His gaze was riveted to the latch, and his whole body was trembling. Then, as Emmy watched, he clasped his paws together in front of his chest, looked beseechingly into her eyes, and dropped to his knees with a little thump.
Emmy wavered for a heartbeatâand lifted the latch.
The Rat knelt, perfectly still, for one incredulous moment. And then he leaped to his feet. “I'm free! I'm free!” he shrieked, hopping up and down. He scrambled to the windowsill and launched himself into the air, landing with a puff of dust.
In an instant he was running, scampering, rolling through the wide grassy schoolyard like a small gray juggernaut. “Freeeeeee!” came a last high, thin cry, faint in the open air, and then he was gone.
Emmy walked across the schoolyard, her shoes scuffing at the grass. The thought occurred to her that Miss Barmy would want her to pick up her feet. She didn't do it.
Of course she hadn't expected the Rat to say thank you. He had never been a polite sort of rodent. But for him to leave so suddenly, without even a good-bye, gave Emmy a hollow feeling.
The Rat had been someone to talk to, even if he
rude. Now all she had to look forward to was the same old class, with the same old kids who never seemed to know she was alive.
Well, no, that wasn't quite true anymore. Emmy passed the soccer field and brightened as she saw Joe, who was standing with his father. She walked slowly past them, listening in spite of herself.
“And I've told you before, Sonâif they try a wall pass, you have to follow the player, not the ball. Now don't let them fool you again.”
Emmy wondered for a moment what it would be like to have the kind of father who would come to her activities, put his hand on her shoulder, and give her friendly advice.
But Joe wasn't listening. He seemed to be gazing off in the distance.
Had the Rat run that way? Emmy walked on toward the trees that bordered the playfieldâand stopped. A small gray animal bounded through the grass and leaped to a tree trunk. It balanced itself with its long, bushy tail.
Emmy sighed. It was only a squirrel. Another came right after the first, darting through the underbrush and to the base of the tree, its claws out and digging into the bark, its long, pink tailâ
Emmy sharpened to attention as the Rat scrabbled up the tree. He climbed fairly well, especially consider
ing how long he had lived in a cage with only a wire wheel that went round and round.
The Rat caught up to the squirrel at the first fork in the trunk and began to speak, waving a paw in the air as if to emphasize a point. Emmy couldn't make out his words, but as far as she could tell, the Rat seemed to be introducing himself. The squirrel's mouth dropped open.
The Rat talked a little louder. Emmy caught a few words nowâ“pellets” and “appalling” and “lunch.”
The squirrel looked distinctly dimwitted. The Rat gave an irritated snort. And then, with a sudden flurry, the squirrel leaped past the Rat, flew up three branches, and disappeared into a knothole.
The Rat's mouth fell open in ludicrous imitation of the squirrel.
Emmy stifled a laugh.
The Rat's jaw snapped shut. “And just what, may I ask, is so funny?”
“Ohânothing.” Emmy tried for a serious tone. “Are you enjoying your freedom?”
The Rat gave a loud and disapproving sniff. “I might enjoy it more if certain people weren't here.” He looked sternly at Emmy. “Some rodents are shy
of humans. Understandably, I might add, given your long and bloody history.”
“Even your nursery rhymesâneed I remind you of âThree Blind Mice'? Hardly fit for children, I
“But that's just aâ”
The Rat interrupted coldly. “It's too bad I can't have a little chat with a friend without you showing up to scare him off.”
” Emmy was annoyed. “It was
your pardon.” The sarcasm was very apparent. “I shall resume the conversation which was so
interrupted. Kindly do not interfere.”
Emmy was speechless. She watched as the Rat climbed majestically up the trunk, pausing now and then to shake a hind foot as if to ward off a cramp. He arrived at the entrance to the squirrel's home, adjusted his neck fur, and knocked.
There was a sudden wild flurry of gray fur at the knothole. One paw swiped out, claws extended.
The Rat backed down. “I say,” he called, sounding aggrieved, “you could hurt someone like that!”
The squirrel's head poked out of the hole. His furry arm held the stem of a very large acorn.
“I don't really care for nuts, thank you,” the Rat began. And then, with one swift movement, the acorn was flung with startling accuracy at the Rat's head.
It landed with a crack. The Rat gave a yelp and tumbled down, somersaulting, his little pink feet flailing helplessly in the air. And then Emmy caught him.
He lay cradled between her palms, limp and gasping for breath. His small, plump body was surprisingly soft in her hands. She could see the patch of white fur behind his left earâsuch an even triangular shapeâand a thin trail of moisture from his quivering nose. Suddenly she felt full of pity for this small, arrogant, impossible creature, and she stroked the back of his head gently with her thumb.
The Rat opened his eyes. “Kindly do not
me. My name is not Fido, nor is it Fluffy. Put me down at once.”
Emmy set the Rat down gently in the grass. He struggled to sit up, looking very stiff.
“You have been of some service to me,” he said frostily. “But let's get one thing straight. I have my own life to live, and I
want you following me.
Your mere presence drove that poor squirrel mad, and he”âthe Rat sniffedâ“he was just about to invite me to lunch.”
Emmy looked at him. “You honestly think that squirrelâ”
The Rat waved an airy paw. “I accept your apology. Now leave me alone.”
apologizing, you nutcaseâ”
! Leave me
! Get a
Emmy stared at the imperious Rat, and turned on her heel. “Fine,” she said bitterly. “I'm going.”
She crossed Main Street without looking for cars. She heard the screech of brakes behind her as she reached the art gallery, ran past the alley with its overflowing trash cans, and up the worn wooden steps that led to the ballet studio.