Authors: Lynne Jonell
Emmy squatted on her heels, peering in. What a tiny little thing, and so pretty! Its fawn-colored fur looked as soft and light as dandelion fuzz. Longing to hold it in her hand, Emmy ignored all the warnings Miss Barmy had ever given against touching strange animals and put one finger between the bars.
The little mouse curled its tail up tight. It looked at Emmy, its enormous brown eyes thoughtful. And then it reached out a paw and patted Emmy's finger exactly three times in quick succession.
It clasped its paws immediately behind its back as if waiting for her to make the next move, and Emmy sucked in her breath. It was too much to believe that she should find another rodent as exceptional as the Rat. Butâ “Can you speak?” she whispered.
The mouse looked at her attentively but said nothing. Emmy lifted the tag that was attached to the cage. “Endear Mouse,” she read aloud.
Emmy had heard of deer mice before, but never an
mouse. “Must be a misprint,” she decided, turning the tag over. And there, on the other side, in
very small type, she read: “Endear Mouse. Makes the absent heart grow fonder. Use as directed. Satisfaction guaranteed.”
“Makes the absent heart grow fonder,” Emmy whispered. “Do you really?”
The tiny mouse looked at her for a long moment. Then it placed its two front paws over its chest and bowed very low.
“Do youâ” Emmy paused, swallowing painfully. “I mean, can you do it for
absent hearts? Grown-up ones?”
The mouse looked searchingly at Emmy with its dark, beautiful eyes. And then it smiled ever so slowly and gently. It nodded twice.
Desire flooded Emmy's heart and brain. If only, if only â¦ could she somehow buy this mouse? How much
it? For the first time ever, she felt glad to be rich. She had a room full of expensive toys that she hardly used. Could she sell those? Emmy whirled to her feet, unable to sit still, and began to pace.
She looked at the other cages. What other wonderful things could these rats do? She turned over tag after tag, reading. “Infusion of courage.” “Guaranteed to sniff out a lie.” “To induce calming sleep.” “Makes
the fat become thin.” “Triples maturity.” “Grows thick hair fast.”
Emmy's eyes wandered from cage to cage. No wonder these rodents were expensive. People would pay almost anything to have some of these things; and there were more that she hadn't even read yet. Emmy reached for the next tagâand stopped with her hand in midair.
The animal slumped in the cage was an ordinary gray rat, the size of a squirrel. But on the back of its head, visible just behind the ear, was a triangular patch of white fur.
AT!” GASPED EMMY.
The rodent ignored her.
“Listen”âEmmy gripped the cage, frantic to get the animal's attentionâ“I'll get you out, no matter what it costs.”
There was a sound of footsteps behind her, and a swish of the velvet curtain. “Brian!” cried Emmy, without turning around. “How much is this rat?”
“More than you have in your piggy bank,” rasped an unfamiliar voice. “Get your fingers away from that cage! If you're bitten, you'll be sorry!”
Emmy turned her head. Brian was hovering apologetically in the background. In front of him stood what could only be the uncle.
Shorter than his nephew, he looked like someone who had shrunk while his clothes hadn't. His trousers were loose and belted high, his shirt was at least two sizes too big, and he exuded the musty smell of a closet that hadn't been aired for years.
“Emmy, this is my uncle, Professor Vole.”
A professor? thought Emmy, incredulous. A professor of what? Rats?
“Nice to meet you,” she said, lifting her chin. “But I don't use piggy banks. I prefer blue chip stocks.” Not for nothing had she listened in on conversations about her parents' investments.
“Well.” Professor Vole placed his fingertips together. “In any case, that
rat is not for sale. Look at the tag, little girl.”
Emmy lifted the tag, irritated. She was almost eleven: hardly a little girl anymore. “Shrinking Rat of Schenectady,” she read aloud, and turned it over. “Sold in pairs only.”
Emmy frowned. The Rat was still hunched over, unmoving. What had thisâthis rat man done to him? Just a short time ago he had been as sassy and full of himself as always, and now â¦
rat,” she said firmly. “You must have just caught him. I saw him somewhere else only an hour ago.”
Professor Vole blinked. “You saw another rat, you say?”
one. I'd know him anywhere.”
The man tapped his fingertips together one after the other, looking thoughtful. “Brian,” he said, “how long have you cared for this particular rat?”
“Ever since you brought me here to work. Almost a whole month.” Brian smiled his kind smile. “So it can't be yours after all, Emmy.”
Emmy looked at Brian. His face was transparently honest; it was impossible to imagine him telling a lie.
“Maybeâ” She paused. “Could it be another rat that looks like him?”
“Yes.” Professor Vole's fingers interlocked. “And where, exactly, did you see this other rat?” His voice was carefully casual, but behind his gold-rimmed spectacles, his eyes glinted.
“Oh, around,” said Emmy uneasily. “Butâ”
“But what, my dear?” Professor Vole reached out a bony hand, his thin lips stretched in an attempt at a smile. “Brian, get our guest another soda.”
Brian backed out, looking worried.
“But how can there be two rats with the exact same patch of white fur behind the earâ Hey! That hurts!”
The bony fingers clutched her arm. The rat man bent until his face was almost touching hers. Emmy could see the dark pores on the end of his beaky
nose and short hairs like bristles poking out from his nostrils.
“What did you say?” His voice was fierce.
“I said, âThat hurts!'” Emmy tried to pull her arm away, but his grip was unrelenting.
“No, before that. What were you saying about
rats?” The man squeezed a little harder.
“I said it was odd to have two rats the sameâ”
“And the white patch behind the ear?”
“Yes!” Emmy gasped. “Just the sameâ”
“What was the shape?” he demanded, his breath smelling like stale crackers. “A circle? A square?”
let me go, I haven't done anythingâ”
With a grip like iron, the professor turned Emmy to face the cage. “There!” he said, his voice reedy with excitement. “Think! Was your rat's white patch behind the right ear, like this one, or the left?”
Emmy looked, trembling. The white patch was certainly behind the right ear on the rat in the cage. But how could this awful man expect her to remember which ear it was behind on
rat? And how in the world was she supposed to think when she was terrified?
But any idea she had about asking him these questions was quickly rejected at the sight of his face. His watery blue eyes were popping with red veins, the sinews on his neck stood out like waxed rope, and altogether he had such a look of deranged lunacy that Emmy shut her eyes.
Think, think. When had she last noticed the Rat's white patch? He had been up in the tree â¦ the squirrel had thrown a nut â¦ he had fallen down, down, into her hands â¦.
Emmy concentrated. She had held the Rat. She had stroked the white patch. She remembered how the fur disappeared under her thumb and then sprang back into place â¦.
She opened her eyes. “It was the
ear!” She laughed in relief. “You were right, this one isn't my rat. I'm so sorry.”
The rat man's stained teeth showed in an elated grin, and he clapped his hands together.
Completely mental, Emmy thought, backing up. She lifted the velvet curtainâ
“Where is this rat?” The professor moved to block her way. “I'll pay any price you ask!”
“He's â¦ not mine,” Emmy stammered. “He's the classroom pet.”
“What class? What school?” The man's voice shook. “Has he bitten anyone? Is he locked up?”
Emmy couldn't admit that she'd let the Rat goâthis demented man was capable of anything. “He was still in his cage when I left class today,” she said truthfully, sliding her feet another few inches. She ducked behind the curtain.
“Here you go, Emmy. Want a root beer?”
Brian looked down at her with a grin. He had positioned himself squarely in front of his uncle.
She took her chance. Running like a rabbit, she dashed for the door. Behind her, she heard a crash and some violent swearing, but by then she was out and pelting down the street as if the Giant Rat of Sumatra were after her. She leaped over the garbage in the alleyway and burst out onto the Main Street sidewalk, panting.
What time was it? How long had she been in the rat shop? The sky had turned cloudy, and it looked as if a storm were brewing. Ballet must be over by now, but maybe there was still time to sneak into French
class and then walk out to meet Miss Barmy on the sidewalk.
On the sidewalk. There, half a block away, was a woman in a bulky raincoat, silhouetted against the gray sky. She was at the entrance to Emmy's French class, and she was tapping her foot.
Emmy longed to hide. If only she were a rat, she could crawl into that little crumbling hole on the side of those steps, by the concrete planter. It looked a perfect size â¦
“I don't think she went this way, Uncle!” Brian's voice echoed in the alley behind her.
Emmy flew across the road, ducked behind a bush, and peered through the leaves, shivering a little as a sudden cold gust swirled about her.
Brian's uncle poked his pinched face out of the alley, snarled in frustration, and turned back.
Good. Now all Emmy had to do was come up with an excuse for not being in French class. With any luck, Miss Barmy would only make her shampoo with oil of yak, or write a paper on better bowel habits through dietary empowerment, or read an article on the many exciting uses for tree balm.
There was a rustle of feet behind her. Emmy whipped around to face a pair of grass-stained soccer shorts.
“Hey!” Joe Benson squatted on his heels. “Listen, about that Ratâ”
Emmy glanced over her shoulder. The woman in the coat was looking at her watch.
“What's going on?” Joe looked embarrassed, but determined. “Don't pretend you didn't hear the Rat talk, because I know you did.”
“I'm not pretending,” said Emmy hurriedly. “He does. He talks. I don't know why, either, but nobody else ever seems to hear himâ”
“I did,” said Joe.
“Yeah, well, you heard him today, but I've been hearing him all year.” Emmy glanced nervously at the sky. It was going to rain any minute now. If she got wet, Miss Barmy would make her wrap up in about fifty blankets and sweat for an hour, to ward off a cold.
“All year? You haven't been in our class all year.”
Emmy stared at him. “I've been sitting across from you since September,” she said slowly.
Emmy nodded. “I have. I was there on the first day of class. Don't you remember? The Rat bit me, and I yelled.”
Joe shook his head.
“I was there when Mr. Herbifore tripped over the pumpkin in October, and when Robbie brought a snake to school the last day before Christmas break and it got lost, and in February when Kendra only got two valentines and she cried. And I saw you break your shoelace just last week and run around all day in your socks, andâ”
“Okay, okay!” Joe ran a hand through his already messy hair. “But how come
“Emmaline Augusta, I see you behind that bush!”
Emmy whirled around. Steaming across the road was a broad, brisk woman with a mole on the end of her chin. Emmy almost melted with relief. It wasn't Miss Barmy after all.
?” Joe said in an undertone.
Emmy stood up. “I was named after two greataunts,” she muttered. “Don't rub it in.”
, Mrs. Brecksniff!” Emmy put on her most winning smile.
“Don't you Mrs. Brecksniff me! Here it's Miss Barmy's afternoon off and I don't even know the proper time to come and get you, and now I see you dillydallying across the street without so much as a by-your-leave.”
Joe coughed to hide what might have been a snicker. “Dillydallying?” he murmured as Mrs. Brecksniff neared.
Emmy ignored him. “I'm so sorry, Mrs. Brecksniffâ”
“It's my fault, ma'am.” Joe stepped forward. “Emmy and I are friendsâ”
Emmy looked at him in surprise.
“âand I had a question about a school project we're working on,” Joe went on, shaking the housekeeper's plump hand in a businesslike manner.
“Joe!” A tall man beckoned from his car. “You need some more practice before supper!”
Joe grabbed his hair with both hands, looking exasperated. “We've got to figure this out,” he said. “How about tomorrow? After school?”
“Emmaline is usually busy after school,” said Mrs. Brecksniff. “What is your project about?”
Emmy looked blankly at Joe.
“Rats,” said Joe promptly. “See you tomorrow, Emmy.”
Emmy followed the housekeeper, who had a stride like a triathlete. If only she
meet Joe after school tomorrow â¦ but of course she was busy. More than once, she had enviously watched the children who poured out of the school building at three o'clock into the free air, with nothing to do but play.
“Mrs. Brecksniff?” Emmy trotted alongside, slightly breathless. “Do you suppose my parents would mind if I didn't do so much after school?”
Mrs. Brecksniff turned, startled. “Your parents paid good money for those classes. Money isn't a thing to be wasted, even if you
“Yes, butâ” Emmy tried again. “After a whole day of school, it gets so tiring. Do you think I could just quit ballet and French?”
“Well then, how about gymnastics? That's on Thursday.”
“Out of the question.”
“Pottery and tap dancing? Little theater? Tennis? Basket weaving?”
“Now see here, young lady.” Mrs. Brecksniff looked down over her double chins. “Miss Barmy signed you up for all those things, and you know as well as I do what that means.”
Emmy sighed. She knew.
“I don't care if she
my cousin, she's a nasty customer when crossed. It's a hard enough job that I have to do, what with nine bathrooms to clean, not to mention all those windows, and your parents flying in unexpectedly and having all those partiesâ”
Emmy looked up. Miss Barmy and Mrs. Brecksniff were cousins?
“âso don't complain to me. And I wouldn't complain to Miss Barmy either, or she might just sign you up for something else in the evening, too.”
“I have to have some time to do homework,” Emmy said sadly.
“And would that matter to her? It would not,” said Mrs. Brecksniff, puffing out her neck until she looked like a stuffed frog. “Now hurry up, it's starting to rain. We'll be a couple of drowned rats before we get out of this.”
The housekeeper churned determinedly down the hill, unfurling a large black umbrella as a peal of thunder crashed. She centered the umbrella directly over her rather ponderous bulk, so that Emmy had to stay very close indeed to be even partly protected.
And as the rain poured off the umbrella in a drip line that soaked her left shoulder, Emmy was not too cold and miserable and wet to spare a kind thought for the Rat, who
be nearly drowned out in this rain, and hope that he had finally found a squirrel who would let him in.
It was dark in Emmy's bedroom, but the storm had blown itself out at last, and as she watched from her window in the topmost turret, a final ragged cloud scudded across the bright face of the moon and vanished.
There was a brisk knock at Emmy's bedroom door. “Mrs. Brecksniff says to have a hot bath before bed,” said a young woman, bringing in fresh towels. “I'll run it for you, honey.”
“Thanks, Maggie,” said Emmy, thinking how much she liked the new housemaid, who always had a smile. “But I can do it myself.”
Maggie bent over the large Jacuzzi set in blue Italian tiles and turned on the faucets. “Honey, if I didn't do for people, I'd be out of a job.” She smiled her wide, friendly smile, crooked teeth and big nose and all, and Emmy smiled right back.