Asleep in the city’s sewer, the last brown rat of Nagasaki was awoken by a sudden flash of blinding light. The light had entered through the drainage pipe, smelling of sulphur, turning water to steam, and bleaching Brown Rat’s vision so that he had to wait for his eyes to adjust before climbing through the concrete cracks that had opened in the pavement.
Up all night in search of food scraps, Brown Rat had retired to the sewer at dawn to escape the rush-hour traffic and the prickling summer heat. Even with his eyes still closed, Brown Rat had known that the light in the sewer had not been caused by any sun. He had been sleeping in this same spot for years. Its darkness was total; no daylight ever touched this place.
Although the duration of the light had been brief, its illumination was of an intensity that made Brown Rat suspect he had been witness to a miracle. A visitation, perhaps, or the transcendental glow of preternatural grace.
Emerging from the sewer, Brown Rat found the city had been transformed into a fiery volcanic crater. The school and houses all reduced to rubble and the roadside blackened with shadows that were scorched into the earth. He stood on his back legs so as to sniff out the new landscape. The air was thick with smoke and embers; the mountains hidden by a swirling tower of soft, grey dust.
Brown Rat headed for the marketplace. The floor around its wooden stalls were a reliable source of food whatever the time of day or season, but other than a soupy puddle in the centre where the stalls had been, he found nothing there. He scurried over to the harbour instead where the deckhands often threw him grains of rice and fish tails. But the waterfront was desolate, the boats and sailors gone. So too the factory and the temple, the town hall and the tattoo parlour. Next he went to the park to seek out the dogs and the dog-walkers, but the story was the same: both flesh and fur alike were absent.
Turning his back on the ruin, Brown Rat headed for the outskirts of the city. The further he travelled from the centre, the more buildings he found that remained standing. There were cars and buses abandoned in the street. People were there too, dazed and dirty, sitting on street corners, their arms and legs covered in livid, crimson welts.
A week passed and then another. One day, Brown Rat decided to follow a trail of broken people north along the highway, to a hospital tucked back off the main drag with a stack of rubbish bins on the far side of its car park. Brown Rat recognised the metal drums immediately and even from a distance he could smell their sweet decay. His mouth watered – everything he’d eaten since the sewer light had tasted bitter and metallic. He was longing for the taste of a little cheese or meat.
Brown Rat had just laid his paws on some chicken skin when he felt his body hoisted. The world tipped for a second – the sky seemed to float below him, the concrete ground spun overhead. When he adjusted his balance, Brown Rat saw he was dangling upside down in mid-air, his tail held by a man in a whole-body hazmat suit.
“Hey, buddy,” said the man, waving a probe in his face that crackled and spat.
Brown Rat clawed the air and tried to wriggle free. “Do you mind?”
“What did you just say?”
“You heard me.”
“You can talk?”
Brown Rat stopped his squirming. “Oh, it seems I can.”
The man lowered him to the ground and put away his Geiger counter. “Well, I’ll be damned. Where did you come from, little buddy?”
Brown Rat looked up at him and saw a patch with stars and stripes stitched into his hazmat suit. “I could ask you the same.”
“That’s one hell of an interesting mutation you got yourself there, bud. The boys at the lab are gonna piss their pants when they see you.”
Before he had time to reply, Brown Rat was raised by his tail again and dropped into a glass container. The man secured the lid on top and then tapped his pen against the side.
“You got a name?”
Brown Rat shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
“Okay,” said the man. “Buddy it is.”
The man lifted the container and carried it over to an army jeep, buckling Brown Rat into the passenger seat. “There’s a lot of potholes on the roads. Don’t want you taking a tumble every time it gets a little bouncy.”
It was a little bouncy. Brown Rat began to feel nauseous on the journey as the jeep rocked and lurched through rural terrain. By the time the lurching finally stopped, Brown Rat saw the jeep had pulled up in front of a facility with armed guards stationed at its entrance and barbed wire curled along the top of its perimeter fence.
“Welcome to your new home, Buddy,” said the man, reaching into the container and transferring Brown Rat into a large metal cage as soon as they were inside.
“I’m Phil, by the way. Think of me as your roommate,” he said, pushing a chunk of cheese through a feeding tube. Down another, he poured a little milk: “All yours.”
Brown Rat pressed the pads of his paws together and lowered his head in a slow and solemn bow.
“What is this place?” he said, after he had filled his stomach.
“This is the lab,” said Phil. “This is where you live.”
“And what happens here?”
“Just tests, mainly.”
“And the lab boys you spoke of?”
“The boys are the ones who carry out the tests and they can’t wait to meet you, Buddy. We pretty sure you’re one of a kind.”
“Oh, but you’re quite wrong,” said Brown Rat. “In the city, there are many of us. We’re a very common breed.”
Phil scraped his chair closer to the cage. “Want me to level with you?”
Brown Rat splayed his paws. “Please do.”
“Well, I’ve been stationed here these last coupla weeks, Buddy, and you’re the only living rat I’ve found inside of the blast zone. Not sayin’ you’re the only one of your kind who’s made it, but you’re probably a lot less common than you once were.”
“The blast zone?”
“That’s right. Fat Man. He dropped in on the city a month ago today.”
“But what happened to the other rats?”
“Vaporised, probably. Quick, clean.”
Brown Rat looked at him, speechless. It was a lot to take in.
“My guess is that your place was fitted with lead pipes. They would’ve shielded you from the worst of the effects. Your voice I can’t explain. This technology is still in its infancy. It’s been throwing us surprises on every given day. Got a cat next door that’s doing magic tricks for dog treats. Got a chimp in the kitchen who’s cooking like a pro.”
“But there were people at the hospital. I saw them. And if there are people alive, there must be brown rats, too. Our two species have a history of co-existence. Have you looked for them in the vaults of the building? They’re probably all down there, waiting for the worst to pass.”
Phil nodded slowly. “I hear you, little guy. I hear you.”
That night, Brown Rat found it difficult to sleep. His new surroundings were more sterile than the sewer he was used to, and the cat next door kept on mewing for more treats. Brown Rat wished Phil could have stayed to answer all the questions he had about the fat man. Why had he brought about the city’s destruction? And who was organising a search party to look for other rats?
Next morning, Phil stopped by his cage with breakfast. “How’s it going, Buddy? Sleep well?”
“Not too good, in all honesty. Had a lot on my mind after we talked.”
“I’m heading to the hospital this morning, but I’ve asked Molly to check in on you later. She’s the chimp I was telling you about. The one who likes to cook? She only speaks in sign language but you’ll find she’s a pretty good listener. If you ask her nicely, she’ll probably give you some of her banana bread.”
“You’re going back to the hospital?”
“That’s right. I work in epidemics and disease control which – before you say it – considering what just happened back there, I’ll admit, it’s a little rich. We’re the clean-up team, see? Strictly speaking, you being a rat is in direct contravention of disease protocols, but I had a word with the guys and we figured you deserved a break.”
“I appreciate your help, Phil, and I don’t want you to think I’m ungrateful but I’ve got to get back to the city. More brown rats must be alive, waiting it out. Take me with you so I can help you find them.”
Phil squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed his forehead. “Pains me to say it, Buddy, but the city is dead. Gone. Everybody – everything – is gone. If not in the initial blast then certainly in what followed. You were one of the lucky ones, little guy. But I’m afraid, for you, there can be no going back.”
No going back. After Phil left, Brown Rat slumped down into his pile of straw and let the words sink in. It was hard to imagine never returning to the sewer again. It was hard to believe he might be the last of the city’s brown rats.
At some point, sleep must have crept into his cage and claimed him. When he awoke, he saw a face smiling at him through the screen. Brown Rat raised his paw in greeting while Molly the chimp climbed onto a stool and signed the word, “hello”.
She held up a piece of banana bread.
“Yes, please,” he said, his taste buds watering at the sight of it. It had been such a long time since he’d tasted anything sweet.
Molly broke a corner off the cake and pushed it down his feeding tube. They ate together and before long, Brown Rat was telling her all about the flash of light he’d witnessed in the sewer. She signed to him about the mushroom cloud she’d seen from between her cage bars at the zoo.
From the room next door, they could hear the cat shuffling a deck of cards while the lab boys whooped.
“Did you see the one who did this to us?” Brown Rat whispered. “The fat man, did you see him?”
Molly raised her arm and pointed to the sky.
“That’s what I thought too, at first, until Phil told me it was a fat man who did this. Now I can’t stop thinking about him. Who he was and why he’d do such a thing.” Brown Rat clenched his paws and punched them against the glass screen. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I guess I’m just a little overwhelmed.”
Molly smacked her lips together and leant closer to the cage. She breathed a cloud of condensation out onto the glass and started to draw something with her finger tip. Brown Rat stepped back as the picture took shape: a nose, a tail, two wings, four engines.
“Looks like a plane,” he said, squinting at the glass.
Molly bared her teeth just as a cheer came booming from the room next door. It was followed by a rabbit with floppy ears hopping down the corridor. One of the lab boys appeared at the doorway, scooping up the rabbit to return it to the cat’s top hat.
Brown Rat turned to look back at Molly’s finger drawing. He scratched his head, bewildered. “An aeroplane?” he said, again.
Molly jumped up and down on her stool, clapping her hands. At the open window, Brown Rat could hear the sound of something tapping. Turning himself round to look he saw raindrops, like a fat man, falling.