Heart of a Rat
A Short Story by Tim Josephs
Written using the suggestion "Rat"
Originally featured on 02-11-2008
As part of our series "Zodiac Thriller"

It all started one late afternoon when ten-year-old Billy Mosley and his mom Barbara were listening to the radio in the kitchen. As Barbara prepared dinner, Billy sat on the counter, a fudge pop in his mouth and, as usual, his reddish-brown pet rat Max perched on his shoulder.

“Scientist’s have made a major medical breakthrough involving rats,” the female reporter on the radio said.

Billy looked up. “Did you hear that, Mom?”

“It seems that rats may hold the key to healing hearts. Apparently rat ventricles are so compatible with human ventricles that they can be used to repair any damage, no matter how major. But not just any rats will do. For some reason plain white rats don’t work nearly as well as the reddish-brown ones, although they are harder to find. Once this technique is perfected, doctors say, full heart transplants will be a thing of the past. In other news, a giant dragon terrorized New York City today killing thirty-“

Barbara switched the radio off.

“See there, Billy?” she said, throwing some green beans into a steaming pot. “Your Max is something special.”

Billy beamed and patted Max on the head.

Practically everybody in town knew about Billy and his unusually-colored rat, how he had rescued him from drowning in a well and nursed him back to health. And once the story got out about the hearts, the phone calls started; it seemed like everybody either had heart problems or knew somebody who did. Once a frazzled Barbara began leaving the phone off the hook, people began showing up at the house day and night. And then the letters poured in, from as far away as three counties over.

“Dear Mr. Mosley, You don’t know me but my wife is very sick. She has a bad heart. She’s on the list for a new one but the list is so long…”

“Dear Billy, The doctors say my granddaddy only has a couple months to live. If you could find it in your heart to help my granddaddy’s heart I would be so…”

At first Billy didn’t really understand it all.

“Why, Mom? Why does everybody care so much about Max?”

Barbara, as best she could, tried to explain it to him.

“So they want to take Max’s heart and give it to somebody else?”

“Yes, Billy.”

“But won’t that mean Max would die?”

“Yes.”

Billy looked terrified. “I’m not gonna let them do that!” He ran out of the room and up the stairs. “Nobody’s gonna take Max’s heart!”

Because their phone was still off the hook, the visit of Mayor Granger was a surprise. He and two tall men in dark suits knocked on the door on a Friday afternoon.

“Mayor Granger!” Barbara said, her face turning bright red. “What are- we didn’t- please come in.”

“Thank you,” the Mayor said, flashing the smile that, according to the polls, women aged twenty-seven to forty-nine loved. “What a nice home you have here.”

Barbara rushed past everyone and gestured to the sofa.

“Please, won’t you sit down? Would you like some tea?”

“No thank you, Mrs. Mosley. I don’t mean to impose but I’d like to talk to your son.”

“Billy? You want to talk to Billy?”

“That’s right.”

As if on cue, Billy charged through the front door, his book bag hanging off one arm and a fudge pop in his mouth. He looked from his mother to the mayor and then back.

“Billy, the Mayor would like to talk to you.”

Mayor Granger spoke to Billy for about ten minutes. Apparently he, like so many others, was having heart problems and with the scarcity of the reddish-brown rats, well…he didn’t come right out and say he wanted Max’s heart, but Billy understood. Even so, he was polite and nodded at the appropriate times, and didn’t wince when the Mayor roughly messed up his hair. When he left, with a final “I’m sure you’ll do the right thing,” Billy glanced at his mother.

“You want me to give him Max, don’t you?”

Barbara shook her head. “Now Billy, he’s your rat, I can’t tell you what to do with him.”

A few days after the mayor’s visit, Max started sneezing. Billy would laugh when he sneezed so hard he would fall over. But when he saw how shaky Max was getting, he got worried. After a trip to the vet, Max was put on antibiotics and soon he was back to his old boisterous self.

 

As Billy walked home from school one day, a large black car pulled along side him. The backdoor opened and Mayor Granger stepped out.

“Hi, son! What a coincidence! I was just on my way to an important meeting. How are you?”

Billy stared up at him. He noticed the Mayor looked different somehow, maybe a little thinner.

“Uh, okay, I guess.”

“That’s great. How’s Max?”

“Oh, Max is good. He was sick for a little while but he’s better now.”

Granger gritted his teeth. “Super. That is one special rat, you know that? I bet you do. That rat could be a hero, a real American hero. Wouldn’t you want your rat to be a hero, Bobby?” One of his guards whispered into his ear. “Uh, Billy?”

“Sure, I guess.”

Granger crouched down next to him.

“Think about it, Billy. He’d be famous, I might be able to get him on a stamp.”

Granger noticed the boy’s bored expression and leaned closer to him.

“What do you like, Billy? Books, cars, huh? You wanna go to college? Whatever you want, I can get it for you. Think about it.” He leaned closer and whispered “Think about what you really want, Billy.”

Granger stood quickly and smiled.

“It was great seeing you, Billy.” He grabbed Billy’s hand and shook it. “I’ll see you soon.”

Billy watched the car speed away and continued home.

Max’s good health didn’t last. It wasn’t long before he stopped eating almost entirely and when Billy would put him on his shoulder, instead of running back and forth, he’d just lie there. More antibiotics were prescribed but when they proved useless, the vet gave Billy the bad news.

“Now Billy,” his mother said as they stared down into Max’s cage one evening. “I’m not going to tell you what to do, but I think you know what the right thing is.”

She squeezed his arm and then left his room, gently closing the door behind her. Billy sniffled and wiped a tear from his eye. He could hear the sounds of the ice cream truck and the noisy kids chasing after it. He never felt less like having a fudge pop in his whole life.

 

Someone was loudly banging on the front door.

“Coming!” Barbara called, wiping her hands on her apron. “Hold your-“

She opened the door to see Mayor Granger. This time he was alone.

“Mayor, how nice to see-“

He stormed past her. “Where is it?”

Barbara noticed how different he looked from the last time he had been there. He had lost a lot of weight and his face was quite pale.

“Where is it?” he repeated in a raspy voice. “Where is that thing?”

“Mayor, Billy isn’t here, he should be home in a little-“

“I don’t care about Billy! I need the rat. Where is it?”

He began charging through the house, knocking over tables, dumping things off shelves.

“Mayor, please.”

He grabbed her by the shoulders; Barbara looked terrified.

“Where is it?! Where is it?! Look at me! Will you look at me?! I need that rat!”

Up close Barbara could see how bad he looked; his gray hair was ragged and his eyes were milky and bloodshot.

“Up, upstairs,” she murmured. “He’s in a cage in Billy’s room.”

Granger bolted over to the stairs and climbed them as fast as he could.

The front door opened and Billy came inside holding a fudge pop.

“Hi, Mom. Whoa, what happened in here?”

A roar came from upstairs, followed by the sound of breaking glass. A moment later Granger came rushing down the stairs, nearly tripping over the final step.

“What did you do with it?!” he screamed.

“Billy,” Barbara said, trying to stay calm. “Where’s Max?”

Billy seemed confused. “Max? He’s not here.”

Granger grabbed his arm. “Where is he?!”

Billy glanced at his mother. “Since he wasn’t, you know, going to live much longer, I thought somebody should get his heart.”

Granger smiled, a wrinkled, yellow smile. “That’s good, Billy, real good. Give him to me.”

“I, uh, can’t”

“What do you mean you can’t?!”

“I already gave him to somebody else.”

“Who?” Granger demanded, tightening his grip on Billy’s arm. “Who?”

“Charlie Dickson,” Billy said.

“Who the hell is that?”

“Billy, you mean Charlie Dickson, the ice cream man?” Barbara asked.

Billy nodded. “It’s for his Dad, he was gonna go over to the hospital today.”

Granger sunk to his knees and started sobbing. “You don’t understand! Since I cut all that funding for the hospitals and animal shelters, nobody will give me a rat! Nobody! You were my last hope!”

“Mom,” Billy said, ignoring the Mayor. “Charlie said he’s gonna give me free fudge pops for like forever! Can you believe that?”

Read More By Tim Josephs

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