By Kit Lascher
The rat. The legend. Even if you’ve never seen him, on some level you have.
I was on my lunch break when I first heard about The Rat.
“There’s a Ratatouille heading toward the comic books.”
I looked up and saw a customer pointing toward a bookshelf I had noticed needed dusting before I’d clocked out.
“I’m sorry?” I said.
“He went that way.”
“What? No. A rat.”
I wanted to tell him that the rat in the Pixar movie is actually named Remy but I wasn’t even clocked in yet.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll be right back.” I started heading toward a computer.
“There he goes!” the customer said.
“Cool. Be right back.” I wasn’t dealing with a rat off the clock.
“I miss Graphic Novel Rat,” Sherilynn said.
Jerry laughed. “What the fuck kind of name is Graphic Novel Rat?”
“Listen, Jerry. He wanted to read graphic novels. I say we let him.”
“I mean, sure.” Jerry took a bite of his Kind bar. “But it’s still not a good name.”
“What do you suggest we call him then?”
“All cryptids have a good conjugated name.”
“Graphic Novel Rat is not a cryptid,” I said. “We all saw him.”
“Woah,” Sherilynn said. “Are you saying cryptids aren’t real?”
I looked down at my phone. Two minutes left on my break. Not nearly enough time to get into this. You’d think I’d learn at some point but when you spend all your time on the salesfloor choking down your opinions in front of customers, it’s hard to keep up that same energy in the breakroom.
“Here’s the thing,” I said. “If everyone’s seen a cryptid, it’s not a cryptid anymore. And rats are. . . definitely real.”
Sherilynn rolled her eyes. She holds in sarcastic gestures like I hold in my opinions. In the breakroom? It all come out. “Kent. Again. With the real. The Rat goes way beyond rats as a species.”
“Are you saying The Rat who wanted to read graphic novels was not, like, a sewer rat?”
“I agree with Sherilynn.” Jerry said. “If we can decide that pet rats and sewer rats are fundamentally different, I think we can make room for a rat who just wants to read.”
“I think the reading was a front for absolute chaos,” I said.
“Why are you always profiling our customers?”
My phone alarm chirped. Back on the salesfloor. “It’s a loss prevention tactic,” I said as I grabbed my nametag.
As soon as I clocked in, Tara breezed up to me.
“Hey, are you back?” she asked.
“Yeah. A customer told me there’s a rat in the store?”
“Yeah. He said it was heading towards graphic novels,” I said.
“I really need you at the registers.”
Someone screamed and Tara and I looked over. A customer was running away from the graphic novels toward the romance section. I rushed over to her.
“Ma’am, are you okay?”
“Wait there’s more than one?” Tara was right behind me.
“Where there’s one rat, there’s a hundred,” the customer said. She threw down her pile of books on the floor and left the store.
“Can you get that?” Tara asked.
“The books or the rodent?”
“I’ll handle the rat.”
Dia ran out of the back room with a mop in her hand. A customer stopped her.
“Excuse me Miss, can you help me?”
“Sure thing! Give me just one moment.”
“You were in the back, right?”
“Yes. I can help you in just one –”
“Can you see if this book is in the back?” The customer shoved his phone in Dia’s face. I’m sure there was a picture of a book on the screen but there was no way Dia could see it that close.
“Dia, you can help our guest,” Tara said. “I’ll take care of the rat.”
“There’s a fucking rat?” the customer said.
“Um,” Tara said. “There is a little bit of a . . .situation. But trust me, we’re handling it.”
“No way. I hate rats.” The customer put his phone back in his pocket and left the store.
“Dia, Kent, we can’t have customers knowing we have a rat in the store. It’s unsanitary.”
“Aren’t you the one who openly said we have a rat?” I asked.
Tara glared at me. “You, go take over at the register. Dia, you help me with the. . . situation.”
“What if The Rat didn’t want to read?”
I was reassembling the dustjacket a customer had ripped into several pieces and trying to decide if we discounted the book, if anyone would buy it. “What’s that?”
Dia looked up from her price gun. “The Rat. Maybe he wasn’t here to read.”
“Jesus. Not again with the Graphic Novel Rat.”
“I don’t think that’s his name.”
“He doesn’t have a name. He’s just a pest. Who was here. Now he’s not.”
“You don’t get it. You saw him run right for the door. How did he even know which way to go?”
“But the way The Rat scurried.”
“Yeah. Because ordinary rats don’t scurry.”
Dia put the price gun down. “Kent. Is there something inside you that makes you not want to believe?”
I looked down at the book I was holding. Useless. No one would want to buy it. What was the point of book vandalism? Just steal it or don’t. I didn’t understand. “I’m sorry, Dia. I’m just cynical.”
“That will get in the way of becoming a great bookseller.”
“My numbers are better than yours.”
“True. But you don’t have my whimsy.”
“Is whimsy a category on your biannual review?”
“Listen, Kent. I just want you to think about it. The rat went straight toward our best-selling section.”
“I think I saw someone eating a cheese Danish in that section earlier. The rat was probably looking for crumbs.”
“Goddammit, Kent! Would it kill you to just believe?”
“In what exactly?”
“I think The Rat has potential. Sales smarts. And he can capture an entire room. I think he has it in him to become a manager.”
“Vermin. Manager. Hmm.”
“I think vermin is a slur.”
“Vermanager,” I said.
“He’s vermin. And a manager. Don’t all cryptids need a bizarre compound name? Vermanager.”
“Maybe we can pick it up,” Dia said.
“What? No,” I said. “Why would we do that? It could be rabid.”
“I don’t think rabies is that common.”
“Yeah because of modern medicine and because we’ve learned not to cuddle with fucking rats.”
“Kent,” Tara said. “Language.” She was holding a mop which could easily be mistaken for a pitchfork so I held my tongue.
“Sorry, Tara,” I said. “Dia. Do you really think someone brought their pet rat into a bookstore with them?”
“I don’t know. I saw a documentary where there were these rats on leashes. The rats could sniff out landmines. In Afghanistan, I think.”
“Do you think a customer was seriously concerned about landmines?”
“The point is. They make leashes for rats.”
“Good point,” Tara said. “Do we know if the rat has a leash?”
“Everyone keeps saying there’s a rat,” I said. “Have any of us actually seen the rat? All I’ve heard is customers talking about it. And we can’t trust –”
“Kent. Our customers are wonderful. The trust is mutual.”
“Guys,” Dia said. “Look.” She pointed toward the graphic novels. At first, I couldn’t see what she was pointing at. I stepped closer.
“I don’t see him,” I said.
“Me neither,” Tara said.
“Look,” Dia said. “On top of Iron Man.” I looked toward the Iron Man comics. And there he was. Not Tony Stark. A rat. Crawling across the tops of the books.
“Holy shit,” Tara said.
“Language,” I said.
“I should fire you.”
“In this market? Okay.”
“Guys!” Dia said.
I looked back at the Iron Man section. There was no rat to be seen.
In any store, things go wrong. Not even wrong. Things just go. . . odd.
But after The Rat, a lot of things seemed to happen all at once. Luckily, there was always an explanation.
An alarm went off and wouldn’t stop ringing? Vermanager.
(I started telling other booksellers that The Rat was named “Vermanager” and if he ever returned, he would be in charge. I did this purely to annoy Dia.)
Someone left a fur coat draped over one of the three chairs that were in any kind of acceptable shape? Vermanager.
Someone called the store asking if anyone had turned in a $20 bill, and when we told them no, another person called from a different number with the exact same question? Vermanager.
I’ll give Vermanager this – it was a creative tactic to get an interview. I’ve been at this store a long time and I’ve never seen anything like it.
Sherilynn walked out of the breakroom to find Tara on the ground, Dia looking behind the shelves, and me overseeing everything because I didn’t want to go to the registers.
“Hey, are you guys okay?” Sherilynn asked.
“There’s a rat.”
“Cool. Who snitched?”
“No. Like an actual rat.”
“Yeah. We lost it.”
“We should probably find it.”
“Hey, Kent? Aren’t you supposed to take over for Jerry at the register?”
“Okay, fine,” I said. “I’ll go.”
Dia started screaming too.
“I’m going!” I said.
“There he is!”
I looked down and saw the rat. Tara held the mop high above her head. Dia rushed to her side. I didn’t know what the plan was exactly.
The rat ran and Tara and Dia ran after him. Tara waved the mop in the air and sent drops of water raining. The rat made it to the doors right as a customer was entering. The customer screamed and Tara and Dia ran past her into the street.
“What is going on here?” the customer asked.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “It’s just the one rat. And my manager and coworker are taking care of it.”
“I just wanted to get a book.”
“I understand. Is there anything I can help you find today?”
“I just wish I’d seen him,” Jerry said.
“You didn’t miss much,” I said. “Like, if you’ve seen a rat. . . it was pretty much that.”
“That’s easy for you to say. I was at the registers. Covering for you.”
“I’m sorry, Jerry.”
“Are you? You don’t even appreciate Vermanager. All you do is crack jokes.”
“I mean. . . it was pretty funny.”
“And extremely special.”
“If you say so.”
“Nothing has ever been the same! I think about that rat constantly! Every night, before I go to sleep. My coworkers’ screams are the last thing I hear. The Rat’s whiskers are the last thing I see.”
“That’s not normal.”
“Neither is Vermanager, Kent! It’s time you saw that.”
My phone alarm rang. “I’m heading back out,” I said. “ I can take over a shift at the registers for you sometime, if that helps.”
Jerry shook his head slowly. I turned off my phone alarm and headed back out to the salesfloor.
Later that night. . .
Kit Lascher is the King of Trash Wonderland and an art corvid (collects anything shiny, believes in setting fire to genres and many other constructs, holds her collaborators close, and always remembers even when she’s gluing fragments together).
She is a resident at Nomadic Soundsters and a reader on the editorial team of Punk Monk Magazine. Her theatrical pieces have been produced across the US. Favorite artistic projects include creating Recover: A Cabaret by and for People with Mental Illness, collaborating with other interdisciplinary artists to publish zines, and writing and directing for Reboot Theatre Company and Copious Love. You can find her work in beestung, Eggplant Tears, The Awakening, and in more spaces to be announced. For more info and to connect, visit trashwonderland.com.