Bigrat: Episode Six - By Howard Schneider

The following week, Travis and Lucile received good news from one of the Multnomah County agencies that works with homeless people—they'd qualified for a two-bedroom rent-subsidized house in southeast Portland’s Buckman neighborhood. Jack's father had helped with the application and gave them a glowing recommendation, They could take possession the following weekend. 

Saturday morning, Jack came to the campsite up with a friend’s van to help Travis and Lucile transport their meager belongings to the house. As they drove east on Hawthorne Boulevard on their way to the rental, they stopped at an intersection for a red light. Lucile suddenly pointed at a disheveled man standing on the opposite corner. He held a cardboard sign that described his state of desperate destitution and requested a handout. 

“Ain’t that Darko over there? Sure enough looks like him." A second later, she said, "That woman across the street. Ain’t that his wife, Belinda?” There by the bus stop?" 

Jack and Travis looked where Lucile indicated and saw a heavy-set woman sitting on a milk-crate holding a tattered, barely-legible cardboard sign. A frayed straw hat shaded her puffy face. Then they shifted their gazes to the man. 

“Yeah, that's them all right,” Jack said. 

“Yeah, it is,” Travis agreed. 

The light turned green, and Jack continued on. He glanced into the rearview mirror and watched Darko and Belinda disappear in the swarm of traffic and the glare of Portland’s bright summer sunlight. 

Jack, Travis, and Lucile spent the afternoon searching thrift and consignment shops for furniture, dishes, pots and pans, and other things needed to set up housekeeping. They bought new mattresses on sale at a department store and pillows and bedding at Target. They stocked up on food, beer, and Lucile’s favorite white wine. Thrilled with this turn in their lives, they took great pleasure in their hunting expedition, and in each other’s company. Travis and Lucile were finally off the streets and would have a roof over their heads, a full pantry, and a growing bank account; Jack was happily back home and had been accepted by the college he'd applied to. All this good fortune because of a rat. Who would ever believe something this strange could actually have happened? But Travis wasn't surprised—he knew it was because his pa, in the form of a big rat, had made it happen. But he knew to keep that knowledge to himself—that the rest of 'em wouldn't believe it, even if it was as true as true can be. 

That evening they celebrated in their new home. Travis ordered pizza, Lucile made a salad, and Jack bought mocha-almond ice cream for dessert. Sadly, it would be their last night together since Jack was leaving for college the next day. They had a much-deserved celebration late into the night, recounting the good times and rejoicing in their good fortune. 

Sitting in the living room around the mid-century modern coffee table they'd purchased at Rerun that very day, Jack had just finished cutting up the second pizza when Travis suddenly jumped off the sofa. “I’ll get it,” he said. 

“Get what?” Jack asked, then took another pull on his freshly opened IPA. 

“Someone’s at the door. Didn’t you hear that holler?” Travis replied as he stepped around the table and headed towards the entryway. 

“Lucile? Did you hear anything?” Jack asked, a questioning look on his face. 

"I didn't hear nothing,” she said, watching Travis disappear into the hallway. 

When Travis opened the front door, he didn’t see anyone. Then he looked down at the porch deck. “Pa?” he gasped, staring in wonder at a large, sooty-gray-colored rat standing on its back legs with its glowing red eyes boring into his. “Is that you? What happened? You don’t look the same.” 

“You must be Travis, right?” the rat said in a gravelly voice. “Relax, boy. I ain’t your pa. But don’t worry none. He’ll be along in a while. He’s gathering up the others.” 

Before Travis could say anything, the rat dropped to all fours and dashed between Travis's legs and into the entryway, paused for a moment to look around, then darted into the living room where Lucile and Jack waited to see if someone had been at the door. 

“Oh my God!” Lucile screamed when the foul-smelling rat leapt onto the sofa and edged close to her, twisting its mouth into a shape that resembled a leering grin. 

Jack jumped up and yelled, “What the hell? Travis! Get in here! Hurry!” 

When Travis entered the room, he halted and looked closely at the rat, which by then was reaching for a slice of the pizza with its outstretched front legs, it's long, finger-like toes and sharp nails grabbing one of the pieces Jack had just cut. 

“Grandpa?” Is that you?” Travis croaked. 

“Damn right it’s me! Who’d you expect, Mickey Mouse?” The rat took a bite of the pizza slice it held in its front paws and began chewing, slowly and mechanically. Jack and Lucile watched the rat in silent horror. 

After a final swallow, the rat looked up at Travis. “You gotta nice place here, Travis. And this pizza’s damn good! But you better order some more. Your pa and the whole pack should be here any minute now. Just make sure it’s pepperoni—that's all of 'em's favorite." 

The rat flicked its long tongue at the grease congealing on its bristly lips. As it lapped up every last bit, the guttering candlelight danced across its sharp over-sized teeth, glittering like July 4th fireworks exploding in a clear summer sky.

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