This story is by Mike McGuire and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
He gets down on his hands and knees and feels around for his mobile in the pitch-dark room, patting the urine stained floor. His runs his hands in circles, and realizes they are sliding along with an unnatural ease, as he picks up the scent and squirms in disgust. He yanks his hands up, as something furry scurries over them. The sensation of fur meeting his slippery hands, takes Max to a memory of when he was a child growing up in Germany. Max’s parents had divorced when his mother was pregnant with him. He lived with her for most of his childhood and would occasionally receive an invitation from his father to head out to the only pub in town for their cheap Tuesday deals.
Max’s pet rat was a more consistent presence in his life. He had named the rat, Liebling, the German word for Darling. Liebling had broken into Max’s room one stormy night and had nestled itself under Max’s blanket. Max remembers how Liebling brushed up against his big toe on his right foot which caused him to leap up suddenly and caused Liebling to slide off his bed and knock its furry little body against the bedroom wall. Max had spent the rest of the day nursing Liebling’s aching body. His mother worked long hours at the local hospital, often returning home after Max’s bed-time – meaning he finally had something to cuddle before falling to sleep every night. Max devoted an hour each morning before school to care for Liebling. He’d carefully slice up cucumbers and stack them conscientiously along the windowsill of his room, so Liebling could munch away all day.
One day during the school holidays, Max had decided to invite his best friend to play video games and meet Liebling. It was a big moment in their friendship as Max and Shrudi had only ever hung out in the school environment. Shrudi was a plumb sweet natured boy, a little clumsy too. Their friendship formed around the fact they shared a curiosity in the natural world and animals around them. Shrudi helped max to fight off the bullies at school too, as Max was small and shy. When Max spoke about Liebling, Shrudi would listen with his full attention, wide eyed and content.
“Thanks Max, buddy! You are my first friend to have invited me into their room. I will honour this privilege and keep the secrets we unearth between us and the ancient Mountain tribes,” Shrudi beamed, quoting their favourite line off one of their video games. Max and Shrudi had spent the morning switching between battling it out over their favourite video games and coming together to play with Liebling. Max patiently showed Shrudi the safest way to hold Liebling. “Wrap your second and big finger up around his belly and let your thumb rest on top his head like a cap,” Max would explain.
Max watched Shrudi closely as he caressed and held Liebling for half the morning, before he had decided it was safe to leave them alone, while he went to relief himself. Things would never be the same for the three of them. While Max was busy offloading his morning breakfast, Shrudi had unknowingly killed Liebling. He had ignored Max’s strict handling lesson and instead cupped both hands around Liebling’s belly, leaving him little air to breathe.
“I’m so sorry Max…I didn’t mean to – I was trying to help hi-,” Shrudi stuttered, as tears rolled down his plumb cheeks and fell across Liebling’s floppy, lifeless body.
“WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?” Max cried out, as he ripped Shrudi’s hands open, lifted Liebling away from him and shoved him across the room, where he crashed headfirst into Max’s metal frame bed. Max pushed his forefinger up and down, along Liebling’s tiny chest. He did this for ten minutes, before he stopped. His tears fell across Liebling and he could not bring his watery, blood-shot eyes to meet Shrudi’s.
“He was starting to move around in my hands Max…I didn’t want him to run away, so I..thought…I’d.”
“SHUT-UP! I HATE YOU! Get OUT! Max screamed at Shrudi and threw a golf ball through the window, which shattered the glass and caused a flying shard to pierce Max’s forearm, which created a steady flow of deep red blood to flow onto the carpet.
Max ignored the injury and instead began to hurl more balls through the window, which sent glass spraying in all directions, most of it had lodged in Max’s forearms and some had flown as far as where Shrudi lay on the floor. Max slumped to the floor and ripped out several shards of glass from his forearm flesh, as he rocked back and forth and began to cry.
As he sat hunched down near the shattered window, he glanced up and noticed that Shrudi had crept closer and was offering up a box of tissues and glass of water – so he reached for his baseball bat.
“GET-OUT!” He bellowed, baseball bat pointed towards Shrudi.
Shrudi rose slowly from the floor, hunched over and crying. He stopped at the doorway, “See you at school Max?”
“Get outtt,” Max whispered.
Max finds himself whispering the same phrase twenty years later, in the dark – urine soaked bathroom with the rusty key-hole. Eyes to the ground and heart racing. Max can’t control it, “Get-outttt, GET-OUT!”, as his body begins to shake violently and he bumps against the door, sending a loud vibration through the lower floor. He begins to scream, “Liebling! My darling! Come back!” A horrible, lonely epileptic seizure holds Max hostage inside the dark, urine soaked room.
On hearing the commotion, Nellie shuts down her laptop in the warm upstairs lounge area and heads downstairs to investigate. She hears Max sobbing and pushes her ear to the door.
“You okay Max?”
Seriously! They say couples learn about each-other when travelling together! Nellie thinks, while waiting for his reply.
Our first big trip together and he is a blundering mess already. Am I really that bad!?
“He taught me about love! Haha, a rat. Can you believe it?” Max manages to splutter out, in between fighting back another seizure, snot dripping onto the floor below to join the urine pool.
“Go on,” she said.
“LIEBLING! Is that you?” Max bumps his head against the hanging light, as a furry creature scurries across his feet. He drops to his knees and begins tearing at his face and hair. He stuffs tuffts of hair into his mouth, screaming, “LIEBLINGGGGG! Don’t leave meeeeee!”
Nellie pushes her body up against the door, as it scrapes along the soggy concrete below and opens up enough, for her to poke an eye through the small gap. She picks up the urine stench and darkness. Max always turned the lights off when using the bathroom. Her usual grounded self is a little on edge. She manages to open the old, creaky door a little more, and sucks her belly in- manoeuvrering herself inside. She immediately reaches for the light switch and it flickers on, after emitting a low, vibrating buzz. Nellie slowly approaches Max under the flashing lights, as if on a dance-floor, “Max? Its okay, I am here to help. Let’s get you out of here.” She kneels next to Max, who has his back up against the back-wall, shoulders hunched forward, head buried in his knees which are pulled up to his chest. Below him lies a smelly whoozy concuture of bodily fluids.
“Liebling? Don’t leave me. Please, stay!” Max whispers, swaying from side to side. “It’s okay Max, Nellie whispers back. His left arm hangs out and scrapes against the wet floor, still rocking back and forth ever so slightly. His right rests on his lap, hand cupped and fingers curling up. “I’m sorry.” Max says, eyes squeezed shut and tears rolling down his reddened cheeks. “For what?” Nellie gently asks.
“I KILLED IT! Max screams, as he opens his cupped fist. A mashed-up rat’s body lies sprawled across Max’s palm; the headless rat’s guts ooze through the gaps in his fingers. Max reaches up to his mouth with his free trembling hand and lifts open his quivering lips.
The rat’s head wedges between his teeth. He spits it out, as it slides across the floor.
“This is my life Nellie, I know you are here and that we’re in love. But this painful darkness is on repeat. Only I can turn it off,” Max mumbles.
“I know. You gotta let me in more often – just like tonight. I am so proud of you.”