By Christine D. Bremer
The shelter-in-place order would come any day now, and everyone in the university’s research laboratories, except for a small animal care team, would have to stay at home. Surgical masks and other protective gear would go to the health care workers battling the virus.
The young professor stood in the doorway of his lab, assessing the likely carnage. The small room had cages on the side walls and a desk by the narrow window in the back. He’d spent untold hours here collecting data, but now his research on cognition in rats had been deemed “nonessential.” No matter that he’d been working on this for three years, studying generation after generation of rats selected for their speed or slowness in navigating mazes. Mazes that contained sensory cues: stripes, turn left, sandpaper underfoot, turn right. He was learning which specific abilities were improved or diminished by selective breeding. No matter that he was up for tenure next year, needed more publications, and needed all of his rats to demonstrate statistically significant differences between groups. No matter.
The email from Centralized Research Animal Services said he was to identify his “twenty percent priority-save cages” by placing green tags on them. The other cages got red tags. A grad school friend in New York told him she had received such orders, too. He’d slept fitfully that night. Every dream had returned to the same scene, in which his sweet-tempered rats’ mouths gaped and their little chests desperately pumped as they inhaled the gas, before falling over onto each other. He’d been chugging coffee since the alarm went off.
When he arrived at his lab that morning, someone had left the tags on the stainless steel table in front of him. The cages were on shelves on the two walls just beyond, with the smart rats on the left and the dumb ones, the ones whose skills had measurably declined over generations, on the right. A hundred pairs of pink eyes stared out.
His vision blurred. He tried to move his hands, then his feet. He felt lightheaded.
From the left, he heard their squeaky voices. “We’re number one! We’re number one!”
From the right, “Me, me!”
“If we had thumbs, we would play the violin for you. If our pharynxes were like yours, we would tell you stories all night,” the left side chorused.
“We would ask you for crayons,” came from the right.
“Remember Nicodemus and Scabbers in your third grade classroom? You took them home for the summer,” the smart rats called out.
“Our cousins,” added the dumb rats.
And then, “No red tags!” No red tags!” All the rats took up the chant.
When they found him, the professor’s unshaven face and bloodshot eyes were just visible above the cans of vegetable soup, boxes of saltines, and bags of rat chow stacked on the table.
The professor stood up, a rat cradled in his left arm, and laughed at the two men. They were standing six feet apart and wearing homemade fabric masks, the ones he’d read about online. They looked ridiculous. One was wearing a red-and-white snowflake print. The other was sporting a Minions design. They had a large cart behind them, already half full of other researchers’ rats and mice.
“You shouldn’t be here,” said Snowflake.
“Well, I am. I am sheltering in place. I might even have a fever. You’re not touching my animals.”
“We have orders,” said Minions. “Half of the animal care people were exposed and are in quarantine.”
“These animals are in my care and I won’t let you kill any of them. Keep away from my doorway or I’ll spit on you.” They shrank back a step.
“We’re calling the campus police,” said Snowflake.
“Wait a minute. I’ve got something for you.”
He put the rat on his shoulder and went behind the cages. When he returned, he was balancing a huge package on each arm.
He set the priceless parcels on the floor and backed away. “Forget you ever saw me.”
Their eyes widened as Minions said, “Where the hell?”
They each grabbed a package and set it on the cages behind them. Glancing at each other, they quickly rolled their cart of death down the hall. As the professor shut the door, he heard Snowflake say to Minions, “Toilet paper. My girlfriend’s gonna flip.”