Map Of Rats
Narrin is sick of being Narrin, and she’s already tried changing her name. Twice. She’s attempted little tricks here and there to feel brand new, like somebody else, anybody else. She still wakes up as Narrin. Her current project is to invent some item of transformation — a new magical object — but all she’s got at her disposal are sauce-stained plastic containers and hair ties and old grocery-store flyers full of coupons she’ll never use. She doesn’t go to the store anymore. Every excursion is a waste of valuable time.
Her sister forces her to go to the carnival.
“Glad you came with us today.” Sister smiles as Narrin exits the backseat of the car and slams the door.
Narrin isn’t glad at all. She trudges to the bathroom and scrubs the admission stamp from her hand with scalding water. Tap still running, she pulls her jacket off and the festival map falls from her pocket. Dissociated rage propels her to pick it up and hold it beneath the faucet until the ink runs together and the landmarks all lose their shape. On an intuitive hunch, she puts the soggy map under her pillow, the pillow under her head. She falls into a deep sleep and down through the plumbing and into the sewers.
Narrin calls out across the cavernous underground, loud enough to ripple the dirty water around her ankles. She feels for her phone in her sweater pocket and finds the carnival map, transformed. All of the walkways and rollercoasters and merry-go-rounds have swirled into outlines of the pipes, weaving beneath the city.
Eyes on the map, Narrin begins wading through the stale water, towards the exit that never seems to grow any closer. It subtly shifts across the page, to a further and further point and— distracted— she trips and collapses face-first into the stream. She begrudgingly pushes herself up and onto her feet and watches the soaking-wet map reroute.
“Come on, now—”
She wipes some dirt from its corner and the directions change again. Her eyes go wide and she repeats. The paths rearrange.
As it dawns on Narrin that she’s got the new magical object in her hands, a cackle cuts around a distant corner. Narrin clutches the map in her fist and storms after the sound, its owner’s thin shadow darting across the concrete halls.
“Do you know the way out? Did you make this map?”
Narrin figures that if she catches the Spirit of the Pipes, she’ll be able to bring the enchanted scroll back with her to the waking world. She calls out between exhausted breaths.
Narrin rounds a sharp corner and halts, surprised by the weak illumination of streetlamps cascading from a sewer grate above. The trickster sits just below the exit, gripping something in its left hand.
“Come here, child.”
In the dim blue light, Narrin recognizes one of the clowns from the fair. His white makeup is caked on his grimy face, pink polka-dot outfit splotched with filth and water.
“Is this the way out?”
“Do you want to keep that map?” The clown doesn’t look at Narrin.
She peers down at the charmed parchment and nods.
“Yes. It’s what I’ve been looking for.”
“Then come, sit.”
The clown motions to the wooden stool and raises the paintbrush in his left hand.
“Let me paint your pretty face.”
Narrin rolls her eyes and sits.
“Just something small.”
“Like a rat?”
“Sure. Like a rat.”
The clown dips the damp bristle of his paintbrush into a murky cup of face paint and slowly draws lines across Narrin’s cheeks. She winces as the cold brush sweeps her face. Placing a single, tiny dot on her nose, the clown pauses.
“You ready to go?”
“Ready to be somebody else?”
He lifts his brush, and Narrin’s hands and feet turn to tiny paws. A naked tail draws itself out from her spine and she panics as the clown pushes her to the floor. She scurries up the wall and towards the exit, map between her ugly teeth, the clown laughing and trying to crush her with the stool. She pokes her head from the sewer grate.
Narrin wakes up in her sweat-drenched bed. The map was gone, little spots of ink on her pillow the only proof that it was real.
“I don’t feel like myself.”
“You’ve been off, lately. Come over and I’ll cook you something.”
Narrin catches the bus and visits her sister the next day, sick and shaking and nauseous. But her sister doesn’t recognize her, and when Narrin goes to speak her voice isn’t the same.
“It’s me, I swear.” She sounds like the old woman who sells hats outside the bank.
“I don’t know what kind of a joke this is, but tell Narrin it’s not funny. You’re not coming in.”
Sister gently shuts the door and Narrin bends to try to catch her reflection in a nearby window. When she knocks, nobody answers, and she gives up and goes home. It seems as though all the glass panes in the city have transformed into funhouse mirrors. They bend her appearance beyond recognition.
Narrin sits and cries in the bathroom with her hair ties and old shampoo bottles and every other ugly, non-magical thing. She pulls her hands down her face to wipe away the tears and watches in the mirror as the eyes, nose, and mouth of an entirely different person crawl across her skull. She tries to wash away the stranger’s face, but the map shifts again, into someone completely new.