A squeal escaped my throat, Justin laughing with amusement. I ran my hands over the black textured case and the cool metal, still not believing it was here instead of hanging around a repulsive poacher's neck. The fact that the camera was now as big as I was didn't faze me. All I cared about was that it was safely back where it belonged.
As I turned to face Justin and Nancy, another sight greeted my eyes. Next to the camera, piled up in neat rows were black film canisters. The rats had saved everything.
"How did you... When did you get this?"
Justin couldn't help but beam, pleased with the decision he made. "After the incident we kept a close eye on the poachers. The older one lost patience with his partner and threw the camera away as punishment. When we felt the area was safe a group was sent to retrieve it. The film inside is still intact."
My heart suddenly felt heavy as he spoke whatever joy suddenly waning. If the rats were able to retrieve the camera then my futile attempt at doing it myself was all for nothing. Justin and Nancy saw the change in my demeanor.
"I killed those rangers," I whispered, leaning on the camera. "I should have taken you up on your offer in the first place and let you arrange to get it. But I had to do it myself and now two men are dead." My mind replayed the horrible events.
Nancy placed gentle arms around me as Justin rubbed a supportive hand on my back. "It's not your fault," he said. "You did what you thought was best. There was no way those rangers could have known the poachers were that dangerous."
Nancy continued. "If the rangers thought they were in danger they would not have confronted them. Even if you weren't there, they would have come across them anyway."
Their words made me feel a little bit better, but not by much. I pulled myself away, wiping my face to compose myself.
"I think we've spent enough time in here," Justin said trying to change the subject. "I want to take you topside for one last thing."
Justin had arranged for my tent and camping gear to be packed and hidden. As a human I had difficulties putting everything away. I could only imagine how long it must have taken the rats to carry out the same task. Although after seeing the immense infrastructure they were able to create for themselves, nothing seemed impossible.
Rats were finishing their outdoor chores as we exited into the cool evening air, passing tired workers filing their way inside. At Justin's insistence, we scrambled onto a rock overlooking the entrance, the final surprise of the day revealing itself.
Seeing the camera didn't shake me up as the initial run into the infirmary mirror. I thought I was getting the hang of being a small, furry pest animal until A massive black and white mountain of fur cautiously came up to us. There was as much disbelief in his eyes as were in mine.
"Oh my gosh... Eddie?" I cupped my hands over my mouth.
The dog blinked hard, looking at me, his nose taking in whatever scents he could get. I couldn't get over how huge he was, making me wonder how Nancy didn't die of a heart attack the first time she saw him trying to dig her out.
"Wow," Eddie started, cocking his head the way only dogs can do. "I wasn't sure if I understood what the other rats were trying to explain." He took another hearty whiff. "Your smell is the same. It is you. At least you're all right. I was afraid something horrible had happened."
"No, just something really strange," I replied. I was still overwhelmed by how the Border collie looked from this perspective.
Eddie's ears pointed forward. "How long are you going to stay that way?" he asked. "Are we ever going to go home?"
Sadness sunk my shoulders. "I don't know. It seems I'm at the mercy of some magic no one knows how to control. For all I know, this is how I'm going to be from now on."
Eddie let out a little whine. This was confusing for the both of us.
With nighttime approaching it was time for me to say good-bye to my canine companion. As resourceful as the rats were it was still very dangerous to be outside at night as predators started to make their rounds.
I could feel the dog watching me as I climbed down the rock, feeling his apprehension as well. How long could a domesticated animal live in a wilderness valley? And more importantly, how long could I remain a rat before I started going insane?
The walk back was silent as the seriousness of my dilemma sank in. Instead of the unrestrained panic I felt in the infirmary, it was a painful pang eating away at my insides. I was not a rat no matter how comfortable Justin and Nancy made me feel. I was now more afraid of this new body than I was of the poachers. For a split moment I wished Justin had let me die.
Justin tensely rubbed his eyes. The meeting did not go the way he thought, the happy occasion that comes with realizing that your friends are okay. Fresh wounds were torn open with the pain fouling the air.
"Uhm, look, why don't we call it an early night?" he said apologetically. "I still have several things to look over but you can stay with Nancy. In fact, we set up her room so that you would have a bed of your own there."
"We're going to be roommates," Nancy chirped, trying to cheer me up.
I gave a weak smile. I was so full with thought I could barely hear what anyone was saying.
Nancy's room was small yet comfortable, the same size as Justin's. Without his clutter it looked much larger than it was. We sat in the living room where I learned a little bit about my new roomie.
Nancy was studying to be an engineer, apprenticing with Arthur, a rat that I had met briefly. Arthur was responsible for most of the compound's design, overseeing its construction and maintenance. She was lucky to be able to live apart from her large family in her own room. Well, not anymore with me around, but she didn't mind.
Nancy returned the venture at small talk by asking me about what I did, only to end up visibly upsetting me. It was going to take a while to get used to the fact my previous life wasn't relevant anymore.
Justin said the Stone could change me back, the part about when was less than clear. I was afraid to accept that it might never happen but it seemed I didn't have a choice.
My new bed was no different than Justin's. This time no comfort was gained by its softness. Nancy slept in a similar bed across from me. I spent several hours just tossing and turning. When I wasn't doing that, I was staring at the stone ceiling.
What am I going to do? I can't possibly think I can live here without earning my keep somehow. It will only be a matter of time before the novelty of my existence melts away revealing a rat taking up space and resources. Then what? The rats don't have a desperate need for a photographer.
My camera was safe yet unusable. I couldn't lift the thing on my own, much less take photos and develop film. There was no practical use for my knowledge unless some clever rodent created a camera for me using twigs and string. Well, technically all I would need is a box with a pinhole but without any type of film that's all it would remain.
I sighed, frustrated that I was mentally exhausted yet unable to fall asleep.
A small grumble distracted me. I wasn't that hungry that I couldn't wait until morning yet not sleeping wasn't helping me either.
The cafeteria. Yeah, that would at least give me something to do. Maybe just the walk around will tire me out enough so I can get a couple of hours rest.
I avoided rustling the sheets or shaking the bed too much. Grabbing my clothes I crept into the living room, lighting a small candle. I put on the light purple shirt deciding there was no reason to get dressed up just to go snacking. Leaving the rest of my clothes on the sofa, I blew out the candle, making my way out.
The hallways were quiet, nothing unnerving considering it was rather late, or early depending on how you looked at it. Much to my relief there was someone still serving food. At least eating would give me an excuse for being there rather than twiddling my thumbs to pass time.
With tray in hand, a hot bowl of soup, and two rolls next to my bowl, I made my way to the numerous empty tables. I was planning on grabbing the first closest seat until a lone soul caught my eye.
The black and gray rat sat at the farthest corner table with his back facing the room. Despite the emptiness of the cafeteria, he was trying to make himself as inconspicuous as possible. He sat quietly with a book in hand, his calm demeanor contradicting the sociopath stories floating around about him.
Intent in his reading, he didn't notice me coming closer, passing chair after empty chair, to sit at a table a couple of feet away.
I chose a casual arrangement to not draw suspicion, even deliberately watching how I ate. With each spoonful of soup I glanced over at him, at first to figure out what book he was reading. That proved to be futile as the bound cover had no writing on it save for a simple decorative illustration on the front.
The few other rats in the room were busy doing their own things, uninterested in what I was up to. I felt self-conscious either way. Remembering the stories, I compared them to what I noticed. It all seemed a bit hard to believe as I thought I was a good judge of character. He didn't seem different than any other rat I met in this place. Whatever horrors his father was responsible for I suspected they were being cast on him quite unfairly.
Determined to find out for myself, I picked up the tray with my two rolls, taking it over to his table. He didn't notice me at the empty chair opposite him. Absorbed, he continued to read. Taking the plunge I made the first move.
"Uh, hi," I said, my voice cracking to my surprise.
Jinnai hesitated not realizing someone was speaking to him. His ears twitched then his eyes raised, their icy blueness causing me to gulp.
I gathered the courage to continue. "Uhm, uh, I was wondering if you'd like to have my extra roll here. I was only supposed to have one but they gave me two by mistake." As I spoke, the rat looked to both his sides in a confused manner. I couldn't have possibly been talking to him. "I was hoping you would take it as so it doesn't go to waste," I finished.
Jinnai looked up at me again, this time with an uncertain sheepish smile. "Uh, sure... sure..." he said softly, still confused by my speaking to him.
"Do you mind if I sit here?" I asked, placing my tray on his table.
He became flustered. " Do you want me to leave?" he asked. "I was just finishing up here."
I couldn't help being humored by his awkward shyness. "If I wanted to sit alone I didn't need to bother you for it. This place isn't exactly crawling with people." I sat down smiling at him, handing him my second roll. He stopped, staring at it.
"What's that for?" he asked.
"It's your roll. My second roll?" I pushed the piece of bread closer to him. "I offered it to you?"
He let out an embarrassed laugh as he took the bread. "Uh, I'm really sorry," he said. "I'm not used to anyone sitting here... with me... I'm used to being alone."
The sound of his youthful voice cheered me up from my slump. "That's okay," I said, leaning back in the chair. "I'm new here so I don't know everyone's quirks yet."
"Yes, I heard about you," Jinnai nodded. "You're the camper that the Stone changed."
I resisted the urge to blurt out 'I heard a lot about you too.' I wasn't sure how he would have taken it considering what I have heard about him. "Word gets around fast around here doesn't it?" I replied instead.
He nodded. "Nothing really happens except for work. So when something like you happens, it's a big deal."
"Yeah, that's what it feels like." An awkward pause stopped the conversation. I took the opportunity to bite into my roll. Jinnai fiddled with his book, flipping through the pages he had left to go. "So what are you reading?" I asked between bites.
"Metamorphosis," he answered.
I almost choked on my bread. "Kafka? You're reading Kafka?"
He tilted his head. "Am I not supposed to?"
"That's not what I meant," I answered quickly. "I mean, I saw your library but I assumed the books were all written by rats, yanno what I mean? I, uh don't remember any versions of Kafka being printed that small."
Jinnai chuckled. "We have rats whose job it is to copy human books into formats we can utilize. Mostly it's research books but once in a while they find literature to work from. There's only so many books on molecular biology I can read."
Molecular Biology? Engineering? I don't even know humans who were interested in such subjects. "Well, I'd rather read Kafka than science books any day," I replied. "I never was good at science. So how do you like it?"
Jinnai picked up the book. "I think it's really good. I find it amazing that the man's parents are more concerned about not being able to take advantage of their son rather than he's turned into a bug."
"I can certainly relate with the turning into part. I'm just glad I turned into a rat instead." I chuckled at the thought. "I don't think I would have made a good dung beetle." Jinnai smiled.
We paused again.
"So, can I ask your name?" I asked, more to be polite, as I already knew the answer. The dark rat became flustered once more. With the amount of time he must have spent alone as to be so awkward in my company made me wonder how he didn't turn into a sociopath.
"My full name is Eric-Jinnai," he answered somewhat unwilling. "I like to be called just Jinnai. It sounds better."
"My name is Anna. Anna Carmichael if you want to get formal. But Anna is good enough." I stuck out my hand for him to shake which he did.
"Hello, Anna. Pleasure to meet you."
"Hello, Just Jinnai."
We both laughed.