Photo by Khashayar Kouchpeydeh

Backstroke

Fiona is obsessed with the video meme of a New York City sewer rat swimming circles in a flooded-out subway station. She plays it over and over on her mom’s Facebook news feed.  

“That’s poop water it’s swimming in,” her mom says, motioning for Fiona to put away her dad’s old iPad, one of the few items left of him. “It’s disgusting. Turn it off.” 

But Fiona can’t stop watching. Her hands flutter by her side, matching swim-strokes with the rat she’s named Rat-a-tat, rolling the R with her tongue. Her front teeth have recently replaced themselves. She can now handle a butter knife on her own, pour her own soda, tuck herself in at night. 

“He’s happy!” she says.

“He’s drowning,” says her mom, arms full of laundry. The morning’s toast sits dark and unbuttered in the little yellow toaster, while dinner heats itself in the oven. 

“I don’t think so,” says Fiona, who has learned from the Alexa device in her bedroom that rats can swim up to half a mile in open water. That they travel swiftly through sewer lines. That their teeth never stop growing. Fiona loves Alexa’s immediate answers. She loves that when she whispers questions to her at night, Alexa lights up and whispers back. 

“He’s having fun. Watch.” Fiona holds the iPad up to her mom as she sweeps past with dirty clothes tucked under one arm, four mismatched coffee mugs collected by their chipped handles in her other hand. 

“I can’t right now,” her mom says, disappearing down the hallway. 

Fiona wonders what they’re having for dinner, her stomach rumbling. She smells something vaguely unpleasant coming from the oven, like something burning. She had nuggets last night, frozen pizza the night before. Her mom used to make things like spaghetti and enchiladas, her dad’s favorite, smothered in bubbling green sauce. Now it’s whatever box her mom grabs from the freezer and shoves into the oven. 

Fiona switches to the YouTube for Kids app and does a quick search for “hamster mazes.” Her mom says the people who construct these mazes have way too much time on their hands, but Fiona loves watching the tiny animals swiftly navigate through intricate mazes made of carefully cut cardboard and random household items: thread spools, twisty straws, rusty spoons. The hamsters scurry across narrow platforms like rodent ninja warriors, shove their chubby bodies through quarter-sized holes, escape down toilet paper roll corridors—all for a tiny bite of cheese. They are wily and resilient. Fiona balls her fists, cheering for their victory. After two more maze videos, she switches back to the sewer rat, hoping her mom will watch it with her. 

Maybe her mom would like it more if the rat were swimming in a river or a pool. A place you’d expect to find water. But now, water seems to be everywhere. On the news and in the headlines and rushing down the streets outside, blocking intersections, burying cars, gathering waist deep in basements. The whole world is drowning, Fiona thinks. She’s grateful there’s no thunder, but wonders when the rain will stop, when life will go back to what it once was.

One time, a storm knocked out the power in Fiona’s neighborhood. She remembers her dad calmly lighting candles, making funny faces in their flickering yellow glow, telling her and her mom not to worry. There’s nothing to be afraid of in the dark, he always said. But her mom is still afraid of the dark. Also escalators, skateboards, and climate change. 

One time, Dad grabbed a cereal box from the bottom cupboard and allowed Fiona to pour the first bowl. When she tipped the box, a hard, hairy clump fell into the bowl and Fiona screamed. 

“Oh, it’s just a little friend,” her dad said, calmly lifting the dead rodent by its tail and dropping it into the trash bin, along with the cereal box. 

There was no gravesite to visit after her dad died, which was a relief to Fiona, because the idea of him being buried in dirt made her even sadder. He’d be covered in sloshy mud right now. Soaked to the bone, as her mom says when it rains like this. Only her dad isn’t dead, her mom keeps insisting. Just gone. Still, Fiona pictures his ghost-white bones floating down the flooded streets. 

“Are you still watching that stupid mouse?” says her mom, rushing to the oven as the smoke alarm begins to shriek. She cracks the window above the sink, lets in the sound of pounding rain.

“It’s a rat,” says Fiona, as her mom places a blackened turkey pot pie on the stove. “You should watch.” 

Her mom takes the seat beside her at the counter.

“Huh, look at that,” she says, wrapping her arm around her daughter’s narrow shoulders and watching the rat spin in the rising floodwaters, backstroking through the muck. “He’s having the time of his life.” 

Outside, the rain continues, with no sign of ever stopping.

Kelle Schillaci Clarke is a Seattle-based writer with deep L.A. roots. You can read her full bio here.

Kelle Schillaci Clarke is a Seattle-based writer with deep L.A. roots. You can read her full bio here.

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