On the next night, I was already expecting the Rat King, so the click of his claws on the floor did not frighten me.
"Let me guess," I said. "You want to make another bargain?"
I wondered how long it would take to get used to those seven grating voices, and I rather hoped I wouldn't have the opportunity to find out. My room was very dark and empty; even my reflection in the mirror, barely visible, looked like a ghost.
He climbed up my nightstand, settled down on top of Breaking Dawn, and tucked his tail around his feet as if anticipating a long conversation.
"My place of residence is rather...plain at the moment," he said. "Hardly suitable for a king. I would like some decoration – such as your snowglobes, perhaps?"
My snowglobes? The CN Tower, the orange kitten with the lopsided Santa hat, Peter Pan and the Darlings flying out of their house – those I could give away without a backward glance, but the dancers? The elegant couple in the snow I'd imagined hundreds of times as Chris and me? My most precious, secret wish hidden in glass and confetti...
The Rat King's sword held to Chris's throat. "This is all your fault, Marie." An empty chair at school. Carl's eyes rimmed with red. A camera gathering dust in the closet without an owner. My imagination flickered and went out like a candle; just the thought of a world without Chris gave me a headache.
"Okay," I said.
I had to try to get him talking again. Make peace, as Carl had said, although right then I was very much in agreement with Chris's scornful 'Yeah, right'. Disgusting, slimy, bullying thief.
"Your place of residence? Where's that?"
Small talk with my family is bad enough, but with a rat? What the heck am I supposed to say?
"A lovely, hospitable place known as the West Island sewage system."
I forced myself not to make a face. "Ah. Have you always lived there?"
And how dare you bring my beautiful snowglobes there?
"You ask a lot of questions, even for a human. Why do you care?"
He didn't seem to like this sort of polite conversation any more than I did.
"I'm just trying to understand...who you are. What makes you hate Chris so much for something that's not even in his control? He can't help being...you know..." Beautiful, charming, witty, creative and totally unique. "The way he is," I concluded weakly, remembering that the person in question was standing by my computer and listening to every word we were saying.
"And why are you trying to kill him? Isn't it enough that you split him apart like this?"
"Because," the Rat King's eyes flashed red like someone had turned a laser pointer on. "I can find no peace until he's gone."
"She won't change her mind, you know. If she doesn't like you – "
"Silence!" he yelled, taking a flying leap at my face. I flinched back; he hooked his claws into my pyjama collar, spreading his sewer fumes until I thought I might be sick.
"What do you know?" he squealed. "You with your acceptable body and your happy home! Did you ever feel your own repulsiveness gnawing at your insides like a tapeworm? Dragging behind you like a rattling chain? Knowing every day of your life that you can never escape it - and all these normal creatures, dripping with complacency, knowing that everything comes to them without them having to lift a paw. Of course I hate your Nutcracker – he has the greatest treasures life can possibly offer, and he treated them like dirt!"
I glanced at the clock. 11:58. Chris was still in his inanimate stage, but any second now he would wake up. Oh, Chris – I'm so sorry you have to hear this. Whatever you do, don't start a fight or you'll never break the curse.
The Rat King let go of my collar, climbed down my arm onto the bedclothes, and began to scuttle back and forth across them – not on his hind legs as usual, but on all fours for extra balance.
"He has a father and mother who love him – and he doesn't even call or write or e-mail them for a year. He has Queen Maeve's favor – " The rat cleared his throat and closed the three pairs of eyes facing me. "And he does not love her one-tenth as much as she deserves. He has a friend who would give up everything for him – and he takes you shamelessly for granted! He is using you, little Marie, because he can find no better company."
This, I was not expecting. It was like a cold needle stabbing me – he was saying out loud what I had always feared, but never dared to voice out loud. This seven-headed sewage dweller had to be an expert on dark and dirty places – how else could he have figured out mine?
"He will never love you – he only tolerates you because you are so polite. You never interrupt. You laugh at all his jokes, even when they're not funny. You hang on his every word - a dog yapping at his side, a pathetic, devoted little fool. You're worse than I was. Who are you to love him? Nobody – a millstone around your mother's neck, an embarrassing mistake your father made. Why should anyone care about you?"
I was crying by now, and I hated myself for it. He watched me with a vicious satisfaction; he couldn't have turned away if he wanted to, with his eyes facing in every direction. A shaky sob burst out of me; I felt about five years old.
But somewhere inside me, my daydream narrator voice spoke up stubbornly: He's wrong. Remember Dad's painting.
I looked over at it on the wall, almost invisible now; I knew the swirls and dots of paint like my own face. That painting was me – not the details, but how he saw my soul. It was beautiful in its thick, shiny texture and the play of blue, violet, yellow and white blending together in an unmoving dance. He couldn't have painted me like that if he didn't love me.
Remember Mother's face. How she looked just before going into Miranda's house – she looked just like you felt. She doesn't act cool and standoffish because she doesn't love you – that's just the way she is. And you're just the same.
Remember Carl's snowglobe. Remember Chris's rose.
"Why?" I answered, hoarse and congested, but certain of telling the truth. "Because. They're my family and Chris is my friend. They care about me because – we don't need a reason. That's just the way love is. It's not logical."
"If Queen Maeve doesn't love you," I continued, ignoring his bristling fur and dangerous glare, "That's not necessarily your fault. It's her concern. So don't hate yourself because of it."
Suddenly all fourteen red points in the darkness of the room closed for a moment, and seven sighs made my guinea pig poster flutter. Of course he did not admit that I was right, but he climbed down the bedpost and waddled slowly across the floor to the closet.
Before entering the closet, two of his eyes turned back for a last look at me. Then he disappeared into the shadows.
Maybe he'd come back one day; I had no idea. And when he did, I'd have to confront him again. But I knew he would leave Chris and me in peace for a long time now; the fizzy soft-drink feeling of victory was unmistakable.
I had been so busy arguing with the Rat King that I hadn't noticed Chris coming alive, so it came as a shock to see him beckoning to me from the desk. I went over and sat down, more or less at eye level with him.
"Hey," I whispered, wiping the last stray tears out of my eyes. "You think this counts as making peace?"
"Oh, Marie," he said, sounding just as worn out as I was. "You – you're such a – was that what you were thinking all this time? That I was using you?"
"Not anymore," I said, then picked him up and hugged him tightly.