TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:
The ice cold lemonade was her only defense against the hot sun overhead. She shielded her eyes, and watched. Across the street, the phenomenon continued, just as it had every summer afternoon for as long as she could remember. The small store, with its candy cane awning and large window display of souvenirs, attracted a steady stream of tourists. Sweaty, sunburned bodies entered through the single door, but nobody ever came out…
(Stories need only touch on this topic in some way to qualify.)
“C’mon Petunia–what if we get there and it’s closed?”
“We don’t even know if it exists,” Petunia said. “What did Gerald call it, again?”
“Café au Fromage. Gerald said it was put in next to the food tower.”
“Mmmm…” She smacked her lips on her long, pointed snout at the thought of the container where humans dropped delicious food and all sorts of junk for the taking. “At least we can get something to eat if the cafe is closed.”
I rolled my eyes, and tapped my paw against the grass while Petunia stuffed her cheeks with stale popcorn crumbs. The sun above scorched everything in its light, and my leathery tail pulsed in its attempt to cool down the rest of my body. The humans had moved from the lawn of their house–or whatever other rats called it–to the nearby lake. The young splashed and floated on vibrant, blown-up plastic–all preoccupied with getting out of this horrendous heat. This was the perfect opportunity to have a taste of the new attraction locals and tourists flocked to from all over the valley.
“Trust me, we want to eat at Café au Fromage.”
After a quick nip on her ear, Petunia bounded toward the human restaurant. Her steps were slow and clumsy; her mind preoccupied with chewing. I nudged her side with my head to keep her in the right direction. The cafe loomed above us. The smell of cedar drifted from its wood exterior, and mingled with the intoxicating aromas of meat, fat drippings, and spices. There were a number of tunnels to get inside but there was only one that would fit Petunia.
Why did I bring that old rat with me? Oh right, she’s my wife.
“Who owns it?” she asked, voice muffled from food. “Someone we know? Or a newcomer?”
“Gerald didn’t say.”
“Typical Gerald. I haven’t seen him around lately.”
“Probably because he and the others are all at the new cafe. We might see him if we get there in time.”
The hole was between a water spicket and the gutter. Less than a foot away, Petunia stopped and gasped. A clear plastic cup was strewn on the ground nearby. Bright yellow liquid dribbled out from where the straw poked through its lid and into a pool below. She made a beeline toward it.
“Oh, look! Lemonade!” Petunia said.
“Petunia, please focus!” I begged, trailing after her.
“You can’t blame me–it’s not often I get to indulge in my favorite treat!”
“Please, Augustus, it’s stifling out here!”
“Fine!” I said. “Hurry up! If the humans come back before we get inside, I will never forgive you.”
Petunia’s black-and-pink-blotched tongue lolled out of her mouth, lapping at the lemonade. I counted the time in my head. One minute turned to five and I felt a growl rumbling deep in my chest. Between this and the popcorn, her stomach was bulging.
“Blast it, Petunia! We’ll never get there in time if you keep gorging yourself! I don’t want to have to roll you to the cafe!”
“Roll me! What a horrible thing to say!” she scoffed. “With an attitude like that, I don’t think I want to go.” Tail and nose raised into the air, Petunia turned around, and headed back the way we came.
“Please, wait,” I pounced in front of her again, and took a deep breath. “I’m sorry. That was rude for me to say. I’m just excited.”
Petunia sniffed. “This place better have limburger,” she said.
The trek through the tunnel took less than a minute, and dropped us next to an oven. Across from us and a long stretch of white linoleum was the gleaming silver food tower under a gurgling sink. Next to that was a small black box just large enough for four or five rats to fit inside.
Café au Fromage.
“There it is, Augustus!” Petunia squealed. “And, do you smell that?” She lifted her head and licked the cheese-saturated air. “Heavenly!”
“What did I tell–Hey!”
Petunia raced toward the opening, giggling maniacally, and dove through the cafe’s round opening. I shook my head and scampered after her. She stopped halfway inside. Again, I found myself tapping my paw as she squeaked and moaned, no doubt eating everything inside.
“C’mon, Petunia. Move!” I prodded her with my nose.
“Stop pushing, I’m stuck!”
“You’re stuck? What do you mean your stuck?”
There was still room between the entrance frame and Petunia’s rump.
“On the floor, there’s something sticky. I-I can’t move!”
Counting to three, I let out a deep breath. I couldn’t bring Petunia anywhere!
I struggled to push her rump to the side. A space big enough for my head formed and I poked through. Inside, Café au Fromage did not have the candy cane awnings and window of cheese rats could drool over that I had expected. Instead, it was dark. The fumes of cheese were overpowering but they did little to mask the faint stench of death. And as my eyes adjusted, I noticed something in the far corner of the cafe: the furry body of another rat. Still. Sunken in. Decaying.
It was Gerald.