A new day is dawning over Paris. I blink my eyes open in the pink light suffusing the city, slowly dissipating the grey dawn and stealing over the rooftops. Silhouetted against the luminous sky stands the Eiffel Tower of a thousand shifting faces. In the misty light of dawn it looks iron-black, cold and lonely and somehow alone.
Down in the streets, people are waking up, starting to get to work. Ring-ring goes the bicycle of a kid delivering bread. A school bus rumbles by, its driver swerving and yelling "Cochon!" at a florist's van that tries to cut him off. A gawky delivery-girl drives a flour truck up to the local boulangerie and flirts with the handler. Usually the bustle cheers me up, but today I feel as iron-hard and cold as the Tour Eiffel. I keep watching, trying to feel something, anything. A newsboy is delivering the sandwich-board blurbs to the corner newsagent's. CONCOURS DE CUISINE EUROPÉEN, it says.
Headlines for a culinary competition. Huh. It ought to interest me, but instead I just roll over in bed and pull the covers tighter around my shoulders. I don't really feel like getting up and at 'em today. I still feel like that freezing metal tower out there – cold, isolated, standing alone. As I will be, in just a little time... now that she's pregnant. Should have figured the one thing Linguini would be good at would be to procreate.
Aw, I don't mean to sound like a party pooper. I'm happy for them, I really am. It's just that it's been said time and time again: A house with a baby has no place for a rat. They haven't said anything to me yet, of course, but I need to be smarter than that. I couldn't stand to see the look of rejection on their faces. And it'll be there, sooner or later.
Did you know that some colonies eat babies? Hard to believe, I know, but it's true. A bunch of six or seven macho rats, think it's cool or something, they come up to the poor little things while they're asleep and eat their – well, sorry, but – their eyes out. And – and tongues. And they nibble on their little hands and toes and – oh man, I think I'm going to be sick. And some of them eat humans' eyes while they're asleep. God, they give all of us a bad name. How could anyone do that?
So I'm not gonna wait to see it on their faces, that they think I – or Emile or Dad – would do anything like that. Humans think rats are like that, and well, I can't say I blame them. Babies change everything. But I really wish… I wish it could have lasted longer. I've been so happy here.
I don't want to leave. I will, of course. But the question remains of where to go. I can't go back to the colony, not now. I love them, and they've stood by me through thick and thin, but you can't just go back to the home you grew up in. Visit, yeah, but go back? Not me. I'm a different person now; I'd be fooling myself to think I could go back to living the life I used to when I was a kid.
I suppose I could bed down at La Ratatouille and hope the health inspectors don't make any surprise visits. If they let me stay on, that is. Oh, man…
The thing is, it's not the view of Paris or the heated room - it's their company I'm going to miss. Funny, huh? I've always liked being alone, having my space, my own time to myself. But these people – I really care about them. I understand them; they understand me. They don't stifle me, and I can be myself around them, and not have to pretend. Anywhere else I'd have to act like I can't read, or that I can't understand them, or have to hole up – I guess I've just got too used to being myself and not hiding. Figures it'd come back to bite me in the derrière, huh? Now I'll have to unlearn it and go back to being careful.
Well, I guess I've managed before. I can manage again.
"Morning, Little Chef."
I feel a pang as I see Linguini coming downstairs, knowing it can't last much longer. Overcome with affection, I run to him, run up his clothes, and give him an awkward hug round as much of his neck and chin as I can reach, rubbing my face against his cheek.
"Hey," he smiles, plucking me off his face, cupping me in his hands. "I love you too, Little Chef." But then he stops short. "What's wrong?"
He always was too good at reading my eyes.
"You look so sad," he says gently. "Did something happen?"
I shake my head, wishing I could get away from his searching eyes. I give him my best grin, but even I can tell it falls flat. God, I'm going to miss him.
"You're scaring me, Little Chef."
I grin again and leap out of his hand, onto my perch in the window seat. Giving an exaggerated yawn, I lie down on the bed.
But he just comes up to me and bends over the small space. "Are you sick?"
I shake my head no, and run into the kitchen to get breakfast started.
"Morning, mon Chef," smiles Colette, waddling into the kitchen. "Smells good!" I turn and smile at her: true to the cliché, she looks radiant pregnant. At eight months, she's starting to look funny and sweet, like a cartoon character who's swallowed a football. She's gained a few pounds, which make her figure less like a pipecleaner doll, and give her face a wonderful softness; her skin and eyes glow. Today she's wearing sweat pants and a T-shirt with a big yellow smiley face right over her pregnant belly.
"Oh! Oh – viens vite, mon chef!" I drop the spatula in shock as she picks me up. She never does that – they're both very good about holding out their hands and letting me climb in. But she seems in a rush. "Quick, quick, feel this!" she whispers, holding me up to her stomach, pressing me gently against the round surface.
Time seems to stop as my face touches the drum-tight curve, my paws splayed against its translucent tautness, and I feel the vibration – a bounce, a tremor of movement. A pang goes through me as I feel this new life, and I turn my face away. How I would love to stay and see this baby grow up. Patting her belly, I hop off her hand, and turn my attention resolutely to breakfast.
But, true to my luck this morning, she's noticed. "Qu'est-ce qu'il y a, mon Chef?" Colette asks gently. "What's wrong?"
But I'm choked up now, and can't reply, even if I wanted to. I ignore her, turning my back. She calls out to Linguini, and I tune her out. Everyone's entitled to a bad mood once in a while – even a rat, right?
Mechanically, I add more pepper to the eggs. One good thing about my sense of smell – I can sense Colette's subtle hormonal changes through her pheromones, and that helps me anticipate most of her pregnant cravings. That alone means I should stay till the kid is born. I wonder whether I should just disappear, make it easy on them, or whether Linguini deserves an explanation. It's not that he doesn't like me; I know he does. It's just that a man's family has to come first. I blink hard…
"I'm done with you giving me the brush-off, Little Chef." Linguini's hand comes into my line of vision, and I'm scooped up off the stove for the second time this morning. Snatching a glance at the stove, I see Colette turning off the burner; no escape for me with excuses of the food burning. Darn. He keeps his hand flat, allowing me to retain my dignity, showing me I'm not a prisoner, but his eyes, huge and expressive, demand a response. "You have to tell me what's wrong. You look so sad all the time, and you don't smile any more, and…" He catches his breath as he really looks into my eyes, and I try to look away, but too late. "Little Chef, are you crying?"
She's still in the room, but he's all I can see, and there's not much I can say, so I just shrug.
"Little Chef…" His tone is gentle, so gentle, as though I were fragile and might break if he talked too loud. "Little Chef, we don't mean to pry, honest, but it doesn't seem right for you to be so sad when we're so happy – I don't mean you can't be sad, you know," he falters in his trademark manner, "it's that we want to make you not-sad. Oh darn, I…"
"He means we want to help," Colette cuts in. "Can we help?"
I sigh heavily and sit down on Alfredo's hand. It's the 'we', more than anything else, that convinces me of the hopelessness of it. They are a unit, and they have their own life now. 'Can we help?' she asked. Can they make the world stop turning, revoke the laws of nature? I think not. I shake my head wearily. What is, is.
"Is it a family problem?" Linguini asks, softly.
I shake my head.
"You're not sick, are you?" he raps out, and I can't help but be warmed at the sudden concern in his voice. But last I heard, heartsickness wasn't a real sickness, so I shake my head no.
Colette's voice comes gently, but with sudden perception. "Is it – is it something we've done?"
I shake my head rapidly. Blast feminine intuition. It is something they've done, but it's not their fault – it's just the way of the world.
"It is, isn't it?" she says, quietly, but with more conviction.
I hate being on the hot seat like this. There is only one answer I can give, and I give it. I shake my head again, firmly.
"What is it we've done that's upset you?" she says.
"Chérie, he just told you it wasn't…" Linguini begins.
"Chut," she shushes him. "Tell us," she urges.
And I give up. What's the point of waiting for another month? They'll have to know anyway, and since they insist… I really wish I could have had more time, but…
I hop off his hand and gesture to them to follow me.
Once in my window-seat, I pull the red-checked bedspread off the doll's bed, mime putting belongings in it – the only thing I really need to pack is Anyone Can Cook – tie it into a bundle, sling it over my shoulder, grab the corner of the book and start pulling it towards the exit.
Linguini's mouth drops open. His sharp intake of breath is loud in the room. "You want to leave?"
I look up into his shocked face, and his hurt and abandonment strike me to the core. His wife is right next to him, pregnant with his child, yet I've never seen him look so alone. Of all the people in the world, I never meant to cause Alfredo Linguini pain. Unaccountably, I remember the moment he stood up for me, the day he held me in his hand and said to a roomful of people, his voice trembling with affection, "This brilliant little chef can take us there." I duck my head to hide my face.
"No – that's not it," says Colette. "He doesn't want to leave – he feels he has to." Blast her perceptiveness, anyway. "Isn't that true, mon Chef?" She turns to Linguini. "Stop feeling sorry for yourself and look at him, chéri! His heart is breaking!" Looking at me, her face determined, she questions me earnestly. "What on earth makes you feel you have to leave us?"
There comes a time when you have to face up to the truth. I drink my fill of their gaze, to warm me when I'm no longer with them. Then, resolutely, I point to Colette's stomach.
I don't know exactly what reaction I expected, but it certainly wasn't Colette turning to Linguini and yelling.
"I told you so! Oh, les hommes, you don't understand anything! You men are all clueless! I told you he might feel left out, I told you we should let him know, and what did you say? 'Oh no, no, of course he knows he's part of the family, he knows he belongs here!' Now look where your ideas have gotten us! He wants to leave us!" She swings round to face me, softening her tone. "Mon Chef, you are part of our family. We should have told you that sooner. I was afraid you would feel jealous, but…"
She trails off as I shake my head.
"Not jealous? What, then?"
I look at Alfredo's eyes, all love and concern, and Colette's, full of affection and respect, and think how my next 'words' will remind them of what I am, and destroy everything.
I can do this.
I point at her stomach, get down on all fours on Linguini's palm and do my best impression of a bloodthirsty street-gang rat.
"What?" I'm amazed to see Colette stifle a snort of laughter. "Oh, I'm sorry, mon Chef, but you think we thought… after all we've been through together…"
"No way!" Linguini denies loudly. "Little Chef," he turns stricken eyes on me, "you – you didn't think we wouldn't want you around after the baby was born, did you?"
I feel like a sailboat caught in a gale; it's all I can do to shrug.
Alfredo stares at me.
"See what your silence has done to him?" she snaps. "Tell me, mon Chef. You thought you would have to leave because people with babies don't usually like rats, non?" Colette pushes.
I shrug again, and the next thing I know, Linguini has snatched me up again and is holding me close to his chest, and I don't mind. "Little Chef," he says, and his voice is full of emotion, "Little Chef, we'd never leave you. There's nothing that would ever make us want you to go away."
"You should have told him that sooner!"
Linguini just shrugs and holds me tighter, ruffling my fur. I'm feeling squashed but I don't care. "I'd never desert you, Little Chef. I thought you knew that!"
Colette comes closer, and kisses the top of my head, cupping my back in her hand. Linguini, though, just looks at me with those eyes, and they're so full of pain that I feel remorseful and foolish at the same time. "Ah, Little Chef, I'm sorry," he says contritely. "You think we'd think you would ever hurt our baby? We know you better than that! What made you think… If I'd had any idea you were thinking such crazy stuff, I'd have talked to you sooner."
"In fact," Colette breaks in, "we are planning to ask the two friends we trust the most to protect our baby to be his godfathers. Anton Ego…"
"…and you," Linguini finishes.
A ton of bricks just fell on my head.
Me? Godfather? But I'm a…
"You okay with that, Little Chef?" Alfredo says gently, rubbing my back with his thumb.
Something in my gaze must be showing my shock, because he smiles softly, reassuringly. "You moved mountains to get hold of secret papers and save my inheritance – that would have been hard even for a human. And you, Little Chef – you did it! I can't think of anyone I'd trust more to look out for my son."
"We actually would have preferred you to be the only godfather, since it's traditionally the father's closest friend," Colette is saying, very gently, "but since we need someone who's also a human, just in case anything legal is ever needed, Heaven forbid… I hope you don't mind."
Mind? Mind? I'm grinning like an idiot, and Colette's smiling at me with her warm dark eyes, and Linguini's caressing my fur, and then I hop off Linguini's hand onto Colette's stomach, and as she strokes my back with a finger, I just lie down on the curved surface and listen to my godson kicking inside.
My human godson.
Life just never ceases to amaze me.