I find it pretty easy to get into Sahar’s head. While I haven’t lived Sahar’s life, I do know what it’s like to be stuck between a rock and a hard place. And I know what it feels like to be alone. Really alone. I’m rooting for her all the way.
A novel by Peg Cheng, Draft 1
Chapter 7: Rat Man
The carpet smelled like a thousand dying cats. Though her body was stiff from riding the bus for over 14 hours, and her knees wobbled from hunger, Sahar strode across the dilapidated lobby as if it were the Seattle Hilton instead of the Seattle Supersonic Hostel.
A man with a rat-like face spun around in his high chair and leaned his elbows on the counter. His eyes darted up and down her body, and he sniffed the air. “Can I help you?”
Sahar fought the overwhelming urge to turn and run. Instead, she pictured the Snickers Man’s fearful face when he got off the bus, and fixed the Rat Man with a steely gaze. “I’d like a room.”
“Ain’t got private rooms, just dorms with beds.”
“Fine. I’d like a bed.”
“How many nights?”
Sahar hesitated. She didn’t want to stay here any longer than she had to, but she had nowhere else to go. “Is there a discount if I stay for more nights?”
“We got a fall special going on.” Rat Man took a pack of gum out of his pocket and popped a piece in his mouth. Grape Bubblicious. He chewed with his mouth slightly open, and offered her a piece, but she shook her head no. “Book three nights, get the fourth one free.”
“How much a night?”
“Is breakfast included?”
“Yep.” He waved an arm towards the lounge behind her. “All the cereal you can eat.” He grinned at her with his pointy teeth.
Sahar could inhale a whole box of cereal right now but she acted like she could care less. She pulled out her wallet and pretended to count her money. She knew exactly how much money she had–fifty in her wallet, twenty in her left sock and twenty in her right sock–but she was buying time, trying to forecast how long she could stand to stay at this roach motel until she found a job.
While she did her calculations, Rat Man blew a bubble and retracted it. Something about the way he sucked the deflated bubble back into his mouth turned Sahar’s stomach. She glanced at her watch–it was just past 10:00pm. Her stomach ached to eat something, anything. The cereal wouldn’t be put out until the morning but she could at least take a hot shower.
“Ya want a bed or not?”
“Yes, I want one.”
“You want the coed dorm?” Rat Man’s eyes darted from her to the fish bowl on the counter filled with a rainbow of individually-wrapped condoms. It had a sign taped to it that said, No Glove. No Love.
Sahar’s face flushed. “No. I want the women’s dorm.”
“You sure?” He blew another bubble, retracted it with a loud slurp, and gave her a sly smile. “Pretty lady like you deserves some company.”
Her hands started shaking. She dropped her duffle bag on the carpet and slipped one hand in her coat pocket. As she felt the blade’s smooth mother-of-pearl handle, her hand itched to whip it out, press the button, and hold the tip right under the Rat Man’s chin.
How easy it would have been to make him take back what he had just said. But then where would she stay for the night? She couldn’t afford a real hotel and the streets were too dangerous.
She took fifteen dollars out of her wallet and smacked the bills down on the counter. “One night. That’s it.”
Peg Cheng is the author of The Contenders, a middle-grade novel centered on the question, can enemies become friends? She is currently writing another novel that is a re-imagining of the Snow White fairy tale set in 1980s Seattle. Peg is also the founder of Prelaw Guru, a law school application consulting company, and the author of The No B.S. Guides for prelaw students.
Painting of The Dance of the Rats by unknown Flemish Master of the 17th Century