Malcolm at Midnight, Chapter 1: The Mouse

It began with a rat. There was also a glasses-wearing elderly iguana, a grumpy fish who could spell, a ghost in the clock tower, a secret message in the library, and a twisted evil that lived on the fourth floor of our school. But those’ll all come later. First, there was a rat: Malcolm.

I know this’ll surprise you, Mr. Binney, but yes, Mal­colm’s a rat. I know because he told me so. Don’t feel bad about bringing him to our class thinking he was a mouse. He is small. And that pimply clerk down at the Pet Emporium just wants to sell anything. I know—once he tried to convince me a goldfish was still alive even though it was floating upside down!

Remember, too—back then, last fall, you were kind of . . . distractible. Like a kid listening to his mom while Cartoon Network is blaring. Hearing, maybe, but not really listening. I know why now, but still. That must have helped the clerk’s duplicity.

So, I suppose, in an effort to get down the whole story, I should share how it happened. How Malcolm came to stay in Room 11 with us fifth-graders. I know you know this part, Mr. Binney, but I suppose it’s important to tell the whole story.

Malcolm’s story.

Malcolm doesn’t remember much before the Pet Empo­rium. Maybe he was born there. He does know that he used to be in a cage with lots of other rats. But they all got sold. People want their money’s worth, and the tiniest rat isn’t the one to pick. Of course, when you’re being sold as feeder rats, maybe that’s not the worst thing.

So, Malcolm was the lone rat in his cage when you walked in that day, Mr. Binney. You came in for fish food, but somehow you found yourself stopped in front of the “Pocket Pets” section, jiggling a little square box in your hands. Every few minutes, you cracked it open and peeked inside.

Malcolm was racing on his wheel. He’s very fast. Maybe you weren’t really looking at him, but you have to admit, there’s something about Malcolm that catches the eye.

The pimply-faced clerk noticed your pause. “Can I help you?” he asked. “Hey, don’t you teach at McKenna School? I used to go there.”

You jerked a little, snapped the box shut, and shoved it in your pocket. “Um—what? Yes, yes, I do.” You pointed at Malcolm. “Cute .  . . mouse. That brown splotch on his back almost makes him look like he’s wearing a cape.”

“Mouse?” The clerk frowned and chomped on his gum. He glanced at the cage, then the frown switched to a slick smile. He slid in front of the sign that read rats, $2.99 each and rolled his gum to the other side of his mouth. “Yes, he is a handsome one. You know, ra—mice make great classroom pets. And they’re quiet and don’t take up much room. Smart, too.”

You both watched as Malcolm started licking himself. All over.

The clerk cleared his throat. “And, well—clean.”

Malcolm finished grooming his tail. He considered your conversation. Whatever a “classroom” was probably was preferable to being sold to the next python owner.

Malcolm put his paws up on his food dish and stared at you. You’ve maybe never noticed, Mr. Binney, but Malcolm’s got very intelligent eyes. Shiny dark brown, like steaming coffee. He added a little squeak.

You nodded. “Yes. Maybe. What kinds of supplies would I need?”

The clerk cracked his gum and grinned. “Well, let me show you our selection of cages and water bottles over here . . .”

And that was how Malcolm came to live in Room 11 at McKenna Elementary School in Clearwater, Wisconsin. With a three-story deluxe cage, a fleece-lined Comf-E-Cube, a tail-safe plastic exercise wheel, and a drip-free, antibacterial water bottle.

By the way, Malcolm wants to thank you for all that.

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