I read the words as big as life on the front page of my college magazine and sank back into my khaki green hammock: Spring Break-out Goes Paige Perfect.
Oh God! No!
It was anything but perfect. My roommate, Valerie, had left me with the chore of watching lab rats for the week while everyone else seemed to be on their way to Cancun for spring break. The job would be simple, she'd assured me, but she had lied.
"All you have to do is feed them a cube of "Magic."
"What's 'Magic'?" I asked.
"It's a little treat that helps calm them so they don't go nuts living with so many side by side. Sometimes they get crazy on the wheels."
"The wheels?" I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.
"Yeah, you know, the thingies that go around like a Ferris Wheel at the Fair?"
"Oh, yeah. OK."
I had no idea what she was talking about.
What my very popular, not at all reclusive-like-me-roommate didn't know, was that I'd never had a pet of any kind before. But it was worse than that. Much worse. She didn't realize I had a long history of being terrified of everything that slinks, crawls, flutters, buzzes, trots, or lumbers near me. I don't do dogs, or horses, or any farm animals what-so-ever. I can't even handle cats, and I loathed winged things, but most of all, I despised vermin.
In fact, it was a ridiculous request to ask of someone with Zoophobia.
Too bad Valerie never took the time to learn this about me. She'd seen me hit the ground at least once when a bird flew too close. But then again, why would she notice me when everything seemed to revolve around her like planets to her sunny self?
The bigger issue, besides my having agreed to feed the rats, was how she had her eye on my friend Jonathan, practically the only guy who hadn't fallen under Valerie's solstice.
I should have told her about my phobia, but how does one fit that into a conversation, exactly? I could just hear how that would go:
"Hey, did you know I have Zoophobia?"
"A fear of all animals? Even puppies?"
Yeah, that would be real popular. I'd be laughed out of the Biology department. Pre-med and afraid of rats? No, I had to keep my secret as long as possible. Especially since Valerie had dated half of the department, and the one she really wanted, was my closest friend.
At the time, I realized I had to find a way to handle my fears by doing the very thing I loathed. I had to feed the animals and somehow let everyone see that I could do this. But how?
So when Jonathan, (A.K.A editor of the Daily Titan, our school newspaper) came by to ask what I was up to over spring break, I told him I'd be hanging with the lab rats while everyone else baked on a beach somewhere.
"There's a story for you," I'd said.
"Yeah? Why is that a story?"
"Because, just between you and I, I have a phobia about rats."
I'd only meant to peek his curiosity-give him a hint at the level at which my fears held me hostage-but he seemed more than a little intrigued. I'd made him swear not to tell anyone. I told him he could write about how someone had to stay back with the rats. Something cheeky and stupid. Nobody reads those school newspapers anyway, do they? That's what I thought.
The next day, there was Jonathan, waiting at the lab with his iPhone, ready to watch me as I fed the first of eight horrifying glass displays of rats. In the first cage, they'd all piled up on top of themselves to reach the cube of "Magic" I threw to them. Shocked and amazed I was even able to do that much, I'd given myself a mental pat on the back. It had been no small accomplishment.
Once the food was dropped in, the first three enclosures of rats seemed more excited than Valerie assured me, as if they were now starting a rat version of a RAVE. At the sight of it, I could barely move. I had five more glass containers to feed. The Ferris wheel Valerie mentioned now made perfect sense.
One of the rats had been hanging on for dear life as another ran with such speed that it occurred to me the "Magic" I was feeding them was having the opposite effect. It hadn't calmed them at all. It was a mystery to me how anyone could work in the lab with them. I felt myself tighten up.
And then everything went black.
I don't know how, but I had passed out on the third cube. When I woke up, there was Jonathan's anxious face over me and he was saying my name.
"Paige, you OK?"
"I'm not sure. I think you fainted. Freaked me out, though. You went down fast. Let's get you up."
"Yeah, yeah, I'm fine. Sorry."
"Well, you're not going to be fine for long."
"What, why?" I felt my heart race at the look at his face.
"The rats are going nuts."
Another wave of nausea had flooded my body as I glance back at the cages. A ghastly sight of three rats teetering along the top of their enclosure turned into one taking a flying leap onto the counter just beyond the clean beakers. Another one leaped toward Jonathan. He screamed, but moved as it landed on the floor. He turned to me hysterical. Whipping his phone into camera mode he laughed at the insanity, then aimed the phone at my horrified expression. It was all I could do to keep my dinner down until I felt something tugging at my hair. My greatest fear had become a reality. One of them was on me!
I froze involuntarily, as if I had become a prisoner in my own skin. I screamed inwardly at my inability to shake it off. The weight of it's white body tugged on hair as it found its way up my brown braid to the top of my head. It's long, pink tail braised the side of my temple. I felt a moment of tunnel vision. Its pink belly-beady-eyed-twitching-whiskered-face-had touched mine! That was it. I went down. Jonathan had been laughing the entire time while recording. My fainting was the merciful part. I fully hoped I would remember nothing of this experience, or maybe bang my head so hard I'd remain in a comma until this nightmare ended.
When I came-to, the three escapees had found each other for a reunion of sorts on my stomach as if they were celebrating their own spring break-out.
"Paige, you're pretty funny. I didn't think staying on campus would be so exciting. Wanna catch a movie later?"
I'd nodded. We could discuss the definition of "fun" later. Jonathan said it would be his best story yet. I had hoped he'd been joking, but there it was in black ink for everyone to read. This story would be floating around the hallways of campus all month. Somehow, inexplicably, I'd become Paige, the Pet Perfect friend. But I also had a standing date with Jonathan. Those rat bastards got me a boyfriend!
Maybe there was room in my life for them after all.