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Montague, an artistic young rat living beneath the streets of New York City, is convinced he can do nothing to save his friends from extermination until he achieves a better understanding of both himself and his ne'er-do-well uncle.
On a sticky midsummer day, when the heat and humidity kept most of the creatures in Central Park from stirring, a young rat named Montague Mad-Rat-or, to be precise, Montague Mad-Rat the Younger--was busy collecting feathers in the birds' preening grounds above the reservoir. Once his tail was looped around as many feathers as it could manage, Montague crept through the underbrush down to the berry patches by the Great Lawn. Here he carefully gathered up ripe, fallen berries into his mouth, choosing the widest possible selection of colors. These were for his mother, who melted the berries down into dyes to color the feathers, which she fashioned into rather fanciful shapes best described, perhaps, as rat hats.
When his cheeks were bulging, Montague beaded for home. The quickest way was by an underground drainpipe that came up in Columbus Circle, at the foot of the great park. But it always took him quite a while to get there because of his zigzagging route under bushes and park benches. Montague dreaded like the plague meeting other young rats. If they ever caught sight of him, they poked fun at him. Not that he really blamed them, considering his puffy cheeks and the bouquet of feathers in his tail. But once, about a year ago, he'd introduced himself to a group of young wharf rats in the park before he'd collected any feathers or berries, and they'd pointed and laughed at him anyway. Something was obviously the matter with him-but what? This mystery, haunting him ever since, had turned him painfully shy.
On this particular summery afternoon, Montague had made his winding way only halfway down the park when the air grew very still.It was almost as if the sky were holding its breath. He poked his snout out from under a forsythia bush and looked across the Sheep Meadow. It was sheepless, as usual, sprinkled with the regular huge human children holding ice cream cones and balloons. But a faint sound came from the distance, as of a rat scampering over a tin roof. Suddenly there was a clap of thunder. The sky seemed to take this as a signal to stop holding its breath. The faint scampering sound grew into a loud rustling, and all the trees around the meadow bowed their heads before a driving wind. As the human children ran for cover, they let go of their colorful balloons. The balloons went up, the raindrops came down. They met, and the rain won, bursting all the balloons in a second.
By the time Montague finally came out of the park onto Columbus Circle, his sleek gray fur was soaked, and he'd lost half his mother's feathers. Columbus Circle was in a turmoil. Yellow cabs and delivery trucks were honking, and drenched people were rushing every which way, making it a decidedly unpleasant spot to linger. But just as Montague was about to dive off the curb into the shelter of an underground drainpipe, something caught his sharp eyes. A prim pack of rats was stranded under the towering statue in the center of the Circle, huddled under brightly colored umbrellas. Montague was surprised: he'd never seen rats with umbrellas before. A giant bus rolled up to the statue. One after the next, the rats leapt up onto the bus's back bumper, where they sat in a neat row, still holding their umbrellas over their heads. As the bus pulled away, a strong gust of wind caught the umbrella of the rat seated on the far end of the bumper. This umbrella went sailing and tumbling through the air, high over the traffic.
It landed below the curbstone a yard from where Montague crouched. Clinging to the handle was a young she-rat with bewitchingly beady eyes, which she blinked, as if mildly startled. She gave a sneeze as she climbed onto the curb, and then with her free forepaw she evened the bow of a blue ribbon that was tied around her neck. Montague had never seen a rat wearing a ribbon before.
"Gad, that was different," she said, smiling at him from under the rim of her umbrella, which was made of shiny plastic. "Did you see me?"
Thanks to the berries clogging his mouth, all Montague could do was nod.
"It was pretty exciting," she confessed. "Are you a wharf rat, too?"
He nodded again.
"I thought so, but you look so awfully dark, and your cheeks ... No offense, but they're like a chipmunk's. Did you leave your umbrella home?"
Since he had no umbrella to his name, it was a hard question to answer without resorting to words. He simply smiled. She broke into a bright laugh.
"You'll have to excuse me," she said, her gray eyes twinkling beadily. "But your smile . . . Where did you get those cheeks?"
He stopped smiling.
"Oh, I didn't mean to offend you! It's just the cheeks, and the feathers, and no umbrella, when all those clouds were piling up across the river this morning."
The thought of it all made her giggle uncontrollably. She clapped a paw over her snout to stop herself. Just then, another strong gust of wind swept across Columbus Circle, and it jerked the umbrella out of her other paw. The umbrella sailed away into the park, over the bowing treetops, growing smaller -and smaller until it disappeared in the rainy distance like a bird migrating north for the summer.
"I'll be I" she said.
Now that the young she-rat's fur was in danger of getting as soaked as his, Montague extended a paw toward the grating, inviting her to slip through ahead of him. She stared at him curiously.
"You want me to cross the street?" she asked, blinking raindrops out of her eyes. "Hadn't I better wait for the light?"A Rat's Tale. Copyright © by Tor Seidler. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.