Whenever possible, I passed Room 489, the office with the windowed door.
It was on the same floor as the office where I worked, but might as well have been in China. My grandmother, who lived when the world was different, had a musty-smelling picture book about China. It showed men with little beards and women in gowns the colors of flowers. She said everyone wore silk, which, she added, was cold and slippery; I prefer the heavy cotton we wear, even if it only comes in brown and gray.
One of the pictures in the book showed a girl, about my age, holding a large rat. My grandmother said it wasn’t a rat at all, but something called a cat. She pointed at the bushy tail, and I had to agree that rats have hairless tails. She said that before The Cleansing lots of people had cats.
Two women worked in Room 489. They wore red skirts, like the one The Pioneer wears when she is addressing the country. There was a blue and yellow rug on the floor and framed pictures on the walls.
I told my grandmother about them. “You stay away from them,” she said.
“I think they have one of those rats with a bushy tail,” I said.
“Perhaps.” I told her about the day I wasn’t feeling well. Missing work is punishable with three Demotions, and I had two already from the time I’d been caught kissing Jessica in the bathroom. Twenty means a visit to the Guidance Center and sometimes you don’t return. I was late that day, almost running when I passed 489’s windowed door, so maybe I didn’t see what I thought I did.
“What do you think you saw?” My grandmother tilted my chin up so I was looking at her lined face and dark eyes.
On the desk of the woman closest to the door was a basket and peering over the side was a small furry face with big yellow eyes. “It didn’t look mean, the way a rat does. It looked sad.”
“Did you see its tail?”
I had to admit I hadn’t.
I avoided 489 after that. But I couldn’t forget the furry face. I hadn’t told my grandmother because she would have thought I was crazy, and maybe I am, but I know that cat was saying, save me.
Two weeks later the Office Dictor stopped by my desk.“These are wanted upstairs,”he said, handing me a pile of clipped folders.
The fastest way upstairs was taking the elevator, but it was broken again. I was half way up the stairs when a man came running down, pushing me aside as he passed. I dropped the folders and grabbed the railing to keep from falling. I was picking up the scattered folders when I saw stamped at the top of one, “Condemned”, and “489” penned next to it. Looking around to be sure I was alone, I opened the folder. Though I didn’t understand many of the words, it was clear the two women would be arrested and everything in their office destroyed. I thought of the girl with the cat in China. She’d been smiling as if she had a secret.
As soon as I’d handed over the records, I rushed downstairs to 489 and stood squarely in front of the door. The cat was walking across the room, looking nothing like a rat, more like a dancer, its plumed tail held high. The women stared at me. I didn’t flinch. I saw the color drain from their faces and one reached for the cat, scooping it up and stroking it.