Withnail & Us

Illustration by Mathew Borrett

“You’re not supposed to have that in here,” was Mariah’s first reaction.

“You’re no fun,” was her roommate Dylynn’s.

Mariah watched the raccoon between the slats of the laundry basket that Dylynn had upended over the animal. The raccoon looked drunk. It wove on its little feet, snuffling through the mucus pooling at the edges of its nose. It regarded Mariah with the wounded dignity of a freshman seeking out her first bottomless mimosa. Dylynn had placed the sum total of both their and Mariah’s textbooks on top of the basket, and dumped the laundry on the couch. Mariah guessed that the books were meant to keep the basket from moving, if the raccoon got ambitious. She wondered if she could pass Art History without Umberto Eco’s On Beauty. It was awfully heavy, and was currently doing foundational work in more ways than one.

“You should get a cat carrier.”

“I should get paid, is what.”

Mariah shrugged. “Fair.”

She edged around the laundry basket/raccoon habitat, and took a seat on the arm of the couch. Beside her, Dylynn continued making field notes in a journal with a raccoon sticker on it. Mariah leaned over and peered at the notes. “DISTEMPER,” Dylynn had written in red pen, above the words “CHIP?” and “WITHNAIL?”.

“I have a vaccine in the CRISPR drawer,” Dylynn said, without lifting their eyes.

Dylynn was an urban biology major at the University of Toronto. Mariah was studying arts platforming and fundraising at OCADU. Although their majors and institutions were wildly different, the Toronto Student Community Complex’s mandate was to foster interdisciplinary ideas among students who would otherwise spend their best creative cycles stuck in cars and transit, commuting between home and school. The tower’s matchmaking system put Mariah and Dylynn together based on their respective sleep patterns and the answers they’d provided to a forty-item questionnaire. It was a little weird, but it was better than breathing in black mould in a century-plus basement rental, or taking the two-hour bus ride each way to Guelph where Mariah’s parents lived.

“There’s a new variety of canine distemper out there, and it’s really vicious, way closer to the feline strain,” Dylynn was saying. “Even dogs who have been vaccinated are dying from it. Or dying from the dehydration that comes with it. That’s what gets them, in the end.”

“So you…caught a raccoon to experiment on it?”

“Yeah. Well, not really. Sort of. I caught a raccoon to take tissue samples. I’ve maxed out my tissue simulation membership.”

“There are memberships for that?”

“Yeah, it’s a sample-simulation subscription. Say that five times fast. But I’m maxed out since my jellyfish thing last term, which is still running. I can’t afford the premium tier.” Dylynn ran a hand through their hair. “I kind of didn’t know what to do with him? I guess? If I leave him out there, he’s just spreading disease, and if I turn him into Toronto Humane, they’ll euthanize him. My vaccine will take three days to propagate. Then we can test against other samples. I can monitor a real case in real time.”

“This must be illegal,” Mariah said. “Right? And either way, really, profoundly unethical. Like you’re probably destroying your career, if somebody finds out.”

“I have pentobarbital. I can euthanize him just like the City would, if it gets bad.”

“That doesn’t make me feel any better!” Mariah threw a pillow at her roommate. “Like I could legit take that as a threat, you telling me that, the moment I raise a perfectly valid concern about bioethics!”

Dylynn threw the pillow back at her. “Mariah. If I wanted to threaten you, you would be puking your guts out. That’s what the Listeria samples are for. You know, the ones in the freezer?”

Mariah considered. On the one hand, this was a terrible idea. On the other hand, her roommate was a mad biologist who had graduated valedictorian from the top-tier STEM high school in Ontario. More importantly, they were a mad scientist who actually did dishes and wiped down countertops and knew the exact temperature at which one had to brown butter in order to make to-die-for chocolate-chip cookies.

Also, there was that one time that Dylynn had literally saved her life.

Mariah extricated herself from her seat, tiptoed past the raccoon, and made for the door. Finally, Dylynn looked up. “Where are you going?”

“To buy a litter box. And possibly some oven mitts.”

“No worries. I’ve got hockey gloves.”

“Just the litter box, then.” She pointed at Dylynn. “And remember. I know where you sleep.”

Someone in the tower had to have pet supplies. There were allowances for therapy animals. It was one of the things the consortium of university landlords had agreed on, based on Doctor Mayor’s influence — and willingness to pull in extra funding sources from the provincial government. No matter which of Toronto’s schools a student came from, they should have access to health and wellness services. This explained the gym, the yoga space, the meditation room, the abrupt switch from blue to orange light at nine p.m., and the presence of animals in most of the dons’ units. The don on their floor had Gordon the Therapy Gecko. Gordon’s student visiting schedule, like the meal plans and emergency alerts and discount offers and invitations to codejams and theatre tickets, was available on the tower app. Mariah herself was more fond of seeing Pixie, the obstreperous sealpoint Siamese on the twelfth floor. Whatever you had to complain about, Pixie could always complain louder.

Her steps took her to the hacklab on the third floor before she could stop them. It was a dumb idea, she knew. And not just dumb, but pathetic. Amateur hour. Low. Beneath her. Still. Jake was the only one she knew with a recently deceased cat and all the accessories that came with one. And this was an emergency. Sort of. For her and Dylynn’s cleaning deposit, if nothing else.

He stood up from his soldering board and looked over his shoulder at her before she could say anything. His face maintained a neutral blankness. Even when she wove her way past all the other projects to his desk, he acted like she wasn’t even there, until she said: “Hi.”

“Are you okay?” he asked, suddenly consumed by soldering together bits of board and sensor. It was the only question he ever asked her, when they ran into each other. Mariah had long since stopped telling him the truth, which made her next words a refreshing change of pace.

“I want to buy Thom’s robotic litter box from you. The fancy one. The one you built.”

Jake set the soldering pencil back into its clip. “No. I’m getting another cat. I already put in for one.”

Jake was American. He’d gotten out just before the borders closed. The shooting that entitled him to extra dispensations from the residential advisory board had happened long before that. Now he was studying Critical Making at Ryerson, but all his friends were OCADU hackers. It was through these hackers that they’d met.

“Good for you,” Mariah said. “I’ll rent it until the approval comes through.”

“You can’t rent — ” Now his frustration was plain in the set of his shoulders. He sighed. “You don’t even have a cat, but you want the litter box?”

“And some food, if you have any left over. And the cat carrier.”

He turned around. “You’re a real fucking piece of work, you know that?”

“That’s what the midwife told my mom.”

His mouth twitched, then firmed. “And you’re not funny, either.”

“I get that a lot. Are you going to help Dylynn, or not?”

He blinked. Mariah reminded herself to keep her focus off his eyelashes. “Dylynn’s getting a cat?”

“No. Dylynn’s developing a vaccine for the new variety of distemper afflicting the trash pandas of the city. And you can help.” Mariah felt a prickling along her neck. She turned,and saw Kerri, the girl who had always moved her projects a little closer to Jake’s desk. Kerri hastily looked down at her sewing rig. “Are you getting all this?” Mariah asked her. “Would you like a slide deck, or are you taking good notes?”

“Jesus Christ,” Jake muttered, and then he was hustling them out of the lab.

Withnail the Raccoon proved to be a more than adequate roommate once his surroundings improved. His first few hours in the unit were mostly sleepless, but lightly lacing his food with CBD mist (the same Mariah spritzed under her tongue before sitting exams) appeared to take the edge off. Dylynn said it might also prevent the seizures associated with distemper and help him avoid the nausea that would otherwise result in diarrhea. Loss of fluids was a primary cause of death in cases of distemper. Late that first night, Dylynn had some saline, a pack of easy-use syringes, bags, and tubing delivered just in case emergency fluids were needed.

“The guy who makes these escaped from Puerto Rico with nothing but a flash key,” Dylynn remarked, squinting at the supplies. “Open-sourced the designs once his company folded. Technically he’s breaking copyright, but there’s no single corporate entity that can prosecute.”

“I’m more concerned about the fact that you can get syringes delivered at three in the morning,” Mariah said.

“People do still have diabetes, you know,” Jake sniped. He was tucked into the other side of the couch, as far away from Mariah as he could physically get while still inhabiting the same piece of furniture. He held a faux-fur pillow across his stomach and occasionally worried it between his fingers. Mariah wished that she’d had a chance to say goodbye to Thom, his cat. She missed Thom, too. But Jake made it clear he didn’t want to hear from her, not even condolences.

“Not for long,” Dylynn said cheerfully, and went back to rigging a camera to record Withnail’s progress. “Science marches on.”

“You’re shitty at hiding evidence,” Jake said.

“I’m a scientist. Hiding evidence is the exact opposite of what we do.” 

Withnail was receiving a lot more personal attention than he might otherwise in an animal shelter. Apparently the policy for healthy raccoons was simply to vaccinate, chip, and release, or, in the case of a diagnosis, to euthanize. But the City had seen an alarming rise in dead raccoons lately, thanks to the flash floods and the year-round tick population. The latest strain of distemper was becoming vaccine-resistant. It was turning into a public-health hazard. Even if Dylynn couldn’t save Withnail’s life, they could make his last few days go more peacefully. It was a mission of mercy, really.

“And that’s what we’ll tell the dean,” Mariah concluded, “if we get caught.”

“But first, we need cover,” Dylynn said. “We can’t leave this room. Or really, we shouldn’t, not without doing a thorough decontamination. Otherwise, we’re putting the other animals in the tower at risk.”

“But won’t we be truant, in that case?” Mariah asked. “If we keep skipping?”

“Yes. The tower knows when we leave and when we come back. If we both stay in for more than a couple of days, it’ll tell our don. Remember the measles outbreak? If we’re both taking sick days, the tower wants to know.”

“Should we ask for help?” Mariah thumbed through the tower app. “I mean, someone in this place must need some extra points on their meal plan, or extra laundry cycles.”

Like the community kitchens, makerspaces, in-house library and theatre, athletic spaces, and rooftop garden, the tower’s currency was an encouragement for residents studying at all of Toronto’s universities to spend more time together. Students could trade points with each other for services, or gather points in groups to purchase access to experiences. The hope was that they would cultivate a co-operative mindset that might extend to the business world — after all, you couldn’t found the next hot startup without trusted friends and a place to work. It was sort of like one of Dylynn’s bacterial cultures: throw a bunch of live elements together and see what grew. Mariah had her doubts about this as a plan, but it was nice to spend all-nighters talking with people in person over pizza, instead of over a project management chat in one window. And even babysitting a vomiting raccoon was better than commuting.

“If we tell people, we’re just asking to get caught,” Jake said. “And Dylynn’s right. It exposes even more possible carriers. The other animals in the building will be at risk, even if they’re already vaccinated. We should be quarantining ourselves, honestly. All of us. Even me.”

Dylynn snorted. “Subtle.”

Jake’s ears flamed. “I’m not the one who had the dipshit idea to rescue a sick fucking raccoon and use it for extra credit without thinking the whole thing through. I’m just trying to think of the other animals in this building. My fucking cat just died, asshole.”

Mariah reached over to squeeze his hand, but thought better of it at the last second. She hadn’t meant it in a creepy way — not really — but it might be construed that way. Best to avoid it. Let him maintain his boundaries. But Dylynn didn’t really understand how much Jake cared about animals. Withnail was probably their first real experience of anything like a pet. They had no idea how deep the bond between Jake and Thom had gone. And now Mariah felt terrible for asking for his help.

“It’s okay if you want to bow out,” she said. “You haven’t touched him, or even gotten close to him. You’re probably still fine. And I really didn’t expect you to help out with the whole raccoon-sitting part of it, anyway. I just knew you’d have the best food and bedding and stuff on short notice. Besides, this is temporary, until the vaccine’s ready. Right, Dylynn?”

Dylynn nodded. “I’m just collecting samples, here. If it doesn’t work, I can give him the shot myself, or I can take him to Toronto Humane.”

“The shot,” Jake said, slowly.

“Yeah. Pentobarbital. The same as they would give him.”

This information seemed to take Jake extra time to process. He stared at Dylynn. “You have pentobarbital.”

“That’s what it says on the vial.” Dylynn paused to take a picture of Withnail. “It’s right there in the fridge. Go look for yourself.”

He licked his lips. His voice came out a little high and strained. “Don’t they use that for lethal injections, Dylynn?”

“Only in Texas. And Missouri. Fentanyl’s more popular, now, in capital punishment states.” 

Jake was nodding slowly to himself. “Do you even know how to give shots?” He was staring at the fridge. Mariah wasn’t sure which of them he was speaking to.

Dylynn reached across the coffee table to an earthenware bowl of oranges. “Yup. Been practising.” They frowned. “Oh. And maybe don’t eat those.”

Jake groaned. He turned to Mariah. “You’re gonna die, here. You get that, right? You’re gonna eat something with barbiturates in it and die like a fucking cultist. Is that what you want?”

Mariah couldn’t help herself. She laughed. She couldn’t pinpoint why exactly it was so funny — something about the way he said it, or maybe it was just the image of herself picking up an orange and slowly peeling it apart and dying segment by segment, wondering why she was so sleepy. Dylynn would find her dead on the couch and heave a great sigh and probably start preparing their own post-mortem before the ambulance even arrived. Mariah would become a footnote citation in Dylynn’s first big paper, or maybe even warrant a requiem in pacem in the acknowledgements section.

“It’s not funny.” Jake’s face was entirely red, now. It stretched from the tips of his ears down his neck and disappeared inside his shirt. “It’s not fucking funny, Mariah. You being dead isn’t funny.”

“It’s a little funny.”

“No it fucking isn’t — ” His eyes had gone very bright. His lips pulled inward and then firmed into a solid line. He sniffed hard and then made a noise in the back of his throat that meant he was swallowing his anger. “You’re right. I can’t do this. I won’t. Not again.”

He rose from the couch. Threw the pillow down on the cushions with more force than strictly necessary. Grabbed his bag and his jacket and made for the door. “You both want to fuck up your lives and careers, go ahead. But I’m not just sitting and watching it happen. Not this time.”

“Oh, come the fuck on,” Dylynn said. “You want to get all high and mighty about — ”

“She tried to kill herself, last year.” Jake had only one shoe half-on, but he stood firmly rooted to the spot, pointing at Mariah. Mariah flinched. She burrowed more deeply into the couch cushions. She found herself staring at Withnail. The raccoon followed the action with glassy, dazed eyes. She heard Jake’s arm flop down to his side, chastened.

“I know that, dickweed,” Dylynn murmured. “I’m the one who gave her the EpiPen, remember? Good thing there aren’t any bees left to sting me, so I had it lying around.”

“She tried to kill herself, and you decided that having a shit-ton of barbiturates around was somehow a good idea.”

“Hey, it’s better than breaking up with her while she’s still in the hospital, jackass.” Dylynn’s tone was pure malice. They’d clearly been saving that one under their tongue for just the right occasion, and apparently tonight was it.

Mariah made for her room. “Maybe you’d rather talk about this while I’m not here.”

“Mar.” Jake tried to catch her hand. She shook him off. “Mar. Come on. I have every right to be worried.”

“No, you don’t,” Dylynn said. They unfolded out of their chair and stalked across the living room. “You gave up that right when you wussed out. You said you couldn’t handle her drama.” They punctuated their words with finger-quotes. “So why don’t you put your fucking shoes on, and get the fuck out.”

“It wasn’t even a real attempt.”

The others turned toward her. Even Withnail rustled in his cage. Mariah stared at the bathroom door. It was right where Dylynn had found her, on the floor, having already puked up some of what she’d swallowed that night. Between that and the emergency shot, she’d lived to stand right here and have this completely ridiculous conversation, which was supposed to be about saving a raccoon’s life and not her own.

“I just had some drinks. And then I had some pills. I wasn’t thinking. I mean, I wasn’t thinking about…” she trailed off.

This was not entirely true. She’d been thinking about being dead. Not about dying — not about how it would hurt, or who it would hurt. But she’d been thinking about how much nicer it would be to no longer be alive. Being alive was so hard. And useless. And stupid. And there was really no point keeping up the whole charade. Everyone would have a much easier time without her, without her missed classes and blown deadlines and her socks on the bathroom floor and her mouldering food in the fridge and her wasted potential. They would find other roommates, other girlfriends. She was completely replaceable.

In his crate, Withnail let out a pitiful chirrup. They all snapped to attention. Mariah went over and wiggled a Cat Dancer through the mesh. Withnail responded immediately. Mariah wasn’t sure that he was doing better, precisely, but he was still responsive to things like toys, and he was still eating and drinking. And it was certainly better than being run over, or attacked by another animal, or whatever else happened to raccoons in Toronto these days. She’d been watching a lot of raccoon streams lately, and it seemed like tourists had a thing about chasing them with drones. It was sick.

“What happens if he makes it?” she asked.

“Depending on how far advanced the disease is, he’ll have brain damage,” Dylynn said. “Canine distemper is sort of like Alzheimer’s that way. The feline version can kill you faster, and it’s more resistant to treatment, but this one causes something like encephalitis. Brain swelling. Even if a raccoon gets over distemper, that brain damage usually makes survival in the wild really difficult.”

Mariah’s eyes felt hot. She blinked them rapidly and swallowed past the lump in her throat. “So you mean even he gets better, he’ll never really be the same?”

Dylynn cleared their throat. “Yeah,” they said, roughly. “Yeah, that’s the deal. But, if we try, if we keep working on it, then maybe we can, I don’t know, make his life a little better. More liveable. But we can do a whole lot of good for other raccoons.”

“If it works.”

“Yeah. If it works.” 

Mariah wiped her eyes with the heel of her hand. “We’ll have to give him up, though, still. Right? We can’t keep him.”

“There are rehab centres,” Dylynn said gently.

Mariah snorted. “Like raccoon CAMH?”

“I think it’s more like the Ford Centre,” Dylynn said. “More about the brand than the treatment.”

Mariah shuddered. Her mother had talked about the Ford Centre, after her little miscalculation last year. She had showed her the website and the videos and, naturally, the pricing plans, and after that Mariah shut up about feeling bad. When Jake showed up with flowers and a teddy bear and a serious conversation about their relationship, and how he couldn’t be with someone with needs like hers, it fit the pattern. She had tried to say goodbye to them, forever — or had at least been considering it, on some level — and now they wanted to do the same. To put her away somewhere that she and her feelings would be less of a nuisance.

Of everyone — her family, her boyfriend, her teachers — only Dylynn had reacted with anything remotely resembling composure. Dylynn had treated what happened as an experiment that went wrong, a thought process that had been indulged too long, and pulled Mariah out of it the same way they might pluck a thoughtless pedestrian out of a busy bike lane.

Maybe Dylynn just had a thing about taking on problems that other people didn’t want to deal with, Mariah thought, as she tugged on the Cat Dancer. Withnail continued batting the toy around. Maybe this was why they had taken in Withnail. Maybe that was why the two of them were still roommates.

“Does that camera stream?” she heard herself ask.

“Sure, I think,” Dylynn said.

“Then we should set up a stream and ask for donations,” Mariah said. “I’ll mock up a campaign. That’s what I know how to do. That’s how I can help. And we can crowdfund the money for a tissue simulator. You can try out more combinations and engineer more vaccines.”

“You’ll still get in trouble, if you get caught,” Jake cautioned.

“Dylynn can say it was my idea,” Mariah said. “We were out, and they wanted to take a sample, and I suggested bringing him back with us. Because I’m so delicate, or whatever.”

“Mar,” Jake whispered. “Come on. You’re not like that. You wouldn’t…”

“No, really,” she said brightly, turning to him. “I see the therapy animals here all the time. It’s in the app. There’s evidence.”

Jake hissed like she’d struck him. He stood there awkwardly as Dylynn called up new tutorials for the camera, and Mariah pushed up off the floor. He followed her with shuffling footsteps as she entered her room and started looking for her device. He was standing in the door when she tried to leave. Mariah wondered if he had taken in what a total disaster the room was. It wasn’t like he was sleeping there any longer, and he was the only reason she’d kept it nice. She knew she was supposed to look after her space — the professionals surrounding her were very clear about that, about how it indicated self-love — but like most things, it seemed pointless.

“You’re still sick,” he said, flatly.

Mariah nodded. She thought of Withnail in the cage. “I’m always going to be sick.”

“But…” His face twisted. “You don’t seem… You seem fine.”

Mariah shrugged. “Thanks. I guess. I’m glad it’s working. Faking it, I mean.”

Suddenly, Jake’s face was very red and his eyes were very wet. “Wait, does that mean you’re going to — ” He swallowed. “I mean, are you going to try — ”

“I can’t kill myself while we’re trying to save a raccoon, Jacob,” Mariah snapped. “I couldn’t do that to Dylynn. I owe them.” With that, she tried moving past him. He sidestepped her, blocking her way out. “Oh my God, what is wrong with you?”

“I love you,” he said. “I don’t know in which way, yet, which sounds really stupid — ”

“It is really stupid.”

“But, my point being, I didn’t know you were still…” He struggled visibly to find the right word. “Working on stuff. And I want to help.”

How long had she waited to hear these words? It seemed like years. In her lesser moments she had played out scenarios just like this one in her head, endlessly rehearsing the moment he would finally decide that she was worthy of his help. Of the moment she and her emotions would no longer be inconvenient. She would know, once he said the magic words, that she was truly reborn: that the creature they let out of the hospital was not just the same messy awful excuse for a person and was indisputably deserving of affection. She would feel renewed, burnished to a golden glow, completely at ease with receiving love.

This was not that moment. Instead, she felt empty and exhausted. This wasn’t an apology, it was a confession. It was a thing Jake needed to unload. It wasn’t even about her.

“Fine. Get pizza.”

And he did. He actually took Dylynn’s order and didn’t complain and didn’t screw it up, and scurried out of the apartment to pick up the delivery, and got plates and serviettes and took the first watch over Withnail when Mariah went to sleep. And when she woke up, he was still there, and Dylynn was still working, and Withnail was purring as the leaves continued to turn.

About Madeline Ashby