Posted on February 12, 2016
Beady red eyes. A rustling. Chatter.
The beam of yellow from the flashlight skimmed the line of bushes along the fence, illuminating pair after pair of tiny red dots; glinted, frozen. A network of honeysuckle vines, entangled and hardened and overgrown. The branches crossed over and braided themselves, woven through the chain-link, and created the perfect nest.
“They’re nocturnal,” Arturo explained, flashlight in hand. “That’s why we can hear them all night long.”
“Does that mean they never sleep?” Carla stood on her bed beside her brother, and leaned far out of the unscreened window. Water fell on her long eye-lashes, sticking her bangs to her forehead, making her brown hair black.
“They sleep, just not right now.”
“I think they’re scared of the rain and that’s why they won’t shut up.”
“Don’t say shut up.”
“I can say shut up, just not when Mom’s around.”
“No you can’t. I’ll call Mom at work and tell on you.”
“What? I was talking to the rats in the bushes!”
“Do you think Ratty and Patty are scared of the rain?” Carla asked, her hand in front of the light, making the shape of a mouth, opening and closing her fingers as her shadow swallowed eye after eye.
“First of all, Ratty is dead-”
“Yeah, but he’s in the ground outside. He’s gotta be scared. The water’s falling right on him.”
“Second of all, Patty’s safe in her cage-”
“But her cage is on the patio…”
“Third of all, rats don’t have feelings.”
“Science.” Arturo moved the flashlight up where Carla couldn’t reach it, and ran the beam up and down the fence line quickly. His ear tuned to the incessant swishing, chirping, and gnawing of the rats as they moved about their nest. “I’ll go check on Patty. Hold this.” He handed Carla the light, and walked out of the children’s bedroom.
Since it was among the colder months, each room within the weary, tattered house was sectioned off by blankets nailed directly into the ceiling. There was a heater, but it was broken. In the warmer months these blankets would be pulled down and folded and put away, leaving tiny black holes exposed in the textured plaster overhead. Arturo moved through each dark room slowly, noting how the particular kind of chill changed from section to section. There was dry cold, still cold, fresh cold, moist cold. Turning on no lights, his arms outstretched before him, he felt for the next in the series of blankets. He tossed each aside one at a time as he made his way towards the patio at the back of the house.
“Maybe you could please be quiet sometimes.” Carla set the flashlight on the window sill, held in place by an elbow. She leaned her cheek into her hand, “Some of us aren’t nocturnal and sometimes we need to sleep without hearing you all the time.” She abruptly stood up and began jumping on the bed. “I’m…. sorry….but…it’s…creepy….sometimes….”
As Arturo entered the backroom at the farthest end of the house, he walked toward the wall and waited for the cold glass of the sliding door to meet his fingertips. It squeaked dully as he forced it open along its dated metal track. The rush of damp air that touched his face was only a slight change from the temperature indoors. He had gotten used to the feeling of refrigerated skin.
“That hurts my brain.” Carla stopped jumping on the bed, she grasped her soggy hair at its roots and caught her breath. She glanced at the piggy bank atop her dresser, still on its side after she’d emptied its contents and picked out all the silver coins days before. Its guts were made of pennies, and she scooped up a small handful before turning back to the window. “Hey!” She said loudly to the bushes along the fence. “Hey! Did you know Ratty?” Carla threw a single copper penny at a pair of red eyes.
Once on the patio, Arturo stepped carefully in his bare feet towards the edge of the concrete slab. He was mindful of how slippery this stretch of ground could get when the rain water accumulated. The moisture squishing between his toes, he saw the outline of the broad boxy cage and reached for the blanket hanging over it. As he peeled the cheap felt back his fingers found familiar holes in the fabric, chewed overtime by the rats through the bars.
“I mean. I know Ratty lived in a cage and you are wild and live in the bushes. But maybe you talked to Ratty sometimes.” She threw another penny. “Ratty was the black and white one. Patty is all white. Patty’s still alive.” She threw two pennies at once. One landed softly, barely audibly, inside the honeysuckle. The other ricocheted and clinked as it fell down the chain-link. “Art thinks Ratty died ’cause he was being starved. He thinks Patty stole all the food and didn’t ever let Ratty eat. I think Patty killed Ratty.”
Arturo unlatched the cage door, and when he stuck his hand inside he heard no scampering movement. He peered through the darkness but could not discern a single silhouette inside. He ran his hand along the base, a mix of woodchips, torn newspaper, best wood pellets, and poked a curiously hard, still mass at the rear corner of the cage. He pulled his hand back quickly.
“Are you scared of the rain?” Carla asked as she threw the last of her pennies, leaning through the window once more. “I’m not.” And she stared up at the sky, eyes open, barely blinking. Until the sound of her brother’s shout shook her stance.
Startled, she instinctively dropped down, falling flat onto her back in her bed. Ears perked.
“Carla! Bring the flashlight!” His voice carried through the open window.
She steadied her breathing a moment, grabbed the flashlight from where it rested, and jumped out of bed.
Carla ran through the house in her footed pajamas, the textured soles pulled at carpet fibers. The flashlight cast circles of light on each blanket as she swept them aside one after another. Carla had fearlessly run through this house so many times, she didn’t need the light, ignored the circle as it changed sizes, and paid no mind to the direction in which it pointed as she burst through each makeshift curtain with increasing speed. When she swept the last aside, she pointed the light at her brother, kneeling at the edge of the patio, hunched over a round white lump on the concrete before him.
“Something’s wrong with Patty.” Arturo said, and in the same breath, “Don’t run on the patio, it’s slippery.”
“I got my footies.” Carla pulled up a foot with one hand to show him, and held the flashlight over Patty with the other. The rat was stretched tight on all sides, white hairs and pink skin, its body rounded out to the size of a respectable grapefruit. “Whoa. What happened to her?”
“I don’t know. I found her like this. Let me see the light.” Carla handed it to him and he flooded the swollen rat, its body a fleshy living canvas, with yellow light.
“She looks scared.” Carla said, dropping to her knees beside her brother, her pajamas soaking up dirty water.
“Maybe I should call Mom at work.” Arturo said as he examined it – the shallow breathing and occasional blinking of eyes – keeping only the slightest distance.
“Look how fat she is! Her feet barely touch the ground!” Carla giggled and stuck an extended pointer finger into the rat’s distended belly.
“Don’t touch!” Arturo hissed, and slapped his sister’s small hand away.
“It’s not squishy at all.” She poked her own belly with the same finger.
“I know. I felt her when I took her out of the cage.”
“Can she even walk?”
“Dunno. Let’s see.” Arturo said as he shined a spotlight on the rat. The children took a few steps back and waited for the rodent to move.
“Geez, Art, what have you been feeding her?”
The rat wiggled.
“Whatever was in the kitchen. Canned peas. Those moldy bagels. And the popcorn you left in the microwave.”
The rat’s tail swept to one side, then the other.
“Arturo! I was gonna eat that popcorn!”
“No way! It was in there forever!”
“I think Patty is getting what she deserves… for eating all my popcorn and for eating all Ratty’s food too.”
“Shut up, Carla!”
“I’m calling Mom!” Carla made a move for the backdoor, prepared to dash through the blankets to the where the telephone rested on its stand. The children knew their mother’s work number by heart and could dial it with fast little fingers, eyes closed. Arturo stepped in his sister’s path.
“I mean please be quiet. You can show a little respect for the dying.”
The rat stirred itself to movement and waddled back toward the cage. A swinging in her hips, she strutted a fat stride, seemingly painless.
“Who says Patty’s dying anyway?” Carla asked, stepping back to face it.
“I don’t see how she can live like this.”
“But look how cute she is! Like a little piggy.”
The two laughed, despite the bloat that hung about the creature before them as though it were marching proudly through the early stages of decomposition. It stopped at the door of its cage, unable to lift itself inside. Moving no further, its sides raised and fell with each muted breath. The giggling subsided, and they quieted a moment.
“Why don’t you try CPR,” Carla suggested, “Maybe if you make her breathe more…”
“I just don’t think there’s any way to save her.”
“We can take her to the doctor…”
“Mom doesn’t have the money for that, Carla.”
She thought of her bank inside, and made no mention of the coins she’d tossed away. Arturo walked to the rat, slid his hand beneath her feet, and tried to give his pet a boost. Its head and front legs made it through the door, but it soon struggled to pull the remainder of its turgid body in behind it and slipped back onto the patio. Arturo placed one hand on his hip and shook his head in shame.
“We’ll have to put her out of her misery. Like we do with the fishes when we go fishing.”
“You want me to cut off her head?” Carla twirled her wet hair about her finger.
“No, that’s not what I mean.”
“I never cleaned a rat before.” She pulled back her hand and the spiral of hair unraveled, held its shape.
“No, Carla, you’re not going to do it. She’s my rat.”
“Are you sure we shouldn’t just call Mom?”
Arturo never answered. He left the rat on the wet concrete with the flashlight beside it, and began pacing, planning. Carla kneeled on the ground, leaned her face so close to Patty she could smell the sawdust, dampness, and pale stench of urine as it hung about the rodent’s skin. The tips of its white fur were tinged with brown.
“That’s what you get,” Carla whispered as she clicked off the flashlight.
“What is it that people do to baby kittens when they don’t want them?” Arturo folded a white towel, and fitted it into a pink shoebox. Pressing the corners down, he patted it like a freshly made bed.
“Give them to Mom.” Carla said, the plump rat cradled awkwardly in her arms before being set inside the shoebox.
“Drowning. We could drown Patty. We could put her in a pot of water and hold her under ‘til she dies.”
“How long would that take?”
“Dunno. Too long, probably.” He bent over and patted the rat a few times lightly on its head.
“Art! I know! Remember that story Uncle Gabriel told us, about trapping rabbits and whipping them around to kill them?” She made a fast and violent motion with her hands.
“No. Patty has to die with dignity, not like some stupid jack rabbit with a million babies.”
Arturo crossed his arms in front of his chest, and stared down at the rat as she nestled into the towel lined box. Carla watched her brother’s movements, and followed suit, momentarily attempting to duplicate the grim expression on his face.
“Can we blow her up or light her on fire?” Her eyes charged with excitement, all shades of dour vanished.
“Now you’re just being silly, Carla. Besides, that would smell really bad.”
“What if we light her on fire and throw her in the bushes, and she can burn that whole stupid nest down!” She threw her arms into the air, and spun a small circle on the concrete.
“Then maybe they’ll all go to sleep, and then maybe I can get my sleep without being woke up every other second-”
The rat began to burrow, burying itself in the folds of the towel, seeking out the bottom. Arturo held his chin in his hand and tapped his toe against the concrete.
“The way I see it,” he concluded after a time, “the only humane way to do it is lethal injection or firing squad.”
“Why don’t we just bury her alive?”
“We can’t inject her with anything because we don’t have the right tools. But I have my pellet gun. We can shoot her in the back of the head. It’s the quickest way.”
“Like Ole’ Yeller?”
“Yes. Like Ole’ Yeller. But without the rabies.” Arturo nodded. Carla nodded too.
“Can I pull the trigger?”
“You’re just a kid, Carla.” And he shoved his little sister, one hand against a shoulder, just enough to make her budge.
“You’re only a year older than me and two years ahead of me in school because I did kindergarten twice.” She pushed back, his feet unmoved.
“I said no.”
“No fair. You’re mean.”
“Keep an eye on her. I’ve gotta grab my gun.”
“Are you sure we shouldn’t just stab her?” Carla said to her brother, his back turned as he disappeared into the house. She was left alone on the patio with the sound of scratching – Patty’s claws along the bottom of the shoebox – and rain and breathing.
Arturo found the door of his mother’s bedroom with ease. Moving cautiously through the darkness, he wasted no time feeling for light switches along the walls. Though the door was always locked from the inside while their mother was at work, they were all aware of the hand sized hole in the center of it, through which the locked knob could be reached, turned and opened. He let himself in.
“I guess I should say some last words.” Carla sat cross-legged on the ground next to the shoebox. She poked the towel, trying the feel the rat through the terrycloth. Words came to mind, but still she sat in silence. “I know!” She jumped up, walked a few steps fast as she could until she reached the carpet on the other side of the sliding glass door and broke into a run. She left the rat in the shoebox, and the door open behind her.
Standing before his mother’s closet, Arturo positioned his feet on the lowest shelves until his hands could reach the furthermost corner of the highest shelf. He grabbed his pellet gun, plastic hard as metal, wrapped in the same dusty, bleach yellow pillowcase. He slid his fingers along the barrel, hand clenched tight around the stock. He jumped down, closed the closet door and returned to the patio.
“Carla, I got it. How’s Patty?”
Hearing no response, Arturo felt the ground before him with his toes, hoping to find the flashlight.
“Carla? Carla!” He felt the light under his foot.
Carla searched out her mother’s record player in the pitch black living room, and turned the volume knob to its highest setting. She flipped the switch on, heard the record start to spin, listened to the needle drop, and flooded the house with classical music. It spilled out the windows and the open door, into the sprawling darkness and the patio where it mixed with the rats and the rain.
Arturo flicked the flashlight on. His heart was jumping in his chest, momentarily startled by the sound of moody strings pouring into the space around him. He pointed the light at the backdoor and waited for his sister to reappear.
“Art, don’t shine it in my eyes.”
“I told you to stay with Patty.”
“Sorry. You said you wanted her to die with dignity. It’s Mom’s favorite.” She pointed to the air.
“I know. I can hear it. Take the light.”
He shook his gun, the pellets rattling around inside like tic-tacs in a plastic case. Arturo walked to the rat, pulled its fat body from where it hid beneath the towel and lined its head up in clear view. Abruptly he turned away, paced back and forth, building up the nerve. And as quickly as he started, he stopped, faced the rat, got its head in his sights and pulled the trigger. Nothing.
“Oh my Gosh, what!?!”
“Safety was on.”
“I’m sorry. What are you doing looking, anyway? Your eyes should be closed.” He began to pace again.
“And keep them covered.”
Arturo was walking circles. He looked to Carla, saw one hand raised over her face, the flashlight in the other. The nameless symphony that sounded to him like so many others blared from his mother’s record player. When he stopped over the pink shoebox to regain Patty in his sights, gun perched and ready against his shoulder, he squinted one second too long.
“Shoot!” The boy snapped.
“I can’t. Her head is buried again. Beneath the towel.”
“Can I please pull the trigger?”
“Dang it, Carla. Close your eyes!”
“They are closed!”
“I have to take her outta this box.”
He reached down, spread his fingers wide to grip the rat with one hand and dropped it to the concrete. Kicking the box to the side, he took two steps back, steadied his shot, and pulled the trigger. Next to his ear he heard a mix of air pressure, and the snap of a spring.
Instantaneously and in perfect time with the soft pop of the gun, the rat’s head went limp. Its legs instinctively pumped, moving its swollen body forward. The last bit of life left in it pushed the rat on, its head dragging beneath it like a cardboard box caught under the bumper of the car that hit it. Brains and redness poured out onto the concrete in a brilliant, goopy mess. Fresh blood mixed with old rain water, as the puddles spread and intertwined. The music throbbed in the background, impossibly loud. Patty twitched once, twice, stopped dead in her tracks.
Arturo peeled his gaze away a second later, making eye contact with Carla as she stared through the space between her fingers.
“Leave the flashlight and go inside,” he said, “I gotta clean this up.”
“Are we gonna bury her?”
“Yes. In the yard, next to Ratty. But we’ll worry about that in the morning.”
“Oh my gosh, Art. You’re shaking.” He was. She reached out for the hand not clenched about the gun to take it in her own.
“Adrenaline.” He said, and pulled back his trembling hand. He shoved it deep into the pocket of his pajama pants. “Get outta those clothes. Get to bed.”
Without another word Carla went back into the house, pulling the needle from the record with a gentle zip on her way to the bedroom.
Arturo turned the safety back on his gun and hung the yellowed pillowcase about it, just as he’d found it. He wrapped his bloodied rat up in the towel as quickly as possible, and fitted it again inside the pink shoebox. He replaced the lid and put the package atop the cage, with the pellet gun beside it. All the while, he took note of the placement of the nasty puddle on the patio, was sure to step around and never look directly at it. He left the mess. He didn’t feel like mopping. He didn’t want to stare at the blob of blood and brains and mash them into nothingness with the end of a mop. He didn’t want to wipe it away as though it had never happened. He wanted the stain to seep into the concrete, to last forever. He knew it wouldn’t. Tomorrow he could rinse it away, from the surface, before his mother even noticed, like his rat never existed. Washed away. Tucked away. Dead and buried. From one cage to the next. Arturo stretched his fingers out before him to see if the shaking stopped. He took notice of the trace amounts of blood turning from red to rust at his cuticles, and beneath the white ends of his nails. He left everything on the patio and went inside to use the restroom, to give his hands a thorough washing.
Standing at the sink, Arturo held onto the bar of ivory soap and turned it over several times between his palms. He struggled now to work up a lather, and kept his hands under the lukewarm running water for much longer than was necessary. Staring into the mirror he looked past his reflection to that of the wall behind him. With the objectivity of a scientist studying a controlled experiment, he took note of every detail with a detached and matter of fact attitude as though crossing items off a checklist. The white wall had not been repainted for some time, and as a result showed significant staining toward the top and sides, likely due to mold and inevitable accumulation of moisture. There was a large crack through which some type of hardened foam had sprung from the interior of the wall and dried, like a seam along some strange volcano sealed and held together by the very lava that had forced it open. Arturo remembered this as the outcome of his Mother’s desire to better insulate the bathroom from the pervasive morning cold. He had watched her climb into the attic on her day off with some kind of machine in tow, and she proceeded to fill the wall until it burst. He had helped her clean up most of it and despite the fact that the bathroom was transformed into a small disaster area, it was a much easier transition out of the shower in the mornings. He turned off the water, dried his hands on a towel with frayed ends, and headed to the bedroom. Before Arturo reached the bedroom he could tell Carla had not closed the windows as a particularly crisp draft blew through the crack of the partially opened door. He tried not to make too much noise, in case she’d fallen fast asleep. Tiptoeing to the edge of her bed, he peeked at the end to make sure her feet were covered. The blanket laid too flat. He reached forward and smoothed the covers down with the palm of his hand, he could feel nothing but mattress springs.
“At least Patty will get some sleep tonight.” Carla whispered, across the bedroom to her brother, from where she now rested in his bed.
“You sleeping in my bed tonight?” He asked, and grabbed the pillow from her bed. He walked across the room and set it at the foot of his own.
“It’s too cold to sleep all by myself.” She moved all the way to one side, making room for him. He climbed in, and they both lie quiet for a moment, head to foot.
“She’s in a better place now, Carla. Close your eyes. Go to sleep.”
“Do you think we’re gonna go to hell?”
“There’s no such thing as hell.”
“Good night, Carla.” He said, firm but exhausted.
“Arturo?” She sent his name into the darkness.
“That was surprisingly depressive.”
“Depressing.” She repeated to herself.
“I know,” he said softly, “Good night.”
And eventually they fell asleep, lulled by the rustling of the rats in the bushes on the other side of the thin glass window.