The rats followed Henry home from the hospital. As his daughter massaged his hands, put a pillow under his knees, rubbed lotion into the horny calluses of his feet, they chittered in the corners of the room and watched with beady yellow eyes from behind the dresser mirror. Henry pissed himself, and his left side felt warm.
“Rats,” he said. It came out: “Wuts” “Behind the dresser.” “Bain ah drrh.”
Pink ratty noses twitched, tiny paws flexed like clutching, four-fingered hands. And the smell!
“Hmm?” Lena looked up from pulling on his compression stockings, right then left.
“Wruts.” He jabbed at the air with his palsied left hand, now his good hand. The right curled numb and useless at his side. Damn the stroke for taking his dignity and his voice, for leaving him an invalid in a diaper.
“Oh.” Lena sat on the edge of the bed and took his left hand between hers. “No, Dad, there are no rats. Remember what Doctor Romada said, it’s your brain trying to make sense of things.”
What did the doctor know? Only what he saw in the chart, not with his eyes. The doctor hadn’t chased rats out of the henhouse with a willow switch, or away from a deadborn pig in the pen. Hadn’t seen rats chew on his baby sister’s ears in the cradle when she grew cold and pale after the ague. Henry hated rats, fat wormy tails, dirty whiskers, nails on chalkboard squeaks. Like blood clots, waiting for the right moment. “Writs.”
Lena sighed. “Please, Dad…”
“Wrots!” He tried to sit up. 74 years of hard living and two packs a day betrayed him. His head barely came off the pillow.
Lena touched his hair, his left cheek. “You’re home now. Everything’s going to be all right. Tess and I are right down the hall, remember?”
Not home. It was his house, but not his home, not since he tossed that handful of dirt on Betsy Mae’s casket eight long and lonesome months ago. They’d managed fine together for 53 years, but now Betsy Mae was gone and the rats, oh, the rats. “Get me a poker, a knife. Where’s my gun?” “Geh m poo, aye. Mugah?”
Lena leaned in too close. She always leaned in too close. “Would you like your Atavan? The doctor said you could have it just before bed.”
Henry blew a raspberry, and once again did his best to point.
Lena sighed and looked away, frustration and worry etching years into the corners of her mouth. “It’s tough, I know, but we’ll get through this.” She fussed wrinkles into the quilt, smoothed them out again. “I’ll get your shot to help you sleep. We’ve got a big day tomorrow. Tom is coming over for your home therapy visit, remember? Do you remember Tom from Forest Glen?”
Of course he remembered Tom, young and too enthusiastic in a queer sort of way but an okay fellow. Except for the earring. This didn’t have anything to do with Tom. He had to make her understand, before, before. . . “Writs.”
“Sure, Dad. Rats.”
Lena went to the door. As she reached behind her to pull it shut, she looked from the dresser to Henry and back again and furrowed her brow almost as if, as if she’d seen something. Yes? She had to see the rats. They were right there! He jerked his left arm up, too high, too far, but up. “See, Lena, see? Now do you believe me?” “Ee, naha, eez? Naowl bu me?”
“I love you, Dad.”
The door closed. And the rats, oh, the rats.
Sandra lives with her husband and two sons in Washington state. She is an avid reader, compulsive writer, and rabid chocoholic. Her work has appeared in such venues as Jim Baen’s UNIVERSE, Daily Science Fiction, and Crossed Genres. She is a Clarion West 2010 graduate.