(More scary goodness.)
Chapter 3: Avoiding Rats
“Alice, dear,” Grandma snapped, more than a little harshly, and cleared her throat. “You must write this down so you don’t forget it.”
“Yes, Grandma,” I said, nearly jumping out of my seat. My hands shook as I wrote point form notes about moving quickly to avoid rats. The writing was legible, but would have failed a handwriting test at school.
“The next morning, you must go and collect the bucket,” she continued. “You must go quickly then, too, because the rats are always around. They will be sleepy in the morning, but you can’t be sure. Now, when you are bringing the bucket down or getting it back you must never, never look into the storage units. The rats will be there and feel threatened if you look at them. They get very nasty if you provoke them that way. Do you understand?” Another clearing of the throat followed.
“Yes, Grandma,” I said again, careful to write it down this time.
“That’s a good girl. You know your numbers, so write down one, zero, six. That’s the number of our storage unit, and it’s painted on the storage door. Ours is the last one at the end of the hall. You will leave the bucket in front of it.”
I scribbled the number down, trying not to think about sharp teeth, slimy tails and angry red eyes. I had no special fear of rats, but going into a basement full of them was definitely changing that.
“Grandma?” I started to ask a question.
“Just a moment, Alice,” she interrupted. “Read your notes to me.”
“Uh, okay, Grandma,” I said, brushing aside thoughts of twitchy noses and scratchy rat claws jumping out at me. “I bring the bucket to the storage. I must go quickly. There are rats. I must not look into the storage unit because of the rats. The storage unit is 106. It is the last one. I leave the bucket in front of that storage.”
“Good,” she said. “You must not tell anyone about this, Alice. I am not really supposed to leave the meat for the farmer, but he is poor and needs the food for his animals. This is why we leave it in the storage and tell no one. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Grandma,” I answered in complete reflex. It felt like a lie. I understood what she was saying, but what she was asking made no sense. My honest, guilty thought was that the farmer should starve rather than send me into a basement full of rats.
“If you go late in the evening, like I do, and return early in the morning, no one will see you go. If they do see you, tell them you are taking it down to the garbage room. They may think it strange, but it is better that way.” She cleared her throat again, and I could tell she was running out of energy to fight the pain. She would need the medicine soon.
“The bucket should have been brought down last night,” she said, beginning to struggle with her words. “That is okay, but we must not make the farmer wait another day. It is very important you bring the bucket down tonight. Promise me you will do it, dear.”
My sense of sympathy and loyalty rushed in at that moment. My new fear of rats and a weird, poor farmer no longer seemed so daunting. Grandma needed me in a way she had never needed me before. This was important to her, important enough to suffer through her arthritis to tell me about. It occurred to me that all the other little things I had done, like the paper route, collecting bottles, cooking and cleaning, hadn’t mattered like this. I was desperately afraid, but at that moment I would have walked into a rat nest with a cheese necklace if she had asked.
I promised her I would take care of the bucket and be very careful. I kept my million questions to myself; Grandma was in too much pain to answer anything. I gave her the pill and brought her some water. Ten minutes later, she was drowsy, mumbling slightly about the bucket. After another ten minutes she was sound asleep.
The immediate wash of sympathy for her began to fade, and the fear came back. I tried to focus on the written list, but the details were already burned into my memory; I would not forget those details if it killed me. The rest of that day was spent thinking about rats. I had never seen a real rat before. My entire experience with them had been in picture books and television, which was more than enough. I had no specific ideas about them or what they would do to me, but I didn’t need details to know it would be unpleasant.
The rest of the day was spent in something like a fog. I cleaned up the oatmeal dishes, kept Grandma propped up in her chair, tried to do homework, and things like that. My mind would not play along, however. I chipped a bowl in the sink, nearly woke Grandma twice, and couldn’t remember anything about my homework a second after I stopped looking at it. I literally spent my day thinking about rats, farmers and stinky buckets of meat.
Grandma slept through lunch and I decided not to wake her. Sometimes, on a busy day, she would miss lunch, so I felt it would be harmless. It wasn’t until almost supper time that I began to shake out of my fearful daze and do something properly. I began with getting supper ready. I wasn’t sure if Grandma would wake up for supper, but I made enough for both of us, anyway. I prepared chicken noodle soup from a can and made two cheese sandwiches. It was a light supper, but enough for us; and there were cookies for dessert if Grandma was especially hungry. The second thing I did was prepare a list of questions. Mostly, they were little detail items about getting into the storage area, what time I should leave, and how fast rats could run. I did add on some other questions regarding potential options that occurred to me. For example, could I bring the bucket directly to the farmer? He must not live too far away, right? And what if I left the bucket somewhere else in the building, like the garbage room? I tried to keep my questions to a minimum, knowing Grandma was not fond of constant questions, though an encounter with rats was testing my sense of restraint.
I kept the supper warm until the last moment, and Grandma began to wake. She was groggy, like before, but shook it off faster than the last time. I was glad she was hungry. I gave her most of the soup and ended up making her a second sandwich. She had eaten three cookies before I had her tea ready. We had started late, so it was well after supper when I set out the tea.
“Thank you, Alice,” she said, still sounding tired, “that was a meal. You are a strong, smart girl.”
“I almost started without you,” I said, adding milk to our tea. “Your medicine is really strong.”
“I suppose it is. The day has passed me by. What did you do with your time, dear?”
“I cleaned the dishes, did my homework, and I made supper. I stayed with you. Are you going to be okay, Grandma? Your knee looks a little better.” This was true. Her knee was still grossly swollen, but it seemed to have receded a little.
“It still hurts, but I will be fine,” she said. “It will be back to normal in a few days, I’m sure.”
“But the doctor said it would be a month, maybe more,” I said.
“Alice,” Grandma replied with hints of condescension, “the doctor sometimes gets things wrong. I know my old bones better than he does, and I say it will be fine in a few days. You’ll see.”
I wasn’t going to argue with her. The knee looked terrible to me, far from healthy, and I doubted her. Then again, Grandma had been pretty tough with her arthritis, so maybe she would recover faster.
“Do you need another pill now?” I asked. She seemed much better than the last time she was awake.
“Not right away, dear,” she said. “I need to go to the bathroom and change clothes, if I can. The pill will knock me out too quickly for that. Let’s just enjoy our tea now.”
“Okay, Grandma,” I said. It was nice to have her awake with me. Spending the day alone with thoughts of rats had been terrible. I couldn’t help but ask, even though I badly wanted to prolong the moment of normality that was happening. I was usually good at starting up a difficult discussion, but I was at a complete loss. My list of questions was in the other room; as if I needed it.
“Grandma, what if I asked Mr. Gruber to get rid of the rats for us? He wouldn’t have to know about the bucket, right? I’m sure he would do something about it.” Mr. Gruber was the superintendant for Riverview Apartments. He was an older man, always a little grubby and usually hard to find.
Grandma gave me an odd look, like she had lost her concentration. “There is no point in telling Mr. Gruber about the rats. He already knows about them and has been trying to get rid of them. Rats are tricky, and hard to kill. Maybe he’ll get them all, one day.”
More information on rats that merely fuelled my fear: rats were tricky and hard to kill. I would have guessed they were tricky. Being hard to kill was nothing I would have guessed, and my anxiety heightened another notch. If they were tough enough to survive Mr. Gruber’s efforts, then what chance would I have if the rats attacked me?
“Does the farmer live far away? Maybe I could bring the bucket to him? It would be better for him if he didn’t have to travel here, right?” It took everything I had to speak slowly.
“He does live far from here, dear,” Grandma said. “He passes through town, so it doesn’t cost him anything to come here. Besides, you couldn’t carry the bucket that far.”
That ruined my thoughts of putting the bucket on my newspaper wagon and pulling it there.
“What if I left the bucket in the garbage room, Grandma? It would be better than leaving it with the rats, wouldn’t it?” At some point, without having noticed it, I had started to cry. I was so scared that it just happened. Grandma reached over and held my hand.
“Alice, dear,” she said quietly, “I know the rats scare you. They scare me, too. If I had a better way to get the bucket to the farmer, I would have thought of it long ago. I don’t want you to feel really scared about them, dear. Just remember not to look into the storage unit and don’t linger. If you are a good girl, and do as I say, they will leave you alone, all right? All right?”
I nodded my head; my eyes were a wash of tears. Words would only have caused me to break down and start bawling.
“That’s a good girl,” she said, patting my hand. “Grandma has brought that bucket down for a long time and the rats haven’t hurt me yet, so I’m sure you will be fine.”