It waited in Ross’s closet, as it did most nights, hidden from the light, its steely nails scratching even during the brightest of days. At night, the door made a slow, high-pitched screech, and it scuffled out, red eyes glowing. Moonlight glinted off of the strong, sharp teeth. Its snake-like tail whispered behind its plump, gray body.
Ross huddled under the covers, praying for protection. His brow gleamed with sweat in the golden half-light of the smiley face night light. His hands ached from clutching the covers to his chin. He dared not cry out. It would know he was awake if he screamed. Ross held his breath.
It came closer, its pin-sharp claws catching on the bedding as it climbed.
He ducked under the covers, a cocoon of sanctuary. He felt the thing’s weight pressing on his chest as it scurried toward his face. He hunched his shoulders and drew up his knees, hoping his smallness might escape notice. He heard sniffling sounds, felt the thing digging at his covers.
He quaked and tightened his grip on the rough cotton blankets. He held the blanket taut, his only defense against the invader his parents refused to believe existed. Ringing deafened his right ear. His ear always rang when the thing drew close.
Ross pressed his trembling lips together to keep from answering in kind. The pressure changed on the bed and a thump announced that it was on the ground, scampering among his playthings, hiding in baskets, chewing beloved books.
Ross released the breath he’d held. He shook with terror.
‘Why won’t mom and dad believe me? I’m so scared.’
He whimpered and waited for morning to brighten his room and chase the rodent back to the closet where it nested in the back wall.
When the alarm sounded, Ross sighed. He nestled into the comforts of his bed. With daybreak, he could sleep without fear of the rat.
“Time to get up! Get dressed.”
“Please, I’m so tired.”
Terrifying evenings exacted a toll. He felt queasy, unsteady.
“Up,” said his father, annoyance reverberating through his deep voice.
Ross groaned. When he reached for his clothes, he stumbled. Dizziness overtook him, and he careened like a drunken pirate into the edge of his desk. “Argh!” He rubbed the spot until his hair stood askew.
“Come on, chum, suck it up. We have to get you to Uncle Tim’s. We’re going to be late for work if we don’t go soon.”
Ross whimpered but got ready, nursing the growing bump on the back of his head.
Uncle Tim moved using a wheelchair. He watched Ross during workdays when school was out. He had wild hair, wise eyes, and a smile reluctant to intrude on Ross’s pervasive melancholy.
“Hey, Ross Sauce,” Uncle Tim greeted. Ross fist-bumped, then retired to a customary corner of a dark, stained couch to read the latest “American Heroes” comic. The tiny black letters swam before his eyes, and Ross fell asleep.
“Wake up, Ross.” Uncle Tim shook his shoulders, fingers digging with insistence.
Ross propped himself up. His comic slipped to the shag carpet. Ross rubbed the sleep sand from his eyes with trembling hands. His temples pounded, his heart raced, and it hurt to move his eyes. The air cooled the sweat that dripped from his hairline.
Uncle Tim leaned as far from his chair as he could without falling. He stared with red-rimmed eyes at his nephew. “Dude, what the hell was that? You scared the – are you okay now?”
Ross licked his cracked lips. “I’m okay. What happened?”
Uncle Tim relaxed, but his gaze never left his nephew’s face. “Beats me, but that was some trip, kid.” He reached into the pocket of his black leather vest for a pack of cigarettes. Uncle Tim’s hands shook as he took a drag, exhaling smoke like a dragon. He tipped his head to the right, scrutinizing the boy. He blinked, rapid repetitions like gunfire, then asked, “You want to talk about it?”
Ross cleared his throat. He refused to burden his uncle. “No. I just want a drink.”
“Bet you do,” Uncle Tim muttered and nodded. He tousled Ross’s hair. Cigarette smoke snaked around the two. “You know the soda’s in the fridge.”
That evening, Ross delayed the inevitable by dragging out evening rituals. Teeth shone from the ministrations of paste and floss. Shower, comb hair, lay out clothes for the morning showed him a responsible man of ten, even if it was only an illusion.
“What on earth are you doing now, son?” asked his mother.
“Just tidying up my room.”
“It is bedtime now. Get to sleep.”
He bit his lip, trembling. His heart raced faster as his mind searched for an escape. He ran his hand across his smooth chin. ‘I need a distraction. What will work on Mom?’
“Mom, do you think a girl will ever like me?”
She sat on his bed, concern brightening beautiful, brown eyes. “Of course, honey. Why would you worry about such things?”
He shrugged, fighting an urge to close heavy eyes. If he gave in, she would leave. He did not want to be left.
She put a hand beneath his chin and looked into his eyes. “You are so handsome, with your father’s strong jawline and your grandmother’s dark hair.”
She narrowed her eyes and studied his face, concern playing with the crow’s feet at the corners of her eyes. “You haven’t been sleeping again, have you?”
He was too tired to deny the truth.
“Please tell me what is bothering you.”
A shiver ripped up his spine like an electrical impulse. He stole a glance at the closet, then begged his mother, “Not in here. Can we talk in the other room, please?”
Her mouth pinched in, as though blocking words. She traced a hand along the side of his face and nodded. “Just for a couple of minutes though.”
He bolted from the room, closing his door behind them. “I told you, there’s a rat in the closet in that room,” he whispered as they hurried to the sofa.
She embraced him. “Honey, I love you so much, and I know that you are scared, but please listen to reason. There is no rat. I had an exterminator inspect the entire house. There are no rodents at all. Not even a mouse or hamster.”
He shrugged out of her hug. “He must’ve missed it, Mom. The thing comes out every night. It climbs on my bed and sits on my chest. It is huge and disgusting.”
She looked ceiling-ward, as though patience might fall like manna from the heights. “Ross, Honey, I don’t know what to tell you.”
“Maybe it hid in the wall?”
Her lips pressed into a thin line, and swollen eyelids veiled concerned eyes. She took a steadying breath before continuing in a level voice. “I had them check the walls, Love. No rat.”
Mom would not help.
His neck and shoulders stiffened, and his ears rang. “I’m not making this up.”
“You’ve always been imaginative, my Love. You probably dreamed it.” She hugged him. “Now please get some sleep.”
He lowered his chin and closed his eyes to think. He willed an emerging headache away.
‘I need a plan.’
He nodded off on the couch beside his mother.
“Go to sleep. You are so tired that you’re falling asleep here.”
“Hey, that’s a great idea! Can I sleep here tonight? Please, mom?”
Her breath huffed in a frustrated sigh. “Fine, just for the love of all, go to sleep.”
“Can you get my pillows for me, please?”
“Never mind. Just stay here while I get them.”
He retrieved his blanket and pillow at a run before she could change her mind.
She tucked him in with a kiss on the forehead and smiled. “I’ve not done that in a long time.” She pushed his hair back from his cheek. “Don’t forget to say your prayers, darling.”
He nodded, though he’d not prayed since the rat started haunting his dreams a couple of weeks earlier.
Ross knew his parents disliked night-time disturbances. ‘No waking until the morning alarm clock rings’ was their simple edict.
He followed rules, comfortable with their structure. If he did something wrong, acted out, he punished himself with guilt and confessed for relief. Breaking this rule drained him, but terror gripped him, and he did not know what else to do.
Lack of sleep hurt his eyes and made them look puffy.
His appetite disappeared and so did his weight. His clothes hung on him like hand-me-downs. His dark hair defied efforts of control, springing skyward like an indomitable spirit.
He rubbed his chin, a calming technique from his early childhood. He steeled himself before turning the handle to his parents’ room.
He crept to her side, heart pounding, and whispered, “Mom, mom, please wake up. I am so scared and don’t know what to do.”
She stirred but didn’t rise.
“Please, Mom, I need you.”
“Ross,” her voice sounded rough, as though dredged from a gravel pit. “This needs to stop.”
Desperation inspired his words. He quaked with reaction, sick to his stomach, exhausted but terrified to sleep. “I know. I do.” He fought tears that collected in a lump high in his throat. The pressure in his head pushed at his eyes until they threatened to ooze from their sockets.
She sat up with a grunt. She swung her feet from the covers to waiting slippers and grabbed a soft pink robe draped across her slipper chair. She cast an envious glance at his sleeping father, then grabbed her son’s hand and pulled him from the bedroom.
In the living room, she yawned. “What is it now, son?”
“The rat,” he hissed. “It came into the hallway.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Where is it now?”
“I don’t know. I heard it scuffling along, so I ran.”
She looked around at the glare of every lamp in the room. She turned one off, then another.
“What are you doing?” His voice pitched high in hysteria.
“You can’t sleep with all of these lights on, and we both need sleep.”
“Please, Mom, leave them on.”
She stopped, hand outstretched toward a desk lamp. “Why?”
“It doesn’t like the light, I think.”
Her arm dropped with a smack to her side. She shook her head and frowned. “Fine. One light on, but you have to go to sleep.”
He nodded, staring down the hallway that led to his room. His voice sounded small when he said, “Mom, why won’t it leave me alone?”
She sat beside him and looked down the hall as well. Worry trumped tired, he guessed. He put his arm around her shoulders and inhaled the homey scent of furniture polish and face soap.
She hummed a tune from cradle days when sleep brought dreams of adventures. Her warmth and nearness comforted him, and he slept at last.
The morning brought the usual rush for readiness. Hurried breakfast, hasty preparations, and then he dashed to catch the school bus. As he ran out the door, he overheard his father say, “You need to stop babying him. No more sleeping on the couch. Got it?”
On the school bus, he rested his head against the cool, smudged glass and thought. His headache felt better since he managed to sleep a little with Mom, which made thinking easier.
School bored him, but he earned good grades. He’d become quiet and reserved since the rat began its night time visits. He drifted to sleep at his desk at times, head pillowed on his crossed arms. As long as he could keep his grades up, though, nobody seemed to mind him drifting off too much.
At recess, Tammy Hanson and the Pepper twins ran screaming from a corner of the fenced exercise yard.
A group of boys investigated the area. Ross tagged along.
“Ewww, what is that thing?” Bob O’Malley asked.
Jake Simsick grabbed a stick and poked at the brown fur.
Ross edged closer, peering between the boys’ shoulders.
The animal wiggled independent of the prodding.
“Uughh!” Jake dropped the stick and backed away.
Ross retrieved the wood and touched it to the rodent, turning it onto its feet. “It is a rat,” he exclaimed.
The boys moved closer, following his lead.
The thing squeaked.
Ross’s shoulders twitched and his stomach knotted. With a quick thrust, he speared it. The animal squeaked again and slowly turned beady dark eyes. Ross felt ill. He raised the stick again and smacked the rat on its shoulder, its stomach, and its rump. He continued, tears streaming down his face.
The boys around him muttered, backing away, but Ross remained in his own world. Only the rat mattered. His ears rang. He sneered, smashing it with his stick until a teacher pulled him away.
She took the stick and threw it over the fence. Kneeling before him, she smoothed Ross’s hair and wiped his tears. “Are you okay, Ross?” Her voice sounded as though it traveled through a heavy, spring fog. “Come on, let’s get you to the nurse.”
He lay on a cot with a thermometer under his tongue, wrapped in a scratchy olive-green blanket. The teacher and nurse conferred behind a screen. Their words sounded like bees buzzing. He closed his eyes.
The ringing in his ears had brought the headache back. His neck and shoulders stiffened and cramped.
He wondered, ‘How many times did I hit that thing?’
The nurse removed the thermometer and checked the reading. “That looks normal.”
Ross knew his temperature was the only thing the nurse found “normal” about Ross. He closed his eyes and slept until his mother collected him.
He came home from school and bounced his backpack onto his bed. He froze when he noticed the open closet door. “Mom!” he yelled, backing out.
He startled when she touched his shoulders.
“Who’s been in my room?”
“Me. Come see.”
He remained in the hall until she grabbed his hand and pulled him along. “I sorted out your toys and clothes. It is all much more organized. But best of all, I’ve re-paneled everything with cedar board. No rat holes. No rats.” She straightened a shirt, the hangars tinkling like wind chimes. Her satisfied look froze when she saw his face. “Honey, are you alright?”
‘Why can’t she see it?’
The rat hunched on a shelf just behind his mother’s head, between a box labeled “puzzles” in his mother’s handwriting and his junior chemistry kit. It stretched its mouth open, revealing startling, sharp white teeth. Its red eyes glowed, pupil-less, like Hell’s embers.
“Mom, turn around.”
She looked over her shoulder at her handiwork. “What? What is wrong?”
“There, on the shelf at eye-level, do you see anything – weird?”
He gleaned from her blank expression she saw nothing but a well-organized space. ‘Am I crazy?’ He felt faint. “Mom, I think I need help!” He turned and ran to the bathroom and vomited.
He overheard his mother talking, voice a high-pitched whisper, into her cellular telephone. “Tim, I’m just so worried about him. Oh, would you please? I think that would help. Thank you! You are the best, big brother!” She paced with irregular strides, her limp evident in agitation. “We can try. Why don’t you come for dinner? Great! I will see you at six, okay? Thanks again! I love you!” She slumped into a kitchen chair.
She jumped then giggled with nervous energy. “Sorry Ross, I didn’t know you were there.” She hesitated before asking, “How are you feeling?”
“Fine. Is Uncle Tim coming to dinner?”
“Good.” Ross suspected it was time he confided in Uncle Tim. He completed his math homework, then helped with dinner preparations. He chopped onions, wiping tears from his eyes.
“Run the onion under the water. That will take away some of the oils that make you tear up.”
Mom sliced mushrooms and dropped them in a red-wine sauce. The kitchen filled with good smells. Popovers baked. Meat broiled. Ross’s stomach rumbled, anticipating the meal.
“Set the table, Love. Use the good plates.”
“Okay, Mom.” He placed the china, and the silver clanked atop the linen napkins. He lit the white candle centerpiece and washed up for the meal. When he took his place, Uncle Tim sat opposite him. They enjoyed the delicious meal, and then Ross followed his mom to the kitchen to help tidy up after.
“Why don’t you chat with Uncle Tim?” she suggested. “Show him your room.”
Ross shifted his weight from leg to leg and reached for his chin. “Okay,” he said.
Uncle Tim wheeled into Ross’s room. He looked around. “Mighty neat for a boy’s room,” he said. He perused the titles on the bookshelf. He had given Ross many of the books as presents.
Ross perched on his bed like a gargoyle, silent, stiff, and alert.
“So, what’s going on, Ross Sauce? Your Mom’s worried about you.”
Ross barely lifted his shoulder in response.
Uncle Tim wheeled closer to the bed, orienting his chair toward the window and the closet like his nephew. “Dude, I can’t help if you don’t tell me what’s going on.”
Ross glanced at his uncle, then resumed his silent contemplation.
“Okay, your Mom said there’s something bothering you in the closet. Show me.”
Ross moved, arms tight to his body, head low, his eyes never leaving the corner of the room with its brown wood door and antique knob. Uncle Tim’s chair whistled as he made his way there. He turned the handle and threw open the door with a thump against the wall. Inside, well-organized objects and tidy clothes hung in the cedar-lined space.
Ross backed behind his uncle’s chair and pointed over his shoulder with a shaking index finger. He whispered, “Do you see it? There, on the middle shelf?”
Uncle Tim shivered. “What is it, Ross?”
He drew closer to his uncle, finding comfort in the warmth emanating from his shoulder. He whispered, afraid to draw the thing’s attention. “A rat. It’s right there.”
The rat opened its blood-red mouth and showed sharp teeth.
Uncle Tim pulled Ross to his side.
Ross dragged his feet. He wanted to be brave for his uncle, but his insides quaked. He felt the urge to pee.
“Ross, whatever it is, you have to face it, Man, no matter how hard.”
Tears raced down his face, and a solid ball formed high in his throat. The shaking grew to convulsions.
Uncle Tim pulled the boy onto his lap, holding him close.
Ross continued to stare, barely blinking, into the shadowy alcove.
“What the hell is it? Tell me, Ross. What is the rat?”
Ross looked his uncle in the eye, his voice a skeletal whisper.
The rat screamed, trying to prevent the words, to drown their sound.
Once the emotional flood-gates opened, however, the story rushed with snot and tears, dripping feelings of guilt and disgust. “He touches me. He said I could never tell, that he’d hear me. He pushes me into the closet. He said no one would believe me…”
Uncle Tim held his nephew, stiffening with each disclosure. His stony face revealed nothing, but his eyes raged.
When Ross finished, Uncle Tim said, “Listen to me. I knew a rat like that. He did bad things to me in my closet, too.”
Ross’s eyes widened. He licked his lips, feeling parched. He whispered, “Who was it? Who was the rat, Uncle Tim?”
Uncle Tim blinked back tears. “Your grandfather.”
Ross gasped. Chills prickled his arms, and he felt sick.
Uncle Tim nodded. “In life, sometimes bad things happen, and sometimes monsters do more than live in your closet.” He kissed the top of Ross’s head. “But the damned rat is dead. It died of old age. You went to its funeral, remember? It can’t hurt anyone now. It can’t hurt you anymore.”
The rat blurred as Ross’s tears poured unchecked over his chin and dripped to his t-shirt. When he finished, exhausted, trembling, nauseated, the rat vanished for good.