A small hand gripped his shoulder with crushing force, dragging Peter to a halt. The new shoes he wore squeaked in protest on the polished floor of the mall. His heart pumped faster and his breathing quickened. The exit was only a few feet away. He pictured himself tearing out of his captor’s death grip and heading for the door and never looking back.
Images of police cars with flashing lights and being led away in handcuffs flooded his mind, all while the shoes squeaked like damned mice.
“Do you like them?”
“Uh … What?” He was confused by the kindness of the voice. He turned to see, not Mall security but an elderly woman.
“The shoes, dear child. Do you like them?”
“I … uh … Yes?”
“Yes. I thought you might. Now were you planning to buy them, or just trying them out around the store?”
“I wasn’t going to steal them.”
“No. But you weren’t planning to buy them either. Were you?”
Her tone remained kind. And she looked serious but not angry. He noticed that she was holding the box in which he had hidden his old shoes.
“No. I don’t have any money.”
“How old are you?”
“Well. I’ll make you a deal then. I own an apartment building down on Fifth Street. If you come by and do some chores for me, I’ll pay you. I’ll even buy these shoes for you. We can call it an advance. What do you say?”
Ten minutes later, Pete was leaving the store with a new pair of shoes and piece of paper with an address written on it. He had promised to come by the next day to get started, but he had no intention of keeping his end of the bargain. She had already bought the shoes, and while he had her address, she didn’t have his.
He reached his foster home to find the door locked. Betty, his foster mother, never missed an opportunity to let him know what a burden he was to her, and if the government hadn’t been paying her to take care of him, she would have put him out within the first week.
Aside from that the deal wasn’t terrible. She kept him fed, or at least she let him feed himself. And there was always a place to sleep if he could get in, and she never really cared where he went or what he was doing.
He trudged around the side of the house to his bedroom window and slid it open. Locking it wasn’t an option when it was his only way in at least two times a week. Hoisting himself up and sliding through, he landed on his bed. Laying there he breathed a sigh of relief. Today had been lucky. In the future he would have to be more careful. As the orange light of a setting sun faded from his window, he drifted off to sleep.
“What the hell is wrong with you?”
The shrill scream cut through his dreams and his eyes flashed open. Above him stood Betty, a short, squat woman, nearly as wide as she was tall, and she was pissed.
“What kind of trash heap do you think you live in? Leaving dirty foot prints on the side of my house. Then I come in here to find you sleeping in the same muddy shoes, making a mess out of everything!”
“You locked me out. Again.” He countered. “I had to climb through the window.”
She ignored him, “You’re lucky the government is paying me to keep you. I can see why your parents left you.”
He swung his feet to the floor and stood in one motion. “Don’t you ever talk about my parents! You don’t know anything about them! If you ever talk about them again…”
“What,” She said. “What will you do?”
Everything he wanted to say faded away. He stood there, staring defiantly into her fat little face.
“Get out of my house you little hoodlum. If I see you again today I’ll have you sent away.”
He stared a moment longer. The anger on her face had turned to smugness as she realized she had won. Shoving past her, he stormed out the door.
Cold and damp morning air chilled him as he inwardly raged. With nowhere to go he simply walked until he exhausted his supply of expletives and hunger began to make itself known. He searched his pants pockets, hoping to find a misplaced dollar, but only came up with a wadded piece of paper and a stick of gum. He unwrapped the gum and stuffed it into his mouth. It was cheap gum that turned to powder as he chewed it. Spitting the disgusting mess out onto the sidewalk, he sat down against a small tree. The crumpled bit of paper still sat in the palm of his hand. He opened it up.
*S Kirschner. Fifth Street apartments*
Maybe she would be good for some lunch out of the deal at least. He stood up, got his bearings, and headed off in the direction of Fifth Street.
The apartment building looked like an old house. He might have missed it if not for the vacancy sign in the front yard. He pushed the button that said Kirschner, and a moment later the door opened. The old woman stood in the doorway, a smile on her face.
“Do come in, child.”
She led him to the top of a staircase with a door on either side. She opened the door on the right.
“Who lives next door?” he asked.
She smiled at him, “An old grump who sleeps all the time. This door is mine,” she said and then ushered him in.
There were frilly things all over the place. A bowl of candy sat in the middle of the coffee table. His stomach growled when he saw it. She told him to sit and he did, trying his best not to displace the decorative pillows on the couch. He watched as she left the room and his eyes fell on the wall just behind where she had been standing. There was a large, red and gold tapestry, covered in some sort of Asian writing. On either side of the tapestry were various blades, swords, and knives.
“I see you’ve noticed my collection.” She said, coming back with a plate of sandwiches, setting them in front of him. “I thought you might be hungry.”
“Yes. Thank you.” He tried to be polite, but after the first bite he couldn’t help himself. He devoured the whole plate, and didn’t look up until he had finished. She appeared to be pleased.
“Why do you have the swords?”
“My late husband, Artie, was an instructor of martial arts. I never liked the things, but Artie was always so proud of them. When he died, this building with the golden tapestry and those blades were all I had left of him. I couldn’t bear to take them down.”
“How did he die?” He regretted asking as soon as he spoke. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked.”
“No child. Don’t be sorry. Curiosity is a wonderful thing. My Artie died in an accident. Struck by a car that had crossed lanes. They tell me he didn’t suffer. I prefer to believe that.” She fell silent for a moment before asking. “What about you? What is your story?”
“I don’t have a story.”
“Everyone has a story. I bet yours is interesting. Why don’t you start with what put you in the store yesterday, why you’re wearing the same clothes, and why those sandwiches were probably the first thing you’ve eaten all day.”
“I … I had to leave my house in a hurry this morning. I didn’t get a chance to change. Or eat.”
“And why did you have to leave in a hurry?”
“I had a fight with my foster mother. She keeps locking me out.”
“Yeah. My parents died in a botched carjacking when I was little. I don’t have any other family, so I just live in foster homes.”
“That’s terrible. I’m sorry to hear that.” She sat down and placed a hand on his. “What will you do tonight? Will your foster mother let you back into the house?”
“Maybe, but I doubt it. I’ve had to sleep in the street before; it’s not a big deal.”
“It most certainly is a big deal.” She stood up. “That is child endangerment, I’m sure of it. I should call someone about that.”
“No! Please don’t.”
“Heavens! Why not?”
“I get by just fine. I only have a little over a year until I’m on my own. I don’t want to have to start all over somewhere new with people I don’t know.” She stared at him like she was digging into his soul, but he didn’t look away. After a few moments she spoke again.
“I can’t let you go without a place to sleep. It would be unconscionable of me. But I understand how you feel. I was young once too.” She walked to the door. “Come with me child.” She grabbed a set of keys from a hook beside the door and motioned for him to follow.
She led him down the stairs. The door to the left gave a creak when Mrs. Kirschner pushed it open. The apartment smelled old and forgotten. Dust particles danced in the light that poured through the gap in the curtains. A couch and two chairs sat in front of a television centered in the living room. The kitchen was bare, all of the appliances gone. Beyond the living room was a door with a bed visible beyond it.
“This,” proclaimed Mrs. Kirschner. “was to be your job today. We need to get this apartment cleaned up and ready to rent. Nothing beyond your skill level I’m sure. Mostly washing and painting. And I’m sure it’s suitable enough for a troubled young man to sleep in for a night should he need to.”
Pete pulled his eyes away from the apartment and looked at her. “Are you serious?”
“Of course I am. I can’t just let you sleep in the street, can I? Of course not. You can call your foster mother if you like and let her know. Then we’ll get you some supplies and you can start cleaning.”
Pete spent the next five hours scrubbing, mopping, and vacuuming everything in sight. Just off of the bedroom was the bathroom. He saved it for last, mostly because he didn’t want to rush into scrubbing a toilet, but also because of the noise inside the wall. Every time he entered the bathroom, a faint scratching and thumping would come from the wall behind the toilet. He had dealt with rats in one of his earlier foster homes, so the noise didn’t bother him all that much. On the other hand, he had seen a rat crawl right up out of a toilet before, and that was enough to make him reluctant to clean in there.
Mrs. Kirschner appeared in the doorway.
“Goodness. You’ve done a great job so far. Are you hungry? I brought you something to eat.”
Pete followed her to the living room. On the small coffee table he found a bowl of chicken and dumplings and a glass of tea. It smelled wonderful. All Betty ever made was frozen dinners.
Mrs. Kirschner waited until he had finished before she spoke. “How much have you got left? It doesn’t look like much.”
“No not much,” he wiped at his mouth with a napkin. “I washed all the walls and I can get started painting them tomorrow if you want.”
“That sounds good. Though it looks like you haven’t cleaned the bathroom yet.”
“No. I was just about to start, but I wanted to let you know that you might have rats.” The smile dropped from her face, and was replaced with worry.
“Rats? In the wall?”
“Yeah. Just behind the toilet. It’s no big deal. I just thought you should know.”
“Don’t worry about the bathroom for now. I’ll call an exterminator.” She stood and gathered the empty dishes before walking away.
“I’m not afraid.” He said after her. “I can finish it up.” She turned quickly to face him.
“No!” Then more softly. “Just forget about it for now. We’ll handle it in the morning. Why don’t we call it a night?”
“Sure. I’ll see you in the morning.” She nodded and left.
The air in the apartment was hot and sticky. Pete tried channel surfing for over an hour before giving up and closing the windows and turning the thermostat to the cool setting. Somewhere in the heart of the building, a fan started up, but ten minutes later there was no change in temperature.
Pete scanned the room for a vent, finding one at the top of the wall. He grabbed one of the chairs from beside the couch and dragged it over. He climbed up and held his hand in front of the vent. There was cold air, but it only trickled out and it smelled bad.
Just over the distant fan, Pete could hear Mrs. Kirschner, presumably talking on the phone. She sounded angry. Something must be wrong. He couldn’t imagine that tone coming from the lady that had been so kind to him. But then again, he didn’t know her that well. He leaned closer to the vent.
“I don’t care,” she said.
“When you said dormant, that’s what I expected. What am I supposed to do now?” She waited, and then spoke again.
“No, I can’t. There is someone in there.”
“A boy. He was helping to clean it up.”
“Because I wanted to rent it out.”
“Because you told me the damned thing was dormant.”
Pete pushed closer still, his curiosity turning to confusion. What the hell was she talking about? As he listened, the distant fan grew more muffled and the trickle of cool air ebbed away.
Mrs. Kirschner’s conversation faded, replaced by a hissing sound. It started quietly, as if from a distance and slowly grew louder. He placed his ear close against the vent. Something hit the vent grate. Pete tumbled back onto the floor, his eyes locked on the vent. It bulged outward. He sat watching in stunned silence. With a shriek of protesting metal the vent gave way and crashed to the floor. Hissing reverberated from the torn opening in the ventilation shaft.
A snout poked out. The nose was pink with long, wiry whiskers coming out of the sides. A tongue slathered out from between sharp teeth the size of pencils and licked the tip of its nose. It hissed in agitation and began struggling harder to free itself.
Pete yelled and leapt to his feet. The thing in the vent paused to sniff and then redoubled its efforts. With a ripping of wood and metal it hit the floor hard enough that Pete felt it through his new shoes. It looked like a rat but was the size of a pig, dripping wet, and stinking of sewage. Pete’s mind reeled at the thought of such a thing squeezing itself between the walls and in the vent. He ran.
Another thump sounded behind him as he reached the door and flung it open. A second rat-thing scurried after him. The first one hissed as its mouth opened wide to bite him. He jumped through the doorway and slammed the door behind him, tripping over his own feet and landing on the floor.
The door shook and cracked. He could hear them hissing on the other side. They thumped into the door once, twice, then silence.
Pete waited for a long moment, a thousand thoughts rushing through his head. Had that really just happened? It couldn’t have. He must be hallucinating from all the cleaning fumes. Or maybe Mrs. Kirschner had drugged him or something. There was no way that any of it could be real.
He listened for a while. Nothing. Standing up, he inched closer to the door, listening carefully. He put his hand on the knob, but didn’t turn it. Instead he rattled it.
The door shook under an impact like a battering ram. He sprang back, unsure of what to do next; surprised the old door still stood. Hissing came from beyond the door and then the sound of scratching and wood tearing. Oh god. He thought. They’re chewing through the door.
It was time to get out. He took a step towards the front door, but before he reached it he thought of Mrs. Kirschner. He couldn’t just leave her, she’d been kind to him. He bolted up the stairs, taking them two at a time. At the top he pounded on Mrs. Kirschner’s door.
“Mrs. Kirschner. open up! We gotta get out of here!”
Her voice came through the door, “Pete? Is that you?”
“Yeah. It’s me! Open up! We gotta go now! There are giant rats in my room! We have to get out of here!”
“I’m sorry Pete.” Her voice was sad. “We can’t leave. What’s done is done. We must see this through.”
“What?” Pete said. “You knew?” There was no answer. He could hear the door downstairs splintering apart. He pounded harder, but it seemed that Mrs. Kirschner had abandoned him.
The rats appeared at the bottom of the stairs. Their noses sniffed at the air, whiskers twitching. They came up the stairs in a rush. He kicked Mrs. Kirschner’s door. Nothing. “Let me in!” he screamed.
He kicked again. The sounds of their claws on the stairs made him cringe, anticipating a bite at his back or legs. He kicked again and the door burst open. Rushing inside he ignored Mrs. Kirschner’s screams of protest as he held the door shut. The broken latch lay splintered on the floor.
“Help me!” he yelled at Mrs. Kirschner, but she seemed dazed.
Scanning the room for anything he could use, his eyes fell once again on the Asian tapestry hanging on the far wall. It wasn’t the tapestry that he wanted though: it was one of the blades that hung next to it. The door he held shut bulged as weight hit it. Pete struggled to hold it. He grabbed a desk next to the door and dragged it in front of it. Then he made a dash for the weapons on the wall.
He grabbed the first sword he reached, a short kind of katana with a black blade. In video games it was called a waka-something, but he only cared that it worked. Facing the door, he watched as the things forced it open.
They lumbered in as if sure of their prey, sniffing and hissing to themselves. One of them bared its teeth and hissed at him. It charged. He let out a yell and swung, catching it in the neck as it sprang, stopping it only inches from his face.
Blood sprayed over him. He gagged, staggered back and almost fell as the second rat-thing bit into his calf muscle. Screaming, he stabbed downward, sinking the blade deep into the rat’s body. It squealed and thrashed backwards, leaving a bloody trail across the floor until it lay still.
Pete limped over to a chair and fell into it. He lifted his pants leg to inspect the damage to his calf. His leg was covered in blood. The wound didn’t look that bad, though he would need to clean it as soon as he could. He leaned back into the chair and breathed deeply. Mrs. Kirschner still sat where she had fallen on the floor in the corner.
“You … you don’t know what you’ve done. Oh god. They told me it was dormant.”
“What are you talking about? I killed them. It’s over now.”
“Dormant. They told me it was dormant.”
The shock must have been too much for her to handle. He let out a sigh and decided to leave her alone. He needed to deal with his leg. Standing up, he hobbled over to the wall and set the sword back in its place.
The tapestry caught his eye. For the first time he looked at it closely. It was a deep red with gold characters and all around the border were painted little golden rats. His eyes followed the trail of rats around the border where they ended with a much bigger rat. A giant compared to the others.
“They told me it was dormant,” whispered Mrs. Kirschner from the corner.
The tapestry moved, bulging slightly in the center and then back. Pete frowned. How could a tapestry on a wall move?
In one quick motion he grabbed it and tore it from the wall. Behind it was a hole large enough to fit a Volkswagen. He stumbled back, the tapestry falling from his hands and bunching on the floor. The hissing rumbled so loudly that Pete clapped his hands over his ears. He backed away until he tripped over a chair. Mrs. Kirschner sat in the corner, tears streaming down her face.
“They told me it was dormant.”