She had been sleeping a lot lately. I was worried about her. She had always enjoyed sleeping til noon when she could, and she tended to orchestrate her life so that this schedule was plausible, but now that she had lost her janitor job at the university lab it seemed as if she were always sleeping. When I left the house for work at seven in the morning the house was silent, and when I returned at five in the evening it was still silent. She would generally rise around eight pm, stumbling half asleep into the kitchen to pour herself a glass of water or soy milk and then would trudge back to her bedroom. I took to listening at her door a couple of nights upon her return, and heard the sounds of papers rustling, soft mutterings, the impatient tap of a pen against a hard surface–a sure sign that she was working on some kind of problem. So that was good, at least she was working on something.
Getting to my job and doing it well meant that I had to be in bed by midnight, at which point I would stop and press my ear against her door once more. She was still awake, the sounds of her quiet toiling persisted. I’m not sure how late she was staying up, but once before I left for work in the morning she came out for another glass of water and it looked like she hadn’t been to bed yet.
“Emmy, good morning! How are you?” I tried to minimize the desperately cheerful coffee-induced edge to my voice.
“Helen, good. And you?” Emmy didn’t look at me as she took a sip of her water, rotating back toward her room.
“Good, I’m great! Emmy! I haven’t seen much of you lately!” My voice took on a high-pitched keen that irritated even me.
“Yeah. Been busy.” She didn’t so much as turn her head as she walked back down the hall.
And that was the last I had seen of her until the rats came. It started with the cat, Tabby, catching them. The first one she caught she left lying in front of Emmy’s door. I scooped it up with an empty coffee can and threw it in the garbage. Living in the city meant putting up with rats from time to time, though we hadn’t had any problems in our current apartment until now. Tabby started catching one, sometimes two, and once three, almost every night. After a full week of this I tapped on Emmy’s door one night. She opened the door (still?) dressed in her nightgown, hair messy and uncombed, an irritated crinkle between her eyes.
“Emmy, we’ve got to do something about these rats.” I held out the coffee can to show her the two that Tabby had left in the entryway. Emmy peered into the can wordlessly.
“I’m going to get a trap tonight.”
Emmy studied my face with an expression that I couldn’t understand.
“Alright,” she said, “don’t get the live ones.”
“What do you mean?”
“I said don’t get the live traps.”
“Why not?” I asked, trying to prolong my chance at a conversation. Emmy smiled at me.
“I’m learning to control the living by practicing on the dead.” she said, and shut the door before I could reply.
What in the hell did that mean? I was spooked, and sure that it was time to call Emmy’s parents. I called them the first thing the next morning, and recounted my conversation with Emmy, word for word, to her father. He sounded alarmed, and asked me to repeat what Emmy had said.
“Dammit,” he growled, “she must be off her meds again. Look, Caroline and I are going to drive on down there tomorrow to pick her up. We’ll take care of her rent for this month. Just…just keep an eye on her til we get there, would ya?”
“Of course.” I said, and we hung up after agreeing that it would be better not to tell Emmy that they were coming. As I placed the phone on the receiver Tabby greeted me by dropping another rat at my feet.
They woke me with a start at two the next morning. The half moon was shining through my window, casting a silvery luminosity across my room. I sat up with a gasp, unsure of what had awakened me. I glanced about my room, feeling a strange sense of apprehension. There! In the corner! A dark, scuttling shadow across the floorboards. And then again! Another one! My body went cold with fear. I switched on my lamp and let out a shriek. There must have been at least twenty of them, creeping one by one against the wall, out of my closet and through my bedroom door, which was oddly ajar. It was almost as if they were marching, so uniform was their motion and speed. The sound of my scream did not deter them in the slightest; they didn’t so much as look at me, but continued on their way. I sat still in my bed, breathing hard, watching in horror as the procession of rats materialized from my closet.
*This post is brought to you by my dreams! Sometimes when I wake up in the night the boy–who plays lots of video games and tends to stay up much later than I–likes to ask me what I am dreaming about. One night I told him that I was dreaming that I was leading a rat army; later I told him “I’m learning to control the living by practicing on the dead.” Spooooky! I don’t even remember saying that! So thanks dreams!*