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#1
NumberSix

NumberSix

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Dori whiled away the minutes imagining how long she would survive on her kitchen counter.

If she contorted just so, she could reach the contents of the nearest cupboards without straining -- dozens of spices in scores of containers, baking ingredients for recipes she hadn't prepared in years, dusty collectible mugs gifted from second-tier relatives, and every matching plate set she ever rescued from a yard sale. She could improvise with all those powders, perhaps adding apple cider vinegar or blackstrap molasses for flavor and thickness.

The refrigerator was at her feet, but the door handles were on the opposite side, well out of reach of her stubby arms. The magnets were useless to her situation, but she made mental note of them just in case. Atop the fridge was her flyswatter, but bugs were the least of her concern for a change.

The flour canister and several boxes of teabags had been hurled off the countertop to make room for her. They were on the floor in harm's way, lost to her. The nearly empty sugar canister remained snug in its corner, safe from her earlier panic attack. The flimsy wooden chair she had used as a stepping stone stood nearby, still in one piece after too many decades of use. It was now off limits to her. Its legs were whittled with intricate grooves and curvatures, like fancy miniature ladders connecting the seat to the floor-tile war zone.

She had held on to presence of mind enough to grab the Yellow Pages and the phone receiver before scaling her way to sanctuary. The Yellow Pages were tucked under her head, still open to E. They were a passable pillow. She had been too quick to release the receiver, which now dangled by its spiraling cord from the base mounted on the far wall. If she squinted, she could see it swaying. She was relieved when the off-hook alarm silenced itself.

In the pockets of her favorite raggedy apron were a blue Bic pen and a stash of spare tissues, one of which had already been used to sop her hysterical tears. Her gaudy old housewife's dress had no pockets. Bobby pins secured her dull reddish-gray hair, its auburn frosting almost faded away after weeks of neglect.

She had no idea how much time had passed. Her watch was upstairs on her nightstand. The remains of her erstwhile kitchen clock were scattered like junkyard confetti where she had thrown it at the foot of the stove. On the far counter, the digital readout on her microwave proclaimed 1:35. Ninety-five minutes had passed away since the momentary blackout. She had been too busy to notice the time or the thunderstorm just then.

She fancied she could hold her position for hours, even days if she had no other choice -- subsist on dry meals, reorganize her dishes for fun, sing every song she could brainstorm to pass the time. Whatever it took to stay put and keep living until someone found her or the world ended, she would do it.

Dori paused her mental inventory and long-term martyrdom planning for the knock at the front door, just around the corner. Was it the relief she anticipated or torturous coincidence? "COME IN!" she bellowed.

"Exterminators." Muffled, husky.

"I SAID COME IN!"

She heard the door open and footsteps approach. "Ma'am? Hello?" Clearer, reedier.

She rolled her eyes. "IN THE KITCHEN!"

She craned her neck so she could face the entryway. The two men that entered wore orange jumpsuits with matching hats and sneakers, all gleaming in the kitchen lights as remnants of rain drained away down their resistant surfaces. Both men were the same imposing bulk and height, their girth further extended by overstuffed pockets carrying assorted tools of the trade.

The first voice belonged to the man in front, almost hairless save a set of razor-thin eyebrows. His scowl softened, stopped just short of benign bemusement when he saw their matronly client prone on the counter. "We're from Agent Orange Extermination. Boss said you called us? Rat problem?"

Dori relaxed a tad, lowered her voice a few decibels. "Yes! Yes yes yes! Under the stove!"

The second man stepped to the side of the first man. He was all facial hair and jollity -- a young, beaming Santa in a prison costume. "Hi, there, ma'am. My name is Foster, this is Hymie --"

Hymie grunted, "Hey."

"-- and you can rest assured your problem is well in hand." Foster produced a foldout color pamphlet from his front breast pocket. "Agent Orange Extermination offers a wide variety of traps both painless and otherwise, and not just your father's solutions. We now have eco-friendly options such as --"

Dori interrupted with a screech. "Don't care! I don't care! Under the stove! Just under the stove! Right there!"

Hymie shrugged and looked sideways at Foster, muttering, "Rat fear. Great."

Foster cleared his throat and kept his eyes on his client. "Ma'am, if you'd prefer a simpler, cost-effective method, we do offer sliding-scale options based on income. We have traditional traps, a wide selection of common poisons --"

"I SAID I DON'T CARE!" Dori was at top volume again. She rose on her elbows and smacked her face into the overhead cabinet. The prefab wood surface left her more humiliated than bruised. She groaned, "Just...take care of him."

"Him?" Hymie arched an eyebrow. "It's just one?"

Dori rubbed her eyes with her palms. "One's more'n plenty. He's gotta go."

"The boss told it like you had a whole nest on your hands. You don't need two guys for one rat."

"I don't care if it takes an army! I just want that rat OUT!"

Foster placed one hand on Hymie's shoulder and made an over-there gesture with the other. "A word, please?"

Hymie shrugged. They stepped three paces away from Dori's countertop refuge, faced each other, and whispered back and forth. Hymie hardly moved an inch while Foster gesticulated and raised his eyebrows. At one point he slapped Hymie on the chest with the pamphlet. Dori's tension level elevated anew.

A few eternal moments later, Hymie turned and asked her from afar, "Got any peanut butter?"

Dori frowned. "But he doesn't like peanut butter."

Foster stepped forward, raised a hand, tried to reassure her and wrest control of the situation from her. "Ma'am, it's our experience that the cliché about rodents and cheese doesn't always hold true. Peanut butter has proven to be a far more effective lure --"

"Trust me. Not peanut butter." Dori sniffled.

Foster's hand froze in midair. He blinked. "Excuse us again. Just a second." He tugged Hymie's collar until they were face-to-face once more, engaged in another hushed debate, standing so Dori could see neither of their expressions. Another pair of tears slid down her anguished facade.

Hymie pivoted toward her once more. "Your stove gas or electric?"

Dori had to think about it. "Electric. It was a gift from my son. I'm planning to replace it. My old stove was gas, but it had so many leaks. Just the same --"

"Right, thanks." Hymie faced the stove, glanced across the burners. He kicked the clock fragments to one side, while at the same time donning a pair of crusty workman's gloves. He lifted her brass tea kettle off the back burner and set it in the nearer sink basin, then removed each of the burner grates and placed them in the far basin. He popped open the stovetop a few inches, inserted his fingers underneath, worked them into position...and dragged the stove partway from the wall.

Foster fished around inside a large hip pocket and extruded a small burlap drawstring bag. Dori's eyebrows ascended to their zenith. "What are you all up to? Don't you need...I don't know, some kind of equipment from your van? Great big rat traps? A butterfly net? A gun?"

As Hymie lowered the stovetop and climbed atop it, Foster glanced at her, opened his mouth a second before choosing his next words. A beat later: "We don't expect this to take long."

Hymie removed a small flashlight from a front pocket, slid the switch on, and gripped the flashlight tail between his teeth. He hung his hat on the kettle, pulled his legs up, then rolled toward the wall far enough to reach his right arm and head into the darkness below. His right shoe tip dented the metal toaster head-on before swatting it aside. He swung his legs around, bent upright at the knees as counterweight. His left arm followed into the hole, pulling his torso forward and downward.

Foster held the bag in one hand and loosened the drawstring with the other, watching Foster's back and waiting. He and Dori could hear the flashlight knock against the stove. Hymie grunted.

Foster asked, "Can you see him?"

"Nah yeh," came the response through clenched teeth and depressed tongue. Hymie planted his hands against the wall, scooted himself a few inches to one side, and resumed the hunt.

Then: "Uh-HUHH. Gum HERE, oo." Stillness for a second. Sounds of scuffling and scampering. A squeak of protest. Hymie swung to the right and slid deeper into the abyss. His legs stiffened and rose as he shifted his weight centrally, using his waist as a fulcrum. He rocked like an electric dimestore horsie. The clawing and scraping of the two creatures great and small reverberated in the hollow space and sang of their close-quarters clash. Dori and Foster were transfixed, as if listening with zeal to a heavyweight title bout on the radio.

The wartime melody segued into a frictional coda of struggling and squirming, a few resonant thumps of meat on metal, and a punctuated measure of triumph. "IMME UH HAG!"

Foster's disbelief was bereft of any pretense at smooth customer service. "Are you kidding me? You can't possibly have it."

"I SAAH IMME UH HAG!"

Foster shook his head as he talked. "Do you know what the odds are? How many different escape hatches that wriggly little runt should have down there? This shack is probably riddled with field-mouse ventilation, to say nothing of the settling and -- "

"OOG, OO WANNA OO ISS?"

Foster leaned forward and dropped the bag down in the hole to Hymie's right.

Dori shrugged off her stunned look and asked, "Is this how your company normally works?"

Foster raised his arms in surrender. "Not my idea, ma'am. I offered to go back out in that storm and fetch the equipment, but he insisted that he --"

A bag full of stunned rat sailed through the air, arcing past Dori's face. She shrieked as it bounced on the floor below. She shrank back against the wall, aghast and revulsed.

Hymie bounced backward out of the hole, landing squarely on both feet. He righted himself and tucked the flashlight back in his pocket. "Over. Done with," he summarized as he shoved the stove back into place -- not too quickly, trying not to jostle the wires or the large 220-watt plug in back any more than he already had.

Foster gawked at the motionless bag before he gently picked it up and held it at arm's length. He looked to Hymie's back, then to the bag, then to Hymie again. He eventually regained his voice. "I'll just...take this out to the van for, uh, for...for completion of service. Hymie, can, uh...can you finish up here?"

"Yep. Gimme a minute." More gentle appliance-nudging.

Foster nodded toward Dori. "Ma'am," was all he mustered before exiting the kitchen and into the weather, dangling the bag at maximum distance from himself the whole way out.

Dori stayed still. "Is it gone? Is it done?"

With one final nudge, Hymie responded, "Yep. All clear." He returned the grates and the kettle to their original position, then turned to face Dori with professional satisfaction. "We got your rat. Big sucker. Lucky for me he backed into the wrong corner. We just need --" He stopped and grimaced. "Dang it. Idiot left the clipboard in the van. We need paperwork and signature done before we take off. Be right back." He followed his partner's footsteps outside.

Dori rolled her eyes and exhaled. She braced herself against the wall, kicked her legs forward, and propelled herself off the counter. She was happy to be reunited with her dingy kitchen floor once again.

More importantly, she was glad she would never have to set eyes on Mister Whiskers again. No more daily staring contests, no more watching him vomit the foods he disliked, no more chittering and digging and clicking his claws as he ran laps at night, no more odd questions from the clerks at the pet store.

She stepped over the clock debris and walked into the living room. The cage base still lay on the carpet where it had been dropped and shattered, askew amidst the glass shards and rat toys and spilled food and water dishes. Cleanup would take time, but she needed to be able to concentrate first. And the rat had vexed her even before her decision to evict it.

While her son was serving his tour of duty overseas, she hadn't minded petsitting for him, no matter how long it would take. She'd liked having the company in his absence. She was holding on to a part of his heart, nourishing and safekeeping until his return.

One landmine later, his heart was gone. Part of hers went with it. With a single misstep, what had given her comfort and focus instantly became a living reminder of the agony of loss, of the twenty-two years of devoted parenting, of two decades of her affection and toil sacrificed in vain.

Mister Whiskers had to be removed for her own good. She had intended only to escort him to the Dumpster for an unceremonious sendoff, but her careless fumble derailed her simple plan. He had shot her one last look of sympathy and betrayal before darting from the accident scene and seeking asylum under the stove.

Given time, he might have discovered an escape hatch and relocated to the great outdoors. He might have needed only minutes, or he might have lingered in the warmth for hours until the storm passed, or he might have scrabbled together a new nest out of sight and lived decades longer off her dropped crumbs and plumbing condensation, always out of reach but never out of mind.

Dori had no intention of waiting. Her life needed to restart, and it needed to restart now. All the family photo albums were history. Her son's trophies and medals were in the hands of the Salvation Army, tucked inside a garbage bag with the last of his old baby clothes. Even the stove he had given her as a Christmas surprise would soon follow. Her lengthy to-do list had left no time for thinking or catching her breath and would occupy her for weeks to come. Whatever it took to remove each item from her list, she would do it.

A shrill caw intruded upon her reverie.

In the far corner of the living room, the suspended birdcage vibrated as her son's prized hyacinth macaw awakened for the day. Underneath the birdcage cover, Dori could hear him stretch his blue wings and flap out the kinks from a good, sound sleep.

With revived sense of purpose and self-pity, she opened the patio door, strode into the backyard, hefted a spare garden brick, and planned her next project.

#2
ElfinYoda

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:lol: I'm reading and I'm wondering when the twist will come. Surely the Great Six was not going to write about something as mundane as a woman with a rat phobia!! :lol: :thumbsup:

#3
Copper

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I love the mix of tones in this. While much of the physical activity in the story is hilarious- bordering on slapstick with the exterminators and their antics- the overall arc of the story is incredibly sad. You know something is wrong right away when you describe Dori's lank hair that needs washing. The slow build up and unfolding of the story does it credit- you hook us just enough, and make us wonder if someone can truly be that afraid of a rat and then we learn where all this tension is coming from. And then it's just sad. Sad, and a little bit disturbing.

Nice job, Sixer!

#4
Antilla

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Please people.

Extermination is a deadly serious business and funny things never happen.

In a related comment:

The preferred method of rat removal actually revolves around a Benny Hill style chase sequence and a smash to the rodent's head with an aluminum pole you rummaged for in the back of the truck.

I know.

#5
Sonny

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This was as good as I expected it to be. Which will mean a lot more when you realize how high my exectations are for a word maestro such as yourself, NumberSix. Simply fantastic work!

By the way- do you mind finally settling a family argument by revealing that you are not, in point of fact, named after the tall blond Cylon?

#6
Thomas Alan

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The fact that he registered in 1999 wasn't a hint?

#7
Sonny

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Yes because logic always wins out against 16-20 year old females.

#8
NumberSix

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The preferred method of rat removal actually revolves around a Benny Hill style chase sequence and a smash to the rodent's head with an aluminum pole you rummaged for in the back of the truck.

I know.


If only I'd known. I once killed a mouse with my Bible. True story.

Years ago when we were still in a section-8 apartment, one night I was walking from the bathroom hallway to the kitchen. I stopped short when I saw a mouse on the floor between rooms, sitting still and just staring ahead, like a traffic cop waiting for travelers to direct.

I was carrying my leatherbound 1900-page Thompson Chain-Reference Study Bible. I panicked for no reason and chucked it in his direction.

Bullseye.

I was disgusted for a week. From a cleaner's perspective, I came to realize I was lucky I hadn't used a hardcover.

By the way- do you mind finally settling a family argument by revealing that you are not, in point of fact, named after the tall blond Cylon?


Your family knows I'm a he, right?

Since I haven't reposted it in years:

--> Where NumberSix got his username



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