The Dreamer: A Sneak Peek
The following is a scene from my newest novel, The Dreamer. I hope you enjoy, and don't let it give you too many nightmares...
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Isabelle Craten had a reputation of being one seriously nice, albeit odd, lady. That reputation would have taken a serious hit if anyone had stopped by at that particular moment.
“Damn it, Natalie!” she screeched, wading through a sea of cats which split in front of her. “God damn it, girl!”
It was hard for her to believe but the evidence didn’t lie; Natalie Mullen—dependable Natalie—had forgotten to stop by and give the cats their afternoon tuna. There were no two ways to put it, Natalie had not come by. Each of the food bowls was perfectly clean and still smelled of the Nature’s Miracle Isabelle used to clean them. Her cats hadn’t been fed in nearly twelve hours. Her babies were starving.
Isabelle wrenched the lids from the industrial sized cans, pushing her furry babies away from their bowl with a foot. Mewing filled the house, melting her heart as it always did. Those little creatures depended on her. They were precious and tender and depended on her. And it seemed that they depended on her more than she had ever thought. Could she trust no one anymore? Not even Natalie?
Isabelle filled the containers—buckets more like—around the house, pausing periodically to pet the more affectionate cats who bestowed her with a warm ankle rub. When the last of the cans of tuna was empty, she went to the back porch and threw the cans into one of the big garbage cans; she had asked the garbage company to deliver her three cans instead of one, which they gladly did, only doubling her monthly rate. You had to make some sacrifices to lead her lifestyle, and extra garbage cans were only the beginning. The cans of tuna were gallon sized tubs she purchased at the Sam’s Club in Gainesville. Every month she would make the twenty mile trek to that wholesale paradise and load her big Suburban with a thousand dollars worth of supplies; the tuna, fifty pound bags of kitty litter, hundred pound bags of crunchy cat food, and a heck of a lot of cleaning products—cats were wonderful, but they could make a terrific mess when they wanted to. Oh yes, she spent a lot of money on her babies, but it was worth it. She had a good job, so what did it matter if she spent most of her money on them instead of overpriced clothes and jewelry?
Isabelle knew what people thought of her. She knew about the stereotype she so aptly filled. People talked, especially the people in Oak Grove, but that didn’t bother her that much. Yes, she had to deal with the police from time to time, but she kept her house as meticulous as possible—it might never win a home award, but it was far from unsanitary—so the police could never cite her for a health violation. Yes, she spent a lot of money on her furry housemates, but money was made to be spent. The only thing she couldn’t escape, although she tried, was the loneliness she sometimes felt.
It was crazy, really. She was surrounded by creatures that loved her and depended on her, but every once in a while—usually when the days were gray and overcast—she felt completely alone, even though the couch she lounged on was filled with living souls. The people talked, and that was fine, but they also avoided her. Oh they were perfectly friendly, but they never made an effort to socialize with her voluntarily. It had been years since she had been invited to a neighbor’s cookout or birthday party. She was the creepy cat-lady, dontcha know? Can’t have her over. And that was fine by her, cookouts usually involved meat, and she had given that up years ago. But it would be nice to have someone around to tell her problems to. It’d be nice to have someone to talk to at dinner who had a vocabulary bigger than purr or meow. Most of all, it’d be nice to have someone next to her when she woke up.
“Just get rid of your cats,” her mother would say whenever Isabelle was brave enough to broach the subject on the phone. “They’re the only things holding you back.”
Easy for Mom to say, that lady hated animals. To her, animals were things to be eaten, not adored. Was that why Isabelle was so over the top with her cats, because her mom had forbid pets when she was young? Not at all. Thanks to her dad, the Craten house had been nicely filled with animals during her youth. Dogs, cats, even a hermit crab. Isabelle had grown up with plenty of pets, and when she got a place of her own, she started adopting her own. It had just gotten a little out of control somewhere along the way.
“Meow,” a black and white cat told her, threading through her legs affectionately.
“I know, Dezzy.” Isabelle bent and scooped the cat into her arms, cradling the creatures little head and scratching under the chin. Dezzy leaned her head back and closed her eyes in pleasure.
Men. Psh, who needs them? They never love you as honestly as this.
Ah, but that’s not exactly true, is it?
Isabelle trooped back into her house. The cats all crowded around the food bowls, and she took the opportunity to run the vacuum. She had long since abandoned the beautiful hardwood floors that had attracted her to the house—the cats scratched the living hell out of them—covering them with cheap carpet. Most people would think that a hard floor would be better than carpet with cats, but Isabelle knew better. Her cats were all very well trained and almost never had accidents. The only real problem left—and one the poor dears couldn’t control—was their dander. Well the carpet caught that all nicely, and a few runs with her Miele—eight hundred dollars and worth every penny—would suck all of that dander out just fine.
There were plenty of tricks she had learned over the past few years to keep a tidy house; clean during feeding time, vacuum twice a day, shampoo the carpets every Friday, and spread the food bowls about the house to thin the herd. Honestly, if people would just get their prejudices away, they’d see that she lived just fine.
Cats fed, carpets vacuumed, Isabelle went to the one place in the house her babies weren’t allowed: her bathroom. She took a long, hot shower, then changed into the pajamas she wore whenever she lounged around the house. After she slid the fleece shirt over her head, she examined herself in the mirror. She was twenty-eight, twenty-nine in a few months. Her body was still firm, her hair still dark. Not a creepy old cat lady at all. She could get a man if she really wanted to. Yep, she still had it. There was still time.
It wasn’t that she didn’t have luck with men, she had plenty. It was that she didn’t have luck in keeping men. Isabelle was a stone cold fox, and she knew it. Women with her kind of beauty always know it. Since she was about thirteen she had been brushing away advances by boys and, later, men. Not that she brushed them all away, mind you, but the advances came so often that she learned early on that she could be picky. Why date a boy with acne? She could date that boy with the twelve-pack. Why date a man who worked as a gardener? She could have a lawyer, or even a doctor—yum!
And she had dated doctors and lawyers. She had dated men who looked like models from Calvin Klein. Her job put her in contact with a never ending supply of handsome professionals, and most of them hit on her. Lonely at home, she might be, but Isabelle went on plenty of dates, thank you very much. It just always happened to be at his place instead of hers. She had to get them hooked on her before she took them home; that way they wouldn’t run away when the caught sight of her cats.
Great plan. Never worked. How long had her last relationship been? Six months? Yeah, at least that. But that guy—Dave, a tax attorney—had dropped her like a hand grenade the second she relented and took him home. Oh well, his loss.
Isabelle thought again of Natalie and felt anger prickle up her spine. The girl had been so dependable. She had been feeding the cats their lunch for almost a year now without missing a single day. Why hadn’t she fed them today? She hadn’t even called to tell her that she wasn’t going to be able to do it. So inconsiderate! Maybe I should call her and give her a piece of my mind! Isabelle thought, thinking of the lashing she would extol, then thought better of it. Natalie might really have a good excuse. Better to wait.
As for now, it was five-thirty and the light outside was a wonderful, golden afternoon. A spot of dinner would knock the edge off of her anger, then she could curl up on the lounge out back on the patio with a few of her kitties and a good book. That would take the edge off of her anger.
The cats flowed around her, mewing and pawing at her legs, as she made her way to the kitchen.
“What do you want, sweeties?” She bent down and scratched the closest one to her.
She expected the cat to purr and push against her hand like all of her babies did when scratched behind the ears. But that cat—Jimmy Boy was his name—didn’t do what was expected. Instead, he pulled away from her hand but not from her, craning his neck backwards from the hand and giving her a wide eyed stare.
“What is that about?” Isabelle had never seen a cat do that before, usually if they didn’t want to be petted they stayed away from her instead of snuggling right up to her feet.
“Did your siblings already eat all of the tuna?” She asked, thinking of the key factor in a cat’s life. If they had already eaten it, they would have set a new world record. She had put out about ten pounds of the stuff, and, fifty cats or not, that was a lot of fish to be eaten.
But there was still plenty of tuna left, she saw when she waded over to the nearest tub. In fact, most of the tuna was untouched. The cats seemed disinterested in it, like they suddenly had no taste for their favorite food. They milled around her, little ears pricked and eyes twinkling in her direction, but not so much as a single nose twitched toward the delicatessen left for them.
“What is it?” she asked again.
A chorus of meows in response, and that was no response at all; even Isabelle couldn’t speak cat.
“Perhaps y’all want your crunchy food, instead?” It was well past their normal tuna time, and she usually fed them the crunchy food around this time, so maybe…
The shrieking yell of a cat startled her, making her jump. The cat who was responsible for the yell was at the back of the pack, near the couch: a stray tabby she rescued two years ago. The only reason she knew that he was the one responsible was because he had leap high when he yelled. So high that he was still in the air, scrabbling at nothing with all four paws, when she turned around.
“Skittles? What was that about?”
But she saw what it was about just fine a second later. Right at the base of the couch, at the dark entrance of the furniture’s underworld. It was a space that her cats usually loved, crawling under the couch to chase those illusive dust bunnies or just relax. There weren’t any cats under there presently, however, because at that precise moment, that dark underworld was the home to a massive rat.
The rat stuck its head out, whiskers wiggling a million wiggles a second. It was huge, almost half the size of her cats and had evidently scared the fur ball out of the poor tabby, because the rest of her cats weren’t in the least bit scared. While Isabelle was frightened at the unwelcome figure, the rest of her family obviously had one thought on their minds as they stared intently at the monster: dinner.
Nothing moved for a heartbeat, then the rat scuttled out from under the couch just a few feet. But a few feet was too much for its own good. An all white cat—name of Snowball, of course—struck like lightening, launching itself toward the rat with forepaws together and claws extended. The rat never stood a chance, receiving a neck full of nails which killed it instantly.
Isabelle’s heart had gone into a right tango at the sight of the rat, but it was over now. Her babies had protected her. They were now gathering around Snowball’s kill. She didn’t know how the rat had gotten inside, but it wouldn’t happen again. Rats? Pshaw, she had that covered.
She thought about trying to take the rat’s body from her babies, but it didn’t take a rocket scientist to know that that plan wasn’t going anywhere; one does not simply take food from a cat.
“That’ll be fun to cleanup,” she said to herself, starting toward the kitchen. Half eaten rat, yay. Perhaps the rat was why the cats had been acting strange; they must have smelled it.
She had only taken a few steps through the pool of cats when she saw the second rat. This one was perched on the mantle over the fireplace. This rat was as big as the first, maybe even bigger. Gray, patchy fur and black eyes. Whiskers wicking up and down. Nose twitching in her direction.
“Ahhh!” she shrieked, backing away quickly. Oh she hated rats. Hated them.
Her babies either heard her shriek or smelled the intruder, because five of the cats broke from the main group around the first rat and charged at the mantle, leaping to the top of the sofa then to the recliner before launching themselves at the rat.
Fur collided and yells sounded. This rat didn’t die as easily; it had seen its attacker coming and had been prepared, dodging left and sinking razor teeth into the first paw that came striking its way. Blood flowed, jetting into the air and staining the wood. The bitten cat recoiled, holding its paw aloft, and managed to knock off every single one of the little glass cat figurines which had lined most of the mantle. The little figures shattered on the brick of the fireplace, glittering shards of glass sprinkled the air.
Other cats joined in, and the rat soon met its end in the form of sharp teeth clamped around its neck. The cat who snagged it gave it a death shake or two and let it fly. It sailed from the mantle and landed with a dull, final thud on the carpet near Isabelle’s feet.
Two rats was bad news. There was obviously a security issue with her house if such big rats could just mosey inside. Good thing the rats were stupid enough to show their little worm-tailed butts. Big they might be, but cats could handle any rat, no matter how big.
That thesis wouldn’t go untested, because the second rat wasn’t the last. Oh no, not even close. Now that the house of felines was nice and woken up, the rats came out to play. Not just a few rats, either, but a constant stream of them.
A gray streak shot from the kitchen, jetting across the carpet straight at Isabelle. She yelled and jumped, but needed not to have; one of her babies intercepted the rat, pouncing quickly and with an elated yip.
No sooner was that threat dispatched then three more rats rocketed out of a hole Isabelle was pretty certain hadn’t been in the baseboard by the TV just moments before. Once again the rats came right for her, and once again her babies killed the threats with ease. She was safe.
Too bad it wasn’t over.
More rats came out of the previously nonexistent hole. Two, three, five of them. And they were joined by gray menaces which came from under the couch at a run. They all made directly for her, their little beady eyes glaring at her. Once again her cats saved her, but the rats had gotten closer that time, once of them making it right up to her sneaker before getting its back broken for its troubles.
Now the rats came in a constant stream, one after the other, from both couch and hole. Ten, fifteen, twenty, she couldn’t count them. They rushed toward her, tail to whiskery nose, ignoring the cats which fell upon them, rending them limb from limb.
Her little warriors fought well, slaying the monsters with feline efficiency, but the stream of rats did not abate. They poured from their hiding holes. She could hear their little feet pattering in the walls as they came from whatever hell they called home. Their eyes did not blink, even as they were slain, and their goal was obvious: Isabelle.
Closer and closer they came, leaping over cats and their fallen compatriots. Mindlessly they advanced, like zombies who had learned to sprint. The cats kept them at bay for a time, but sheer numbers and speed were proving too much. Their deaths came closer and closer to her feet. First ten feet away, then five, then right at her toes. She backed away, groping behind her for something to stand on like Tom’s mother had done whenever Jerry came around, but there was nothing but the door to the spare bedroom.
That would do just fine. As far as Isabelle was concerned, this was a job her babies could handle for themselves. Each of her fifty cats was in the living room now, claws flying, hair raised, and teeth flashing as they protected the hand that fed them. And people had the nerve to say she had too many….
The door to the bedroom was open. She backed through it, watching the rats try frantically to overcome the feline army and reach her. There were hundreds of them now. Hundreds of the gray menaces. They continued to pour from the hole by the TV and from under the couch, but now they also shrieked out of the kitchen and the master bedroom. They came like a flood, climbing over each other, their tails mixing together like a nest of worms.
They have to be rabid, Isabelle thought. That was the only reason why they would attack like that; rats were supposed to run away from people and especially from cats. But how were there so many? She didn’t know there were that many rats in the entire county. What in the world would make them choose her house to launch an invasion?
Invasion was exactly what it was, and for the moment it was being repulsed. Fifty cats killed with cold efficiency, biting necks, swatting bodies, and leaping on backs. It was a surprisingly quiet battle. The usual war cries of her defenders were slowly dying out as the cat’s battle grew more and more frenzied; there was no time or energy to waste on yelling.
Isabelle made it through the doorway. Around her feet, a half dozen cats waged war with fifty rats. Blood, claws, and fur flew. One of the rats managed to get through the defenses and sank its teeth into her ankle.
The pain was exotic electricity, flashing through her body and slamming home in her brain. She yelled and kicked, but the rat held on, teeth deeply secured. One of her cats, she wasn’t sure who, saw the attacker and snagged it with a powerful bite. The rat twitched, the teeth twisted, sheering through more skin and the pain redoubled, but it let go as the cat tossed it.
Backing the rest of the way into the bedroom, Isabelle slammed the door closed. Her cats saw the door closing and moved quickly, half jumping inside with her, the other half leaping back into the fray in the living room. The rats hadn’t moved quite as quickly. One of them was caught between the door and the frame, wedging the door open like a crazed martyr. More of its friends poured over its back and into the room where they tried to dart around her two valiant defenders.
“Just die!” she yelled and threw her entire weight against the door.
The rats body gave a nasty crack, foamy blood shot from its nose, and the door smashed through its body, slamming closed and sealing her from the madness on the other side. The top half of the rat flopped to the carpet, its little intestines trailing from where it once had rear legs, mouth gaping slowly open and closed as death took its hold.
About a dozen rats had made it through before she got the door closed. Those were quickly dispatched by the two cats who had come in with her, though she did receive another bite—this one not as bad—on her leg.
“Good babies,” she cooed to the cats, collapsing against the door. Scratching sounds could be heard on the other side, along with the mostly silent sounds of continued battle.
It was safe enough in the guest bedroom, no rats to be seen, but her cats were too hyped up to just play it chill. They paced around her, tails held high and ears perked for the first sign of attack. Isabelle wanted desperately to embrace one of them, to take comfort from the warm fur, but she had a feeling that, with them still in battle mode, they would scratch her viciously out of reflex, so she let them pace.
“The second this is over, I’m going to a hotel and calling an exterminator,” she told the pacing kitties. “We’ll have to take all of you to the vet, I guess. Good thing you all have your rabies shots.” Isabelle was a responsible cat lady, you see.
Scratching at the door, persistent, unyielding. The rats were still trying to get her, but the door would hold them and her wonderful defenders would get them.
Isabelle turned her back to the door and leaned against it. The bodies of the rats who had managed to get inside lay at the feet of her two cats, bloody and torn. The cats stared at her with wide, questioning eyes. Even they knew that this wasn’t normal—not that any of her life ever was normal.
The spare bedroom was just about as spare as you could get. There was a bed, resplendent in a hideous flower patterned bedspread, a nightstand with a plain black lamp, and a little chest of drawers which was just big enough to hold a pixy’s entire wardrobe. Other than those pieces of furniture, the room was completely bare. The closet was in the far wall, shielding its jumble of Christmas decorations with sliding mirror doors. But there wasn’t just yuletide knickknacks in there anymore; pattering feet and scratching nails built in volume behind the reflective surface. The rats were inside.
Cats ears perched, twitched, and zeroed in on the closet.
Her protectors hissed and rose to their feet, backs arched and hair raised. The scratching increased in volume. The mirrored door shook and rattled, flickering glimmers of light all over the room. The cats paced toward the oncoming threat with slow strides, bodies low to the ground, every bit the hunters they were descended from.
“Protect me,” Isabelle whispered. She pushed herself against the door to get farther from the new threat, but with her back pressed firmly to the wood, she could feel the persistent vibrations from the rats scratching to get inside. She was trapped.
Only her cats could save her.
Her two guardians reached the vibrating mirror. One of them raised a paw and tapped at its shivering reflection, but the rats did not spring forth from the closet. Isabelle hoped that the rats wouldn’t figure out how to get out of that small space, but she knew it was a faint hope. If the rats had gotten inside the closet, they could get out.
A sharp yelp of pain sounded from the living room, the cry of a cat. Her heart lurched, feeling the pain that had fallen on one of her unfortunate babies. Maternal instinct kicked in and it was all Isabelle could do to prevent herself from wrenching open the door and rushing to her hurt kitty. Only the sound of scratching demons kept her still. The cats could take care of the rats much better than she could. There may be millions of rats, but cats were the ultimate exterminators; they would prevail.
The two cats in the room with her sat down in front of the closet door, calmly examining their reflections and waiting for their prey to come out to play.
Should I open the closet door for them?
No, that would be silly. If she slid open that door, the only thing to save her were the two cats, and god knew how many rats were in there amongst the Christmas decorations—from the sound of it, there were about ten thousand.
It wouldn’t matter if she opened the door, because now she saw that rats were already in the room. They climbed from some point behind the bed, shuttling up the flowery bedspread and spreading across the top of it. A wave of them spread across the bed no one had ever slept in. A tide of gray covered its surface, squeaking and twittering, but not hopping onto the ground and launching a charge at her. No, they just gathered, turning the bed from a flowery ugly to a matted fur. Squeaking. Squeaking and pooping, leaving behind little reminders of themselves everywhere.
That poop is going to take forever to clean! Isabelle thought, realizing that there were bigger problems than a couple droppings even as she thought it. But that thought still wouldn’t go away. She worked so hard to keep her house clean, how dare these little rats come in and mess things up!
The cats in front of the closet door saw the new threats and slunk back over to Isabelle, placing themselves between her and the new threat.
A thousand rats covered the bed. Where had they come from? Were they the same as the rats outside? Had they simply found a way from the living room to this spare bedroom? Perhaps now the way behind her was clear. Perhaps. Perhaps not.
One rat, a massive black thing with a chewed ear and scarred over eye, pushed its way through the ranks of its brothers until it stood on the edge of the bed. It stared at her with its good eye, tilting its head to one side. Its nose wiggled, it raised its head. And it squeaked.
The rats repeated the squeak, echoing it into a cacophony.
Isabelle clamped her hands over her ears. The noise was deafening. It was incredible that those little creatures could make so much noise. They were like locusts; a single one was mostly silent and harmless, but when they gathered…
The attack came. They poured over the bed, running like water onto the floor and straight toward her with their little teeth bared and tails held stiffly behind them.
Once again her cats tried to protect her. They batted the rushing rodents away, but for every one they dispatched, five took their place.
And this time the rats had a plan. They didn’t try to push past the cats like they had in the past. Instead, the fury of the first wave was turned upon those defenders.
Even as the cats killed, rats swarmed over them, biting at their slender legs, sinking razor sharp teeth into tails and flexed tendons. Her cats roared in pain and leaped into the air. But they couldn’t fly and when they landed more rats awaited them. Rats climbed onto the cats backs, biting their way along. Blood flowed a red river, fur flew, and cries of pain became the soundtrack to Isabelle’s nightmare.
“Stop!” she shrieked and kicked out at the gray army.
Her bare foot connected with one of the gray beasts. The kick sent the rat flying, but she still felt its matted fur and bony body on her toes. The kicked rat connected with the far wall with a solid thud. But when it slid to the ground, it simply shook its head and ran back into the fray.
Now she was part of it. Her cats were overwhelmed, wearing new coats of fur that busily bit away at the old fur and underlying meat. A rat bit her on her big toe. She kicked hard and the rat went flying. Isabelle looked at her bitten toe. The bite was deep, she could see bone.
Her world went white. Fog rolled in around the edges of her vision, but it wasn’t the white of pained shock. Oh no, this was the white of rage. The rats had done it now, they had really pissed her off, and nothing pissed Isabelle Craten off.
Anger. Sweet anger. Loathing. Her mind went blank, suppressed by this new, wonderful sensation. The world didn’t matter anymore. All that mattered was death, and how much she could doll out. Her heart hammered harder than it ever had. She could hear its pulsing fury in her ears, feel it in her neck.
And Isabelle Craten lashed out.
She leapt, toes on her bare foot splayed wide, and landed in a pile of rats swarming at the back of one of her overwhelmed protectors. Most of the rats scattered, but they were massed too tightly to move quickly.
Her foot landed solidly on a rat’s back, smashing down with every one of her hundred and twenty pounds behind it. She felt its bones broke under her foot, some of them actually punching through the skin and stabbing into her heel. Warm wetness flowed , bathing her foot in a bath her pedicurist would never have prescribed. But it felt good. It felt so good. Even the pain of the bone sticking into her foot felt good.
The rats which had scattered rushed back in, aiming for the killer foot.
“Bring it on!” she roared and leapt again.
Like a sumo wrestler sizing up his opponent, Isabelle stomped her feet from side to side, hips wide and stomps heavy. Each fall of her foot promised death, and most of the time delivered. The rats were packed too tightly to avoid her, and for such vicious little creatures, they sure did crunch easily.
She smashed them flat. Little brains shot from little noses. Guts slammed out from under tails. Scurrying legs broke. Ribs shattered. Isabelle waded through a wave of demonic attackers like a demon herself, killing with each overpowered stomp.
“Die. Die. Die,” she chanted as she killed. “Die. Die. Die.”
The rats were no longer a cohesive force; they scattered from their targets, running to the edge of the room, some of them disappearing under the bed. But many of them were not so lucky as to escape her wrath, and soon the floor around her was covered in their broken bodies.
There hadn’t been a thousand of them, that had simply been her overexcited mind playing tricks on her, but there were at least a hundred, and within moments she had killed dozens of them.
The rats retreated, and Isabelle picked off the stragglers, but soon there was nothing left alive within easy reach.
“That’s right, run away!” She held her arms wide and shrieked at her enemy, tendons stretched out dangerously on her neck. The rats cowered under the bed, little black eyes glinting fretfully at her. “I’m the goddamn Cat Lady! I eat you little bastards for breakfast!”
Adrenaline rushed through her veins, but the lull in the action allowed it to dip for a moment, and she felt her pain for the first time. Her feet were shredded, poked through by hundreds of tiny bones. Her blood ran from bites on her legs, sheathing her in red stockings. The pain was a dull ache but flared sharply with each step. She stared at her wounds, not really understanding them. She hadn’t felt them, when had they happened? And where was the real pain?
Isabelle looked up. The big, black rat that had ordered the attack was still perched on the edge of the bed. Laying down like it was right at home, its one good eye observed her, nose twitching excitedly. The thing was the size of one of her cats. There was no way it should have fit through any hole, but there it was, perched on her bed like it belonged.
“Squeak,” the big rat said again and rose to its feet. It stretched its back pushing its front paws forward and leaning its head back, yawning broadly. Isabelle stared at its teeth; they were the size of scissor blades, yellowed daggers.
“Well bring it on, then,” she said backing into the fighter’s stance she had learned in her kickboxing class.
Finishing its stretch, the rat gathered itself to its full height and stared at her again, tilting its head. Oh I’ll bring it on. It seemed to say. I’ll bring it on like you won’t believe.
It leapt from the bed, landing on the floor with unmistakable grace. Big it might be, but it wasn’t fat. Muscles slid smoothly under its flanks as it strode toward her, tail swishing lazily from side to side like a snake.
Isabelle watched it come and wondered what she would do. That monster was too big to crush under foot. How were you supposed to fight a rat that had become a monster? She looked toward the cats which had protected her, and her heart ached. The cats, beautiful creatures full of life just moments before, were now nothing more than piled heaps of bloodied meat. Their fur was almost completely gone, their eye sockets vacant, bones showing through in a dozen places. There was no doubt that they were dead, killed trying to protect her.
The boss rat walked to within three feet of her and stopped. It’s good eye glared at her. Now that it was so close, she could see that the scarred over eye was completely hollow, vacant. This was a rat that had known war before and had always come out victorious.
It hissed once, then darted toward her, a black missile.
She kicked and missed, almost losing her balance, and the rat took the opportunity to flash under her guard and bite the smooth muscle of her calf. Its massive teeth sank through the flesh like it was nothing more substantial than air, and it ripped a ping pong ball sized chunk from her leg.
Pain did not wait this time, it ignited like rusty nails in her blood. She shrieked and kicked the stricken leg, but the rat had already let go. It weaved left, right, dodging her frantic kicks and struck again, this time sinking its saber-teeth into the Achilles of her right foot.
Another rush of pain, but this time one of renewed panic as well. The rat’s oversized teeth shore completely through tendon. Pop, the Achilles let go and her foot was effectively no longer connected to the rest of her. Her ankle jutted forward at an impossible angle, her knee buckled, and she would have gone down hard if she hadn’t managed to grab the doorknob behind her, steadying her for the second needed to collect her weight on her good leg.
The rat paced around her, its eye gleaming wickedly, whiskers twitching like it was laughing. The other rats, feeling braver now that she was weakened, surged forward from under the bed, but the big rat barked at them, a single, sharp squawk, and they went back under the bed. It was just him and her. Rat vs. Human. Round one had gone to him, and round two was just about to begin.
Isabelle needed a plan. She didn’t stand much of a chance with one leg useless. The rage which had consumed her was all but gone, replaced by sorrow. Sorrow for her dead cats. Sorrow for what looked to be her doom. But she wouldn’t give up. She would go down fighting.
The rat stopped its pacing. A slender tongue darted from its small lips and sampled the blood caught in its fur—her blood.
Isabelle shivered, and suddenly an image came into her head. If she didn’t kill this rat, she wouldn’t only die, she would be consumed by them. They would eat her skin, her muscles. They would bite out her eyes, eat the tongue from her mouth. And how long would she be alive while that all happened? How many of those bites would she feel?
The rat came.
She didn’t try to kick, that would do no good, there was only one chance.
Just as the rat was nearing her good leg, going for the Achilles again, she made her move. She collapsed, purposely buckling her knees and pulling her legs high so that she would fall faster. She would crush that monster with her entire body.
The rat saw what was coming but was too close to completely avoid her. It swerved its charge to one side, trying to avoid her.
God it was fast. It was going to make it. It was going to avoid getting crushed, then it would dart back in and finish her off.
But Isabelle wouldn’t let it get away so easily. Her hands shot out as she fell, and although she could never catch a baseball, she snagged the big rat right around its thick trunk.
Eek! The rat cried out when it felt her hands. It twisted and squirmed, wiggling with a sickening fluidity, like it was made of jelly, but Isabelle hung on, tightening her grip, squeezing like she had never squeezed before.
Something inside the rat popped, and it shrieked again. It turned its head around and sank its teeth into a knuckle. Isabelle heard something crack in her own hand and suddenly there was no life left in her index finger, it was still there but she couldn’t feel it.
Again and again the rat bit. Deep bites, each one all the way to the bone, but she did not let go.
“Die!” she yelled and slammed the rat against the wall hard enough to bust a hole in the drywall. “Die! Die! Die!”
The rat fought viciously, biting and biting, wiggling for freedom, but freedom wasn’t to be had. Isabelle hammered it into the wall headfirst until there was a massive hole in the drywall, revealing the two by four studs, and then she hammered the rat into those exposed wooden beams.
A final, powerful swing. She slammed the rat into a stud and something cracked. At first, she thought it was the wood, but the rat in her hands no longer squirmed, it no longer bit. Looking closely, Isabelle saw that its lone eye was now gone, popped by one of her blows, leaving behind a hole filled with bloody goo. The snout was twisted, broken, the teeth shattered, and something gray leaked from its nostrils.
The king of rats was dead, but Isabelle wasn’t going to take any chances. She raised the rat to her mouth and bit down on the back of its neck. Her jaws closed with more force than ever before, and her carefully brushed teeth forced their way through fur, skin, and bone. Curiously, she tasted nothing, and that was more disappointment than relief; she wanted to taste its death.
She bit through its spine and its head dangled, held on by only a thin piece of skin. Grabbing its head, she twisted hard and the final thread broke. Now she held the body in one hand, the smashed head in the other.
Squeak. Squeak. Squeak.
The other rats surged forward from under the bed, chattering their teeth.
“Fuck you,” she growled, her lips bloody, her eyes streaked with red.
She threw the head at the army it had led. Rats scattered out of the way. It landed with a dull thack and bounced out of sight under the bed.
Isabelle struggled to her feet. The remaining rats didn’t seem all that anxious to begin again, walking very slowly, but they walked toward her all the same.
The horror wouldn’t end. But maybe…maybe she could get some reinforcements. The scratching at the door had stopped. Perhaps her cats had killed all of the rats out there.
Hoping against hope, Isabelle turned the handle she used to steady herself and swung the open.
She was doomed. Her cats hadn’t survived. Not one. Her living room was a battleground, a field of corpses. The rats had devoured them, eating away all of the feline meat in just the few minutes she had spent fighting for her life. Now there was nothing but piles of bones and a million well fed rats eyeing her.
There was no way she was going to make it out of this one; her body was already wrecked and there were just too many of them.
The rats on both sides of the door walked toward her, moving with wicked slowness, wanting her to know terror. And she knew it, oh she knew it well, but they wouldn’t get that satisfaction. Whatever kind of demented rats they were, they wouldn’t get to feel her fear.
“I’ll kill you all,” she hissed.
And the rats vanished.
She blinked and they were gone. Just like that. Just as they had arrived. One moment: rats. Next moment: no rats.
Gaping behind her, she saw that the rats had vanished from the bedroom as well. The bed was devoid of any little beast. There was nothing under the bed, there was no scratching from the closet. Then, with a shock, Isabelle noticed something else; the body of the king rat she had held was no longer there. Her hand was empty, but she hadn’t dropped the dead beast. It had gone from her grip so quickly that she didn’t even notice.
Her legs gave way, this time on their own, and she slid down against the doorframe. What the hell just happened? Had she imagined the entire thing? No way. Her cats were still dead skeletons, there was still the massive hole in the drywall, and her legs were still a ruin of bite marks.
But at the same time, there was no sign of the rats. Not a single whisker. The bodies she had crushed were gone. Even their poop, their endless poop, was gone.
“I must be dreaming,” she moaned, feeling pain that was all too real. “Dreaming, yeah. That’s what it is.”
And to test her theory, she passed out.