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The Rats in the Walls

From Dragon From the Void (which is on amazon.com at https://www.amazon.com/Dragon-Void-Drive-II-Book/dp/1549599658/ref=sr_1_1):

“I was wondering why you jump so when you see a rat. I mean, yes, they carry disease, and large groups of them can be dangerous even to adult humans, but you’re bothered by them in a way I don’t understand.”

“I . . .” Monty said, obviously taken aback by the question, but not so much that he wasn’t willing to answer my question, in which case I’d have let it drop. Clearly this was a day for naked honesty, not to mention naked other things, as we had just demonstrated, and he was game for it. “Well, let me see . . .

“In 2008, Daddy was stationed at Andrews, in Washington, DC, doin’ troubleshootin’ on Air Force One an’ other presidential craft. They’d had problems with contractors for a couple of years, bad parts bein’ put into the planes that only made themselves known when those planes went into active service, that sort o’ thing, an’ as hard a bunch o’ hits as the US military, includin’ the Air Force, had taken from the Clinton, Gore, an’ Reno administrations, the Air Force couldn’t really afford to replace those planes whole cloth, or brought in outside contractors to refurbish ’em the way they needed.

“Well, Daddy was a genius at figurin’ out right away why somethin’ wasn’t workin’ right, somethin’ he’d demonstrated over an’ over ever since goin’ into the Air Force, an’ they kept rotatin’ ’im from base to base all around the country an’ even, sometimes, outside it to get to the bottom o’ problems an’ figure out what was needed to set ’em right. Anyways, in 2008 we moved to Providence, to stay at Grandmother Ruth’s place for the duration, so’s Daddy could at least come home on weekends, close as we was to DC, an’ wouldn’t have to pay a fortune for an apartment, as expensive as apartments was becomin’ all over the East Coast by then. I turned six that summer, several months after we moved to Providence. Come fall, they enrolled me at a local public school just to avoid trouble with the truant officer – I was already way ahead o’ most kids my age, what with havin’ learned how to read by the time I was three an’ all, and basic arithmetic Daddy’d taught me afore I turned five, so it was little more’n a formality. But it did give me a chance to meet other kids my age, kids whose parents wasn’t in the Order, an’ I think both my parents thought that was a good thing, weird as life around Ruth was.

“There was a kid in my first-grade class name of Kenny – Kenny McClendon, his name was – who I made friends with right off the bat. He an’ his family was actually stayin’ with relatives o’ theirs down the street from Ruth’s place while his dad was doin’ construction work for some East Coast outfit that specialized in buyin’ up rundown places an’ either fixin’ ’em up or demolishin’ ’em an’ replacin’ ’em with condos or somethin’, an’ then sellin’ ’em for a huge profit. O’ course, a lot o’ the reason for that profit was prob’ly the substandard work an’ materials that company put into its properties, but ever’body else was doin’ the same thing back then – remember the condo boom, Baby-Girl?”

“Oh, yes.” Oh, did I ever! From 1990 up until the War condos sprouted like toadstools everywhere you looked, as if some evil sorcerer had come by and sprinkled Magick Ogre Dust all over everything, turning somewhat rundown apartment buildings into condominium complexes which looked just beautiful – at least to start with – but which, underneath the paint, were far gone with termites, dry-rot, and a host of other ills which soon had tenants moving out in droves to avoid paying the exorbitant costs of having the problems they’d inherited when they’d purchased their condos properly repaired. By 2008, the same year Monty and his parents moved to Providence, I had sworn that never, never, NEVER would I even so much as consider buying one of the damned things, let alone actually do so. Knowing, as he always did, exactly what I was thinking, Monty said, laughing, “Mebbe one reason for that substandard work was due to the fact that Kenny’s dad, like so many of his on-the-job mates, was heavy into the bottle. The contractor wouldn’t pay for competent hire, an’ you can imagine the results.

“Now, Kenny an’ his family was from some hick redneck town in Colorado, but when his dad got jobs on the East Coast, whenever they could they stayed with those neighbors o’ Ruth’s. Most people in that area had nothin’ to do with the Order o’ the Sun at Midnight, y’see, an’ we had a lot o’ people around us all the time who knew nothin’ about it an’ would’a been appalled if’n they’d found out about it. So the McClendons an’ their relatives, the ones they stayed with in Providence, the Martins – they was relatives o’ Missus McClendon, not ’er husband, an’ anyways, he was her third husband, she’d had terrible luck as far as marital prospects went – the McClendons lived most o’ the time out in Colorado, but they was stayin’ there in Providence at the same time we was, which is how Kenny an’ I become buddies. At least for a while,” he said pensively. “Kenny an’ I got up to some great dickens while it lasted, let me tell you! An’ he had other friends, an’ I got to be buddies with them, too, so it worked out real well all the way around. Mom even let me stay for supper at some o’ their houses – not the McClendons, ’cause they used a lot o’ bad language an’ Mister McClendon drank all the time, but some o’ the others. Kenny got to have supper at his friends’ houses, too, an’ we’d both go together at one or another of his friends’ places, an’ it was a welcome relief from supper at Ruth’s, as you can imagine.“Well, when 2009 come in, Kenny asked me one day at school if’n I’d like to go with ’im day after next to check out one o’ the places his dad was workin’ on. The construction crew Kenny’s dad was with was checkin’ it out to see if’n it could be renovated, an’ if so, fix it up so’s it could be sold to somebody, an’ if not, demolish it so’s the property could be sold to someone who’d run up somethin’ brand new on it. But so far nobody’d done much more’n check the place over some, so it was pretty much in the same state it’d been in for years. That day was a Sunday, an’ the followin’ Monday was Martin Luther King’s birthday, so for three days there’d be nobody workin’ at that site, not even the boss. We’d have the place all to ourselves, ’specially on Sunday, when most people in town went to church, ’cause Christians was the biggest group in Providence, far an’ away bigger’n any other there. The place was surrounded by a high fence, one o’ those cross-wire jobs made o’ heavy wirin’, with plastic slats woven in an’ out o’ the openin’s so’s you couldn’t see in, an’ Kenny knew a secret way in, he told me, so we could get in an’ back out an’ nobody would know it.

“If’n I’d been a little older an’ more experienced, I’d’a suspected there was a good reason for that opaque fencin’, to keep little idjits like me’n Kenny out. The place turned out to be what they call a ‘dangerous nuisance,’ only ‘nuisance’ was about five hundred bazillion light-years shy o’ the reality of it!

“What it was, was an old institution o’ some kind, mebbe one o’ those mental hospitals they used to call ‘snake pits,’ back in the 19th an’ early 20th centuries, though that sort o’ thing went all the way back to Bedlam Hospital in England an’ before, a true social evil that corrupted lives an’ broke minds an’ wills an’ hearts an’ often left the ‘patients’ that got stuck in such places by their families or authorities dead o’ things that wouldn’t’ve wrought much harm on ’em if’n they’d been properly treated. Anyways, this particular place was kind o’ typical, four stories tall with towers at the corners an’ sides, built with big, thick walls, heavy iron doors with deadbolts an’ really good locks, thick brick tiles over the roof, bars an’ large-gauge chickenwire screens in the windows, cement floors, walls painted a bilious yellow above an’ dirty gray below, like a prison only even more depressin’.
“Only, after all those years o’ neglect an’ outright abandonment, the buildin’ was fallin’ apart. There was holes in the outside o’ the walls where somebody’d heaved somethin’ at ’em, an’ in a few places it looked like someone drove a vehicle into ’em hard enough to open up a hole big as a man there, exposin’ whatever was behind the walls. Tiles fallen off the edge o’ the roof lay in heaps at the foot o’ the walls, or in piles farther out, like somebody’d collected ’em together for some reason, mebbe to throw ’em at the buildin’, or mebbe no reason at all. An’, o’ course, the sides o’ the buildin’ was covered with all sorts o’ graffiti, some of it artistic, some of it the usual shit that dirty little boys an’ ignorant teenagers chalk or spray-paint on any available surface when nobody’s lookin’ or even when a lot of people can see what they’re doin’, an’ there was even graffiti high up on the bell-towers at the sides of the buildin’, an’ on the second an’ third-floor walls.
“The big front door stood wide open, the interior o’ the buildin’ exposed there black as a rotten tooth inside. Either it’d been left that way when the place was closed an’ abandoned, all those years ago – accordin’ to Kenny’s father, that happened in the 1970s, when places like that was gettin’ busted an’ shut down all over the country, an’ more an’ more former patients was bein’ referred to outpatient clinics for treatment, ’cause that was cheaper for local governments to support, an’ so many patients was suin’ those places for the bad treatment they got there an’ the suspension o’ their civil rights – anyways, either they’d left the doors to the place open when they abandoned it, or somebody’d broke into it an’ left the doors that way. I kinda favor that second option, though ’cause all around the front doorway there was marks like somebody’d taken a chisel or heavy screwdriver to it, like they was tryin’ to pry the door open, an’ there was a big hole all black around the edges where the knob an’ locks had been, signifyin’ whoever’d done it had used C4 or somethin’ o’ the sort on it. Plus, Kenny said his dad had told ’im that the site manager had used C4 on a few doors there to get ’em open, they was that stuck fast due to settlin’ over the years an’ that sort o’ thing. So mebbe that door was one o’ those they used C4 on. An’ the rest o’ the doors was prob’ly in much the same shape.

Chapter 2: “See you on the other side, Aaron!”

“But Kenny, grinnin’ like a fool, said, ‘See you on the other side, Aaron!’ and headed like a bat for that big front door o’ the buildin’, an’ when he did that, o’ course, I had to follow ’im. That was, like, our code word we used when we was plannin’ a prank an’ arranged for one of us to go one way and the other another way an’ get together to pull the prank. It meant somethin’ like, ‘No matter how mad our parents or anybody else get, we’ll have plenty more pranks to pull in the future, an’ we’ll be friends forever.’ We also used it to mean what ever’body else meant by ‘Last one in’s a rotten egg!’ an’ that sort o’ thing. When one of us said it an’ went for whatever it was, the other just naturally had to go right along.
“Well, Kenny an’ I went inside, through that wide-open front door, tip-toin’ ’cause it was so spooky there, what with the buildin’ bein’ as dilapidated as any hundred haunted houses you want to name. An’ dark was comin’ on – while Providence ain’t nowhere as far north as, say, Maine or Montana or one o’ them, it’s a lot farther north than Southern California ever thought o’ bein’, an’ in January – January 11, it was – the Sun set around 4:15 in the afternoon or so. By the time Kenny’d gone to church with his parents an’ both of us had done our chores for the day, which was somewheres around 2:30-3:00 in the afternoon, an’ got over to the site, which was a fairly good distance away from school, mebbe six blocks or so, the Sun was close to settin’, the light in the sky red an’ dim through a few breaks in the clouds. It’d been snowin’ there off an’ on for the past week, an’ there was snow an’ ice on the ground, an’ we had to be careful walkin’ anywheres, as it was, even wearin’ our snow boots. So we got there just as the Sun was goin’ down, an’ the clouds was rapidly fillin’ up the sky, gettin’ ready to snow again that night, an’ all we had was a couple o’ flashlights to light our way.
“If’n we’d had any sense we’d’a run up to the door, yelled somethin’ insultin’ into the buildin’, an’ run away again, goin’ straight home, like any little boys’ll do to a local haunted house. But when you’re seven the only thing that has less common sense’n you do is a teenager, an’ that don’t say much, ’cause you can’t fall off the floor, now, can you? So we went in, only turnin’ on our flashlights once we was inside an’ they prob’ly couldn’t be seen from outside. (Little did we know. The only way I got outta there in one piece is that the local cops hauled me out o' the door just in the nick o’ time – after it got full dark, some lady livin’ in a three-story house across the street’d seen reflections o’ the lights from our flashlights bobbin’ an’ weavin’ about inside the buildin’ when she was up on the third floor, doin’ housework or somethin’, an’ could see inside the fencin’ around the buildin’, an’ called the cops to investigate, an’ they come at the run, ’cause they knew places like that was trouble magnets, an’ there had to be people in there. But it took a while for her to spot those reflections off the wall just the other side o’ the front door, ’cause we kept to deeper parts o’ the buildin’ for some time, an’ for a while the light from the last o’ the Sun obscured anythin’ goin’ on in the buildin’. It was well after full dark when she made that call. A minute later an’ I wouldn’t be here talkin’ with you, darlin’.)

“Well, once inside that door, we headed down the hallway, an’ started lookin’ around. The place was in even worse shape inside – holes in the wall so big they showed the wirin’ an’ pipes an’ the timbers, great chunks outta the concrete floor looked like they was gouged out with a tire iron or crowbar or more C4, plaster peelin’ off the walls an’ ceilin’ even where there wasn’t no holes, chunks o’ plaster lyin’ all over the floor that come from the walls an’ ceilin’. Some o’ the holes in the walls was so big that they went all the way through the wall, an’ we could see beyond ’em, into whatever was on the other side o’ the wall, or, leastways, we could’ve if’n it hadn’t gotten so dark in there – our flashlights wasn’t all that powerful, an’ I think ours, which we’d nicked from our parents’ toolboxes, was low on batteries. All we could see through those holes was the edges o’ the holes where they come out beyond, an’, sometimes, shards o’ plaster or part o’ somethin’ stacked up close to the hole in that room or hallway or whatever the hole opened onto.
“I was already scared by the time we got inside that buildin’ – a lot of it o’ what Mom an’ Daddy would do to me if’n they ever found out where Kenny an’ I had gone that afternoon, but I was also beginnin’ to get majorly creeped out by the place, which had really ugly vibes to it. It always had, a real, bone-evil aura o’ sufferin’ an’ horror that prob’ly come from its history. A lot had gone on in that place, terrible things most o’ which never was found out, even when hearin’s was finally conducted on what investigators there had found out about it, an’ the place was closed down because of it. But Kenny wasn’t really all that scared. He had more courage an’ less sense than any kid his age I’ve ever known ought to have, an’ he was always off explorin’ somewheres he shouldn’t, or involved in somethin’ that any other kid would’a knowed was too dangerous for that. He’d been in the hospital so many times ’cause of injuries an’ infections that come from his various shenanigans that all the nurses an’ doctors at Providence General knew ’im on sight, an’ he was on a first-name basis with ’em all, an’ it was prob’ly the same story back where he an’ his folks lived when they wasn’t visitin’ their folks in Providence when his dad had a job there. True, he was a little scared o’ the place – but that’s the fun o’ haunted houses, which ain’t no fun less’n you’re a little scared. Mostly he was just high on the excitement from it all, congratulatin’ hisself for havin’ found out about this place an’ then worked out a way o’ gettin’ into it an’ explorin’ it while not gettin’ caught at it, as we thought at the time. You could tell he was excited easy. He always wore this orange snowsuit with a thing come up over the head, only leavin’ the eyes an’ nose exposed, an’ you had to strain a little to hear ’im when he spoke, but now his eyes was sparklin’, an’ even through the snowsuit I could hear him chatterin’ like mad, goin’ on an’ on about what sort o’ spooks prob’ly haunted the place. (I was wearin’ a royal blue snowsuit. My mom an’ Kenny’s mom both thought that was so cute, ’cause orange an’ blue are complimentary colors, an’ whenever we was able to get together, Kenny an’ I was like night an’ day or some other complimentary pair o’ things which can’t do without each other. Neither of our moms liked most of our playmates much, though usually they didn’t stop us from playin’ with ’em less’n they’d heard somethin’ real bad about ’em or their parents or other relatives. But Kenny’s mom liked me, an’ Mom thought the world an’ all o’ Kenny, an’ it near broke ’er heart when he died.)

“The hallways in that buildin’ was all over cobwebs, o’ course, but that just give it what you might call an ambience, the sort o’ thing little boys love to point out to little girls, not really all that bad. Sure, there was prob’ly black widders an’ other spiders all over the place, at least durin’ the summer an’ autumn, but in winter, like it was then, there wasn’t much for ’em to eat, an’ it was so cold that a lot of ’em died from that, so they wasn’t really an issue. There was a lot o’ dust, dust piled in heaps all over the place, an’ if the two of us had realized what sort o’ molds an’ stuff lurked in it, an’ what those things could’a done to us if’n we’d had serious allergies an’ breathed ’em in, that would’a been somethin’ to give us pause. But we was both just six and a half years old, without a clue about such things, so that didn’t bother us. An’ it was so dark in there that while we could imagine all sorts o’ horrors that might lurk there, we couldn’t see enough to matter much, ’cept for whatever got caught in the light of our flashlights, which wasn’t all that much.
“We’d just started checkin’ out the hallways nearest the front door, Kenny in the lead ’cause o’ his excitement an’ lack o’ what you might call a due an’ proper caution, when we heard a cry. Sounded like a cat – one that’d been bad hurt. It was comin’ from upstairs someplace. We both of us loved cats, an’ that cry captured out full attention, no room left over for anythin’ as burdensome as caution. So, tryin’ not to trip over them chunks o’ plaster litterin’ the floor, not to mention the dog turds – or mebbe human ones, left by squatters – we headed for the nearest stairs an’ started runnin’ up ’em. Halfway up, whatever it was gave out with another cry, which quickly turned into a full-throated scream. Then the scream was cut off sharp as a knife, an’ we heard a thump. An’ now we could hear a lot o’ squealin’ an’ scrabblin’ noises.
“Both of us was more concerned about the fate o’ that cat or whatever it was than our own fool skins, an’ now we raced up those stairs fast as we could, almost breakin’ our necks right there ’cause o’ the ragged carpetin’ on the stairs an’ the rubble an’ plaster that’d fallen on ’em from the wall an’ ceilin’. When we got to the top o’ the stairs, it was so dark that even with our flashlights on we couldn’t see more’n about two feet ahead of us, an’ then only a small circle of illumination that was about as useful as a feather-duster against a tornado,” he said, and the heavy darkness in his voice had me hanging on his every word now.

“We stood there for a little while, not knowin’ which way to go. Then we heard more noise off to the right, more squealin’ that sounded like a bunch o’ critters fightin’ over somethin’, an’ Kenny said ‘This way!” an’ ran in that direction. I followed ’im, an’ we come to another hallway leadin’ off into the distance. There was a winder at the end, small an’ high, you couldn’t tell just how far down that hallway it was, but it let in the last o’ the day’s light, castin’ a terrible burnin’ red glow like a glimpse into Hell or the last of a dyin’ fire. It wasn’t enough to make anythin’ in that hallway out clearly, but while it lasted it was somethin’ we could use to give us direction so’s we wouldn’t run into the walls if’n we got to movin’ fast. So off we went, down that hallway. The sounds was loudest through a doorway on the left, an’ we stopped there to check it out.

“I shined my flash into that doorway, an’ Kenny did the same, an’ then we both froze. There was about five hundred bazillion little red eyes glarin’ right back at us outta that doorway, an’ ever’ one of ’em was set above a mouthful o’ sharp little teeth bared at us.
“It seemed like forever afore either of us got our wits back to realize we had to get outta there afore the critters in that room went for our throats. Why they didn’t jump at us the moment we showed up, I don’t know. Mebbe it was our flashlights – there wasn’t much light in that buildin’ at the best o’ times, an’ our flashes, even though they wasn’t all that bright, was bright enough to temporarily overload their visual receptors. Anyways, we had that grace period, short as it was, to turn tail an’ run for it, an’ we managed to do that afore the critters went for us.
“But when we did, the flashes we was carryin’, which we both held onto like grim death, turned away from that doorway, an’ that an’ knowin’ we’d taken to our heels was all the rats in that room – which is what they was, o’ course – needed to take after us. They say never to turn your back on a wild animal an’ run from it, ’cause that’ll get it comin’ after you for sure an’ certain, an’ it was true o’ those rats. Brown city rats like those are wild animals, an’ on top o’ that, they run in gangs. To them, prey is whatever runs from them, an’ in their gangs they know they’re more’n a match for any prey. So off they went after Kenny an’ me as we hurtled along that hallway, headin’ for those stairs to make a getaway, the rats right behind us.
“We was fast enough to keep ahead o’ those rats, at least at first. If’n we’d been able to keep that up all the way to the front door an’ out into the yard, we’d’a both been all right. The problems come in when we made it down to the first floor landin’ an’ got out into the hallway there. We’d gone several turns along the halls after we’d got inside the buildin’ afore we come to the stairs an’ went up those to find out what was happenin’ to the owner o’ those cries we’d heard. An’ in our panic neither one of us was exactly sure how we’d got to the stairs or where the front door was. So we ended up runnin’ back an’ forth an’ all over the first floor, lookin’ for the front door, an’ missin’ it ever’ time ’cause it was so dark outside by then that we couldn’t see anythin’ to show us where it was. In fact, we run back an’ forth along the first hallway we’d come into just after we got inside, an’ that was when that lady spotted reflections of our flashes off somethin’ outside, mebbe through that doorway, mebbe through a winder, an’ called the cops. I think she also might’ve heard noise comin’ from there – we must’a made some ferocious noise, yellin’ an’ screamin’ in our fright, an’ the rats made noise o’ their own, an’ then there was what happened right at the end . . .”

Monty paused for a moment, staring off into the far distance, as if unsure as to whether he ought to go on with his story. I waited patiently, not daring to disturb him for fear of derailing his narrative and making him shut down emotionally and turn to something else to avoid thinking about it. Patience was finally rewarded: his voice heavy with ancient horror, he said, “We had rats nippin’ at our heels, jumpin’ at our legs, tryin’ to bring us down. But that wouldn’t a kept us from gettin’ outta there in one piece. We was actually doin’ pretty good there toward the end, turnin’ to stomp on the rats that got too close to us, which sent the ones behind skitterin’ back to the shadows, then turnin’ to run some more. But then, as we come down a hallway that I had a feelin’ was prob’ly the first one we’d gone into comin’ into the buildin’, mebbe just a few yards from that elusive son of a bitch of a front door, we suddenly began hearin’ chitterin’ an’ skitterin’ sounds from behind the wall right next to us.
“That wall was just as full o’ holes an’ exposed wirin’ an’ all as any o’ the others we’d found, but there was plenty o’ ways a small critter like a rat could travel all through it an’ stay hidden from view from outside if’n it chose. An’ then, when it wanted to show itself, all it had to do was go just a little farther an’ there’d be one o’ those big holes it could fly out o' to go after prey or attack an enemy. I ain’t sure which of us said it – mebbe both of us, simultaneously, the way good friends will when somethin’ wild is happenin’ an’ you’re both concentrated on it – but at least one of us said, ‘Oh, shit!’ I grabbed Kenny by the wrist an’ tugged ’im away from that wall, over toward the one on my right, which by then I was convinced had the front door in it, our escape hatch, an’ though it didn’t seem possible after the way we’d been runnin’ for a good while, mebbe ten minutes, mebbe twenty, we both put on a burst o’ speed double that before. I had my left hand on Kenny’s arm, an’ my right on that wall to my right, to make sure I’d feel the damned door when we reached it, an’ then . . . an’ then . . .” He stopped. Closing his eyes, putting his hand to the bridge of his nose and pinching it hard, he said, tears in his voice, “An’ then the wall on the left come down. Fell right on Kenny, an’ his hand was pulled away from mine by the weight o’ the stuff that fell on ’im, not to mention hundreds or mebbe even thousands o’ rats, which’d been trackin’ us from behind that wall. It mostly missed me, ’cept for some rubble around my ankles, but it buried Kenny. I could hear ’im screamin’ under that pile o’ rubble an’ rats, the rats squealin’ a lot louder than him, buried as he was under the rubble. I turned . . . I turned . . . I started tryin’ to dig ’im out, not even carin’ the rats was startin’ to bite an’ claw me, tryin’ to keep me from robbin’ ’em o’ their rightful prey, attackin’ me ’cause I was obviously their enemy.

“An’ then a big, strong arm went around me from behind, an’ a man’s voice said, ‘Son, come on, now, let’s get you out of there!’ An’ the cop belongin’ to that arm pulled me back an’ away from the pile o’ stuff Kenny was under, an’ through the front door o’ the buildin’, as several more cops went to work on that pile o’ rubble to pull Kenny out an’ get him outside, too. I’d been right – we was both very close to the exit when that wall fell on Kenny. Two yards more, mebbe less’n that, an’ we’d’a been out into the night an’ safe away from there.

“I could hear gunshots comin’ from inside – some o’ the cops shot off their pistols by way o’ tryin’ to scare those rats away long enough to get Kenny out. In the end, when they dug far enough down in the rubble to expose one o’ Kenny’s arms, they just hauled hard on it to pull ’im out, an’ then lifted ’im up an’ carried ’im out o’ the buildin’. I have to hand it to ’em, too – ever’ one o’ those cops got bit all over by them rats, but they stuck it out long enough to get Kenny out o’ there. You can’t get much braver’n that – packs o’ rats scare the hell out of anybody with any sense, but those good men stood their ground an’ fought on an’ on until they got Kenny out from under the rubble an’ out o’ that terrible place.”

Chapter 3: “You bastards – you killed Kenny!”

“They took Kenny an’ me to Providence General’s ER, which checked us over for injuries an’ so on. I wasn’t in too bad a shape, but Kenny an’ a couple o’ the cops had gotten bit up bad, an’ was runnin’ high fevers an’ showin’ all the other signs o’ systemic sepsis, general blood-poisonin’, an’ the doctors said they had to stay there until they was at least out o’ danger. My snowsuit protected me from most o’ the rats, so’s I only got a few bites. But when that wall come down on Kenny – well, it tore ’im up somethin’ fierce, o’ course, but it also made big holes in ’is snowsuit, an’ the rats’d bitten ’im wherever the suit wasn’t intact, an’ accordin’ the cops an’ the doctors, he must’a been bitten a hundred or more times.

“They give me an’ Kenny an’ all the cops huge doses of antibiotics, an’ also started us on a series o’ rabies shots, an’ they called Kenny’s an’ my parents an’ told ’em what’d happened, an’ they come at the run, scared outta their minds at what the cops told ’em had happened to us.
“I was able to go home that night, but Kenny was too sick from sepsis an’ shock from all those bites and claw-wounds to leave the hospital. The doctors at the ER wanted my parents to bring me back every day for at least a week to check on how well I was doin’, so’s they could monitor my condition, plus they wanted to give me injections of antibiotics ever’ day until blood-tests showed I was well. Daddy’s insurance covered it, ’specially ’cause we could get all that done at the clinics in the regular hospital itself, where it was cheaper than at the ER. So ever’ day for two weeks – it took that long for me to get a clean bill o’ health from the doctors at the hospital – Mom or Daddy or both took me in for a checkup an’ to get more shots. An’ ever’ time, after the doctors was done with me, we went to see how poor Kenny was doin’. Both my parents loved ’im almost as much as Joe an’ me, an’ knew he was my best friend, an’ was more’n happy to take me to check on ’im there. A couple o’ times, when both of ’em was there, they had Joe with ’em, ’cause he loved Kenny, too. ’Course, they really didn’t want to leave Joe with Grandmother Ruth whilst they was out, but that wasn’t really the issue – it was Joe’s love o’ Kenny that was the important thing.

“An’ for about a week, Kenny did seem to get better. We was all expectin’ ’im to come home any time. For once his parents, who wasn’t the best parents in the world, was agreed on wantin’ Kenny home, wantin’ ’im to get well, that they both loved ’im an’ had been scared sick for ’im when they first heard what’d happened to ’im. They didn’t have a lot o’ money, but Kenny’s dad’s employer, I think it was Rustum Construction or somethin’ like that, anyways, the guy who owned that company was terrified the McClendons’d sue ’im silly for what’d happened to Kenny, seein’ as how that fence he’d had put up as ‘an inexpensive, simple solution to the problem of an attractive nuisance,’ hadn’t done a damned thing to keep two little kids out, an’ that we’d been in danger of our lives as a result. So he was pickin’ up the entire tab for Kenny’s treatment in the ER an’ then in the critical ward o’ the regular hospital, where Kenny was until . . . until . . . well, let’s tell it proper, from the beginnin’ to the end.
“Anyways, money was no object as far as Kenny’s well-bein’ was concerned, so that part of it was taken care of. Like a lot o’ folks, Kenny’s parents fought over money all the time, serious fights that sometimes ended in one of ’em gettin’ a black eye or a plate upside the head that left bruises an’ cuts, an’ it was a toss as to which of his parents come out on the high side o’ one o’ those fights. But now they was both scared sick that Kenny wasn’t goin’ to make it, rememberin’ all the good times they’d had together, ’specially those that included Kenny, an’ none o’ the bad, an’ it was clear from the way they acted at Kenny’s bedside that love was still there between ’em.

“But then . . . but then he started goin’ downhill, faster an’ faster. Ten days after our adventure in that derelict madhouse, he was runnin’ a fever of anywheres between 6 an’ 9 or 10 degrees over normal – you know, a range o’ 40 to 43 degrees Celsius. The kind o’ fever that makes somebody’s forehead so hot you jerk your hand away the moment you touch it, an’ you never want to know what it’s like inside his body! He was startin’ to hallucinate an’ babble long strings o’ stuff made no sense whatsoever, an’ his kidneys an’ his liver was showin’ signs o’ shuttin’ down. But he still had plenty o’ lucid moments, an’ when any of us, his parents or me an’ my parents an’ Joe, come into his room, he’d open his eyes an’ give us one of his smiles, one o’ his most charmin’ traits, wan an’ weak but a real smile just the same, an’ say, ‘Hi, Aaron, hi, Mom, hi, Mr. Eisenstein, hi, Joe,’ namin’ whoever was there, makin’ it clear he was all present an’ accounted for in spite o’ the way those bacteria an’ viruses he’d got from all those bites was eatin’ ’im up alive. I’m sure he knew how sick he was, that it could end in death. But he was so game, so gutsy an’ gallant, an’ he never let on to us how close to the edge he was.

“Or, anyways, not until the last few days of his life. Around the 21st o’ that month, though he’d been plenty sick up until then, his constitution suddenly nosedived, an’ he began goin’ down fast as a destroyer hit by a nuclear torpedo. Hot red streaks began shootin’ up his arms, his legs, anywheres he’d been bitten by those rats – an’ then they started appearin’ on his torso, his neck, his head, even places where he hadn’t been bitten. That was general sepsis settin’ in hard. He went into a sort o’ twilight state in which he ranted an’ raved about things none of us could see, either lookin’ off into some other universe none o’ the rest of us knew about, or closin’ his eyes entirely while he raved on. He began to have convulsions – the Code Blue alert sounded about 10 times on him on the 21st, an’ it kept gettin’ worse an’ worse on the followin’ days.

“Come the 25th o’ January, both his kidneys an’ his liver shut down entirely. Mom an’ Daddy both come with me to see ’im that day, but didn’t bring Joe – it was just too horrific. Instead, Father Kahoku volunteered to baby-sit Joe, who he loved as much as we did, an’ my parents parked Joe with ’im an’ took me to the hospital. The doctors did let us in, along with Kenny’s parents – usually they didn’t when a patient was in a crisis, ’cause it would get in the way o’ the medical personnel who was tryin’ to save his life, but they’d noticed how much Kenny perked up when any of us come into the room, an’ thought it might help. Plus, I’d sort of earned the right to be with ’im, no matter how bad off he was, ’cause o’ what we’d been through together. Some o’ the cops who’d rescued us that night was there, too, the Catholics among ’em prayin’ up a storm, with their priests an’ fellow parishioners doin’ the same for Kenny an’ me an’ all the cops who’d saved us from the rats over to the local Catholic Church, the Baptists doin’ al fresco prayin’, the whole bit – they’d earned the right, too. An’ their chaplains was prayin’ for us all back up to their stations. We sort o’ congregated around the walls o’ Kenny’s room, tryin’ to keep out o’ the doctors’ an’ nurses’ way so’s they could help ’im as much as possible. They was startin’ to talk about transplants when Kenny suddenly opened his eyes an’ said in this weak, washed-out voice, ‘Where is Aaron? Please bring Aaron over here – I know he’s here, in this room.’ One nurse turned around an’ spotted me there, an’ beckoned to me to come up to Kenny’s bed. I did, an’ he put his hand out to me, an’ I took it an’ held onto it as he looked at me an’ gave out with his lovely smile an’ said, ‘Aaron, I’ll see you on the other side, okay?’ By then I was cryin’ so hard I could hardly see ’im – I had a real good idea o’ what was comin’, an’ hated it. But I held onto his hand, which was so pale an’ weak, an’ covered with those horrible red streaks, which wasn’t just bright red, now, like they’d been before, but was bordered in bilious greeny-yellow, with dark blue centers, the signs o’ bein’ eaten up alive by systemic gangrene.

“Kenny squeezed my hand – somehow he managed the strength. An’ he said, ‘Don’t worry, Aaron, there’ll be a new day for us.’ And then he give out with one long sigh, an’ his head fell to one side, away from me, an’ his hand an’ body went limp. An’ just like that, he was gone. An’ he’d been so tore up by the infections in his body that he didn’t have enough in his intestines to matter, there was none o’ that stench o’ bowels lettin’ loose when death shut down the tension in the sphincters. That’s a stench I’ve run across all too many times in my life, an’ I know you have, too, but it wasn’t in that room. There was only this hot smell like fresh-baked bread mixed with just a tang o’ somethin’ I can’t put a name to, which signaled that it wasn’t bread, but a dyin’ child’s body gone all wrong from massive infections. He’d been starvin’ to death in spite of all the IVs they give ’im an’ the food they tried so hard to get ’im to eat, burnin’ up ever’thin’ in his poor little body at three-four times the rate they could get anythin’ back into it. That’s what those infections did to ’im.

“I fell to my knees there by that bed an’ started poundin’ the side of it with my raised fists, an’ started screamin’, ‘You bastards – you killed Kenny!’, meanin’ the rats, o’ course. It was the first time I ever cussed like a grown man would, all those years ago, small as I was. Ever’body was so startled by it that nobody come down on me for it – Mom told me, years later, that they was all moved to tears by what I did then, by my grief an’ my rage at those rats, an’ wasn’t thinkin’ of anythin’ else. Daddy picked me up an’ held me close, an’ Mom did what she could to calm me down, an’ the doctors found us chairs to sit on, an’ my parents held an’ rocked me for a long time. Daddy did eventually ask where I’d learned the word ‘bastard’ an’ what it meant, leastways for cussin’, an’ as I told ’im, it was Ruth – o’ course. That woman was a potty-mouth worse’n Hillary Clinton ever thought o’ bein’. Anyways, by the time Daddy picked me up an’ took me over to that chair with ’im, I was pretty much cussed out – an’ ever’thin’ else out, you bet. When they got me home afterwards, I was so wore out that I was already noddin’ off. They put me to bed an’ kissed me goodnight, an’ next thing I knew it was mornin’, an’ Joe was standin’ by my bed, wantin’ to know what happened to Kenny, an’ I got dressed an’ took ’im out to Mom to find out from her, I just didn’t know how to tell ’im m’self, or the will to do it. . . ."

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