Scratch scratch. Scratch scratch.
It is 6 a.m., and CeCe knows I am sleeping in the guestroom.
Scratch, scratch, scratch.
The room is grey in the predawn. It is too early even for birds. CeCe’s scratching is the only sound, and now me, rising at 6 a.m., already feeling sorry for myself.
I sit up and head toward the door to find the old dog panting happily at my emergence. She tries to nudge past me into the guestroom. “I don’t think so,” I say, closing the door.
I lug past CeCe who follows me to the kitchen. As I grab her leash from the pantry, she jolts and scuttles to the front door as she does each and every time we perform this routine. She barks and barks and barks at me. It is 6 a.m. I am still in my nightgown.
“Quiet!” I snap. It’s just too early to play bitch to a bitch.
CeCe is delighted after her pee. We return to the kitchen where I put back her leash, grab a scoop full of kibble from the tub in the pantry and dump it clanging into her metal bowl.
“Goodnight,” I say, and walk back to the guest room to try and sleep the rest of the morning. But sleep doesn’t come.
Two days ago, I brought my beta fish Newman to stay with me in this house where I’m playing the keeper—and he died. He died in this very place where I’m to be tending to plants, an old dog, and the family’s own fish. I had been cleaning his tank once a month but had let it become a bit cloudier than usual. When I brought him here to stay with me, I couldn’t let him stay in that water any longer, so I changed it and cleaned the tank. But when I went to put Newman back in, he jumped out of the net and onto the kitchen counter! He had never done that before. He flopped around on the tile helplessly, the tiny, purple thing.
“Newman!” I shrieked, then grabbed a dishtowel, afraid to touch him, and gently nudged him toward the net. He flopped out again.
“Come on, Newman. We have to do this!” I pleaded.
With one last nudge, I got him in the net. He just lay there completely still. Then with a swoop, I had him back in the water, where he darted to the bottom of the tank. I tapped at the glass to see if he was all right, and he moved his fins a little.
But yesterday morning Newman was dead, lying at the bottom of the tank, belly up. My heart sank. I nudged the glass. Newman just bobbed in rigor mortis.
I stayed in bed the rest of the morning, and at eleven remembered that the exterminator was coming soon.
When the family left for vacation, they mentioned they had been having a rat problem and to be on the lookout. The first night, I heard them scurrying in the walls. The next day I went to get some rice from the cabinet and discovered rat poop and grains of rice scattered everywhere. I emailed the family, and they told me to go ahead with it.
It’s a little after midday, and I’m reading a book on the couch in the family room with CeCe beneath me when the doorbell rings. I go to answer it, CeCe follows, and I hold her back by the collar while I open the door.
“Hi, thanks for coming,” I say to the man. I see his name, Kenny, sewn in red script across the breast of his jumpsuit. Kenny’s a big guy with a shaved head and pudding face; he’d be well over six feet tall if not for his slumpy gait.
He smiles. “Got a rodent problem, I hear?”
“Sure do. Let me show you where the problem is.” We walk toward the kitchen, and I show Kenny the cabinet the rats had gotten into. “Is this typical?” I ask.
“Oh yeah, see this all the time. They’ll find a way into a cabinet, break into rice bags, pasta and all that and just camp out.”
“Is there a lot of them?”
“Yeah, quite a few actually, I’m going to need the big traps. Can I go out this way?” he asks, motioning toward the garage door. “I need to get around the outside of the house to see where they’ve been getting in.”
I say yes, and Kenny goes out the door.
When he returns, he’s got three black plastic bait traps, each about the size of a shoebox. He puts two traps in the kitchen, one under the sink and one in the cabinet.
“Can you show me where the crawl space is?” he asks.
“I’m not too sure,” I answer, “but I think I saw a floor hatch in the master bedroom.” I show Kenny the way. We find the hatch, he lifts it up, and we see the concrete foundation of the house about two feet down. He places the largest trap there and shuts it closed.
“I’d give it about a week,” he says. “Then if you’re still having problems, give us a callback.”
“What’s going to happen to them?” I ask.
“They’re going to bleed to death.”
“Oh. That’s terrible,” I say, and suddenly imagine blood pouring out of a rat’s eyes and mouth.
“Yeah, it is. They’ll go searching for water and when they can’t find it they’ll bleed to death.”
“God, what an awful way to go,” I say, as we head back toward the front door where Kenny hands me the bill.
“Yeah, sometimes I’ll come back,” Kenny says, “And wait outside some of these jobs with a bowl of water and rescue them. I took this one out to a field beneath a tree, gave it some water, and just like that he was up again and ran off.”
“Yeah, I have some as pets,” he says and turns to go. “Alright, well like I said give it about a week.”
“Thanks,” I say, and close the door, wondering if Kenny will come back to save our rats.
Later that evening, I take CeCe for a walk. The light is becoming flat and grey as the sun fades over the nearby mountains. I take the old dog up a path that winds through the neighborhood and leads to a clearing with a small dirt hill. At the base of the hill, a group of teenagers are hanging out.
I’m feeling more relaxed being out of the house. The evening sky is clear and lovely. I start to sing a little to myself as we walk. The teenagers turn and look at me, but I keep singing, a little more doo-woppy this time…
I kneel in the dirt and pat the dog’s head while looking at the sky and moon rising just above the tree line. “Isn’t that beautiful, CeCe?”
She just stares her brown eyes off into nothingness, panting heavy and long. I stay there for awhile petting CeCe and looking at the moon, her breath growing warm on my skin.
The teenagers have left, and we are the only ones on the hill. We start to head back when I feel a sudden yank on my arm—CeCe has lunged into a dry bush, snatching something in her mouth. She clamps down and chomps. She snaps and snaps her jaws trying to devour something.
“CeCe! CeCe! What is that!?” I shriek. There aren’t any streetlights, but I can just make out a few tufts of grey fur hanging out of her mouth, and I hear the sound of crunching—small bones, maybe—snapping, snapping.
“CeCe! CeCe!” I cry, “Drop it. DROP IT!” But she won’t let go. I tug and tug, but she tugs harder. I tap on her head some, trying to get her to drop whatever she’s got. I see a flash of grey fur once more. I will not touch the thing in her mouth and CeCe will not let go.
“CeCe. CECE! Put it down…. Please put it down!” But she just chomps and chomps disgustingly, trying to swallow it.
“Oh, bad girl. Bad girl, CeCe!” I say, holding onto her leash while she chomps.
Finally, CeCe hesitates, and I notice she’s having trouble getting it down her throat. For a moment I fear I’ll have to pull the thing out, so she doesn’t choke, when she suddenly drops it. I manage to tug her away with a quick jolt but only within inches of whatever the hell it was.
“Dammit, CeCe! Damn you!” I scream as we head home.
I’m on the sofa, trying my best not seethe. CeCe is across the room and not underneath me like she usually is.
I cannot wait for my role as caretaker to be over. I’m so afraid that I’ll forget to feed the fish, that CeCe will die from lack of love or play or food. That I won’t be taking care of things, the right way and something will go terribly wrong. I know I am missing something to do this job right. I know I am missing something… innate.
I look over at CeCe, and she looks so sad. She knows she’s been a bad girl and looks visibly depressed, which worries me.
“CeCe,” I say, “Come here, girl.”
Her eyes are filled with what looks like dejection. Her face droops. She bends down and licks my foot. I let out a sigh, and reach out to pet her golden head.