Little Buddy Lab Rat
Amber sucked in a quick gasp of air.
“Was I asleep?”
If she had drifted off, it hadn’t been for long. A dirty stuffed toy mouse sat in her lap having fallen from her fingers. The toy was a prize won from the arcade crane machine. She picked it up and dusted it off. “You’re supposed to keep me awake, Mister Jonesy. Don’t let me do that.”
Quiet suburban homes sat like uniform tombstones across the neighborhood from her perch. There were just a few floor plans in the whole development, each flipped, mirrored, turned and painted different colors to fake variation. This wasn’t her treehouse. The treehouse and split-entry below belonged to an old retired couple with no kids. But nobody used the treehouse besides her, so in a way, it kind of was hers. Her mom’s house, where she still lived, was a few blocks over. But this was one of her sentry posts she’d picked out to keep watch. To watch for them.
“See any of them yet, Jonesy?”
The mouse didn’t answer. Crickets and frogs sustained their midnight anthem of creeks and croaks.
She peered out from the treehouse and scanned the night. So far, all clear. There was no door or window at the back of the treehouse, and she considered removing a board from the back wall so she could see in all directions. But she was over eighteen now. A legal adult. That meant if she got busted for trespassing or vandalism, she’d get arrested for real. She couldn’t afford to get locked up, not in some windowless cell where it’d be too easy to sleep.
“Can’t sleep, Mister Jones. If we sleep, we get weak. We can’t see them and we sure as shit can’t stop them.”
The stuffed animal was clearly a mouse. Blue fur. Cute button nose. Round ears. Big smile. A furry tail that clung to the body by just a few threads. It wasn’t meant to be a rat, but that’s how she thought of it. Mister Jones, her little buddy lab rat.
“They’ll come, no matter what. But if we sleep there will be no one to see them, and no one to stop them. They’ll plant their bad ideas in our dreams, trick us into thinking they’re nightmares instead of mental poison. That’s how come people are evil, right Jonesy? All those bad thoughts injected into our brains at night. They’re behind it all. They got me once, Jonesy, but never again, huh?”
The wee hours ticked by, each second building up the abilities inside of her, abilities anyone might have, if only they had the guts. The guts, and the knowledge of what sleeplessness would bring. Late at night, when everyone else was tucked in their beds and her and Jonesy were the only ones still awake, the night would pull back its thin black veil and the stilt walkers would wander out.
“I know you’re with me, Mister Jones,” she slurred.
Jonesy was a rat, not a mouse, because they didn’t do sleep deprivation studies on mice. They used rats. They used rats and they put them in buckets half-full of water with only a little platform in the middle so when the rat tried to fall asleep it would fall off the platform and into the water and have to climb back onto the platform and learn to stay awake, indefinitely. That’s who Jonesy was. A partner in her self-imposed insomnia.
So what if she was an adult who talked to stuffed animals and hid out in treehouses all night? She knew what she was doing. Knew it was important. Knew she could save them all.
If she could just stay awake.
“I need my own water bucket, Jonesy,” she said and petted the rat. Caffeine got her by for a while. But inevitably came the crash. She needed something more reliable. More long term. She needed discipline.
If she’d been disciplined before maybe things would be different.
She arched her back. Yawned. Twisted her torso around to the left and right, popping a few vertebrae on the second twist. Daybreak was just an hour or so away. They never came out during the day. All the real bad ideas come at night. She looked through the treehouse doorway, then the little window to the right, then to her—
Amber froze. All she could hear were muffled sounds as if heard through wads of cotton and a high-pitched violin note. Her heart thumped like hooves in a stampede. Her fingernails dug into Jonesy.
The stilt walker traipsed down her street, two blocks over. Its torso, the shape of a blood-filled wood tick, seemed to float above the rooftops, weightless on the thin vertical spider legs. Its clusters of glistening eyes were obsidian and almost invisible against its black body, but she saw how it turned and focused on each house it passed. It was perusing, like an old woman shopping for a purse, slow and patient for just the right one. Javelin-sized whiskers protruded from under its mouth like a beard as it sniffed each house until it found the one it liked.
A split-entry with new plastic siding.
And kid’s toys in the yard.
“Mister— Mister Jo— Mister Jones…” she searched for air to fill her lungs and the strength to push it out.
The stilt walker pivoted around the split-entry, sniffing and looming near an upstairs window. It extended a black penial tube from under its body. The tube snaked down between its legs and out to feel the plastic siding like a blind man without a cane. The tip of the tube groped around the edges and crevasses until it found a cracked bedroom window. Then it slipped inside to do its business.
Oppression. Murder. Rape. War. Genocide. This is where those things came from. From the stilt walkers.
Like electricity applied to a machine, Amber’s nerves finally sparked. She scattered to her feet and out of the treehouse. The ladder, just two by fours nailed to the tree trunk, was half-rotted and half-swallowed by the growth of the trunk, but Amber knew which boards to put weight on and which ones to—
Her foot slipped on the dew-wet smooth wood. One hand lost grip of a board. Her other hand let go of Jonesy and flailed. Too late. She was suspended in a single moment that felt like zero gravity. A second ticked by. Then she hit and every square inch of air escaped her lungs. Stars exploded in her eyes. Mister Jonesy bounced off her chest and into the grass.
But she didn’t lose consciousness. Didn’t black out. Didn’t sleep.
Amber staggered up, dizzy, delirious, fighting to get air back into her lungs and panicked with the very real feeling that she might never breathe again. The fear didn’t subside so much as it was overwhelmed by her stronger need to accomplish the task at hand. A gate leading out the backyard was just across the lawn. She zombie-walked a few steps in its direction, her air coming back to her in short shallow gasps. Almost to the fence, she turned back.
“Huuuuup,” she sucked in air. “Jo— huuuuuuup. Jonesy. Huuuuuup.”
She ran back for the rat lying in the grass. As she picked him up, she got her first real breath. The stars faded from her vision.
“Come on, Jonesy. It’s not too late.”
Her feet shuffled and skipped through the wet grass to the gate. When she busted through, something about the action let her replenish her lungs, her strength, her vitality. Amber broke into a sprint, cutting across a street and through yards. Between houses, she saw the stilt walker again, looming outside of the cracked window. Its fleshy tube moved bulges down its length like a boa constrictor vomiting up a parade of mice.
“Hey!” she yelled at the stilt walker. Then, to anyone who might hear, “Wake up! It’s here! It’s poisoning you!”
She charged through the last pair of yards onto her street. She rounded the corner of the last house and jumped a curb-side rose bush. Her All Stars smacked against the blacktop and squeaked to a stop, one on either side of the yellow center line.
Amber shot out her palm, fingers splayed wide open, Jonesy held back close to her heart like a shield. Every ounce of wakefulness she’d saved up, every bit of strength left in her, she aimed it out through her palm towards the monster. She stood firm, her eyes crushed shut, teeth bared and clinched together, her lungs straining to pump air in rapid short breathes. Something glowed through her eyelids.
Brighter. Brighter. The wakefulness radiated out of her hand towards the stilt walker, warding it away from the house and the family inside. She was sure of it. Until she heard the screeching brakes of a car coming to run her down. The car lurched to a stop. She pried open an eye just a crack to see what she feared: the glow wasn’t coming from her, it was coming from a pair of damn headlights. The stilt-walker, hidden behind the glare of the lights had probably moved on to its next victim by now. She hadn’t created the glow, and she hadn’t stopped the monster.
“Hey, are you alright?” a man called from the car.
“Slept too much,” she mumbled, draining like a battery. “Have to save up more…”
She staggered, clutched Jonesy for support. Gravity went lopsided. Her upheld arm went limp. Her foot reached out for more stable terrain and failed to find it. Amber spilled down to the pavement and out of the shine of the two hi-beams. Jonesy bounced out of her hand. He landed butt down, facing her, the stitched on smile as permanent as his wakefulness.
“Damn it, Jonesy. We almost—“ A deep wheeze to pull in air. “—had him.”