I couldn’t remember the exact moment it happened – or even the exact day. All I knew was that my father had gone mad.
The bickering between him and my Ma had gone from once in a while to nightly shouting matches. Sometimes, one of them would throw a glass or mug that would shatter, followed by more yelling. At times like this, I stayed in my room with our Yellow Lab, Scully.
As the weeks passed, my mother began picking at the skin on her face. I figured, who could blame her – being subjected as she was to my Pa’s thunderous bellowing.
Then, all at once, the sheriff’s deputy came by and took away my Pa. Ma ran to my room and hugged me something fierce.
“Roy!” she exclaimed, tears in her eyes, as Scully danced excited circles around our feet. “He’s gone! We’re safe.”
Naturally, I hugged my mother back. With some relief, I noted that the pinched flesh of her face hadn’t yet bled and hoped that now things had settled, she would leave herself alone.
Pa would be in jail for at least several weeks, while the conditions of a restraining order were set. As he hadn’t beaten me, Ma or Scully and paid the bills on time, they couldn’t hold him for long.
The following week, I came home from school to find Ma scrubbing hard at the kitchen floor.
“Ma?” I asked, stopping to inspect her work so far, “You need help cleaning?”
My mother continued, “Rat scat,” she explained offhandedly, pausing only momentarily to wipe her brow from the last of the summer heat.
“We got vermin?” I asked, frowning. “First I heard.”
“I’ve been hearing around town,” she picked up the pace of her scrubbing, “They sneak in real stealthy, so you have to catch them before they can get in.”
So, with Scully on my heels, I ventured to seek out some of these prowlers. Turned out, I couldn’t find any, at least not in my room or the bathroom. Good news, it seemed.
The ensuing days brought on the chill of autumn and the first rains. Scully had a field day of leaping after crows, as I subtly grew more used to not hearing Pa’s irate bellow or footsteps around the house.
On that Friday, I skipped class early to go home and play catch with Scully. Nothing quite like starting the weekend early. Plus, the heavy gray clouds gathering over the distant fields only encouraged me to end that school day sooner and avoid getting caught in the rain.
Upon entering our front gate, a soft, keening whine hit my ears.
Glancing around, I followed the sound around back of the house. There, under one of the nearly bare cherry trees, lay Scully. At first treading over to see why he hadn’t risen to greet me, I stopped dead in my tracks as my eyes fell on his fur. In at least three places throughout his back and the two legs visible to me, patches of missing fur gleamed, the flesh raw underneath.
Swallowing the lump in my throat, I cast another furtive look around. No one in sight and silence, save for a crow leaving a tree, whose squawk nearly made me jump out of my skin.
Could it have been Pa? No, surely, we would have gotten word that he’d been released.
After sitting beside Scully for a while and tending to his wounds with water, I considered the possibility of a wolf. Though, no wolves tended to tread down to these parts of Missouri. And a wolf likely wouldn’t have removed patches of fur without also mauling the flesh.
Assuming my mother was out to the grocer’s, I entered the house, preparing to break the news about Scully…
When Ma’s smiling face greeted me from the sofa, I stopped short again. She looked like she’d been reading a book of poetry.
“Home early from school?” she asked sweetly.
I stared. “Um, yeah, Ma. Listen, something happened. Scully’s been attacked or something. I think we should have the sheriff look into it.”
To my surprise, Ma just nodded sadly. “I think he might have mange from being bit by those rodents. I got a call into the local vet.”
Again with the vermin. “Well,” I started again, “I rinsed his wounds.”
Another smile. “Good boy, Roy. I’m sure he’ll be fine, the doctor just needs to call back. In fact, I’m glad you’re home early. It’s a special day.”
I perked up, curious. “Oh, yeah? How’s that?”
“It’s the start to a wonderful weekend, you know how I enjoy this Fall weather. Now, what do you say to some supper? I’ll be cooking the meatloaf.”
She did know my favorite meal. “Sure,” I grinned back, wishing I could set aside the ease over Scully for just a moment.
Sitting down to the reddish-brown meatloaf managed to brighten my mood. That is, until I glanced up at Ma, who had just taken a seat, herself.
Made more obvious by the light of the kitchen lamp, several wounds decorated her face – not scabs I’d failed to notice before, but fresh, small wounds that, despite being shallow, shone softly with hints of blood.
“Ma…” I began, “Are you all right? Your face…”
“It’s those rats,” Ma shrugged it off, “Awful bites. We just got to make it our own, show them they can’t make us sick.”
“They bit you in the time it took me to wash my hands?” I asked, aware that my tone wasn’t the most respectful and yet, not entirely caring. My unease far outweighed any manners at that point.
“Roy,” that sweet smile was back, “Eat your loaf.”
Eyes trained on my mother’s for longer than I intended, I finally glanced down at my food. Though not overly hungry, I twirled the fork tines through the meat, carving out a crumbly slice…and froze.
There, between several large meat crumbs, multiple short beige hairs sprouted from the reddish-brown of the beef.
Putting two and two together faster than I ever would have thought possible, I resolved to play it cool. Whatever had gotten into my mother, I had to tread very carefully.
“You know, Ma…,” I started, “It looks great, but I’m really not feeling well. I think I’m gonna go lie down.”
My mother hummed softly but didn’t protest. In fact, she remained silent otherwise, which only added to the tremble I was desperately trying to conceal as I exited the kitchen.
I had to find Scully and get the heck out of dodge.
On my way to the front door, I grabbed the book my mother had been reading. On instinct, I checked the small paper she’d been using as a bookmark. After a cautious glance back at the kitchen doorway, I opened what I now realized was a folded letter.
A letter from the sheriff’s department, notifying Ma of my father’s release on parole today.
At the sound of my mother’s footsteps, I made a mad dash for the foot of the stairs and ran up to my room. Now feeling trapped, I scolded myself for not chancing the distance to the front door. No matter what was happening with my mother, I was a sixteen-year-old young man. Surely, I could defend myself…
Against a woman who mutilated herself and animals? In any case, I had missed my opportunity at escape. Now, all I could do was wait it out and hope that Pa either hadn’t kept his household gun or, if he had, Ma wouldn’t know where he stashed it. Come to think of it, my father hadn’t even mentioned the thing for years anyway.
Thoughts racing, I sat on my bed, feeling like tearing my own hair out. How had I not noticed something amiss with my mother before?
“Roy!” a hushed, male voice called from outside my slightly open window.
Startled yet again, I gripped the sheets of my bed. There, shadowy face apparent in the moonlight peeking through the storm clouds outside, crouched my Pa. He must have climbed up the drain pipe.
“Pa!” I hissed, hurrying to open the window, “You’re out. What are you doing here?”
“I’m so sorry, my boy,” his gaze bore into mine as soon as he’d righted himself from climbing over the windowsill, “They took me away when she called the sheriff, I had no time to explain.”
“Explain what?” I probed, realizing too late that he wasn’t finished.
Another pause. “Are her wounds bleeding?” the graveness of my father’s next question permeated the otherwise silence of the room.
Eyebrows knitting together, I answered honestly. “Yes. Pa, she’s been tearing at herself. Scully, too.”
I couldn’t bring myself to say aloud what she had done with Scully’s fur.
Pa looked pained at that last statement and sat on the bed beside me. “Roy, listen. I wanted to protect you and so never got the chance to tell you what was actually going on with your mother. It started as passing comments at first, about vermin around the house, biting us and the dog. The fights began when she started saying we needed to exterminate the vermin by removing them from all they’d infected. She said she would start your ‘removal’ once her own wounds started bleeding.”
“They just started bleeding tonight,” I explained, suddenly feeling dizzy. “You’re saying she wants to kill us?”
“I don’t know what her idea of removal is,” my father shook his head, “But we’ve got to get out of here.”
Just then, a high-pitched yelp sounded from the ground below.
Starting toward my door, Pa grasped my wrist. “No, son, it’s a trick! She’s baiting you.”
“I’ve got to go,” I protested, tearing loose and descending the steps two at a time before bursting out the back door.
Sure enough, Scully lay sprawled on the ground, breaths coming in shallow heaves. Fresh blood coated his fur, mixing with the rain that had started to fall.
Beside the nearly motionless form of my dog, sat my mother. Blood-soaked fingers contrasting red against the otherwise grey of the backyard, she glanced up at me and I froze.
The idle notion that Pa had followed me outside provided scarce comfort in light of the sight before me. Beside Scully’s body, Ma grinned, and I could now clearly make out that a sizeable chunk of her lower lip was gone, the roots of her bottom teeth unnaturally visible.
Perhaps Scully’s final attempt at self-defense.
A click alerted me again to my father’s presence beside me, the gun now cocked in my mother’s direction.
“Roy,” he murmured,” Go inside and call the sheriff. Now.”
Not needing to be told twice, I went to dash toward the back door, when Ma made her move.
“It’s time for you to go. You’re dirty, Roy. Those filthy vermin got into you. Such a shame.” My mother sounded solemn as her voice crept closer.
I pressed on, nearly at the backdoor now. A deafening shot rang out. Though the absence of a bullet soon alerted to Ma’s having found and unloaded the weapon prior to Pa’s return.
“Too late!” she shouted, now breaking into a full run toward me.
Desperately trying to ignore the meaning behind her words as well as the distorted garble from that horrid mouth, I didn’t see her race at me – as Scully charged her from behind.
Within moments, Ma’s throat joined her lower lip, as our lab used his last legs of strength to stop her deadly pursuit.
The weeks passed slowly into months. With Scully buried in the yard and Ma cremated, Pa and me tended to the yard ourselves. The few crops we managed braved the winter better than expected.
We never got another dog. Never wanted one. The house fell into a peaceful yet melancholy quiet without the cheerful bark. The animals didn’t stay away though. In fact, the first day of summer saw a stowaway hiding in our kitchen from the heat…
A large, black rat.