"There's a rat in the attic," Lance said to his roommates.
"There's no rat in the attic," Don said. "I checked the other day after you were whining about it, and there's no sign of rat. No chewing, no rat shit, no twigs or leaves or crap in the corners."
"Then it's in the walls," Lance mumbled through his cereal.
"You hear anything?" Don demanded of Murg.
"No," Murg said. "Didn't feel like listening to those crackheads a couple doors down with their parties and head-banger music, so I was stoned last night. Every night this past week as a matter of fact. I scored some good shit, knocks me out cold in about twenty minutes."
"I didn't hear anything either," said the rat.
"Who said that?" Don said, looking around. Lance shrugged, Murg frowned in puzzlement.
"No, really, who said that? You got your mouth full, he's too stupid. Did you hear it?" The reheated container of rice and beans and half a super burrito sat before him on the table with a plastic fork stuck into the beans. Don got up from the table and went to the doorway of the kitchen to look into the living room.
"I think he just said you're stupid," Murg said. "You gonna take that from him?"
"I agree with what he said completely," Lance said, wiping his mouth. "The rat I don't believe worth a damn." He took his cereal bowl to the sink and rinsed it, then ran the garbage disposal briefly.
"Hey, you shitheads, where's my burrito? Put it back, now! I have to get to class!"
"What did you do with it?" Murg asked, looking at the empty placemat.
"I didn't touch it," Lance said. "I was cleaning my dish."
"Murg, you tick, get my burrito back on the table, or I will personally dumpster all your dope and all your CD's and all your clothes."
"I didn't touch it, Don! Honest! You left the room and there was nothing there. I thought you took it with you." His voice took on an accusatory tone. "You did take it with you, and you're trying to make me look like a dick. You trying to make it rough on me to stay here? I pay my way!"
"Yeah, you do, ya pothead bastard." Don went to the trashcan and looked inside. There was no tell-tale styrofoam container. "Where did you put it?"
"I didn't touch it," Murg said, insulted. "Screw you. I'm going to MacDonald's for breakfast.
Don glared at him, scanning his sweatpants and t-shirt to make certain there was no bulging evidence of theft. Murg was pudgy, but symmetrical.
As Murg left the room, Don turned to Lance in anger. "Then it was you."
"No, it wasn't. I wasn't even at the table. See? Clean dish. Clean sink. I'm with Murg, I think you're trying to jack us around." He stuck his tongue out as far as he could. "See? No rice. You want to smell my breath?"
"Take a hike, toadface. One of you owes me a breakfast."
"You're just trying to get a free breakfast out of one of us," Lance said. "Forget it. I'm not going to give you a quarter." He left the kitchen and ran upstairs to get his bicycle, which he subsequently rode down the stairs, and out the front door.
Don planned on searching their rooms if they had neglected to lock their doors, but opted to check the refrigerator first, in case it had just been a broad practical joke. He turned back to the counter, and sputtered in fury.
There in the sink was the styrofoam container, scraped clean of beans, rice, and burrito.
* * *
Don was sitting in the chair in the family room beside the kitchen door with a hockey stick in his hands when Lance came back from classes. "Hey, man, how you doin'? Thought you had Social Structures until five. They cancel the class, you lucky old turd?"
"No!" growled Don. "There's someone in the house, you asshole! And when he comes out, I'm going to knock him into Spring Break!"
"Whoa, dude, what are you talking about? Who's in the house?"
Don leaped to his feet and darted a look into the kitchen, in which every light was turned on. "I don't know, but it was the piece of shit that stole my breakfast this morning. You guys were already gone when my empty carry-out thing appeared in the sink, everything scraped out of it. The fork never did show up. Someone stole my food and ate it, and dumped the box in the sink."
Lance began to hitch his bike up the stairs to his room. "Told you I didn't take it."
"Well, then, who the hell did, Lance? There's somebody in the house!"
"Apology accepted," Lance's voice flowed down the stairwell, oozing sarcasm.
"Don't go up there, you stupid canker sore! I'm telling you there's someone in the house!" Don climbed halfway up the stairs after him. "It's a nutcase! You could be killed!"
He heard Lance's key turn in the lock to his door, followed him in. Lance wheeled his mountain bike to one side of the room, pulled off his helmet and gloves and draped them over the bike. On the other side of the room was a camp cot with blankets and a sheet neatly folded beside a pillow. A low dresser sat beneath the window. A small bathmat-type rug lay on the hardwood floor. Lance turned on the lamp by his bed.
"I got Economics crap to study tonight, Don, so I thought I'd just make some tuna and macaroni for supper early. You want some?"
"This place is sick, Lance. Don't you have any toys?"
"I got my bike, my faithful laptop and wireless. What the hell more toys do I need?"
"But this looks like ... your mother comes and cleans up for you, you know?"
"What I know is I got no room for a rat in here, and no place for one to hide," Lance said. "What about the tuna? You think Murg would want some?"
Don hopped as though he had trod on an electric wire. "Shit! The front door's unlocked!" He went flying down the stairs in thuds and thunks, thumping against the front door of the town house, clicking the lock and the deadbolt shut.
Lance put the books from his backpack onto the shelf by the bicycle, and draped the pack over the slim saddle seat. The economics text he tossed onto the cot; his cross-trainers he kicked underneath. Stomach growling, he followed Don downstairs, but not before locking the door to his room behind him.
The kitchen door was open to the back porch, where Don was peering around at the shrubbery and sides of the house. He backed into the kitchen, the hockey stick poised for unsportsmanlike action. Shutting the door, he locked it. "Where's your cell phone, man? Get it ready to hit 9-1-1 if I shout. I'm going to check the TV room and the bathroom." He edged through the front living room, warily watching the drapes on the window and scanning the placement of furniture.
Lance got a few cans of tuna and the plastic container of macaroni from the pantry. "It's a rat," he mumbled to himself. "No rat is going to show itself to anyone as loud as he is."
In another two minutes, Murg was pounding on the front door, having forgotten his keys, as usual. "Gee, thanks, what did you want me to do, stand out there yelling for half an hour?"
"You could have taken your keys with you, or rang the doorbell, or wore one of those astronaut diapers," Lance said drily, letting him in. "You want some tuna and macaroni?"
"Yeah, let me get a couple hits and I'll be down."
"Wait, Murg! I'll go up with you," Don said, appearing from the TV room, brandishing his hockey stick.
"Think he'll lose his temper and club him with the stick?" asked the rat conversationally.
"Nah, Don's soft for Murg. Don smokes, too, every couple months or so. Usually after finals, so he's not going to club the goose that gives the golden eggs, you know?"
"Lays the golden eggs," the rat said.
"Lays ... potato chips?" He looked around, but the kitchen was empty. "Hey, where'd you go?"
"I went upstairs after Murg to make sure he didn't get offed by whoever is -- or was -- in the house. There's nobody up there, not in any of the rooms. The only place in this house anyone could be is in the attic, and I put a chair under the door handle to wedge it shut." Don looked over his shoulders nervously. "You think we should call the police?"
Lance shook his head. "If you do, wait until I'm about twenty minutes gone. Police come and find Murg's business stash, and everyone in the house goes to jail, including the rat if they find him."
Murg came down the stairs, coughing and exhaling fragrant smoke. "So where's the tuna and noodles?"
"The water hasn't even started to boil yet, pothead. As soon as the water boils, it'll be twelve minutes to tuna." Lance opened three small cans.
"That's when the big hand is just past the nine and the little hand is just before the fish," Murg observed, and began to laugh.
"Did you lock the door to your room?" Don whispered tensely.
"No, why should I?" the inebriated young man asked blearily, wiping tears of merriment from his eyes.
In response, Don tore back up the stairs. "You stupid peckerhead!" he grated.
"You don't have to call me names, I told you that this morning, Don, I'm tired of it." He followed Don, but without as much energy.
Murg's door was closed. Don waited for Murg to catch up, thinking of the possibility of using Murg as a human shield. Then he turned the handle of the door and swung it open. Both of them gasped and goggled at the sight.
The blankets were off the bed and on the floor, the mattress shoved to one side so that it tilted on the frame. Textbooks were scattered on top of the blankets, and two of the drawers of Murg's dresser were pulled out and empty; the underwear and socks and sweatshirts that had previously filled them had been flung at the windowsill on the opposite side of the room.
"What the hell?" gasped Murg, unable to understand what his eyesight was revealing to him. "What the hell is going on?"
"Someone is in the house!" Don snarled, cowering back into the hallway.
"Shit, my stash is gone! Somebody stole my stash! All of it! Every freakin' bag!"
At the end of the hallway, the chair that had been under the knob of the door to the attic lay flat on its back on the carpet.
"They moved the chair -- they're in the attic!"
"They? Who's 'they'?"
"Someone's in the house, you damn moron! Remember my burrito this morning? Someone ate it! They moved the chair away from the attic door!"
Lance, in the kitchen, could hear every one of their bellowed words. Neither Murg nor Don had any hint of subtlety about them. If they spoke, they could be heard all over the house. Every voice was booming, every move was thumping. Lance knew he wasn't a ninja, by any means, but he tried to walk quietly, and talk in a low voice. Don and Murg flapped their feet along like first graders who just discovered shoe-noises, and vocalized like they got off on feeling their lungs vibrate in their chests.
He gently mixed the macaroni with the cans of tuna, adding some mayonnaise as a sauce.
"Smells good," said the rat.
"What did you do with Murg's pot?"
"Put it to good use," the rodent chuckled. "Do I get some of this?"
"No, dude, you don't. You can have the stuff in the Waffle Hut container in the fridge."
"Thanks, don't mind if I do."
Lance darted a glance over his shoulder. Nothing. He knew there was a rat, he heard the rat, but he had actually never seen the rat. He conscientiously closed the gaping refrigerator door.
Matching his voice to the volume of Don's and Murg's, he bellowed, "Tuna's done!" He toppled some of the tuna and macaroni into a dish, salted it, and ate it.
Don and Murg came thundering down the stairs a few minutes later, as Lance was wiping his mouth on a paper towel. "How can you be eating when there's someone in the house?" Don roared.
"I told you there was a rat in the attic," Lance said, rolling his eyes second-story-wards.
"I'm calling the cops," Don said. "This is freakin' bullshit."
"Okay. You do that. I'm going to the library to study my Economics crap." Lance climbed the stairs, unlocked his room, loaded his text, a notebook, and some pens into his pack. He put on his helmet and jacket and gloves and wheeled his bike out into the hall.
"Don't worry," said the rat. "They won't find Murg's dope."
"Why not?" Lance asked. "They have dogs, they can smell it anywhere."
"Yeah, they can, and they can smell little flakes of it all the way to the house two doors down the street, where the people are cooking meth in the basement. Maybe that will wake someone up."
Lance walked the bike down the stairs, refusing to listen to Don roaring into his cell phone from the hall near the attic. "Is that what this is all about?"
"I used to live there," said the rat. "Then they started cooking that poison -- I can't live with that. I wasn't real fond of that pit bull they keep, either."
Closing and locking the door behind him, Lance swung a leg over his bike. "Pretty theatrical effort to get rid of them," he observed, keeping his eyes on the street.
"Hey, I'm a rat, not a mouse," said the rat.
Lance put a foot on the top pedal and pushed, then braked the bike. "Are you going to go back to that other house once the police break up the meth ring?"
There was no answer; he darted a quick look over his shoulder, but the front walk and yard were empty. He made a mental note to stop at the delicatessen on the way to the library and pick up a small piece of muenster cheese.
Three blocks down the street, he heard the faint but growing sound of sirens.
-- Sand Pilarski