“The gear is missing.”
Sanford Witter cursed under his breath and then again, louder. He turned from the half-disassembled tractor, scoured the matted dirt of the barn and found nothing. Dropping to a knee, the man looked underneath the dull, grist-laden machinery and spied a enormous rat, clutching something between its hideous, oily paws.
Something circular. Something shiny.
“Give it back, you sneakin’ sonofabitch.”
The creature let out a loathsome chittering and pranced south into a wide crevice at the base of the foundation. Whitter furrowed his brows, doubly vexed.
Why, he wondered, would a rat take a gear? How could it carry something so heavy with such unnatural ease? And where did the crack in the foundation come from? Had it always been there? No, he shook his head fractionally. Its new. It hadn’t been there last Wednesday. I’m sure of it. Sure of it…
He rose and dusted his overalls off, adjusted his hat, spat and lit up a smoke and stood starring at the darkness that had swallowed his gear.
“Who you yelling at, hon?”
He turned slowly to his wife, who stood at the doorway, arms crossed, brow furrowed; concern overshadowed by heavy wooden trusses and a rising wind from the far plain and the high, hills beyond.
“Nothing. No one,” he replied gruffly.
“Something the matter?”
“Somethings always the matter.”
“Anything in particular?”
“Its… you’re not going to believe this… a rat. Biggest rat I ever seen. Up and took one of my gears.”
“See, I told you that you weren’t going to believe it.”
“Its cold out here and you’ve been working all day. Why don’t you come inside for a while? You’re so busy all the time… we rarely just… talk anymore.”
“Whaddaya mean? We’re talking now, ain’t we?”
“That’s not it. Oh, nevermind, nevermind.”
She shook her head and left-off as a chill wind snaked between the boughs of distant trees to shake the foundations of the barn. Witter rolled his eyes and rubbed his temples, heeling the dirt.
In the days that followed the gear-theft, more pieces of mechanical equipment vanished from the barn. More pieces from the tractor. A wrench. A screw. A toolkit. A motor. With every theft, the crack in the wall grew wider. Witter could fit his whole arm, up to his shoulder, in it, but could see nothing within.
Witter, against all the protestations of his higher judgment, suspected the rat, but spied neither hide nor hair of it; either in the barn or in the spreading crevice, which he began to examine regularly with a flashlight.
He set traps laden with peanut butter around the tractor and the fissure in the wall and checked them daily, and every day, found the traps undisturbed.
A month later Witter awoke and rolled to wake his wife. She was gone. The imprint of her plump body yet-retained by the soft fabric of the covers. Witter frowned and pulled on his slippers and robe and rubbed sleep from his murky eyes and ventured downstairs.
Room after room reverberated with the muted patter of plastic soles heeling against carpeted wood. Room after room he found nothing. Whenever she got up she showered and made tea and smoked her hickory pipe and read the paper with the TV on. This she would do, barring periods of illness, without fail.
Where’d she get to? She ain’t supposed to be going anywhere today. Least… she didn’t tell me she’d be leaving. She’d have said something if she were. She always says something. Nagging. Complaining bout my work. No… she’d have said something.
He threw on a pair of pants and a t-shirt and made for the drive. The car was sitting where it always had. He moved to the barn and screamed at what he saw.
Martha—dragged towards the fissure by the rat, which had grown considerably in size—clawed the padded dirt floor, blood spilling from broken fingernails.
“Martha! Hold on.”
The rat stepped on to one of the traps laid before the fissure and howled, momentarily releasing the terrified woman, who, gasping, threw herself blindly toward the door.
Witter seized an adjustable wrench from the weight-bar at the front of the tractor and ran forth with the sleek hunk of metal raised and brought it down upon the rats head. The creature shrieked, a small path of blood forming in bluish pulse beneath skull’s skin.
“Die, you sonovabitch!”
He brought the wrench down, harder this time, and heard a sickening crunch and felt the beast fall still beneath him. The horrid monster’s head gushed with frothing charcoal-colored rheum which hissed upon contact with the floor and ascended to the sky like strips of charred paper.
Witter released the wrench and took a step back, eyes wide, mouth open. Trembling.
“What on earth…”
The creature’s skull cracked open, like a paper mache balloon, wider and wider, as two steely claws emerged and rent the cranial cavity like as the fissure in the wall. From the depths of the chasm, crawled a rat. The mammal grabbed the wrench and swiftly dragged it into the head-hole of the carcass and vanished within the amniotic null.
When Witter’s eyes wandered to the fissure on the wall.
It was gone.
He turned to Martha and found her lying on the floor with a bloody wound to her skull. Her left eye, distended on its stalk, crustacean-like in the kindling light, which glinted off the small, cyclical gear, tightly clutched in her stiff, right hand.