Stan had been keeping a secret from those around him for a very long time. A big secret. He kept the secret from his wife. He kept the secret from his parents, who had since passed on. He kept the secret from his two children, who had moved out of the house. And he kept the secret from his brother and sister, with whom he rarely spoke.
A year ago the secret had been the size of a golf ball, or more accurately, a baby mouse. He wouldn’t have discovered it at all if he hadn’t started seeing a masseuse to deal with the neck and upper back pain he’d been having. “You might want to have that lump looked at,” his masseuse had said. “It moves a bit when I touch it, almost like it’s alive.” Of course, he never did anything about it, the same way he never did anything about his dream of traveling now that his kids had grown, the same way he failed to face his quickly approaching retirement. His own parents had retired early then wasted away with nothing to do, until each had forgotten who they were, who the other was, until they’d forgotten everything about their puny lives.
The secret kept growing. He often woke complaining of a stiff neck or soreness behind the shoulder blade. But his wife was used to his complaints, so she ignored him. And at sixty-four, he was used to aches and pains, so he ignored them as well. Life could have continued on like this until long into their retirement when they spent their days sitting in opposite rooms, he watching nonstop cable news and obsessing over the state of the Republican party, and she crocheting blankets in a little craft room she’d set up for herself in the basement, blankets piled high along every wall. He could have lived on that way until he passed quietly from this world, his children saying a few words at the funeral, then slipping back into their normal routines until, after a few years, he was gone from even their memories. Yes, he could have done this. But the secret could not.
By this point, it was as large as a baseball, and it had started to move. Not much at first, mostly it restricted itself to his neck and upper back. But over time, its territory grew. At first, Stan was a bit surprised by the occasional shifting of the lump in his back. But then he found it oddly pleasing. He would absentmindedly prod it while eating breakfast or reading the paper, poking it to see if he could get it to move. When it would, he’d experience a small thrill as little claws scurried across his back. He’d then return to his routine only to find himself poking the lump again a few minutes later and waiting for the tickle of little feet. For the most part, it didn’t move much during the day, and for the most part, Stan didn’t worry about it.
The problem came at night. He’d always been a back sleeper, and now he couldn’t do it. In the king-sized bed he and his wife shared, he could shift and flail about trying to get comfortable and not bother her in the slightest. He’d never been good at sleeping on his side, but now it was near impossible. As soon as he fell asleep on his left side, he’d feel those little feet scamper to that very side as if the secret sought the warmth between his back and the bed. Like a cat kneading a pillow, it would dig its claws into the muscle below his shoulder blade (its favorite spot) or the trapezius (its second favorite spot), and he would have to switch sides to get a few minutes of peace before it would decide it wanted to switch sides, too. Then there were the times it had the “night crazies” and would scurry about his back in circles and zigzags so that he had no hope for even a few minutes of rest.
Still, Stan was resilient, better than most at ignoring the aches and pains and lack of sleep that constituted the body’s only form of communication with the man. Despite the growing pain in his upper back he went about his days much as he had before. Certainly, he used a little more Advil than the average man. He was a bit sleepier than usual, but closing his office door and taking a midafternoon catnap usually solved that problem.
It was only when he realized the secret was eating him from the inside, had been eating him all along, that things began to change. At first, he tried to compensate by increasing his caloric intake, but that could only work for so long. Soon the pain of shredded muscle and torn sinew became difficult to ignore. No amount of Advil could hide it.
The first thing he tried was talking to his wife. “Something is happening in my back,” he told her late one night. “I think I might be dying.” She was already in bed, when he slipped in beside her. She lowered her book and asked what kind of insurance he had.
“I’m not worried about whether it will be covered,” he said.
“Not that kind of insurance.” She folded her arms over her chest the way a funeral director might prepare a corpse. “Life insurance. How much do you have?” Her gaze remained fixed on the ceiling as if somehow she could see through it to the pattern of stars beyond.
“I said I’m afraid I’m dying, not that I’m going to die.” He pulled the covers to his chin as if to protect himself.
“What’s the difference?” She turned her head to face him but not her body.
“There’s all the difference in the world!” He rolled away from her. “Do me a favor,” he said, “and take a look at my back.” He pulled up his nightshirt.
She groaned, then reluctantly inspected his back. “You’ve got a lump just under your right shoulder blade,” she said. “It looks pretty big.” She touched it, and as she did, the lump moved down his spine, resting in his lower back.
“Did you see that?” he asked.
“Yes. It looks like you’ve got something in there.” She picked up her book and continued reading.
“That’s it!” he said. “That’s all you’re going to say.” He pulled down his nightshirt and sat up, facing her. When she didn’t seem to notice, he pulled the book from her hands and tossed it across the bed.
“Hey!” She shot him a look. “What did you do that for?”
Pain tore through the muscle along his upper spine. Like teeth ripping.
“Ow! Shit!” was all he managed to say. He jumped out of bed and turned on the light. Again, he pulled up his shirt. “It bit me! Hard! Can you see anything?”
“What do you want me to say?” She ran her finger along the lump. “It’s a lump. I don’t think a lump can bite you, but I’m not a doctor.”
He went to the bathroom and tried in vain to get a good view in the mirror of the lump on his back.
“You know what they say,” his wife went on. “These things are the body’s way of trying to tell you something. You should have it checked out. And while you’re at it, raise whatever you have for life insurance.” She returned to her book, and he returned to bed. Silence settled over them.
It wasn’t until the lump was eight or nine inches across and three or four thick that he decided to see a doctor. It hadn’t been an easy decision for him as it meant taking the afternoon off work, and he’d had loads of work to finish since announcing his retirement. Taking the afternoon off work meant he would have time to himself, something he still hadn’t grown accustomed to since his daughter had left the house the year before. The idea of sitting in his favorite chair, maybe lighting a fire, picking out one of the many books on his shelves he’d never found time to read should have been appealing to him, but it filled him with dread.
“You’ve got a rat in your back.” The doctor didn’t even bother to line the X-rays up along the lighted panels so he could see. Instead, he handed him the manila envelope containing the X-rays as if they were secret documents.
“Can you get it out?” He scratched his neck below the beard he’d started to grow.
“There’s really no point.” The doctor wrote something down on his prescription pad. “I don’t see any long-term consequences.”
“But it’s eating me from the inside out?” The room seemed to grow dim, as if one of the fluorescents had burned out.
“The internal damage appears to be minimal.” The doctor handed him the prescription. “Eat well-balanced meals, exercise, and take one of these each day, and that should compensate for any muscle loss.”
“What about disease? You know, the bubonic plague and all that?” He couldn’t help scratching again and wondered if rats carried mange, too.
“You’ve got more of a chance of being hit by a car than dying from the black death.” The doctor laughed as if he’d made a joke, then held out his hand.
A trail of rat droppings, Stan thought. Little pieces of what I’ve been.
He didn’t want to go home. The idea of being there alone was too much. He thought about stopping at the mall, but it was early December and the parking lots would be full to the brim with holiday shoppers. He could stop at Stella’s, his favorite coffee shop. Yes, that would do the trick. He took a slight detour and minutes later he’d arrived. But the storefront looked empty, dark. A sign posted on the door announced the arrival of a new cell-phone store. It couldn’t be. He’d just been to Stella’s the week before. He got out of his car and peered in the window. Bare wires stuck out of the wall where the espresso machine used to be. Scraps of dry wall lay scattered about the floor. Now there was nothing for it but to go home.
Even so, we are here.
He whipped around, instinctively sticking his hand out before him as if to ward off the source of the voice. But nothing was there. He was sure he’d heard it, a deep voice, an old man’s gruff voice.
“Here where?” he replied, as if speaking to someone. “The coffee shop? It’s not here anymore.” He had to laugh. One less thing to do in his retirement.
He couldn’t remember when entering his house had become difficult. At least entering it alone. The silence. The emptiness. The way the pillows tilted on the couch. The way the kitchen chairs seemed pushed out at odd angles. The way his wife’s sweater lay cast aside on the end table. All of it accusing. All of it demanding something of him, something he’d buried deep long ago. Then there was the tick, tick, ticking of the clocks in every room. There was no escaping the clocks. The reminder that he’d had his chance.
Once home, he picked the first book he spotted on the bookshelf. The title didn’t matter, most of the books he’d never bothered to read, and even if it were one he’d read, he’d most certainly forgotten he’d read it by now. He lit a fire, made himself a coffee, and sat in his favorite chair, pleased with himself for facing his fear, confident in the fact that he could hide from the silence, shelter himself from the accusation of pillows and sweaters and chairs behind the cover of a good book. But scarcely had he opened his book when he thought he heard the voice again. The same one he’d heard in front of Stella’s.
He closed the book. Short breaths like unfortunate stutters. The thing scurried across his back. It couldn’t really be a rat. The doctor had to be wrong. He’d find a new doctor. What kind of quack told you that you had a rat in your back then told you not to worry about it? He put the book down and waited. Intent. Daring the silence. The second hand on the mantel clock ticked.
Details darken a life until we forget the depths of our mistakes.
The voice again. He walked quickly to the bathroom, stopped in front of the vanity mirror, almost afraid to turn on the light. Some other skull crept out from behind his skin. Some other creature stared back at him, vague-eyed, from empty sockets. He turned on the light and caught sight of a rat scurrying across the floor behind him. A big one. A filthy one with matted hair and a long, black tail. He grabbed the porcelain toothbrush holder and turned, holding it aloft as if to strike. But the rat wasn’t there. It had been heading in the direction of the tub. There was no way it could have escaped.
He turned back to the mirror, and there it was. The rat raised on its hind legs, scratching desperately at the other side of the mirror. He smashed the toothbrush holder down against the reflection of the rat. The mirror cracked. The rat stopped for a moment, then started scratching again. He brought the toothbrush holder down hard again on top of where the rat’s head should be. This time the porcelain shattered in his hand, cutting the tender flesh of his palm. Either in fear of its life or incensed by the sight of blood, the rat clawed furiously at the mirror. He went to his garage in search of something heavier, bringing back a large crescent wrench from his unused toolbox. But when he returned to the bathroom, the rat was gone.
He was seeing things. That was it. He needed to talk to someone. To calm down. His wife would be at work until after five, and she always hated it when he called her there. He could call his son, though he’d probably be sleeping the day away. And that would start them on the same old argument. What are you doing with your life? Why don’t you have a job? No point in going there. He should call his daughter. He knew he should call her. He’d barely talked to her since she’d left the house the year before. Why wouldn’t he call her? He didn’t have an answer. How long had it been since he’d talked with her? Three months? They’d always been close. He thought they’d always been close. But then why hadn’t he called her? And when she called, why did he let his wife answer? If she asked to talk with him, he always had some excuse, something that needed to be done around the house. Had something come between them? He didn’t think so. But then why wouldn’t he talk with her?
She picked up before the phone even rang on his end.
“How did you know I was calling?” He couldn’t help but feel a pang at hearing her voice. The knowledge that she would be mad at him, maybe feel betrayed that he’d made so little effort. Better that than face the silence. Better that than wait for the claws to tear into his flesh again.
“I didn’t,” she replied. “I was about to call Brad, and when I picked up you were there.”
“So, you’re not married yet?”
“No.” She laughed a bit. He hoped she’d do that, hoped he could diffuse some of the anger. “You’ve been a stranger,” she continued. “Everything OK?”
He opened his mouth to speak, to say something, though he wasn’t sure exactly what, when a sharp pain clawed through him.
“Ow!” He nearly dropped the phone.
“Dad, what’s going on?”
“Nothing.” He could barely squeeze the word out. “Just a little chest pain.” It felt like the rat was rummaging around inside his heart, his lungs. He was having trouble catching his breath.
“You’re scaring me,” she replied. “Is Mom there? Is anyone there with you?”
He didn’t want this to happen. Their first conversation in so long, and now she was frightened. He’d wanted to tell her. Needed to. Yes! That’s why he’d called. He was going to tell her the secret. It was time she knew the truth. Time she understood who he was. He’d tell her, then everything would be better between them.
“Alicia . . .” He wasn’t at all sure what he’d say, only that he had to say it. “Alicia . . .” His throat went gravelly, as if he would lose his voice.
“Dad? You don’t sound well.”
“I have something I need to tell you,” he began again, choking back the phlegm. “You were only a child at the time . . .”
“Dad? What are you talking about?”
“Alicia . . . I don’t expect you to understand . . .” He tried to continue, but the words were buried deep.
“What is it, Dad? What do you want to say?”
“I have to tell you something . . .” He started again, digging deeper than he’d ever gone before. Through layers and layers of rock. Past all the walls he’d erected. The vaults he’d locked tight. He was almost there. Only one door lay between him and the secret. He put his hand on the knob and hesitated. What was he waiting for?
“Dad?” his daughter broke in. “You’re not making sense.”
He almost shouted “Shut up!” but managed to stifle it, instead shushing his daughter.
“Dad! What the hell . . .”
He willed himself back at the door, his hand once again on the knob. “Open it!” he told himself, then, already sensing the weakness, tried again. “Open it.” But the lack of resolve tugged at the words, pulling them deeper into the vault even as he spoke. He couldn’t, no wouldn’t do it. His knees buckled, and he whimpered like a kicked dog.
“I’m calling Mom,” his daughter said. “Just stay there, and I’ll call you back.”
“No, don’t hang up, sweetie!” But it was too late. She was gone. He set the phone down as something moved through him, a dark scuttling as if through trash. He ran to the large, round dining room mirror. One of the last things his mother had given him before she died. He lifted his shirt and cocked his head around to see if he could locate the rat. How could he not? It was as big as a football, maybe bigger. He looked like Quasimodo. He tried to hit it but couldn’t reach much beyond his shoulder and only ended up hitting himself. The rat seemed to be content now in the middle of his back, tearing little bits of muscle and patting them into something, some shape. What was it making? The answer frightened him more than the secret. He knew only that he wouldn’t wait around to find out.
He hadn’t realized how easy it would be to buy large quantities of rat poison. He could mix a heavy dose of the small, green pellets with bourbon and be rid of the rat before his wife arrived home from work. He wouldn’t take enough to kill himself, just enough to kill the rat before it made whatever it was making. And the bourbon, well, that was to ease the pain. Rat poison couldn’t be pleasant. He’d thought of everything. But mostly he’d thought of the fact that he’d been carrying this thing inside him for far too long, and now it had affected his relationship with his wife, his children. His daughter, for God’s sake! When had the secret come between them? He needed the thing out now. He needed to be done with it. One way or another.
He poured a whole box of d-CON into the bourbon and sat in his favorite chair to sip it. Not bad. He couldn’t taste the poison at all, so he figured what the hell and downed the entire glass. Then he waited, just as he’d done earlier that morning. He looked at the same pillows, but their tilt no longer seemed to bother him. Same with the angle of the chairs and his wife’s sweater. Perhaps the poison would work after all. But then there was the incessant ticking of the mantel clock. He took it outside and threw it in the trash can. On his way in, he stumbled, nearly losing his balance. Something was not quite right with his head. The air around him went wavy. Carefully, he felt his way along the wall toward his chair.
A tormented sorrow burrowed along his spine. He doubled over. So much for the bourbon numbing the pain. The madness of claws ripping flesh. Fanged teeth gnawing their way out. He fell to his knees. It had to be its death throes. It would be over soon. All he had to do was wait it out. Then the phone rang. His daughter calling again to check on him, he was sure of it. But he couldn’t answer. Not yet. There was no mouth that could utter the pain. He rose and staggered toward the dining room mirror, spinning at the last moment and slamming his back into it again and again. He stood before the fractured surface and waited to feel. Nothing. Maybe this was it, he thought. Maybe he’d killed the thing this time. The phone continued to ring. The ghost of a trickle along his spine, the moth-flutter touch of a child. It could be blood. He could have cut himself on one of the shards hanging from the wood frame. He reached behind his back, felt the football-size lump. It wasn’t moving. A good sign. He pulled his hand away. No blood. But then it was as if he could no longer see his hand, as if the contour of it had washed away, or as if a spot clouded his vision. He rubbed his hand against his cheek. Yes, it was still there, part of him.
Filthy knives tore at his flesh, the determined claws of his executioner. The pain dizzied. He torqued his right arm around in a desperate attempt to grab it and fling it from his body, but no matter how hard he tried, it always seemed out of reach. The rat was eating its way out of him, he was sure of it. He spun around, trying to grab it with both hands, and caught fragments of his reflection in the shards hanging from the mirror. A sliver of his receding hairline. A patch of ear, dark hair grazing the top. A slice of stubble along his neckline. The sketch of him no longer connecting.
He woke slumped against the wall beneath the broken mirror. Opposite him, in one of the dining room chairs, sat a black rat, much larger than he. His first reaction was to check his chest, his stomach, his back to see the hole where the rat must have eaten its way out. But he found nothing. The lump in his back was no longer there, either. He wondered if he were dead. He didn’t think so, but he couldn’t be sure. He listened for his breathing. Felt his pulse. If he were dead, his body was doing a pretty good job of keeping the news from him.
The black eyes of the rat stared back at him. Hard eyes. Terrible eyes. Eyes that fixed him in place. Pus dripped from one, as if it suffered from some sort of conjunctivitis. Chipped and yellowed fangs jutted from the corners of its mouth. Tangled and matted hair stuck out from the side of its back. Its breathing was erratic, and its right foot shook randomly.
“You don’t look too good,” he said.
The rat stared back with violent indifference. “Why don’t you tell me?” the rat whispered. “Tell me your goddamned secret.”
“You don’t fool me for a second,” he replied.
“There’s a certain pleasure in hearing it from your lips,” the rat said, its eyes like an unrelenting dimming, boring their way to the unnamed.
“No.” he said, quietly at first. Then again, “No!”
Its breath stuttered. Its right foot trembled.
“I’m tired of this,” he said.
The rat tapped its claw on the arm of the chair, as if to some unheard rhythm.
“Did you hear me?” he said. “I’m tired of living like this.” He crawled toward the rat. It sat there, watching, waiting, as if it knew before he knew what he was about to do. When he’d crossed to the rat, its tail wrapped around his ankle. An embrace? A warning? He was surprised at how scaly it seemed. Like a snake. He stood. Up close, its eyes seemed sad. Many of its whiskers bent and broken.
He’d expected some resistance when he pulled the rat’s jaws apart, and finding none, nearly ripped the corners of its mouth. Still it said nothing, not even when he reached into its throat, searching for leverage, for something to hold onto. He pulled himself inside, slithering through blood, sliding deep into the dark recesses of the rat’s belly where he immediately began rummaging around, tearing away bits of muscle, pieces of sinew, and flecks of bone to make a nest for himself, or perhaps a wall, anything that might provide shelter from the uneasy knowledge that lay in wait.