I richard, p.10

I, Richard, page 10

 

I, Richard
 


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  Willow wanted to go the mental health route. While the Napier Lane menfolk gathered nightly to come up with a plan of action that would take care of the problem posthaste, Willow did some research on the Internet. What she learned opened her heart to the Russian woman who, she realized, clearly wasn't responsible in full for the infestation of her property.

  “Read this,” Willow said to her husband. “It's a sickness, Scott. It's a mental disorder. It's like… You know when people have too many cats? Women, usually? Older women? You can take all their cats away but if you don't deal with the mental problem, they just go out and get more cats.”

  “You're saying she collects rats?” Scott asked her. “I don't think so, Willow. If you want to take the psychological viewpoint, then let's call this what it is: denial. She can't admit that she's got rats because of what rats imply.”

  The men agreed with Scott, especially Beau Downey who pointed out that, as a foreigner—or furinner, as he pronounced it—Anfisa Telyegin probably didn't know a damn thing about hygiene, personal or otherwise. God only knew what the inside of her house was like. Had any of them seen it? No? Well, then, he rested his case. They ought to just set up a little accident over at 1420. A fire, say, started by bad wiring or maybe by gas leaking at the side of the house.

  Scott wouldn't hear of that and Owen Gilbert began making noises to distance himself from the whole situation. Rose Hart— who lived across the street and didn't have as much invested in the situation—pointed out that they didn't really know how many rats there were, so perhaps they were getting too excited about what was really a simple situation. “Willow only saw three: the one she trapped and two others. It could be we're getting too riled up. It could be this is a simpler problem than we think.”

  “But in Port Terryton, it was an infestation,” Willow cried, wringing her hands. “And even if there're only two more, if we don't get rid of them, there'll soon be twenty. We can't ignore this. Scott? Tell them…”

  Several women exchanged knowing glances. Willow McKenna had never been able to stand on her own two feet, even now.

  It was Ava Downey—who would have believed it?—who offered a potential solution. “If she's in denial as you suggest, Scott darlin',” Ava said, “why don't we simply do somethin' to make her fantasy world real?”

  “What would that be?” Leslie Gilbert asked. She didn't like Ava, whom she saw as being after every woman's husband, and she generally avoided speaking to her. But the circumstances were dire enough that she was willing to put her aversion aside and listen to anything that promised to solve the problem quickly. She had, after all, just that morning tried to start her car only to find that wires in the engine had been chewed up by vermin.

  “Let's get rid of the creatures for her,” Ava said. “Two or three or twenty. Let's just get rid of them.”

  Billy Hart gulped down what was the last of his ninth beer of the evening and pointed out that no exterminator would take on the job, even if the neighbors paid to have it done, not without Anfisa Telyegin's cooperation. Owen concurred as did Scott and Beau. Didn't Ava remember what the agent from Home Safety Exterminators had told Leslie and Willow?

  “Course I remember,” Ava said. “But what I'm suggestin' is that we take on the work ourselves.”

  “It's her property,” Scott said.

  “She might call in the cops and have us arrested if we go set-tin' traps all around her yard, honey,” Beau Downey added.

  “Then we'll have to do it when she's not home.”

  “But she'll see the traps,” Willow said. “She'll see the dead rats in them. She'll know—”

  “You're misunderstandin' me, darlin',” Ava purred. “I'm not suggestin' we use traps at all.”

  Everyone living near 1420 knew everyone else's habits: what time Billy Hart staggered out for the morning paper, for example, or how long Beau Downey revved up the motor of his SUV before he finally blasted off for work each day. This was part of being on friendly terms with one another. So no one felt compelled to remark upon the fact that Willow McKenna could say to the minute exactly when Anfisa Telyegin went to work at the community college each evening and when she returned home.

  The plan was simple: After Owen Gilbert obtained the appropriate footwear for them all—no man wanted to traipse through what might be rat-infested ivy in his loafers—they would make their move. Eight Routers—as they called themselves—would form a shoulder-to-shoulder line and move slowly through the ivy-covered front yard in heavy rubber boots. This line would drive the rats toward the house where the Terminators would be waiting for them as they emerged from the ivy on the run from the rubber boots. And the Terminators would be armed with bats, with shovels, and with anything else that would eliminate the nasty creatures. “It seems to me it's the only way,” Ava Downey pointed out. Because while no one truly wanted Anfisa Telyegin to have to find her property littered with rats killed by traps, so also did no one want to find rats in their own yard where the creatures might manage to stagger before succumbing to a crawl-off-and-die-somewhere-else poison, if that's the route the neighbors chose.

  So hand-to-rodent combat appeared to be the only answer. And as Ava Downey put it in her inimitable fashion: “I don't expect you fine big strong men mind gettin' a little blood on your hands… not in a cause good as this.”

  What were they to say to such a challenge to their masculinity? A few feet shuffled and someone murmured, “I don't know about this,” but Ava countered with, “I just don't see any other way to do it. Course I'm willin' to listen to any other suggestions.”

  There were no others. So a date was chosen. And everyone set about preparing himself.

  Three nights later, all the children gathered at the Harts' house to keep them out of the way and out of sight of what was going to happen at 1420. No one wanted their offspring to hear or see the destruction that was planned. Children are sensitive to this sort of thing, the wives informed their husbands after a morning-coffee agreement to stand as one. The less they knew about what their daddies were up to, the better for them all, the women said. No bad memories and no bad dreams.

  The men among them who didn't like blood, violence, or death bolstered themselves with two thoughts. First, they considered their children's health and safety. Second, they dwelt upon the Higher Good. One or two of them reminded himself that a yard of rats wouldn't go over well with the Wingate Courier, nor would it get Napier Lane very far toward achieving Perfect Place to Live status. Others just kept telling themselves that it was only two rats they were talking about. Two rats and nearly ten times that in men… ? Well, those were odds that anyone could live with.

  Thirty minutes after Anfisa Telyegin left 1420 and headed for the bus stop and the ride to the community college and her Russian literature class, the men made their move in the darkness. And much was the relief of the faint-at-heart when the Routers managed to drive only four rats into the waiting line of Terminators. Beau Downey was among this latter group and he was happy to dispatch all four rats himself, yelling, “Gimme some light over here! Scare the hell out of 'em!” as he chased down one rodent after another. Indeed, later it would be said that he took a little too much pleasure in the process. He wore his blood-spattered jumpsuit with the distinction of a man who's never fought in a real battle. He talked about “nailin' the little bastards” and gave a war whoop as his bat made contact with rat number four.

  Because of this, he was the one who pointed out that the backyard had to be dealt with, too. So the same process was gone through there, with the net result being five more furry corpses, five more bodies in the garbage bag.

  “Nine rats, not so bad after all,” Owen Gilbert said with the relief of someone who'd made sure up front he was among the Routers and consequently forever free of the blood of the innocent.

  “That don't seem right to me,” Billy Hart pointed out. “Not with the droppings all over the McKennas' yard and not with

  Leslie's engine wires getting chomped. I do
n't think we got them all. Who's for crawling under the house? I got a smoke bomb or three we could use to scare 'em out.”

  So a smoke bomb was set off and three more rats met the fate of their fellows. But a fourth got away from the best of Beau's efforts and made a dash for Anfisa's chicken coop.

  Someone shouted, “Get him!” but no one was fast enough. He slithered beneath the shelter and disappeared from view.

  What was odd was that the chickens didn't notice a rat in their midst. From inside the coop came not a single rustling wing or protesting squawk. It was as if the chickens had been drugged or, more ominously… eaten by rats.

  Clearly, someone was going to have to see if the latter was the case. But no one leapt to the opportunity. The men advanced on the chicken coop, leery, and those with flashlights found that they could barely hold them steady upon the little structure.

  “Grab that door and swing it open, Owen,” one of the men said. “Let's get that last mother and get out of here.”

  Owen hesitated, unanxious to be confronted by several dozen mutilated chicken corpses. And chicken corpses certainly seemed very likely, since even with the approach of the men, no sound came from within the coop.

  Beau Downey said, “Hell,” in disgust when Owen didn't move. He lurched past him and yanked open the door himself and threw a smoke bomb inside.

  And that's when it happened.

  Rats poured through the opening. Rats by the dozen. Rats by the hundred. Small rats. Large rats. Obviously well-fed rats. They flooded from the chicken coop like boiling oil from a battlement and began to shoot off in every direction.

  The men flailed clubs and bats and shovels at them, every which way. Bones crunched. Rats squealed and screamed. Blood spurted in the air. Flashlights captured the carnage in pools of bright illumination. The men didn't speak. They merely grunted as one after another the rats were chased down. It was like a primitive battle for territory, engaged in by two primordial species only one of which was going to survive.

  By the end, Anfisa Telyegin's yard was littered with the blood, bones, and bodies of the enemy. Any rats that escaped had done so to either the McKennas' or the Gilberts' yard, and they would be dealt with there by professionals. As to the land that those few remaining rats had left behind in their flight… It was like the scene of any other disaster: not a place that can be cleaned up quickly and certainly not a place that would soon be forgotten.

  But the men had promised their wives that the job would be done without signs left behind, so they did their best to scrape up broken furry bodies and wash the ivy and the outside of the chicken coop free of blood. They discovered in doing this that there had never been chickens in the coop in the first place and what this implied about Anfisa Telyegin's daily delivery of corn to the coop… Indeed what this implied about Anfisa Telyegin herself….

  It was Billy Hart who said, “She's nuts,” and Beau Downey who suggested, “We gotta get her out of the goddamn neighborhood.” But before either of these comments could be mooted in any way, the decrepit front gate of 1420 opened and Anfisa herself stepped into the yard.

  The plan hadn't been thought out enough to allow for midterm exams that ended class earlier than usual that night. It also hadn't been thought out enough to consider what a line of eight men tramping through ivy was likely to do to that greenery. So Anfisa Telyegin took one look at the mess in her yard—sufficiently lit by the streetlight in front of her house—and she gave a horrified cry that could be heard all the way to the bus stop.

  She cried out not so much because she loved her ivy and mourned the exfoliation brought about by eight pairs of boot-shod feet. Rather she cried out because she knew intuitively what that trodden-down ivy meant.

  “My God!” she keened. “No! My God!”

  There was no way out of her yard save through the front, so the men emerged one by one. They found Anfisa kneeling in the midst of the trampled ivy, her arms clutched across her body, swaying side to side.

  “No, no!” she cried, and she began to weep. “You do not understand what you have done!”

  The men were not equipped to handle this. Clubbing rats, yes. That was right up their alley. But offering comfort to a stranger whose suffering made no sense to them… ? That was quite another matter. Good God, they'd done the mad woman a favor, hadn't they? Jesus. So they'd mutilated a little bit of ivy in the process. Ivy grew like weeds, especially in this yard. It would all be back to normal in a month.

  “Get Willow,” Scott McKenna said as “I'll get Leslie,” Owen Gilbert muttered. And the rest of them dispersed as quickly as they could, with the furtive air of little boys who've had perhaps too much fun doing something for which they will soon be punished.

  Willow and Leslie came on the run from Rose Hart's house. They found Anfisa weeping and swaying, beating her fists against her breasts.

  “Can you get her inside?” Scott McKenna asked his wife.

  Owen Gilbert said to Leslie, “Jeez, make her see it's just ivy, Les. It'll grow back. And it had to be done.”

  Willow, for whom empathy was actually something of a curse, was herself fighting back an onslaught of emotion in the presence of the Russian woman's anguish. She hadn't expected to feel anything other than relief upon the disposal of the rats, so the guilt and the sorrow she was experiencing confused her mightily. She cleared her throat and said to Leslie, “Will you… ?” and bent to take Anfisa's arm. “Miss Telyegin,” she said, “it's all right. Really. It'll be all right. Will you come inside please? May we make you some tea?”

  With Leslie helping, she got the sobbing woman to her feet and as the rest of the neighborhood wives began to gather on Rose Hart's front lawn, Willow and Leslie mounted the front steps of 1420 and helped Anfisa open the door.

  Scott followed. After what he'd seen in the chicken coop, he wasn't about to let his wife walk into that house without him. God only knew what they would find inside. But his imagination had fed him inaccurate images. For inside Anfisa Telyegin's house, there was not a sign of anything as much as a hair being out of place. He saw this, felt ashamed of what he'd been anticipating, and excused himself, leaving Leslie and Willow to comfort Anfisa where and how they could.

  Leslie put water on to boil. Willow looked for cups and tea. And Anfisa sat at the kitchen table, shoulders shaking as she sobbed, “Forgive. Please forgive.”

  “Oh, Miss Telyegin,” Willow murmured. “These things happen sometimes. There's nothing to forgive.”

  “You trusted me,” Anfisa wept. “I am so sorry for what I have done. I shall sell. I shall move. I shall find—”

  “There's no need for that,” Willow said. “We don't want you to move. We just want you to be safe on your property. We all want to be safe.”

  “What I've done to you,” Anfisa cried. “Not once, but twice. You cannot forgive.”

  It was the but twice that caused Leslie Gilbert to realize uneasily that, hard as it was to accept, the Russian woman and Willow McKenna were actually talking at cross-purposes. She said, “Hey, Will…” in a monitory tone just as Anfisa said, “My dearest little friends. All of you gone.”

  Which was when Willow, feeling a chill run over her, finally climbed aboard the locomotive of comprehension.

  She looked at Leslie. “Does she mean… ?”

  “Yeah, Will. I think she does.”

  It was only when Anfisa Telyegin posted a for sale sign in front of her house on Napier Lane two weeks later that Willow McKenna managed to get the complete story from the immigrant woman. She'd gone to 1420 bearing a plate of Christmas cookies as a peace offering and unlike the previous occasion of the drop-dead brownies, this time Anfisa opened the door. She beckoned Willow inside with a nod of her head. She took her into the kitchen and made her tea. It seemed that the passage of two weeks had been sufficient to allow the older woman not only time to grieve but also time to decide to bring Willow a partial step into her world.

  “Twenty years,” she said as they sat at the table.
I would not become who they wanted me to be, and I would not be silent. So they sent me away. Lubyanka first, do you know what that is? Run by KGB? Yes? A dreadful place. And from there, Siberia.”

  Willow said, “Prison?” in a whisper. “You've been in prison?”

  “Prison would be nice. Concentration camp, this was. Oh, I've heard your people laugh about this place Siberia. To them it is a joke: the salt mines in Siberia. I have heard this. But to be there. With no one. Year after year. To be forgotten because one's lover was the important voice, the voice that counted, while until he died one was merely a helpmate, never taken seriously by anyone till the authorities took one seriously. It was a terrible time.”

  “You were… ?” What did they call it? Willow tried to remember. “A dissident?”

  “A voice they didn't like. Who would not be still. Who taught and wrote until they came to fetch her. And then it was Lubyanka. And then it was Siberia. And there in that cell, the little ones came. I was afraid at first. The filth. The disease. I drove them off. But still they came. They came and they watched me. And then I saw. They wanted very little and they were afraid too. So I offered them bits. Some bread. A sliver of meat when I had it. And so they stayed and I wasn't alone.”

  “The rats…” Willow tried to keep the aversion from her voice. “They were your friends.”

  “To this day,” she replied.

  “But, Miss Telyegin,” Willow said, “you're an educated woman. You've read. You've studied. You must know rats carry diseases.”

  “They were good to me.”

  “Yes. I see you believe that. But that was then, when you were in prison and desperate. You don't need rats now. Let people take their place.”

  Anfisa Telyegin lowered her head. “Invasion and killing,” she said. “Some things cannot be forgotten.”

 
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