6

I was talking to a friend – who shall remain nameless unless she wants me to out her – about how much easier it is to write about the gross, scary, sad, or even funny parts of parenting, and she said:
“You can’t be public with things that bring you joy on the internet.”

She’s right, too. Especially with parenting. Any time I have the urge to talk about Orion and how happy he makes me, a little alarm bell goes off in the back of my brain. 

Don’t say it like that. Someone will think it’s a dig against working mothers. Or bottle-feeders. Or women who had a natural childbirth. Or, or, or, on and on. People really are snarky assholes. 

But this is my life. If I leave out all the details and make my stories so vague they fit any lived experience of American motherhood, they’re kinda shitty stories. 

One of the reasons I write journal-type stuff is so I’ll remember it, really actually remember the good parts and the terrible parts, later. There’s no point in writing about what a cheerful little person Orion is – I’ll remember that anyway. 

So. Here’s something. It’s sweet, or at least I think it’s sweet. I’m not telling it to try to exclude your experience as a mother, or father, or pet owner, or Childfree vegan, or whatever your life experience is, so don’t shit all over it by pointing out how much harder it was for you, thanks. 

One of Orion’s nicknames is Little Smaug. You know how when Bilbo is sneaking around Smaug’s lair, and Smaug’s sleeping with an eye cracked open, and even though Bilbo is invisible, he still freezes like a rabbit when that baleful glare roams over him? Well, Orion is a pretty good sleeper now, but when he was tiny, he wasn’t. The only way he’d fall asleep was if someone was holding him, bonus points if there was a boob in his mouth. 

So I’d get all propped up, get the tired, hangry baby latched on the boob and tucked in under a blanket, and I’d pat his butt and wait. One angry little pale blue eye would glare up at me as he nursed, but gradually, it would start to blink shut. Like Bilbo, I’d start to wonder if I was going to get away with it, and maybe I’d quit patting and flip open a book on my phone, or try to pick up a bite of food with my free hand, or lean my head back against the wall and nap. 

But lo! Smaug never sleeps, just rests uneasy on his pile of treasure! The little eye would pop open. How dare I do the thing! Shrieks of dismay are sure to follow. 

I’d stop doing the wrong thing and go back to patting, and the little dragon would gradually calm back down. His eye would close again, he’d drift off toward slumber, and I’d start to relax again. 

The milky blue eye has turned brown, and the little dragon falls asleep much easier these days, but we still call him Little Smaug. We are such irredeemable nerds. 

5

The rat-thing is getting novelish. Hmm. 

How do you feel about taking up your calling as a healer? Please tell us in a short essay, referencing at least three times in your life when you’ve acted as a healer or facilitator of healing. 

Below the question, the cursor blinked in the little text box. Rebekah rubbed her eyes and picked up the coffee cup beside her laptop. The latte tasted heavenly, but more importantly, the caffeine might help clear her tired mind. 

“Brianna? Am I a facilitator of healing?” she called. 

A purple-streaked head popped out around the side of the big espresso machine. Rebekah’s best friend scrunched her pierced eyebrows together. “Are you kidding me?” she said. “What kind of question is that?”

“I wish!” Rebekah said. “It’s supposed to be the best massage school around. And its competitive” — she waved her arms in exaggerated air quotes — “so there’s an application process, but healing facilitation? I don’t even!”

“What’s the next question?” Brianna asked. 

Before Rebekah could answer, the bells over the door tinkled and Stan Marsh, the local Fish and Wildlife representative, walked in. He was tall, blonde, and a little doughy, somehow remaining pale despite an outdoors job. His earnest face lit up when he spotted Brianna. He was easily ten years older than the young barista, and his crush on her was legendary in both duration and unlikelihood. He hardly seemed to mind the one-sidedness. 

“Hi, Stan,” Rebekah called. 

Out of Stan’s line of sight, Brianna rolled her eyes at her friend, but when she ducked around the espresso machine her smile was pleasant enough. “Morning, Stan. How’s things?”

“You girls will not believe how weird my day already is. Caramel mocha with an extra shot, please.”

“Calling us ‘girls’ isn’t the way to anyone’s heart, Stan,” Rebekah warned. But a poacher story sounded better than describing her spirituality, so she slammed the laptop shut and carried her cup to the counter. 

“I got flagged down on the edge of town by this guy who lives out at Bear Glen. He’s got a little dog and a dead, uh, a dead rat-thing in the car with him. Spends a good five minutes telling me this story about how the dog flushed a rat out of the barbecue grill, except it turned out to be this rat-thing, and the dog killed it but it bit the dog and poisoned it. Then he drops the dang corpse out the window and drives off to the vet. I threw it in the bed of the truck – it smells real peculiar – and came to brighten up my day with your heavenly brew, Bree, before I go fill out some forms.” 

Brianna, intrigued despite herself, pushed the paper cup across the counter and took Stan’s card. “What do you mean a rat thing?”

“And what do you mean it smells peculiar?” Rebekah said. “It smells dead, right? You do this every day, Stan.” 

Stan tucked his card back in an overflowing leather wallet. “It’s just weird, ladies. I can still say ladies, right? Because you are both ladies?”

Brianna couldn’t hide her eye-roll this time. “Whatever, Stan. Is it one of those cryptid things?”

“I want to see,” Rebekah said. 

“Me too,” said Brianna. 

***

Rebekah tentatively poked the black corpse with a bamboo stake. She’d grabbed it from a planter beside the door as the entire population of the coffee shop (currently five people) had trooped out to see the rat-thing. 

“It doesn’t look anything like a rat, Stan,” Brianna said. She sounded reproachful. 

“Well that’s not what I called it, dear. It’s what that guy called it. He thought it was a rat in the grill, but why there’d be a rat in the grill, I don’t know. I’d call it a facehugger if you asked me.”

“Eatin’ the grease off them lava rocks,” Old George said. He’d been outside, nursing his one free refill and smoking underneath the no-smoking sign, when Stan and the women had emerged. “Them rats eat anything.”

“But it’s not a rat!” Brianna complained. 

A facehugger, Rebekah thought. Like from Aliens. Gross. She tuned out the bickering and flipped the corpse over, inspecting it. 

The rat-thing was about the size of a large rat, or a small terrier, but that was where any resemblance to a mammal ended. It was segmented, almost like an armadillo, but instead of pebbly grayish skin, it had shiny black overlapping scales. It had the head of a possum, pale grey with eyes set narrowly together and a small nose. They were glazed milky white in death, and Rebekah was glad it didn’t appear to be looking at her. 

It had six legs, each ending in a paw with two claws facing forward and one facing backward, like a chicken’s foot with too few toes. It did have a tail, but instead of the narrow whiplike tail of a rat or opossum, the rat-thing’s tail was a powerful wedge of muscle. She poked it with her bamboo stick. 

“Hey, shut up, look at this. Is that a stinger?” she asked. 

The others quit bickering and looked at the tip of the rat-thing’s tail. A bulbous sac flopped at the end, narrowing to a sharp tip.

“Looks like a scorpion. I used to live in Sedona and they’d get in your shoes, stung like a wasp if you forgot to bang your shoes out,” Marisa said. A plump fifty-something with deep Clairol-crimson hair, she’d been getting out of her Honda Civic when the rest of the coffee shop had gathered around the DFW Ford Ranger. 

“Scorpion ain’t got no face, though,” George said. 

“Scorpions have claws, too,” Brianna added. 

Marisa pursed her lips. “I didn’t say it was a scorpion. I just said it looks a little like a scorpion stinger.” 

A cryptid, thought Rebekah. Another previously undiscovered creature, pushed out into the open by humans. Countdown til someone mentions climate change in three, two, one–

“Poor thing. It’s the global warming, pushing it out of its nesting ground,” Brianna said. 

“There ain’t no global warming, this is a natural part of California life,” George snapped reflexively. 

Rebekah tuned the others out again. She sniffed the end of the stake she’d been prodding the rat-thing with. Stan was right; it did smell peculiar. Musty, sweet, with a sort of acrid twinge at the back of her throat. 

She was suddenly sad for the poor dead rat-thing. It probably had come out of the hills, so desperate for food that it was eating grease off some modern mountain man’s barbecue grill. She dropped the stake behind the planter as she headed back inside. 

Rebekah decided that she wasn’t going to get anything else done on the massage school application today, and she needed to go in to work early. She scooped her laptop and its umbilicals into her messenger bag and headed back out, skirting the argument by the truck. She heard Stan’s voice booming over the others, something about El Niño, and she grinned to herself. Life in the Northern California mountains had certain predictable rhythms to it. No discussion stayed on topic for more than ten minutes before metamorphosing into climate change, natural cycles, and the elusive El Niño.  

Rebekah trotted quickly across the highway. Home was a quarter mile up the road, but she thought she’d stop by Doc Burns’s van and see how the rat-thing-killing dog was doing. 

4

They’re not all going to be fiction. I guess this is an essay? 
More fiction tomorrow. I think the rat-things may be a longer story after all. 

I clean a lot more than I used to. I don’t mean to brag, oooh my house is cleaner than yours – depending on where you look, it’s spotless or it’s a junk heap with a spider living in the dog-hair dust bunny. But I spend a lot more time cleaning and tidying and wondering why I’m cleaning and tidying. 

Part of it’s because I have a nice new space, without all the clutter that psychologically derails many a good cleaning spree. You know what I mean? You’re gonna really clean the kitchen, but before you can clean under the burners you have to make space for the grates on the counters, and to make space you have to put up the flour and find somewhere for the can opener to live, and my god there’s so much dust on those spoons, and before you know it you’re exhausted, the kitchen looks worse than when you started, and there are still crumbs all over the burners. But so far, my space is mostly uncluttered (and I’m fighting hard to keep it that way.)

Part of the ceaseless cleaning, of course, is because Orion is crawling everywhere, putting everything in his mouth. But I’m really not that worried about what he eats. I think it’s really important to let him crawl around outside, and he’s going to get more germs and literal dirt in his mouth from the outside than he could possibly get from my unswept living room floor, so. 

Part of the cleaning is just the particular balance of hormones soaking my brain right now, as a nursing mom. I’ve noticed that my visceral response to a lot of things has drastically changed. There’s baby slobber everywhere and I don’t care. Baby snot doesn’t even register. Makes sense that I’m inherently a little more inclined to scrub the applesauce off the floor, right?

But I’ve recently realized it’s just that the countertops are basically the only thing I can control. My husband goes to work, yells and cajoles other adults, gets different workplace processes implemented. Me? I open doors and cans for the cat. I refuse to feed the dog as much as she wants, or let her eat off my plate, or let her lie in the kitchen, or let her knock the baby down and take his food – but she never stops trying. She’s a middle-aged Lab; she’s never going to stop trying. And Orion! Babies just rage around doing whatever they want, and parents either fool themselves about it or accept they can’t make the kid do a damn thing. 

All I can do is run and clean the house. 
My dad got sober maybe thirty years ago, and I grew up with a lot of AA slogans. I’ve read a lot of on-point criticisms of AA over the years, and I certainly don’t think it’s the only road to Rome (or that Rome is the only place to be, if you follow my strained metaphor), but it’s been a useful philosophy for me for most of my life. Anyway, he’d say that you’re powerless over people, places, and things – meaning that the only thing you can change is your reaction to things. We can argue about definitions of each of those words, and you can come up with increasingly implausible scenarios, but it’s not a deterministic rule. It’s just a handy phrase that I try to keep in mind. The only thing I can change is my reaction. The only thing I can really control right now is whether or not I sweep the living room today. 

(If you happen to read this and you’re in a really bad place, please remember that walking the fuck away from an abusive relationship is a perfectly acceptable reaction.) 

3

Orion and I were walking to get the mail and stopped to talk to a guy who lives further back up in the woods and I honestly don’t know, do you have such weird conversations? Cause I do, all the time, I’m just walking along minding my own business and next thing I know someone is telling me about his dogs. Couple of embellishments but this is largely as I heard it.

Beauty knew there was something in the grill as soon as we walked out onto the deck. I had been to the post office and when I came home she was going nuts in the back sun room. I put my package down – a box of socks from Amazon, funny what sticks in your head – and walked back there to see what got into her. 

She’s a Jack Rat, see, a Jack Russell crossed with a Rat Terrier, and she’s real smart. Not too hyper, I mean, she’s a terrier, sure, but nothing like her momma, Beatrice, she was the Jack Russell, whooo she’d go harder than a meth cook. Anyway, so Beauty was sure there was something on the deck. Once she got me back in the sunroom she went straight back to the back door and stood there, quivering, glancing up at me and then up at the door knob, just in case I had an attack of the stupids and forgot what she wanted. 

I asked her, what’s wrong, girl? Is it a rat? Is there a rat out there? Getting her all hyped up. I thought it was a tree rat, see, one of them big things looks like a squirrel got its tail skinned. They’re fast, but she’s faster, she’s killed a couple of ’em. She knew what I was doing, but she didn’t go crazy like she usually does, hopping up and down barking at the door. She just stood there, steady, trembling, waiting. 

Well, I figured she didn’t have to play my game to deserve her chance to have fun, so I opened the door and she shot out and something in the grill thumped as it hit the inside wall.

It was one of them propane grills, a big, nice four-jet one. Had lava rocks to distribute the heat evenly, a bun warmer in the lid, little burner on the side to keep your bar-be-que sauce hot, bottle opener on the other side. I paid damn near four hundred dollars for it. Such a nice grill. But anyway, it went thump and Beauty starts darting back and forth under it, claws scrabbling on the deck boards. I couldn’t work out how a rat got in there, but I didn’t really stop to think about it. I didn’t want a faceful of rodent so I grabbed a broom propped by the back door and used that to flip the lid back. 

Something black and shiny and fast popped out of there and I had just a second to think, hey, that ain’t no rat I ever seen before Beauty was on it, snarls bubbling out of her like a tea kettle, and it hissed and they were rolling around on the deck together. 

I flipped the broom around, held it like a spear, see, but I’m not gonna lie, I couldn’t get a shot at the thing because that little dog was all wrapped up in it. I could see the legs, and that long, thick tail, and I saw the fangs when it hauled off and bit Beauty in the face. She shrieked and let go of where she was worrying at it and it was like the son of a bitch levitated, it just went flying across the deck so fast. It hit the corner of the house and started up it, got chest-high to me before I could blink. Beauty got herself flipped back on her feet and she jumped like I’ve never seen, straight off the ground flat-footed and she hit that thing six feet off the ground. 

They came tumbling down together but something was different, and it took me a minute to realize that the thing had been shrieking the whole time and now it wasn’t shrieking. See, terriers, they’re vermin killers. They’re not big enough to grab the big vermin and shake them and snap their necks, not like a real big dog can, so what they do is grab their prey and squeeze their lungs and suffocate them. And that’s what Beauty was doing, now that she had it by the right spot she wasn’t gonna let go. 

And she wouldn’t let go, not for damn near twenty minutes. I went and got the shotgun – it had birdshot but I loaded it with buckshot, I wasn’t taking any damn chances with that weird looking son of a bitch, but she wouldn’t come off it til long after we both knew it was dead. 

So there you go, Warden. I dunno what the hell it is. Like a goddamn armadillo crossed with a rat, but that face almost looks human. Beauty looks like she don’t feel too hot, so I might watch those teeth for poison maybe. We’re on the way to see Doc K and get this little girl patched up, so if you don’t have any more questions right now?

  

2

I don’t know if I’ll keep going with Rebekah- we’ll see what happens tomorrow, I guess. I’ve got a few ideas for her, but I’ve got a few different ideas too. 

I really just wanted to give her the satisfaction of stealing her cheating boyfriend’s bike and riding away from him in triumph. 

The door jingled as it slammed shut behind Rebekah. Townspeople unconsciously veered out of her path as she marched across the cracked concrete. Caleb was leaning against the ailing Vespa, lips pursed. 
“Did you get it?” he asked. 

“Oh I got it, all right,” Rebekah snapped. “I got a clue, finally.”
She shoved the blue backpack into Caleb’s arms and snatched up her orange one. He gawped at her, head cocked to the side like a dog hearing an unfamiliar sound. 

“I don’t know why I ever thought it was a good idea to take my entire life savings and go on a cross country trip with a loser like you,” she said. Rebekah yanked her backpack on, then snatched up her helmet. 

“Emily was right!” she yelled, voice muffled by the protective foam and plastic. She shoved the visor up and pointed down at Caleb, who sat frozen on the sidewalk. People pumping gas and waiting for the bus had stopped pretending to not listen and were openly staring. 

“She told me that you were low-life cheating scum and I should’ve listened to her! I’m taking the Kawasaki, Caleb, and you can call whatever whore you fucked last night to bring you your duct tape!” 

Rebekah finished her rant at the top of her lungs and swung her leg over the bike. She turned the key and had an instant of panic. Please, please, please, she chanted mentally. The bike hesitated, sized up the situation, and decided obeying its new mistress was the smartest course of action. The engine coughed to life and Rebekah bit back the urge to pump her fist in the air. 

“Baby, wait, you can’t just leave me here,” Caleb pleaded. His blue eyes were panicked. 

“Think of what a great story this will make when you’re fishing for your next girlfriend!” she chirped. “Bye!”

Rebekah kicked the stand up, twisted the throttle, and pulled out onto the main road.