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. 

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