Reece woke to the sound of tiny feet scurrying across the heart pine ceiling boards. He had been fighting a month-long battle with the unrelenting hoard of rodent invaders in his attic. Since moving back into the family homestead, Reece had pulled all the insulation from the attic in hopes that removing any nesting materials would deter the onslaught taking place. He felt sure this would have worked, but to no avail. The twilight brought with it another assault of the enemy.
Reece thought back to his childhood, seeing the occasional field mouse, but only remembering one or two occasions of rats getting into the house. The rat, as he recalled, preferred the sprawling country acreage, and stuck to timber piles, straw, and other debris left from the day to day toils of the farm.
Reece's attention returned to the attic as the endless banter of orders barked from the one he referred to as 'The General'. The General had become loquacious over the last couple of weeks, and had Reece learned just how loud he could be after removing the insulation. He'd have left it for another week or so in hopes the poison would take effect, but now it seemed Reece had supplied The General with a bullhorn of sorts. The heart pine ceiling offered an acoustic-enhancing quality to the attic activity Reese hadn't planned on.
Reece turned onto his right side, pulling his pillow up tightly around the back of his head as he stared at the alarm clock. It was two-thirty in the morning, and his make-shift ear muffs, though uncomfortable, at least somewhat dulled the clamor taking place above his head. Just as he began to doze off again, Reece was startled awake so suddenly that his body rolled off the edge of the bed slammed hard to the floor.
Loud snaps, pops, bangs, and cracks rang out, followed by the sound not of furred paws, but of the kicking and scraping claws of dying rats, and then the scurrying of a frenzied exodus from the space overhead. Reece jumped to his feet shouting, "TAKE THAT, GENERAL! I GOT YOU THIS TIME YOU S-O-B!"
In a corner of the attic, The General reluctantly withdrew his surviving troops for a moment. He sat upright on his tail sniffing the air and listening to the jeers from below. As the scent of blood and death wafted in the coolness of the night air blowing through the gable vents on either side of the roof, The General shrilled furious orders, and from below, it sounded for a moment as if the horde had returned to drag multiple heavy objects across the attic floor. Then, blessed silence. Reece returned to his bed, where he lay as a welcome hush fell across the house.
At daybreak, Reece awoke to the sound of Red, his dad's prize rooster, crowing in the yard. Towards the end of his father's life, Reece often wondered if his father had been more proud of Red than of Reece, mainly because Red had stuck around. His father had always dreamed of him and Reece running the family farm together, but Reece chose his own path. Now, the son regretted not at least attempting some kind of partnership with his dad.
Reece got up, still weary from the previous night's events, and stumbled his way to the kitchen where fixed himself a cup of hot coffee and sat down at the small kitchen table. He thought about how he was sitting in the same chair where he would watch his father drink his first cup of morning coffee before heading out onto the farm for daily chores.
Reece contentedly took a sip of his own coffee, thinking it had tasted as smooth and rich as the aroma had been as it brewed and how fitting the name 'Carolina Morning' was. These were his first few weeks back home in South Carolina in years, and he had found the coffee an irresistible purchase from a local shop in town, Coastal Coffee Roasters.
Reece was the sentimental type. As he finished his coffee, he began to reflect on days spent with his father on the farm. He remembered how people used to refer to him as Old Man Brown, even before he was actually an old man. He had helped his father for years, early on school mornings and during the summer, to collect dozens of brown free- range chicken eggs. He laughed to himself, remembering how disgusting he thought it was to eat brown eggs. Now it seemed everybody wanted organic, free-range eggs. Even that coffee shop was one of his late father's customers.
Reece kicked his chair back and stood to his feet. He knew he had better clean out the attic of dead vermin before starting the more typical farm chores. He grabbed his father's thermos and filled it with the rest of the coffee from the pot, sat it on the table, and headed down the hallway to the attic access.
The old hinges squeaked eerily as the pull-down door descended into the hall. Reece flipped the light switch for the attic and after blinking a few times, the light steadied. He climbed the ladder reminding himself where he had placed each trap the day before.
Reece's head reached the platform, and as he started to climb through the opening, a pile of rat carcasses were stacked directly in front of his face.
"HOLY CRAP!" he exclaimed as he leapt backwards on the ladder, striking the back of his head against the far side of the opening before falling to the floor below.
Reece grabbed frantically at the back of his head, checking for blood, finding only a huge knot beneath his fingers. After lying there for a couple of minutes, he sat up and then attempted to stand. Pain shot through his leg upward from his right ankle that had apparently twisted as he fell. The throbbing from the back of his head was so intense, he hadn't even felt the soreness of his ankle until trying to stand on it.
"Freaking General, I hate your furry little ass!"
Reece just knew that The General had piled them there to exact what revenge a rat could for having suffered the murder of his companions. He thought how crazy that sounded, even to him, before rationalizing they must have been the ones who ate the poison, and must have died attempting to escape through the closed door.
He tested his ankle gingerly, taking a few steps forward and then back.
"Sore, but good enough to use," he assured himself before reaching for the work gloves he had tucked in his back pocket.
Reece slipped his hands into the leather gloves, remembering how they had felt all those years before. The old man had kept them lying on his dresser, right where Reece had left them the day he moved out. He smiled thinking about how sentimental his dad must have been and wondered if his father had ever stepped in the room to think about him after Reece had left home.
Reece headed back to the kitchen to grab a trash bag, knowing now there was a definite mess to deal with on the attic landing. He reached beneath the sink where the trash bags were located and opened the door only to gag in disgust as he found rat feces deposited all through the cabinet.
Reece grabbed his cell and searched for local exterminators. Lucky enough to get a quick appointment, he sat at the kitchen table icing his tender ankle. Following that recovery time, sitting at the table and googling rat infestations, he returned to the attic steps, this time carefully favoring the twisted ankle. He shivered for just a second as he stuck his head through the opening, trying to avoid retching at the mass of dead rat bodies even as he filled the garbage bag with the remains.
Once the landing was cleared, Reece clambered up into the loft. He peered around, assessing what he could, using the light from both the bulb and what spilled through the gable ends and eaves. He cautiously stepped from rafter to rafter, making sure not to step through the pine ceiling until he located all the traps. To his surprise, they were all empty, sprung but empty. Trailing from each trap was a now dried trail of blood tracking straight for the landing, where he had found the corpses.
"I knew that son of a gun did that on purpose." Reese paused before declaring as loudly as he could, "This means war!"
"Well, I just came for an inspection, but if you want a war, you have one." Reece heard a voice through the vented eave.
"HA-HA! No, not you, these stupid rats! Hold on.
I'll be right down," Reece replied.
Reece eased his way across the rafters and just as tentatively down the ladder and across to the front door on the other side of the living room. Upon opening the door, he found a rather portly older man, with thinning brown hair, wearing a grey jumpsuit, and sporting the name tag Ralph. He smiled to himself thinking of how much the man resembled John Goodman in his role in 'Arachnophobia'.
"Hey, my name is Reece Brown. I'm the one that phoned you Ralph. I just recently moved back into the old place."
"I figured you were the one who called when I heard you yelling from the garret. The name's Ralph, Ralph McEwed, and when it comes to pests, they're all screwed. I came up with that one myself."
"Nice," Reece replied, thinking it was a bit corny, then asked, "Hey, this really has nothing to do with bugs, but has anyone ever told you that you look like..."
"Yup, all the time, but I'm not even related to Matt Damon."
"Oh yeah, the resemblance is uncanny," Reece lied. "Well, Ralph, the reason I've called you here today is I've got rats, loads of 'em."
"Rats can be a nasty bunch of boogers and if left untreated, they can quickly take over."
"Tell me about it..."
"Glad you asked. Rats have an amazing ability to move in and colonize a structure, especially if it's been abandoned for any length of time. Was this here house vacant for any substantial length of time before you moved back in?"
"I don't think so. It was only about a month between my dad passing and me moving back home."
"Well, it doesn't take long for an infestation to begin. If you don't mind, I'd like to start by working my way through the interior of the house, then the attic, before it gets hot, and lastly the crawl space, since that's the most likely place for them to be colonizing."
"Sure thing. Follow me."
After a complete and thorough search of the attic, the crawlspace, and the inside of the house, Ralph reappeared in the living room, with a puzzled look on his face.
"Well, I've searched high and low for any sign of an infestation Mr. Brown..."
Being called Mr. Brown rekindled memories of Reece's father. It was a few seconds before he understood just what Ralph was trying so hard to convey.
"So, the rats aren't living in your house, your crawl space, or your garret. It appears the little boogers are coming in raiding parties. I was able to find a few possible points of entry, and I did my best to secure those areas. I put out a bunch of traps as well as, and baited any prime areas with poison. If those critters want war they'll have to get past all my defenses first," Ralph boasted. He then dropped his hands to his waist and puffed out his chest, as if genuinely proud of his accomplishments.
"Well, Ralph, I gotta hand it to you brother. I wasn't expecting it to be that easy, but I thank you."
"Easy?... Sir, this ain't over yet! We've got to take out the head honcho first, El Capitan, if you know what I mean?"
"I call him 'The General,' and yes I know who you're talking about. He's the one barking all the orders."
"That would be him. Well, if you don't mind, I'd like to look around the property for a while and see what I can dig up."
"I know what you mean Ralph. Take as much time as you need."
Ralph seemed to get a primal gleam in his eye like a stalker preparing mentally for the hunt. After standing there for a few seconds, he turned and darted out the front door.
Reece, noticing his ankle had started to swell, hobbled back to the kitchen and prepared another ice pack for it. He then made his way carefully back to the family room, where he propped his foot up in the recliner and applied the ice pack to his ankle.
It didn't take long before the lack of sleep and the excitement from the previous night took effect. Reece slipped from consciousness, enjoying the peace found within the arms of his father's recliner. After what seemed like only a few minutes of slumber, he was roused suddenly by a loud shrill. The room had darkened with the setting sun. He stood and tested the ankle, still wet from the melted ice bag, then limped over to the front window, peered through the blinds, and took note that the sun hadn't fallen completely. Rather it had just reached the tree tops outside. He noticed Ralph's van still parked on the front lawn and a feeling of concern welled up. He was unsure what had woken him, but he feared Ralph had possibly hurt himself somewhere on the farm.
Reece made his way back to the kitchen, grabbed the flashlight from the top of the fridge, slipped on the boots that were sitting by the back door, and headed out into the back yard. He peered hawkishly around the fields for movement, noticing the barn door was tightly closed.
"Ralph... Ralph, are you okay buddy? Where are you?"
Reece listened closely for a reply, but the awkward and unwelcome silence rang loudly within his ears. Then from the wood-line at the back of the field, he saw a small flicker of light before hearing another shrill.
The sound was deafening in the silence and pierced Reece to his core. He stepped back into the house and grabbed the twelve-gauge shotgun leaning by the back door. Reece's father had always kept it there for easy access in case a varmint got into the hen house.
He stepped down from the back steps and made his way towards the light. The sun had now fallen below the tree tops, offering nothing more than an ominous orange glow behind strings of grey clouds. Reece knew it would be pitch black once he entered the woods.
It seemed to take forever reaching the back of the field. His ankle was throbbing by this point, but Reece had no choice but to ignore the pain. He could see the light was about twenty yards or so into the woods.
"Ralph...Ralph...You in there, buddy? Can you hear me?"
Reece could make out the faintest sound of a gurgling cough and then a single garbled word: "Don't..." followed by an eerie silence.
Reece reached for his cell phone, and then angrily remembered he had left it sitting by the recliner. He turned on his flashlight and slid sheepishly into the woods. He searched the ground for snakes, thinking Ralph may have been bitten and the culprit could still be there.
There was a small game trail leading into the area where the light seemed to be coming from, and it looked like a sort of cave-like opening. Reece made his way even more slowly towards the light, where he could now make out what appeared to be Ralph lying on the ground.
"Ralph, hey Ralph," whispered Reece. There was no reply.
Reece slowly stepped though into the open space. Ralph was lying in a pool of his own blood, his clothing torn and shredded to pieces. Remembering his father's tales of panthers, Reece removed the gun from safety and readied himself for a confrontation.
The opening seemed to be about a twenty-foot circle. Reece, with the light still penned on Ralph's corpse, could make out that aside from the trail in, the opening was surrounded by trees. He listened carefully for any movement. There was none. He shone the flashlight on the ground first for any eyes that might have been watching him, slowly raising the beam so as to look beyond the opening, still easing towards Ralph and noticing Ralph's cell attached to his belt. Reece just hoped that there was service when he reached the body.
Reece knelt to reach for the phone, sickened at the amount of blood and the sheer gore of what lay before him. As he took one hand from the forestock of the shotgun, he heard a rustling in the trees behind him. Reece spun and aimed the light into the trees towards where he had heard the sound.
Reece could see now what he had first thought to be tangled mats of pine straw was actually a large oval structure, resembling a massive weaverbird nest. Then he heard it, the all too familiar sound of his enemy. Reece raised his flashlight towards the sound of The General barking orders, and he could now clearly make out the ominous glowing orange eyes of his adversary.
Reece raised the shotgun, fired, and blew the nest apart with a single shot. Rat carcasses tumbled all around the base of the tree. A few rats, untouched by the blast, scurried towards him. Reece, unloaded on the approaching soldiers, quickly disposing of the onslaught, and scanned the mat-covered ground for more invaders.
"Yes!" Reece celebrated. "I got you this time!"
The trees around Reece were dimly lit by the edges of the flashlight's beam, which Reece now focused back on Ralph's cell. Reece froze in horror as he saw within his peripheral vision another set of open eyes, and then another, and still another. Reese gradually raised his light to reveal that he was surrounded by nests, just like the first, each one now aglow with dozens of eyes.
Plip... plop... thud... thump...
Rats began falling from the nests in every direction. Reece pumped the shotgun, only to hear an empty click... nothing. The chamber was empty. In a panic, Reece dropped his flashlight and grabbed the barrel of the shotgun with both hands. He limped hurriedly towards the opening, swinging the gun like a golf club, sending rats flying to either side of him.
He had nearly reached the opening when he felt the first bite shoot pain up from his swollen ankle, then more and more bites. Reece fought without success, falling in agony to the numberless attackers. As he collapsed under the sheer number and weight of the maniacal predators, he realized this had been a trap, a trap set specifically for him, and Ralph, poor guy, had been the bait. He lay there unable to move, conscious, and reeling in agony as piece by piece of him was voraciously consumed.
Tears fell as he lay chest down on the ground, his head bent, his eyes peering off to the right. Before completely losing consciousness, Reece observed the largest of the rats slowly creeping towards him, stopping just short of his face, and propping himself up onto his hind legs. The huge rat, dirty brown with a small patch of grey around his chin, sniffed the air left to right, as if to find some glory in the scent of blood now pouring from Reece's limp body. He dropped down to all fours, and looked deep into Reece's eyes. It was The General, victorious.