Rats do not like pepper spray.
Growing up in the sterile shine of a stainless-steel suburban society, rats were never the odious underworld creatures of dark subconscious fear. No, rats were whiskery playmates with hilariously large balls. They entertained us for hours with their surprising intelligence and we would sneak them to school in our coat pockets, passing them back and forth under our desks with sticky hands.
Cockroaches once shared a similar dismissal from the realm of the repulsive. Though never cute or pet-like, roaches were not loathsome. We remained cordial.
"It's just a beetle," I told my new roommate as I trapped the first living roach I'd ever seen under a pint glass and tossed him out into the yard.
But he returned and invited his friends and they invited theirs and the compassion I once believed I felt for all creatures slipped away. I developed a pathological bloodlust for the insects and for the pop of a soft body squeezing out through an exoskeleton. Nights find me creeping like a ninja through my darkened kitchen, dual-wielding bug spray. I slam on the lights and open fire on the fleeing legions that flicker across my granite countertop. I watch them twitch upside-down. I witness each death with a grim unbreakable gaze. They're more afraid of me than I am of them, I've always heard.
They should be.
My first night on the African continent and my dreams had come unhinged. The malaria pills hauled a series of inane images before my closed eyes. I could not fight the lunacy. When I woke, which was frequent, the dreams refused to fade and in the darkness of the room the man with the elephant trunk still stood before me, reaching out for me with his proboscis like a sex offender.
I shifted between sleeping and waking dreams in a feverish state. Rex, a friend who had graciously offered to let me stay with him, slept on, blissfully unaware of the plethora of sideshow freaks that paraded through my vision. I placed my hand against his back and drifted back to sleep.
In my dream, I lay on a plate on the surface of a thick, red ocean, clicking my fingernails against the porcelain. There was no rhythm to my song: click click click-click scratch click-clack. A deep instinct stirred within me; this was no dream-scape sound. The clicking came from somewhere in the wild African-Out-There.
I shot up, fully awake and the hallucinations evaporated. The click-scratch-tick-clunk continued on from somewhere beyond the ring of mosquito netting.
"What's that?" The words erupted from my throat.
Rex turned over onto his face. He was not a light sleeper.
"Rex." I brought my hand down against his thigh. He swatted me back. "Rex!" This time louder; a more forceful smack.
"What is that sound? "
He listened into the darkness. My fingers squeezed around his arm. I was glad to have this strong, savvy, valiant specimen lying only a few inches away. Through his extensive Peace Corps training, Rex would have learned how to fight off hungry leopards and what to do in case of attack by giant Sub-Saharan spiders. They would have taught him these things. He would know.
We listened. The noises did not subside and even though I was fully grown, the only creature I could imagine making all of those sounds was one with long clacking yellow claws and grinding, irregular teeth. It crept around the outside of the hut and sniffed and snarled at us through the banana-leaf roof. Unearthly.
Still we listened.
No, Rex had fallen back asleep.
"Rex," I hissed, "What is that sound?"
I poked my finger into his eye. I was fast-tracking my expulsion from his bed.
Rex did his best to disentangle himself from the wild claws and gnashing teeth I had become. I was all fear. "Rats," he grumbled at last, throwing me to the far side of the bed and promptly falling back asleep.
Beyond the soft ring of mosquito netting, my headlamp dangled off the edge of the nightstand. I reached one shaky hand past the netted safe-zone and pulled it over to me, illuminating at first only the world encapsulated by white cloth. Bravely, audaciously, without pants, I exited the bed and turned the corner into the kitchen.
Dozens of flat, black eyes turned for a moment to meet my gaze. The sticky, nauseous rush of adrenaline oozed out from my pores. The rats stared unblinking and then returned to their task of lifting the lid from the pot and scooping out handfuls of our leftovers. Rex had promised them to me for breakfast. The rats would dine first.
One large male strolled lazily across the room, dragging his testicles over the same floor I stood on with my bare feet. Two leaps returned me to the bed and shuddering, I tried to burrow under Rex. I preferred the imaginary monster that lurked around the edge of my mind.
In the morning, we discovered the large pot on its side, covered with greasy rat-prints. They hadn't left any breakfast for us, but we would have passed regardless. Scooping up the pot and portioning out only the tiniest droplet of soap, Rex rinsed the rat feet away. Were it my house and my kitchenware, the thing would have been declared infected and discarded in the dumpster. It had permanent rat cooties. Circle-circle, dot-dot wasn't cutting it.
Rex teased me and invented ways to make me jump. I wasn't displeased to see him off to work and I headed out into the village on my own. But everywhere I saw rat-shaped shadows. They followed me into the shops, their button-eyes staring pupiless out from behind wooden masks. They invited themselves along for lunch, dining just beyond the reach of my peripheral vision. At a liquor store I bought a fifth of vodka and a can of mace.
I was already drunk when Rex came home. He tried to regale me with stories of humanitarian projects but I heard only the squeaking of rodents. At dinner I stirred my food without bringing it to my lips. At bedtime I lay rigid on top of the sheet.
The malaria pills kicked in and conjured up beasts equipped with buckteeth and snaking worm-tails. I rolled onto my side, still wearing my headlamp, feverishly clutching my pepper spray. I wanted to leave: cross the border and on to my Kilimanjaro climb. Surely the rats would not find me there.
I must have dozed off for I awoke once again to tiny fingernails scraping against the dinner I lacked the courage or sense of propriety to choke down. Rex had his head under the pillow. I switched on my lamp and stole away, this time armored with socks against the rat-testicle-defiled floor.
There they were, two of them only: a young female, and Big-Balls himself. He looked at me, curling his black lips back into a snarl. She worked on the lid, this time held down by a large leather-bound atlas. I drew forth my pepper spray. The rat turned away and resumed his examination of this new puzzle.
"Go away," I warned. It was only fair.
He turned back to me once more but did not withdraw.
I maced the rat. I don't know what I expected to happen. Perhaps that he would slink away into the night, his floozy girlfriend following. Perhaps that he would flip over to his back like the roaches, legs twitching for a minute as his brain misfired in the last throes of death.
But the rat let out a pit-bull-sized snarl and shook his face at me, his teeth glinting in the beam from my torch, his eyes point singularities sucking me in. I maced him again, but still he came towards me, spitting, frothing, nearly breathing fire. I let him back me up in an arc until I was only inches away from the girl rat who seemed to shake her head sadly at me as if she knew. What had I done? I swept the book off the top of the pot and grabbed the lid but its handle, holding it out in front of me to shield my naked legs from the steady advance of the rat.
I sprayed him again; he lunged. I deflected his attack with a side swipe of my shield, sending him flying across the room, and used the opportunity to dive back into the bed.
Rex spoke to me from beneath the pillow. "Let's get you a hotel for tomorrow night, okay?"