Leah refreshed her bank account as if that would change the numbers on the screen. The same numbers stared back. Her name had also not appeared no matter how often she refreshed the work schedule.
Her head fell back against the wall, gently enough not to disturb the neighbors. Trudy would love nothing more than to bang on the wall for rowdiness. The calendar needed no refreshing, and it assured her rent would be due in two more days. She just had to conjure money out of nowhere.
Or pray the landlord would be gracious. She could knock on his door, explain the situation. He was, she assumed, human after all. But her last attempt still stung.
"I'm not running a charity here."
"Your sob story is not my problem."
"Pay, or I'll get started on the eviction."
Today was bad enough without playing out that scene again. Instead, she pushed herself to her feet, grabbing a coat before heading outside into what, in other circumstances, would have been a refreshing day. Leah had trouble seeing it as anything but a mockery.
The bell jingled as she entered Erick's store. He smiled at her from behind the counter. "Fresh hotdogs on the roller," he said, moving towards the box with pair of tongs.
"Not today. Hey, can I ask you for a favor?"
His expression snapped from pleasant service professional to serious. "I don't offer loans, Leah. I've got a store," he said, gesturing around the space with the tongs forgotten in his hands, "not a charity."
That phrase again. It grated like sandpaper. "No, not that kind of favor. But, you know anyone looking to hire for odd jobs or something?"
He raised an eyebrow.
"Like cleaning or deliveries," she added.
"You in that tight a spot?"
Her only answer was a shrug. Wasn't everyone?
Erick leaned against the counter, studying her. "I haven't heard of anything, nothing reputable at least." Leah felt her face and body sag. "But," he added quickly, trying to stop her deflating, "I might have something. Could pay a couple hundred bucks."
"I'll do it."
"You don't even know what it is, Leah," he sighed, shaking his head. "But I'll throw in a complimentary hotdog, too, since you're that bad off."
"I thought you weren't a charity?" she quipped, stepping up to the counter to talk details.
He shrugged and put lunch in front of her. "I'll be a soup kitchen today."
Leah carried the laden trash bag down the stairs toward the store room. It jangled and bounced as she navigated the precarious slope, edges of whatever was thrown inside cutting against her side. Erick assured her it had everything needed to deal with the rodent problem. "Cheaper than paying an exterminator," he had said. "Plus you won't report me to the health department." There was a pointed look after that last part, and she had nodded vigorously. Apparently, her silence cost two hundred and fifty bucks, plus a hotdog.
Once in the dimly lit space, she dropped the bag and began to examine the contents. Traps, bait, poisons, and a few home remedies with instructions scrawled on the side of old jars. Where to start?
Google. That was the best place. She typed her query and skimmed the results. Ad after ad for one company or another, each with a tried and true method. Humane, inhumane. Effective and not. Her head was spinning.
"Come on, they're rats," she said through gritted teeth. "We've been killing rats for centuries."
Except for all those rats that got the best of humanity with the plague, snapped some cynical part of her. She tried not to think about the diseases she might be gathering in the dusty room. Her shoulders began to itch nonetheless.
"What are you doing down here?" asked a voice. Leah's head snapped up, scanning between rows of shelves. No one she could see.
"Erick asked me to come down here and take care of—" she bit back the end of the sentence. It was clear Erick did not want the situation shared. "Things. Take care of things."
"Oh, so you think you can just waltz in here, then?" The voice was high-pitched and grating, sawing through the muted quiet of the basement.
"Uh, well, it's Erick's shop, so..." Leah kept looking for the source of the voice, walking slowly along the shelves.
"Oh, well if it's Erick's," mocked the voice.
Two rows of shelves left, no silhouette visible through the gaps. Leah felt the hair on the back of her neck rising. "I'm sorry, who are you?"
The last row, and no one. Just one of the promised rats sitting there, staring at her and sniffing. There was a tennis racket in the bag, and she wished it was in her hands.
"Lois," replied the rat. "I live here, y'know."
Leah screamed. The rat did not move.
"You're no looker yourself," it replied, managing to look offended.
The chemicals in the bag must have leaked, that was the only thing that made sense. Or a gas leak. Because otherwise she was losing her mind, and she had no time for that. Rent was due. "This isn't happening."
"Oh, good. Glad to hear it. Because that bag of genocide over there had me worried."
"I—"Leah spun toward the bag, then back toward the rat. Lois. No, don't call the rat by its name. "I'm sorry. It's just, Erick said—"
"Erick said," sing-songed the rodent before rolling its eyes. Leah did not know rats could roll their eyes.
"Well, it's his shop, so, yeah, he said to get rid of the rats." Was she arguing with a talking rat?
"But this is my home," squealed the rat. "Why should I leave?"
"Listen, I'm just here to do my job. I get rid of the rats, he pays me. It's not personal."
"Yeah, nothing personal about literally murdering me."
"I don't want to murder anyone," Leah cried, throwing her hands up. "I just want the money. So why don't you just leave—"
"But my family has been here for generations!" Lois squealed in protest.
"Not my problem," she yelled and stamped a foot. This was supposed to be easy. "I don't see your name on the lease, so the freeloading is over." Fresh air, she needed fresh air to remove this obnoxious hallucination brought on by fumes and stress.
"So that's it? Leave or die?"
"Yeah," Leah sighed, massaging at her temples. "That's it. I'll give you a few minutes to clear out, then I'm setting up that stuff."
"A few minutes?"
"What stuff does a rat even have to clear out?" Now Leah rolled her eyes, staring at the pitiful creature in front of her. "I'm sorry, but I've got a job to do. I'm not running a char—" the words froze in her mouth. Ugh.
Leah felt an uncomfortable ick creep up her spine. The room began to smell like the apartment hallway, the stale smoke that lingered outside of the landlord's door.
"Wait," she said, though Lois had not moved. "Maybe we can figure something out."
"I can stay?"
"No," Leah said hastily, "but maybe I can find you a place."
"You mean it?"
Pets weren't allowed in her apartment, but talking rats felt like a loophole. "You can stay with me, I guess." A plan was forming, hazy yet. But pest control with a talking rat, now there was a business idea. "I think we can help each other out."