Worse Than Rats

by Noel Oliver

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/194460.html)

I guess it started with the death of Paul’s Great-Aunt Moira.

No, maybe it started with my freshman year at Western Michigan University in the fall of 2000. Paul was my randomly-assigned roommate and we hit it off right away, sharing a love of old movies, thrift stores, and clean bathrooms. I had been desperately hoping to get a roommate I didn’t want to strangle, and considered myself immensely lucky when I ended up with a new best friend.

But maybe it really started thousands of years ago, when a retreating glacier left behind a pile of dirt in what would eventually be the city of Kalamazoo, Michigan. Eventually a state-run asylum would be built on that hill – its water tower still stands like a sentinel over the city, a weird brick structure that looks like the lair of some evil wizard. The neighborhood that sprang up around the hospital is full of beautiful old houses, and Paul’s great-aunt lived all alone in one of them until her death in early 2001. Paul’s father, as the closest living relative, inherited it from her. I’ve never been clear on what Paul’s father does for a living other than that it involves a lot of business travel. He didn’t have much interest in the house himself, and offered to let Paul and me live there rent-free in exchange for our help cleaning it up. Neither of us were eager to return to dorm life; LeFevre Hall had somehow managed to constantly smell vaguely like rotting meat. The boxy old Victorian house, complete with a square cupola, was much more appealing.

So Paul and I spent that summer sorting through a dead woman’s belongings, a task as fascinating as it was sad. Moira Fielding had been a reclusive woman; there weren’t even any signs that she’d had any pets. We carefully sifted dishes, silverware, books, and clothing into piles, checked the values of the things we didn’t want to keep ourselves, made eBay listings and trips to the dump, and tried not to think that a person could live nearly a century and still be reduced to clutter pawed over by strangers.

The house didn’t have central air conditioning, of course, so we made do with a single window-mounted unit in the first floor study; when the humidity became unbearable we’d sprawl on the rug (which we had thought was brown but a good shampooing revealed to be a lovely burgundy), flipping through some of the weirder old books. Mrs. Fielding had kept a surprisingly vast collection of medical journals, all fifty or more years outdated. Many even had handwritten notes in the margins, though these tended to be so smudged and faded as to be illegible.

By the time September rolled around we’d made the place pretty livable, each of us claiming a second-floor bedroom as our own. One of the downstairs rooms now contained a TV and stereo, and there was a shiny new coffee maker and microwave on the kitchen counter, but otherwise the place mostly just looked like a cleaner version of itself. The only place we hadn’t really ventured was the basement, a tiny little space mostly empty except for a pathetic cobweb-draped Christmas tree and a few boxes of decorations. A few days into the semester we finally decided to haul out the old tree, and as we wrestled it up the narrow stairs a rustling behind us made us jump.

“Rats,” Paul suggested.

I’ve never been bothered by rats, really; one of my best friends in middle school had kept a couple as pets, and I knew that domestic rats were friendly, curious, and really rather cute. But the thought of countless furry bodies huddled together in nests in the walls, out of sight, gave me the creeps.

“Maybe we should get a cat,” I said, and two weeks later we had Frederick.

He was a brown tabby, about two years old according to the friendly ASPCA volunteer who’d helped us fill out the paperwork. He spent three days hiding under Paul’s bed before deciding that the house belonged to him. He explored every shelf and cupboard, but absolutely refused to go into the basement. The one time I tried to carry him down he transformed into a hissing ball of fur and claws by the third step.

That was right before Paul found the diary. There had never been any question of moving the desk in the study. An oaken behemoth, it seemed as much a part of the house as the porch or cupola, so we just cleaned out the drawers and left it where it stood in front of the study window.

“This is the kind of desk that’s just got to have a secret compartment,” he’d said to me more than once as we sifted through old bank statements and insurance records. Once he got the idea in his head he just couldn’t let it drop, and he’d often pull the drawers out and feel behind them, or tap various parts of the desk’s massive surface. Frederick liked to help by trotting back and forth on top of it and butting his head against Paul’s arm whenever it came within reach.

Paul’s dedication was oddly endearing, and even – though I couldn’t quite admit it to myself at the time – adorable. I’d lean on the door-frame watching as he pressed an ear to the side of the desk or swept blond bangs out of his eyes in frustration, but since I never expected him to find anything I always lost interest well before he did.

And yet one day I was sitting at the kitchen table trying to get through the assigned Medieval History chapter, a ratty leather-bound book was suddenly tossed on top of a photo of a 13th century Madonna. I jumped, which made Frederick give me a dirty look as I disturbed the nap he was taking in my lap.

“Sorry,” Paul said. He didn’t really sound sorry, though, and he had the biggest grin I’d ever seen, his blue eyes sparkling with excitement. “I told you I’d find it.”

“Seriously?” I said, poking at the book with the eraser end of my pencil. “A book in a secret compartment?”

“Seriously.” He sat in the chair next to me, grabbing the book just as I reached to open the cover. “I think it’s a diary, but there’s a lot of weird stuff in here too. Pages and pages of math equations, for one thing. I also found a stack of newspaper clippings in the back. Their marriage announcement, Victor Fielding’s obituary, that kind of thing.”

“Huh. You going to read it?”

Paul looked at me, pale eyebrows disappearing into his hairline. “Why would you even ask that, Carter?” (Paul has never called me by my first name. He still calls me “Carter” to this day.)

“I dunno….” I shifted, a weird crawly feeling tightening my back. “She went to all that trouble to hide it, it just feels kind of wrong to pry into it, I guess.”

“It’s not like she’s here to care, right?”

He had a point, and his enthusiasm was infectious, but I opted to look at the newspaper clippings at the desk while he read the diary. Judging by the dates, Victor and Moira had married in June of 1923, and he had died of pneumonia in April 1924. There was even a wedding photo in the stack, the couple looking young and happy and eager for their life together. When the photo was taken they’d had no idea their marriage wouldn’t even last a year. Moira Fielding’s eyes were huge and dark, a smile tugging the corners of her lips as she linked her arm with her new husband’s, and Victor struck me as being particularly handsome, with wavy dark hair and high cheekbones.

“Man,” Paul said from his place on the couch. “She really had a hard time getting over his death.” He frowned. “No, wait, I guess he was still sick at this point; this says she’s been talking to him but he isn’t very responsive. Either that or she just lost it and didn’t realize he was dead. Some of this stuff is really hard to make out; I wish I had a magnifying glass or at least a better light.”

“I have one of those bright lamps that clips on the side of the table,” I said. “I’ll see if I can find it.”

I went and dug through my closet for a while before realizing it was in a box I’d shoved in the basement. Frederick, who had been immensely excited about the closet search, trotted after me as I headed to the basement door, but as usual refused to follow me down. He just paced the doorway restlessly as I dug through boxes by the light of the single yellow bulb.

The scrabbling in the walls started up again; irritated, I shouted “Shut UP, rats!” I didn’t expect that to do much good but for a moment it did stop. I supposed I must have startled them, but as I finally pulled out the lamp it started up again, louder than ever. “I said shut up!” I headed to the back wall and smacked it twice, hard, with my open palm.

There was a moment of silence and then, unmistakably, an answering thump… thump.

At the same time Frederick let loose with a low yowl that crescendoed into a high, horrible wail. I ran up the stairs so fast I tripped and bashed my shin into the edge of the top step. I slammed the door as hard as I could behind me and sat there in the hall, my heart hammering in my chest.

“Jesus,” Paul said when he saw me. “What the hell just happened? The cat’s tearing around the house like he’s possessed.”

“The… rats,” I said, forcing myself to slow my breathing, but that explanation just didn’t seem to cut it this time. Rats might scurry behind walls, but they certainly did not answer your knocks. “I’m fine. They just really freaked me out for some reason.”

To his credit, Paul didn’t laugh at me, and I felt a surge of appreciation as he reached down to pull me to my feet. “Got the lamp, though, did you? Thanks, that’ll help.”

I had entirely forgotten that I was carrying it. I handed it over and went to the bathroom to check my scraped leg. It was bleeding just a bit, right where the skin was thinnest on my shinbone. I dabbed at it with a washcloth, listening to the patter of Frederick’s paws as he continued to dash around the house at breakneck speed. I heard him run up the stairs, down the hall, into my room, and then head back down. He repeated the cycle for a full five or six minutes before slowing down and going to beg for a drink of water from the sink.

That night I dreamed I went into the basement and found a gaping hole in the back wall. The basement light didn’t illuminate it at all; it seemed impossibly black, and I couldn’t seem to control my own feet as they moved my body towards it. I woke up before I reached it, as though even my own subconscious couldn’t handle seeing what it imagined to be on the other side, and spent the gray hours of early morning huddled under my quilt, trying to tell myself I was being stupid. I was immensely grateful when Frederick showed up and curled next to me, his warm little body pressed against the curve of my stomach.

When my alarm went off at 9:00, I had already been awake for a while, rubbing between his ears and listening to him purr. I wasn’t sure how much I’d actually slept after the nightmare – drifting in and out with no sense of time, it might have been hours or minutes. Either way I was exhausted, and pulled on some random clothes I found on the floor and stumbled downstairs, hoping to get through the day’s classes with the help of copious amounts of coffee.

Paul was already in the kitchen, sipping from his own steaming mug. He had his glasses on but was otherwise dressed just as he’d been the night before, and I realized without even having to ask that he’d been up all night reading the diary.

“This is fucked up, Carter,” he said without looking at me.

“You’re telling me,” I said as I poured some of the coffee he’d made into my Detroit Tigers tumbler. “Were you even planning on going to class today?”

He shrugged. “It’s just Film Interpretation. We’re watching Casablanca, I’ve seen it like eighteen times. I could probably recite the whole thing from memory. ‘The lives of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world–‘”

“Don’t,” I said. “Your Bogey impression is terrible.”

“Here’s lookin’ at you, kid,” he said, flipping me off.

I wish I didn’t love you so much. It was Ingrid Bergman’s line in the movie; I’d seen Casablanca more than once myself and it should have been natural for the line to come to mind, but the suddenness with which it struck me caught me off-guard. Luckily Paul was still talking, and I quickly focused on his words. “No, seriously. She keeps talking about how her husband’s doing, but I double-checked the dates with the newspaper article. By this point,” he tapped the page in front of him, near the end of the book, “he’s been dead over two years, but she keeps talking about ‘going down to see him’, like he’s just in the hospital or something.”

“Maybe she’s visiting his grave,” I suggested.

“Maybe,” he said, but I could tell he wasn’t convinced. “I’m going to finish this thing today, anyway.”

“Okay.” I grabbed a granola bar from the pantry. “Don’t push yourself too hard, and don’t drive anywhere, you’re so tired you look drunk.”

“Okay, Mom,” he said with a smile.

When I got home the sun was just starting to set. I found Paul in the study, sprawled on the couch; a slant of sunlight broke through the autumn-tinged leaves on the branches in the front yard and across his face, but didn’t seem to disturb his sleep. His glasses were folded on the end table on top of the diary, and his mouth hung slack. The couch was a bit too short for Paul’s lanky frame and one foot hung toward the floor while the other draped over the armrest. There was a hole in the big toe of his argyle sock. He looked peaceful, and almost beautiful, the way the sun caught his messy hair and turned it gold. The thought hit me like a suckerpunch that I really was in love with him, completely and utterly.

It shames me to say this now, but the realization terrified me at least as much as the mysterious thing thumping around the basement. I stumbled to the bathroom and took a lukewarm shower, desperately turning my thoughts to Ashley, my high school girlfriend and the only girl I’d ever slept with. Our breakup had been mutual and fairly painless when she’d gone off to California for college, and memories of her pushed vague fantasies of Paul right out of my head while I rubbed one out.

I was feeling much more in control of myself when I headed down to the kitchen to start making some Hamburger Helper. In the orange light of sunset it was easy to laugh at my paranoia the night before; I had obviously just been spooked because of the darkness, the season, the lingering unsettling feeling of living in someone else’s house. Paul wandered into the kitchen as I was covering the skillet to simmer. He was bleary-eyed, hair sticking up in all directions, sweater wrinkled and covered in cat hair, and as I looked at him I felt a low surge of arousal deep within me. I turned back to the skillet, poking the noodles unnecessarily with a wooden spoon and reminding myself that I absolutely was not gay.

“So,” Paul said. I heard the him settle into a chair and then a thunk as he set something down on the table. “You won’t believe what I found.”

“What did you find?” My curiosity had overruled my resolve to stop looking at him. He’d set a little wooden box on the table, rectangular and unremarkable.

“That diary said she’d hidden this under a floorboard in her room. Took me a little while to figure out which room had been hers but I found it. You’re sleeping in it now, by the way.”

“Great.” Paul’s father had assured us that Mrs. Fielding had died in the hospital, at least, so I didn’t have to get used to the idea of sleeping in the room where she’d passed, but I still didn’t really like it. “So what’s in it?”

“See for yourself.” He unlatched the box and flipped the lid open, and I stepped closer to peer inside. Lying neatly on a little red velvet cushion was a tiny revolver. It had a pattern of roses and vines painted on the handle and looked surprisingly clean considering how old it must have been. I knew nothing about guns but it was pretty clear that this was a ladies’ weapon.

“Do you think it still works?” I asked.

“No reason to think it shouldn’t. There’s a box of bullets under the cushion, too.”

“So why was it under the floor?”

“Not sure. She keeps saying she can’t bring herself to use it.”

“That’s… creepy.” I hunched my shoulders, trying to get rid of the crawly feeling skittering up my spine. “Was she… thinking about killing herself?”

“I don’t know. I guess that could be it.” He stared down at the gun, brows knit together. “Oh yeah, and there’s also this skeleton key that apparently opens a secret door in the basement.”

“A what now? We never saw a door.”

“It’s plastered over now, that’s why. I went and kicked at the wall a little bit and I think I found the frame but it’s going to take a little while to get open. I thought I’d work on it again after dinner.”

I thought again of the thumps against the wall. “The place is probably crawling with rats, are you sure that’s a good idea?”

“Oh, come on, Carter. There’s a secret basement room in this hundred-year-old house, how could I just leave it?”

I could have very easily just left it. We really didn’t need hordes of rats invading our living area, never mind anything else that could be in there. Things that could return a knock.

“You’re doing it yourself,” I said. “I have to study.”

Paul gave me a look that plainly told me he saw right through my excuse, but he didn’t fight me on it. After we ate I pulled out my Medieval History textbook again and pretended to read it while listening to him pound on the basement wall. The scuffling of the rats got so loud I could hear it upstairs, and then suddenly there was a reverberating thump and I heard Paul swear.

He scrambled up the stairs and stood panting in the kitchen doorway, eyes wide. He just stared at me for a little while and then said, “Okay, Carter, let’s just… leave that door for now.”

I nodded. Part of me wanted to ask what he’d thought he’d heard down there, but a bigger part of me didn’t want to even acknowledge it. If we both ignored it maybe whatever was there would just stay there and we’d never have to deal with it.

Paul went to bed early, having only gotten a few hours of sleep that day, and I followed suit not long after. I just didn’t like sitting up alone in that big old house, straining my ears for the sound of scraping and scurrying in the walls. I don’t know how long I lay in bed before I heard it. It was a scratching, yes, but louder than usual, evenly paced. It sounded oddly deliberate. My bed was positioned against the wall opposite the door, so that if I lay on my right side, the open doorway was right in front of me. I pulled the covers up to my chin and just stared, hoping the noises were all in my head. Frederick wasn’t sleeping with me and I tried to think of some way it could possibly be him, getting into mischief.

I nearly jumped out of my skin when Paul suddenly appeared in front of me. “Carter,” he whispered hoarsely. “You hear that?”

“God,” I said. “I really, really wish I could say ‘no’.”

Frederick twined himself around Paul’s legs. We both looked at the cat for a minute, and we both jumped when the scratching suddenly turned into a thump. Paul stepped into my bedroom, Frederick at his heels, and very casually shut the door behind him, turning the lock.

“It’s just rats, right?” he said, but he didn’t sound convinced. I didn’t even bother to respond, just shifted over against the wall to let him crawl under the covers with me. There was a sudden crash, the sound of splintering wood; we both swore, huddling closer together. Frederick paced back and forth in front of the locked door. I could see his small form in the moonlight, his tail puffed up like a toilet brush.

The noises from the basement were hard to make out, but something was obviously moving around down there. And then came a sound that made my blood run cold: a door swinging open on squeaky hinges. The basement door, which had never latched properly, had been opened.

Fuck,” Paul hissed, and I squeezed his hand, which I hadn’t even realized I’d been holding.

There was a kind of swshhhhh, like someone dragging a heavy canvas bag over a gym floor, and then a series of soft thumps. It was on the stairs. Whatever it was, it was on the stairs.

“The door’s locked,” I murmured. “It’s locked. We’re fine.”

Frederick had ceased his pacing and stood facing the door, puffed out as big as he could go, tail straight up in the air, occasionally punctuating his growls with a spitting hiss. The dragging sound resumed, growing closer and closer, and then stopped. Frederick lost it, swatting madly at the crack at the bottom of the door.

“We’re going to die,” Paul groaned.

“We’re not!” I don’t think I really believed it, but I couldn’t stand the note of despair in his voice. My fingers were nearly numb, I was squeezing his hand so hard.

With my free hand I pulled the quilt up over both our heads. I have no idea what I thought this would accomplish; maybe I was just getting childhood flashbacks, when even the worst boogeymen and closet monsters could be thwarted by simply hiding under the covers. Muffled like that, the sound of our frantic breathing nearly drowned out the thing scratching at the door.

“We’re fine,” I said as he twisted around to face me. “We’re fine.”

A low moan drifted through the room. I think I probably would have pissed myself hearing it if I hadn’t gone to the bathroom right before bed. Instead I put my arms around Paul’s skinny shoulders and squeezed. His forehead pressed against the crook of my neck and we just held on to each other. I have no idea how much time passed that way, but eventually we heard something new, something unexpected and amazing: the sound of the thing in the hall sliding away, back down the stairs.

I don’t think either of us slept that night. Frederick did; with the immediate danger gone he came and pawed at the blanket until we let him under the covers, curling up between us and instantly dropping into sleep the way only cats can. A zonked-out tabby can’t help creating calming effect, but we were still on edge. I know I was definitely already awake when my alarm finally went off.

Paul groaned a little and Frederick let out an answering squeak of irritation, stretching his paws out against my chest. I was up against the wall, though, and couldn’t get to the nightstand to turn the alarm off without climbing over both of them.

“Paul,” I said, nudging his shoulder. “You have to get the alarm.”

“Why?” he asked, but he flung out his arm and fumbled for the button. “We could just stay shut in here together.”

“I don’t know, man, that’s pretty gay.” I had been trying to lighten the mood but I regretted the words as soon as I’d said them. Drawing attention to it just made me think about how good it felt to have him there with me. The word bisexual skittered through my brain and lodged there.

“It is, isn’t it?” He rolled over to face me. Frederick, annoyed by all our movement, unfolded himself and jumped to the floor. Paul’s blue eyes just bored into mine, and I couldn’t seem to look away. I was sure he was on to me, and I felt my heart start to pound in my chest. Had I just killed our friendship with my stupid gay crush?

Then he was pressing his lips against mine. I was too shocked to do anything but lie there, and the kiss only lasted a brief moment. Then he was sliding out of bed and unlocking the door.

“What the hell!” I blurted. He turned to look back over his shoulder.

“I’m going to go shoot it in the head,” he said. “If it has a head. And the gun works. So, you know, I just thought I didn’t want to get eaten or whatever without doing that first.”

We both got dressed – trying to kill an unknown monster in pajamas just seemed like a stupid idea – and I watched Paul load the gun. He had to use Google to find instructions, which didn’t seem to bode well for the success of our mission. “It’s not like it’s hard to fire,” he said in an attempt to reassure me. “And, you know, that thing must be what Fielding said she couldn’t bring herself to shoot, so she thought the gun would work on it.”

“What if she was wrong?” I said. I really wished we had something more substantial than that tiny revolver. A flamethrower, maybe.

“You can stay up here with the cat,” he said.

“No way. You’re not going down there alone. If you really want to do this, I’ve got your back.”

“Aw, Carter.” He cocked the gun and grinned at me. “You do care.”

“Of course I care!” I said. “I just wish I had a weapon.”

I ended up getting a baseball bat out of the garage. I had no idea how effective it would be, but the heavy weight of it in my hand was reassuring. We stood shoulder to shoulder at the top of the basement stairs, peering down into the darkness. Everything seemed still and silent.

“Is it still down there?” I whispered. “What if it got out?”

“Where the hell would it go? It doesn’t move very fast. Anyway, it really sounded like it went back down.”

I nodded. “Okay. Let’s do this.” I tightened my grip on the bat, but Paul put his hand on my arm.

“Just a minute, Carter.” He took a deep breath, not looking at me. “If we don’t die there’s a pretty high chance I’m going to want to kiss you again.”

My heart leaped into my throat and I tried to swallow it again. “Okay,” I managed.

“Okay. Well, now that that’s cleared up….” He reached for the switch and flipped the light on.

There was nothing at all in the basement except for the few boxes of junk we’d thrown down there, but the back wall was littered with bits of plaster and wood. A jagged, roughly rectangular hole gaped blackly on the far wall. I wondered how big the space behind it was. The stairs weren’t quite wide enough for us to walk side by side, so I stepped out in front of Paul, fumbling with the flashlight I’d brought.

It turned out we didn’t even have to venture into the dark passage. As soon as we stepped onto the basement floor we heard the now-familiar swshhhhh of the thing moving toward us. Paul reached out to touch my elbow. We stood there for agonizing minutes listening to the thing draw closer and closer.

Suddenly a hand reached out into the pool of light given off by the flashlight. It looked like a normal human hand, except the skin had a pale grayish tint and hung slackly, as though there were no flesh on the bones. I was dimly aware of Paul’s gasping beside me as a second hand appeared beside the first and the creature pulled itself into view.

If the thing had looked utterly alien I think it would have actually been less horrible, but its shape was recognizably human. It dragged itself on its skinny little arms, turning its hairless head back and forth. It had a nose, mouth and high, prominent cheekbones but the eyes were mere indentations, the sockets covered with that same wrinkled grayish skin.

“Fuck me,” Paul murmured. The thing cocked its head for a moment and then started pulling itself toward us. As it came into the light I saw its legs, tiny, shriveled, useless things, dragging along behind it.

Then the mouth opened. The flashlight’s beam bounced unsteadily; my hand was shaking. A sound issued from the thing’s mouth, a low syllable full of despair. “Moooooooy…” It drew in a raspy breath. “Raaaaaah….

The gunshot made me jump, but Paul’s aim had been off and the bullet lodged in the wooden paneling behind the thing.

Moooooooy….” it said again, and the next bullet caught it right in the forehead. Dark black blood burst from the back of its head, and it gave a shriek worse than any of Frederick’s creepiest caterwauls.

“Shit,” Paul said, and then his hand left my arm. I stood frozen in disbelief as he walked straight up to the thing, pressed the revolver against its head, and fired four times.

I don’t entirely remember what happened after that. I guess I must have been in shock or something; I don’t remember watching the creature die. Mostly I just remember the look on Paul’s face as he turned to me, wide-eyed with horror at what he’d just done, tears streaming down his cheeks. Next thing I knew we were in the study, kneeling on the burgundy rug, and he was full-out sobbing in my arms.

“Oh, God,” he kept saying. “Oh, God.”

I just kept rubbing his back and saying “It’s okay,” because what are you supposed to say in a situation like that? It seemed to be working because after a few minutes he calmed down, wiping his snotty nose on his sleeve.

“I hope I never have to do anything like that again,” he said.

I felt a laugh bubble up in my chest, a semi-hysterical giggle threatening to burst out of my mouth, but I somehow managed to keep it down. “It’s over now,” I managed. “You were awesome.”

“I couldn’t have done it without you,” he said.

“I didn’t do anything, though. Just stood there like an idiot.”

“But you were there,” he explained. “That was enough. God, look at me, I’m a mess.”

“You’re hot,” I said, even though his eyes were red and his nose was still running. This time I kissed him, digging my fingers into the front of his shirt. Being gay for my best friend suddenly didn’t seem nearly as intimidating as it had yesterday.

He fell back against the rug, pulling me down on top of him, and I took the opportunity to jam my tongue into his mouth. “Wait,” he gasped, pushing me away. “I mean, this is pretty fantastic, but if it’s just some kind of, I don’t know, post-traumatic stress thing you’re going to regret–”

“It’s not,” I said. “I was just in denial for a long time, and then I was scared.”

“You’re not scared now?”

“Well, maybe a little bit,” I admitted. His knee was pressed up against my erection, making it pretty difficult to think. “I just… I keep thinking of that wedding photo…”

“I know,” he murmured. “They didn’t have very much time together, did they? I just… feel sorry for them. Those must have been some lonely decades.”

“They’re over now,” I said. “And we’re here, and we’re alive, and– wow, you’re a lot bigger than I expected.” I had finally worked my hand down between his legs, fingers brushing the hard length of him through his corduroys. He arched up against me, and I awkwardly held myself up on one arm while trying to undo his zipper. He laughed – a little self-consciously, I thought – and did it for me. This was a new experience for me, but the mechanics of jerking someone else off were pretty much the same as doing it to myself, except that he kept chewing on my earlobe, which was immensely distracting. After a few minutes, though, he pulled away and gasped into my ear, and I felt him twitch and shoot in my hand. I wiped it on his shirt, which only seemed fair.

“So,” he said, sitting up and looking at me. I was so hard it was starting to hurt. “I’d really, really like to suck you off. I mean, if you don’t mind.”

“Well, if you’ve really got your heart set on it, I guess I could let you.”

His cheeks were flushed as he leaned in to kiss me again. “Just, um, let me know if I’m doing anything wrong.”

I’d known Paul was a virgin; he was a little shy, a little weird, had gone to a small private high school, and never even dated anyone. I had never really thought about that until now. I was the first person he’d even kissed, and now he wanted to give me a blowjob. My voice sounded strange in my ears, thick with desire, as I said, “Don’t worry about it. There’s not really a wrong way.”

Then he was pushing me onto my back and unzipping my pants. He spent a long time touching me at first, stroking long and slow, then rolling my balls around in the palm of his hand, which felt so amazing that for a second I was afraid I was going to come right then. Then he licked his lips and leaned down, touching them to the tip of my cock. I spent a half second thinking about the first time I had done this with Ashley, but then he was taking more of me in his mouth and I was running my fingers through his fluffy hair and no one existed any more except the two of us.

I managed to hold out for a couple of minutes as he carefully tested how much of me he could take in, but then he got a grip on my balls again and I lost it. I gasped out that I was about to come, but he didn’t pull back, just swallowed it all down like a pro. He looked so pleased with himself as he pulled back and grinned at me that I burst out laughing.

He flopped down on the rug next to me, snuggling up against my side like he belonged there. Maybe he did. We just lay there like that for a minute, and then I jumped as something touched the top of my head lightly. I twisted my neck and saw that Frederick was sniffing my hair and giving both of us a puzzled look, wondering what the heck we were doing down there and not sitting on the furniture like normal humans. After a minute he gave up trying to make sense of it and wandered off to sit in the windowsill and make clicking noises at the squirrels in the yard.

“So,” I said. “Um, we do both still have class today.”

“We also have a dead thing in the basement.”

I swore softly. I’d almost forgotten about that. It turned out, though, that we didn’t have to worry about disposing of it. It had already started to dissolve. Within an hour all that was left was a pile of gray dust.

We never did tell anyone what had happened. Who would have believed us? Instead we plastered up the basement wall and put the gun back in its hiding place in the floor. We never heard the “rats” again, of course. The house held no more secrets. Paul had scooped as much of the creature’s remains as he could into a coffee can, and right before Halloween we buried it in a shallow hole on top of Victor Fielding’s grave. We stood, hand in hand, in front of the stone he shared with his wife.

“Well,” I said, “They’re finally together, right?”

“I guess.” Paul squeezed my hand. “God, Carter, I hope we have more time than that.”

I wanted to tell him to shut up, that nothing would happen, that we’d always be together, but I knew I couldn’t promise that. Maybe he’d get hit by a bus on his way to class. Maybe I’d have an aneurysm. Maybe we’d just drift apart, like so many couples do, and some day in thirty or forty years I’d be wondering what had ever happened to that blond boy I’d loved in college, with the tweed jackets and messy hair, who had once shot a monster in the head in our basement.

“We have now,” I said. “We’ll just have to make it last as long as we can.”

And we still are.

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