From 2006 to 2008, I lived in an apartment across the street from my college. It was my first real "independent" living experience, being out of a dormitory or my parent's home. I paid my bills, assembled my furniture, and solved my problems.
A few of these problems were worse than others. In fact, some of these problems were alive, red-eyed and terrifying just a shadowy presence. My roommate and I found out, in our last year there, that we had been living with a small rat army.
The first hint was that at night, we would hear scurrying in the ceiling. My first position was denial: Maybe the people upstairs had a tiny dog? Or maybe that's just the sound ceilings make. Besides, even if it is a rat, it's not like they're in the apartment, right? They can totally live in the walls if they just spared me the confirmation of their existence.
But the rats are always wanting. On some bleary midnight, I went to the kitchen in search of water. A huge thing scurried away behind the fridge and I jumped, in the way that a man jumps when he forgets the pressure to maintain masculinity. I hardly knew what to do, but it was obvious something that we couldn't just let sit.
We told our apartment administration, and they sent over a handyman to lay out some traps. Apparently, this is shit that happens with enough regularity that they had a game plan and a kit for these occurances. But it turns out their idea of effective rat control was foam trays with glue in them. These were traps in the way that spoilers are speed enhancers. Still, I was happy to have something, and would check that trap every morning.
It was a while before it caught anything. I had grown so paranoid about the scurrying in the walls and the emptiness of the trap that I took my own measures. I bought rat poison -- big, green cubes -- and laid them along the walls and in the corners.
For the most part, they didn't take the bait. I noticed one or two gone, but no dead rat bodies had emerged, no smell of decaying vermin. Not that I was looking forward to that, but it was part of the war against rats, and war is hell.
One morning, my roommate awoke first and, while cooking breakfast, yelled. It was something like, "Ohhwwuaaah!" He had seen the rat. The enemy in the daytime was a rare occurrence. Apparently, it had gotten stuck in the glue trap, but then dragged the whole thing with it underneath the stove. There was now a rat, stuck on a glue trap, underneath my stove. I called the handyman. He came and disassembled the appliance and found a stiff, rat body, but not attached to a glue trap. In fact, it wasn't even the same rat that we had just seen. This was a rigid, old, deceased rat. It had been there for an unknown amount of time, all along, and our enemy had escaped, though wounded and bonded to foam.
I should probably reiterate that these were not mere mice. These were big, disgusting, filthy motherfuckers. Do you have a water bottle? Lay it on its side. That's how big these rats were without the tail. They were monsters, and they were winning.
Every night I ceded the kitchen to their domain. I moved the essentials to my room and stayed away once it got dark. That was our unspoken peace treaty. You and your guys can chill in the kitchen, and we'll get our locked bedrooms, just don't think about crossing over. It was appeasement, but I had to protect my stuff. I was forced to live in a ghetto in my own apartment. It was a sign of weakness, and they knew it. That's why they pushed on into the bedrooms.
I didn't see it myself, but according to the roommate, he had seen a baby rat scurry into my room. I took stuff off my floor, kicked nervously at hampers, but never found anything. The mere possibility haunted me, and in that way, it was really living in my head. I decided on that day that I would no longer give them any quarter. I bought new traps the next day, real ones. The kind that snap.
It took peanut butter and the capturing of my own damn fingers, but we saw progress quickly. One day: A dead baby rat behind the fridge. The next: another baby rat in the corner. We were taking their children as payment for their crimes, and the rat family was not happy.
That summer, I sublet my apartment to my friend Ray while I was in the Philippines. I did not tell him about the rats, because I was a coward, but he found out soon enough. In his madness, he came up with a plan. Using almonds as bait, he set up some feed right in the middle of the kitchen. Just a few feet away, he left his camera running with night vision. The tape shows, not long after turning off the lights, a group of rats run out to take the nuts one by one. Only one was a fully grown adult. I pegged him as the snake's head.
I don't remember how long it took until we caught the bastard. There were small victories of small rats, but knowing that The Big One was still out there made me feel unwelcome in my own home. Sometimes we would be talking in the living room and we would see a big shape run from behind the recycling bin to behind the refrigerator, and then suddenly our legs would take us outside.
What have we become? I thought. Who was the rat here? The one who owned and dominated the space, or us, the ones who abdicated and appeased and ran as fast as we could? Something had to give.
Finally, one morning, Ray woke me up and told me he heard a snap. I peaked out of my room and definitely saw something laying there, right in front of the stove. I could barely look at it without panic, as if it held some kind of psychokinetic power, like all those who gazed upon it went insane. Still, I mustered up the strength to confront my fallen enemy.
It was a strange sight. He lay next to the trap in a pool of bright red blood, breathing heavily in the light. He could have ran away, since the snapping trap didn't actually catch him. It was apparent that it only mortally wounded him and left him paralyzed, perhaps brain dead.
Ray picked up the thing in a bag, and disposed of it in the dumpster. He made sure to get a wide swing, so as to slam it against the metal. The idea was to put it out of its misery, while simultaneously releasing us from ours.
I have a painting that hangs over my bed of the blood splatter it left on my kitchen tiles. Ray made it the very afternoon of the victory. I look at it sometimes, but not to remember winning the war. I just remember giving in and being afraid, of being a weak man that had lost to the rats for months.