We called it the Year of the Nuts.
Maybe the heavy spring rains caused it. Maybe it was a summer that was mild enough to make Texas seem like a nice place to be. Maybe some other fluke of weather, magic or botany beyond my comprehension came into play. Bottom line is the nuts came down hard that fall.
"What's the deal with these nuts?" Heather asked. She groaned, planted a black-belt elbow in my ribs, and wrapped the pillow around her head, just the way she did when I snored too loud.
"I have no idea," I admitted. And that was probably the moment when I lost everything.
Week after week, acorns clattered on the roof through the night. They rapped on the window panes, crunched beneath our feet. Heath jumped on nuts in the street like he was popping Mother Nature's bubble wrap. His arms spun like propellers as he came down on them. I went out and cracked a few myself with the cushioned soles of my Nikes. I couldn't help myself. It sounded so good. It felt so good.
You have a human being. You have a nut. You have a satisfying crunch. This is all primal. At that level, we have no choice in the matter. We crush the nuts.
The only problem was the rats. They'd been feeding and breeding out in the park behind our yard for quite awhile before the cold snap. When the weather hit, one of them found his way into our attic and sent word back to his extended family.
"Did you hear that?" Heather asked.
"What?" I lied.
"There's someone in the attic."
"Go to sleep. It's nothing." Nobody can see if you blush in the dark.
"Can't you hear? It's coming down through the walls!"
"Shh! It's okay," I lied again.
"What if they get Heath?"
"He's okay," I said, and I really believed this. "He's asleep."
I stayed awake in sympathy as she tossed and turned for an hour or so, before she finally went to sleep. And then I stayed awake longer while I listened to the scrabbling in the walls.
When I got up the next morning, Heather was scraping a piece of toast over the sink.
"What are you doing?"
"I burnt the toast."
"I don't mind." I slipped my arms around her, and lowered my chin to her shoulder.
"Good, because that's yours." She nodded at a charred slice on the counter as she twisted away from me to reach the marmalade.
"Sorry. What? What's wrong?"
"I couldn't sleep because of those bastards in the walls. Could you?"
This didn't seem quite fair, because the noise had kept me up later than her. But before I could figure out a comeback -- something that would score a point without escalation -- Heath came in, rubbing his eyes.
"Mom, are there hyenas in the attic?" he asked.
"They're not hyenas, honey."
"Johnny Sorenson says hyenas are the loudest animals there are."
"They're not hyenas. They're something different."
Everybody looked at me. Man of the house. Zoologist. Exterminator. Master of Google.
"I'll fix it," I said. I took a bite of the burnt toast. It was crisp, nutty, with al carbon undertones and a wheaty finish. I've read that paired with tea, burnt toast can do service as an antidote for poison.
I made my first pass on the computer as I finished the toast, bookmarking the pages to follow up on, and then Heath and I took Zooey for a walk.
We made our way down the street, placing our feet carefully for maximum nut-crunching effect, while Zooey zigged and zagged, following the fresh and forgotten trails of the dogs that had gone before her.
"Do we have hyenas in the attic?"
"No, big guy. Your mom is right. It's something else. Your mom is always right."
After a moment, Heath looked up at me. "Are you ever right?"
"Your mom and I agree on a lot of things." These were the softball questions. Heather hadn't taught him the other kind yet. "Like we agree that you're the coolest kid at school. But you shouldn't let on to the other kids about that."
"Well, it might embarrass them."
"Because they have hyenas in their attic?"
This was tougher than I thought.
"It could be for any number of reasons that they would be embarrassed."
The Google consensus was that we had an ecological imbalance. An abundance of acorns led to an abundance of fat rats who were now seeking shelter from the cold weather. And they found that shelter in our attic.
My first line of assault was raunchy cheese on old-school rat traps. The spring would break your finger if you weren't careful. This was a pretty good tactic, within its limits. Sometime in the middle of a dream, I'd hear the snap and the brief flopping sound of success, as satisfying as a trout strike.
On the downside, those same sounds would wake Heather, who spent the rest of the night listening to the endless laps in the attic, as if the survivors were greyhounds at the track. And then she'd hear the scrabbling behind the drywall. She'd be surly in the morning and by the time she calmed down, it was bedtime and we'd start the cycle again.
"Do you want me to call X-Rats?" she asked, meaning was I going to call them?
"I said I'll take care of it."
There were other problems with the rat traps. Problems besides the obvious one of climbing up to the attic and disposing of four smelly, bloated rats each morning, then re-baiting the now bloody traps with pungent cheese and spending twenty minutes washing my hands and holding my vomit.
Once I found just the head of a rat in the trap. Sometime between three in the morning and the A.M. trap patrol, something -- a bigger rat, a hyena or God knows what -- ripped away the rest of the carcass.
Another time, a glassy-eyed rodent looked up at me, pinned to the board, pleading. Now what are you going to do with that? I took it a hundred yards into the park, pulled back on the spring and watched it sprint into the brush with a spastic, spiral gait.
The sticky traps -- like giant roach motels -- never got a check-in.
I tried ultrasonic wave generators guaranteed to cast out the rodent kingdom with a screech humans could not hear. All they did was put the dog on edge.
"Is Zooey losing weight?" Heather asked one morning. "I don't think she's eating enough."
"Maybe we should give her some toast." I bit the corner off my own slice, sending a little rain of ashes onto the kitchen table.
Google suggested mock predators to strike terror in rodent brains. So I bought a set of plastic barn owls and spread them through the attic, each standing before a dim, ominous light to threaten our interlopers. But the rat stampedes continued, night after night.
Heather never sent me emails. She preferred to text me or just get right to the heart of it and yell at me in real time. So I was wary of clicking the link in her email, but I was too tired to resist.
"If you're wondering if you need X-Rats," the headline said, "You DO need X-Rats! Click to schedule a free consultation." A timer counted down from five minutes to provide a sense of urgency.
I pictured a crew of vermin technicians in olive jumpsuits invading our home, fanning out through the attic and running up billable hours. They'd come with a contract for quarterly service inspections and there would be no getting rid of them, kind of like the rats themselves.
My toast seemed especially dark the next morning.
"Do we still have any of that strawberry jam?"
She looked at me over her shoulder. "No."
"Oh. Okay." I took another bite.
"Have you ever thought about divorce?"
"No." I put my toast down. "Should I?"
At first it had seemed like there would be endless nuts for Heath and me to tromp on when we took Zooey for her morning walk. But as the weeks wore on, we finally came to the end of the fresh nuts. The half shells were broken down. The quarter shells became like pebbles. And finally, it all turned to dust.
I spent more and more time on Google. Partly because I was getting desperate, but partly because my computer seemed to be freezing and crashing. It started doing that after I opened the X-Rats web page. Or was that just my imagination?
Anyway, now Google was telling me that some people believe burnt toast causes cancer.
"Are you trying to kill me?"
"No." Heather stopped scraping her toast over the sink and looked over her shoulder. "Should I?"
I posed our situation on YourLocalWorld.com to see how our neighbors were coping.
"Rats in the attic," I wrote. "What ya gonna do?"
I got a lot of frowning emojis, a few LOLs and a response from Doug on Gunther Court. Doug had a seasoned barn cat that used to line his kills up in a row every morning, as a point of pride. He sent me a picture of a tuxedo cat, cool, confident, with a license to kill, a feline James Bond, next to seven dead rodents at the entrance to a barn.
"He's a pro," Doug messaged me. "Two hundred fifty and he's yours."
"That's an awful lot for a cat. Aren't people giving them away?"
"You haven't priced an exterminator yet, have you?"
He was right. And I Googled that before I replied. "When can I get him?"
This might work out really well. With Doug's barn cat, we would reclaim our quiet home, and add a new member to our family. Zooey would love a kitty to pal around with. Heath could learn about being responsible by taking on feeding and litter duties.
I stopped at the ATM to get the cash that Doug insisted on. He was a big guy in a lumberjack shirt with the sleeves rolled back to display a series of long scars, some fresher than others. He wore a utility belt that held maybe six pounds of keys, a flashlight, assorted pliers and screwdrivers and something that might have been bear spray.
"You got a crate?"
I drew a blank.
"For the cat?"
"No. Sorry. We don't have any cats."
"Right. Wait here."
A few minutes later he came back with a pillow case, heavy with something alive and not entirely pleased.
"You've got the two-fifty?"
I handed over the cash.
"Open the back door."
He set the sack on the back seat and slammed the door. "That should get you home. Have a nice day."
"What's his name?"
"Whatever you call him, he'll answer to it." For the first time, Doug smiled. "I can guarantee that."
As we pulled out, the cat started wailing like an ambulance siren. Maybe we could call him Amby, I thought.
On the drive home, I cranked up the radio and found a heavy metal station to drown out Amby. This was a cat that could clear our attic on the strength of decibels alone.
It was a ten-minute drive back to our place, but suddenly, Amby stopped wailing. I killed the radio and listened -- to nothing.
"Amby?" I said when I'd pulled up in the driveway. "We're home."
I looked into the back seat, but the pillow case was empty. I didn't see him anywhere, front or back. Okay, I opened the door, and started to get out of the car when something with claws spring-boarded off my shoulder. Amby took one bounce on the driveway and flew through the fence into the park, never to be seen again. I was bleeding where he'd tagged me in his exit interview.
My toast seemed to be getting blacker each morning, while Heather's toast seemed to be popping out picture perfect.
"You look tired," I said, and immediately bit my tongue. Dang!
"I can't sleep. Can you sleep?"
Actually, I'd sublimated the rat races overhead to the point that I could get along okay.
"No." I said. "It's tough."
"I'm going to call X-Rats today."
"I said I'd take care of it. Leave it to me. Today, I promise."
Of course I didn't call. X-Rats was the cure that was worse than the disease.
But that was the night that I was saved by the total collapse of public utilities in Texas. A snap freeze overwhelmed the electric grid leaving the state in darkness. Pipes froze and burst. It was so cold, even the rats couldn't survive in the attic.
They took their chances again in the wild.
Heath, Heather, Zooey and I huddled under a blanket in front of our gas fireplace. The attic was quiet for the first time in months.
"Are the hyenas gone, dad?"
Heather's look told me I wasn't home free.
"I think they are for now, Heath," I said. "But we can never stop watching out for them."
Heather rolled her eyes. But it was quiet for now. And that was good.
About the Creator
Alan Gold lives in Texas. His novels, Stress Test, The Dragon Cycles and The White Buffalo, are available, like everything else in the world, on amazon.
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