It all started with an ingrown toenail. Sierra was repulsed by malformations of any kind. The prospect of having to cross paths with an amputee would be enough to drive her to the other side of the street. Even a large scar or a lazy eye would make her shudder and turn away. This was why she ignored and ignored the toe until it was so swollen and throbbing that she could scarcely ease it into a sandal and hobble in to the doctor’s office.
Once there, she flinched and moaned until the doctor, out of exasperation, injected sufficient anesthesia to numb her to all sensation well past her ankle. One would not characterize Sierra as being robust of spirit. Soon, her toe yellow with iodine and packed in gauze, she limped back out to her car.
She arranged her deadened foot safely out of the way of the pedals and got on the highway. To complicate things, she had agreed to house-sit for her brother that weekend, which involved a two-hour-long drive. She had reached cruising speed and the sun was beginning to dip below the horizon to her left when her phone rang in her bag. Her brother.
“Have you left yet? I tried to reach you before you left. I’m sorry. Can you do me a favor?”
“You mean besides watching your house for you all weekend?”
“Har. Yes. Lucifer needs to be fed and I forgot. Will you stop at a pet store and get him a rat?”
“Are you serious? After the day I have already had? I just had minor surgery on my toe!” she snapped.
“What happened? Are you okay?” he said, sounding regretful, “You can cancel on the house. I didn’t know you were injured.”
She sighed, enjoying making him feel bad for a moment.
“No, it’s fine. Just a gross ingrown toenail. But I’m not buying a rat!”
“Fine,” he replied, “then you can spend the weekend alone in a house with a hungry python.”
“Aarrgh! You are so annoying!” she hit the steering wheel with a fist, “fine! I’ll go buy a disgusting rat for your disgusting snake, you disgusting person!”
And she hung up the phone.
At the next exit that promised commerce, she pulled off and drove around until she found a chain pet store.
“I need a rat,” she mumbled to the perky clerk who asked brightly if he could help her with anything.
“What size would you like? I can let you pick it out,” he chirped, trying to lead her to a cage that was writhing with rodents.
“No! Just get one. I don’t care what size,” she growled, feeling herself beginning to sweat.
The clerk walked rapidly away. She leaned her weight on her right leg. Her foot did not seem to be coming back to life at all.
“Is this one okay?” asked a voice at her elbow.
She whirled, startled, and found herself face to face with a rat.
It had round, red eyes and huge, yellow front incisors. Its body was covered with thick, coarse, off-white fur. It clung to the hand of the clerk with red, scaled claws, and its repulsive, ropey tail wrapped around his wrist like a serpent.
“Yes! It’s fine!” she shut her eyes, but the image of the rat stayed in her mind.
The clerk calmly put the rat into a small cardboard box, closed it, and punched holes in the top and sides with a pair of blunt scissors. Immediately, the rat stuck his nose out of one of the holes.
“It can’t get out, can it?” she asked, and the clerk just stared at her.
Sierra paid and limped away as fast as she could, panic and humiliation washing over her in waves.
Sierra put the box in the passenger seat. The rat was completely contained, but the mere sight of the box made her jumpy.
Once again, she arranged her numb foot on the floor board, and put the key in the ignition. Back on the highway, she turned on the radio, hoping to take her mind off of her cargo. She managed to find a station with some pop country that came in distant and fuzzy.
Sunlight was beginning to fail and headlights were winking on in cars all around her when she heard it. A slowly, steady grinding sound. Of course! The perfect ending to the perfect day. Car trouble.
She snapped off the radio and tipped her ear toward the dashboard, trying to find its origin.
Suddenly Sierra felt a chill. She realized where the grinding sound was coming from.
It was the box.
The rat was chewing the box. But something about the sound was terrifying.
It wasn't the frantic attempts of a primitive creature that smelled its own death in the corners of its cardboard prison. No; it was the slow, methodical execution of a plan. The rat was slowly, steadily, gnawing at the box. It was only a matter of time. The rat was going to escape.
And it seemed to know it.
Sierra screamed and swerved. Her breath came quickly.
Grind, grind, grind.
At this point it was nearly dark. The interior lights of Sierra’s car had gone out long ago. She realized with mounting panic that very soon she and the rat would be in a completely dark car together. She rolled down the window, ready to fling the box to the will of the Fates in the median of the highway.
She took a deep breath and shifted her anesthetized foot. She was being irrational. The cardboard box was thick. It was just a rat. She had about an hour left in her drive. Surely the box would last that long.
Grind, grind, grind.
She leaned back in her seat and stepped on the gas. Everything was going to be fine. As if to confirm this, the grinding, gnawing sound abated. The prisoner had given up. She imagined it curled inside the box, placidly awaiting its doom.
But…what if it had stopped chewing, not because it had given up, but because it had already escaped?
She reached out to touch the box, to check if was still sound. But then she recoiled, imagining the rat, crouching on top of the conquered box, its nose quivering through the darkness toward her outstretched hand…
She shrieked again, resolving to pull off at the first exit and drive to the sanctuary of a lit gas station. But the miles were desolate, and the signs on the side of the highway gave no hope of rescue.
As minutes passed, her heart thundered and her imagination went wild. Her mind began to vividly animate the rodent's escape. She was sure the rat was perched on the back of her seat, slinky tail wrapped around the head rest, filthy claws clinging to the upholstery, whiskers nearly brushing her neck…
But then she heard it- grind, grind grind.
The sound sent ripples of relief through her taut and shaking body. The rat had begun to chew the box again. The gnawing noises sounded softer and wetter than before. The box was probably nearly shredded, but at least she knew where the rat was. She was twenty-five minutes from her brother’s house, surely the box would last that long.
Sierra sat up straight and drove, strangely soothed by the foul, moist sounds of the rat gnawing at its soggy and disintegrating prison.
At last, she turned onto her brother’s street, thinking how she couldn't wait to take a shower. Even her jeans were soaked in sweat.
As she pulled up to his house, and the motion-sensing light snapped on, Sierra began to scream. In the yellow light she would see that her jeans from the knees down were black with blood. Shredded gauze, sticky with clotted yellow matter littered the floor.
Five pointed, white bones protruded from a tangle of flesh. The rat, now slick and crimson with gore, perched, satiated, on the ruin of what had once been her left foot.