It had come again, rising from within, a murmur—the awful scrabbling, the horrid scritch, scritch, scritch—a rat between the walls, desperate for a way out.

No exit.

No respite.

Only louder. And, as night descended, more relentless.

He had crouched for long minutes, gathering himself within the lingering, oppressive heat. The world was still. Silent. Expectant.

Then came the wind. At first a whisper before growing to a low moan up through the gully, driving the sere leaves beneath and the dead branches above to stir. Only the ivory rind of August moon caught their naked dance. He paused at the lip of the slope and turned his head back in the direction he’d come, back toward the yard with its deep grass that did not chafe and needle his feet.

He looked across the broad expanse of lawn, beyond the haphazardly tended garden and smooth stone of the patio to the house, its brick walls veined over by a thick ivy that rose from shadow and was engulfed by the gloom above the trees that shrouded it. He cocked his gaze higher, to an open second-story window and the dull glow of the bedside lamp within, its light muted by a scrim.

Pivoting to his left he turned away and began inching down the slope. A few feet, and then he twitched at a stab of pain, his right hand reflexively clutching at the brambles that ensnared his feet. His fingers felt the slick trickle of blood that oozed from an ankle.   He brought it to his chapped lips, an elixir. And an excitant, mingling with his sweat, glistening, oleaginous, his pores alive with its musk. He drew a deep lungful, then froze, senses alive.

A muffled snuffle. To his left. Near. His breath stopped. Nothing moved save the scritch, scritch, scritch inside his head. The rat never ceased.

Never ceased.

Never ceased.


It moved again . . . small, furtive, it moved. A slight shuffle of leaves, and the snuffle. His ear attuned, following, calculating. Soon it would be his. But he dare not move. Not now. Not this close. The snuffle . . . rustle of the sere leaves. A freshening of the wind brought the scent to him while overhead, the naked dance of dead branches resumed under the August moon. Eyes darted down, left. Blackness too deep to see. Only feel. Closer. Slight shuffle . . . tiny snuffle—now!

Snakelike, the left hand struck, fingers clutching as his cracked, jagged nails bit into the soft flesh of the thing. It twisted, its tiny clawed feet madly scraping against his tightening grasp. In its throat, a gurgle, whimpering terror.

Soon enough, it was over.

Its lifeless body hung limp, moist, still warm. But now it was of no interest. With its vital force crushed away, he cast it aside. They might find it, the men who had come searching for signs of him before, crashing through these woods with their shouts and dogs, but they would not find him.

A wraith.

The itch to move flared. Rising to a half-crouch, he let his eyes seek their way through the gloom. His felt the ache in his legs from immobility but shook it off as he picked his way through the underbrush that choked the rim of the gully.

He worked west, pausing every few feet to listen, ears keen to the vibrations of the night. But there was nothing, save the sigh and ebb of the wind and the distant yap of an old hound, somewhere far beyond where the road wound serpentine among the houses on spacious grounds cut from thick stands of oak and maple and ironwood.

He moved forward, bent, pausing, ears keen, the soles of his feet stung by nettles and the points of sharp sticks among the sere leaves. Twenty-five yards more, he halted, nostrils filled with the sour odor of his ragged breath.

Just ahead—there.

At a lonely corner where a wide lawn gave way to the wildness of the gully slope, a white pine had grown to a height just above his head, lower branches pruned away. Beneath, cedar mulch overspread with long needles. He had come there before and now sought its shelter again, an oasis from his anguish, if only fleeting.

He crept under and curled himself onto the gentle bed, easing into the soft push of the needles against his moist skin. His breathing smoothed its tempo. He allowed his eyelids, sweat-crusted at the lashes, to flicker shut. Now came a zephyr, stirring to murmur the boughs above, coaxing him back through time.

Days of summer, the sun searing the back of his neck as he roamed the farmer’s field that lay beyond his house, deep into the green July corn, rising to his thirteen-year-old waist. Tall enough. Finding his hallowed, hollowed spot far from the dusty farm lane, he laid himself down between the rows, burrowing his bare back against the rough soil, cool in the shade of the plants’ broad leaves.  Sheltered, he lay, lulled by the gentle rustle of the leaves and the pungent smell of earth. He could not be found now. He would stay hidden, safe from the thousand cuts of their world, the suffocation of its conformity.

His eyes closed. He drifted. An ant climbed noiselessly over a ridge of dried clods, up onto the crook of his arm. With an idle hand he brushed it, flying, to land at the base of a nearby stalk, there to resume its meandering. He laid his hand on his chest and gave himself up to the doldrums.

There, in those moments, his mind quieted. The murmuring, the faint, insistent scrape of fingernails across sandpaper, sank back into uneasy silence. There his guard, so carefully cultivated and deployed, melted away. They did not know him—how could they? What would he tell them? How to begin to describe what he himself wrestled to comprehend? He only knew in his depths that he was dislocated from their world, driven to flee, to lose himself, to find a measure of serenity in brooding solitude.

But now, his respite was short.

The night was beginning to bend its arc back toward daybreak. His reverie was ending despite the inner yearning that somehow it could be stretched into eternity.

From down below, in the belly of the gully, he heard scuffling . . . tiny yips.


He knew them, had heard them many times as they ran down small prey in these woods, crying out in hunger-lust and bloody triumph.

He must move. Stealth.

From beneath the pine, he emerged slowly. He listened keenly to their passage, below, heading east. Scuffling . . . tiny yips. He swiveled on the balls of his feet, steadied by his left hand, knuckles braced against sere leaves, raw earth. And when the pack had moved safely beyond, he resumed his creep.

He worked his way through the tangle of overgrown weeds and vines that raked his flesh, over fallen and rotting tree limbs just below the rim of the gully. Turning his head, he could see through strands of sweat-matted hair that the August moon had slipped lower in the sky. The wind had fallen away to no more than a fitful murmur. Now the heat would begin to uncoil again and to stifle.

His time was growing short.

The house he sought came into view, across the gully, fifty yards. Swiveling, rising part way from his crouch, he started down the embankment, right foot leading to brake against the slope, against the steady pull of gravity.  At the bottom, his feet sank in the muck of rotted leaves and runoff mud. Quickly through, and leaning into the upward angle of the opposite embankment, he scrabbled to the gully rim, over the rough planks of a low fence and onto fresh-cut grass, stirred by his quickening steps as he traversed the yard, bounding quietly onto the wide deck of the house, a single-story sprawl of weathered shake shingle.

This was the place.

Inside was his tormentor. The one who held sway over his daily existence. The one who exhorted, who cajoled, who squeezed. The one who decreed conformity. Between the corporate white lines. No deviation. Do not stray. Do not think of straying.

And so it was, this asphyxiation . . . until the shroud of night fell and the whisper of the scritch, scritch, scritch became a shriek, compelling his transformation, driving him to crouch beneath the ivory rind of August moon near the glass doors of the perfect house with the perfect wife and the perfect life.

There he would make his response, wrapped within the indigo heat, a crude defilement. So, rising up slightly, he squatted and emptied himself onto the smooth wood.

It was done.

His lips curled into a faint smile, tongue raking over the scum coating his teeth. He knew his time was short, attuned as he was to the subtle character of the darkness. And the dog, far off, took up his bark again, a sure sign of the new day’s advance.

He did not linger, nor cast a second glance behind, letting the stench suffice as coda. Quickly, with practiced stealth and agility, he loped back across the lawn, over the low fence and into the trees. With no time to pause, he moved swiftly to retrace his steps, returning to the lip of the gully beyond which the big house stood. Then, amid the murk that separated night from day, he raced through the gathering dew, his feet threatening to lose their purchase on the slick grass, until he reached the base of the house. With a glance up toward the dull light that shone from the second-floor bedroom, he seized the thick tangle of ivy covering the brick wall, and began to climb.

Dawn was coming soon enough, but there would be time to cleanse himself, to allow a few fitful minutes upon the pillow where the rat’s incessant scrabble would ebb. And time to steel himself before he donned the accouterments of the day and fell in with the others as they shuffled numbly to their seats for the long train ride to the teeming city. He would find his way among the jostling throng to the sleek glass-and-steel tower, upward to the appointed floor and inside the cold fluorescence of the sprawling office where he would smile and nod at the banalities of the others, take his place inside his cubicle . . . and begin again.