“You know, it really is a horrible death,” Jake said.
Molly cradled her bloody thumb in her lap, watching her blue jeans soak up spots the color of wet rust. She thought if she ignored her brother he’d go back inside the house, but he was intent on smoking a cigarette while their parents weren’t around.
“You know what happens?” Jake went on. “You get these horrible headaches, and you can’t sleep. And then your throat closes up—you can’t eat or even swallow.” He took a long drag on his cigarette. “And you start going into convulsions. And then you die.” He grinned at her through the haze of smoke surrounding his head.
“You’re full of shit,” Molly said. He was making it up, trying to scare her so she’d tell their parents about the cat bite. She sat on the back steps, kicking at the rickety porch railing.
“And once the symptoms appear, there’s nothing they can do for you,” Jake said. “I guess they could load you up with morphine those last few days to make it easier, but what a bad way to go.” He ground the cigarette butt under his scuffed boot and threw her a pitying look. His eyes were dark in the twilight.
“Ain’t there a shot or something they can give me?” She was proud of how level her voice sounded.
“Oh, yeah,” Jake said. “If you catch it in time. I think it’s about fourteen shots you have to take in the stomach.” He didn’t try to keep the laugh out of his words.
“I don’t believe you,” Molly said.
“You’ll believe me when Mom and Dad are carting your ass to the hospital.”
She lifted her aim from the porch railing to his shin, barely missing him with her foot. She would have gotten him if he weren’t so damn quick. Then she smiled wide enough to show her crooked eyeteeth. “You just remember that I know what you’re afraid of, Jake,” she said. “Only sissies are scared of rats.”
Jake leaned back as if to evaluate her threat. He had to remember how proud their father was when Molly picked up a cellar rat by the tail and bashed its brains out on the concrete floor.
“Now who’s full of shit?” Jake said, but his voice was flat, devoid of its familiar taunting. He didn’t look at her now but out at the field separating their house from the woods beyond.
“You know, it’s amazing how fast a rat can take a chunk out of you.”
“I can’t wait till the symptoms begin,” Jake said. “They could start any day now. Or weeks could pass, even months, and you feel fine. By the time your head starts hurting, it’s too late. Next time you get a headache, Molly, you just remember that.” He went inside before she could hit him or scream that she hoped he started coughing up black blood from all those cigarettes he smoked.
She rested her head against her hands, careful not to smear any blood in her hair. Please God, I’ll take back what I said to Jake, I’ll be nice to him for the rest of my days if you’ll just let me live.
Molly looked around and saw the cat sitting twenty feet away next to the old barn. It had the colors of a tortoise shell spattered all over its white fur. It paid no attention to her now; it merely washed its face, as if it considered her blood contaminated. “I hate you,” she whispered. She’d only held out her hand to it when it approached her. She felt flattered when it chose her; none of the barn cats ever came around when she was outside. Her mom said they were feral, or something like that. She had stretched out her fingers in a gesture of peace, and that cat didn’t even take the time to sniff her. It just chomped down on her thumb and ran. And now it wouldn’t go away. It hung around like the smell of Jake’s cigarette smoke.
Molly searched the ground until she found a good sized rock. She hurled it at the creature, but her throw was lousy. The rock bounced off the side of the barn, giving the cat a start that sent it scurrying into the weeds at the edge of the field.
Inside, her parents and their friends sat at the kitchen table, playing cards and laughing. They didn’t acknowledge her as she hurried past them. Molly looked at the wound on the ball of her thumb. She figured soap and water would take care of some of the germs. Slipping into the bathroom at the other end of the house, she turned on the hot water and let it run until steam coated the medicine cabinet mirror. She washed her hands a couple of times, wincing at the scalding water, and then dried them with a towel.
After wrapping a bandage around her thumb, Molly retreated to her room. She climbed onto her bed and lay back as the light outside her window faded. Dusk painted the distant mountains a deep violet. Molly squeezed her eyes shut, trying to ignore the boisterous shouts erupting from the group in the kitchen. Her head began to ache, and fear gripped her insides, causing her stomach to cramp. She drew her knees to her chest, praying the pain behind her eyes would subside.
Her room was dark and the house silent by the time she dozed off, her head still throbbing. She dreamed of a calico cat carrying squealing rats in its mouth and dropping them, one by one, onto her brother’s bedroom floor.