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Under the Rug

Gretchen Lenth

"Under the Rug" by Chris Von Allsburg

Reading by the light of a table lamp at 8:15 sharp as he always did, a passing image in his peripherals caught the man’s attention. He looked up from his novel, blinking a few times to focus his vision. With eyebrows scrunched and lowered, he scanned the floor around him. Nothing to be seen on his sand-colored rug; not a speck of dust to be found as it always was. There must have been something there, as it normally took a great distraction to get his attention once engrossed in his reading. If it were those damn mice again… he could have sworn he’d told that frivolous young nurse to take care of those things. Can’t she do anything but bitch at him to pop some pills? Not that they did any good, as the dull pain of a migraine spiked with every flicker of yellowed lamp light.


Disgruntled by the meaningless interruption, the man continued to read, soon with nothing more than the mild aftertaste of unease hanging in the roof of his mouth to remind him. He licked the very tips of his pointer and index as he flipped from page to page with deliberate motion, hoping he could keep pace with his daily reading despite the distraction that had cost him a near thirty seconds. It was between the page turn from 126 to 127 that he saw it again. Only this time, it wasn’t gone as soon as it was within sight. He sensed it right beside him.


Looking up from the text with a wary glance, as soon as his gaze hit the rug below him, his entire head began to swim with liquid pain. Beady eyes filled with a feeling of acid that stung with each panicked blink. Dropping his novel to his lap on impulse, he instinctively rubbed his temples against the beat of a thumping headache. The swirling of his vision, the heated throbbing of his head, subsided just moments later. What remained was that thing.


The bundle underneath the rug remained motionless. If whatever it was had eyes, the man was almost certain they were locked right on him. He’d always believed you could feel a gaze, even if you weren’t certain exactly who it was delivering it. There he felt a looming pair of orbs filling his entire body with a phantom of presence; a shadow of dread.


Making attempts to muster up the courage to lock his eyes right back, he found that his vision still wasn’t up to par. In short; he failed the staring contest before it even began. Anxiety bubbled up from the pit of his stomach. Trembling panic overwhelmed him, sending him up on his feet and atop the chair.


Who says someone as old as him can’t get around well? In retrospect, it may have been the adrenaline taking over. Regardless, the short return to youth comforted him for a fleeting moment. Until he remembered where he was.


With his slippered feet rested shakily on the polished wood of a chair not meant to hold 165 pounds, he felt more comfortable with the idea of examining this figure more closely. Albeit, he used the hardback of his current novel to protect his still raw face. 


His distanced examination brought him no closer to understanding what he was looking at than the passing glances he’d had of it before. It appeared to be nothing more than a sphere hiding underneath his rug, as if some sort of wild vermin had burrowed itself underneath the layer of polyester. In fact, there was no ‘what if’ – that must have been the case.


What on earth was his insurance paying that lazy woman for? If anything, she’d been feeding the damn thing, with how large it appeared.


The creature, still as night’s breath, never reacted to his movements; never so much as flinched as he timidly hovered over it with the sole of a slipper. Yet it was there, waiting; an aura of want surrounding it that the man couldn’t comprehend. This eyesore, forming an ugly abrasion on his nice, clean rug that didn’t have the decency to be chased away. Which was normally something a mouse was all too happy to do.


Just then, as he tried to determine why it was that this creature was acting so peculiarly, the sounds of youthful cackaws reverberated, a high-pitched noise ringing from inside his ears : “It’s at about that age that your eyes begin to play tricks on you”, “A man his age has no right to live alone- heaven knows what kind of trouble he could cause for himself”.


Those idiots. In their twenty-eight years of age and roughly four years of college schooling. Thinking that they could call the shots for a man who lived through wars they only heard about through the droll lectures of a history teacher. What made them think that once a certain number of age was reached, a human automatically became an invalid, dubbed unable to care for themselves as they had the last five decades? It made him sick, causing the dull pain of his headache to intensify to the point where it felt like he’d stuck his head inside a bass drum.


What got his blood pumping just as loudly as that, was the feeling that if he were ever to repeat his experiences of tonight to his nurse or doctor, those self-satisfying children would only cluck their tongues as his story. Continuing to speak to him like a child who’d just woken from a nightmare, they would fill his ears with words of pity dripping with the syrupy sweetness of someone who thinks they stand on intellectual high ground. But in the back of their heads, they would make a note to up his prescription at the next refill. Even after having pulled the same cruel trick two weeks prior without any confrontation or warning. That chemically manufactured garbage was only meant for the sick or insane. He was neither.


Be that way. The man thought, pressing up his glasses by the rim with trembling hands that almost missed their mark entirely.  There is, of course, no surer way to eliminate this pest than to eliminate it by my hand. With a deep breath and a mind suddenly sure of itself, he dipped the tips of his toes onto the rug, testing the waters. Once his feet were on even ground, he turned to the chair, using every ounce of strength his rail-thin arms could muster to pull the wooden chair up and over his liver-spotted head. This had better work too; he wasn’t interested in damaging this perfectly good chair for nothing.


The man locked his eyes on where he was almost certain the creature’s own were too. He at last found that gaze he had been looking for. It was in this moment where he caught the daggers that had been pressed up against his throat; snagging them between his teeth and making fine dust of them. The corner of his sandy lips upturned in a smirk as he spit. Of course, we wasn’t a barbarian, and derived no pleasure from the killing of anything, vermin or not.


But this was more than that. You can’t kill an illusion, after all, and this mouse, rat, oversized roach – whatever it was, was going to be killed. The more his eyes lingered on the creature, the more the acidic burning returned, swilling around and leaving the rug a mess of earth tones. Even so, his grin never subsided. When his breaking point was reached, and he swung the chair down with momentum as his partner in crime, he was almost certain he’d hit his target right on the mark.


If the very square foot of rug the creature had rested on was what he’d been aiming for, he certainly would have. But the creature was gone, leaving only the splintered wood of an amputated chair leg to take its place. 


Having snapped his neck around, he widened his stance as he tried to locate the whereabouts of the vanishing vermin. Flicking his head down below, he made an attempt at scanning the carpet once again. Without notice the broken chair reflexively slipped from his fingers and onto the ground he’d been searching. Function stopped dead in its tracks.


Making anything out was a gargantuan task, as the side table next where he’d been reading toppled to its side, the table lamp being taken with it. This cast harder, darker shadows below him, every piece of his furniture now exaggerated with the severeness of a comic-book illustration. These factors did well in agitating already burning eyes further, fueling the flame with extra logs thrown in each time he tried to focus his vision.


With a deep groan, the man stumbled forward, hands now serving as a cup for each eye. He felt hot tears streaming down his face, no longer able to see more than flashes of light that stirred, fading out into swirls as everything had. The acid was back, assaulting his senses and leaving no room for anything but pain. Pain.


Shutting his eyes tightly, he remained at the mercy of prayer for an end to it all. And it was soon so, fading away after a few seconds as it had at least twice before. Only this time, something about the pain felt different. It felt familiar, like the feeling of having seen a tragedy twice in your lifetime.


God, he needed a drink.


Dismissing the dreadful déjà vu of moments ago, he headed to the kitchen, taking care to not trip over his unsteady knobs of legs. He never did get a chance to take that drink, however, as when he went to pour a glass of refrigerated water, the polished marble countertop greeted him with an unsightly blemish. Abrasions, much like the ones of the rug from just moments before.


No, there couldn’t possibly be more. Could there? In his counter? Rubbing a blood-shot eye, he looked once again and fell into hysterics.


His hears hadn’t picked up the sound of a scream so primal, so guttural. All the man consciously felt was the popping of a vein forcing pressure along his neck, the heat from his eyes travelling through his veins and filling every extremity with rage of the most primitive sort.


Without much of a thought coming from his fried brain, the man reached over for a dirty ceramic plate on the countertop, slamming it quickly and without hesitation. It was like trying to swat a fly with just your hands – you had to act fast before even you could react to it. Even so, this creature seemed able to out-maneuver the average fly, with both marks on the counter gone by the time the old man’s adrenaline fell. It didn’t fall quite enough for him to feel much remorse for smashing a plate worth more than his nurse was paid in a week, as he reached for another one, gripping it between two calloused fingers.


He would just have to move faster. As fast as his arthritic appendages could take him, but it still wasn’t enough. Three on the tile floor below, another five on the aged wood of his cupboards.  It was a bonafide infestation, but no bug spray could take them out. He couldn’t use the weak shit anymore, he determined to himself, panting heavily without any cognizance. A plate wouldn’t kill a rat, let alone whatever this was. But as he dug desperately in his kitchen’s junk drawer, he pulled out what would do just the trick. Watch any living thing survive a straight shot to the head with a hammer.


Watch being the keyword, as every time he slammed down a chair, plate, or hammer, he never did see the creature after impact. Perhaps he was killing these things after all. If so, did they bleed? Most of all – where were they coming from?


Of course, thoughts of this contemplative nature never did reach the man’s brain. If they ever tried to sneak in, the wrappings of denial and rage coiled too tight around the part of his brain that processed rational thought, cutting off nutrients until it could no longer breathe.


Such breathlessness caught up to the old man himself, and without remembering how he got there, with a sharp blink, he found himself sprawled out on the carpet of his study. The plushness of an expensive rug negated by the sharpness of oak at his ankles must have roused him from his slumber. As well as the shard of ceramic that had at some point made itself home embedded in a fingernail. Despite these sensations, his entirety felt cold – a numb cold that, though not pleasant, was too void of substance to be considered particularly unpleasant.


The lack of sensation in his aged body yielded to the brain, which finally had a chance to take the wheel. As such, it picked up exactly where it had left off. It was reading time still – a time that ran from 8:15 to 9:15 without fail. It was only 8:57, his watch reminded.


Sitting himself up, he reached out with a numb hand towards his dog-tagged novel that lay among the rubble. As he did, the tips of his yellowing fingernails grazed the manufactured label of a prescription bottle three pills too full.


With no further pomp, he listlessly fell onto his back and opened the page where a bend in the paper indicated. Licking the tips of his pointer and index, he made deliberate motions as he flipped from page to page. He was so glad he still could find the time to read like this every evening. Life is so fleeting, after all.

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