Although the short story, “Rats,” is indeed fiction, it has occurrences of truth while the names have been changed to protect the guilty. The story is published here in its entirety.
I pulled the well-worn wooden spoon from the jar of utensils on the counter. The handle dangled for a precarious moment before it bounced several times and came to rest on the Formica. “What happened to my spoon?”
Anita, my six-year-old, giggled, “It broke.”
“I noticed that.” I picked up the dowel and scrutinized what I hoped was a gob of rubber cement, “but how?”
Anita leaned against the cabinet in front of the unfilled brownie pan. Her blue eyes stared up unblinking. I could see the turning gears.
Clay, Anita’s eleven-year-old brother, crossed the room quickly. “Wow, brownies. What’s the occasion, Mom?”
“A funeral for my favorite spoon, do you know what happened?” I fished out a plastic spatula from the jar and frowned at the warped head, melted in a previous bake-off.
“Ah…, I think Shane broke it.” Clay recited our oldest boy’s common excuse for unexplained broken or damaged property.
Anita giggled at the family joke. “Shane breaks everything.”
I stopped the mixer and handed Anita a beater. “Maybe we should stop letting that clumsy neighbor kid in the house.”
Clay shrugged. “Can I have a beater, too?”
While the two kids smeared chocolate across their faces, I attempted to spread chocolate around the pan with the bent spatula.
The back door slammed. “Ohhh, brownies.” Fourteen-year-old Rick sauntered into the kitchen.
I sighed and opened the cupboard door to the wastebasket. “Rick, do you know what happened to my wooden spoon?” I threw the chocolate covered spatula into the trash.
Clay shrieked, “Mom, I could have licked that.”
“Sorry.” I frowned and held the two pieces of wooden spoon for Rick to see.
He looked from his sister to his younger brother. “No clue. Can I lick the bowl?” Clay hip-shoved his brother away from the mixing bowl.
“I wasn’t here.” Anita weaved her tongue in and out of the beater.
“What do you mean?” I picked up the Pyrex dish. “Where were you?” My words sounded off-hand, as I turned to open the oven door.
“I was down the street at Meagan’s, remember?”
I slid the pan into the hot oven. “Was this yesterday, when I went grocery shopping?” I had left Rick in charge of his two brothers, Clay and Michael while Anita went to visit her friend. “You were here when I came back.”
“I came home when I heard Michael screaming.”
“Screaming?” I bent down to Anita’s eye level.
“No.” Anita backpedaled, looking at her oldest brother glare. “Just hollering … a little.” My eyes widened as she spoke faster. “He was using the spoon, to get his underwear out of the pecan tree.”
“What?” I looked at the older boys who shrugged in unison. “I don’t understand, Anita—explain.”
“It was just funny, Mom. After they “pants” Michael they threw his underwear up in the tree where he couldn’t reach.” She pointed at the front door.
On cue eight-year-old Michael ran in from the TV room. “Are the brownies ready, yet?” He ran by the family crowd to look in the oven window. Michael turned to see my mouth hanging open. “What?”
“You were in the front yard naked?”
He looked at the audience standing at the counter. “I had a towel around me.”
Clay snorted a laugh before Rick elbowed him.
“Clay.” I turned to the weak link.
“I can’t help it, Mom. It was those leopard bikinis.”
I turned my head with a cough, knowing the youngest boy’s fashion obsession. I pursed my lips to stifle a smile.
“I gotta use it.” Clay ran towards the hall bathroom.
I turned to Rick. “So you pulled off your brother’s pants, took his underwear, and threw them up in the tree—in the front yard—for God and everybody to see?”
“They gave me a swirly too.” Michael stood looking in the oven window. “Are the brownies done, yet?”
“A swirly—is that what I think it is?” I grimaced with visions of Michael’s head in the commode.
Gastrocolic soundings rumbled down the hall. Rick tipped his head in the direction of the bathroom. “Just be glad he didn’t use it first.”
“I heard that.” Clay yelled from his throne.
“So did we,” Anita chimed in. Laughs erupted all around.
I scowled. “That’s enough, young lady.” Anita pouted her lower lip at me.
I turned to Michael. “What started all this?”
“I don’t know.” Michael glanced from his older brother to the oven. “It’s no big deal.”
“It was a big deal if your sister could hear you all the way down the street.” My voice rose with my mental mortification. “I’m surprised the neighbor’s didn’t call me.”
“Maybe they’re not tattle-tails.” Rick ran his finger around the empty chocolate bowl.
I shook my head. Eyes closed, I could only imagine the tailwind from the neighborhood moms. “Oh, God.” I bit my bottom lip.
“Call me when the brownies are ready?” Michael was running toward the TV room.
I made a quick recovery. “Come back here.” The toilet flushed and Clay slid open the pocket door to the bathroom and headed down the hall toward the TV. “You too, young man. I want some answers.”
Clay dragged his feet in an exaggerated death march behind his little brother. “Aw, Mom, it’s no big deal. We didn’t hurt him.” He stepped on the heel of Michael’s shoe, sending him into a dive.
“Booger Face.” Michael whirled around ready to punch the taller boy.
“Stop it, immediately. Get over here.” I pointed to the dining room table. “Sit.” My finger jabbed toward Rick and Anita, indicating them as well.
“I didn’t do anything.” Anita sat with a harrumph.
“Yes, well then you don’t have anything to hide.”
Anita’s feet swung back and forth. Shoulders hunched, she sat with her chin on the table. “Rick told me not to tell.”
“I’m sure he did.” I looked at my oldest whose knuckles were still in the metal mixing bowl he’d brought to the table. “Give me that.” I whisked the bowl over to the sink. “You were supposed to be in charge, Rick.” The clang of metal to sink punctuated my point. “You need to set an example—both of you.” I looked from one older boy to the next. “He looks up to you.” I pointed at Michael.
“He was having a good time.” Rick grinned at his youngest brother. “He was getting into it, too.”
“It was different when you were picking on Clay?” Michael stuck his nose in the air and sniffed. “Can we eat?”
Clay looked indignant. “Yeah, you guys only tried to set me on fire!”
“What?” I stood over the table of defendants.
Clay pointed to Michael. “He got the fireplace lighter while she got Mom’s hairspray.” He turned on his sister.
“Hairspray, for what?” I looked at Anita.
“I didn’t know what it was for. Honest, Mom. Rick just told me to do it while he held the door shut.”
“I didn’t hold the door shut. He had it locked.” Rick pointed toward Clay.
“Locked why?” I looked from one boy to the next.
“I was trying to go to the bathroom, and they wouldn’t leave me alone.” Clay squared self-righteous shoulders.
“You were trying to keep Michael from hitting you with the spoon.” Anita giggled.
“He tried to pull off the towel, Mom. Out there …,” Michael pointed toward the front door, “in front of God and everybody.”
“What did you do with my hairspray, Anita?”
“I didn’t do anything.” Anita’s lower lip trembled. “Rick made it spray fire through the bathroom keyhole,” she wailed.
“RICK.” My eyes bulged like a cartoon character.
“I didn’t know it would work, so well.”
“It was a good thing I was sitting on the toilet.” Clay’s hands flew in the air. “Fire shot right through the door past my face.”
“Rick,” was all I could manage. “What…, How?”
“We learned it in Science class. You put fire in front of the spray and it turns into a torch.”
“They taught you that in school?” My mouth hung agape, waiting for oxygen.
“The teacher used different propellant, but it was really cool.”
“I’ll cool your butt, Mister. You could have really hurt your brother or set the house on fire!” I walked in a circle, rubbing my forehead, while Anita began to sniffle.
Eight-year-old Michael bounced in his chair. “I smell the brownies. Can we eat ‘em?”
“Hell, no. I may never make brownies again,” I bellowed. On cue the timer buzzed and Anita began to cry. Grabbing the oven mitten, I stepped to the range. “I may donate these to the church,” I yelled and pulled out the 9×13 inch pan, placing it on the stove top, so smooth and practiced the motion resembled a dance.
“Aw, Mom,” Clay and Michael chimed in a chorus. “Please, please, please don’t give them to the church, again; can’t we eat the brownies?”
“No! Go play,” I waved a red mitten in the direction of the back yard. “Not, you.” I pointed a long finger at Rick; my eyes squinted, trying to look fierce. He sat down while the younger boys ran out the back door. Anita stayed, her hands in her lap, forehead resting on the table.
I leaned on the counter that separated the kitchen from the dining area, allowing the quiet to settle into the space. My eyes rested on the broken spoon, as I regained my composure and decided how to dispense justice. “So Rick,” I picked up the two pieces of wood. “What happened to my spoon?”
The fourteen-year-old looked at his sister. “I think it was rats.”