My brother had warned me about the rats. When our dad's seed company bought the derelict grain warehouse the year before, Mike had been one of the first ones on site, cleaning up years of rotten wheat and bird crap. And he'd had to deal with rats, both dead and alive, who'd been living it up on leftover grain, getting bigger and bigger, becoming the apex predators of the abandoned warehouse.
I was the lucky one. By the time I worked there the place still needed some cleanup, but the standing water and dead birds were mostly gone. I was young, and the boss' daughter, so at first David and Phil, the other guys who worked there, just put me in the office and told me to answer the telephone. But nobody called, and I was so bored they let me try a few odd jobs: Power-wash the building, paint the office, help dump the seed trucks. Once they saw I would actually dig in and work, they upped the ante. Pretty soon I was bagging grass seed out of the cleaner, sewing up the 70-pound bags with a hand-held sewing machine, then loading them onto pallets. When the pallets were transferred to a nearby warehouse for shipping, they sent me down to help load the bags into a boxcar. It was 90 degrees outside and nearly 110 inside the car. The whole summer was dirt and grain dust in my eyes and ears and nose, mixing with my sweat to form a pale paste on my skin. But at the end of the day there was cold Coke in a bottle and air conditioning in the car on the way home.
It was nearly the end of the summer before I saw my first rat. I was beginning to think Mike had been exaggerating their size and boldness to freak me out: a grown-up version of the times he'd told me some terrifying fact about World War II or some serial killer just to scare me. But he wasn't exaggerating. The rat that lumbered along the edge of the pile of seed was huge, and it looked at me like it was trying to decide if it could take me in a fair fight. I backed out of the warehouse slowly, then ran to find David and Phil.
"It was this big," I said, holding my hands to indicate the size of small dog. It was probably more puppy-sized, but still much bigger than any rat had a right to be.
"You got this one?" Phil asked David.
David nodded, grabbing the shovel near the warehouse door. I followed at a distance, wanting to see what would become of the defiant rodent who was gorging himself on the product of our hard work.
David walked to the center of the room, near the pile of seed I'd indicated. He held the shovel, waiting. When the rat emerged again, David brought it down on the rat, guillotine-style, severing its head from its neck. I gaped, then turned away while he scooped up both parts and took them out back to the field.
"You want the next one?" David asked, leaning the shovel back against the warehouse wall.
"Nah, I'm good," I said. "I think I hear the phone ringing." ♦