Saturday, February 19, 2005

Pest Control

Annabelle had disliked Rita from the first moment, but there wasn’t much she could do. Their mothers were friends – or rather, her mother wanted to be friends with Rita’s - because Rita’s mom had class. Annabelle didn’t understand what that meant, but she didn’t care much either – until, one afternoon, momma announced how splendid it would be if Rita and Annabelle could become friends. Annabelle thought that if having class meant having to play with Rita Farnsworth, she’d rather have none of it. Every girl in school feared Rita. Sure, she had the prettiest dresses and always wore her hair in the latest fashion, but she teased and taunted the other girls maliciously. Annabelle thought that Rita had a “heart of mud”. Rita always pulled a face like something smelled badly when Annabelle passed her. And once, she had stomped on a baby bird that had fallen out of its nest. It had sent several girls crying, but Rita had just smiled.
Annabelle protested against her mother’s plans, but only weakly – momma had already made up her mind. Right after dinner she made a call and invited the Farnsworths for tea.

When the day came, momma scurried about the house like a flustered hen, dusting and setting up the fine china. Annabelle spent the afternoon in her nursery in a rather gloomy mood, dressed up like a doll – elegantly, momma said – feeling out of place in her skin, awaiting her introduction to higher circles with the grim resignation of a martyr. She comforted herself in playing with Whiskers. Whiskers was her pet rat – not a ragged brown street rat, but a handsome, intelligent creature with a soft white coat, a marvellous pink tail and ever-vibrating nose that made her laugh when it tickled her ear, and made her heart grow wide and warm whenever Whiskers licked her cheek affectionately. Whiskers made all her bad thoughts go away. She loved how he would climb from her lap up her arm and scamper around her neck like a tiny mountaineer, exploring the heights of Mount Annabelle. She loved how he would run and hide under her frock when something scared him, pressing against her kneeling legs for protection. She loved him because he made her feel like she mattered. Momma hated Whiskers, of course, but she hated anything that was common in her eyes…

“So that’s where you live!”
Annabelle whirled around, managing to inconspicuously pull the curtain to hide Whiskers’ cage in the window seat. Rita stood in the door like an apparition. She eyed Annabelle with raised brows, then began to wander about the room, picking up toys and books, inspecting them with a bored expression and dropping them carelessly. “Bit crummy, isn’t it?”
Annabelle didn’t reply. Rita’s presence made her stomach churn with contempt.
“So you want to be friends with me?” said Rita mockingly.
Annabelle didn’t look at her. “Momma said -“
“Momma said”, mimicked Rita. “Are you a momma child, Annasmell?”
Annabelle blushed, and Rita smiled.
“I bet you just want to be my friend so you can play with my toys. Can’t blame you, with these old things you’ve got here.” She flicked against a doll, and the doll toppled over. Annabelle felt a sting of anger.
“Maybe you wanna be friends with me so everyone thinks you’re rich, too”, Rita mused. “Maybe you do because you want everyone to adore you as well.”
That did it. “Nobody adores you!”, Annabelle burst out angrily. “Nobody wants to be friends with you! You are just a spoilt wicked girl.”
Rita laughed, and it was then that Whiskers rustled in his straw behind the curtain. Before Annabelle could stop her, Rita had pulled the curtain aside. “What’s that?”
“Nothing”, Annabelle said anxiously. “Leave it alone.”
“Your mother said I could play with whatever I wanted”, Rita said, aloof, “because I am the guest.” She peeked into the little hut that served Whiskers as a nest, knocked on it, and Whiskers darted out. With a quick move, Rita grabbed the rat and held it up in her closed fist. Too tightly, Annabelle saw, and her heart stopped. Whiskers’ feet twitched helplessly, and he squeaked, trying to wriggle himself free.
“It’s a rat!” Rita exclaimed. “Don’t you know they killed people in the middle age? They should all be exterminated!”
“Let him go!” Annabelle said, her heart feeling faint with fear that a wrong word, a wrong gesture, would cause Rita to squeeze harder, and at the same time feeling a fury rise in her she had never felt before.
Rita smiled and playfully pulled the rat’s whiskers. It gave a loud screech, and something in Annabelle snapped. She lunged forward and, without thinking, punched Rita in the face. Rita staggered backwards with a surprised expression, dropping Whiskers who scurried under Annabelle’s bed. Rita held her burning cheek, and when she regained her composure, her eyes narrowed to cold little slits. “You will regret this”, she hissed. Then she broke out wailing and burst out of the room.

When Annabelle went downstairs, her mother immediately grabbed her by the arm and gave her a shake. “What on earth has gotten into you?” she hissed.
“She wanted to hurt my pet, momma!”
“It’s a rat, mother!” Rita whimpered. “And it tried to bite me.”
“That’s not true!” Annabelle protested.
Mrs Farnsworth looked shocked. “You let your child keep a rat?”
“Well,” Annabelle’s mother looked flustered. “I was always against that rat, but my husband insisted Annabelle could keep it. She made such a fuss about it.”
“Well, it’s rather disgraceful, isn’t it!” said Mrs. Farnsworth, raising a brow in a way that was uncannily Rita-esque, making momma blush. But then, she erected herself and said, “Of course, we’ll have the animal removed.”
“I should hope so”, said Mrs. Farnsworth. “I cannot imagine having tea in an… infested house again.”
Momma shook Annabelle again. “Don’t you think you owe Rita an apology?”
Annabelle clenched her lips and remained silent. Not a word they would hear from her.
“Well, don’t bother”, said Rita. “I don’t want to come here anymore anyway. Let’s leave, mother!”

That was the end of it, so thought Annabelle. She almost felt proud; the prospect of being free from Rita’s company made her mother’s scolding seem like only a small evil. She pretended to be upset but obedient to momma’s command to get rid of Whiskers. She carried the cage outside and hid it in a woodshed, but smuggled it back into her room the same night. Momma never came up here except to say good night. She would hide the cage in the closet for that time. It would be alright. Whiskers and she would stay together; she would take care of that.

It was a week later, when Annabelle returned from school that her mother greeted her in the door, looking aglow with happiness. “Darling, you never guess who was just here to see you”, she said. “Yes, Rita! She forgave you and wanted to make up! Isn’t that just graceful of her?”
Annabelle shrugged; whatever Rita was up to, she had decided to ignore her. She turned to go up to her room and her mother added: “Rita said she left you a gift in your room.”
Annabelle stopped in her tracks. A gift for her? Suddenly she had a sinking feeling, a bad feeling that something was wrong. She flew up the stairs, burst into her room and dragged Whiskers’ cage out of the closet. Her heart tore in disbelief and terror and pain, and she burst into tears so violently that the world blackened out for a second. Whiskers was lying on the floor, his little lifeless body twisted in the last convulsion that had shaken him before he had died. His black eyes were clouded and broken. His coat had lost its healthy shine and looked like an old fur pulled over a piece of wood. In his bowl, mixed with the grains and sticking to the fruit, was grey-greenish dust, and the realisation hit Annabelle that it resembled the traps that were laid out in the school basement. Rat poison.
And then she saw the corner of a piece of paper that was pinned under Whiskers body like under an obscene paperweight. Blind with tears, she pulled it out, wiped her eyes and stared at the word that seemed to jump at her from the note. Surprise! , it read, in Rita’s hand, Rita, who had been late for school today, Surprise!, it seemed to scream at her, in malicious mockery, like a mad clown. Surprise!
Rita had come and fed poison to the guileless little Whiskers. And Annabelle hadn’t been here to save him.

That night, Annabelle buried Whiskers in the garden. She forced her tears back for a week, only crying herself to sleep at night, waking up mornings feeling empty and cold, until the memory of Whiskers and his broken, dead eyes and the sight of his empty cage filled her with hot tears again, tears that wanted to rupture her heart, tears she wouldn’t permit to flow until she was alone.
Then, on a Saturday morning, Annabelle got up and a strange sober determination had replaced her hot fury. She went to her mother and asked her to invite Rita over so they could make up. Then she returned to her room, dressed her dolls in their best clothes, and set her tea table for two.
When Rita rang the doorbell downstairs, Annabelle picked up the jug and straightened the linen cloth momma had lent her. She stirred the cocoa thoroughly, hoping the extra sugar would mask the bitter taste of the strychnine, and then waited for Rita to knock.

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