(Art: “Infestation” by Charlie Cody)
I didn’t want much from my last year of employment with the hospital; just to keep my head down, do my job, and get out with as little fuss as possible. Of course, for that to happen, I’d have to keep my mouth shut and ride out the wave of increasingly demanding “requests” for me to work longer hours while tolerating snide remarks about my age.
Unfortunately, that just wasn’t my style.
After yet another meeting with HR over my unwillingness to roll over and play dead when my supervisor told me I was working Saturday because Tanya just had to have it off, I was told to take an early lunch and “think things over”. It was the same thing they’d been telling me since I hit 60 a few years before. They wouldn’t fire me, I was too good a nurse and they had no viable reason, but the not-so-subtle hints they’d been dropping about how I had aged out of the department were plentiful and pointed.
We all knew what “Think things over” really meant; “Just leave already so we can fill your spot with someone half your age and twice your cup size”. Maybe it’s not true for all hospitals, but at mine, having a beautiful nurse was far more important than having a skilled one.
I did get some satisfaction from being the gray haired thorn in their side and as I walked out of the front doors, I did so with my head held high and my go-to mantra of “One more year, one more year” running through my mind.
Usually I would have taken my lunch at one of the picnic tables set off to the side on a cement patio, but that day, I needed to put some distance between me and that place, so I walked along one of the mulched paths leading to an adjoining park area. It was a good size, created for long term patients who were well enough for short trips outside, and boasted a number of colorful flower beds, hanging trees, and a small pond in the middle.
I bypassed it all to take a seat at my preferred bench on the far end of the park that butted up against the undeveloped section of hospital land with all its undergrowth and barely contained wildness. It was quietest there and most people didn’t bother going out so far when the pond, with all of its ducks and small fish, made for a more attractive setting.
I leaned back into the bench, my sandwich in my hands, and sighed. I wrestled with myself, whether sticking it out was worth it, if I was just being a stubborn fool, and I second guessed if putting my foot down over another extra work day was the right thing to do. One of these days, I kept swearing I would learn to keep my mouth shut.
Whether I’d still be employed by the time that happened? That remained to be seen.
Beside me, a bush rustled slightly, interrupting my thoughts, and I turned to the sound. A pair of black, beady eyes were staring out at me from the shadows, studying me with an unblinking, hungry intensity.
“Is that you, Chubs?” I asked and was rewarded with an audible snuffle from a long snout.
I smiled as the rat, aptly named for her robust size, took another cautious step out from the cover of the underbrush, her nose and ears twitching. When she felt comfortable enough to emerge completely, I took a bit of crust from my bread and tossed it to her.
“We really should be eating more veg, shouldn’t we, girl?” I said with a pat to my stomach. She picked the crust up in her little hands and began to shove it in her mouth.
Chubs was just one of many rats who lived in the undeveloped plot, but she was by far the bravest. We’d first met a year or so before, when I started taking my lunch further and further from the hospital. Someone must have been feeding her before me because she’d not been shy about making herself known and staring me down until I’d shared my food.
At first, I had thought that it was a bit unsanitary to have a rat hanging about so closely and I’d tried to shoo her away, but she was persistent and I’m a sucker for a cute face. It didn’t take long for her to win me over.
We both made sure to keep some distance between us, though, and I never tried to touch her. She would just pop out for a quick bite, sit and clean herself while I finished, and then hop back into the brush when I got up to go. Really, it was no different than people feeding the ducks at the pond and I had to admit, she was some of the better company the hospital had to offer.
I watched her rub her all-too-human-like fingers across her face when she finished the bread and I smiled.
“Is that a rat?”
Chubs and I were both startled by a voice over my shoulder and she darted back into the bush. Tanya Daily, the nurse who was trying to dump her Saturday shift on me, was standing just up the path, a disgusted sneer on her made up face.
“That’s disgusting, Yvonne!”
“It’s a wild animal,” I replied evenly. “You see them when you go outside sometimes.”
“It’s a rat,” she said.
Before I could stop her, she’d picked up a few rocks from the side of the path and chucked them into the bush. I wasn’t sure if Tanya managed to hit Chubs, but there was a shuffling sound as she dove deeper into the protective tangle of plants.
“Stop that!” I snapped and Tanya let the remaining stones fall from her hands.
“Disgusting,” she said again with a shudder.
I knew why she’d come all the way out to that bench to find me before she had even mentioned Saturday. When I firmly told her no, it escalated into something bordering on an argument and she huffed and puffed, but I held my ground.
When it became apparent that I wasn’t going to change my answer, she tossed some final barbs about this being the reason no one liked me and how anti-social I am, and only got more frustrated when I just shrugged.
“Guess it’s a good thing I don’t come to work to be liked,” I said.
Tanya stomped off and I let my bravado fade into a slump. I was going to pay for that, I was sure.
“Sorry about that, Chubs,” I said to the still bushes as I packed up my lunch. The rat didn’t reappear before I left to go back to work.
Repercussions were swifter than I’d anticipated. First, due to an alleged rat infestation in the park, staff were forbidden from eating there. Tanya made it well known that I encouraged the rodents by feeding them and I was largely blamed for the ban.
The hospital said they’d be putting poison out to kill the rats. I tried to petition for the use of humane traps, but was silenced by a self-described concerned committee of employees who made loud claims that rats were dangerous and diseased. I was heartbroken when I was staunchly overruled.
“It’s a hospital, Mrs. Greene, not a vermin sanctuary.”
While courteous to my face, the younger nurses started to ostracize me more than they had before. Gossip ran rampant through the stations about how I had thrown a fit and threatened Tanya after she had so meekly asked if I could please, please, please do her this huge favor. I was avoided and ignored and pushed aside with petty passive aggressiveness until I went home and cried into my husband’s shoulder.
The traps were laid in the undeveloped parcel the following week. I snuck out after work for a few days and tossed some untainted food around, hoping the rats would be drawn to it instead of the poison, but it felt like a futile effort. No doubt the poor rats, who had never bothered anyone before, would be wiped out.
All because I refused to take someone else’s Saturday shift.
The first rat sighting was called in by a patient. He had heard something skittering across his floor and, when he’d turned on his light, found the critter sitting at the foot of his bed, staring up at him.
The second one came from the cafeteria, where workers witnessed a line of rats scampering across exposed pipework overhead. When they’d been noticed, the rodents stopped and turned to gaze at the kitchen staff, who got themselves into a little bit of a panic as they raced to get out of the kitchen.
When rats were seen in the maternity ward, hospital execs knew they were teetering on the brink of serious trouble.
Exterminators were called, but the reports kept coming. Rats in the halls, in the exam rooms, in offices. They never approached anyone, they would just sit and watch, chattering their teeth and flicking their long, naked tails, but patients started to check out. Even with all the money being dumped to keep things hush hush, rumors were bound to leak and there was a tiny drop in admissions.
Administration, needing a scapegoat and bolstered by both my supervisor and Tanya, tried to find a way to blame me for their rat problem, but they had nothing concrete to pin on me. Still, they kept trying, until I was forced to report them to the highest branch of HR that I could get to.
It was amazing how words like “hostile work environment” and “ageism” (along with pages of documentation) got people’s attention.
Not wanting to deal with any more PR issues, Tanya and my supervisor were both forced into a few weeks of “voluntary” leave while the hospital sorted through the issue.
The rats, however, remained.
They were becoming more numerous and louder. If you listened closely, you could hear them clawing around in the walls and their squeaks in the air ducts. It seemed every few hours, someone else had a rat to report. I never saw them, even when I was actively looking for them, and I hoped it was the same way for the exterminators.
Even with all the chaos caused by the sudden infestation, for me, personally, work was the calmest it had been in a long time. I got the occasional phone message or text from a blocked number telling me that it was all my fault, which were obviously from Tanya, but after all she and our supervisor had put me through, it was laughably easy to ignore.
I hardly even minded when I was assigned a late shift that would keep me at work until well after ten.
It was a busy, exhausting night of bouncing between floors and stretching myself thin to attend to all of my duties and patients. By the time I was done, I was stiff and sore and beyond ready for bed. I bid the other late shifters a goodnight and trudged down the parking garage.
I shouldered open the door, my attention lost in my handbag alongside my keys, and almost didn’t notice it at first. A chorus of high pitched squeaking coming from the darkness beneath cars and the shadowy, unlit corners. I paused, more curious than nervous, and looked up to see a particularly large, round rat standing on her hind legs in front of me.
“Chubs?” I asked, and her ears swiveled.
Once I spoke, she lowered herself to the ground and bared her yellowed fangs. I hadn’t known until that moment that rats could hiss. The sound was picked up by those in the shadows until the garage almost vibrated with it.
Chubs took a step towards me, gnashing her teeth and swinging her head from side to side. A few more rats slithered into the light and followed suit, scratching at the air, at me, all the while hissing.
More poured out from nooks and crannies of the garage and they fell in step behind Chubs to surge towards me, a writhing sea of fur and teeth. One leapt at my legs, another latched on to my purse. Chubs herself was snapping at my feet, her ears pinned back against her head.
I screamed and let my purse slide down my arm and a few jumped on it. I was scrambling backwards, pursued by a furious, squealing mass.
I made it to the door and wrenched it open to throw myself inside. Once I’d secured it shut, I peeked out the small window to watch the rats swarming on the other side.
Chubs had come to a standstill in the center and reared back on her hind legs. One by one, the others fell silent and did the same, until they were all upright, their shining eyes fixed on the door.
Despite the soreness in my legs, I ran all the way back upstairs to the security office.
“The rats attacked you?” One of the guards asked.
“Yes,” I answered breathlessly, “in the garage!”
But when he checked the security feed after I’d told him the whole story, the parking garage was empty.
“You’re sure?” Doubt was creeping into his voice, like he thought I was just a crazy old lady who had imagined the whole thing.
“Of course I’m sure! Can you rewind it or something?”
It took some convincing, but he finally agreed to pull the most recent footage for review. I hovered over his shoulder while he set it up and watched the screens anxiously. When I saw the timestamp, set twenty minutes before the end of my shift, I almost told him to fast forward, but motion in the upper corner made me pause.
It was Tanya, in sunglasses, but unmistakable anyway, and a man. They were walking quickly through the garage, until they came to a dark red van. My car. The man grabbed something from his pocket and ducked down under the front while Tanya kept an eye out. Her companion finished whatever he was doing in short order and then they were off again, glancing furtively over their shoulders as they went.
There were no other people in the garage to witness their deed, just a large, fat rat sitting on top of a car a few spaces over.
I called the police from the security office. The rats didn’t give me any trouble the next time I entered the garage accompanied by an officer.
It didn’t take long to discover the brake lines on my car had been cut and, with the security footage, it was easy to prove who had done it. What was less easy to explain was how or why a group of wild rats had prevented me from driving off.
I ended up retiring early (with a nice settlement from the hospital to keep me from seeking legal action against them for how I’d been treated and the part it played in Tanya’s behavior), but I still go back to the hospital grounds on occasion. While the rats vanished from the building shortly after my departure, they didn’t go far, simply returning to the undeveloped lot they’d lived in before. I made the hospital agree that they would stop trying to drive them out as part of my settlement and I can visit whenever I like.
Chubs still comes out to greet me and we eat and sit a while, the same way we did before, but now, no one comes to bother us.
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