BREATH FOR BREATH AND HEARTBEAT FOR HEARTBEAT

by Chris Shearer

When the scratching in the wall began, Todd Dorr lay on his couch watching a documentary on Lou Gehrig—specifically his final year in baseball and his farewell speech—titled The Iron Horse for the fourth time. Two empty beer cans sat on the table in front of him while a half-full third leaned against his stomach. He had enough of a buzz that at first the sound of tiny claws on wood blended with the echoes of Gehrig’s final words and went all but unnoticed.

In his hand, Todd held a wallet-sized picture of Sara, his ex-girlfriend.

Gehrig had lived another two years after giving his farewell speech, but what had those years been like for him? For his family? For Gehrig, Todd imagined, they must have been hell: this proud man forced to helplessly watch his body waste away, rely on others, burden his wife, see that look people give you when you’re sick—the way their gaze drifts past you as if seeing you will make them sick too. Todd had seen that look from Sara and from his mother and father, the only people he’d told.

Gehrig’s wife, Eleanor, must have lived her own hell, and one worse than her husband’s, because she’d gone through it all with him, been there every moment Lou’s iron will broke down, and then had to carry on, alone, when he was gone. Todd couldn’t do that to Sara.

He already stumbled when he walked, as Gehrig had on the base paths his final season, and he dropped things all the time. Todd also slurred his words, like Gehrig in the speech—the real farewell speech, not Gary Cooper’s reenactment from The Pride of the Yankees. His coworkers at A&I Publishing had taken note of the slurring. Earlier that day, Todd had overheard the director of journal production and a production assistant talking about his drinking problem.

It was three weeks since the diagnosis, and Todd had added weekly therapist visits, a weekly meeting with a psychologist, a terminal illness support group, and a handful of pills with each meal to his routine. But it was the way that look his parents and Sara had given him made him feel and the guilt for all the pain he knew his illness would cause them that made him want to crawl into a dark hole somewhere and die alone. They didn’t need to see him suffer through this, and Todd didn’t want to make them, especially Sara.

Todd finished the beer he’d leaned against his stomach and placed it next to the other empty cans on the table. He slid Sara’s picture between his fingers, and tears burned his cheeks and clouded his vision. He had done what was best. But knowing that didn’t make it any easier.

Before restarting the documentary, Todd pushed himself from the couch and made his way to the bathroom, taking each step like his therapist had shown him so that the drag in his left foot didn’t trip him up. His buzz didn’t help. What had once been the easiest thing in the world, walking, had now become something that required thought and effort, and it would only get worse as the disease progressed. On his way to the bathroom, the scratching in the wall grew louder, and he added buying rat poison to his expanding list of to-dos.

*

The #2 bus lurched to a stop at the corner of Cameron and Pine with a moan of its brakes and a flicker of its cabin lights. Todd held the back of the seat in front of him to steady himself and waited until the bus came to a complete stop and the doors opened to stand. He was the only passenger and seated halfway between the front and rear doors, and he left by the rear door to avoid saying goodbye to the driver, who watched him in the mirror. Thinking through each step before he took it, Todd descended the bus’s steep stairs and headed west on Cameron, toward Oak, like he had hundreds of times before.

Cameron was lined with factories. This area, beyond Harrisburg’s inner-city and before the start of its suburban sprawl, had once been busy and alive with jobs and manufacturing, but the economic downturn of the last decade-and-a-half had left it still and the buildings empty. A block from the bus stop, Todd passed what had once been a tire factory. Before it closed, the black plumes from its twin smokestacks smothered the setting sun. Now, they lingered in the sky purposelessly. All the tire factory’s windows were either broken or boarded, and a chain-link fence topped in razor wire surrounded the vacant lot. On the other side of the fence, shattered bottles collected pieces of the reddening sky. Rats scurried in and out of the empty building. Years after the factory’s closure, the air still smelled like burning rubber. Maybe it always would.

By the time Cameron met Oak, Todd’s breath was short and a film of sweat clung to the back of his shirt. He’d walked this route two or three times a week over the past three years but not once since he’d broken up with Sara the previous week, and he couldn’t believe how tired the walk now made him. He slowed at the corner.

Sara’s house sat half-a-block up and on the opposite side of the road. It was surrounded by a small lawn and a few bushes. There were flowers around the bushes, and these gave the colorless city block a bit of life. It was dusk, and the once red sky was smoldering into a dark, starless night. He took a reluctant step toward her house. If he could explain why he’d done it a little better than he already had, maybe she’d understand, and maybe she’d stop calling. Maybe after he did, this would be easier for both of them.

But what if trying to explain made it worse? How could he explain to her that she hadn’t done anything wrong except love him? Or even how that was wrong?

The light from her kitchen window gilded the bushes in her front yard. When he took his next step toward her house, Todd’s left foot scraped the sidewalk. He stumbled forward and caught himself on the hood of her neighbor’s car.

Like his block, half the houses here were empty. Sun-bleached for sale and foreclosure signs marked lots on both sides of the street. She deserved better than this neighborhood, and she deserved a better life than he could give her. Todd leaned against the car’s hood for a second before he rethought what he was doing and started back toward Cameron and the #2 bus.

She wouldn’t understand.

After taking the #2 to Catina’s Dollar General on Maple and then finally to Green, Todd shuffled home. It was full dark, after 8 pm, but the streetlights soaked Green in a sickening yellow hue that stretched the length of the sidewalks and stumbled into the road. Somewhere in the distance, the thud of bass from a car pounded like a heartbeat. The house next to his—empty all six years Todd had lived in the neighborhood—had a feral lawn with grass and weeds that climbed as high as Todd’s shins. Its porch roof sagged in the middle as though worn out. Small, rodent bodies and shadows moved through the tall grass toward it. Todd walked past them, thinking about each step and about Sara.

Inside his house, Todd set the Catina’s bag on his kitchen table and took out the box of poison. The box warned him to keep dogs, cats, and children away from its contents. It also claimed that each tray would kill 200 rats/mice/squirrels. Todd set the trays—all five of them—in the kitchen, under the couch, by his dresser, behind the toilet, and next to a spot of dark wood on his dining room wall that smelled rotten. Then he set his phone on his nightstand next to Sara’s picture and went to bed.

*

The next morning all the trays were empty.

The scratching didn’t stop.

*

Three days later, Saturday, Sara came. She had the key Todd had given her on their six-month anniversary, and she let herself in. It was mid-afternoon and raining, and Todd was watching the Lou Gehrig documentary again. He knew it was her before she said anything.

“I called . . . but—”

Her voice trembled with threatened tears. The sound was like a weight on his chest. He sat up. Even something as simple as sitting up required thought: squeeze the abdominals, raise your shoulders, remember to breathe. “I haven’t—”

“I know.” She shook her umbrella and set it on the front porch. Then she closed the door. “You can’t do this to yourself.”

Todd stopped the movie. The scratching in the walls let up during the day, but it never ended. Todd wondered what Sara would think of him when she noticed it.

“You shouldn’t be alone.”

“Sara, I can’t.”

She lifted his cereal bowl from the table and took it to the kitchen, where she filled it with water to soak. “I called your parents.”

“Christ.”

“You can’t shut us out like this.” When she came back, she had a plastic bag. “We’re worried about you.” She put two empty beer cans in the bag.

“I can’t put you through this.”

“It isn’t healthy.”

“Sara, it’s over.”

She grabbed another empty can and put it in the bag. Then she sat on the couch next to him. This close to her, Todd felt dirty. He needed a shower. “You don’t get to decide that,” Sara said. “You don’t get to push me away.”

“I don’t want you to see me like—”

“You don’t get to tell me what I can handle.” Sara set the plastic bag on the table and took his hands in hers. She moved her thumb back and forth, and the feel of her skin against his made his heart beat a little faster. “You told me this was forever.”

“I lied,” Todd said, and saying it felt like a solid punch to his gut.

Sara didn’t say anything. Instead, she stood and then helped Todd to stand. Then she led him to the bedroom, where she helped Todd remove his shirt before taking off her own. This would only make it worse, but Todd didn’t stop her. They fucked as if by rote, and afterward, when Todd rolled so that his back was to her, she said, “Do you want me to leave?” A chill crawled through him.

Sara went into the bathroom and closed the door behind her. He listened to the running water. When it stopped and she came back, he got up, put on his shirt and pants, and walked to the sink, thinking about each step. He splashed his face. He could hear them scratching the bathroom wall.

When he came back to the bedroom, Sara was dressed. She wiped her eye with the heel of her hand and took her picture from the nightstand. “You won’t need this.” Todd followed her down the stairs and through the front door. He wanted to say something to make this easier for her, but he didn’t know what to say.

Outside, Sara opened her umbrella and dropped the picture. She looked at it as if in deep thought for less than a second before continuing down the front walk.

The rain was hot and clung to Todd’s hair and shirt. He bent to grab the picture. When he stood, she was gone, lost behind the curve of the road. Todd remained in his dead front lawn letting the rain soak him for nearly a minute. In the rain, the neighborhood looked worse than usual, sick. Diseased yards lay in front of peeling houses and beside cracked sidewalks. Porches sagged. The wood revealed by the flaked and peeled paint was grey and lifeless. Roofs dipped into crooked houses that looked at the neighborhood through boarded and dark windows.

The tall grass in the neighboring yard shook. Dozens of rats moved in it. The rats came from everywhere—across the street, other yards, Todd’s walls and opened door—as if drawn to the abandoned house.

Todd walked with them, as if drawn there, too.

The rats entered the house through holes they’d torn in the baseboards and between cracks in the boarded and broken windows. Todd climbed the front porch steps. Vagrants had broken the lock on the door, and it swung inward easily. Syringes and shattered bottles littered the floor inside. They cracked and popped beneath his feet. The house smelled musky, like a wet animal. Todd forced himself to breathe through his mouth, something else he had to think about. Dim, late-afternoon light slipped through the door and between the wood covering the downstairs windows.

The rats stumbled through holes in the walls and from a door Todd assumed led to the basement. They moved toward and then up the stairs to the second floor. When most of them had made it to the top and Todd could see the moldering carpet that covered the stairs, he followed them. The smell grew worse. He tasted it.

For a second, Todd wondered why he was here, but the thought quickly faded and was forgotten. The sound of their claws on the wood and the pitch of their voices filled the abandoned house. Rain dripped from Todd onto the creaking stairs as he climbed.

The rats gathered in a room. Outside the room, the wallpaper had fallen away in large curls, and dark water spots colored the wall beneath them. Long ago, the plaster from the ceiling had lost its hold, leaving rotting wood teeth in its place. What had once been ceiling lay scattered on the floor. A pale, greenish light leaked from each of the rooms and through a pair of filmy windows at the ends of the upstairs hall. Todd took a step toward the doorway but didn’t give it the proper thought and stumbled. He caught himself on the damp wall. The glue from the wallpaper made his hands sticky.

When he entered the room, the rats scurried toward its edges. They climbed atop each other, forming mounds of hair and tails that spilled and reformed every few seconds. One of these mounds grew to half Todd’s height before toppling. There were hundreds of them. In the center of the room, in a rectangle formed by the green light coming through the window, lay the largest rat Todd had ever seen. It was the size of a man, easily Todd’s equal, with long, gaunt, human-like limbs. It was covered in patchy grey fur, and its visible skin was red with infection. The rat’s nose moved languidly as it tried to smell Todd, and in that moment, Todd knew this was the source of the stink and what had drawn all of them to this house. Its bald tail was covered in abscesses, and its eyes were white with film. It wheezed as its thin body rose and fell. The rat’s ribs were visible through its fur. All its bones were. A strange mixture of guilt, sympathy, and regret washed through Todd.

His breathing slowed to match the rat, and he laid Sara’s picture on the floor before he approached it. Without thought, he shuffled toward the rat, matching it breath for breath, and when he lay beside it, his heartbeat sped to match the rat’s. Todd put his arms around the creature. The stink and the heat of its breath covered his face, and its coarse, greasy fur pressed against his hands and arms. Despite its size, the rat weighed no more than twenty pounds, and Todd slid an arm underneath it, into the hollow between the rat’s head and shoulder. It shivered against him and then rolled with a groan. The rat was hot with fever. Todd closed his eyes, and all his thoughts and worries fell away, forgotten. He was no longer the victim.

When the others came down from their mounds of hair and tails and tore his wet clothes and then his kidneys from his back, first the right and then the left, Todd didn’t notice. When they ripped his calves from the backs of his legs followed by his hamstrings, glutes, and then the muscles in his back and arms, he felt nothing. He was free of illness and guilt and love, and he matched the rat breath for breath and heartbeat for heartbeat until his body no longer could.

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