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In the Walls

Robert Reed is the author of quite a few short stories, mostly science fiction, as well more than one dozen beefy SF novels. He is the winner of a Hugo for the novella "A Billion Eves."

Reed lives in Lincoln, Nebraska, with his wife and daughter.

He was awake and not from a dream. Unless the dream was forgotten, which wasn't like him. Either way, his brain was still mostly asleep, full of slow, knotted up thoughts... but the ears were fully engaged. Listening. And hearing nothing. Not rain, which was sad. He enjoyed the rain. And there wasn't any traffic noise, or fireworks, or passing sirens. Silence inside the bedroom and silence outdoors, and he lay absolutely still, refusing to ask for the time or walk to the bathroom, and in particular, consciously avoiding the most likely reason why he was awake.
And then he heard it.
From the far right corner of the bedroom, up high and still quite soft.
Little feet moving inside the wall.
Which didn't have to be terrible news. That was his next thought--an easy hope that persisted even as those busy feet scrambled up into the ceiling, running hard through a darkness too tiny and useless for a person to inhabit.
"Mouse," he whispered.
Which was its own kind of problem. But there were proven ways to murder rodents and roaches and the rest of the ancient, honorable vermin....
The feet stopped, and what was not a voice began performing what wasn't any song. Except it was rather like a voice and the results were rather like music, high notes pressed together. And then something equally rich answered from the wall directly behind him. Past the sheetrock, somewhere inside the insulation and wiring, another one of them was singing, and the man lay awake the rest of the night, listening to two great friends sharing whatever it was they found useful or sweet.
Spring-powered traps, anticoagulants, and those useless sonic repellers: Products deserving a dedicated aisle in the hardware store, colorful packages offering "control" and "efficiency" and best of all, "quick results."
Nothing here would suffice, but this seemed like the place to begin. Standing in the aisle, reading labels. That's what he did until help arrived in the form of a young woman with an official apron and nametag and the capacity to smile convincingly for only a dollar above today's minimum wage.
This was a small hardware store, and he had come here for years. But the turnover was high, and the clerks were usually strangers.
"May I help you?" this stranger asked.
Be blunt. That was his working strategy.
"They're inside my walls," he announced.
Nobody refers to insects as being "they." And very few customers would use that slender word for mice or rats.
The clerk understood. The smile shifted and the eyes enlarged, just a little. She didn't want to place herself inside one camp or the other, but her own bluntness emerged. "We don't sell those kinds of products, sir. I am sorry."
Her sorrow was tidy and instantly forgotten.
"Thank you," he replied, picking up a box of neurotoxin baits. "An entirely new formula," he read aloud.
That sent her into a swift retreat.
Next came the store's mobile robot clerk--twenty years younger than the woman, and even less helpful.
"This roach powder is effective," it said.
"I'm not killing roaches," the customer answered.
"For mice, there's nothing like the traditional spring-loaded trap," said the machine, the voice full of enthusiasm for that elegant device.
"Oh, I'd love to see the broken bodies," he said.
Earning silence.
"You know... so I'm sure I killed the fuckers."
"And you'll need bait," the machine continued.
"Which one's best?"
"Cheese." A joke had been delivered, and now rolling away, it laughed while promising, "I will find some other help for you, sir. And good day."
The final clerk had worked here for years. His precise status wasn't known to the customer. A clerk, a manager, or maybe a partial owner. The apron and nametag gave away nothing, and the customer never cared to ask. But what made this fellow effective was his age, which had left him white-haired, plus his calm, pragmatic demeanor, and best of all, an encyclopedic knowledge of a thousand hardware-store matters. Plumbing and finishing nails, paint for the kitchen and building new car keys when a nervous man didn't have the car title with him. "A stupid rule, and I know who you are," the white-haired savant had told him that day. Then he added, "I trust you," thus earning another five years of dedicated patronage.
"So," said the clerk/manager/owner. "What's your situation?"
"They're inside my walls," the loyal customer said.
That earned a quick nod. Nothing more.
Again, the neurotoxin had to be examined, its box held by the corners. As if plastic and foil and more plastic didn't protect the bare fingers.
"They'd never eat that," was the response.
"I know."
"You Google what you need?"
"A few times. Incognito mode."
"Yeah, that's not good enough." And with that, a lesson was delivered on how to use the Tor browser.
"Good to know," was the response.
"About your walls, sir." Nobody was half as competent as this old fellow, and that included the machines edging everyone else out of their jobs. "Obviously, mouse traps are too simple and obvious. And normal baits never work for long."
"Because they talk to each other," the customer said.
This was an unwelcome point. "They adapt, and let's not dwell on how. The point is, you need a trap that they've never seen, and it has to intrigue them, and then you absolutely have to bait it with that one thing they can't stop wanting."
"What food's that?"
The great salespeople of the world knew how to ignore the client's stupidity. But this was just too much of a lapse.
One speckled hand fell on the idiot's shoulder.
"Not food," was the lesson. "If we're ascribing emotions, let's talk about love. Their need for each other is that intense, that persistent. And how do they find companionship?"
"Songs," said the idiot.
"Call that crazy noise whatever you want," said the pragmatic man. "But to me, it's nowhere close to music."
There was a fresh hole in the laundry room wall, and the trap stood in the open--a heavy-duty storage tub wearing fragments of a shattered mirror, foil ribbons and wool yarn, and because it was supposed to help, a slathering of cheap perfume. Three holes in the tub's lid afforded access to three twisting complications of PVC pipe that were not mazes. Mazes offered choices, right and wrong, but there were no choices here. Each pipe led to the same central chamber at the tub's bottom. A weather-proof speaker was waiting there, streaming Bluetooth audio from a purpose-built Raspberry Pi. The "song" was pulled from YouTube, and it had proved delicious.
Tiptoeing into the room, the trap's builder tried to count voices. Then more time was wasted trying to measure the mood of his victims. Were they conversing with the stranger locked inside the singing box? Were they trying to save him? Or maybe they were mocking a brother for his poor choices or lousy luck.
Two of the openings were capped with concrete bricks.
The final hole was perfectly shaped for the funnel and hose. Gallon after gallon was poured into the trap. The voices -- and they were genuine voices -- screamed in all manner of ways. But the tap water did its work, the only remaining voice being the muffled recording, and then following the advice of a pragmatic man, the killer finished his work with five gallons of bleach.
The Law was still unclear about these matters.
Maybe that would never change. But in case public opinion shifted in the worst ways, the murderer siphoned the trap dry, then carried it and the unseen corpses to his car. A slow nighttime drive led to a wooded country lot that looked perfect but wasn't. The ground proved full of rocks and roots, and realizing that, the killer stopped wanting to bury the trap. He began to feel proud about all that hard work and cleverness, and what if others found their way inside his walls? So no, he wouldn't bury everything. A narrow hole would be enough, and he aimed for four feet deep but settled on three. Then with a flashlight and rubber gloves, he recovered the corpses, one after the next. Eleven in all. Which was when he stopped feeling proud. Looking at those bodies in the grave, at the little faces and those very tiny hands, he told himself that he was seeing nothing that he hadn't expected. Yet he couldn't resist the urge to sing a few words over them, in tribute.
"Row, Row, Row Your Boat."
The bleakest, most perfect song in the human inventory.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, December 6th, 2019
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