My brain was waking up but my body was still lagging. I could hear Eddie’s panting behind me. Maybe he needed sleep just as much as I did. As I tried to soak up as much shut-eye as I could get before having to get up, I heard the faint sound of voices.
“Did she hurt you?”
“No she didn’t. In fact she took care of me. It was her who put the bandage on. She fed me too.”
There were some other miscellaneous voices aside from the two that were distinctively male and female. Thinking I was still dreaming I didn’t pay much attention until I heard things rattling.
My eyes popped open and I was fully awake. I craned my neck seeing Eddie just sitting there. That’s when I realized my situation was worse off than when I went to sleep. My wrists and ankles were tied behind me. Making things even more uncomfortable was the rope that tied both sets together. Getting up was an impossible action.
I breathed deeply, trying to stay calm, hoping whoever was doing this would just find what they wanted and leave. I did worry how I was going to get out of this predicament if I was left alone though. Eddie however was unconcerned, staring with calm, mismatched eyes.
“Stupid dog,” I growled. “Why aren’t you attacking who’s doing this instead of just sitting there?” I tried struggling with the rope to no avail.
“They told me to stay here and watch you.”
“And you’re just going to do what they tell you?” I automatically answered, not realizing what was wrong with that moment. “You may be man’s best friend but you’re my dog and you’re supposed to…” My voice trailed, my struggling slowing as the situation sank in. “You’re supposed to…”
“Protect you. Yes, I know.”
I lifted myself as best I could. Eddie looked back, his tail wagging.
“Please don’t tell me that was you talking,” I spoke under my breath. “I wasn’t just answering you, right?”
The dog stared at me in silence, a heavy pause in the air.
I let out sigh. Okay. No talking. Here I was thinking I was going crazy.
“I tried telling them you didn’t mean any harm but they tied you up anyway. The rats then told me to stay here and watch you or else they were going to leave you like this. I may be able to speak but I don’t have any opposable thumbs so I did what they said.”
I gave out a loud moan, banging my head against the ground. Eddie was talking to me and he just told me rats are responsible. I am going crazy!
I cried again. “I must still be dreaming! I’m dreaming… I’m dreaming…” I chanted those words while I hit my head against the sleeping bag. I just had to wake up!
But I didn’t, because I wasn’t sleeping.
Eddie put a paw on my arm in an attempt to calm me. “You are not dreaming. I just think it would be a good idea to behave yourself. Once the rats are finished they’ll let you go and we can leave.”
Not only was my dog talking to me, he was now telling me what to do. I just couldn’t handle it. With a forceful thrust I turned onto my belly, kicking myself forward towards the opening. I was not going to wait for anyone to finish whatever then let me go. I wanted answers now.
“I think you should let me go out there first,” Eddie pleaded. With one seal-like belly flop, I popped out of the flap, landing face first in the grass. The voices and rattling all around me stopped the minute I appeared. I spat out soil trying to raise my head, except something made sure to monopolize my attention before I could even get that far.
A sharp, cold object pressed against the bridge of my nose. It hovered deliberately between my eyes with not enough pressure to hurt me yet with just enough to show me that it could.
Slowly raising my head to focus my eyes, I came face to face with the biggest, meanest looking rat I have ever seen. Well, it looked big at ground eye-level.
The rat was a large hulking gray thing, standing like stone. He held a staff with the wicked looking blade pointing at my head. He stared at me with intense, alarming gaze, yellow shards of teeth exposed in a silent snarl. He wore a dark tunic, which made me wonder what surprised me more. The fact that he was threatening me with a weapon or the fact that he was dressed for it.
I heard a hiss escape the rat as he began to push the blade. I couldn’t help but give out a yell in fear.
Eddie sprung forth knocking the wind out of me as he pounced on my back. The blade swung away, still close enough to take out my eye if the rat wanted. Eddie snarled, holding back on advancing on the prepared rat. He hissed even louder, swinging the blade in a more menacing manner.
I gasped, burying my face in the grass. Eddie stopped his snarling yet still held a defensive stance.
“I told you she won’t hurt anyone!” Eddie barked.
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” a calm male voice answered. “She only startled us. Brutus, just go help the others. I’ll take care of this.” There was another pause as Eddie relaxed.
I felt a warm thick liquid run down my face. That little bastard cut my forehead open, I thought, holding back my anger. Now I’m really going to have to resist the urge to stomp him when I see him again.
I even knew his name. Brutus. Figures.
My camp gear was strewn all over the place. In just as many places were rats. Lots of them. Immediately I could tell these were not sewer rats by any stretch of the imagination. They were all dressed in every manner of tunics of all colors, poking and prodding through my things as efficiently as the park rangers did when I first arrived. As they did their tasks they spoke to each other just as Eddie had been speaking to me. And I understood every word.
A small hand touched my bleeding forehead, pushing the matted hair away. “I’m really sorry about that,” the second rat replied. “Brutus has a habit of getting carried away. We’ll clean that up for you.”
“I would much prefer if you guys untied me,” I answered finding myself relaxing at the thought of speaking to talking animals.
The rat stepped back, allowing me to look at him. He was smaller than the other rat Brutus yet he had an air of control about him. He was very slim, his sleek brown fur shining with health. He wore a dark blue tunic with a pale yellow shirt underneath. Strapped to his side was a small sword, small compared to my size of course. Around his neck was a delicate, shimmering amulet, the red inlaid stone hypnotizing me even at its size.
“You must understand why we did this,” the rat continued. “No human is supposed to be here. We naturally treated you with suspicion despite Eddie’s protests.”
It was odd hearing a rat call Eddie’s name. “Obviously you two met.” I replied.
Eddie leaned over. “This is Justin. He’s the leader of these rats. They live here.”
“Justin?” I repeated. “Okay, my name is Anna Carmichael. I’m a photographer on assignment just wanting to finish my job and leave. I accidentally came across your home. I don’t want to hurt anyone. In fact, I think I saved one of you so you can at least give me some credit.” With that, another rat hopped up to Justin with the aid of another. I recognized her immediately.
“It’s true,” she said coming to my defense. “The dog found me, convincing me to go with her. If she wanted to hurt anyone she would have done it by now.”
“Actually I want to hurt the little creep that split my head open,” I grumbled loud enough for them to hear. Eddie thumped me hard in the back of my head with his paw.
“She’s kidding,” he apologized.
I must have spent another ten minutes tied up halfway out of the tent until the debating rats felt secure enough to undo the ropes. Justin and several others did the honors, splitting the binds with quick slices from their swords. I still found myself controlling every move I made, making sure I didn’t do anything to startle my new guests.
“So what is it that you guys are looking for?” I asked, pleased to see that they were putting everything back the way they found it.
“Your film,” Justin answered, sending my heart racing.
“My film?” I stuttered. “What do you want with my film?” I had already spent two miserable days taking photos. I was not in the mood to hear that they were destroyed.
Justin sensed my panic. “Oh, no don’t worry Miss Anna. Nancy already told us which one you used to take pictures of our home.”
“Nancy?” My heart was still racing a mile a minute.
“The one you saved. We took her back to the infirmary to check up on her leg but you seemed to do a fine enough job with it. I can’t thank you enough.” I beamed with flattery.
“Wow. You guys have an infirmary?”
“Among other things as you have seen already.”
“Yeah,” I laughed. “Who would have thought rats played soccer?” But I wasn’t so easily distracted by this rat’s charm. “Now what did you do to my film?”
Justin leapt onto my leg, startling me, then jumped to the plastic bag that held my garbage. “It’s right here.” He pulled the lip of the bag, revealing a tangled, shredded mess of undeveloped film. “I’m sorry but we had to do it,” he explained. “We can’t have you going home with photo evidence of our existence.”
I’m sure a troop of talking rats would have that concern. I calmed down, accepting the film’s fate. “That was the only one you touched, right?” I asked ominously.
Justin nodded. “Nancy assured us that it was. She explained how important the other canisters were so we left them.”
“She was actually listening to me when I told her all that?” I remembered the moment. “I thought I was going crazy, talking to a rat and all. But why didn’t she speak back to me?”
“I wouldn’t exactly have called you cooperative once we did start talking to you.”
I blushed, remembering how I reacted to Eddie. “It’s not every day animals just talk to me out of the blue,” I shrugged my shoulders. Then it crossed my mind. “Why are all these animals talking to me now?” I posed the question to the rat who only shrugged himself.
No one knew what was so special about this moment that even Eddie was speaking. The more I spoke to Justin, the more natural it seemed. I secretly wished that after the fourth day of my stay, whatever was happening would continue to do so.
“Oh, and by the way Justin. You can just call me Anna. Not Miss Anna or Miss Carmichael. Just plain ol’ Anna.”
“So I shall, Anna.”
I was beginning to like this guy already. “Yanno, you’re an okay guy,” I said as I finally placed an adhesive bandage on my forehead, glad that my bangs partially covered it. “And you’re pretty cute too, for a rat I mean.”
I’d never seen a rat blush before until that moment. I laughed, patting him on the head. Justin laughed in return.