Carlotta was a quiet girl. She did all of her chores, kept her room very tidy, and never spoke back to her parents.
She led a normal, quiet girl’s life; school, homework, family time in front of the TV, and playing with friends. She didn’t know anything beyond that, and frankly, she didn’t need to.
When her daddy had to leave his job at the factory, he became upset; not with her, not with mommy, but upset with the whole world, it seemed.
A few days later, daddy started drinking from a dark Bottle that seemed to hold the answer to all of his problems. It whispered back and forth with him at night, sharing secrets and the sweetest of tales, and lamented the weight of his words in the morning. His eyes, once a clear crystal blue, started to turn redder than the sky sipping away the last bits of the day. Carlotta would try to catch his smile at the breakfast table, but it bounced right off wrinkles being etched farther and farther into his face day by day.
Mommy remained silent, watching the Bottle from afar. Mommy never listened to it nor told it secrets of her own, but she also didn’t interrupt its moments with daddy. He became more and more withdrawn, barely speaking to either of them, only wanting to spend time with the Bottle.
The sadness and the tension she felt between her parents grew with each passing day. It sat heavy and dark in her heart and poked at her stomach with sharp little fingers, never finding their mark but searching nonetheless. After a particularly hard day at school, Carlotta came home, flopped onto her bed, and the tears began welling up. She just couldn’t hold it back anymore. Once the first tear, sullen and alone, hit her pillow, the rest followed in a steady stream.
So caught up in her sorrow Carlotta was, that she almost didn’t feel the bedsheets rustling by her feet. It wasn’t until the rustling had moved up onto her stomach that, startled, she pushed herself up onto her elbows and found herself staring into a furry white face with tiny red eyes.
It was a rat; no bigger than her fist and with a plump pinkish-white belly, it sat on her stomach and stared into her eyes with a look of odd intelligence. Wiping snot and tears away from her face with the back of her hand, her voice barely above a whisper, she said “Hi. Who are you?”
The plump little rat quickly wiped its face with the back of its tiny paws, mimicking her.
“Pip. We are Pip.” His voice was hushed, high-pitched but comforting, like a whistle from the depths of a dream.
She sniffled. “Well, hi Pip. My name is Carlotta. Who is ‘we’?”
“We is me, but We is in the Down Below, too.”
“Where is the Down Below?”
PIp cocked his head to the side, as though confused by the question. Then, his eyes lit up and he skittered to the edge of the bed.
“Below. The Down Below is here, down below.”
He pointed a paw, and Carlotta peered over the edge of her bed, hands bunched up in her burgundy sheets. She didn’t see anything.
“Lower, lower, Down Below.”
Pushing herself forward, she clutched the edge and moved her head closer to the floor. With her long hair brushing the carpet, she lowered herself until she could see just underneath the mattress and drew in a sharp breath of air; from behind the shadows of toyboxes and hidden piles of lone socks, a few dozen eyes stared back at her, red and unblinking.
Jumping back, she glanced at Pip, now sitting on chubby haunches, licking away at nothing on the back of his leg.
“What’s in the Down Below?” she said, her voice trembling just the slightest.
She blinked. Family? Although the past few weeks had been rough, she already had a family. Without trying, she let a low whistle seep past her lips, spilling out into the air of her room. Instantly, Pip stopped what he was doing, and hopped up, his attention trained on her. There was a deep rustling noise from beneath the bed.
“Pip, are you alright?
“Pip is fine. Pip heard the Queen’s noise. Pip is ready.”
Carlotta was puzzled; did he mean the whistle? She pursed her lips together and let out a steady stream of air in a louder, higher pitch. Pip did a strange little dance in a circle and ran closer to her, clambering up onto her sweater. She blinked, and suddenly found herself surrounded by rats. All different shapes and sizes and colors, they sat along the edge of her bed in a row, glowing red eyes focused on her with rapt attention. She wasn’t scared; she felt the love and reverence radiating from them like soft, subtle heat.
Drawing in a deep breath, she let out a third whistle. This one was long and soft, and before she could even get her lips fully centered around the note, the rats overtook her, tiny paws traipsing all over her body in a swarm of downy fur. She giggled and squirmed as they disappeared beneath her clothes, into the curls of her hair, and one even found footing in the cuff of her jeans.
From all over her body, she heard soft murmurs of one word repeated over and over: “Queen”. She had always been afraid of what might be under the bed. She just didn’t know it could be friends.
Carlotta slept well that night, resting on a cloud of white cotton and fur.
So entranced was she by the company of her new friends that she almost forgot about the dark cloud of daddy and his own new friend. It sat and stared at her from his clutches as he sank farther and farther into his favorite armchair in the living room. Their family time in front of the TV became sullen and filled with silence; they no longer laughed at jokes together and commercial breaks, once muted to discuss the goings-on of their show, were now filled with blaring advertisements and swigs from daddy’s bottle.
One day, the curtain being pulled around daddy became too much for her to bear, and Carlotta decided that she needed to put a stop to the Bottle and its lies. Whatever it was telling him, it couldn’t be the truth; the world just wasn’t that sad, and she and mommy loved him so.
She waited until that night when both of her parents were out of the house (mommy at a friend’s and daddy off somewhere unknown) and crept into their room. Rummaging through the closet, she found nothing. She checked the dresser and came up empty-handed once more. Then, in the depths of the chest at the foot of their bed, she found it. The dark brown glass twinkled faintly as she held it up to the light. She held it close to her ear, but heard nothing. Whatever its secrets were, they weren’t spilling for her.
Popping the top off, she brought it to her nose and inhaled. She choked. Dark, sour-smelling fumes seemed to dance around her head. Wrinkling her nose, she raised the mouth of the bottle to her lips and tasted its innards. Finding nothing but what seemed to be bitter and foul water, she spat it onto the floor and sat down heavily. How could daddy possibly find happiness in this?, she thought to herself. There must be something dark and evil at play.
Then, she had an idea, a revelation. She would free daddy from the grasp of his gross mistress once and for all. Carlotta grabbed the bottle, hopped up, and headed towards the bathroom down the hall, a smirk playing at her lips. Why hadn’t she thought of this sooner?
Watching the contents of the Bottle swirl down the drain, she could only think of better days to come. She would have her daddy back. Then, as though summoned from her daydream, he appeared behind her in the mirror. She turned in place, ready to show him that he was free, and was met with a blotchy, bloated red face and sunken eyes.
“Car, what’re you doing?” His words were slow and slurred, coming from someplace far away.
“Hi daddy. I got rid of the Bottle. I know it’s been hurting you and I wanted to help. You’re free now.”
His eyes trailed behind her, seeing the last drops of the Bottle’s contents flee towards the dark maw of the drain. Suddenly, they went from being hazy and red to being filled with something she didn’t understand. She opened her mouth to say something else, and then, she was seeing darkness. Once the stars cleared from her eyes, she found herself sitting on the bathroom floor against the wall and felt a throbbing pain blossoming in the side of her face. Bringing a shaking hand up to touch her cheek, she looked up and saw her daddy looming over her, shaking with rage.
Tears welled up in her eyes and spilled hot and heavy onto her cheeks. “D-daddy?”
The air around him seemed to shake along with his hands, reaching for her, angry and grasping. Knowing the Bottle was still alive and holding its control steadfast, she ran, scrambling between his legs, and bolted out of the bathroom towards her bedroom. She could hear him following close behind, footsteps thundering down the hall hot on her trail.
She made it to the door, wrenching it open, and flung herself inside. Dragging a chair up to it, she wedged it under the doorknob. Just as she set it in place, something heavy hit the door and it flexed under the weight, but held steady. She scrambled backwards, hitting the bed, and sat down hard, wrapping the blankets around her in a protective cocoon. Though her room was dark, moonlight spilled through her lone window and illuminated it well. She continued to sob, the waves hitching in her chest.
Then, the door burst open, flinging the chair to the side and slamming into the wall. She shrieked.
In the doorway, her daddy stood, huffing and puffing and seething, his eyes dark even in the soft gloom of the night.
He stepped forward, one foot after the other, closing the space between them.
“Daddy, please…” she pleaded, but her words fell on deaf ears. He couldn’t hear her through the anger boiling inside of him. The Bottle now had full control.
Another step. Then, another. Soon, he would reach her. Shaking with fear, unable to do anything but cry, she did the only other thing she could think of; she whistled. Low and dull, it permeated the room, bouncing softly off the walls.
Rustling noises came from all four corners, from behind her and underneath her. She whistled again, louder and sharper this time, and the sound of the rustling grew in unison. Her daddy stopped his stuttered movements, dropping his hands to his side, and looked down at the floor.
“Wh- what is that?” he slurred. Swaying, he looked first behind him, and then all around. Through a thick veil of tears, Carlotta could see tiny red pinpricks glowing in the shadows, moving quickly across the floor. She took a deep breath, looked into her daddy’s face, and whistled a third time.
Seconds later, he began screaming.
Flailing, stumbling back and forth, he tore at his legs and slapped at his chest. Carlotta could see lumps under his clothes moving in quick, erratic patterns. Like a frantic marionette, he spun and spun in place, trying in vain to rid himself of the invasion, but the rats were too fast, too dedicated. They bit and scratched and burrowed into him, making homes in the wasted remnants of would-be safety.
Then, just as quickly as it had started, it stopped. He fell, a thick, heavy sound, and his body sank into the wall, finally slumping to the floor. A thick liquid oozed from his throat, black in the night, and pooled in a circle around his head. His eyes stared open and glossy at the foot of her bed, and she knew something stared back.
Soft and quiet as a mouse, willing away the remaining tears, she crept down from her bed, and rolled underneath it. In the warm hearth of the Down Below, her furry subjects found their place around her still-shaking form, and nestled against her. Although their coats were slick and wet, she cooed and petted them, and she felt their love.
Dozing off, Carlotta slept safe and warm in the company of her family; her plague, her mischief. They would always protect her, for she was Queen of Rats.