The phone had only been pressed to my ear for a few seconds, but it was already slick with sweat. I wasnt sure if it was the humidity or the stress. Either way, I felt like a hot, briny mess. I slumped onto my damp mattress as the phone rang. My brother finally picked up. His voice sounded hollow and far away, but it was something. I let out a sigh.
Everything okay? Its gotta be three in the morning over there, he said.
Four, actually. Theres a goddamn bat in my room, Owen.
I definitely wasnt expecting sympathy, but I was still surprised at how hard he laughed.
So how do Thai bats stack up to the ones in the US? he asked. He wasnt laughing anymore, but I could still hear the smile in his voice.
Well, theyre not very polite, for starters. This thing woke me up in the middle of the night. At first I thought it was the neighbors upstairs rolling something around on the floor, but then I felt it.
You felt it? Jesus, Lily, you might want to think about getting a rabies shot.
Not the actual bat, I said. But I could feel something wooshing over my head. And then there was the flapping. Oh my god, it was the worst thing I've ever heard. I scooped my broom off the floor and wrapped my fingers around the rough bamboo handle. My knuckles started to turn white. I knew there was something in the room, but it was too dark to see anything. I kept hoping it was just a bird or one of those huge moths or something.
No such luck, huh?
Uh-uh. When I flipped the light on, the thing just went-
Batshit? my brother asked. He was laughing again. I didnt want to give him the satisfaction, but a giggle slipped out of me anyway.
Yeah, something like that. I opened the door and tried to chase him out with the broom, but he wasnt having it. He just kept flapping around in circles.
So where is he now?
I looked across the tiny room: white tile, white walls, white floor. Everything about it was clean and sterile, except for the hidden visitor. I squinted at the dark wooden wardrobe in the corner. Its in my wardrobe.
In your wardrobe? How did you manage that? he asked.
Okay, technically its behind my wardrobe, I said. Theres a little gap between the back of the wall and the actual wardrobe.
Cant you just pull the whole thing away from the wall and chase it out of there? he asked.
I sighed. I think its nailed down or something. I cant move it at all. I could see the little guy peeking out from behind the wardrobe, so I tried poking him with my broom, but he just squeaked at me and ducked further into the crack.
Might be time to tag-team it. You should ask your landlady for help.
Maybe it was because I was so hopped up on adrenaline, or maybe it was just because she intimidated me, but I'd never even thought of asking her. My landlady, Nui, was somewhere between sixty and seventy. Her leathery face reminded me of beef jerky and she smelled like garlic and peppers all the time. I got the feeling that she didnt like me. I always got a smile from her, sure, but it was the barebones Thai smile: the one that doesnt come with teeth or sparkly eyes or a wave. My program had been lodging ESL teachers in her apartment building for five or six years, and my guess was that she was tired of babysitting scared white people. Or maybe she was just quiet around foreigners. Based on the way she went after rats with her broom, though, she wasnt shy around creepy-crawlies. She was probably my best hope for getting the little guy out of my room. There was only one problem.
I dont speak any Thai, I said.
Still? Youve been there for almost a week, said Owen.
I rolled my eyes. Saying hello is one thing, I said. Explaining to someone that theres a hairy pterodactyl wedged behind your wardrobe is something else.
Draw her a picture. Thailand deserves to experience your artistic vision.
It wasnt bad advice, in spite of the sarcasm. Typical Owen. That might work, if I can manage to draw anything recognizable. I just hope the bat doesnt come after us when we chase it out.
Itll probably be fine, said Owen. We had a bat in the attic one time when Mom was still pregnant with you.
Yeah. At the house by the lake. She went up there looking for some silverware or something and she came down freaking out. She was convinced it was in her hair, but it was still flapping around upstairs. Dad went nuts. He was convinced that everybody was going to get rabies. He told us all to stay downstairs while he took care of it.
What did he do? I asked.
Owen laughed. He went up there with a pair of gloves and a tennis racket and started smashing everything to hell. Mom thought the house was going to come down.
Yeah, that sounds like Dad. Did he get it?
Oh yeah. He came downstairs with a paper bag full of dead bat, swinging his racket like hed just won a Grand Slam.
I laughed. Im glad I didnt call him. He would have told me to go for my badminton racket. I think Im better off with the pencil and paper. I dont want to kill the little guy, Im just not in the market for a roommate right now.
Can't say I blame you, said Owen. Hey, I gotta run, my students are coming back from Art class and I have to get them ready for the buses. I had completely forgotten that Owen would be teaching; it was still Friday afternoon in New York.
Dont worry about it, he said. Look, youre gonna be fine, Lily. The bat's probably terrified. Youll be able to shoo him out sooner or later. Talk to the landlady and give me a ring when youve got it sorted out. Okay, love you, bye! I set the phone down on my bed and wiped my hand on my shorts.
I thought about what Owen had said about my mom. The idea of a bat in my hair gave me prickly goose bumps; there were enough curls on my head to trap the little guy forever. I crept over to the wardrobe, broom still in hand, and opened the bottom drawer. The bat shuffled around behind the towering wooden closet, but otherwise he didnt protest much. I fished a wool hat out of the bottom drawer and pulled it over my hair, stuffing my brown curls as far into it as the fabric would allow. It was hot, but I felt a little bit better.
I closed the drawer as softly as I could, then sidled over to the chair Id left next to the wardrobe. I climbed on top of it and peered over the unfinished wood. The bat wasnt completely visible anymore, but I could still see two sets of tiny, hooked claws gripping the edge of the wood. I watched him for a while, but he wasnt moving. I wrung my hands around the broom handle and sighed. I lifted it over the top of the wardrobe and slotted the rough bristles into the crack. I took two quick breaths, squinted my eyes, and flicked the broom upwards.
Nothing. I flicked the broom a few times, but the bat wasnt going anywhere. I shrunk down from the chair and checked my watch. The landlady wouldnt be outside chasing rats from the courtyard for another hour or two. Owen's plan was looking better and better. I gently lifted the chair and moved it over to my desk. I pulled a notebook and pencil from the desk drawer and began to draw.
By the time the sun was up, I had a surprisingly elaborate four-panel comic. It was slow going at first. I hadnt drawn anything since grade school, and I wasnt a very good artist to begin with. The sound of scrabbling claws behind my wardrobe wasnt doing my any favors, either. After a while, though, I started to relax and enjoy the process. The bat must have mellowed out too, because the squeaks and scrapes had all but stopped.
Nui didnt strike me as a big comic fan, but I figured shed be able to understand the gist of the situation from my illustrations. Just to hedge my bets, I looked up the word bat in my Thai dictionary and labeled the flying monster in the first panel. Light was pouring through the window now. I leaned toward the glass and scanned the courtyard. Sure enough, Nui was making the rounds with her broom. I thought again of her fake smile and garlic and pepper smell. If she was sick of babysitting foreigners, I definitely wasnt going to score any points with her by playing the damsel in distress card. I climbed up the chair and tried to dislodge the bat again, but all I got for my flicking and swishing was a few cranky squeaks.
I slunk back to my desk and grabbed the comic Id drawn. Three flights of stairs later, I was in the courtyard, walking up to a very surly looking Nui. Her lips were pressed together, and she was brushing a small army of ants off the walkway. When she saw me she gave me the usual smile.
Good morning, she said, in Thai.
Good morning, I repeated, to the best of my ability.
We stood there looking at each other for a few seconds. She glanced at the notebook in my hand. I opened it to the drawing Id made and handed it to her. Her wiry eyebrows bristled their way up her forehead like grey caterpillars. When she looked up from the bottom of the page, they were halfway to her hairline.
I didnt know what to say, or how to say it, so I just pointed at my window. She turned the notebook toward me, placed a weathered finger on the drawing of the bat, then gestured at the window.
I nodded. Her lips curled upward at their edges, slowly at first, then parted as her smile bloomed into a full-bodied laugh. She took my soft hand in hers (it was cool and papery), and led me back inside and up the stairs. Back on the third floor, she waved a hand at my door and invited me to open it.
She pointed at the wardrobe and raised her eyebrows. I nodded. She smiled. We walked over to the wardrobe and I put out a hand to help her up, but she was already on the chair, looking over the top and into the crack. Her eyebrows jumped once, then she pursed her wrinkly lips and nodded. I held out the broom for her, but she only shook her head and waved it away.
Her upper body disappeared as she leaned as far over the wardrobe as her tiny frame would allow. I heard a shrill squeak and a scuttling, and when Nui came back down, the bat was thrashing back and forth, one wing pinched between her bony fingers. The little thing was flailing its free wing with everything it had, but Nuis hand was just out of reach. The sound was awful: a mess of shrill bleats and leathery flapping, but Nuis face was expressionless. After a few seconds, the bat went limp and just sort of dangled between her fingers. Nui nodded at me once, then walked out of the apartment, easing the door shut behind her.
I collapsed onto my bed and sent Owen a quick text message. Sleep washed over me before I could even pull my hat off. I woke up around lunch time. My cranky stomach reminded me that I hadnt eaten anything since dinner the previous night. I walked downstairs and into the courtyard.
It was Nui. She was eating lunch at one of the little tables near the entrance. She waved me over, and I crossed the courtyard and sat down. She pushed her bowl across the table to me, and I collected a pile of spicy, garlicky beef on my spoon. When I looked up, I was met with a bright, deluxe-package Thai smile: complete with Nuis shiny, white teeth and shimmering brown eyes.
Okay? she asked, in English.
Okay, I said.
We sat there together in the sun eating spicy beef (or possibly bat), breaking the silence only to trade little laughs.