by Lois June Wickstrom
Chapter One Ė A Rat in the Bedroom
Scritch-scritch. Skitter. Scrunch. There it was again.
Something was digging under his bed. Timmy grabbed the cool metal
flashlight from under his pillow, leaned over the edge of his bed and
clicked the switch with his thumb.
moved against the wall. An indignant squeak. Timmy did his best to hold
the flashlight still. Two small beady black eyes shone back at him. A
hairless tail twitched. And little pink paws pulled back against a furry
It was a rat. A seven-inch long rat, with a dark brown
head and neck. It looked like a hooded little bandit.
Timmy played his flashlight beam over it. The rat sat,
unmoving, unafraid in front of a freshly chewed hole in his pale green
wall. Now he knew what caused the scritching sound Ė and he didnít
The ratís eyes sparkled. The indignant expression on
its face seemed to say, "What are you doing under my
bed?" The flashlight beam revealed translucent pink ears and long
white whiskers. He could see now that the ratís dark hood was its own
Grandma would be horrified if she knew a rat had
invaded her meticulously clean house. There must be a trap in the
garage. Timmy sat up and started to burrow his feet into his slippers.
He thought with satisfaction: if he
rat, he could put its dead body in the outside trash can before Grandma
ever saw it.
His flashlight illuminated the poster on the back of
his door: There was his hero: Michael Johnson, world famous sprinter,
breaking through the victory ribbon. Seeing that picture reminded him
Ė he still hadnít decided if he wanted to try out for the track team
Timmy was a thin boy with wiry muscles, olive skin,
and jet black hair. Coach Sweet said he had the perfect build for a
sprinter, just like Michael Johnson.
Footsteps came padding down the hallway. Timmy felt
his toes curl up as he listened. They always curled up when he was
nervous or worried. This habit tended to wear holes in to tops of his
shoes Ė even his slippers.
The door to his room creaked open. Michael Johnsonís
picture swung away. He aimed his flashlight at the intruder. There stood
Grandma wearing her orange and pink peony-print nightdress.
The rat squeaked, again. There was no hiding it from
her now. Grandma stared at Timmy and spoke gruffly. "You must be
the fastest flashlight in the East. Please lower your beam."
Timmy pointed his flashlight down at Grandmaís furry
pink slippers. They sparkled against his red linoleum floor.
"Sorry, Grandma. I wasnít expecting you."
"Youíve got good reflexes!" Grandma
praised him. "Startle the invader, I always say. How did you
get your flashlight on so fast? I didnít even hear it click"
"I heard a noise under my bed." Timmy
paused. "Grandma, weíve got a rat." He braced himself for
what she might say.
Grandma smiled. "You found Hildegarde! Iím so
relieved! I just bought her last week and I was worried that she had
"You bought a rat?" Timmy couldnít believe
it. "Then itís a good thing I didnít set a trap."
"Yes, indeed it is," said Grandma. "I
think itís time I formally introduced the two of you." Grandma
paused. "Please give me the light." She held her hand out for
"Youíre standing beside the wall switch."
Timmy kept his flashlight beam aimed at his grandmotherís feet..
"Timmy," said Grandma in her Iím-trying-to-be-patient
voice, "Hildegarde is late for her training. She trains in the
dark. I donít want her to get used to full room light, until Iím
sure of her skills in the dark. Now, please give me the
Up close, Timmy could smell that Grandma had taken a
lavender bubble bath. He handed her the flashlight. "Why are you
training a rat?"
The flashlight bobbed as Grandma chuckled. "Thereís
been the smell of mystery in the air. I want Hildegarde to
"What does a mystery smell like?" asked
"Youíll learn." Grandma aimed the
flashlight under the bed. "Iím going to introduce you to
Hildegarde. Now sit down on the floor, facing the bed."
Timmy followed his grandmotherís instructions. There
was no point arguing, or even asking questions when Grandma was intent
on a project..
Grandma shined the beam on his face. He squinted,
involuntarily. Timmy recalled that Grandma hadnít squinted when heíd
shined the light in her eyes. Maybe his cousin Axel was right. Maybe she
was a spy.
"Hildegarde, this is my grandson, Timmy."
Hildegarde twitched her whiskers.
Timmy laughed. Heíd been thinking about protecting
Grandma from finding out she had a rat in her house, and now they were
being introduced, like people who are expected to become friends.
His cousins Axel and Joey had warned him that Grandma
was odd, but heíd thought they were just trying to freak him out.
Before his parents disappeared last month, he only knew Grandma from his
once-a-year visits to Pillow, Pennsylvania.
Now she was his family until his parents returned from
their mysterious mission Ė if they ever returned. Grandma said the
government used to think children needed their parents. They only sent
childless people on dangerous missions. But now, the government thinks its
projects are more important than children or anything else. She
often called the government a big baby.
Timmy was afraid to talk about his parents and their
mission Ė for fear he might jeopardize their project, and he might
never see them again..
Chapter Two Ė She Lives Here Now
Grandma shined the light beam under the bed.
"Timmy, this is Hildegarde. Sheís learning to be a spy."
"How can a rat be a spy?" he asked.
"And how did you hide her in the house for a whole week without my
Grandma smiled and clicked off the flashlight.
Hildegarde squeaked again.
Grandma bragged, "Sheís been all over Ė
exploring our house Ė itís her territory now." Grandma
kneeled down on the floor and peered under the bed. "Hildyís very
quiet, except when sheís hiding things."
"Is she hiding something in my room?" Timmy
didnít like the idea of a rat using his bedroom as a storage bin.
"If you heard her, you can be sure she was
gnawing a hole in your wall to hide something.
Grandmaís house was Spanish-style adobe with an open
floor plan. The living room, dining room and kitchen were one large open
space divided by kitchen cabinets and several strategically placed
tables. The only walls in the house created the two bathrooms and three
Each bedroom had a laundry chute to the large open
basement. Timmy and Grandma sometimes slid down the chutes for the fun
of it. Grandma called it a drill, in case they needed to hide.
"Hildy has hiding places in every room of this
house Ė including the garage." Timmy could tell Grandma was proud
of that sneaky rat.
"What does she hide?" Timmy asked, uneasily.
He pictured the rat hiding dead bugs and other disgusting things under
"The same things as you Ė carob, crackers Ė
and some nutritious foods, too.
Timmy did not like being told that this rat was just
like him. He was better than a rat! "Doesnít she shed hair and
track mud in the house?"
"Sheís so little and sweet Ė I donít mind
cleaning up a few hairs and tiny footprints."
Grandma sat on the floor and patted the linoleum
beside her. "Come here, Hildy. Time for a snuggle." Hildegarde
poked her nose out from under the bed. Grandma patted the linoleum
"Youíve seen dogs sniffing luggage at the
airport. They could replace all those big ugly dogs with sweet little
rats like Hildy. She can sniff out anything better than a dog. Rats can
pick up smells much better than you or I."
Grandma was comparing him to a rat again. And he was
coming up second best. Timmy didnít like that at all.
"You can help me train her," said Grandma.
"It can be our special project."
Timmy didnít want a special project. He still hadnít
decided if he was going to try out for the track team. But he didnít
want to disappoint his grandmother, either.
"Maybe this weekend. Iím awfully busy with
school." Timmy paused. He didnít really want to train a rat. The
cold of the floor had seeped through his thin cotton pajamas. He stood
up, sat on the edge of his bed, and gave a fake yawn.
"Iím going to train her right now."
Grandma put her hands beside the bed. Hildy climbed into her cupped
palms. Then Grandma lifted Hildy up to her face and kissed her on the
"Yuck," said Timmy. He lay down on his bed
and pulled the warm covers up over his shoulders.
"Itís time for her nightly lesson. Iím
training her to push buttons and toggle switches." Grandma sounded
like she expected him to be interested. Like she was giving him a treat.
"Come on! I know a fake yawn when I see one. Itíll be fun!"
Timmy grimaced. "Whereís her cage? Iíll go
get her cage!"
"Hildy doesnít have a cage. Cages are for pet
rats, or maybe lab rats." said Grandma. "Hildy is going to be
my assistant. Sheíll need to know every nook and cranny of this house
better than we do."
"Why do you need help pushing buttons and
toggling switches?" Timmy asked.
"When they are in places I canít reach."
Grandma had the ability to say the most unreasonable things in a calm
"Get a ladder. Iím going to sleep." Timmy
pulled the blanket over his head.
"A ladder wonít help when the switches are in
other peopleís houses." Grandma put Hildegarde on the bed beside
Timmy. She snuggled her warm body up against him, and tickled him with
her whiskers. He tensed.
"Grandma, why do you want to press buttons and
toggle switches in other peoplesí houses?" Timmy stretched the
way heíd seen sleepy people do in movies.
"You never know." Grandma put her hand on
his shoulder. "You can pet her. Sheís soft and warm. She wonít
"I donít want to touch a rat!" Timmy
pulled the soft warm covers firmly over his head.
"She lives here now. Sheís family."
Hildegarde snuggled her head up against his chest. Timmy tensed some
"If sheís family, is she going to go off on a
secret mission and disappear?" Timmy almost said "like my
"Sheís family, so you can love her."
Grandma stroked Timmyís hair.
"Iím really sleepy." Timmy turned his face
to the wall. Hildegarde snuggled her warm little body up against his
"Okay," said Grandma. "Good night. Iím
taking Hildy for her lesson now." She leaned over and kissed him on
the forehead, through the blanket and picked up Hildegarde.
As Grandma turned to leave his room, the drinking
glass on his bedside table clinked and jiggled a little dance.
Chapter Three Ė The Earthquake
Was Grandma doing something to make him change his
mind? Timmy poked his head out from under the covers. Street lamps all
down the block blinked in unison. His bed shook. Timmy rolled over to
see if Grandma was jumping. Grandma stood almost still as a statue,
cuddling Hildegarde in in the middle of his room..
"Wha?" Timmy started to ask.
Grandma held a finger to her lips. "Shh!"
The glass skittered across his night stand. Grandma
took a swift step, holding Hildy in one hand, and caught his glass just
as it slipped over the edge of the table.
She held the glass to her nose and sniffed. It was
lemonade Ė not the water he was supposed to have. But Grandma didnít
say anything. On a normal night sheíd have ordered him to brush his
teeth again Ė immediately!
The room shook. Books toppled from their shelves and
clattered to the linoleum floor. The little hooded rat made a series of
rapid high-pitched squeaks, and nestled its brown head into a fold of
In the dim light from the street lamp, he saw Grandma
touch her wrist, where she kept her braille watch. Grandma wasnít
blind. She liked to be able to check the time without looking at her
"Itís 10:13. Do you smell anything?"
"Smell what?" asked Timmy.
"The smell that comes after an earthquake."
Grandma said, calmly.
"Earthquakes donít smell." Timmy pulled
the covers over his head again.
"Just take a deep breath with your nose and tell
me what you smell."
Timmy poked his head out from under the covers again,
and sniffed deeply several times. "It smells like the time you
overheated your cast iron sauce pot on the stove."
"Thatís what I thought," said Grandma.
"We have a mystery. The Case of the Hot Metal Earthquake."
"Ms. Mulisch says earthquakes are natural
disasters." Ms. Mulisch was his sixth grade teacher. She had been a
schoolmate of Grandmaís. Timmy knew there was still a rivalry between
"Old Ding-Ding doesnít know everything,"
"Ding-Ding?" asked Timmy.
"We used to call MaryBelle Mulisch,
Timmy laughed. Then he said, "She does know a lot
"Weíll see," said Grandma. "I have a
hunch that this was more than an ordinary earthquake."
"Iíll ask about it in school tomorrow."
Timmy was in no mood for one of Grandmaís impromptu science lessons.
"Listen!" said Grandma.
What now? thought Timmy. But
he listened, his toes curling up. He heard a distant beepity beeple
beep beep beepity.
"Thatís the Morse code machine in the garage.
Somebody is sending us a message."
"Canít it wait Ďtil morning?" asked
Timmy. "I want to go to sleep."
Grandma tapped her head. "I almost forgot. Our
neighbor Mr. Richter is giving a science demonstration at his house
tomorrow afternoon. He says heís got a new invention."
"Whoís Mr. Richter?" Timmy tried to sound
"Heís our new neighbor. The one who put up that
funny looking house suspended from a pole up the middle. Iíll bet his
house really jiggled tonight."
"Oh, you mean the mad scientist." Timmy
pulled his covers up to his ears.
"Now, Timmy." Grandma gave him an amused
"Thatís what the kids at school are calling
"All the more reason to go check him out."
Grandma petted Hildegarde. "Isnít that right, Hildy?"
The rat boggled her eyes. Then she reached a pink paw
up to stroke Grandmaís neck.
"Iíll think about it," said Timmy. Heíd
seen enough kiddie magic shows to last a lifetime. Science was either
really simple stuff like Ms. Mulisch made them do, or it was too hard to
And he still hadnít decided about track tryouts. He
didnít want to tell Grandma, in case he didnít make the team.