It would have been all right if spring had never come. During the winter nothing had happened and nothing was likely to happen as long as the weather remained cold and Mrs Larch kept the radiators going. In a way, though, it is quite possible to hold Mrs Larch to blame for everything that happened. Not that she had what people would call malicious intentions, but just that she was two things practically every boarding-house landlady is – thrifty and not too clean.
The rag thing is just a rag, stained with the right chemicals and left behind a hot radiator all winter. It comes to a semblance of life, its sustenance derived from warmth. So when Mrs Larch switches off the radiators too early, and the room grows cold, the rag thing is forced to seek out other sources of heat.
What makes this story effective is the atmosphere of neglect and decay. It’s not just that the room is dirty and dingy; the renter of the room is a worn-out factory worker, being too exhausted to do anything but, “read the sports and comics pages of the newspapers and then maybe stare at the streaky brown walls a bit before dragging himself to bed.” In this environment the rag thing becomes pitiable, a semblance of life in a lifeless place.
The Rag Thing by Donald A. Wollheim (using the pseudonym David Grinnell)
Availability: print only
Word count: 1,600
First published: Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, October 1951
Where to find it: Fifty Short Science Fiction Tales, edited by Isaac Asimov & Groff Conklin, 1997, Scribner Paperback Fiction
100 Hair Raising Little Horror Stories, edited by Al Sarrantonio & Martin H. Greenberg, 2003, Sterling Publishing
A Treasury of Modern Fantasy, edited by Martin H. Greenberg & Terry Carr, Avon Books
100 Tiny Tales of Terror, edited by Robert Weinberg, Stefan Dziemianowicz & Martin H. Greenberg, 1996, Barnes & Noble Books