I wanted to write a Halloween story. But I wanted some help. I may be naturally creepy in real life but on the page I ain’t too sure about that. So I called upon a few writers to add their take: Meg Tuite, Susan Tepper, Marcus Speh and Julie Innis. Greats I knew could do it. And I thank them for their time and their creepy contribution.
This Halloween Garage Sale post was inspired by Kesey’s Garage Sale, a collection of different works written by him and others. In this, A Rat Story, I began the tale and let the others work their continuations. What you get is quite the story.
Hey, they don’t call me the Rat Queen for nothing.
A Rat Story
Sometimes the man lets the rats nibble at his fingertips but they’re the quiet ones. In such a dark space, they need to be. They need to be cozened. Sheltered. He strokes their whiskers, brings his fingers up to his nose to smell the musky scent on the whorls. He dreams about their inky eyes and piebald fur. How they fit so safe in the crushable space between cupped palms. The rats scatter when he starts talking to the voices in his head. They’ll be back though. They always find their home between the cracks. He collects them. Gives each a name and a hobby. They keep his secrets and for that he is thankful. The man gets down low, low to the ground, when one day, he spies a snow white rat with red eyes. He’s going to love this one. Oh yes. He has great plans.
He names this one Swoon. In the cupboard he finds a jar of apricot jam that’s down to the dregs. He pries open the sticky lid. Swoon will like this, he’s thinking, placing the jar on the floor next to his futon. When Swoon doesn’t come out right away, he starts fretting. What if something terrible happened to the sleek white rat? Maybe the others, ordinary brown, were jealous of the silky albino hair. Maybe they castrated Swoon. Lying on the futon, the man strokes his genitals carefully. Genitals are nothing to fool around with, on rats or otherwise. That time in Bellevue, after his first shock treatment, he woke to some large orderly touching his genitals. He shakes them now to make sure they’re still attached. Then he starts his worrying about Swoon again. Hiccupping out of control. But there’s no sign of the Kingly white rat, though some others, the regulars, huddle around the apricot jam jar fighting to get in.
The man listens as his friend, Coloring-Outside-the-Lines, explains the perfection of Swoon. The ghostly fur is pressed and soft as the pretzels he gets in Union Station. Maybe Swoon is warm and salty as well. He nods and agrees. Cut-Your-Goddamn-Toenails says that a shrine must be built for Swoon. Then he will return. The man sketches a pyramid in his head. He is not hungry, but the white rat brings with it the prophetic Styrofoam labyrinth that the man has seen in a dream. He must follow through with the vision. He gropes underneath the covers until he finds his Styrofoam. He searches through his pants and fondles his pocket-knife and then grabs one of the squeaking browns. He holds him tight and slices his head off. It takes some time and effort. Then he cuts off the tail. In order to work some symmetry he has been told to dismember a total of seven. The heads will welcome Swoon to the assembly. The tails will allow Swoon passage into the next realm. The man knows that it is only a matter of time before Swoon reappears. The man gets a blister between his fingers from the dull blade. He takes the seventh rat and smacks him against the wall. He thinks about the pretzel. He opens his mouth and bites down on its neck.
“What the ….?? I leave you minions alone for one minute and it’s all chaos and rats?? Not to mention my son’s been looking for that white rat for days. I mean, not that I was a big fan of the rat-for-pet idea in the first place, but come on, it’s not like we don’t feed you here. And don’t even get me started on all your ball-cupping and masturbating. Get a room for crissakes. We don’t need to see all that.”
The Dark One paused to consider the situation. He was not pleased. This was the worst group of minions to date. He rubbed his temples as the minions crept forward to cower at his feet. Probably shitting their pants, literally, he thought. Another problem he’d have to clean up. His wife had already made it abundantly clear that the minions were his problem. What kind of Overlord needs minions anyway, she’d complained when she saw the most recent bill for all the pizzas and Chinese take-out. Real men don’t need minions, she said. If this place could sustain thin ice, he’d be on it.
She had a point, as much as he hated to admit it, all these dirty minions mucking up the works with their bullshit conspiracy theories, ritualistic killings, and don’t even get him started on their fucking love of the pyramids. Enough with the Wonders of the World, for crissakes! He was beginning to think these minions were plants, sent to spy on him, corporate espionage on the Grand Scale. The God-Scale, he corrected himself. Would the Supreme Being stoop so low? He shuddered at this thought and one of the minions audibly let loose his bowels in fear. Oh god, the smell.
“You are so out of here,” the Dark One said, and with a quick flick of his wrist, he smote the pants-shitting rat-eating psychopath and all the other minions cried out, full of fear and loathing.
The man stopped reading. The girl looked at him: “Did you honestly think, daddy that this story would scare me? Don’t you know how old I am? Do you know anything about me? I read the last Harry Potter book when I was seven,” she said. “Well,” said her father, “truth be told your mother read it to you. And she gave the old Rowling a sanitizing makeover so that you wouldn’t be traumatized for the rest of your life.” He smiled one of those smiles that he had smiled for the first thirteen years of her life, but lately, as now, his smile had only embarrassed his daughter, as if he was pretending an intimacy that she had begun to shed like dry snakeskin.
On a balcony outside of the small apartment, The Lord of Demon Flies stood listening and glistening in the rain. All along the street the rats had emerged from the sewers. Paws raised, they looked up at their Lord as large, cold drops fell on them and soaked the hairs that had been so carefully braided in preparation for Halloween and the Great Demon Flight. What was their master doing up there with the humans? Why wasn’t he preaching to them?
The father left the room and closed the door behind him. He took his story with. Perhaps it was time to stop reading to the child. Perhaps it was time to stop thinking of her as a child. As he stood in the corridor, he had a sudden bad feeling like a draft from some unclosed window of the soul. He stopped and wondered if he should go back and check up on the girl, but he hesitated: he’d been too cautious since his wife had died. It was clear that his daughter needed space above all. He scuffled to his desk, back to his work and put on headphones to listen to music. The house fell still.
The girl opened her laptop. Behind her, Beelzebub changed into a fat, iridescent green horsefly, buzzed around her head and landed on top of the web cam. The girl had joined a hangout. A dozen teenagers from around the world were logged in and chatting all at the same time. The girl was jiggling around like Beyonce, so that Beelzebub in his insect self felt competitive with the human and joined her in mid air for a little dance. The girl tolerated the buzzing body for a bit, but when she felt too bothered she grabbed the fly with a quick left hand and squished it, so that the Prince of Darkness had difficulty escaping and, as there was no time to find another small body, he entered the computer.
But the electrical impulses hit him with unexpected force and his spirit was drawn further into the machine. Like a drowning man he was pulled out to the open sea. Deep currents of communication, stronger than anything he had experienced throughout millennia, held him there. Millions of man-made tiny silvery switches and golden gateways were processing him like freshly caught fish in a can factory. Only fractions of a second later – he himself didn’t know how it had happened – the Dark One was spread out over the entire net. His great evil was distributed too thinly now across the planet to do any harm to anyone for a long time except through flame wars, hate mail and small furious comments on Facebook.
Down on the street, as the clock was eating away at Halloween, the rat mob gave up on their king and the rodents slowly disappeared into the night.
Marcus Speh is a German writer who lives in Berlin and writes in English. His short fiction collection “Thank You For Your Sperm” is forthcoming from MadHat Press. He blogs incessantly at marcusspeh.com.
Meg Tuite is currently working on a novel and always more stories. She is the current fiction editor of The Santa Fe Literary Review and Connotation Press. She has a monthly column called “Exquisite Quartet” in Used Furniture Review.
Originally from Cincinnati, Julie Innis now lives in New York. Her work has appeared in Post Road, Pindeldyboz, and Gargoyle, and many more. Three Squares a Day with Occasional Torture is her first book.
Susan Tepper is the author of four published books. Her recent title From the Umberplatzen is a quirky love story set in Germany and told in linked-flash fiction. Tepper hosts the reading series FIZZ at KGB Bar in NYC. More at www.susantepper.com.