's 2015 Horror Write-off:

" A Problem With Rats "

Submitted by J.D.Stroud

They had a problem with rats.

“Rats?” Mayor Erica Denner was incredulous. “You must be kidding. Greg, rats aren’t my problem. Do you know what my problem is? Actually, no, do you know what my problems are? The nurses’ union protesting for the second time in so many months, that’s my problem. The frankly unbelievable debt my predecessor has left this city in, that’s my problem. This whole Jimenez debacle, that is my problem. Those… these are my problems. Rats? Rats are not my problem.”

The young assistant shuffled his feet nervously on the absolutely hideous carpet that lined her office. Something else to be lain at the feet of the previous mayor. In addition to being a soft, irresponsible socialist, he also had terrible taste.

“Yes ma’am,” said Greg. “It’s just that…” His voice was annoying, she suddenly realized. Why was that? Was it too high? Too ingratiating? It didn’t really matter.  She practiced her controlled breathing. She tried imagining herself seated in the center of a perfectly white blossom, ten identical petals unfurling, but quickly abandoned this tactic since the visualization portion of the exercise had never done her much good. Instead, she sucked in through her nostrils, exhaled through her mouth. The room was quiet.

“Gregory,” she finally said, in what she felt was a tone of deep serenity. “Please do not bother me with things like this in the future. Thank you.”

The door shut behind him on his way out.

Still, they had a problem with rats.

The next day, she found Comptroller Graham Ladowitz waiting for her after her 11:00 meeting with the representatives from the Affairs Bureau.

“It’s the audits Mrs. Denner. I realize you feel that cutting back on Mayor Brogdon’s budget is of the utmost importance but the Metropolitan Transport Authority is completely dropping the ball on maintaining even the most lax of sanitation codes and I believe their new financial limitations are contributing to that. We have been receiving an unprecedented number of complaints through the pest control hotline. Something must be done about these rats. The media is starting to take notice.”

This got her attention. She pressed a button and Greg poked his head through the door. She cut him off before he could speak. “Greg, please push my 12:15 to 12:45,” she paused, trying to remember if 12:15 was the Nurses’ Union or the Municipal Planner. The Municipal Planner could be put off, the Union could not. She decided it was definitely the planner. “Also, have Nina pick Bradley up from his physical therapy and take him to his violin lesson at Purcell. He must be there at exactly 3:05, they are very particular.” She waved him out. When they were alone again, she addressed Ladowitz.

“It’s the damn Sanitation Authority dropping the ball. You leave garbage festering on the sidewalks and what do you expect to happen. We can thank Mr. Brogdon’s bloated bureaucracy for this, changing the pick up dates so many times that the citizens don’t know when to leave their trash out. This is not my responsibility. Tell the health inspectors to double down. If things continue this way, I will hold them responsible.”

“With all due respect, ma’am,” Ladowitz was implacable. He was a holdover from Brogdon’s administration. She made a mental note to look into a more suitable candidate for his position. “The health inspectors are understaffed and overwrought as it is. The audits hit their department hard. They’ve hit all of the departments hard.”

She sighed. “Comptroller, if they cannot do their jobs then replacements will be found. That will be all for today, thank you.”

The rat problem persisted.

Mayor Denner sat in the back of the recital hall, listening with one ear to Bradley sawing valiantly away with only minimal hesitation while with the other she was ever alert to the jarring vibrations of the phone in her purse. She rubbed her neck with the back of her hand. Practiced her deep breathing.

The media was calling it “Rat-gate,” the revelation that scores of health code violations had been overlooked, leaving the city vulnerable to a flood of vermin. People’s pets were being killed, their kitchens invaded. The rats walked boldly in the light of day, brazen as could be. They controlled over half of the city’s parks, infesting every tree by the dozens, even hundreds according to some reports.

“We are not responsible for this,” she told the press. “It is clear that we are now suffering from the results of the negligent policies and discord sown under Mayor Brogdon’s watch. I assure you, though, that those chiefly to blame will be identified. As to the rats, I vowed when I was elected to clean up Brogdon’s messes, and that is exactly what I will do. The solution to this problem is not to pump more taxpayer dollars into useless government response teams. We will consult with privately-owned, private citizen-run extermination firms.”

Truthfully, she was almost excited. The rat problem presented a unique opportunity. With one fell swoop, she would pump funds into the failing economy and annihilate the invading pests. Of course, someone had to take the blame for the problem, but that was of little concern. A minimal amount of selective investigation had revealed wide spread corruption in the Budget Management Division. Eventually, it had been a simple matter to pin the entire issue on a single public servant. Comptroller Ladowitz had been forced to resign in disgrace, and had been promptly replaced by the son of one of her campaigners. The people around her started clapping. She clapped louder.

She scrolled through news feeds, gulped her coffee. Rat-gate was persisting. Soon it would reach a point where it could no longer be attributed to Brogdon and his cronies. There were too little of them left to play scapegoat.”This should not be my problem,” she hissed under her breath as she watched a youtube video of two rats fighting over a half-eaten cruller on the steps of the city library. It had a disconcerting number of views.

“Mom?” Bradley hobbled into the kitchen. “Can I please go back to the old crutches?”

“No son, your new crutches are fine.” She pushed a bowl of raisin bran and a slice of grapefruit toward him. Laboriously, he sat down to eat.

“It’s just these ones are two tall for me. They make my armpits ache,” he said balefully. They were unmistakably related. It was as if Mayor Denner had asexually produced a male clone of herself. The same fair complexion, the same dark eyes and pale, blond hair. They even freckled in the same places. The only problem, and she could only assume this was a faulty gene on his father’s side, was his legs. Hereditary spastic paraplegia had crippled him almost as  soon as he knew how to walk. He’d been on the crutches ever since.

“They’re adjustable,” she said.

“Not enough.” The grapefruit was left untouched, the cereal half eaten. With a scrape of the chair he got up, heaved himself upright and made his way toward the living room and the xbox. She intercepted with a kiss as she walked out the door. “You’ll grow into them sweetie.”

The rats.

There was no longer anything else that mattered. The nurses were now rioting for a new reason, and that was the huge number of rats in the hospitals. The rats were in restaurants, in the subways. None of the exterminators that the city had contracted had come through. All had failed. And then last night, she’d heard a scream from Bradley’s room. She ran and flung open the door to find him sobbing on the bed, holding his cheek where one of the little monsters had bitten him. She turned the lights on just in time to shriek with alarm as something dashed past her out of the room, scurrying on tiny feet for cover.

They’d rushed him to the hospital. He’d had to get a dozen shots. The look on her face when she came into work that morning was NOT one of deep serenity. No one dared speak. But, of course, when someone finally did talk to her, it had to be Greg.

“Someone to see you ma’am,” he said of the intercom. His voice sounded unsure.

“I don’t have any appointments Greg. You know better than to bother me with things like this.” Her tone was icy.

“I unders-stand m-ma’am,” he knew his job was hanging by a thread. “I can’t get h-him… them… to go away. They said they must see you. About the rats.”

That was it, he was fired. She jotted down a note to herself. Look for a new assistant. Someone with a soothing, mellifluous voice. Or at least a bearable voice.

“He’s coming in ma’am!” This time it was not over the intercom. Someone had opened the door and Greg was shouting in a panicked whine. She was prepared to eviscerate whoever had the audacity to barge uninvited into her office, but the sight before her stopped her in her tracks.

It was the most outlandish person she had ever seen in her life. They were a giant, for starters, easily over seven feet tall, and that was without even taking into account the pronounced stoop. But by far the most noticeable thing about them was the costume. A suit of rags, of every different shade imaginable. All were filthy, but even begrimed as they were the colors still seemed vibrant, eye-catching. The strange get-up was sewn and pinned together in a thousand unlikely ways. A rainbow of frayed threads unravelled from every inch, trailing on the floor behind them as they entered the room. It engulfed the stranger’s entire body. The sleeves hung down in long tapers over their hands. A bundle of scarves and a hood, as well as a wide-brimmed hat of sorts, hid the face completely from view. It was difficult to tell, but based on the way the rags hung from their frame it seemed to her that the person was very, very skinny under all the voluminous fabric.

“What is the meaning of this?!” she had been meaning to say. Instead, she just opened her mouth twice, both times shutting it again. She was frozen in her seat. With slow, methodical steps the person drew closer. She should call security. This was without doubt some kind of mad circus freak. Probably a Brogdon supporter. But she couldn’t make herself move.

When they spoke, she was shocked to hear such a soft voice emerge from the tattered covering. It was higher than she had expected, almost feminine.

“I hear you have a problem Mrs. Mayor. With rats.” The tone was impossible to place. It was soothing. To someone more susceptible, it may even have sounded reassuring. But there was something else in it that she immediately disliked. Something hollow and off, like the voice of a castrato. She did not like things that couldn't be easily categorized. She had never been a fan of David Bowie.

“W-what… do you want?” she said, forcing herself to speak. She did not sound as authoritative as she had meant to. Her hands were trembling.

To her surprise, the person bowed. Their long, willowy form seemed almost to crumple in on itself, doubling over like one of those collapsible toys that stand erect until a button is pressed, loosening the strings that hold them upright. Somehow, it seemed like a graceful movement. Then, just as quickly as they had dipped down, up they were standing again just as strange and imposing as before.

“At your service, Mrs. Mayor. I am a person most skilled in dealing with problems like this one.”

Mayor Denner’s brow furrowed. What was this freak playing at? She wished she could have them ejected from her office but somehow could not find the will to call for security. Instead, she asked a question, almost unconsciously.

“You? Is this some sort of gimmick? Do you represent one of the exterminators?” She grasped desperately for familiar footing.

“I represent only me,” breathed the stranger in their weird falsetto voice. “I would need a single day. Only say the word, and your problem with rats will be my problem, and then it will be no problem at all.”

She blinked. She almost laughed, would have laughed if the situation had not been so unsettling in addition to being so ridiculous. Well, if some sort of homeless clown wants to get rid of these beasts, she thought, I won’t stop them. But she knew people too well. And whatever this was, it was certainly a person of some sort. That meant they would want something for their services.

“And payment?” she asked.

They named a staggering sum, it took her breath away.

“We are in a recession,” she told the person. What was she doing? Negotiating with a disgusting tramp? It occurred to her that there was a very real possibility that this was a dream.

The person… figure… was silent, still, except for a moment, a very troubling moment, when a number of pieces of the garish suit seemed to rustle, as if stirred by a wind that was not there. 

“This is the entire city’s budget. These terms are unprecedented.” Still, the person was silent. They just stood there, waited. Then it occurred to her. What did it matter how much of a price they asked? What they claimed to be able to do was impossible, and what’s more, if they did manage to be able to do it, then how on earth was some sort of tatterdemalion supposed to hold her accountable for such a price. No court in the country would ever take such a figure as the one suggested by the visitor seriously. She smiled.

“Very well then. I accept, if you can solve the rat crisis, you will have your payment.”

The figure seemed to sigh, but it emerged from their whole being, a total exhalation that briefly filled the patchwork covering, causing it to swell, to billow, then once more to deflate as a whoosh of air flowed from every tear and opening. When they spoke again, the voice was even more distant, fainter, wispier.

“I shall do my work as the sun sets tonight. I shall come for my payment on the morrow.” And with that, they left. At least, they were no longer there. By the time Mayor Denner snapped out of what seemed like a very long daydream, the room was empty, save for her and her alone.

That evening she sat in an honored place at a Relay-for-Life fundraiser. Nina was watching Bradley, working overtime. For some reason, despite the fact that she detested events like this, she felt more at ease than she had in months. She had come to recollect her meeting with the spindly intruder as an interesting anecdote, almost something that she had heard from someone else instead of something that had happened to her personally. Gleefully, she shared in with a few of her constituents, who laughed indulgently exactly when they were supposed to.

“Life in the public sector is never dull, Mrs. Mayor,” said Moira O’Connor, the wife of Nathan O’Connor of O’Connor, O’Connor, O’Connor, and O’Connor. The law firm was one of her largest campaign donors. Erica chuckled in agreement, basking in the euphoric contentment.

A dumpy woman took the podium and began rambling off depressing statistics about heart disease. Mrs. Denner hardly took notice. She watched the rabble milling about. Not so different, she found herself thinking, from the rats. Uncontrollably multiplying. Taking up inside of other people’s cupboards, if they could. Parasites. Not a single one would do an honest day’s labor, if they could only find a way to trick the government into doing it for them.

Suddenly, she felt something. Apparently, everyone felt it. The dumpy woman became quiet, stopping mid-speech. Everyone was silent. What was this feeling? No one seemed willing, or able, to move. It was strange. It was like a gentle, invisible hand was holding onto the spot right between her eyes, tugging, tugging. Then they heard it.

One note, repeated over and over. That was all it was. One long, high note, so high it was almost piercing. It would play for a moment, stop, then play for two moments, three, then stop again. It was almost like a code. Slowly, she rose from her seat. She went to to the window, eyes closed, following the sound, the sensation. Disjointed impressions filled her head. Safety and darkness, warmness and dryness. A smell, a sharp smell that made her mouth water. A glittering river of sugar, in which bobbed peaches, dates, plums, flowing into a sea of seeds. Seeds, seeds, everywhere seeds. The note called. Seeds, it cried, sacs of seeds, grain spilling over and over, mountains of grains. Plenty of safe, she found herself thinking. Plenty of full. All of the full you want, all of the safe you want. Soft nests, plenty of soft. Plenty of space, for littles, for litters. Litter and litters of littles, space for all of them. She heard them, littles chirping happily, fat little with fat mother. All family, all together, breathing together, close together. Everyone fat, everyone breathing and all together. Sister breathing next to mother next to mate. Everyone grinding teeth, grinding grinding together

Then, a second note. Lower then the first, full of plaint and longing. Now the two were alternating, or perhaps they were both sounding at once. One still said full, safe, soft, space. The other was full, follow, follow to the full and space and soft and safe. Here it is, we all are going. Mother is going, mate is going, brother is going, all together, breathing together, running together, one last run and then full forever. So much full, so much safe in the land of safe. Everyone will grind teeth forever, everyone will grind teeth together.

She tried to clear her head. She sucked in a breath through her nostrils, exhaled from her mouth. She forced herself to open her eyes. She could not believe what she saw.


A million, a billion rats. They flowed through the streets in a grey torrent. They trampled each other. Trampled their young underfoot. Their noses twitched frantically. Worst of all, they moved in complete silence, not a squeak, not a peep. They simply ran, ran, to where she didn't know.

That night they had all left the gathering in a daze. Trash cans were overturned, as if a great wind had swept through. But not a rat was spotted. They returned to their rat-less apartments. Mayor Denner came home to find Bradley already tucked in, his crutches propped up by his bedside the bandaid still on his face where he had been bitten. She went to bed almost without thinking, and when she woke up the next day, the rats were still gone.

As she sat in her office, she could not stop thinking about the person. How had they done it? Where had that unearthly sound come from? Where were the rats now? 

Greg’s voice fizzed at her from the intercom. She barely had the presence of mind to be bothered. “Someone here to see you ma’am,” he said.

It was exactly who she had expected. There they stood, as real as she. She couldn’t tell, but she had the feeling that they were looking at her expectantly. Of all the questions she wanted to ask, the one she found escaping her mouth was, “Where? Where are all the rats?”

The person stood there, seemed momentarily to list one way, then the other, like a snake that holds some small animal transfixed in its reptilian gaze. At last they said, “They are no longer your problem. I have come, as we agreed, for my payment.”

Mayor Denner felt her head clear a bit. At the mention of money, her instincts took over. She was all business. “Of course your results are unquestionable. Rest assured, you will be amply compensated for your services to the city, but-”

She paused. A wave of sensations flowed over her, through her, just for a moment. Safe, space, sweet, soft. She shook her head, rubbed her eyes, thought she heard someone playing music somewhere in the building.

“-But we simply cannot afford to give you such an egregious amount.”

There was another pause. Erica could feel her heart hammering as the person swayed there. Briefly, she began to wonder if they had not heard her when suddenly they spoke. The voice was exactly the same, exactly as reedy and lilting, exactly as empty.

“You will not pay me.” It was more a statement then a question.

“Not so much, no. If you would like, I am open to negotiating a more manageable fee.”

“We agreed.” Another statement, it brooked no contradiction. This was not how Mrs. Denner was used to haggling.

“I signed nothing. We had, at best, an informal arrangement. Hell, we didn’t even shake hands,” she said with a bit of smugness, a bit of scorn. Frightened or not, she was still herself.

She held her breath for their rebuttal, but the person seemed to be done responding. She waited to see what they would do. They left.

For the rest of the day she tried to go about her business without thinking about the stranger. The press was in a frenzy. How had she accomplished such an amazing feat? She artfully spun a fiction about new ultra-sonic pest deterrents. They ate it up. She could almost physically feel her approval rating soaring. She made sure to mention that it was a private and not a government funded laboratory that had developed the miraculous technology.

She should have been happy. Her triumph was secure. Yet she could not stop thinking of the stranger. Out of the corner of her eye she kept seeing them, a flash of polychromatic sleeve, a glimpse of moth-eaten cloak. But whenever she turned there was nothing there.

At 5:00 she decided to call it a day. Perhaps she and Bradley would watch a movie. She was about to turn the key in the ignition when she saw them. Her heart skipped a beat. There was the stranger, standing behind her car, perfectly visible in the rear-view mirror. Slowly, they drew something from the folds of their bizarre apparel. It was a long, thin tube. She couldn’t tell what it was made of, only that it was yellowish-white and had a number of holes bored through one side. She would have feared violence, but the object was far too slender, far too fragile to be used as a weapon of any sort. The person lifted the object until the tip disappeared into the mass of scarves beneath their hat and hood. A flute, she thought. But no, you held a flute sideways as you played it. Whatever it was it was definitely some sort of instrument.

She turned around, eyes wide with fear and puzzlement, but there was no one there.

Yet still she heard it. She left the keys in the ignition, causing the car to beep angrily as she opened the door and stepped into the parking lot. She didn’t even notice it.

It was one single note, a simple, warbling note, repeating over and over again. She leaned against the vehicle, still blaring its alarms. She shut her eyes. She listened. She heard a bell tinkling, the candy shop (what candy shop?). Each shelf a riot of toffees and suckers, every shape of chocolate stuffed with peanut butter and caramel and jam. And a person behind the counter in a many colored suit, not grimy but new and clean and bright, and everything free.

And mother (my mother?) calling you inside. The snow is exhausting and wonderful, the fire inside is bright. Graham crackers on a plate, marshmallows bobbing in the cocoa that is perfectly hot. A storybook lies open, to a picture of a person in a many colored suit.

And the tallest tree, with branches so low you barely need to reach up to grab them. They practically lift you up, lift you higher and higher until you reach the tree house where someone waits for you, a many colored sleeve waving in the treetop air.

And games. Stacks of games. Toys of every variety, dolls and scooters and shining tinsel-trailing wands. The graphics are crystal clear, they tell a thousand stories and in each one your guide tells you just what to do, just how to beat this level, without giving too much away. You are never bothered when the many colored icon appears on screen.

And every day is Saturday morning, and you sit and watch the tv glowing in many colors, as the many colored person hands you your many colored cereal and every night is a sleep over and never more a bedtime, never more a school day, but always always full of candy, safe with mom and dad, free to play, blanket forts that never end, with pillows for your head. And no sickness, steaming bowls of chicken and noodles for all. Costumes and masks. Coloring books, her head is growing heavy. The person on the page of the coloring book. She doesn’t have enough crayons to do them right. She needs all the crayons. More than all the crayons. She colors and colors, she could never be done filling in these many, many colors. Safe and full, warm and soft, free and loved. Little wishes, little wants for little things. Come away to the soft and safe and sweet. She collapsed where she stood.

And when she woke up, they were gone. All of them were gone. In twos and threes and huge mobs the parents searched. They scoured. First alarmed, then desperate, weeping, furious. No sign. Only empty beds and half finished drawings, open windows and doors left swinging on the hinges. All gone, but one.

A search party found Bradley Denner, barely conscious in a park near the center of the city (the child not recognized on sight by most, but soon enough  to be more famous than even mother). Where did the rats go, Bradley? Where are all the rats? What was the secret? How does one do such a trick? She wanted to ask. Others had more pressing questions. What happened? Where is Penny? Where is Patrick? Where? How? Who?

His eyes were glazed, his armpits were chafed and raw with frantic pacing. He had hobbled miles and miles of city blocks before abandoning the crutches to crawl until the skin on knees and hands was in ribbons. His face was sticky with tears, of longing and frustration, disappointment and abandonment, but also something else. Also fear.

“They left me…” he said. “They all ran faster than me. Even the sick ones. Even the dying ones and the ones in chairs, the blind ones. Even the deaf kids went, and all went faster than me.” He held something in his lap, would not let anyone see, curled up even when his mother rushed forward.

“Where were they going?” asked one mother. “Why?” asked a father. But it was Mayor Erica Denner who asked, “Who?”

Up he pointed and thats when they saw it, fluttering in the breeze of the great tree under which he sat. A coat of sorts, a suit of many colors. A scarecrow’s cast-off hand me downs dyed in each and every sort of shade. “No one,” he said, and they could all see that what he held in his lap was a single white, malnourished rat, the last one in all the city.