Rat-King

A Horror Short Story by Elana Gomel

Rat-King

by Elana Gomel

 

Elana Gomel was born in a country that no longer exists and has lived in many others that may, or may not, be on the road to extinction. She currently resides in California. She is an academic with a long list of books and articles, specializing in science fiction, Victorian literature, and serial killers. She is also a fiction writer who has published more than a hundred short stories, several novellas, and four novels.  Her story “Where the Streets Have No Name” was the winner of the 2020 Gravity Award, and her story “Mine Seven” is included in The Best Horror of the Year 13 edited by Ellen Datlow. She is a member of HWA.
She can be found at https://www.citiesoflightanddarkness.com/ and on

Facebook https://www.facebook.com/elana.gomel
Twitter   https://twitter.com/ElanaGomel
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This story is a spinoff of her second published novel “The Cryptids”, which is available on KU. https://www.amazon.com/Cryptids-Elana-Gomel/dp/1947522205

 

You are supposed to love your children. Even if you can’t.

It is the most shameful secret a mother can hide. You can be a porn addict, or a junkie, or a cheater. You come clean, you confess, you go into therapy. Everything is forgiven, and you are praised for your “bravery”. Except for this. There are no rehabs for bad mothers, no therapy and no forgiveness.

But was I a bad mother? Kyle never lacked for anything. He had all the “interventions” his condition warranted. He had a coach and a physical therapist, even though there was nothing physically wrong with him. He had weekly psychological sessions. Jack and I had tried to get a pet for him, hoping a friendly dog or a cute kitten would melt the barrier that an accident of birth had erected between our son and the rest of humanity. I don’t like dogs, but I cradled an enthusiastic puppy, demonstrating to Kyle the pleasure of physical contact. He threw a temper tantrum and literally kicked the puppy out the door. This is why what came later, his imaginary friendship with the Rat-King, was such a surprise.

He was such a beautiful baby. All my friends ooh’ed and aah’ed when I posted the first baby pictures on Facebook. My mother Rhoda spent almost a month helping out as I was recovering from the difficult birth, even though she had six other grandkids vying for her attention, and I was secretly proud that I had upstaged my elder sisters in my mother’s love. She was full of praise for my firstborn. The praise petered out, but she never said anything directly, even when it was clear that Kyle would not smile or look you in the eyes. My British-born mother kept the stiff upper lip of her native land even in her Californian exile. It was shaken only when I accused her of Kyle’s death.

#

They would not let me see his body at first. I threatened Stanford Medical with a lawsuit. I had to do it all on my own: contain my grief; tamp down my guilt; yell at the stony-faced doctors and jittery nurses. Jack checked out – the process that had begun with Kyle’s diagnosis and ended with his death. My parents were worse than useless. It was before my father started showing the symptoms, but they must have realized that as Kyle had gotten infected in their house, they were next in line. If “infected” is the right word. You think of disease as a swarm of invisible particle swarming in your blood or wafted on your breath. Not as a monster lurking in the hallway, a presence under your kid’s bed, a growl in the dark, an animal that should not exist – but does.

#

It was Sharon who started talking about cryptids. “Talking” is an exaggeration. She had been tight-lipped at first and remained so until the end, reluctantly doling out nuggets of information. And of course, I did not believe her. I would not believe anything she said, let alone something so outlandish.

I remember the first time I saw her. I came over to my parents’, exhausted after a long day of speech and behavioral therapy, with Kyle in tow. All I wanted, just for a short while, was to be a daughter instead of a mother; to have Carl’s and Rhoda’s undivided attention, comforting hugs, and sweet tea – or maybe something stronger. And there was that strange woman standing by my mother’s side. I can still feel the shock of her appearance – so glamorous, so foreign, so alien.

“Mandy,” my mother said, “this is your cousin Sharon.”

I knew, of course, that my mother had an estranged sister somewhere in that dream-space called “London”. When we were kids, we were promised a British vacation that had never materialized; and once I gathered from oblique hints that my London aunt was quarrelsome, bad-tempered and worst of all, poor, I did not want to go. The only remnant of the Old World was my mother’s accent but I was so used to it I could not hear it anymore. Until that moment when it came, in all its plummy glory, from this stranger’s rouged lips. It was as if the accent created a special bond between them that excluded me – and Kyle.

Except he did not want to be excluded. Sidling away, he evaded my father’s hopeful arms and pulled the runner off the dining-room table. My mother’s carefully arranged camellias crashed on the floor. I should have been used to these everyday catastrophes, but I still flushed in shame and rushed to him, wanting to shield my baby from the stranger’s pity. But there was no pity. Sharon picked up the glass shards and said to Kyle, matter of fact:

“You should not do it. Flowers are alive.”

My mother gasped, used to the simpering unease of other friends and family members who did not know how to behave around an autistic child. But Kyle took it in his stride. He did not look Sharon in the eyes, of course (and I noted she was careful not to look into his) but he neither flapped his hands nor tried to bang his head on the wall. Instead he asked her in the same matter-of-fact tone:

“How do you know?”

I was flabbergasted: Kyle never talked to strangers! I almost missed Sharon’s answer.

“I study living things, like animals and plants. I am a cryptozoologist.”

#

I did not know what it was. Since then, of course, we had all learned the names of the impossible creatures that had turned the Silicon Valley into a plague city. Thunderbird, chupacabra, Bigfoot, bunyip…and the others. Especially the others.

But at the time I just shrugged and made polite noises, still unsure what to make of my unknown cousin. No, let me be honest. I knew what to make of her: a fake, an impostor, a floozy. That antique word popped into my head because it suited her so well. She was almost freakishly thin, but the tight-fitting red dress emphasized such curves as she did have and made me acutely aware of my unshed pregnancy pounds. She always dressed like this, totally inappropriately: design brands (second-hand, of course; she could not afford anything else) and garish makeup to go to the supermarket. Men could not take their eyes off her, but I was not surprised that she found it difficult to land a teaching job. My mother later told me she had come to California to escape a love affair gone sour, but I did not believe she was suffering from a broken heart. Sharon did not have a heart.

Or maybe she did – enough of it, at least, to tell me in plain words how my son had died.

#

It started with birds. A thunderbird, to be precise. Of course, at the time the word meant an antique car make to me. Not what it really was: the first visitor from that other…not world exactly but a variation, as Sharon put it. An evolutionary variation. What might have been had evolution veered off its track. A non-existent animal. Except as we were later to learn, non-existence has many different shades and gradations. And one kind of non-existence was physical enough to kill a woman.

It made headlines all over the Bay Area and eventually all over the country. Perhaps some fringe sites in other countries as well, picking up the crazy story and running with it. A woman carried away by a giant bird on Pescadero Beach! The woman’s husband arrested, then released, then arrested again! My parents talked about it incessantly. Even Jack joined in their dinner-table gossip on those rare occasions when he took time off his startup. He even knew the man involved, one Lester Choy. Not surprisingly in Jack’s circle, he was also a startup founder, though not as successful as my husband.

But at the time thunderbirds were the least of my worries. Kyle’s behavior was deteriorating. He spent hours scribbling in his sketchpad and then hiding it from me. He became obsessed with color yellow and threw the Magna tiles of any other color out the window. His head-banging was becoming more pronounced. The final straw was when he broke all the mirrors in the bathroom – my parents’ bathroom.

I had a meltdown. After putting him to bed, I threw myself onto the sofa and cried my heart out. I felt a reassuring hand on my shoulder but did not want to look up into my mother’s tired eyes. I felt guilty. I was spending more and more time in my parents’ Menlo Park home instead of my own because I could not face the emptiness where Jack should have been. But how much longer could I spoil their retirement?

Finally, I lifted my mascara-streaked face and discovered that the hand belonged to Sharon.

I sat up, groping for a tissue, ashamed and furious in equal measure. But Sharon did not try to be empathetic. She cut to the chase.

“Kyle cannot recognize himself in the mirror,” she said.

I stared at her.

“What do you mean?”

“His self-awareness is impaired. He is highly intelligent but not quite aware of himself – not as most human beings are. More like an animal.”

“Are you calling my son an animal?”

Sharon shook her head.

“We are all animals,” he said calmly, “but of different kinds. Most humans have a very strong sense of themselves. We are capable of looking at ourselves from the outside, creating stories with ourselves as protagonists, recognizing our own face in the stranger in the mirror. Kyle can’t do it, though I think he wants to. He would probably fail the Mirror Test.”

I knew what the Mirror Test was – a way to check whether a child has developed enough self-consciousness to recognize themselves in their reflection. But the clinical way she talked about my son infuriated me.

“Kyle is none of your business!” I yelled. “Leave us alone! You don’t know what it is to be a mother!”

She shrugged, in that maddeningly British way of hers, and walked away. This was the first night Kyle woke up and padded to my bedroom to tell me there was a Rat-King under his bed.

#

The thunderbird was the first sighting but not the last. Stories of cryptids percolated through the Silicon Valley like the newest tech fad. I heard from a woman in my Pilates class who had a large cat in her backyard. There are plenty of bobcats in the Santa Cruz Mountains and an occasional mountain lion, but she was adamant the cat had a dog’s face: flat and bare, with ruby-red eyes. That was crazy enough, but other sightings were worse. More thunderbirds: giant flying creatures, bigger than a bald eagle, some with four wings. I saw a photograph of one online. Such pictures are worthless, of course; with a suitable app, anybody can concoct as many as one likes but there was something unsettlingly real about its rough speckled plumage, its scaly neck and those additional small wings tucked in below its yellow belly.

“There were four-winged dinosaurs,” Sharon said. “Birds are dinosaurs, really.”

“That’s a dinosaur?” my father snorted, pointing to a blue jay hopping onto the lawn. “Fiddlesticks! Just another brain-dead conspiracy nonsense!”

Sharon smiled but said nothing. My father, a retired banker, did not like fringe science, especially delivered with a foreign accent, but he was not quite immune to Sharon’s charms. My parents took her in for an indefinite period of time while she was “looking”. Later on, I understood exactly what this “looking” involved.

Kyle came down from the room my parents had allocated to him and walked over to Sharon. He showed her something scribbled on a pad. She got up with a slight exclamation and followed him upstairs.

“What is it, sweetie?” I called to him. He ignored me completely, tugging Sharon’s hand. Anger slammed me like a tsunami. She was taking my family away from me: first my parents, then my son!

Had I known how little time I had left with them, perhaps I would not be so jealous of their affections.

#

The cryptid wave – or “flap” as we learned to call it – continued, with more strange sightings. Now one particular kind predominated: a slinky wolf-like canine with a shaggy mane and a hairless pink muzzle. I asked Sharon what it was called. She shook her head.

“They have never been spotted before. There have been sightings of the dire wolf, but it looks different.”

“So, what does it mean? That people just make up stuff?”

“It means,” Sharon said, “that there are many more cryptids where these are coming from.”

“I thought cryptids lived in Jefferson County,” I said mockingly, referring to the North-west area famous for its pot-growers and its tales of Bigfoot, the two, I always believed, closely connected.

Sharon flashed her infuriating tight-lipped smile at me that never reached her eyes.

“I know you don’t like me, cousin,” she said, “but I am only trying to be helpful. Cryptids are not prehistoric animals lurking in some godforsaken corner of the world. They are different-history animals. And we here, in the Golden State, just happened to be where this different history intersects with our own. Or maybe more than ‘just happened’”.

“What does it mean?” I yelled at her, worn ragged by my worry about Kyle. I did not even try to contradict her assessment that I didn’t like her. That was the thing about Sharon: she did not bullshit and didn’t encourage others to.

She shrugged.

“Doesn’t matter, Mandy.” She said. “It shouldn’t concern you. But if I were you, I would keep an eye on Kyle. These animals have an agenda.”

And she swanned out of the room, disregarding my impotent demand to leave my baby alone.

#

At the end, it was I who left him alone.

Jack was home when I came in with Kyle in tow after his therapy. He was still refusing to show me what was in his sketchpad. The therapist told me not to pressure him, but I was worried. His night terrors were getting worse.

Jack was sitting on the couch in the living room with a glass of water in front of him, staring blankly at the flat-screen TV. The picture had so many things wrong with it that I could not even count them. But the most obvious one was the fact that Jack seldom watched the TV and never drunk water if something better was available, as it always was in our house. He did not even turn his head when we walked in. I sent Kyle to his room and sat by my husband’s side. He finally looked at me. His eyes were glassy and disinterested. The TV was not on.

We talked if a one-sided conversation, interrupted by sobs on my side and grunts on his, counted as a talk. If I did not know my husband, I would suspect he was clinically depressed. Now I know better, of course, but at the time I figured out that he was trying to screw up his courage to tell me he was leaving us. I decided to fight for my marriage and wrung the promise of a date night from him. Kyle would go to his grandparents. I vowed it would be for the last time. It was.

The call came as I was sorting through my wardrobe, looking for a party dress that still fit. I was almost glad to be distracted from my hopeless task by the buzz of my cellphone. And then I heard my mother’s sobs.

By the time I got to their house, Jack, cryptids, and everything else was swept out of my brain as cleanly as the clouds from the blue Californian sky on that bright and windy evening. I barreled through the knot of people at the foot of the staircase and saw – him.

The monster. His face was vaguely rodent-like, with a lopsided proboscis and strewn with long limp clumps of hair. His swollen eyes protruded from the stretched lids like boiled eggs. His skin was scribbled over by the red hieroglyphs of broken veins.

The monster was wearing my son’s clothes.

I don’t remember what I was screaming at my mother – something unforgivable, I am sure – but I only came to when a hand connected with my cheek. I gulped; my mother had never slapped me. And then I realized the hand belonged to Sharon.

“The ambulance is on the way,” she said. “Don’t come close to him. I don’t think this is contagious – not person-to-person – but better safe than sorry.”

“This is not my son!” I shouted.

“Yes, he is. He is sick. If you bothered to follow the news, you would know they have a name for it already: NPS, New Proteus Syndrome.”

She was right. Later on, when they put Kyle in quarantine, I discovered what I had missed: scattered reports of a strange disease that caused extreme disfigurements, comparable to what befell the famous Elephant Man. The Elephant Man, Joseph Merrick, was born with what was later called the Proteus Syndrome. A genetic disease, extremely rare. Kyle did not have it. Neither did any of the other victims.

I discovered one other thing. Staring at my phone late at night as I sat in the bucket-shaped hospital seat, waiting for the doctors to deliver their verdict, I plotted the outbreaks of NPS against the reports of cryptid sightings. And then I called two people. One of them was my husband. He had not come to the hospital. His phone was off. The second person answered, though, and we had a long conversation.

The doctors were optimistic. Kyle’s disfigurement had abated as mysteriously as it first appeared and now, he looked no worse than after a bad allergic reaction. They were puzzled by his obsessive head-wagging and his refusal to speak but I explained that he was on the autistic spectrum. They seemed to think it was worse than that but medicated him into calm and let him sleep. Even though no contagious agent whatsoever was discovered in his body, they would not let me be with him until tomorrow. So, I went back home.

On my way, driving through the empty street of Palo Alto at night, I almost run over a large dog. The dog stopped and looked at me. I saw a pale narrow muzzle filled with sharp teeth, a rat-like bald face emerging from the shaggy collar of hair. When the creature trotted away, I saw it trailing a naked pink tail. I drove carefully then but I still managed to startle a bird roosting in a hedge. It flapped into the dark air, its four wings beating furiously.

Jack was at home again but when I tried to talk to him, I realized it was useless. He heard me but it was as if I did not exist.

I left him and went to my son’s bedroom. I had hesitated to search it before, respecting a seven-year-old’s privacy, fool that I was! Now I realized I had subconsciously wanted him to be older than his age, to grow up and leave me alone. I swore to myself that henceforth I would treasure every moment with him.

The sketchpad was cleverly hidden in the nook under the bookcase: Kyle was clever, with objects if not with people. I pulled it out and leafed through, taking occasional pictures on my phone.

Kyle’s drawings were excellent. Some were easy to identify. A rat-wolf, just like the one I had seen in the street. A whole pack of them. A four-winged bird that, judging by a tiny tree next to it, was orders of magnitude bigger than what had been reported. Some drawings were more mysterious: an agglomeration of convoluted yellow shapes like a pile of intestines. And then there was the last one. It seemed to be the same as the others: just a densely packed group of rat-wolves – until I squinted closer.

The animals were grown together like an incrustation of wood-mushrooms, their hindquarters melded into a massive callus.

#

I swear that I only left Kyle in his hospital room for an hour, to get a coffee and a breather. My father was spelling me. I did not know he would let Sharon take over. Both of us were exhausted and dispirited by my son’s total unresponsiveness. He lay in his bed, staring at the ceiling, reacting neither to his name nor to any other stimulus. I would have given anything to have the old Kyle back – the Kyle who talked, and read, and drew and played. So what if he had shied away from my hugs and had not looked me in the eyes!

But at least his face had returned to his normal contours, more or less. NPS was like that – unpredictable and wayward. And there was still no agent. No virus, bacterium, or even prion.

But there was a vector,

“Zoonotic,” Sharon had told me.

“Which means what?”

“Spread by animals.”

“What animals?”

But I knew the answer.

I was buying a latte when my phone buzzed. And my world ended.

#

They finally let me see his body. I wish they had not. Kyle, my beautiful baby. The thing that lay in the hospital bed did not even look human. It had no mouth, the expanse of puffy skin below the nose crisscrossed by bloody cracks.

Sharon had been with him when it happened and I made her tell me everything: the chest blowing out like a balloon, ribs cracking; the face scrunched-up into a shapeless mass; the flesh flowing like dirty water. NPS returning with a vengeance to claim its victim.

“Is it an invasion?” I asked.

She nodded.

“From where?”

“A variation. A different solution to the equation we call reality. An evolution that could have happened.”

I did not understand it, but it did not matter. All invasions are the same.

Except this one was not, according to her. They did not want to conquer us, or use us for food, or take over our resources. They wanted to remake us.

“They are animals. Intelligent animals.”

“Which means what?”

“They have intelligence but no self-awareness. Brains but no minds.”

“Like Kyle…”

“No! Kyle was human. Impaired maybe but human. He did not understand others well, but he understood himself. This is why he died.”

“What do you mean?”

She told me.

#

Palo Alto was a plague city. So many cases of NPS that they posted the National Guard to man checkpoints in and out of the Peninsula. I should have realized there were many people on the autistic-spectrum disorder in this high-tech paradise. And there was another reason why it was the epicenter of the cryptid invasion. Sharon believed that somebody playing with quantum communication systems had opened a gateway to the cryptid Earth.

But I did not care. I just buried my son. And my husband was quiet and unresponsive, busy at work and coming home to sit in front of the dark TV set. I gave up trying to talk to him. It was worse than talking to a store manikin.

Cryptids were so frequent now that they became almost commonplace. Four-winged thunderbirds of different sizes predominated but there were others: upright ursine creatures with bright pink skin; dog-faced cats; giant frogs. Rat-wolves still skulk around in the bushes, but they were becoming rarer. Sharon worried about it.

“I think they are trying to warn us,” she said.

“These things?”

“I think they are like us. Self-aware. And targeted by those others.”

“The mind-blind ones?”

I did not want to believe her. I wanted to blame the rat-wolves for Kyle’s death. He had talked about the Rat-King before he stopped talking altogether. And I still was not on board with Sharon’s theories. Kyle died; so did several others with NPS. What proof did she have that the disease existed in two forms like the Black Death with its bubonic and pneumonic variations?

I refused to believe until I came to see my parents and saw them sitting on the couch side by side, quiet and polite, answering my increasingly frantic questions with monosyllabic words. And refusing to look me in the eyes.

I found Sharon on the way to San Francisco. I drove crazily through the Bosch-like landscape populated by flightless hook-handed birds and coal-furred slender bears. She waited for me in a lay-by.

“Can you open a gate?” I asked without a preamble.

“I have…something that might,” she said reluctantly. “But Mandy…”

“My parents,” I said. “And Jack. It is the same thing, isn’t it?”

“I think so. They…they are trying to infect us with mind-blindness. So, we will be like them. Intelligent animals. With no self. Unable to see ourselves in the mirror or in another’s person’s eyes”.

“But those like Kyle…”

“Jenner discovered the smallpox vaccine because he realized that milkmaids who had cowpox, a mild version of the same disease, never got infected. Kyle was…vaccinated. So the disease, unable to kill his humanity, turned against his body.”

“Why am I not sick?” I demanded.

She smiled her irritatingly superior smile.

“I don’t know, cousin,” she said. “Maybe both you and I are already infected and it’s only a matter of time before we are just empty human-shaped shells. Or maybe there is something that protects us both.”

#

I went back home. Jack’s body was not there, and I was grateful. I had to get used to the fact that my husband was dead. Having his corpse shuffle around was too painful.

I went into Kyle’s bedroom clutching the ridiculously mundane object that Sharon had given me. A cellphone. A quantum prototype that she had got from the man who had first opened the gate and whose wife had been carried away by a thunderbird.

But there was no need. The gate was already open.

The Rat-King was lying on my son’s bed.

It was a nauseating thing, far worse than Kyle’s drawing of it. His picture could not convey the pungent reek of feces that made my eyes water. It did not depict the lice visibly crawling through the matted fur, or the leprous whiteness of the naked skin on the many muzzles that turned to me, poking out of the shaggy pile of fused bodies.

“Why didn’t you protect my son?” I demanded.

A chorus of overlapping voices, hoarse and indistinct, deformed words drowning in bestial noise. And then one voice, strong and clear:

“Mommy!”

The smallest of the many heads, its toothy maw struggling to form words. The rest of them fell silent.

“Kyle!”

“We could not protect him from mind-thieves,” another, bigger head said. “We tried. But we are weak. They are hunting us in our home. They are hunting us here.”

“So, we took what we could of him in safekeeping,” another head said. “As much of his mind as we could. It’s not all. But it’s something.”

I stood still and stared at the monster on the bed, the stinking pile of animal flesh. Somewhere within was what was left of my beautiful son.

I stepped forward and embraced the Rat-King.

 

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