The Rat King
Phil pulled himself up from the barroom floor after the drunken debacle. He’d caught a sucker punch from a mouth breather who’d claimed Lynyrd Skynyrd was the greatest band of all time. Phil called out from a few stools down, saying Lynyrd Skynyrd sucked dick because, well . . . because they did. The big bastard was on him in seconds. He expected it. Hell, he wanted it. He didn’t call out because of his distaste for the guy’s music, although it was dogshit. He called out to him because there was something about getting beaten close to death, and tasting your own blood, that no other kind of high could ever match.
The bartender slid him a pint of stale Pabst. “That’s the third time this month you’ve got your ass kicked in here,” he said, grinning. The bartender’s name was Rich, which Phil found hilarious. The man looking at him was hardly better off than he was; the only thing to his name was the rat’s nest of a dive they were sitting in, and he slept on a couch in the back. “Only the third?” Phil asked. “Huh. I could’ve sworn it was more than that. Thanks for the help by the way. You’d think the owner would break something like that up rather than record it on their cell phone,” he said.
“Well if I did that, then I wouldn’t have this awesome video to upload to Bumfights, now would I?”
Phil looked around at the hole he spent the better part of his life in. The stools and benches were held together with duct tape, and a family of rats nestled together in the corner. “Whatever, fuck off. I’m gonna take a piss and then I’m out of this shithole.”
“See you in the morning, Phil,” Rich called out as he stumbled to the bathroom. Once in the john, he fell onto the wall while dropping his drawers. He’d started going before it was fully out, wetting his pants a little before noticing he was pissing straight blood; side effects of the beating he’d taken, no doubt. The cracked brick walls started spinning, so he finished his business before making his way out of the backdoor.
The alley behind Rich’s pub was secluded enough. It was just a small area behind the pub and the restaurant next door. The only way back there was a narrow walkway in between the two buildings. He was about to lie down in his usual spot, a twin mattress behind the dumpster, when he heard a scream from somewhere nearby.
Hurried footsteps came down the walkway, then he saw two figures emerge. A man appeared holding a struggling woman by the wrists with one hand, his other holding a knife. He shoved her to the ground as she stared back in shock, eyes wide and her mouth trembling, but she wouldn’t dare to make another sound. “Now as I said before, I just want the wallet, lady, don’t make me do anything worse.”
Her voice quavered. “Please, that’s all I have. It’s for my daughter’s Christmas.” She was shaking, tears pouring from her eyes. Her blouse was torn and her hair was a wreck. Phil found himself thinking about how quickly this could go from bad to worse.
“Lady, how would you like to be dead? Huh? Cause I could give a shit less about your little girl, or Christmas. So what’s it gonna be?” No sooner than he’d finished talking, Phil’s fist drilled into the man’s skull, knocking him off balance as the knife flew from his hand. Phil snatched it up before the mugger had a chance to understand the turn of events.
“Nice knife,” Phil said. “Now why don’t you get lost, or I’ll cut your throat.”
The mugger flashed a sneer and turned tail down the alley. Phil reached his hand out to help the woman up. “Thank you so much, you saved my . . .” As he helped her up, he pulled her wallet from her purse with the other hand. “What are you doing?” she protested. He opened it and found two hundred bucks, took one hundred out, and tossed the wallet back at her.
“My hero’s fee,” he said. “Now get lost before I have a change of heart and take the rest.” The look in her eyes was that of sheer astonishment.
“Wow, okay, you know what? You’re even worse than he was.” She stuffed the wallet back in her bag and stormed off down the walkway.
Phil turned back to his filthy mattress, a mattress fit for the Rat King he’d become. But before he could lie down, he was approached by a stranger in a fine tailored suit.
“That was rather cold, don’t you think?” The man stepped forward, straightening his jacket.
“Who the fuck are you?” Phil asked.
“Never mind who I am, Philip, but I know all about you,” he said. “You were discharged from the Army ten years ago, just a year short of the end of the Iraq war. The reason you were discharged was that you couldn’t keep your emotions in check after Serena and little Bobby were killed by a drunk driver. You blame yourself because you weren’t there, as if you could’ve changed anything. At that point, you thought the worst of yourself and came home to become the person you thought you were. How am I doing so far?”
Phil’s jaw clenched and tears welled in his eyes as he remembered the wife that had been so proud the last time she’d kissed him, seeing him off to war. He remembered just three days before that, teaching four-year-old Bobby how to ride the new bike they’d bought him with the first installment of his deployment bonus. At the memory of the happy boy riding down the sidewalk, he could hold the tears back no more.
“Get to your point, and get to it fast pal, ’cause I’m losing patience real quick.” He wiped the tears from his eyes with the back of his hand.
“Spare me your drunken tough-guy routine,” the stranger said. “I come to you with a proposition. I want to allow you to have anything you want in this world. You do a task for me, and I will give you whatever it is that your heart desires.”
“I want you to get the fuck away from me. That’s what I want. You can’t grant wishes. Magic, warlocks, genies, whatever the fuck, it’s all horseshit.”
“I see,” the stranger said. “Well, Phillip, enjoy your night.” He turned to leave as Phil collapsed upon his mattress and promptly asleep.
Soon after, Phil was falling down the rabbit hole, a nightmare he’d been having ever since he’d seen Alice in Wonderland as a child. The imagery had changed somewhat over the years, mainly the things he saw while falling. Tonight, for his viewing pleasure, he saw all the things the stranger had somehow known about. He saw himself breaking down when the letter was delivered. He was lying in a medical tent when he received the news, having taken two bullets in the shoulder only hours before. Next, he saw an old pickup slam into his wife’s SUV. And then, he saw himself sitting on a park bench, tying off his arm and shooting himself full of poison.
After he’d finished spiraling, he found himself standing in the pitch black. This part of the nightmare was new. He walked along until he could make out the faint line of his family’s old home on Chestnut Street. The tire swing in the font yard blew in the wind as it picked up all around him. A full moon rose behind the house, shining brighter than anything he’d ever seen. That’s when he noticed the moon had a face, its wide eyes radiating a blinding blue light.
Next thing he knew, an alarm clock was buzzing in his ears. He awoke beneath a soft down comforter, his head resting upon the fluffiest pillow he’d ever felt. For the first time in ten years, he didn’t have a hangover and was feeling well-rested. He thought back to the night before, remembering everything perfectly. Confused didn’t begin to describe how he felt, and then he rolled over and saw a woman with pale blonde hair and vibrant green eyes staring back at him. Her mouth then curled into a beautiful smile. “Good morning, sleepyhead,” she said.
“Serena,” he began and stopped. He didn’t know where to begin. She shushed him. “Let’s go, we gotta wake Bobby up so he can open his presents. It’s not every day our little man turns five.” This didn’t make any sense, but his heart swelled with joy for the first time in years. He wrapped her in a tight hug and kissed her repeatedly. “Yes, let’s wake up Bobby,” he said, wiping a tear from his eye.
They crept into his room with a big box wrapped in colorful stripes. The boy slept silently, tucked neatly beneath his racecar covers. Serena slammed the door and they both yelled, “Surprise!”
Bobby shot straight up in his bed. “Dad!” he yelled as he sprang to his feet and ran to him, wrapping his arms around him tight. He held the boy in his arms for a long while, silently weeping, and everything felt right.
Bobby opened all of his presents before noon, and the family topped off the morning with ice cream and a trip to the park. Phil and Bobby tossed his new football around until Bobby was ready to hit the swingset. While Phil was off at war, the boy had learned how to swing all by himself. “It’s really impressive for a boy his age to be that good at this,” he said to Serena, but when he turned to face her, the sky went black. Where she had been just moments ago, stood the man from the night before. “Isn’t it?” he asked.
“Where’d they go?” Phil asked. “Bring them back! You asked what I wanted and this is it. Please, bring them back, I’ll do whatever you say.”
“Yes, I believe you will. That is good. Now that I’ve shown you what I’m capable of, you’re taking me quite seriously. It’s a huge improvement from last night. Desperation looks good on you, Rat King. That’s what you call yourself in your inner monologue, isn’t it? Most fitting.”
“Look, I know you’re enjoying this, but please just tell me what I have to do.” He was now on his hands and knees, begging at the man’s feet. “Certainly, Philip, it’s an easy enough task. I just want you to kill someone.”
Phil looked at him, then back at the frozen image of his son on the swing set just a few yards away. “Are you crazy?” he asked. The man laughed uncontrollably, “I am the furthest thing from it,” he said. “You want their lives back, and I want you to take someone’s life for theirs.”
Phil stared down at his feet, and without looking at the man, he asked simply, “Who?”
The mark was an old lady named Iris whom Phil had known from the local homeless shelter. She ran the place and would often bring him meals to his spot behind the bar when he didn’t show up. Since he got back from Iraq, she was single-handedly the nicest person he had met. She let him in whenever he wanted, even if it was 3 am and he was piss drunk banging on the door. She had a lovely daughter whom he had met on his first trip there. They both treated him so well, and now he had to murder her. And not just murder her, the stranger made that clear. She had to know it was him, and she had to suffer.
After the stranger departed, Phil’s reunion with his family went on as it had before. Serena had agreed that Bobby’s swinging ability was incredible, and after a short while, the trio retired back to their home on Chestnut. They watched a string of kids’ movies until Bobby fell asleep and Phil had to carry him to bed; then Serena said she wanted to watch something scary. A new slasher flick, which made Phil uneasy because he knew that in just a few short hours, he would have to become the slasher or lose them both again. And losing them again was something he was not prepared to do.
After the movie, the two went back to the bedroom. Although the day was tiring, they saved enough energy for a special night together. She wanted him to be rough, and had he not been planning out a murder in his head, this would’ve been much easier on him. Phil was nothing if not a trooper, however, and eventually he got the job done. Moments after they finished, he heard Serena’s soft snoring coming from her side of the bed. That was when he made his way out of the bedroom, and down to the garage.
The two-car garage was clean and organized, just as he’d left it before deployment. He found himself trying to slip back into the mindset of the man he’d been in those days. When he received an order to kill back then, there was no question about it, and even though this was different, he had to treat it just the same. The tool bench that took up the entire back wall was the first place to start. He grabbed an old duffle bag from underneath and examined his options, tossing in a hammer, a box of large nails, a handsaw, a roll of duct tape, and a long length of chain. He looked at himself in the mirror that hung on the wall by the bench, hating everything he saw. There was no going back though. In less than an hour, Iris would be dead. In less than two, he’d be back home, getting cleaned up, and sliding back in bed with his wife.
The Savior’s Rest shelter was located in a neighborhood not far from Phil’s house. He killed the lights as he pulled onto Maple Street and drove slowly down the alley leading to the back entrance of the building. Quite conveniently, this door led right into the living chambers of the soon-to-be late Iris Colson. He killed the ignition, grabbed his duffle, and exited the car, creeping silently towards the shelter. Hoping to enter unnoticed, he found his plans foiled when the lights came on inside. A pair of old familiar eyes peered out from behind the window blinds. “Who’s out there? Answer me or I’ll call the police.”
Phil froze. He had to think of something, and he didn’t like the first thing that came to mind, which was rushing to the door to break it in. “Iris, it’s me, Phil Summers. Can you let me in? I need someone to talk to, and I didn’t know where else to turn.” He hated himself more with every word, and part of him wondered if she’d even know who he was. Sure, the mysterious stranger had chosen her because of their bond, but he wasn’t exactly sure how this weird time loop thing had worked. He was on the verge of bolting when he heard the click of the lock, and the door swung open to let him in.
“Oh, Philip, you scared me half to death darling,” Iris said. “Come on in, sweetie, I’ll make us some tea.” His heart fluttered, but he did as he was asked, feeling just like a vampire whose prey had invited him in.
Now that he was in the small room that looked to be a studio apartment, he began to calm down. He sat at the coffee table in a fold-out chair as Iris brought a tray in and sat down across from him. Her body was old and pruning in on itself, and she looked at him with kind, thoughtful eyes like she was the grandmother he’d always wished he’d had. “Now, Philip, spill it to old Iris. What seems to be weighing on your heart so heavily tonight? You’ve got pain in your eyes young man, I can see it.”
“Do you remember the family that I told you about, Iris? My wife and little boy?” She nodded, so he continued. “All this time, I thought I could never be happy again, but then, by a true miracle, seriously like the type of shit in the Bible . . .”
“Language,” she chided, though she didn’t look sincerely offended. After years of running this place, she’d heard it all. “Right, sorry, it’s just, they’ve come back to me, Iris. I met a man last night, and he somehow brought them back to me.” Her eyes widened, but she didn’t interrupt. “Then today, he told me that if I wanted to keep them, I . . .” He paused, not knowing how to phrase it. “I, uh, have to do something really bad.”
“Philip, shoot straight with me, young man. Are you back on the junk?” She got up and started walking towards the phone. “I know a really good help center.”
“No, Iris, please.” He went to grab her wrist and she jerked it away. “Let go of me!” she yelled, moving as fast as her decrepit legs could go. He took the hammer from the bag and said, “I’m so sorry, Iris,” bringing it down hard on the back of her head as she slumped the floor.
Although she was bleeding from the blow, Phil could see she was still breathing. That was unfortunate, as he would’ve preferred to end it right there, but he knew that wasn’t good enough to meet the stranger’s request. He pulled out the duct tape, stretched it over her mouth, and then bound her legs. He cleared the coffee table and slumped her limp body down onto it like it were a slab in the morgue. He took two more pieces of duct tape and taped her wrists to the coffee table. He was specifically told to inflict as much pain as humanly possible, so next he pulled out the box of nails, grimacing at the sight of them. Holding one to her wrist as he pushed it down against the table, he closed his eyes and started pounding.
Iris screamed with the first hammer blow, her shrieks muffled by the tape across her face. Blood sprayed out in all directions with each blow until he’d finished. Then he did the next wrist, although she passed out after the first blow on that one. He could only imagine the unbearable pain as he hammered away. With the final blow, blood shot up in his face, getting in his mouth and causing him to gag. He stared down at the body of the woman he’d come to love over the years, if he’d been capable of loving anyone during that time. Frankly, he wasn’t sure anymore.
Phil took a glass of cold water and sat next to her. He eyed her, thoughtfully, and then splashed it in her face. She awoke instantly, crying out through her gag once more. He patted her on the shoulder as if attempting to calm her. “Iris, I just needed you to know once more. I’m sorry.” Next, he picked the hammer back up and started flailing it aimlessly, shattering her ribs, busting her knees, and then finally bashing her face completely in. Her head exploded like a water balloon filled with blood. Bits of brain and bone drooped down the edge of the table as he collapsed back onto his chair, breathing heavily.
After a long moment, he got up to leave but froze in his tracks. Through the window, he saw flashing red and blue lights, hearing sirens approaching in the distance. Peeking through the blinds, he saw that it was not just the police, but Serena and Bobby standing there with them. He slunk down against the wall and began to hyperventilate. “No, this isn’t supposed to happen! This wasn’t part of the fucking deal! Fuck . . .”
“Actually,” came a voice from the chair he’d occupied just moments ago, “It was never specified what was going to happen to you.” The man in the tailored suit stood up and straightened his jacket before stepping towards him. “I said I would give you anything you wanted. You wanted to bring your family back from the dead, which I’ve done. You wanted them back so badly that you beat a helpless old lady, who had been nothing but kind to you, to death with a hammer.” He looked down at Phil and sneered at him, kneeling in front of him so they were face to face. “Men are evil, fueled by self-desire, but you are worse my friend. I offered you a chance at redemption. An all-powerful being tells you to commit a heinous act. If you would’ve turned it down, you could’ve died honorably. Instead, you preyed on the weak, just like the rat you always knew you were.”
The door swung open then, and the man disappeared before Phil’s eyes. The police were pulling him to his feet and slapping handcuffs on his wrists and hauling him out. Serena couldn’t even look at him and was trying to hold Bobby back as well, but the boy broke free and ran up to him. “Dad!” he cried, his eyes streaming with tears. “What did you do, daddy?”
“I’m sorry, son. I know it won’t make sense, but I did it for you. I love you. Never forget that.” The boy wept in his mother’s arms as she tore him away from his father. They watched as he was carted away, covered in blood. The sound of Bobby’s sobbing would stay with Phil for the rest of his life, and this scene would later be incorporated into the rabbit hole he fell into each night.
His first night in prison, he sat weighing the pros and cons of his actions. His wife and son would live full lives, and although they might hate him, he thought he could live with that. However, when he tried to close his eyes there was Iris, her kind face staring holes right through him.
He heard a skittering of echoes from somewhere nearby. Opening his eyes, he peered over the edge of his bunk.
At least a dozen rats sat upon the concrete floor, staring back up at him expectantly.