Mountain Rats

by E.G. Rand

If Los Angeles had become infested with glorious birds or sleek-coated minks, maybe things would’ve been different. But no, they got an invasion of giant rats with mangy fur, unsettling red eyes and possum tails. The worst part was their size. When the rats stood upright they were six feet tall, standing eye-to-eye with any grown man. They were imposing and grotesque. No one knew exactly where they came from or why they chose to appear now. The general consensus was the animals had been “shook loose” by a recent quake and ventured down from the mountains. Some believed they had previously lived underground. How the creatures had escaped the watchful, categorizing eye of man for so long remained a mystery.

Headlines all over the world talked about “LA’s INFESTATION.” The media was obsessed with these urban scavengers; now more prevalent than cockroaches. The rats didn’t hurt anyone. In fact, no one could get close enough. They were impossible to trap and harder to kill. They were too fast to be shot –– much to the disappointment of gun enthusiasts. The infestation itself was strange, but it was the impervious nature of these animals that made people profoundly nervous –– no one had ever found a dead one to study.

A local news program interviewed a Los Angeles man who had helped shake out a nest of the vermin from the warehouse where he worked. When asked about the experience, Jerome Smith had shrugged, “I dunno.” The man looked weary. He was a working man who had no interest in being on TV. The journalist pushed on. “Were you afraid?” she baited. It was the closest anyone had gotten to these animals. She wanted something. But again, Jerome just shrugged. “They didn’t try to bite me or anything. Just ran off. They seem more afraid of us than we are of them.” The reporter gave up and moved to commercial break.

Zoologists, environmentalists and academics flew in from all over to study this phenomenon. Among them was Dr. Fillare, an expert zoologist, who specialized in Rodentia and their impact on society as a whole. His best-selling novel on the subject made him a minor academic celebrity. Unfortunately, in addition to vermin, Dr. Fillare had made a study of several of his young female students. His wife caught on and overnight, everything went up in smoke –– his job, his house and his reputation. For Dr. Fillare, this new infestation was his shot at redemption.

The creatures didn’t even have a proper scientific name yet. People either called them Chupacabra (due to the animal’s similarity to the creatures of folklore) or simply “Mountain Rats.” If Fillare could be the first published authority on these Mountain Rats, people might forget the drama of his personal life.

Jeffrey Roy was looking for his big break in documentary journalism after a few false starts and a minor brush with success. He’d heard about Dr. Fillare, both for his professional work and his personal indiscretions. Smelling blood in the water, Jeffrey reached out to Fillare with an idea to film a documentary about his research on the infestation. Fillare made Jeffrey promise to make him look good. Jeffrey promised to make him look great, which was a pile of bullshit. No documentary filmmaker worth his salt wants to make anyone look good. Luckily, Fillare took the bait and a bank loan later, they had a movie.

They started with a few days of interviews. Standard stuff starting with the LAPD. The cops who spoke on behalf of the department were media-trained automatons who repeated simple answers and platitudes. Jeffrey had assumed as much. Rural police would be more likely to relax and let something slip, but not with the LAPD. Jeffrey was just about to quit for the day when he got a hold of a rookie who wasn’t seasoned enough to lie. A weaselly man named Sooth that Jeffrey had stopped in the precinct parking lot, just before he was about to leave for the day. It was late. The setting sun threw long black shadows and made the interaction feel illicit.

“Yeah. I’ve seen ‘em. Real ugly,” Sooth sneered. Jeffrey subtly wound his hand at his Susie, his camera operator, who was just about to load her equipment. Susie grabbed a shoulder mount and started filming them from the back of the van. The toxic sunset backlit the cop perfectly, as if the moment was meant to be.

“You ever seen a mountain rat while you were on duty?” Jeffrey wanted something juicy from an official –– a story about an attack, a bite, anything. Jeffrey may have found what he wanted: a salacious inside scoop instead of a re-hashing of official statements.

“Yeah. I shot one!” Sooth said, puffing with bravado. His eyes glittered and for a moment, the police officer looked like a schoolyard bully, proud of killing the class pet. Jeffrey had to work hard to keep himself from smiling. Sooth was too stupid to realize this video was likely to smear him. Jeffrey had lucked out ... people love videos of cops fucking up and admitting it.

“Yeah. I was investigating a homicide and I had to cross a vacant lot. Damn rat jumped out at me so I shot it square in the chest!”

The almost sexual pleasure Sooth got from describing shooting the animal then faltered. His face now seemed shadowed, his bravado caved. He continued, “I got in to take a closer look, ‘cause no one had shot one before, you know? But then the damn thing just stood up. Like nothing had happened. No bullet wound or anything. It just stood up, looked at me for a minute with those creepy eyes.”

It was at this point Sooth leaned toward Jeffrey, as if sharing a secret. Jeffrey found himself instinctively retreating from the cop. He could smell rum on Sooth’s breath as the man hissed, through clenched teeth, “I shot that thing in the chest. Point blank. I swear on my mother.”

Jeffrey was thrilled. He got great footage and would be able to show the inherent violence in the police system right alongside everything else. He could see the Academy Award now. People love that shit.

Jeffrey drummed his fingers on the steering wheel as he guided his car down the side streets to his bungalow. Night had long fallen, and streetlights made puddles of light in the blue dark. The silhouettes of palm trees, clacking like bones, cast dancing shadows. The radio played some fifties love ballad Jeffrey didn’t bother to change.

He parked in his usual spot, whistling as he fumbled with his keys. He heard a scraping noise, followed by crunching and rustling. Jeffrey froze. The stupid ballad was still playing and now sounded like a ghost. A scraping sound was coming from behind his trash cans, directly next to the front door. In the dark, Jeffrey couldn’t really make out anything, so he shined his phone flashlight at the cans. At first, Jeffrey thought it was maybe a sick and deranged homeless man. But what was in his trash was no man.

The Mountain Rat unfurled, bones creaking. In the flashlight, its features rose to the surface-long yellow fangs glinted, jammed into inflamed purple gums. Dirty fur clung to skin that was red and shiny, like a burn. Skin stretched tight over its prominent rib cage, its human-like fingers, its long skull. The beast’s deep-set eyes were damaged, the retinas swirling white instead of pink. It was not blind –– it looked directly at Jeffrey. Now at its full height it towered over him. Clutched in one of its hand-like paws was an old issue of TIME magazine Jeffrey had thrown out.

All Jeffrey could think about was how the creature held the magazine, forefinger and thumb grasped in between the pages like you do when someone interrupts you reading. Jeffrey’s heart pounded in his throat, and he could not shake the feeling that the creature was not going to leave. It held its magazine and its ground. It looked at Jeffrey as if he was the intruder.

Jeffrey shook himself out of his stupor, clapped loudly, stomped and shook his keys to scare the thing off. But it didn’t work. It didn’t scamper away in terror, it didn't scurry back into the darkness. It turned its back like a drowned corpse. It glanced at Jeffrey one more time before disappearing into the night. It took the TIME magazine with it.

That night Jeffrey had a terrible dream. He would wake up to a sharp tap on the window pane, loud, urgent. He would pull open the heavy curtains and see the ruins of LA buildings lay in wreckage while the hills burned. Smoke blotted out the sun, it was neither day nor night. The earth was split open in great heaving cracks. From these crevices swarmed Mountain Rats. And from the window he saw Mountain Rats surrounding his home, sneering up at him, snarled black lips pulled back over fangs. He could hear them banging on the door, knowing they were coming in. He would feel the horrible human-like paw land on his shoulder, the sting of dirty nails digging into his flesh.

He woke up screaming.

He was almost late to meet with the team over brunch the next day. They were doing the most important shoot tomorrow: the attempted capture of a Mountain Rat.

In a sunny, sweaty Glendale diner they all melted in a vinyl booth. It was early in the day and already hot. Flies droned as ceiling fans rotated the sweltering air. Jeffrey, Dr. Fillare, and Jeffrey’s camera operator, Susie. Susie was a vegan and clearly didn’t approve of the choice of venue. She glared as Dr. Fillare ate a plate of greasy bacon. But Dr. Fillare didn’t notice her staring daggers as he pored over his notes. Jeffrey didn’t mention his encounter the night before. He told himself that it was not a big deal, but he couldn’t shake those swirling white eyes and the nightmares. He ordered an enormous iced coffee and tried to focus as Dr. Fillare went through the plan. The doctor had gotten a lot of research done for his short time in the city. Using everything from police reports, to CCTV footage, to witness testimony. Using this, he had been able to identify the spots most likely to see the creatures and, of course, trap one.

The spot was down by the LA River in a swampy, patch of vegetation near one of the many trash-riddled storm drains. Jeffrey wasn’t surprised that the nasty creatures would be drawn to LA’s so-called “river.” It was once an actual plains river, but the LA River got too unruly in the early 20th century. Man decided to tame it, and paved its path in concrete. It was now a glorified gutter, full of sewer water and runoff from the city. Jeffrey wondered why they even called it a river ... you were more likely to catch a heroin needle then a fish. But then he supposed it was the perfect place for an urban monster to hide.

Jeffrey wasn’t paying attention to Dr. Fillare. He tuned back in to hear the plan: Jeffrey and Susie would set up the cameras around nightfall, right outside of the entrance to a large storm drain. Dr. Fillare would have some students go ahead to set up the traps. Susie snorted contemptuously, she loathed anyone who let others do work they should do themselves. Dr. Fillare continued to ignore her as he showed them the illustrations of the traps; electrified snares, metal disks the size of hubcaps capable of a powerful charge. Once the creature touched it, the electrical current would course through its body and overpower brain function, completely paralyzing the animal. “It could also fry it from the inside out if we don’t get the voltage right. But that’s a risk I am willing to take.” Dr. Fillare chuckled.

Susie stood up abruptly, knocking flatware to the floor. She asked where Dr. Fillare got off torturing innocent animals, and before he could reply, she stormed out of the diner. Dr. Fillare snorted and rolled his eyes, as if it was just so typical for a woman to get in a snit over nothing.

Jeffrey chased her out into the parking lot, trying to talk her down. He had worked with Susie for years, and while the veganism could be exasperating, he never saw anything like this. The sun beat down on him relentlessly, it was like running through an oven.

Susie was already unlocking her car when Jeffrey caught up with her.

“This is a bad idea,” Susie spat. “That guy is a fucking creep and we … we don’t even know what these things are, Jeffrey. I signed up to observe animals, not electrocute them. And what if his traps don’t even work? What then?”

Susie’s eyes were afraid. For a moment Jeffrey reconsidered. He thought of the Mountain Rat in the trash cans, the swirling white eyes. But then he remembered the money he borrowed to make this happen.

He pleaded with Susie and increased her day rate. She agreed to stay on, but only if Fillare stayed away from her and only if the Mountain Rat wasn’t hurt. Jeffrey promised that it wouldn’t be, knowing it was likely a lie. More diplomacy, more promises, more smoothing. But Jeffrey didn’t enjoy it as much as he normally did, because in the back of his mind were a pair of swirling white eyes.

Jeffrey showed up at the site a full hour early, pacing and red-eyed from the lack of sleep. He relaxed when they’d arrived to see the traps already in place. He and Susie, who was also looking wan, set up the cameras and lights for his cinematic glory. They sat in silence and waited for dusk to fall –– Jeffrey, Susie, and Dr. Fillare, who stood farther away to monitor the traps and take notes. Night was falling, but it was still hot. The concrete slopes around them radiated the heat of the day. They had gotten the city to rope the area off, so there were no joggers or bicyclists. Even the birds were strangely quiet. Only the mosquitoes made a sound, whining in their ears while they waited.

The LAPD had insisted on sending two officers to keep an eye on things. One of the officers was a four-year-old German Shepard named Hutz; the more celebrated of the two. Hutz had busted dozens of drug dealers, sniffed out two pipe bombs, and personally taken down over twenty perps in his illustrious career. Hutz watched the proceedings from the squad car parked at the top of the riverbank. His eyes and ears were alert and curious, his body coiled like a spring. The human cop was less interested, scrolling through his phone, slapping at the mosquitos and muttering to himself about always getting stuck with the bullshit jobs.

He’d never admit it, but Jeffrey was glad the cop was there. The traps were really close to where they would be filming. He had seen and approved the plan, but he didn’t realize how close they would really be. They were putting a lot of faith in Fillare’s abilities, because if he didn’t turn on the trap in time ... suddenly he felt overheated, panicky. He couldn’t get that dream out of his head, the weight of the claw on his shoulder.

They waited in tense silence for what felt like hours. The daylight dimmed. Jeffrey was still hot, but now exhausted. The lack of sleep was catching up to him, and he had dozed off when Susie hissed and slapped his arm. There was movement in the storm drain. The muddy blackness moved, a filthy smell emerged. Jeffrey's hair stood on end. He knew that smell. A long scraping sound cut through the silence, bone on metal.

In the dying light of day, Jeffrey could just make out an unfurling paw, sharp nailed and knuckled like a man’s hand. Then, long arms covered in dirty fur and a low-slung body. It heaved out of the tunnel, tumorous skin scraped along the storm drain. It kept its head down, did not look at the cameras or Jeffrey and Susie. It dragged along its worm tail, sniffed the air and crept to where the trap was hidden, baited by some canned tuna. Susie had the camera trained on its movements, but was shaking violently, breathing in small gasps. The animal sniffed at the bait, and then abruptly stood up and locked eyes with Jeffrey. The creature had white, swirling eyes. It was the same mountain rat he had seen with the magazine. The one from his dream.

Jeffrey wanted to jump up, make a scene, scare the creature away from the trap. It was even uglier up close, its nose was rotten, its eyes were worse. Jeffrey thought he saw parasites wriggling in the lurid orbs. The Mountain Rat leered at Jeffrey. He wanted to make it go away. But he was stiff. It was as if he had stepped on the trap instead of the rat. Jeffrey could just make out Dr. Fillare’s face in the distance, devoid of color and inscrutable. Susie sobbed silently, still holding the camera. The Mountain Rat sneered, lolling its tongue through the rotten flesh of its cheek.

At the top of the riverbank, the human officer unholstered his gun. He targeted the lumbering beast, made sure he had a clear shot. He didn’t know what those idiots were doing, but he wanted to be the first man to kill a Mountain Rat. Hutz remained still, alert, his eyes locked on the beast.

Suddenly a hot cracking sound rang through the night, followed by a flash and smoke, and the smell of burning hair. The Mountain Rat had triggered the trap. It reared and twitched wildly in a grotesque kind of dance. It emitted a high whine of pain, which turned to a human wail of agony. Blue sparks flew off of the creature, the horrible wail split the night. Jeffrey clapped his hands over his ears.

Susie broke first. She dropped the camera and fumbled with the controls for the trap. Before anyone could stop her, she found the right knob and cut the electricity. The creature dropped like a length of steel chain. The Mountain Rat twitched, released a shuddering breath. And then a shot rang out.

He’d had his gun trained on the Mountain Rat when it came out of the storm drain. But when it looked like the trap worked, he had figured he lost his chance and re-holstered his gun, neglecting to put the safety on. He’d shot himself in the leg. The officer collapsed on the ground next to the squad car and screamed blue murder. Hutz circled his partner and whined with concern.

Dr. Fillare dropped his equipment and ran. But Susie screamed, and that scream revived the stunned rat. It rose like a cobra, lunged at her with hawkish precision, grabbing her neck with its skeletal jaws. A wet, ripping sound followed, and briefly Susie hung suspended… her head held to her body by a long cord of broken bone and sinew. The Mountain Rat snapped the muscles with a scissor-like bite. Susie's head, with its still-shocked expression, rolled down the embankment.

Jeffrey watched in dawning horror. These animals aren't scavengers. They are apex predators. They weren’t here for scraps. They wanted their old stomping grounds back. It was again their time.

Unhinging rows of razor teeth, the Mountain Rat shredded into Susie’s headless corpse. Jeffrey stumbled back, unable to look away from the carnage. A bitter smell of blood filled the air. It was no longer quiet –– birds in the trees screamed. Sirens in the distance wailed. The very ground beneath his feet seemed to groan. Dr. Fillare was long gone and Jeffrey was now alone in the pit with the beast. It threw down Susie's tattered carcass, spitting out shards of bone before screeching at Jeffrey as if to say, “I told you so. I told you to leave me alone!” It loped towards him, prepared to attack, when something dark and fast intervened.

While the human officer bled out, Hutz had jumped out the window to join the fray. The dog was now squared up between Jeffrey and the monster, teeth bared and hackles raised, snarling. Behold the protector of man.

The Mountain Rat examined the dog quizzically. It tossed aside Susie's body and reared up, again unfurling its jaw. Hutz was unswayed, baring his teeth, muscles tensed for attack. The monster lowered its great mass to a sitting position, and beckoned the dog closer. It spoke to Hutz in an ancient language, one that predates human speech. A dark guttural sound like turning earth. Hutz did not move. He had been taking commands since he was a puppy. But this was no command. Somehow Jeffrey knew that the monster was not giving an order, but instead making an offer. Hutz lowered his guard and stepped towards the beast. The Mountain Rat removed Hutz’s collar with uncanny gentleness, unsnapping it with ease and running gnarled fingers through the dog's lush fur.

They then both turned towards Jeffrey. The protector of man was now gone. The great rat rose up, high on two legs, silhouetted in the blackening night. The night was now his home and always had been.


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