JUNKYARD RATS • by Bill Ward

Lowell Strigg took careful aim with his shotgun and fired, filling the yard with a roar. Spooked by the blast, a flight of crows emerged from behind a rusty mountain of scrap and fled south, a lean hound caromed in panicked flight through a heap of bald tires before sheltering beneath an ancient Buick, and the rat, the big brown bastard he’d been aiming for, flashed into the shadowed foundation of a rotting pile of heavy appliances–a vast fortress of dishwashers and clothes dryers, grease-smeared stoves cannibalized of their knobs and grills, and doorless refrigerators with cracked compressors dribbling freon into the mud. Lowell swore under his breath and broke the gun, removing two spent shells. He was a lousy shot.

And why shouldn’t he be? Seventeen years in the yard and he’d never fired the gun, never had reason to and no desire to find sport in the targeting of junk or the denizens of the junkyard. Worst trouble he ever had was illegal dumping, and all he needed to stop that was a tag number and a phone call. He’d always liked the yard as it was, quiet, its peaks and valleys old enough to have settled into the hills and become as much a part of the countryside as the scraggly pines that crowded both sides of Highway 53.

Living out here though… Lowell swiveled his head to survey the yard, eyes big as saucers, straining to see movement in the lines of shadow cast by a million angles of debris. It was getting dark. An easterly breeze brought in the stink of the neighboring landfill mingled with the first cool gasp of evening. Lowell ambled quickly into his RV and locked the door behind him.

In the close clutter of his trailer he tried to relax, but a splash of water on his face and a belt of scotch failed to elicit the kind of calm he needed. He was ravenous. As he warmed a can of ravioli in his tiny kitchen, he tried to keep his eyes off the wall calendar, where heavy black slashes ticked away the days leading up to today, the twenty-eighth — the date heavily circled in blue, the black dot next to it denoting a full moon underlined in crimson. Lowell shoveled his lukewarm meal down, eating from the pot, and stared at the calendar.

Twice he froze, cheeks bulging with half-chewed ravioli, forehead plastered with the damp strands of his thinning hair, eyes enormous. He listened for the sounds of scraping and scuttling, the sounds made by the small hot things that lurked in the junkyard’s hidden places. A few seconds’ silence found him eating again.

He ate three cans of the stuff, while keeping an eye on the darkening yard through a grimy porthole. Tonight was the night–he knew it in his bones, knew the rats had something planned. Tonight was the night that something would change. He flicked the outside light on and looked again from his window, and his heart soared to see his allies against the vermin, the silhouettes of the barn owls looming in the high places of the junkyard.

He reloaded his shotgun. They were up to something, and not the normal rat things either. Lowell imagined them, their sleek heads asymmetrical with bloated ticks, their flanks matted with junkyard filth, the ridiculous balls of the males dragged behind them like sacks of poison. Damn, he was hungry still. But the rats… he envisioned their scampering trails as if from on high and guessed a meaning to their movement, an arcane symboled script writ out on the junkyard floor.

Lowell screeched, a high reedy sound of fragile fury, and lurched back into the kitchen. He batted through the trash on the counter, and fumbled to open his cabinets. Cold cereal, a flattened moonpie–nothing worth eating. He groaned and peered out the window, catching the distant solitary glint of an owl’s eye, like a wink.

Cults. Unnatural things deep in the junkyard late at night that he never knew about, unleashing something, changing the rats. Or that no-name drifter, he had taught the rats, and bred them for size and strength, that’s what happened. Lowell stumbled through the trailer, his eyes focused on nothing. Making a grab for his shotgun he dropped it with clumsy fingers. The cold white light of the moon was coming through the window. He knew a change was coming, dreaded seeing the rats emerge from the scrap, hunched but upright, hands curled around makeshift weaponry–here a knife ground from a leaf-spring, there a PVC spear tipped with a broken bottle–man-rats, malignant and as hungry as he.

Lowell burst from the RV, falling down the wooden step outside to land sprawling in the dirt. The night seemed brighter, warmer. He pushed himself up and he came easily; his clumsy hands (his fingers seemed different) were at the ends of ferociously strong limbs. He held his hands up but they were a blur (he was farsighted now) and he glanced around the newly bright yard. The moon shone overhead as luminous as any sun.

He neatly vomited a slick orange ball of undigested pasta. Ravenous, he scanned the yard, distant objects leaping into focus in a way that seemed familiar (binoculars), but he had left behind his rational mind with the other artifacts of his mammalian existence. Then he saw it–his head snapped to the left, the disks of his eyes gleaming–a rat creeping along the verge of its appliance fortress. It was a normal specimen, all the rats here were, he knew now, with only one difference–now he remembered they were dinner.

An owl swooped grayly out of the night to pluck the squeaking rodent from the earth.

Lowell clacked his beak in anticipation, and rose on silent wings to join his brethren in the hunt.

Bill Ward‘s fiction has appeared at Flashing Swords and in the anthologies The Return of the Sword and Desolate Places. He is co-editor of the Magic & Mechanica anthology, comign soon from Ricasso Press.

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