By Nicole Van Den Eng
The alley smelled and tasted like rat hair. It was humid and my bag was heavy. I tried not to pant and sweat but it couldn’t be helped. Rats rustled around my ankles, making a sound like static.
Straining my eyes in the dark, I leaned forward against the weight of my bag and plunged into the wave of rodents. My bag was full of all the things important enough to be exiled with me. I was supposed to have been out of the city by nightfall, but I couldn’t leave yet.
I waited for them at home. They didn’t come. I waited for them at the city gate. They didn’t come. Instead, I found them, flooding in droves into this backstreet. My rats were twitchy and stressed and were hardly even paying attention to me. So I followed, to see where they were going without their mother.
One of them vaulted up onto my shin; his nails scratched me through my legging. “Ow,” I gently shook him off. “Where are you going?” I asked them.
The responded with their fervor: Forward.
My foot sank into the ground and I froze. Mud sucked at my shoe. Rats surged around me and into the soft ground. Their squealing amplified, creating a full-on pulse of want. I swallowed and put my foot back down. I could smell the pheromones now.
Far ahead, I detected short slivers of indigo. A slow stream of anger sprung up in my chest. She didn’t. My feet sloughed through the soft ground until I’d waded up to my knees in muck.
Glowing rods of violet and sapphire stuck up out of the ground. Rats bobbed and floundered through the mire, paddling toward the swirl ahead where the ground caved into a vortex.
“Fiona!” I shouted my sister’s name.
“Did the pheromones attract you too?” Fiona’s voice came from the far side of the whirlpool.
“They don’t deserve to be slaughtered by the masses,” I spat.
“You let them get out of hand,” Fiona said. “Pickles was cute. Nutty was understandable. But when you lost the ability to name them all, it became a problem.”
I folded my lips together. No one understood. It was perfectly okay to have a house brimming with children, but with rats? That’ll get you ousted.
“Look where you are,” she continued, “you’re hated. You slink through the city at night like one of them.”
“Just because society says…” I started.
“Don’t give me that ‘society’ bullshit again. Living with a thousand rats is unbalanced. Letting them all over the streets, feeding them full bags of birdseed at a time, my god, Andrene, that’s disturbed.”
I studied the layout of the rods around me. They were poked into the ground at intentional points. The rods, in carefully mapped coordinates, created sinkholes anywhere they were planted. The chart of how the rods were placed controlled what the sinkholes did. What I could read from them revealed that my rats were being dumped seventy miles north…as stones.
“You’re turning them in to rocks?!”
“It was the least messy way I could think of.”
“No. No, Fiona. That’s not okay.” My throat felt thick. I stood knee-deep in sludge, watching my babies swim past me, manipulated by pheromones, and plunging down a hole to their death. “You can’t do this,” I choked.
“They’re animals, Andrene, they can’t help what they are, but you? You are a scourge,” she snarled.
I dropped my heavy bag and let it sink to the bottom. I was better at the Conversion Rods than Fiona. I swished to my left, reached for the longest, brightest shaft nearest to the equator, and plucked it. The churning of the pool slowly minutely.
“Andrene, don’t be stupid.”
I held the bar in the air. “It only takes one to decimate your blueprint and make it mine.” I shoved the purple stick into the ground so it pointed directly to the constellation Talpas—the bat.
“To everyone else, Fiona, I’m odd, repulsive even; but to you, I’m just plain foolish. You never looked hard enough to realize that I’ve always been the clever one.”
I dove forward and plunged into the sinkhole. The ground sucked me down where the earth crushed against my ribs. Mud and grit gushed into my mouth and grated against my skin. I emerged seventy miles north, not as a stone, but as a bat.
Thousands of bats materialized behind me. I was the biggest, strongest bat and their true mother now. They flocked with me like the tide of my anger, the city lodged in our sights.
We haunted them. We infested their skies until they hid in their houses at night and said to one another: “In this city, you’re never more than six feet away from a bat.”