Estimated reading time — 18 minutes
I found it three weeks ago, or rather, I found them. A knotted circle of fur, claws, and death. Six rats, tangled together by their tails, thrashed about my front lawn with little direction. Their shrieks pierced the air of what was normally a quiet street. I was going outside to get the mail when I spotted them. I approached as close as I dared to get a better look, I couldn’t imagine the diseases they were carrying. At least half of them were dead or dying, their weight a hellish burden on those still cursed with life. They would flail vainly against the knot trapping them together, before briefly fighting amongst each other whenever they collided in their confusion. They did not understand why they were stuck, and they took their confusion and fear out on one another. Even from a safe distance, I could tell the bodies of the dead rodents had been partially eaten away. I could feel my breakfast threatening to free itself at the sight. I had never seen anything so horrid and depressing, but I’d be damned if I went anywhere near that collage of nightmares. I safely retreated back inside my home and called animal control.
In a few short hours my doorbell rang. I was greeted by two animal control workers with a third worker standing on my lawn. He held a clear plastic bag, the awful circle of rats motionless inside. The first man introduced himself as Brian. He was a tall, heavy-set gentleman who stared at me behind a dark pair of aviators and held a toothpick between smoke stained teeth. He immediately asked if I had experienced any other rodent issues in or around my property. When I explained that I had not, he simply rolled the toothpick from one corner of his mouth to the other, grunting in acknowledgement and fidgeting with the bill of his beige company hat. Kevin, the younger worker, explained to me the significance of what I had stumbled upon. His over-enthusiasm was a little unsettling.
The jumble of rats I had found was called a rat king. It was a phenomenon that resulted from a population of mice or rats that had become stuck together and been unable to free themselves. This was often after coming into contact with some sort of sap or tar-like substance. Once enough of the rodents became stuck this way, their flailing would result in the crude circle formation that had found its way onto my lawn. As Kevin gleefully described this peculiarity, I silently decided to skip lunch. He only stopped to breathe once Brian put an imposingly large hand on his shoulder and interjected.
“The thing is, these rats were tied together by their tails. That only happens when there’s a huge mess of ‘em somewhere, but this is the first one I’ve ever seen,” confessed Brian.
Well that was comforting. I explained that I had only been in this home a few months. My wife and I had bought it and I had moved in ahead of her while she finished the final few months of her contracted employment.
“Is there any chance I just didn’t notice the signs of an infestation?” I asked, imagining my walls filled to the brim with rodents.
Both workers shook their heads immediately. “With the amount of rats it takes to make one of those things, you’da known this place was infested after about five minutes,” Brian said, his southern accent soaked into the emphasis.
I was partly relieved, knowing that we hadn’t purchased ground zero of the next plague. Still, that didn’t explain how the rats had made their way onto my lawn. As if reading my mind, Brian quickly attempted to assuage my fears. He explained that animal control was going to check to see if there was any sign of an infestation in the nearby drainage system. Kevin recommended that I have some pest preventative services done around the exterior of my home just to be safe. I went ahead and scheduled an internal inspection as well, not fully trusting my own ability to spot a rat infestation. I figured that being proactive was the best way to get ahead of the game.
It was a over week before I heard anything regarding the rats again. The exterminator thankfully saw no signs of any infestation in or around my home. I opted for some outside traps anyways, unable to fully shake the sight of the tangled mess of rats from my mind. I hadn’t received any updates from Brian, so I assumed animal control hadn’t discovered some awful rat colony making their home in the sewers. I wasn’t particularly afraid of rodents, but the thought of the circumstances which produced a rat king were enough to give anyone chills. I pictured thousands of rats piled on top of each other with nowhere to move. In that horrid pile of confusion their tails becoming knotted, joining them for the rest of their inevitably short lives. I could almost hear their squeaks and shrieks of fear and instinctive rage, attacking their fellow prisoners who were just as innocent as they were in the tragic merging. But it would be a different sound that brought them back into my life.
I was busy unpacking boxes for our study. My wife was the one who owned all these books, and for months I had procrastinated in unpacking them and putting them up. Unenthusiastically, I cut the tape on the third box when I heard a noise. It was faint, but still clearly the sound of scratching. I immediately stood and walked out into the living room, which served as the center point of the house, to listen for where the sound was coming from. It took only a moment to determine that the scratching was coming from the front door. It was similar to the scratching sound our cat Kane made when he wanted to come back inside. Knowing Kane was still three states away with my wife, I approached the door slowly and peered through the peephole. It was difficult to see the porch surface, but it didn’t appear as if anything was there. I unlocked and opened the door, but I found nothing on the other side besides an empty porch. I thought that maybe some animal had wandered up to the wrong house. I took a few steps out into the night to see if could catch a glimpse of anything. I did. In fact I caught a glimpse of twelve things.
The second I saw the rats they screeched, as if the approach of some predator sent them into a panic. I would be lying if I said I didn’t scream too. How could I not? This rat king was twice as large as the first one, and this time it seemed most of the unfortunate were still alive. They attempted to flee every which way, falling over each other and dragging the smaller ones about. I had heard that rats were normally clean creatures, but whatever pit these had crawled out of had branded them with a foul rank that brought on just as much nausea as the sight of it all. I stumbled back, nearly retching then and there.
What the hell was going on?
Why was there ANOTHER one?
These among many other questions rattled my brain as I retreated back into my home. The scratching sound I heard, there was no way that screeching circle of hell had caused it. And what of Brian and Kevin? Weren’t they supposed to check to make sure there wasn’t an infestation? I had no answers, and all I could do was wait until the morning to call animal control again.
I had a nightmare that night. I dreamt I was lost somewhere in the sewer, blindly trying to find my way around with no light source of any kind. I began to panic, quickening my pace until I was sprinting through the damp, foul labyrinth. I’ve never recalled being able to smell in a dream before, but I sure could in those sewers. The same awful stench belonging to the rat kings possessed my nose, only intensifying as I ran with reckless abandon. Inevitably I tripped, and I awaited the awful splash of sewage as my body toppled towards the ground. The splash never came. I instead landed on hundreds of small, furry bodies.
The lake of rats squealed both beneath and around me, swelling in size as my terror became their terror. I tried to stand, but they were already crawling over me, weighing me down. I screamed, but it was a whimper compared to the endless screeches of a panicked horde. I flailed wildly, trying to shake myself free and push them off in an identical frenzied fear. I looked down at my feet, only to see countless tails wrapped around my ankles, tied together in fleshy pink and beige knots. I tried to scream again, but I was silenced under the pile of fur and tar.
Nothing kept me from screaming when I woke up. I wanted to cry. I’m not ashamed to say that. I do so every time I have to put a pet down or while watching the first twenty minutes of Disney’s “Up.” But I cannot for the life of me remember the last time I was so afraid that I was nearly brought to tears. Only the fact that it was a nightmare kept me from losing it. I called animal control immediately, and was fortunate enough to be transferred directly to Kevin due to it being an open and ongoing case. I think he could tell how shaken I was over the phone despite my best efforts to keep it together. He promised me they would head to my house immediately.
An hour later I had regained my composure, and I wasn’t shaking like a fool while I stood out on the lawn watching Kevin slide the second rat king into an even bigger bag than the last time. I had asked that they wait to fetch me until after they did what they needed in order to deal with the rats that were still alive. I didn’t want to watch that part, a mercy or not. Brian was scratching his head, not quite as bewildered as I was, but he certainly lacked the reassuring demeanor he wore when we first met.
“I’ll be upfront with you, we’re a bit stumped on this one,” he admitted, continuing to his scratch his head.
“I don’t understand, you said that there had to be a huge infestation to make these things,” I said, incredulous at his complete lack of insight.
“Yes and I’ll say it again too. These things don’t just happen when there’s a handful of rats around.” His tone suggested he had taken a slight offense to me quoting his own words back to him.
“So what did you find in the sewers?” I pressed, ignoring his tone. I didn’t have the patience for his pride while giant circles of rats were still appearing on my lawn.
“That’s the thing. We found nothin’,” he said with a shrug. “There’s a couple of ‘em running around down there, always is, but nothin’ near what it would take to make one of those suckers.” He gestured back towards contents of the bag as Kevin sealed it up.
I ran my hands back up through my hair, trying not to get frustrated. Taking a moment to calm myself, I managed to ask “So what do you suggest I do?” my tone as respectful as I could muster.
Brian and Kevin shared a reluctant look, one that created a pit in my stomach. That pit ballooned into a canyon when the senior of the duo broke the news.
“Honestly sir, it might be time to consider that it could be somebody’s leavin’ these things here,” Brian said. Even behind his aviators, I could tell his face was grimacing behind the weight of his words.
“I’m sorry, what did you say?” I asked. Honestly, I heard him word for word. My mind however, wasn’t ready to process the implications of what he just said.
Brian sighed, removing his hat and revealing his heavily balding scalp. I imagine something like this was out his depth, but how did he think I felt?
“I’m sayin’ you might want to notify the police,” he clarified, which only added to my mountain of questions.
“Because someone might be leaving those things in my yard… on purpose.” I laid out his insinuation as if he had just asked me to believe in the Tooth Fairy.
He nodded, “‘Fraid so. I’m tellin’ you that these things don’t just pop up.” He gestured to the direction of our sewer drains. “There’s nothin’ down there close to what you would need to make these things”
“Which means that some sick freak made that thing and dropped it off in my lawn?” I knew the answer, it wasn’t that hard to piece together. Saying out loud just made it a bit easier to believe, if not to stomach.
“We don’t know for certain, but for your safety I’d file a report if nothing else,” said Kevin, chiming in. “Anyone who would do that to an animal, pest or not, is just not right in the head.”
Despite the fact the day was now worse than it had started, I thanked both of them for getting out here so soon and being upfront about everything. At the very least the second rat king was gone, but I needed to decide if I was going to tell the police about it, not to mention my wife. As a token of goodwill, Brian said he would come by the next day to check the drain near my home again. The first inspection had already shown that there was no infestation, but I appreciated that he was willing to check once more if only to confirm the initial conclusion of his work.
That evening I called the local police station, who said they would send an officer by in the morning to take my statement and file a report. Afterwards I called my wife, but for the life of me I could not bring myself to tell her anything about the rats over the phone. She was so busy trying to meet the deadlines of her contract, not to mention packing up the rest of our stuff, that it felt wrong. I felt that adding a nice stack of ‘we might have an animal-torturing stalker’ to her plate would only give her a panic attack. Regardless, it wasn’t as if she could help from where she was. I promised myself that I would tell her soon, but at the very least I wanted to wait until I had a chance to speak to the police and figure out my next steps.
That night I dreamt I was in the sewers again. This time, I wasn’t lost or panicked. Instead, it felt like I knew exactly where I needed to go. Eventually I came upon a woman, who looked as if she had no business being in a sewer. She was tall, draped in a spotless black dress that contrasted her pale skin. Much like her dress, her skin was flawless like it had never suffered so much as a scratch. Her delicate hands tucked jet black hair back behind her ears, revealing bright red lips curved upwards in a disarming smile. Calling her beautiful would sell her woefully short. She reached out a hand and beckoned for me to join her. She spoke to me, but I couldn’t recall what she said. I only remember that her voice was inviting and I walked towards her without so much as a second thought. The moment I took her hand the dream ended and I woke up to the blare of my alarm.
Guilt loomed over me during breakfast. That dream was infinitely better than drowning in rats, but it still felt overtly real. I thought of my wife and felt ashamed of how easily I went to the woman when beckoned. I know it wasn’t real, but the fact that I didn’t even think of my wife in the presence of this impossibly beautiful woman still upset me. Luckily, I wasn’t able to mull in my shame for very long when I heard the police knocking on my door. They had sent a single uniformed officer, whose face I couldn’t read very well as I recounted the grotesque events of the past week. I made sure to mention that animal control should have my case documented, so that I wouldn’t come off as a paranoid nuisance or a LSD enthusiast. Fortunately, Brian’s van pulled up alongside the curb while I was giving my statement. I pointed to him and waved, not so subtly hinting that he was the man who could verify my sanity. The officer gave me a card with the information I needed if I wanted to follow up on the report, and left to go speak with Brian. I felt better after reporting what all had happened, and while still troubled by the whole debacle I was at least comforted by the fact I wasn’t sitting on my hands and waiting for the worst.
That evening I went out to check my mail. It wasn’t until I was already at the mailbox that I noticed Brian’s van was still parked near the curb. I walked over to and found no sign of Brian but I did find the manhole cover removed and placed to the side. I called out into the circular opening, but there was no answer. I used my phone’s flashlight to try and see down into the sewer. I was worried that he may have been injured and unable to call for help. The flashlight wasn’t much use, and I couldn’t see the ground very well. The light did, however, reflect off the metallic frames of a pair of aviators I recognized instantly. I called out for Brian again, louder and less composed than before. There was always a chance he had just dropped them when descending into the drain, but in the back of my mind I feared something much worse.
In hindsight, I should have called the police first. Instead I sprinted inside to grab a flashlight and put on a pair of more durable pants and boots. Dread tends to fill the mind with worst case scenarios, and I imagined the overweight smoker having some sort of heart attack while he was alone and out of sight. Brian had come out for a second inspection to alleviate my fears, and now my guilt fueled my obligation to help. Running back outside, I quickly climbed down the iron bars fastened into the concrete wall. The reality of my own naivety didn’t strike until I reached the bottom.
The neighborhood and the region around it was prone to flooding. When we bought our house, the Real Estate agent made sure to inform us of that fact. She had reassured us that the government had installed large drainage piping to reduce the risk. She wasn’t lying, the tunnels were massive. I stood over six feet and even I would have no problem walking straight into them. That would be good news if it weren’t for the complete lack of lighting beyond my flashlight. The manhole connected to the middle of a large concrete pipe, with only a black void of darkness waiting on either side. I wanted to call out for Brian, but something told me I shouldn’t. There was this odd, instinctive voice that just kept repeating “Be silent.”
With nothing more than Brian’s glasses at my feet, I had no idea which direction to search first. Suddenly, I heard the faintest sound of scratching down the right path. The noise sent chills across my body and goosebumps covered my skin. It was just scratching, but I couldn’t help but think back to the sound I heard before I found the second circle of rats. Despite my fears, I knew there was a chance Brian was hurt and that noise could be only way for him to call for help. I headed down the path on my right, my flashlight barely strong enough to avoid getting swallowed by the dark tunnel. It had been nearly two weeks since our last rain, so only the faintest trickle of water flowed steadily down the middle of the pipe.
I had always imagined the sewers as a much scarier, dungeon-like underworld filled with corridors and iron barred grates. I should have realized the plain reality would not match the medieval European picture I had seen in movies and video games. Part of me had worried it would match the sewers of my recent dreams, but I was so far off base that it made me feel silly as I thought back on my nightmare. The pipe was just a straight shot, with smaller pipes leading into its sides as it headed towards whatever waterway it emptied out into. It didn’t smell great, but the unchanging grey of concrete was much less imposing than what my imagination had cooked up. I was confident that I would have to run into Brian with how straightforward this system was. After a minute or so of walking, my flashlight found a point in the pipe up ahead where it connected to another large pipe.
I didn’t like the idea of another potential path. Every added turn made my chances of getting lost that much higher. I decided I would peak down that path, but would turn around if I didn’t see any sign of Brian. As I neared the intersection, the smell in the pipe began to worsen. It didn’t take long to recognize it as the same stench I had come into contact with twice before. I could also hear the scratching, louder and more plentiful than before. I covered my nose and pressed on.
“No infestation. Yeah, right,” I thought to myself.
Maybe Brian had found the elusive infestation of rats and had just been down here dealing with them. If they were bad enough to create one of those awful rat kings, then I could see how it might be an all day project. As I rounded the corner I was prepared to call out and make sure that I didn’t scare the man while he worked. I bet I looked rather stupid with that relieved look on my face and a mouth already open to make a snide comment. Whatever I expected to find, my jaw snapped shut and I froze in my tracks as I saw a horrendously different scene.
They covered every inch of the pipe’s floor, swelling halfway up the sides. The piping echoed with the scratching sound of their skittering feet. The huddled masses made no other sounds as they shuffled about in a busy fashion. In their silence I had confused them for being much further away when I turned the corner, and the primal fear that gripped me locked my feet up in place.
In the middle of the horde was large pile of what looked like to be a mixture of trash and sticks. Soaked cardboard folded over twigs of every size, with piles of wet leaves filling in the gaps. The rats surrounding it circled continuously, as if patrolling a small perimeter. A nearby storm drain opening dropped just enough natural light for me to see exactly what sat on top of the pile. It was much too large to be a rat. I’d have guessed it was a large dog suffering from severe mange if it weren’t for the hulking, pink tail that curled around its resting place. Its flesh was pale, bare except for inconsistent patches of black fur. The fur was thickest at the head, with long black locks that looked more like human hair than that of a rat. Yet the pointed snout, thick whiskers, and bulging eyes screamed rodent much louder than any human trait. Its jaw hung slightly agape, as if malformed to the point where it did not match the top of the mouth. Drool poured out of the sides in slow drooping streams, dropping onto the circling rat guard below. The awkward jaw curled up, and it almost looked like the creature was smiling as it watched the endless parade from what I figured to be a bed.
Slowly, it reached out its hand. It’s fingers were thin and excessively long. The pale digits gently reached into the marching black mass and plucked a single rat from his patrol. The rat sat completely still in the delicate grip as the overlord picked another worthy candidate from the endless flow. I watched in nauseous horror as the monstrosity slowly gripped the motionless rats and began to tie their tails together. Not unlike the rest of the horde, there wasn’t so much as a squeak of protest from the two victims. Holding them gently, the horrid thing reached back into the infinite supply below to select a third member for knotting. It didn’t take me long to figure out what it was making. A gasp escaped my throat before I even had the chance to stifle it, and the creature’s head snapped in my direction.
Every tiny foot in the pipe became still. The rat beast seemed to study me for a moment, but I could not see any curiosity in the murky white pools that made up its eyes. Slowly, it rose up as if to sit up on its hind limbs and I discerned that I had greatly underestimated its size. Six pairs of swollen nipples jutted out from chest to stomach. Surrounding them were endless bed sores, oozing with pus and staining the alabaster skin a bruised red. Beneath where the creature had been laying, I spotted the pool of bright pink. Hundreds of baby rats lay shifting and squirming as they fought their way to the top of what I now understood to be a nest. None of this made any sense. I needed to run.
“Don’t run,” commanded the voice in my head. My feet wouldn’t move. Or maybe I just didn’t want to run.
“It’s okay. Don’t be afraid.” The voice was soothing, familiar. I felt myself relax. Some part of me resisted, screaming to hold onto my fear. I still didn’t run.
“Come here,” she beckoned.
I knew what called to me. The black sea of rats slowly parted, opening a pathway to the swollen monstrosity. Her arms slowly reached out as if for an embrace. My mind was cloudy, but still I did not run.
I walked towards her.
As I walked, the obedient rodent children sat still as stones, putting the silence of mice to shame. My mind struggled, failing to grab and hold onto a single thought other than the command to walk. My vision blurred, and the monstrosity had that summoned me began to change. Her features warped and twisted, and soon the woman in black from my dream stood in her stead. I had never been near something so beautiful in my life. Her arms were still outstretched, waiting for me to join Her. Little by little, my thoughts melted away until there was only Her. I stepped into Her arms and wrapped my own around Her pale body.
She had chosen me for a purpose. The dreams, this kingdom, and a crown handmade by the Queen Herself were all for me. In Her embrace I came to understand the truth. I was always destined to be right at Her side.
I am the Rat King.
She leaned down and whispered into my ear, “You are mine,” and I was…for a moment.
Somewhere in the farthest reaches of my mind a single memory persisted. It was the only image remaining that was not of Her. It was my wife. The one who I had bought a home with. The one who was working to exhaustion so that she could join me in our new adventure. The one who was waiting for me to call her. I grasped that memory and held on as hard as I could, tearing myself free from the force that had caged the rest of my mind. I pushed her off me and I saw not the alabaster beauty but instead the monstrosity for its true appearance. Her bloated frame swayed backwards and her weight carried her off the nest and onto hundreds of her loyal servants. Her massive tail failed to balance her and instead swiped another tens of rodents into the air. Her clouded eyes shot towards me and for just a second, I could swear her deformed, ill-fitting face looked sad. That sadness was replaced by the most horrid of shrieks.
I staggered back, trying to cover my ears from the piercing sound as it nearly ruptured my ear drums. Her legion of previously mute and motionless rats joined in with their chorus of shrieks and squeals as I turned to run. I could feel the sound of her fury cut into my bones. My legs carried me faster than I think I’ve ever run. I could feel the vibrations of thousands of large, angry rodents giving chase. I never looked back, but their sound carried so horribly well through the pipes that I thought they were right on my heels. I expected my legs to soon be overcome by the horde, swallowing me in a most excruciating death, but the moment never came. I made it to the iron barred ladder and climbed up and out of the manhole without a single glance to the rabid void that chased. I sprinted to my car, grabbing the magnetic spare key under the tire and peeled out of my driveway. Half an hour passed before I felt safe enough to pull over.
Eventually, I begrudgingly gave into logic. I had taken off without my wallet, keys, or phone. I had to go back. Eventually Brian would be reported missing, and it wouldn’t look good that I had just driven off in a panic. I dreaded the trip back, half convinced that the black fur army would be waiting inside my home to drag me back into the sewers. Surprisingly, nothing awaited me when I arrived. My home was as empty as I had left it. I closed the front door behind me before I slumped against the wall and broke down crying. When I composed myself I called my wife, just to hear her voice. I assured her everything was okay, even though she could tell it wasn’t. I promised I’d explain it all to her soon, and this time I really will. My next call was to the police.
I don’t have much to say about the investigation, but I can tell you I’ve been questioned repeatedly. I haven’t been charged with anything yet, and they haven’t found Brian’s body. Even his aviators were gone, along with any sign of the rat kingdom I stumbled upon. The only new evidence was a third rat king. Twenty-four of the biggest rats I’d ever seen all neatly tied together like before, placed right on my porch. A call to the police and another round of questioning later, I’m here writing this tale.
I’d give anything to just pack up and leave this place tonight, but with the investigation it’ll only make me look responsible for Brian’s disappearance. Still, I know I’m not safe here. Even now that monster is down there in the sewers, plucking rats from her crowded kingdom to make another offering, the third of which proved she has not given up on her King. My wife and I just wanted a place to make new ties. Instead I’m stuck here, alone, tangled in knots, and I can feel them getting tighter.
Credit: Jameson Curnick