Summer 2008 [Issue No. 14]
The Rat King ▪► Armand Inezian
It was him. For a moment, Aram guessed that it might be an ugly, very ugly, man or someone in costume maybe, but he used a finger to push his glasses up and get a better view, and it was him, no doubt. He panicked. His legs tensed, and he swallowed so hard that he nearly choked. If he hadn’t already been anxious and groggy, it might have been too much. Or, it occurred to him, maybe it was because he felt this way that he was able to see the Rat King. Maybe this was the time to see.
The Rat King sat down next to him. Aram was surprised that neither attendant was in the room; he remembered that one had gone out for coffee, and he wasn’t sure where the other was. Besides Sevart, there were five other patients, four of whom were asleep----it was just before seven in the morning----and the fifth wore oversize headphones, watching some movie on her portable DVD player, and if she saw the Rat King, she gave no indication.
The Rat King looked at Sevart, who was dozing in a haze of Benadryl and uremic symptoms. “Your wife is sick,” he said. His voice was guttural and harsh, but also layered over with a mousy squeak that seemed appropriate for a rodent.
Aram’s jaw remained stuck. He stared. He closed his eyes tight, opened them again.
“Aren’t you going to say hello?” The King extended a naked, pink paw. In the Rat King’s way, the paw was both human and animal. Rodent, man, and demon, and it was difficult to see where one part ended and the other began. That’s how it was with him.
Aram did not take his paw. Instead, he looked again at the dialysis patient with the DVD player, confirmed that she had taken no notice of a six--foot--tall, rat-man dressed in office attire. This was a stress dream, a symptom of the strange feelings and urges that had been coming over him lately, and if he waited long enough, the Rat King would simply fade back to wherever he’d come from. Aram sat still for almost a minute, not daring to look directly at the grizzled figure to his left. It had been decades since they’d been this close together, and he’d forgotten how creepy the King could be: his beady, blank eyes, the unnerving rodent head stuck on a humanoid body, the proportionately too-small hand-things. The smell---chalk, sulfur and rotten fruit. Aram’s skin crawled. His throat spasmed with vomit reflex. Finally, he let himself see his own reflection in the Rat King’s eyeballs. “You’re not real,” Aram said.
The Rat King shrugged. “Neither is God, but that doesn’t stop Him from causing all sorts of trouble. Can I get you a cup of coffee?”
Aram shook his head.
“All right then. I’ll just sit with you. How’s your wife?”
Sevart looked pale. She’d painted her lips red before they’d left the house, and they stood in contrast to her white face. He watched her breathe. He thought that the issue of God’s existence might be up for debate, but the Rat King was right that He did cause all sorts of trouble. In this case, the trouble manifested in the dark line of blood rising from Sevart’s scar-like fistula, into tubes, to the artificial kidney, and back down again. It noiselessly completed its circuit, clean now. Maybe it was his imagination, but he thought her fingers and hands looked slimmer and less puffy.
When he again screwed up enough courage to turn and look, the Rat King was gone, but there was a cup of black coffee thoughtfully propped up on the chair in such a way that it would be difficult to spill.
“Were you talking to a man?” Sevart reached gingerly under the cab seat for her bag.
“Yes----Careful Aram, my legs are still tired.” She put her arm over his as he paid the driver.
She did look better, Aram had to admit. He figured this all might work: the special diet, the dialysis sessions, good habits, pills and treatments. It was his background in engineering--he’d always thought of his marriage as some sort of marvelous engine, and that, when there were problems, they would adjust the engine, tinker with various solutions to get it running smoothly again. Sometimes, he’d learned, the solution was time. Sometimes it was extra maintenance. But, with big issues like when Lori was born, the death of their parents, diabetes and kidney failure, the machine required significant overhaul. The heart of the engine might have to be replaced entirely, and then the problem became how to fuel the change. When they were younger, they could fuel on adrenaline, coffee and sweets. As they got older, they burned money, maybe a bank loan. But now they were retired, living on what amounted to fixed income. Sevart wasn’t really allowed sweets, and she couldn’t drink coffee after two. Aram often felt spent. Nevertheless, he hoped that some miracle might still let the engine come through.
She looked at him. “What are you thinking about?”
“I’m happy because the dialysis seems to have helped. You look healthier, Sevart, and thinner already.”
“It’s all about thinness with you men!”
“I mean the swelling!” But he knew that she was teasing him.
“I feel lighter,” she said. “We have to tell Lori. She’ll be happy.”
They were halfway up the stairs to their unit when she asked again, “Who was the man?”
“Which man, Sevart?”
“You were talking to a man in the kidney room. He was big and very hairy. He had a blue tie.”
“There was no one.”
“I saw. I thought I saw.”
“You were asleep the whole time.” He unlocked their door. “That must have been a dream.”
The sun was on its way down and shadows crept up the walls. He regarded the phone as though it was a trap. From a practical perspective, he appreciated the idea of a telephonic system, how it allowed for prompt delivery of information, how lives might be saved by dialing 911, but beyond that, he’d never liked the way it compelled people to try to fill empty time with words. He’d never been a big talker. And who would he call, anyway? There was Melbourne, of course, but he knew that his suppers with Melbourne worked precisely because neither of them brought emotional baggage, just two old engineers swapping stories; and while he might be a modern parent in some ways, he’d never feel comfortable telling his troubles to Lori, who had a prickly disposition to begin with. There was no one. Even his conversations with Sevart had become sparse. What was there to talk about? Of the kidney failure, it seemed as though everything had been said. They didn’t have a child at home anymore, nor grandchildren. They had no work to talk about, and old friends had died or were dying or had moved to the far suburbs.
He couldn’t hear a sound from the bedroom. She might have been sketching with her pastels, a hobby she’d taken up after the diagnosis. But more likely, she was asleep. When they’d first found out, he’d asked her to consider exercise, taking walks, and even suggested they buy a stationary bike, and she’d gone along with the plan. Sevart had said that she was going to conquer her condition. She said they would be out dancing and living life to its fullest, but when she was active, she became thirsty, and she was on a fluid-restricted diet. So now she slept, and the house stayed quiet.
Now Aram stared at the phone, with its tiny green light. For some reason, modern designers loved to affix tiny LED lights to things, and he took a few moments to contemplate his living room: the blinking pins on the smoke detector, the green one on the phone and another two on the caller ID box, the orange one that indicated that the fancy new vacuum cleaner was recharging, one-two-three on their VCR, more on the big TV. He remembered that, not so long ago, dark had been darker, more clean and complete.
He picked up the phone and hit the intercom button--these new phones had all kinds of features.
“Hello.” Sevart’s voice was even, as always, but tired.
“Where are you, Aram?”
“In the living room.”
“Are you joking? Why don’t you just come in and talk to me?”
“The last time I did, you got angry.”
She groaned softly. “I’m sick. You know I didn’t mean anything.”
“Do you need anything?”
“No, thank you. You do know that I didn’t mean anything that time--right?”
“I’m sick,” she said emphatically. “Sick people get angry sometimes for no explainable reason. You’re an educated man, Aram, you must understand that.”
“I do,” he said. “I will come in and kiss you goodnight then.”
“I would like that very much.” She hung up.
He walked into the bedroom and kissed her gently. Her sketch pad lay on the bed, opened to a half-finished work. She had drawn a landscape, terraced hills, and above flew strange-looking birds.
She held onto his hand for a moment, and he let his other hand stray to her breast, but she just laughed in an uncomfortable way and he took it back. “What are those birds?” he asked, as a way of deflecting the awkwardness of the moment.
“In the drawing.” He pointed to her sketch pad. As he leaned closer, he saw that the creatures had bird bodies but fantastical heads. Some had reptilian heads. Others seemed to have doglike heads, and a few had human heads. The human heads, as Sevart drew them, were simple and done in bold strokes with exaggerated features, like characters in political cartoons.
“I just draw things to suit my fancy,” she said. She picked up the sketch pad, knocking the pastel crayons to the floor, and closed it so he could no longer see. “I just do it for fun.”
“It’s interesting,” he said.
“Maybe I’ll show you when I’m done.” She gave him a small kiss on the cheek. “But I’m sleepy now, Aram.”
When he went back into the living room, he pushed the massive TV aside so he could unplug all of their video components. He unplugged the vacuum; it was probably charged anyway. He went into his tool bag and used electrician’s tape to cover up all the other little lights, one by one, until the only one left was the smoke detector, which he knew he couldn’t cover. He looked up at it, and it blinked back at him in a manner that suggested it had some sliver of personality, as though it was somehow flirting with or teasing him, and he found himself more frustrated and angry than he’d been in a long time.
The next time with the Rat King was when he was walking through the Russian section of Allston. The tiny delis and stern old men in hats and scarves reminded Aram of his father. He was turning the corner near the Gorky Bookstore, which displayed stuffed roosters in its window, when he realized that he was being followed.
“It’s ironic that I should find you here.” The Rat King spread his arms to indicate the entire neighborhood. “In the Russian ghetto! That’s where we met, no? Tchaikovsky, remember?”
He did remember. It had been his first year in the United States, when his parents had taken him to see The Nutcracker Suite. The second half, the international dances and set-pieces, he could have done without, but the first act had pulled him in and, as it was for many little boys, the most compelling scene was the battle between the Nutcracker and the Rat King. There was something otherworldly about how the dancer inside the bulky Rat King suit had moved. On the way home, Aram had recounted the story to his parents. “Remember the dancing bear?” he’d asked in Armenian. “Remember the soldiers? Remember the Rat King?”
“It was wonderful,” his mother said.
“I didn’t like the second part. Nothing happened.”
“They were dancing, and the girl and the Nutcracker were watching the dancers from their thrones,” his mother reminded him.
“But nobody fought!” and that night, in his dreams, he met the Rat King for the first time.
Now Aram walked faster, past the stuffed roosters, but the Rat King kept up, step for step. There were plenty of people on the sidewalk, but none of them looked at the King; neither did anyone walk into him. People simply veered, without prompting, to the right or to the left.
Then the Rat King touched him. Reached right over and grabbed Aram’s arm. Everything --the hard tug at his elbow, the pressure of the King’s well-manicured claws --felt perfectly real. “When I’m talking to you, look at me. Unless you'd like to get into a fight, right here, on this sidewalk, you’d best look at me.”
“I’ve beaten you in every fight that mattered,” said Aram, but he did turn to face the King. If anything, the Rat King, like Aram himself, looked old. He had grown a bit of a paunch, a fatty jowl under his rodent chin, and some of his whiskers had gone grey. Aram thought, although he couldn’t confirm, that the King’s eyes were redder and the skin under his eyes was baggier than before --the look of a man, or creature, who hadn’t slept well in some time.
They walked on for a bit without comment, and Aram felt his anger slowly leech away. What was left, strangely, to take its place was a bit of sympathy for his old adversary. “So, do you have children?”
The Rat King brayed with laughter, and a passing group of college kids looked around, possibly baffled by a sound they couldn’t quite hear or place. “I have a hundred children! More! I’m a rat.”
Aram nodded soberly. “I have one daughter. She’s difficult sometimes. She wants, I think, more than she should. But how can you ever tell your children that?”
The King nodded. “I’ve had to kill a few of mine, Aram. It’s never easy. What is your daughter’s name?”
“I don’t think I’ll be telling you.”
“I understand,” the Rat King fixed the top button on Aram’s black coat. “Well, I’m here to help you. I want to help in your time of trouble.”
“No.” Aram turned around and headed back toward his home.
“You are extremely ungrateful, Aram. The least you can do is listen to me, especially in light of all the times that you killed me.”
“Those were a child’s fantasies.” Aram tried to keep his voice from straining.
“It was real enough for me.” The Rat King huffed to keep up with him, which was nice, because it meant that Aram wasn’t the only one who’d fallen out of shape. “Remember the duel we fought on the glacier in the Bering Strait? Do you know how much it hurt when you gutted me with that harpoon? Not to mention the time you pushed me into the vat of boiling oil. It took me weeks to even be able to talk afterward; the pain was traumatizing.”
A homeless man with a long grey beard--Aram recognized him from previous walks--held a coffee cup out toward them. “What you neglected to mention,” Aram said, “was that you had it coming each time. When we fought on the glacier, how close were you to pushing a pitch-fork right through my face?”
“I don’t know,” answered the homeless man. “But if you give me a dollar, I might remember.”
Aram dug into his pockets but didn’t find any change, and he’d left his wallet at home as a matter of habit. “I’m sorry,” he told the homeless man.
“Me too.” The man turned and held his cup out to passing group of Russian matriarchs.
“Listen!” the Rat King hissed. “Listen, it was you who were the killer. You killed me so many goddamned times. All that pain, you couldn’t imagine. And what was the worst injury you sustained? A bruise? A scraped knee?”
“I broke my arm.”
“Playing soccer. Not from me.”
“I was a child! Does that answer your question? If I had died, it would have been forever. You --you’re immortal.”
“No, an immortal never dies, Aram. I am very much mortal. The only difference was that, after I died, I was brought back to life again. The cycle began anew.”
“Well, what kept bringing you back, then?”
The Rat King grinned in a sharp way. Something in his expression, Aram couldn’t explain what, suggested sympathy. “Aram, you’re smart fellow. Remember when you were in engineering school? You prided yourself on being intelligent. You were a scholar, a man of games and puzzles. So if you don’t know who kept bringing me back to life, if you can’t figure even that out, then your mind has dulled considerably.”
As the Rat King’s breath rose in white mist, Aram bit his lower lip and sighed.
The Rat King gently took Aram’s right hand and put a scrap of paper into his palm. “Meet me at this address, just outside the building, Thursday night at nine. I doubt that your wife will notice that you’re gone, but if she does see you leave, just say that you’re going to market.” The Rat King, careful so that his surgical-sharp nails didn’t go through Aram’s gloves, curled Aram’s hand into a fist and began to walk away.
“Wait,” Aram said. He unfolded the paper. Twelve Latham Way. “What is this?”
“A place of ill repute,” the Rat King sang back to him as he disappeared around a corner.
This boy who’d been so fascinated with the Rat King, he’d been an imaginative child, a tinkerer, an engineer-in-waiting, and he’d spent nights mapping an elaborate fantasy world in his head. His fantasy world simulated the real one, but on a mythical scale. His Himalayas were taller, colder, more pure. His Mariana Trench--he was the type of child who knew all about the Mariana Trench--was deeper and more sinister. Atlantis lay just below the waterline. And all these locations served as exotic backdrops for the endless duel: Him and the Rat King. They fought on mountaintop and on the backs of camels. They fought atop the Empire State Building and in the Taj Mahal. A desperate race to stop the Rat King’s conspiracies: bombs big enough to destroy the earth, kraken-like sea monsters, armies of shadowy rat-men to do his bidding. In those years, he'd closed his eyes, created this life, fought the endless battle. And at night his dreams picked up where his imagination left off.
He’d rarely cooked for Sevart before, but it was now becoming common. Safe things: roast beef wrapped in cabbage with a side of fresh spinach salad, a special dressing, and her ration of water. Water was an issue. Sevart was a chubby woman, not big but certainly round, and before the illness, she was used to having her way with drinks and treats. And now he poured her eight-ounce glasses with care, using a small chalkboard they’d hung in the kitchen to tick off the ounces.
She watched him pour and then said, “Some more, Aram. A little more.”
“We should leave extra water for later,” he said. “You know how your throat gets dry at night.” The water, such a piddling amount. He couldn’t think of anything comforting to say that he hadn’t said before, so he gently cupped his hands around the back of her neck.
On the table was her drawing pad. She’d begun a new work. It was still sketchy, but he easily recognized two people standing side-by-side. Was this supposed to be Sevart and him? Did they look old? They might’ve. She’d used mostly grey in drawing their flesh and given them masklike features. Did they look like the painting, American Gothic, lost and isolated? Maybe. They seemed to be standing inside or underneath something. A cave? A vast grey umbrella? He couldn’t quite tell. He didn’t ask.
He went back to the roast beef. It was nearly done, and for no reason, he thought of the address. He’d thrown it right out, crumpled it up and tossed it in the first trash can he’d seen. But, of course, he’d already memorized it: Twelve Latham Way. He was old, but not too old to have urges. It had been a long time, more than six months, since Sevart had shown even a passing interest, and now: Twelve Latham Way. No place he’d ever heard of. Some side street. He imagined a red bed. A firm, young ass, buoyant breasts and long brown hair. Twelve Latham Way wore a silky, pink negligee.
“I think I hear someone,” Sevart told him. “Coming up the stairs.”
Who? The Rat King? A woman in a pink negligee? His mind spun until he could fix on the urgent clomp of Lori’s boots.
Sevart was suddenly smiling, headed for the door.
Lori wore a big red coat against the cold. Her hair, dyed blond these days, was still wet, and she carried a canvas bag. She kissed them each on the cheek and shoved the bag, which was full of fruit, into Aram’s hands. “These are the fruit. Remember the doctor said? I got peaches! Apples!”
Aram nodded. He was anxious during Lori’s visits because he often found himself ruffling her feathers by accident.
“Oh Mom, you look terrible!” Lori looked back at him. “She looks so tired.”
“How are you, Lori?”
“Did you use those aroma therapy sticks that I got you?”
“The vanilla and creams? They were very nice,” Sevart lied.
“Good. I’ll order you some more. And it’s important for you to moisturize your skin. Remember, we saw it on the web site? And if there’s anything --anything at all --you can always ask me.” Lori spoke quickly, as though she upset in some way that Aram couldn’t quite place.
“Well,” Aram tried, “it’s nice to see you here. We were sitting down for dinner. Do you want to eat?”
“I ate.” She waved him off. He was hopeless.
Both he and Sevart had been quiet, laid-back people, one of the secrets of their long-term marital success. So was Lori’s manic energy a form of rebellion? She’d been this way since she’d turned thirteen. After college, she’d harnessed that energy and turned it into a career in advertising, a field in which her personality seemed to pay off. She went to the gym each night, was perpetually single and, especially since Sevart’s renal failure, increasingly critical of Aram, who watched her as she pulled Sevart out of their kitchen. “I’m going to inspect what you’ve done to the bedroom,” she hollered at him from down the hall. “Did you buy that memory foam mattress like I said?”
He watched them until the swinging kitchen door closed, blocking his view. He heard Lori talking to Sevart, exclaiming loudly in the bedroom now. He prepared a dinner plate for himself, and one for Sevart. Then he prepared a third plate for Lori, thought better of it --he might be scolded - --and put her food back. He sat and picked at his spinach as he waited for his wife to be returned.
The next few days, he was extremely nervous. But nervousness, paradoxically, gave him a cloak of normalcy. It kept him locked in safe routines. He washed dishes, took out the trash, watched his regular TV shows with Sevart, and called Melbourne to set up their next night out. He took Sevart to her appointments, filled out the new Medicare plan forms, and vacuumed every other day. He silently rehearsed the lie like a schoolboy memorizing lines for a play.
But in the end, he did not need the lie. Sevart was in a deep sleep when he left their apartment. He took a cab across the river to a part of Cambridge he’d never seen before. True to his word, the Rat King was waiting. “You’re late. It’s a good thing I factored that into my plans. She’s in 14B.” The King slid two hundred dollars into Aram’s hand. “She is lovely, or so I’ve heard. She described herself over the telephone machine as having firm, round thighs.”
Aram was a moral man. He paid his taxes and obeyed laws; the type of man who followed rules that others considered silly or intrusive. He understood that societies prospered because they were built on order, but this time he let his feet lead him across beat-up tile floors, to the elevator. The Rat King had exaggerated--not a big surprise--in that this wasn’t a bordello, but an old apartment house with a tiny elevator that must have been a relic of the 1930’s. I have immoral feet, Aram thought, immoral hands. He knocked at the door.
She opened it a crack, as much as the security chain would allow, enough for him to see her face, a bit of a white silk robe, some prominently displayed cleavage. Her face was round and pretty with soft skin. She reminded him of cream. His cock stiffened just a little in that way that can be uncomfortable for men in public, although he took with it a small measure of relief since he didn’t always get good performance from it.
“Who are you?” she said.
“I have two hundred dollars.” He rolled the bills tightly and pushed them through the space in the door.
She took the money and the door slammed shut and, just for a second, Aram realized that he was alone, completely. He realized his situation, all his situations: Sevart’s quiet disease; his inability to connect with Lori; the return of an imaginary childhood foe; the layered ennui of grandchildless retirement years; the fact that he was suddenly willing to make use of the services of a prostitute. No one knew where he was, and what if something happened? He considered bolting as she reopened the door.
Throughout their encounter, he felt light-headed, and if someone had told Aram that he’d just put on a condom for the first time in his life and stumblingly, haltingly gone through intercourse with this girl, this Kelly, he would not have questioned that description, but he also would not have quite been able to recall it either. It took him less than three minutes to come. He did remember being grateful that Kelly appeared much younger than Lori. Being with a woman his daughter’s age would have been humiliating. Being with one who looked even younger was simply surreal. Later, he would remember Kelly’s breasts. They reminded him of golden medallions, or twin bulbs from a Christmas tree perhaps. They were something he’d somehow won.
She stayed in bed, naked with one leg crossed over the other. “Do you like vodka?”
“No, thank you.” Aram rubbed at his eyes, found his glasses and put them on. He knew full well how ridiculous he looked wearing only them, but the room was dimly lit, and he would never be able to locate his pants otherwise. He turned to find himself at a window that faced the street. Far below, a shadowy figure regarded him from under a street lamp and gave some sort of hand signal. Aram snapped the curtains shut.
“Why did you close those curtains?” Kelly was suddenly up, sliding on blue jeans.
“I’m sorry.” Aram took a hesitant step back. “I just realized I was naked for all the world to see.” He found his pants. “I will open them again if you like.”
“Don’t do that again,” she said. “Besides, no one can see us up here.”
“Maybe somebody can.”
“They’d have to have really good eyes. You have some kind of accent. Are you Russian?”
“I was born in Armenia, but we moved when I was very young.”
“I’m Russian,” she said. “That’s why I said if you liked vodka. It was like a test.”
“You have no accent at all.” Not looking at him, she continued to dress, and he thought, yes, she could be Russian. The round face and the blue eyes. “But a Russian named Kelly?”
“Don’t be stupid. That’s not my real name.”
“I’m not going to tell you my real name anymore than you’re going to tell me yours.”
“You can call me the Rat King if you like,” Aram said.
She squinted back at him. “I hate rats. They’re disgusting.”
“It wasn’t my choice.”
“Well, get a better name next time.” She unlatched and opened the door so that he might leave, and as he stepped out, she shoved a small bottle of vodka under his arms. “Vashe zdorovye,” she said with a sharp, Russian accent.
“Genats,” he said softly to her in Armenian.
He handed the bottle off to the Rat King when he got back onto the street.
“How did you like her, Aram?”
“She was nice.”
“What more do you need?”
“I paid,” the Rat King hissed as he shoved the bottle back into Aram’s coat. “I deserve to know. Did she take you in her mouth?”
“I won’t say. I may be a sad old gentleman, but I am a gentleman nevertheless.”
“I paid,” the King said again, but Aram refused to look back at him anymore.
Aram exited the cab outside of his apartment and walked up the stairs as fast as possible. His insides burned, and he waited for his immoral feet to catch fire. He would leave flaming footprints on the stairwell. He was nervous in a way that he hadn’t been for years, but despite the fear, he was also energized. Never mind that he’d paid, that the Rat King had paid, he’d just bedded a firm young woman, and now he would go home and somehow make love to Sevart. They would stay up all night, talking about old times, sipping strong coffee and laughing. At dawn he would put on a favorite album, Dean Martin’s Best, and dance, downstairs neighbors be damned.
But deep down he knew he would arrive to a dim, hushed apartment. Sevart would be dead asleep; she would hardly consent to being awakened, much less being made love to. There would be no dancing or coffee. Instead, he would sit in the living room, and he would wait until all the feelings --fear, lust, pride, self-pity --dissipated. And only then would he silently crawl into bed next to his wife, maybe put an arm around her. Maybe.
So he had half a heart attack when he opened the front door and found the TV blaring and Lori, in the track suit that doubled as her pajamas, curled up on the couch. On the TV was one of those reality shows that followed police officers. The officers were in the process of wrestling a man to the ground, and they were all yelling. Aram stood like a statue.
Lori took a moment to notice him. She rubbed at the corners of her eyes. “Dad? Where were you?”
“Lori? What are you doing here?”
She sat up and stretched. “I got into a fight with Keith.”
“Is Keith your boyfriend? I thought it was Michael.”
“Michael was over a year ago.”
“Why don’t you turn down the TV? You’ll wake your mother.”
“Oh come on, Dad. You know she can sleep through anything.”
“But maybe I can’t.”
She muted the TV and suddenly there was just the two of them. “Where were you? What time is it?”
His well-practiced lie now lurched and fumbled from his lips.
“You went to the market for two hours and didn’t buy anything?”
He stood frozen. Ready to confess everything. Ready to run out of that apartment and never return. Words choked up in his throat, and then he felt a small, hard plastic bottle in his coat pocket. “No,” he said. “The truth is that I needed a drink.” He pulled out the vodka, a relatively unconvincing gesture since it was full. He quickly put it back into his coat.
“I’m sorry. I was having trouble sleeping so I needed a drink.”
She crossed her arms, all judgment, but Aram felt relief because it looked like she’d bought his ruse. “I am sorry,” he said again.
“We’re going to talk about this.”
“Not now, Lori. I am so very tired.” He made a small show of heading into the bedroom, but she followed.
She reached into his coat pocket and wrestled the bottle out. “Kommissar Vodka? With a K? Dad, this is the cheap stuff. We’re going to talk about this. We can’t have you drinking while you’re on duty.”
“You’re mom’s primary caretaker, right?”
Desperately, he took the bottle back, kissed her forehead and headed for bed. “On duty,” he whispered to himself as his head hit the pillow. He put one arm around Sevart. He didn’t know what to think; he was just a blank slate waiting for sleep. “On duty,” he said one more time as though the phrase held some hidden meaning.
In the grey pre-dawn--after Lori left for her gym and while Sevart was in the bathroom--he took the bottle of Kommisar out of his coat again and poured most of it down the kitchen sink. He hid the bottle at the back of a shelf.
When Sevart came out of the bathroom, she said, “Remember we have dialysis.”
“Where were you last night, Aram? Lori came over and couldn’t find you, so she woke me up. We were worried.”
“I had a drink.”
She laughed. “I wish you’d brought me one!”
Part grateful and part guilty, he let himself laugh with her.
In the bathroom--he didn’t have much time as their appointment was for seven--he brushed his teeth. Then he opened the medicine cabinet to get shaving cream and found a scrap of paper waiting for him. Again the Rat King’s handwriting. “Meet me on the roof”, it said. Underneath, the King’s seal, a wax insignia shaped in a three-pointed crown over a rodent skull. There was no time or date, just “Meet me on the roof”, but Aram suspected that he would know when the time came. Some signal would be sent.
As he lifted the razor, he had a mental image, a flash, of a blade. It was a magical weapon that he’d used, age ten, the last time he’d vanquished the Rat King. Was it real? It seemed impossible that the blade could exist, but he had a very clear picture in his head. A short, razor-sharp samurai sword with a gem-studded handle. Quite real. Or had it been a plastic children’s toy? Or a dream? And if it were real, where would it be? In their basement storage unit? Buried in the backyard of his childhood home? He had no idea where to begin looking for such a thing. Forget the sword, he told himself. We have dialysis.
Week in and out, he watched Sevart’s blood flow silently, the pump on the machine spinning with a whisper. Sevart slept, and he was okay with her sleeping. Let her sleep. One of the attendants cleaned a machine in preparation for the next shift. The woman with the portable DVD player--she must have been on the same shift as Sevart--watched another movie, and every once in a while a stray flicker of dialogue leaked from her headphones, but other than that, the room stayed silent. He kept an eye on the door, but the Rat King did not come.
As they climbed into their taxi, Sevart said, “Aram, we should go to church.”
“Oh,” he said. Doing the math in his head, he figured they hadn’t been in over twelve years, not since a distant relative’s christening.
“Church is a good place to go,” the driver, a tall man with a distinct Haitian accent, offered.
“It is good,” Aram said mostly to be polite. The truth was that, the times he’d gone, his favorite activity had been studying stained glass windows.
“We have problems. And church would be a good place to discuss problems. Maybe with the Reverend Mike.”
“If Reverend Mike is still there.” He spoke softly in an attempt to keep the driver out of their conversation. “Sevart, things may seem bad now, but I know that, pretty soon, you will be at the front of the donor list and you will get a new kidney. Very soon.”
“It is not about the kidney,” she said. “It’s about the other night.”
“I had something to drink. It won’t happen again.”
She gave his hand a soft squeeze. “It’s not the vodka, either. Listen, Aram, I know that you’re not telling me the truth. You’re avoiding something. It’s like that time that you were laid off and you waited almost two weeks before you said anything.”
He shrugged his shoulders, still embarrassed about that layoff twenty years later, and then he remembered Kelly’s swaying breasts, and suddenly there was plenty more to be embarrassed about. “Maybe we should go to church,” he said in a dry voice.
“I have been laid off too,” the cab driver said by way of sympathy. “It’s never easy for a man.”
“We’ll go Sunday,” Sevart added. “Lori said she might come too. It was her idea.”
Saturday night, a terrific windstorm hit. It knifed limbs off trees, temporarily knocked out their power, and sent the trash barrels dancing, dervish-like. Aram heard a harsh scratching from above, as though some piece of the roof had blown loose. He waited with Sevart by candlelight until the power flicked back on. Then they watched a figure skating program and shared, ticking off cups on the chalkboard, half a pot of herbal tea. After she went to bed, he put on a heavy coat, tucked a steak knife into a pocket, and headed up to the roof. The storm had died down to occasional gusts, and the air was clean and cold. The Rat King was in his own heavy trench coat, and his hand-claws were gloved.
“What do you want?”
“Instead of answering yet another of your banal questions, let me ask you one. What do you want?” The King handed him a bottle of amber liquid. “Cognac. Relief. Relief is what everyone wants. Good cognac too. Not the cheap stuff!”
It dawned on Aram that the Rat King was drunk, the bottle almost a quarter empty. He walked all the way around the Rat King, in a deliberate circle. “Are you the Devil?” he finally asked.
“Ho no! If I were the Devil, I most certainly would not have developed this belly.” The King patted his stomach. “I am the Rat King. What’s the matter, Aram? You used to have no problem accepting me.”
Very slowly, Aram reached out and touched the King’s face. The fur there was short, and the texture reminded him of a lucky rabbit’s foot. "Maybe this would be a good time for a swig from that bottle," Aram said as he grabbed the bottle from the Rat King. He'd never been a heavy drinker, but even he could tell that it was good stuff.
“Nice?” The Rat King shot him a smile. “Do you remember when I raised Leviathan, the giant squid, and sent it to swallow New York?”
Aram nodded. The squid--he could picture it all these years later--had been vast in the Biblical sense, eyes the size of city blocks.
“Do you remember that you came on a zeppelin, and we fought on the unfinished skyscraper? Extraordinary, wasn’t it? That was a golden age! Dueling, leaping across steel beams. You were my greatest adversary.”
Aram remembered. The girders of the unfinished building occupying the same space and yet clearly distinct from his parents’ old floral couch. He remembered the duel, swords crashing in arcs of blue steel. Finally piercing the Rat King’s heart, sending him tumbling to his death. Diving into the harbor to retrieve Captain Nemo’s Conch of Summoning and recalling Leviathan even as it began to devour the docks of Manhattan. He took another shot of cognac, let the heat melt down his throat. “I was a hero,” he finally said.
“A grand hero,” said the King. “And I was a grand villain.”
“The best villain,” Aram was forced to concede. “And do you remember the fight in the Himalayas? When I rode the white tiger?”
His head hurt. There was light and movement. He remembered peeing on the roof while the Rat King roared approval, then walking--floating really--downstairs, holding his wife in a warm, drunken embrace before passing out.
“You were drinking,” she said from somewhere above.
He opened an eye and clenched his teeth.
“I smell it on your breath even now.”
He sniffed and nodded his head against the pillow, then closed his eyes and tried to go back to sleep. The cognac, this good cognac, had clobbered him. Was this the Rat King’s agenda, to get Aram to succumb to whoring and drink? What was next? Gambling? Smoking? It seemed ridiculous. Those were tactics worthy of an unscrupulous best man, not a monarch of evil, even a past-his-prime monarch of evil.
Sevart shook him. “Aram, we have to get up.”
“Church?” he finally whispered. The inside of his mouth tasted bitter.
“Yes, and I’m glad Lori is coming because we need to have a serious discussion. I am afraid that I have been turning a blind eye to your drinking.”
“I drank twice. Twice.”
“You slept in your clothes,” she said. “And I found this in your coat.” She held up the steak knife.
“It was only in case...” But he wouldn’t say.
“Tell me what’s happening. Is it drugs?”
“You know that you can tell me,” she insisted. “You know that you can trust me.”
He nodded, but--even though he understood that he shouldn’t be--he was angry. As a man of reason, he knew that low-level alcohol poisoning was technically the root of his irritation, but it didn’t help to know--not for a moment. He resented being dragged to church to face Lori and this Revered Mike person whom, let’s face it, they really didn’t know from a hole in the wall.
“Will you tell me?” she asked again.
“We’ll be late for church.” He retreated to the bathroom.
Reverend Mike--his real name was Mesrop--didn’t look all that different from twelve years before. He wore the same black shirt and pants. During services, which Aram found long and difficult, he wore the same shiny green cape. His salt and pepper beard had shifted to salt and sugar. “I have to admit,” he said in Armenian, “it’s been a long time since I have been involved in your lives.”
“I’m sorry,” Lori interrupted in English. “I’m out of practice.”
“She doesn’t really speak Armenian,” Sevart said.
“It’s good to know multiple languages. For business purposes if nothing else.” The Reverend Mike was known in the community as an advocate for keeping the old language alive.
“But we’re not here about me,” Lori said. “We’re here about him.”
Aram nodded. “My wife thinks my drinking could become a problem.”
Reverend Mike nodded. “Drinking is not a good solution for our ills.”
“And I think we need to talk about that, Dad. I just think you’re having trouble dealing with the reality of Mom’s condition.”
Aram thought he would scream in frustration, and he might have except that the Reverend Mike turned to face Lori, and said, “You seem upset with your father.”
“This is not about me,” she said again. “My father is the one who’s sneaking around doing who knows what and getting drunk.”
“Nevertheless, he is your father.”
Aram had had it. “I want to sleep with your mother.”
“You sleep with me every night,” said Sevart.
“No. I mean to have sex.”
‘Daddy!” Lori looked mortified, and it went downhill from there. The Reverend Mike tried a few times to get them to open up, but neither Aram nor Lori wanted to. Not at that exact moment, anyway. So finally the Reverend, in a quiet moment of exasperation, told them that he was very sorry, but it was clear to him that there were two different problems at play here. First, he noted, Aram and Sevart had needs, Biblical needs, that required frank conversation, and second, Aram and Lori also needed to talk things out in a civilized manner. Aram knew the Reverend Mike was dead-on, but locked in his hangover haze, he refused to give him even a nod of thanks. Who the hell was this guy, anyway?
And when Lori said again that it wasn’t about her, the Reverend Mike told them that he would pray for them all and he had some pressing appointments, so if they would just leave his office, yes, the exit was right down that hall, he’d be more than happy to see them at some other time. And suddenly they were standing in the parking lot, raw and embarrassed to face each other.
Lori looked like she might say something, but Sevart put her hand up, and Lori let out a sigh instead.
“Let’s go home,” Sevart said. “It’s cold out, and I would like to be in my home.”
“I’ll drive you guys,” said Lori. Aram made a production of saying they would wait for a cab but, in the end, he was happy to sit quietly, shading his eyes, in the heated back seat of Lori’s SUV. As they made their way back to Brighton, he thought that religion would not be the fuel that would save the marvelous engine of their marriage, not now. The streets were fairly quiet and, despite the cold, the sky was sunny. His hangover and the accompanying headache began to slowly leach away.
After they’d come home and taken off their coats, he saw that Sevart’s eyes were red, nearly bloodshot. She kept her gaze focused straight ahead, looking neither right nor left, a sure sign that her feelings had been hurt.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“You embarrassed me in front of the Reverend. But I’m sorry too. Because we have not made love in so long.”
“There’s no need to apologize.”
She sat on the couch, “But we’re old, Aram, and there’s this sickness.” She waved her hands as if warding off evil spirits. “Makes me feel ugly.”
“No need to apologize,” he repeated. Then he added, “There is something. I was visited by an old friend.”
“Oh?” She seemed to brighten up and actually looked at him. “Was it Sergi, the one who did the nuclear work?”
“No. You don’t know this one.”
“We’ve been married for thirty years--who don’t I know?”
“From childhood.” His headache seemed to have left him completely, and he suddenly felt as though things could get better. “This friend, I knew him in school, but he’s a troublemaker. He’s the one I’ve been meeting for drinks.”
“Well, maybe you can invite him over. He can come for dinner. That way you could drink wine at the table like civilized people.”
“I don’t think so. I don’t think that would be a good idea.” And then he didn’t know what to say to Sevart’s blank stare, so he added. “He is involved in trouble. He is trouble.”
Sevart didn’t reply. She just sat on the couch and gave him a look. Aram knew that she could sense his lies and flimflam excuses.
“I have some cleaning to do.” She went to the corner, something she hadn’t done in months, and began to detach the rechargeable vacuum from its dock.
“Let me help you,” he said--the vacuum was heavy and hard on the arms--but she stood in such a way that he couldn’t help. As Aram watched her, he understood that he’d had a chance to confess. Maybe a chance to save their marvelous engine, but for God’s sake, how could anyone explain the Rat King? He retreated to a corner and watched his wife vacuum.
“I heard you went to church,” said the Rat King.
“From whom did you hear that?”
“From church mice!” The King laughed at him. “Get it?”
Aram didn’t move. He kept a poker face, but the truth was that he was terrified. This was the first time that the Rat King had shown up in their home. With Sevart in the next room, he feared for their lives.
“What are you watching?”
“It’s about the history of bluegrass music, but mostly I keep the TV on for background noise while I read the paper.”
“Bluegrass music,” the King said in a blank way that suggested he’d never heard of such a thing. “I don’t have one of these televisions myself. I don’t understand these newfangled marvels. They seem miraculous, no?” The Rat King chewed on his bottom lip with a look that Aram interpreted as wistful.
Here in his home.
“Aram,” Sevart called out from the bathroom, “Are you calling me?”
“No, no. I’m talking to myself--I’m talking to the TV!”
“Is it talking back to you?”
The King looked embarrassed, as though he’d been caught. “I’m sorry about your wife.”
“Then leave. You’re causing problems. Just go away.”
“I can’t, you bastard!” The King’s opened his mouth just wide enough to expose jagged fangs, serving as a reminder of the animal inside. “You keep bringing me back.”
In the bathroom, the noise of running water suddenly stopped. He could hear the door creaking open.
“I won't tarry,” said the Rat King. “ Here is a ticket by air coach to Las Vegas.” The ticket that he produced looked legitimate, with barcodes and safety warnings.
“What am I going to do with this?”
“Sometimes you’re frustratingly obtuse, Aram,” was what the Rat King said before he stepped into the front hall and vanished utterly.
For a second, he had no idea who could be talking to him.
Sevart was wearing her pink cotton bathrobe. “Please come to bed.”
He followed her, and she took off her robe. Her body was round, softened with age in some places as if to complement the parts of Aram that had gone hard and craggy over the years. Her fistula protruded from her arm. Yes, it had been a long time since they’d had sex, but he still knew her form intimately, and he very much hoped for an erection, but his cock didn’t always work the way it should anymore. So he took off his clothes, regarded his tired-looking genitals, took Sevart in his arms and told her that he loved her. They held each other, warm and naked, for hours, dozing occasionally, sometimes talking about old times--they remembered a story of how in sixth grade, Lori had stolen a friend’s pet mouse--and he still didn’t get an erection, but Sevart said it was all right and that someday soon they might do this again, and then he would get one, and they would make love, and it would be all right.
“It’s important that we tried,” Aram said.
“Does this help?” she asked.
“Will you talk to Lori? It’s been a while since you spoke to her.”
“Thank you,” she said.
He kissed her hand.
Then she said, “Have you seen your friend?”
“Melbourne? I’m seeing him Tuesday.”
“No. The other one. The troublemaker.”
“No, no. He’s gone.”
“Thank you for telling me about him.”
“I’m sorry too,” he said, “that I couldn’t tell you more.”
“Maybe I should tell you something,” Sevart said.
“What is it?”
Instead of answering, she pulled her pastel sketchpad out from under the bed and showed him the completed drawing, the American Gothic, but it was no longer that painting at all. There were two old people, and judging from the woman’s rotund figure and large breasts, and the man’s glasses and sharp nose, it was meant to be a portrait of the two of them. In the drawing, they stood in a flowery garden, flanked by sun and blue sky and what appeared to be giant butterflies and moths. She’d covered the grey lines with layers of healthy pink and yellow. The couple smiled. Behind them was a mountainous landscape which followed the line that Aram had mistaken for a cave or umbrella before. She’d given the mountains a Tyrolean quality, green with small white flowers, and on top of the mountains, completely out of scale, were pan-like creatures, mountain goat from the waist down and human above. The pan-creatures were drawn dancing, prancing and playing their pipes.
“It’s very fantastical,” he said.
“Well, not everyone can be a hardheaded realist like you,” she said in a loud way, to let him know that she was poking fun at his background in engineering.
“This drawing, it’s beautiful,” he said, and he meant it.
“Does it remind you of something?”
Before he could think of better words to express his feeling, he said, “It reminds me of happier times in the past.”
She took the pad from his grasp. “It could be happier times to be.” It occurred to him that the optimism he saw in this drawing might be the fuel to save their marriage. If he could find a name for such optimism. If he could bottle it and drink it down. If it wasn’t for the damn Rat King.
Melbourne tugged at his beard and ordered some fancy German ale.
“Coffee,” Aram said.
“No beer for you?”
Aram shook his head. “I’ve been drinking too much as of late.”
“In trouble with the lady?” And when Aram didn’t answer, Melbourne said, “I’m only joking. How is she?”
“She’s maintaining--doing well. We hope she remains healthy until--”
“Until the new kidney.”
They’d been through the kidney conversation a few times before, so Aram decided to change subjects. “I was thinking about going to Las Vegas,” he said. “What do you think?”
“We were there for a convention. Remember? Weren’t we? Eighty-three, I think? Well, some time in the eighties.”
“But that was business. I don’t even remember leaving the hotel.” Aram conjured up a dim memory of some huge convention hall, rooms that had been covered in ugly, beige flooring with the insect-like parts of dissected light planes and their engines. Salesmen in their navy blazers, making small talk and handing out flyers. Other than a small cluster of slot machines near the entrance, they might have been anywhere.
Melbourne cocked his head. “Well, Vegas is supposed to be more touristy now. Palatial hotels and all that. Lots of restaurants and shows. You remember Leon Lynche?”
“From Acquisitions.” Aram carefully took his coffee--they made it extra hot here--from the waitress.
“Back in a minute,” she told them.
Foam settled onto Melbourne’s beard as he took a preliminary sip of his beer. “He went out to Vegas for his birthday last year. He said he had a great time. Plus it’s hot out there in the desert, so that beats all.”
“Yes. Good for the old joints. You and Sevart should go.”
Aram took a breath. “Well, the problem is that I only have one ticket.”
Melbourne gave him a blank look.
“I won one ticket from a radio show.”
“That’s a pretty lame prize.” Melbourne chuckled to himself and then said, “You know, hookers are legal out there.”
Aram took a long sip of his coffee.
“I’m just kidding, Aram, but a guy could have great time out there. You could play blackjack all night. Sip fine scotch during the day. It’s a fantasy land. Everything’s open twenty-four hours. Plus they have girly shows. The old fashioned kind--with class, you know. Girls with big balloons and feathers. None of that dirty stuff. Hell, it’s stuff you’d see in a movie.”
“I’m sure I’m much too old for that. Maybe you should go instead, Melbourne.” Aram stared at his old friend and a cold feeling came over him. As though he were being watched. As though the Rat King were there, spying on him from a shadowy corner. But he looked around carefully and the King was not there--not that he could see.
“Another drink? Ready to order?” asked the waitress.
“Give this man another coffee,” Melbourne winked at her. “He’ll need it where he’s going.”
The next night, in the shower, he remembered the blade. He remembered how to find it--a simple thing, really. Like riding a bicycle--once you learn, you can never really forget. It involved turning sideways to the universe. He did it naked, right there in the shower. For a moment, the bathroom seemed to wobble like the surface of water that’s been disturbed, and then everything shifted. Aram trembled with childlike satisfaction. The world was like wallpaper, all the depth gone out of it. Weight and shadow took on a sketchy quality, and he walked naked beside that wallpaper. Bending the fourth dimension to his mind, it was easy to track back to his parents’ old home, maybe a five-minute walk, and there was the blade, waiting in the white void just outside of the world.
It was wondrous--over three feet--with talismans and gems hanging from the handle. The handle itself was striped black and orange, the blade was cold and blue and nicked in a few spots from past duels with the Rat King, and it easily rested in his palm, as though it had always been there. It had to remain hidden, of course, so he went back to their condo and tucked it in the space between the walls. He twisted the blade just so, and then Aram himself turned and came back into traditional space. His vision unbent, and suddenly he was back in the shower again. “My blade,” he said softly. He could almost hear the fine steel singing to him through the wall.
Later, he took a bus to Cushing-Parkhouse where Lori worked. The waiting room was firehouse red, like Sevart’s favorite lipstick, with framed pictures of green peppers. A tall woman who worked at the front desk told him he was not allowed to go into the back.
“She is my daughter.”
“I’m sorry sir, but we have a strict policy. I already paged her, so if you’ll just wait--”
“I just want to speak to my daughter,” and for the second time he started down the hall. This time, the woman stood up and blocked the way. She was a good few inches taller than he was and, for an angry moment, he considered shoving her aside. Instead, he stared at her, and she stared back, and they held a silent battle of wills for almost a minute until Lori appeared from around a corner.
“This woman would not let me see you.”
“My name is Claire,” the woman said.
“I’m sorry,” said Lori. “They’re real serious about visitors. Let’s go back to my office.”
Her office was packed with file cabinets, binders and piles of loose paper. On her desk were two half-finished cups of coffee, a desktop computer and a laptop as well. Lori sat and crossed her arms.
“Why would this Claire not let me in? Did you tell her to make me wait?”
“No, that’s just policy. She was just following orders, Daddy.”
“So were the Nazis.”
She rolled her eyes at him. “I don’t think--”
“It’s not a good policy.”
“I don’t make the rules, but I will, if you want, talk to the management about changing it, if you think it’s unreasonable for your daughter to be safe from death threats.”
“You get death threats?”
“Not me personally, but the firm does. We have an account with Planned Parenthood.”
“They’re not the abortionists,” she lowered her voice, mimicking him, “they believe in choice.”
“That’s what I meant.” He looked around her office until he spotted another chair that was covered in a pile of loose paperwork. “Can your father sit down?”
She sighed, cleaned off the chair. “Did you specifically come to harass me, Dad? Because you could have saved time by just calling instead.”
Once Aram sat he asked, “I am here because your mother asked me to talk to you. So why are you so angry at me?”
“The Reverend Mike said you had a problem with me.”
“Reverend Mike is a fat, patriarchal, white man.”
“And yet it was your idea to see him. You told Sevart that it would be a good idea.”
“Obviously I was mistaken.” One of her computers hummed a small tune. “That means I have a meeting in fifteen minutes.”
He could feel frustration creeping up and tightening around his collar. He desperately wanted to stand up, march out the door, take a cab to the airport, and get onto that plane to Las Vegas, and it was only his wobbly legs that prevented him from doing just that. Finally he said, “I came here to reconcile our differences.”
“And this isn’t about us. This is about Mom. About how you don’t care for her.”
“I’m with your mother every day. I drive her and cook for her and sit at the dialysis center.”
“Well, I’m glad that you do what any loving husband would do, but there’s a problem.”
“There’s no problem.”
“You know she told me that she might move out.”
He laughed. “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. First of all--”
“Look, Daddy, if the drinking wasn’t trouble enough, she told me that she found a knife in your pocket last week. And now you’re telling her stories about being mixed up with some criminal. I don’t know which is worse, having a friend who’s a thug, or using that as a lie to hide something else. Are you having an affair?”
Aram started to say something else but thought better.
Lori leaned back in her chair. “Look, Mom loves you, and she doesn’t want to hurt your feelings. She asked me not to talk about any of this, but she can tell--we can all tell--that you’re hiding something.”
He swayed a little, shifting in his chair. “So she’s leaving me?”
“She’s not leaving anyone. She’s thinking about staying with me until you straighten out your act.”
“Lori. There is something that has troubled me since I was a child.”
“Well, then deal with it.”
“It’s called the Rat King.”
She held her palms up and out to show that he’d, once again, proven a disappointment. To show that he’d, once again, given her nothing to work with.
“Never mind,” said Aram. “I don’t like your methods, but you are right. It is time for change. Lori, I know that you think I have been bad to your mother, but I do love her. I am there for her every day in a way that no one else can be.”
“It’s not just a matter of being there. Do you understand that Mom is dying?”
“She’s not dying. You always have to be so dramatic. She’s waiting for a new kidney. If she’s good about maintaining her body and taking proper medication, then she’ll stay healthy until she gets a new one.”
“You act like this is one of your engineering problems.”
“And you act like this is one of your advertising campaigns. One grand gesture after another. I wonder if drama will make your mother healthy?”
“And furthermore,” he crossed his arms over his chest, “I have accepted your challenge. I will deal with this issue. I will solve this problem, so leave me be.”
She put two fingers over her lips for a moment, as though she was smoking an invisible cigarette and suddenly asked, “But what’s this Rat King thing?”
What was the Rat King? His childhood come back to claim him? His ticket to another life? His problem? His solution? But Lori’s computer chimed again, reminding her that she was late for her meeting. “Can you find your way out?” she asked before he went.
After, he behaved so he wouldn’t cause Sevart any more stress. He was agreeable. He tried to be cheerful about things. He did not know how to broach the topic of her moving out, so he didn’t. Each night, after she fell asleep, he would brew himself a cup of Turkish coffee, make sure the mystic blade was still in its place, and then go up on the roof and wait. Three, four, five nights running. It was generally cold up there, miserable. One night he found a half-drunk college student who mumbled some sort of incoherent apology and left. Another night, he stood in cold rain, shivering like a dumb animal for an hour before giving up. By the fifth night, it was getting to him. Dark bags formed under his eyes, and he was groggy. During Sevart’s dialysis sessions, he would start awake with no memory of having fallen asleep. It was on the sixth day that he opened his sock drawer, looked under the paper liner at the bottom and studied the ticket to Las Vegas. Then he understood where and when he would see the Rat King next. He understood how it would end.
When the time came, he folded back into the fourth dimension, the world unwrapping like the foil from around a candy bar, took his magic blade, and headed back to the roof. There he attempted the spell for flying. He hadn’t tried it since he was eight, but he was heartened by the fact that the fourth dimension had worked so well. He took a deep breath, raised his arms above his head and spoke the old words, and then he dove up into the night sky. Three, four feet. He pushed up until he was sure that he was indeed flying. A shiver of excitement passed through him, and he took a quick look around until he spotted a line of planes, which he followed toward the airport in East Boston.
When he got close enough to the Air West terminals, he saw the Rat King. The King was wearing a blue baggage-handler uniform, a comically large pair of orange ear protectors perched on his head. He was busy loading luggage onto a truck, sometimes stopping to inspect tags. Aram lowered himself quietly until he was levitating maybe an inch or two above the ground. “You!” he yelled at the King, but the King didn’t turn around.
For a second, Aram considered stabbing the Rat King in the back--it would have been easy enough--but he knew that wasn’t how it worked, so he moved in closer and yelled again, and when the Rat King still didn’t look up, he sighed in disgust and tapped him on the shoulder.
The Rat King leapt nearly four feet in the air and landed on top of the baggage cart. “Aram! You nearly scared the soul from my body!” He climbed back down and took off his ear protectors. “You’re flying! I didn’t know that you still remembered how.”
“You have to go.”
“No, you have to go. Las Vegas awaits. Fun in the sun, so they say! Do you have your ticket?”
Aram pulled out the mystic blade. It glinted silver and white against the blinking runway lights. Still not allowing his feet to touch ground, he leveled the tip of the blade directly at the Rat King’s nose. “You don’t understand, King Rat. I want you gone. I have a family to take care of, and we have too many problems already without you hanging around and causing more.”
The Rat King smiled, brilliant and sinister, and suddenly there was a war saber in each of his claws. Aram had forgotten that the Rat King often fought with both hands. The King advanced, spinning his sabers, one after the other, in a series of lightning-quick thrusts and slashes that sent Aram sprawling backward. Aram briefly considered fleeing, but it was too late for that; he took advantage of the distance between them to fly up and backward, and the Rat King followed at an alarming speed, skittering on all fours. Aram landed on the wing of a plane that was taxiing up the runway. He hoped the plane’s movement might throw the King off his guard. Through tiny portholes, he could see the passengers making final phone calls before takeoff, strapping in, chatting with one another. None of them took any notice of him--certainly an effect of the Rat King’s invisibility. Then the Rat King hurled himself up onto the wing and came after Aram with everything--sabers, claws, fangs. Aram moved and dodged in ways that he had not since he was a small child. Yes, the magic was back, he could feel it.
And they fought. They danced, weaved and attacked. Aram’s glasses fell off, but he didn’t need them anymore. The crash of their blades sent showers of sparks arcing across the plane as it picked up speed, turned on its jets and hurled itself off the earth. As they fought--it was all so impossible--Aram felt himself growing younger. Long-lost vitality poured from a renewed heart into lean, strong limbs. And the Rat King too seemed to lose weight. His black eyes shone and his fur took on a youthful glow.
They fought on beyond the elevation where they should no longer have been able to breathe. Beyond the elevation where they should have frozen to death. And when the plane reached cruising altitude, Aram stepped off into upper atmosphere. “Come on Rat King--if you can fly.”
The Rat King laughed at him. “I have a few tricks of my own, Aram,” he called back. And he too stepped off the plane. At first he fell, and Aram hoped that the Rat King had made some stupid mistake, that he might get off the hook easily, but he could see the Rat King beginning to bob back up from below. What’s more, the King seemed to be expanding like a bubble. Aram held a defensive crouch, not sure what to expect; this was trick he hadn’t seen before.
The Rat King seemed to unfold himself and his body took on the shape of a furry zeppelin, his arms and legs tiny vestiges on a super-fat body, one that retained some vague semblance to his old shape. And by the time he reached Aram, the King was huge. Fifty, sixty meters long. His mouth opened, whale-like, to swallow Aram, and it was all Aram could do to dive down. The zeppelin-beast came after him, and he fell down toward earth as fast as he could. Aram could feel himself getting dizzy. Rising drafts tore at him. He felt like he might lose consciousness, but there was nothing else he could do. He could feel the Rat King’s breath, amplified a hundred times, over his shoulders.
The enormous maw came crashing down and suddenly Aram was inside the blackness of the King’s mouth. He landed against something soft and wet. There was an oppressive humidity and the smell was painfully rotten. Cursing, Aram raised the mystic blade over his head and brought it down as hard as he could into the flesh--tongue, gums, whatever it was--near him and he held on as the mouth opened in a deep roar and there was movement, a rush of air trying to suck him down into the belly of the beast. He was covered in saliva and the floor he stood on shook and vibrated. He thought his shoulders might dislocate, but he held on.
Then there was light, the mouth reopening, and he took his chance and dove back out. He flew back in a half-circle, passing below the Rat King’s chin until he could view the dingy grey underbelly. And he held his sword up and cut as he flew.
He heard the Rat King roar and at first he assumed it was a scream of pain, but he quickly understood that it was laughter. “You idiot,” Aram hissed to himself. “It was trap, and you fell for it.”
Almost on cue, out of the Rat King’s rent flesh fell dozens of shadowy creatures. Aram turned to confront them. The things, he realized, were shaped a lot like the Rat King, but without feature. They seemed to be made of shadow, or maybe fog. And now the Rat-zeppelin seemed to split open of its own accord, calving a storm of the shadow beasts, and they swarmed toward Aram, but here the Rat King had committed a small error. Aram had seen the Shadow Army before. He’d fought them in a pharaoh’s tomb, and he knew they were susceptible to fire. He held his mystic blade high, and it glowed a deep golden-red as it caught the moon and starlight. The light become a flame and he lunged forward.
With icy claws and teeth, the Shadow Army ripped at his arms and legs. He responded by flying, spinning and weaving. He remembered a special way of wielding the sword. He spun the blade quickly, and it became a superheated blur. He blinded their shadowy eyes. He decapitated, hacked off limbs and evaporated entire shadow beasts with arcs of flame.
He swung and fought until his limbs grew numb, until he vision swam, until he couldn’t think, but there were hundreds, maybe thousands, and they continued to dive down on him, pushing him toward the earth. And when they’d driven him to the ground, pain crawled up and around his body. He barely held it together, and he retreated until he was leaning against a boulder. He fought with just one hand because the other was too sore and swollen to move.
Somehow he killed the last shadow beast, he wasn’t sure how he’d done it. He could hear faint applause. The Rat King, now unhurt and intact, stood not twenty feet away. “Well, you did a fine job, Aram. I have to admit it’s like old times. I did not think that you had it in you to defeat the Shadow Army.”
Realizing he couldn’t stand, Aram crawled toward the Rat King. He spat violently, trying to clear his throat.
The Rat King looked down on him. “You know Aram, it’s funny, but I had this idea when I saw you watching the television. Do you want to know what the idea was? Since you’re in no shape to ask, I’ll tell you. It suddenly occurred to me that, in fifty years of mortal combat, I’ve never tried one of these.” He held up a chrome automatic pistol. “Can you imagine, all these decades, and I’ve never tried a gun before?” As Aram approached, he aimed carefully at Aram’s skull. “Do you see flashes of your life going through your head? I know I saw mine when the time came.”
Aram thought that he might see glimpses of his life: his parents, Sevart, Lori maybe, except that he was simply too exhausted and too consumed with reaching the Rat King before he pulled the trigger.
Spent as he was, Aram wondered if he would start seeing flashes from his life: memories of his parents, Sevart, Lori maybe, but none of things came to him. The only thing on his mind was the compulsion to drag himself closer to the Rat King who waited patiently.
“You really should have taken the trip to Las Vegas, Aram," The Rat King said. You could have had a whole new life. Some young blond divorcée on your arm. You could have been free of your burdens. It’s just... so... sad.” And the Rat King really did seem sad when he pulled the trigger.
For a second, nothing happened, and then Aram sat up on his knees and thrust the mystic blade into the Rat King’s belly. He pushed it in deep, until the Rat King’s hot blood poured onto his hands and down his shirt. The Rat King’s countenance paled; once more, he was robbed of a sure victory. Aram could see the King’s eyes slowly sinking back into his skull. Again, the King pulled the trigger and, again, nothing happened. “You have to release the safety,” Aram croaked in a hoarse whisper.
The Rat King managed a faint, pained grin as he fell away to the ground. Aram laid his face against the King’s hot fur and rested. Not because he wanted to, but because he could no longer move. He understood that this was all simultaneously real and unreal. He knew that he’d nearly died, and also that his body was tucked, secure and warm, in a bed some thousand miles away. He closed his eyes and a third possibility, a third place, came to him: he and the Rat King might be figures in one of Sevart’s fantastical drawings, sketchy, cartoony and larger than life. Their faces overrepresented in bold lines. A man lying on the corpse of a rat man in a bright green field under a shiny black sky, a pool of pastel red blood, and when he woke--when he woke for real in his bed in Boston--his back burned, his arms and legs felt like jelly and his legs as though they were made of lead--he opened his eyes and looked to his wife. “Don’t leave me.”
“No,” she whispered back. “No, I won’t.” Was she awake? Her eyes were closed. Was she sleeptalking? It didn’t matter, he figured, and he gently held her shoulders and fell back into a dreamless sleep.
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