Peter Tieryas Liu
"I'm going to lose the election," said Mayor Douglas Kwan, "unless I come up with something brand-new. Every piece of legislation I introduce gets a beat-down."
Lying in a motel that charged forty-two bucks a night, he hated the buzz of halogens and their sterile gleam. But it was cheap and the most convenient place to meet the naked red-head lying next to him. Lanky and tall, with ribs like a baseball mitt, she was listening but not very amused. She did little to hide the boredom in her dull gray eyes.
"Your time's almost up," she replied.
"You don't mind fucking, but you hate conversation?"
She shook her head. "I just hate politics, especially the small-town kind."
"I have bigger things in mind, Kathy. I've been talking to the state chair, and there's a seat opening for the district congress. Old Craven is retiring with a weak heart."
Kathy yawned indifferently. Noticed a pair of rats running along the wall.
"Ain't ever made a difference who's in charge," she said. "I'd be happy if someone could just get rid of all the rats in Antarsia."
He left a couple of hundred-dollar bills by the bed stand before exiting the motel room to the parking lot and strutting to his BMW.
Antarsia, named by its founder who read H.P. Lovecraft and concocted a tale about his 'visit' to the Antarctic, had a population of 4,298. Tim Sunders lied his way into millions, raving about lost cities buried under a Triassic layer of flora and lava. He promised troves of treasure if only he could get the funding to go back—and he got it. The only thing that kept him from fleeing with his fortunes was his getting shot stealing twenty penguins from a traveling zoo.
His son, Mark, inherited the money, which had been secretly funneled to him. Mark founded Antarsia as a tribute to his father, who had dreamt of an organic metropolis. Every building was a fractal enslaved, molded into a cacophony of mortar and bricks. Mark Sunders invited all his father's compatriots to town, half of whom were Asian, a haven for those escaping racial prejudice in the early half of the 20th century. Antarsia became known for its surreal architecture and too many rats. The rat part came about because of a famous entrepreneur, Wang Toufa, who tried to find the cures for baldness and erectile dysfunction, convinced the two were connected. Thousands of rats were shipped in for experimentation. When the scientists failed and the lab was forced to shut down, Toufa freed all the rats. The thousands multiplied into millions and the town became a playground for rodents. Other than curious tourists or travelers who got lost, no one new ever came to town. Except for the new town hooker, Kathy Chao, and a failed film director, Larry Chao.
There was no relation between the two. But Larry Chao owned a house with a back unit, and he had sublet it to Kathy Chao for the past year. Larry was in his late 30s, slightly balding, plain Chinese face, with a potbelly. He watched horror films obsessively, always without sound. "The difference between horror and comedy lies solely in the sound," he liked to say.
Kathy's head was shaved bald and she had over thirty wigs. She was discreet, kept fit through continual workouts on her Wii fit board, and had memorized the entire Kama Sutra. When she moved in, Larry asked what she did for a living.
"I'm a professional escort. Things have been tough in Vegas, lots of girls turning tricks since the economy took a nosedive. I figured I won't get much competition here."
"I don't want clients back at your place."
"Neither do I. They fork up for the motel room. Are you religious?"
"Just don't want you to try to convert me. Can't tell you how many times people have tried."
"I won't try to change you."
"I hope you mean that. I've been through two divorces and a hundred failed relationships because people didn't mean it."
Larry Chao liked to take walks after dinner. This time when he got back, he saw a flier on his doorknob that read, Mayor Doug Kwan has officially signed the rat termination decree into law. Get involved by, and there was a website, an email address, a Twitter link, and a phone number. He read over the bullet points outlining the costs to tourism, the risk of disease, historical trivia related to plagues they'd caused.
Kathy was sunbathing in her bikini.
"What is this?" Larry asked.
"Doug's trying to get re-elected," she replied.
"What do you mean?"
"It's a 'kill all the rats' law. You missed the hoopla at the signing. I've never seen so many people so excited about a new law."
Larry stared at the flier, went back inside. A couple of rats scurried along the walls as he popped in a DVD of The Exorcist.
The rats were monstrosities, leery, suspicious, clever with oblong bodies. They'd started out as lab brown rats, mixed with the wildlife and subjected to chemical induction, mutating into mini-beasts. They had red, black, brown, and yellow eyes. Some were bushy, others bald. Their bodies elongated as they scurried along the walls, aggregating in herds, their nimble pink toes clawing wool carpets.
Larry always knew leftovers would be gone the next day if he didn't lock them up in his fridge. One morning, he found three rats had infiltrated his fridge. It took a whole day to find the opening and close it up. "I hate these fucking rats!" he exclaimed.
It was a shared opinion. No one had been impervious to their raids, food pantries being emptied of their contents overnight. One popular rumor was that the severe flu of last year (claiming four lives) had been spread by the rats. The Office of Antarsia Welfare sent out eighty-two volunteers to drop off rat poison and paraphernalia regarding 'humane ways to end the suffering of rodentia.' Tammy Kim, a retiree in her 70s, was struggling with dwindling Medicare and throbbing joint pain when she went to see Larry.
Larry thanked her for the cereal pellets and liquid poison.
"Will you be attending the conference tonight?" she asked.
"I'm filming it for the city," Larry replied.
From the lens, Larry could see a mountain of dead rats and a blazing fire. Crowds were swarming the totem pole of corpses and there was a frenetic quality about their chanting. Their fists waved fanatically; they marched in synchronicity. Ernest Lai, who hadn't been able to find work in two years, soundly denounced the hordes of rats. Yoona Chen, who'd failed miserably in her attempt to become a famous singer, mutilated rats and chopped wood tirelessly for the fire. Tim Yan, whose dream of starting a business died the day he found out his girlfriend was pregnant, demanded a new life for future generations.
In the wee hours of the night, Larry spliced together a first cut. He'd muted the sound when he heard a knock. Kathy was standing there, reeking of alcohol. "My toilet's broken," she said. Part of her cheek was swollen red.
"You all right?" Larry asked.
She ignored his question and looked at his projector. "You watching a war flick?"
"Footage from today's rat burning," Larry replied.
She said, "Play it."
"It's kind of scary," she said.
"I'll go see what's wrong with your toilet." He went to her unit, saw the toilet was filled with vomit and blood. He unclogged it and went back home. Kathy had passed out on his sofa. He turned off the projector and went to sleep on his bed.
He dreamed of rats. One named Zhucheng lost her tail—a pink, gnarled tube with a texture like a gizzard. She was crying a shrill homily and there were flags with emblems of rat ears. He realized all rats were psychics with more understanding of humans than humans themselves—a homeopathic conglomeration of half-defunct diseases. Telepathy is my disease, Zhucheng screamed. I know you're planning our mass extermination!
I'm not! Larry Chao tried to protest. But he was swimming naked in rat fur. Some got up his ass, which made it itch, and he fell off his bed, startling awake. He went to the living room. Kathy was watching the movie with the sappy trumpet music blasting.
"You should make propaganda films," she said. "It's inspiring."
He turned to her. "You serious?"
"This movie has me excited to kill rats."
Larry shut off the projector. "The toilet's fixed. You should get going."
She nodded. "Thanks for letting me crash."
Mayor Doug Kwan spent his evenings perusing a thesaurus and reading Shel Silverstein to his plants. His condo, by no means luxurious, was spacious with a view of downtown Antarsia. He was restless, tossing in his bed. The usual solution, porn, didn't alleviate his tension, and his new girlfriend refused contact on case nights. He invited Kathy over. They fucked aggressively three times.
"You're sprightly tonight," Kathy muttered. "What'd you have for dinner?"
"Is that some French dish?"
He smirked. "An appetizer."
He always got talkative after making love. And he could barely contain himself, listing about fifty media sources that wanted to interview him. "Online polls have my rating at an all-time high. CNN just posted an interview, and old Craven called me for lunch next week."
She untangled her twirled hair. "Does this mean you can forget about your daddy now?"
Doug bristled. "Fifteen years honey, all I heard were backhand jokes. How's your daddy? Falling in love with some more 12-year-old girls?"
"You should have told them to fuck off."
"Being a good politician means you don't need to say a single fucking word and they shut up."
"You're a public servant, not a mobster," Kathy pointed out.
"Only difference is the mobsters don't have the mob behind them anymore," Doug said.
He did five different stretches for his lower back, waving his legs around like a contortionist. "You want me to stay the night?" Kathy asked.
"Will you ever let a man make an honest woman out of you?"
"It's a contradiction putting man and honest in the same sentence," she replied.
"You'll let the first honest man kiss you then?"
"I don't ever kiss anyone, honest or not."
He pressed his hip up against his abdomen. "Do you ever stretch?"
"I'm naturally limber."
"Like a cat?"
She shook her head. "I hate cats. They're too moody."
"I'm inducting a hundred cats into our campaign."
"They'll help people catch rats."
"Where do you think this is going to take you?"
"Congress," he stated.
As she was leaving, he handed her an extra thousand dollars. "I'm starting to go steady with a good girl, don't wanna ruin things… Thanks for the good times babe." She realized it was her severance pay.
The next week was unusual for Kathy. No clients called. She lingered around home, caught up on some DVDs, and was surprised to hear Larry in a screaming match with an old Asian woman.
"— is part of a city-wide initiative. You can't just refuse."
"I know," Larry shrugged. "But this is my house."
"It's against the law to keep rats alive!"
Kathy went back to her room, turned on the news. Mayor Doug Kwan was being interviewed about his campaign. "We have 98% compliance and almost 87% decrease in the rat populati—" Flipped the channel, got tired of soaps. Saw Larry sitting on his porch with his HD camera, sipping a beer. "Want one?" he asked.
They shared a few.
"You ever gonna start that film you're always talking about?" she asked.
He shrugged. "I've been talking about that movie for five years now."
"What's stopping you?"
"My last movie, 58 Random Deaths and Unrequited Love, cost me fifty grand, my marriage, and my life savings. It didn't get accepted by a single film festival and no one saw it except for the crew," he said with a mirthless smile.
"Sorry, didn't mean to probe."
He waved it off. "You didn't always want to do what you do."
"I wanted to be a race car driver. Then an actress. The kind of acting I got to do wasn't the kind I started out wanting to do. I have a lot of parts of my past most people would consider shady."
"We all have skeletons."
"Ones I'd kill for," Larry answered. "You?"
"I don't know if any secret is worth killing for… You always want to be a director?"
"I wanted to be a chef. But I was allergic to so many different types of food, it was impossible."
"Is that why you eat Taco Bell almost every day?" Kathy asked.
"I wondered why we had so few rats in our home. Rats are pretty picky about their food."
Larry snickered. "You mean they don't like Mexican pizzas?"
"They don't like poison in general."
Larry twisted his lips. "Twenty dead rats say they can't tell the difference."
"You bugged by a couple of dead rats?"
"I'm bugged by a couple of dead anything," he replied.
Four days later, Officer Yu came by.
"Larry," he greeted him.
"What's up boss?"
Yu smiled heartily. "There've been complaints that you haven't been complying with ordinance 7.822c."
"It's the 'kill the rats' law," Yu informed him.
"If it's the killing that bothers you, we have extermination companies that'll take care of it. The city'll put you up in a local hostel for three nights and—"
"I've already been told," Larry said. "I can't comply."
Yu tilted his head, his brows raised. "Why not?"
"I don't want to."
Yu clutched his guard stick, rubbed the sole of his boots on the carpet. "Larry, be reasonable. This is for the be—"
"Sorry," Larry cut him off. "I've made up my mind."
Yu tipped his hat and said, "We'll talk more later."
Three hours later, Yu returned with eight officers. It got the notice of some national media who had come to cover the story about Mayor Doug Kwan.
"What's going on?" one journalist asked another.
"Some guy's protesting the rat law."
The presence of the media unnerved police chief Tom Kong. "We have to show we're not pushovers just because we're police in a small town," he told his officers. "Advise Larry of his rights, but if he doesn't comply, arrest him."
When the officers knocked on his door, Larry answered with a camera in hand.
"Either you'll comply with the law, or we'll have to put you under arrest," Yu informed him.
"I'm sorry, but I can't obey this law," he answered, news cameras zooming in on him. A flurry of rats happened to stream out at the same time.
Officer Yu put the manacles on. Larry tried to avoid the rats and fell into Yu. Two officers, mistaking his action for an attack, wrestled him brutally to the ground. They dragged him to the police car, dirt smearing against his face, rats rushing out of the way.
Next day, the headlines read, Man arrested for refusing to murder pet mice. Never mind that they weren't his pets and they weren't mice either.
Doug screamed at the chief of police, "Fine him, give him a citation, but don't arrest him on national television!"
He went to see Larry personally.
"I'm sorry the officers got overzealous," Doug told Larry.
"It's all right."
"You're free to go."
Larry startled. Was about to say something but stopped, a skeptical gleam overtaking his eyes. "Thanks for letting me out," he said.
When Kathy came by to see Larry, he was working feverishly on editing digital footage of rats.
"What's that?" she asked.
He turned to her, saw she was wearing a blonde wig. "I'm making movie clips to post online. Did you know most rat poisons are anticoagulants? The rats bleed internally for a week until they die of exhaustion, shock, and pain."
"I never thought it was comfortable…" Three rats were sniffing around the carpet. "They don't repulse you?"
Larry shook his head, glanced over. "You?"
"I remember seeing them in the subways and they'd be running along the rails. I was just a kid, but they terrified me. I guess I got used to them after I moved here."
"Even though they're filthy, pathogenic, and creepy?"
"Sounds like my clients," Kathy muttered with a dry laugh. "Any time I eat on the bed, they come crawling. I have to chase 'em off."
"The rats or your clients?"
She gave a smartass look and said, "A couple times, I was sleeping and about ten of them jumped on the bed. I was scared shitless."
"They keep the bed warm."
"I'd rather die than share my bed with rats."
"There's worse things than death or sleeping with rats."
"I can't think of many… You need help with anything?"
"You still want to be an actress?"
They'd been working for a week straight. Larry said, "They used to use strychnine to kill rats. But during WWII, the Japanese took over the Asian countries where they grew it and Americans had to switch to phosphides."
"You're pretty OCD about this."
He laughed. "I studied that period like crazy. I started making movies because of old Japanese war films."
"What do you mean?"
"My junior high teacher showed us a war propaganda film the Japanese made to glorify their empire and convince other countries to join them. They massacred millions of Chinese. It made me sick. I mean, it was only 60-70 years ago when these armies were trying to wipe out entire races. I got drunk twice because I was so depressed."
"You got drunk in junior high?"
Larry's pupils dilated. "I started making movies to fight against things like that from ever happening again."
Kathy practiced her lines over and over. "First time I ever acted," she said, "I played a news reporter. My job was to fuck the quarterback I was interviewing. Those were crazy times. There's months I don't remember 'cause I was partying so much."
"When'd you stop making movies?"
"After my best friend killed herself."
"Oh, sorry—sorry for asking."
Kathy shook her head. "She fell in love with another star but he was gay and only fucked women for the pay. She hung herself after he turned her down ten times. I didn't understand, what was she thinking? I was supposed to act with him in an upcoming movie, but I just couldn't do it."
They watched the final cut together.
"You sure about that last part?" Kathy asked.
"I'm sure," Larry affirmed.
"But if someone calls you on it."
"I don't bluff."
Five rats watched from behind, sniffing all around.
"It's like they can smell it," Kathy said.
"Rats smell death."
"You don't sound too optimistic about your movie."
"No one gives a shit about rats. No one gives a shit about anyone." He lowered his head. "I just make dumb shit no one watches."
"The rats seem to be enjoying it."
Larry furrowed his brow.
"C'mon, let's post it on YouTube," Kathy said.
Doug had been stuck in meetings with the lieutenant mayor and several corporate sponsors. There'd been complaints about the recent spike in electrical bills. The roads on the east side of town had been in disarray since some bad rains a month back and there'd been heated discussion about the proposal to cut education spending in the arts. After he returned to his office, he had forty messages and a hundred emails to answer. But it was a skinny brunette with bulbous eyes that caught his eye. Claire Minford, assistant DA, closed the door and gave him a smooch.
"Things getting out of hand?" she asked.
"What do you mean?"
"Check your email."
He did, saw several emails from her with the subject line, Rodenticide.
"It's the most popular YouTube link for the past two days."
"You came here to tell me about a YouTube link?"
"It's a documentary condemning Antarsia's new law. Made by Larry Chao, the guy that got arrested last week. There's over a hundred thousand comments posted."
Doug hit play. He winced when he saw Kathy. She looked gorgeous, and the memory of her naked body warmed him. But the image cut to a rat being dissected, then a close-up of a rat's internal organs after being poisoned. The footage was graphic and her voice, chilling. After fifteen minutes of gag-inducing play, Larry Chao came on and said, "If this rat law isn't repealed, I'll kill myself by swallowing rat poison."
Doug blinked his eyes rapidly in disbelief. Checked his voicemails. A quarter were from animal rights groups, another half from journalists seeking comment.
"Get him to accept the law and it'll blow over," Claire suggested. "It'll be like it never happened."
She shrugged, unbuttoned her blouse. "Be creative."
"And if he doesn't listen?"
She lifted up a disk. "Use the information on this to destroy him. And make sure you have that whore locked away."
Is Kathy doing this to get back at me? Doug couldn't help but wonder. He stopped by Kathy's place. She was wearing a red wig. "You look great," he said.
"I don't see clients at home."
"That's not why I came," he replied.
"The movie. What is your boyfriend doing?"
"He's not my boyfriend," she said. "What do you want?"
"Are you doing this to get back at me?"
She snorted. "I'm a professional, Doug. I never take these things personally."
"Why are you doing it then?"
"I was bored and he needed help," she answered.
"Why is he doing this?"
He handed her a file. "Talk to him for me."
She looked at the file, opened up, saw the pictures, read through the text. Her eyes widened. "This…"
"Yeah," Doug said. "I suffered my whole life because of my dad. I don't wanna do it to him."
"I'll—I'll talk to him…" Her eyes became cold. "I guess this means I should start packing my bags too?"
He approached her, kissed her on the forehead. "You're a professional. There's no need."
Outside, Doug stumbled. His fingers were shaking. He wanted to rush back to Kathy's side. But he steeled himself. Drove away without looking back.
Larry read through the file three times. Kathy was watching his reaction.
"What do they want?" he asked.
"Retraction," she said. "And submission."
"What my parents did… this has no bearing on the present."
"Then it's true?"
"It was a long time ago, the…"
Kathy shook her head. "You don't have to explain… But it won't look good and it'll destroy any credibility you might have had."
Larry made a fist, wanting to punch something.
"It's an impasse," she said.
"No, it's a matter of will."
"What do you mean?"
"Everything in the world is about guts, how far you'll go to get what you believe in."
"No one cares about rat guts."
"I do," Larry said. He went to the kitchen, brought back a bag full of cereal pellets laced with rat poison.
"What are you doing?" Kathy asked.
"It's the only way the case won't suffer because of my past. If I keep my word and kill myself…"
"Don't be stupid!" Kathy exclaimed. "This isn't worth dying for."
"What is then?"
"You can't be serious."
"If enough people had the guts to stand up to tyrants, the world would be pretty different."
"Doug is no tyrant. He just wants power and fame."
"That's all tyrants… You want to hear something sad?"
"I think I'm watching it."
Larry sat down. Put his hand into the pellets. Kathy rushed towards him and tried to stop him. But he threw a handful into his mouth before she could prevent him.
"We have to get to the hospital!"
Larry laughed. "I'm doing this willingly."
He shook his head. "Because I believe it's right…"
She turned away, incredulous. She bit her lip till it bled so she wouldn't betray herself with a tear. "You're an idiot, Larry. This won't do anything."
"You're probably right. Born a failure, lived a failure, die a failure."
She called 911. "Stay up, I'm not gonna let you die."
But he was already coughing up blood and his face was wan.
Kathy blinked rapidly, her face weakening. She moved her lips close to his, about to kiss. He stopped her. "M-my lips… poison…" He started convulsing.
The ambulance arrived five minutes after he had passed away.
• • •
Hours later, Kathy was back in her room alone. There were thirteen missed calls from Doug. She shut off her phone. Noticed an army of rats running along the walls. She grabbed leftovers from her fridge, took off her wig, rubbed her scalp. Spotted a web camera she'd used for chatting, turned it on. Pointed it at her bed and stripped until she was naked. Her body had no hair. She lay down, covered herself with food. Within thirty minutes, she was swimming in a sea of rats.