Part 1, Chapter 2
There won't be an issue of Less Than Pulp today. I'm finishing up a story that's due in a day, and I need to devote all my time to it because I predictably procrastinated. In place of the regularly scheduled newsletter, here's another chapter of Digital Darkness.
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“Bro, what the fuck?” The boy with the face tattoos sat up, rubbing the back of his head. His eyes were dark as twin coals. One hand flexed into a fist. The other padded the back of his jeans around the waistband. When he spotted the others, his eyes widened. “Seriously,” he said, “what the fuck?”
The song continued, a minor-key distorted piece like vaporwave gone wrong. Scattered piano notes rained across a sustained fuzzy drone. The scale warped as it descended. Vanessa still couldn’t make out the words. They might have been in another language, something dead or simply gibberish. But that was the least of her troubles, she thought, casting a glance at the approaching rats. They’d nearly doubled in number. Some were the size of small dogs.
The woman in the loud colors slowly stood, eyes darting back and forth. “What’s going on?” she asked. “Who are you people?”
The Karen stood, head on a swivel, her mouth twisted with irritation. Her purse dangled at her side from a white-knuckled fist.
“What’s that awful noise?” she said. Her voice was a sharp groan that matched her expression. She sounded just like Vanessa imagined she’d sound. Vanessa half-expected her to ask for the manager.
The professor put on his glasses and peered out a broken window. Spotting the rats, he said, “I think we have bigger problems.”
“What do you mean?” the Karen asked, pink-faced and mean-mugging the professor.
Werth stood and marched to the professor’s side. The back of his cop uniform was untucked and rumpled. Handcuffs hung loosely from his belt. They were the only item not missing. He gazed out the window, jaw set tight, saying nothing. He frowned at the rats and scanned the room. He glared when he spotted the teenager. It was as if he recognized the boy.
“You have something to do with this?”
The teenager coughed out a dry laugh. “How crafty you think I am? And why would I wanna drag all your asses into some weird ice cream shop? Did you take my strap?”
Werth padded his empty holster. His glare deepened. “Did you take mine?”
“Wanna search me, big boy?” the teenager asked, lifting his shirt, exposing a belly as inked as his arms and face. Vanessa wondered how someone so young could have so many tattoos, but it was a passing thought.
“This is accomplishing nothing,” she said. “We have to get away from those rats.”
The teen lowered his shirt and joined her at the door. There were nearly three hundred of the rodents now, and they were much closer. Some were bloated and misshapen by tumors, others by gluttony. She didn’t want to think about what they’d eaten.
“Rats!?” Karen exclaimed. “What do you—” she finally looked out the nearest window and gasped, shooting her hand over her mouth. “Oh, my,” she said, more quietly than her previous expressions.
“Maybe they won’t do anything,” the woman in the loud colors said. “If we leave them alone, they’ll—”
“Or they could be rabid or something,” the cop said. He felt his holster again, as if his weapon would have miraculously reappeared. “Shit.”
“They do seem to be headed our way,” the professor said, joining Vanessa at the door. “What do you think’s attracting them?”
“We’ll never keep ’em out with these broken windows,” Karen moaned.
“Maybe we can board them up somehow,” Werth said.
“With what?” Karen asked, gesturing to the empty room.
Werth followed her gesture and scanned the room, hands clenched into fists. Seeing nothing usable, he looked down and spat out a curse. The song continued, warbly vocals going lo-fi while the rest of the sounds swelled to a crescendo. The near-three-hundred rats marched on the ice cream parlor, some baring jagged teeth, orange with plaque.
“Gotta be the music,” Vanessa said.
“What?” Karen said, this time directing her ire toward Vanessa.
“It’s gotta be the music,” Vanessa said. “Attracting them, I mean.”
“But why?” the professor asked.
“Doesn’t matter,” she said. “We gotta stop it. Maybe that will stop them.”
The rats scuttled closer. Vanessa could hear them now, their collective squeaks, their claws scraping pavement. Even in the daylight, their eyes shone red. She could smell them too, a two-tone stench of wet earth and rotting meat.
“How?” Werth asked.
“There’s gotta be some kind of receiver or something,” the professor said. “Maybe it’s somewhere in here.”
He ran to the counter and climbed over. Werth and the woman in the loud colors joined him. Karen set down her purse and picked up a hunk of drywall. She hurled it at the oncoming rodents.
“Leave us alone, you filthy animals!” she yelled.
The drywall lighted among the mischief’s ranks and kicked up a small cloud of dust. The rats ignored it and kept coming. Her offensive had offered no deterrent. She cried out and kicked the wall. She yelped again, this time crouching to hold her throbbing foot.
Werth and the professor shuffled through shelves and drawers behind the counter. The woman in the loud colors had ducked out of sight. The closest rats were twenty feet out. Maybe even closer. The song changed: all but the vocals and a sharp whine that might have been a distorted violin note dropped out. The singer uttered one word, still in their dead language, and let it echo until it faded before uttering another. The rats were crawling on top of each other to get at the terrified strangers. Fifteen feet and they’d be in the building.
“You guys find anything?” Vanessa asked.
“Does it fucking look like it?” Werth snapped.
“There’s nothing here,” the professor said.
“Oh God!” Karen cried. She picked up her purse and held it to her chest the way a child would hug a stuffed animal. “Oh, my sweet Jesus.”
The woman in the loud colors peeked over the top of the counter and ducked back down. Werth bumped into her. His whole face twisted into an ugly expression of rage. With the black eye, it looked even more menacing.
“Outta my way!” he shouted and shoved her aside.
“Hey, take it easy on her, man,” Vanessa said.
“Shut up,” he said. With a grunt of frustration, he grabbed the vintage cash register and pulled it off the opposite counter. Another cry and he flung it through the window. With a crash, some of its keys fell out and clattered across the ground like too many dice carelessly tossed by a toddler. The bulky projectile managed to flatten some of the rats, spattering dark blood and rancid-looking entrails, but the rest moved on, unaffected by the losses in their ranks. Their squeaks were louder now at this distance. They sounded like part of the song, three hundred backup singers from hell.
Twelve feet and they’d reach the building.
“Hey, look,” the teenager said and pointed.
Vanessa followed his gaze. He was pointing at the claw machine. She stared at him, shaking her head, not understanding.
“Try the claw,” he said. “Worth a shot.”
“How do we play it?”
The teenager pointed at Karen. “That bitch got money.”
“Excuse me, young man?” Karen said, tightening her hold on the purse.
“We have to try something,” Vanessa said.
“But those things are impossible to win!” Karen yelled. “Besides, do you even know what you’re looking for?”
Vanessa looked closer. One of the stuffed animals caught her eye among the others.
“Yes, the rat!” she said. A three-inch slice in its belly had been sewn with black thread.
“Hell yeah,” the teenager said. “Hand over that body bag you call a purse.”
“Do it,” Werth said before Karen even had a chance to hesitate.
The professor and the loudly dressed woman watched the scene unfold. The rats were less than ten feet away.
“Please,” Vanessa said, making eye contact with Karen.
Karen pinched her lips together and thrust the purse in the teenager’s waiting hands. He snatched it, and he and Vanessa ran for the claw machine.
“What’s your name?” she asked him.
“Vanessa. Are you any good at these things?”
“About to find out,” he said.
Kayson dropped a quarter in the coin slot, and Vanessa prayed the machine had power. She wasn’t hopeful, but to her and everyone else’s surprise, it lit up. Kayson took the joystick and positioned the claw above the stuffed rat. He depressed the red trigger. The claw lowered, closed around the rat’s pink arm, but it slipped loose and ascended empty.
“Damn,” Vanessa said.
Kayson dropped another coin in the slot. The machine lit up again, and he took the joystick. Outside, the rats were seven feet from the parlor’s walls.
The professor turned to the loudly dressed woman. “Come on,” he said and headed for the door. She stood in place, hesitating. He grabbed the doorknob and pulled it shut. “Help me hold it,” he said.
She nodded and leapt the counter to join him at the door.
“But the windows,” Karen said. “What about the windows?
Kayson lowered the claw, it closed around the air above the rat’s head.
“Want me to try?” Vanessa asked.
Kayson shook his head and inserted another quarter. He was chewing his lip now, fully immersed on his task. Werth jumped the counter and stomped toward one of the windows. He grabbed a shard of glass and snapped it out of the frame.
“One of them gets too close …” He mimed stabbing the air.
Vanessa didn’t think such a method would prove effective for long. She returned her attention to Kayson and the game.
The claw descended and closed around the rat’s head.
“Yes!” she said and watched it rise, unable or unwilling to check the progress of the rats outside. The claw got halfway up, and the rat tumbled out. “Oh, come on!” she hollered.
“Fuck it,” Kayson said.
He reared back a fist and struck the glass. It didn’t give at all. He grimaced against the pain but leaned back to try again. She put a hand on his shoulder.
“At least protect your hand with something,” she said.
He looked at her, confused, then nodded. He took off his shirt and wrapped his fist in it. Thumps against the door drew her attention. The rats had reached the building. Vanessa wondered how long the professor and the loudly dressed woman could hold them off. And if they could, how long before the rats noticed the windows?
Kayson punched the glass. It vibrated in its frame but showed no sign of breaking.
“Fuck!” he cried and punched it again. No give.
The plink of more glass shifting drew Vanessa’s attention. Some of the rats had found the windows and were squirming their way inside.
“No-no-no-no-no,” Karen whimpered, covering her mouth with both hands and backing against the counter. Tears glimmered in her eyes, and her face flushed pink.
In that moment, Vanessa felt a flash of remorse for typecasting this poor woman. Maybe she was a Karen, entitled and self-centered, or maybe she wasn’t, but no matter who she was, she didn’t deserve to die, most certainly not like this. None of them did. This woman, whose name probably wasn’t Karen, likely had kids who she loved, who loved her. She was someone’s child or once had been. This latter fact was true of them all. The cruelty of this moment made Vanessa want to scream, but something held her back. Instead of bellowing in terror, she dug her nails into her palms. The biting pain grounded her, and she turned back to Kayson and the claw machine.
He was raining hammerfists on the glass now, his face pulled tight with desperation and fear-borne rage. She began to batter the glass herself. It might be shatterproof, but maybe they could knock it out of its frame. Behind them, the rats were forcing open the door, causing the professor and the loudly dressed woman to backpedal, holding the door in futility. Werth slashed at the rats spilling through the shattered windows. The glass on the machine showed no sign of give.
“Goddamn it!” Kayson hollered.
He punched the air and froze when he saw the room filling with rats.
“Try the claw again,” Vanessa said.
He faced her, hardened his expression, and nodded. Vanessa kicked a nearby rat as Kayson dropped a coin in the slot. The rodent tumbled three times and knocked into one of its compadres. They both found their feet, locked her in their crimson gazes, and scampered for her.
“Hurry,” she said through gritted teeth.
Her attention flicked between the descending claw and the approaching rats. Three others had joined the two approaching her. Others were noticing her and Kayson too. No way she could hold off more than five or six, at least not without getting bitten or scratched. Neither of those things held appeal. She remembered Werth’s comment about rabies. God only knew what diseases these creatures carried. Her subconscious gifted her with a memory of learning how the black plague had spread and devastated Europe in the Middle Ages, fleas from the backs of creatures like these.
God, what if this is some bioterror experiment?
The claw lifted the stuffed rat and carried it to the dispensary. The live rats were nearly upon her, upon them all. Karen and Werth, the professor and the woman in loud clothes had all gathered atop the counter. But the height wouldn’t deter the rodents forever.
“Help me push this thing over,” Vanessa said, gesturing to the claw machine.
Kayson nodded and they each took a side. They pushed it away from the wall and tipped it. It crashed to the floor, smashing at least a half dozen rats beneath it. The combined sound of squished organs and shattered bones would’ve sickened her, but adrenaline kept her stomach strong. She and Kayson climbed atop the claw machine to buy themselves some time. He held the stuffed rat while she used her nails to undo the sewing.
The others on the counter gathered tightly. Werth stood in front of them, still swinging his shard of glass at any rat that got too close. The loudly dressed woman stomped on one, impaling its skull with a banana-colored high heel.
Vanessa pulled the thread. The stuffed rat’s torso opened, revealing a black music player.
“Hell yeah,” Kayson said.
Vanessa grabbed the sleek device and woke up its monitor. The song’s title, a series of random numbers and letters mashed together, rolled across the screen. She found the pause button and pressed it.
Stay tuned for Chapter 3, or you can pick up the book in its entirety here.
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