Lady In The Drain
ABOUT THIS STORY: This was one of the last short stories I had written. It’s a few years old. I had found a web site that was advertising for stories to be submitted for an on-line book event. I had this idea kicking around a while and decided to sit down one day and write this story. It took almost three hours to write and I was pleased with the end results. I mailed it to the web site and never heard anything from them. A month before we left New York I got the story returned to me with a rejection letter. I was a little disappointed and half-expected it. You get that way when you get as many rejections as I have. I even drew a picture for the story. Unfortunately, the drawing is MIA so you’ll have to imagine what I was getting at. I wanted to a loose variation of the Nut Cracker story. Think of it as something like what might happen on the off season. It is not holiday oriented. I really don’t care for holiday pieces. But I was fascinated with the idea of a Rat King. But this is about his offspring.


The Shower: Steven Hanks


The lock to the front door stuck some. The man played with the key a little while he talked to and tried to make it look as if nothing was wrong. Larry just nodded in his usual solemn way.
       “So, like I was saying, three hundred a month, utilities included.” The landlord said. There was a shredded toothpick wedged in the corner of his mouth as he talked.
       The lock rattled and the key came free after some obvious effort. The desperation that flashed across the landlord’s face seemed like he was disarming a nuclear bomb and something had gone horribly wrong. Then the face was back to its pasty blank, vacant look. The landlord twisted the knob and the door sounded like a preserve seal on a jam jar popping open.
       “How long did you say the apartment was empty?” Larry observed.
       “Uh, about eight months. The last guy who lived here left all his stuff and we had to wait for the police—.” The man trailed off as he stepped into the apartment and found the string for the overhead light. In the harsh naked light Larry saw a look shine on that bland face as if he had remembered words spoke to him from someone more intelligent than he was. The landlord seemed as if he had said too much.
       “You were saying?” Larry pressed. He followed the overweight, balding, sweaty man into the ground floor apartment. The place had a musty gloom. Larry thought he could like the dwelling.
      

       “Aw.” The landlord waved the half-chewed toothpick in the air at Larry. “I’m just shooting the shit.” The man was quiet for a moment. There was a sense of something turning in the air and Larry thought it was gears from inside the man’s head there were seldom used. He let Larry walk deeper into the apartment.
       Larry inspected the large living room. It had a hardwood floor with a flat kirman in caramel patterned area rug in the main tract, with a matching scatter rug by the door they had tread over. An overstuffed brown upholstered polyester velvet sofa with a matching chair and ottoman covered the rug at the edges of the room. There was a basic varnished pine coffee table in front of the sofa. The style was dark and drab.
       “Nice furniture.” Larry complimented.
       “Yeah.” The landlord agreed with a sense of pride.
       The kitchen was off the living room. It was a small open area with an arch doorway. There was a newer looking GE refrigerator and stove with lots of cupboard space.
       On the other side of the living was the single bedroom. It held a Wal-Mart pine dresser and bare single bed and a tiny closet.
       Larry walked out of the bedroom and looked at the landlord. The fat man smiled with the toothpick dangling in his mouth. He wore a pit-stained navy blue T-shirt and baby blue polyester shorts and sandals with black socks. Larry tried not to stare at the uncoordinated man for very long. He noticed it was cooler in the apartment than the ninety degrees in the shade outside. There were two windows in the living room. Both were covered with heavy dark printed curtains.
       “It’s nice.” Larry finally told the landlord, nodding as if trying to convince himself of something.
       On the same wall as the kitchen, and immediately behind the front door, a place hidden when the door was opened was another small. It was smaller than the average door. Larry started for the door.
       “That’s the bathroom.” He heard from the heavy man behind him.
       Larry just nodded absently again and opened the door.
       The first thing that hit him was the smell of moisture. It was like a constant dampness permeated the tiny room. The second entity that struck him was the metallic Ping! When a large drop of water from the showerhead hit the old drain in the center of the shower. The rusted showerhead jutted out from the stained hole in the wall like a grotesquely skinny arm with a child-sized fist on the end. It was a basic stand-up shower. There was barely enough room to turn around in. He thought he might even scrape his head on the sharp edge of the old fashioned showerhead.
       Larry watched another huge glob let of water form on the showerhead. The droplet broke free and fell to splash against the grate —Ping!
       Larry pursed his lips and walked out of the bathroom.
       “The shower’s got a leak.” He pointed out.
       “Yeah. I’ll get right on that next week.” The toothpick darted around in the fat man’s mouth. It looked like some kind of alien feeler with the frayed end, or part of an antenna of a bug the man had forgotten to finish eating.
       “Well, I like it.” Larry said of the apartment. He sighed. “I guess I’ll take it. How soon can I move in?
       “Well?” The man tried to look thoughtful. Larry thought he could hear the dry cogs turning in the man’s brain. It was barely audible over the sharp Ping! From the bathroom now the door had been left open. “How ‘bout the thirty-first. First month’s rent and security deposit up front. And that’ll give me time to get that shower fixed for ya.”
       “Okay.” Larry nodded. He refrained from shaking the man’s slimy hand. He thought he could handle another week and a half of commuting until then. And that shower had to be fixed before he spent one night in the place.


       Ping! It was a C sharp, Larry thought at two in the morning while lying naked in the bed on a hot June first.
        Ping! B flat, possibly.
       He sighed and put his arm over his head. There was no way he could sleep that first night in his new apartment. It wasn’t just the disorientation from the two-hour drive and moving too many boxes, it had a lot to do with the new sounds associated with the latest surroundings.
       He could hear exceptionally well, and everything: the refrigerator rattle, the neighbors talking nearby while they sat on their porch next door and sipped cold beer on the late humid night, was enough to keep a dead man awake. There was a dog barking continuously at nothing down the street. The only noise he appreciated was the crickets singing outside his open window. They were hidden in the shrubs under the sill.
       It was the Ping! That scratched at his brain. It dug into his eardrums and pulled on his consciousness so it was stretched much further into the night.
       Of course the landlord hadn’t repaired the problem faucet. Even the closed bathroom door wasn’t enough to muffle the sharp sound in perfect pitch. In the sweltering bedroom he hadn’t dared to shut the door or risk spontaneous combustion.
       Some time during the night Larry had wrenched on the faucet handles and succeeded in shortening the drip time from approximately fifteen-second intervals to exactly ten seconds. It probably had something to do with the washers being too worn to hold the fixture tight. It was a simple problem to fix for the lazy, walking slab of cholesterol, if he took the little time to get off his over-padded ass. Larry could have done it himself if he had the tools. But that wasn’t the point, was it?
       Three…
       Two…
       One…
       Ping!
       Larry rolled onto his stomach and squeezed his eyes shut.
   Sleep finally found him two and a half hours before he had to get up for work.
        In the twilight sleep he thought he had heard a woman singing, very very faintly.


       Some three weeks, one letter and two phone calls to the landlord’s answering machine later, Larry sat on the edge of his bed in the dark of three on a very early Saturday morning. The moon was full outside the window, her light shining onto the bed. The drapes needed to be open because of the warmth. The heat of the day had saturated the night with a stifling stillness. It was even too hot for most of the crickets. Sweat dripped off Larry’s nose and he felt it hit his groin.
       His flat, hairless stomach was slick with perspiration. He reached down and scratched his sticky, sagging testicles then stroked himself absently. It was even too hot for masturbating. He thought he could get rid of the erection that formed in his lap and the idea of self-pleasure if he took a cool shower. He was glad that he didn’t have to work in the morning.
       Larry stood and held himself lightly while padding bare foot across the hardwood floor, across the area rug.
       Then he stopped dead, naked in the living room, listening.
       There was no mistaking it. It sounded like a woman singing a lovely, nameless tune. It was a far away melody and very close. He pinpointed the direction to the bathroom. He thought he might have left the tiny bathroom window open. It was tiny, framed window with hazed white bumpy glass that bathrooms sometimes had. He sometimes forgot it was open during the night when he had to get up to piss. It was pointless at that time to have coated glass if the window was open and he turned on the light.
       Larry continued walking and the floorboards creaked under him at the bathroom doorway. The singing ceased when he pushed open the door. He didn’t bother turning on the light before stepping into the tiny shower with its moldy clear plastic curtain. The moon was substantial lighting through the closed window for a short, cooling shower.
       In the dim light and while he worked himself into a lather Larry happened to glance down at himself. He caught movement other than his hand. It was a troubling sensation for him to think something was alive in the drain below his bare feet. His imagination worked overtime thinking of what could have moved deeper into the drain and was a fleshy color.
       Larry rinsed off quickly and got out of the shower. He flipped on the light and stared at the rusty covered drain expecting some fleshy tentacle to slither out. The drain seemed devoid of life then.
       Larry wrapped the towel around his dripping body and went into the kitchen. He retrieved the little flashlight from the drawer and went back into the bathroom. He got on his hands and knees and peered into the drain from a slight distance with the flashlight’s beam piercing the drain.
       Beyond the old rusted steal cover was not the regular piping that Larry had expected. It was like the water emptied into an open area a little more than a foot high. Then the water dribbled into the drainage.
       Plop! A bead of water struck the back of his head. Ten seconds later another followed. He ignored it as best he could because he was fascinated by the amount of space inside the drainage system.


       “Rats hunh?” The landlord said over the phone some seven days later when Larry finally got a hold of him.
       “Well, maybe not rats. But I did see something in the shower drain.”
       “Maybe it was a bug.” Then the landlord spoke quickly as if he realized Larry might consider the place could be infested with roaches. “I mean a centipede or a cricket.”
       “No, I don’t think so. This was bigger and fleshy colored, like a baby rat or a mouse. You know, hairless.”
       “Well, it might have been a dead baby field mouse that got washed into the drain. I know the place doesn’t have any rats.”
       “That could be.” Larry tried to remember exactly what he had seen but the only thing that stayed fresh in his mind was the color of the thing. He couldn’t even say if it was alive for sure.
       “What kind of drainage system does the apartment have anyway? I’ve never seen anything like the shower drain before.” Larry commented.
       “Old system.” The landlord breathed heavily into the receiver like he had burned himself or made an error. “But it has strong pipes. Never had any leaks. Strong pipes.”
       You said that, Larry thought.
       “Well, since it’s Saturday I can’t get a fumigator over there anyway. How ‘bout the first thing next week? If that will make you feel better.”
       Larry nodded into the phone and grated his teeth. He expected that answer. He was too tired and hot to argue.


       Two weeks later Larry was sitting on the floor outside the open bathroom door. He was breathing heavily with slight amazement and feeling a little terrified.
       It was four on a Friday morning. The entire apartment was dark and quiet. Quiet expect for the ten-second intervals of Ping! Then something that gave him goose bumps would occur. There was a humming. It was a gentle sound of a woman’s voice matching the pitch of the water hitting the steel drain cover.
       Ping!
       Then splashing and laughing?
       Larry eased himself away from the wall. The gloom of the apartment had settled on his eyesight and he could see well enough in the night. The smell of mildew and moisture caught his nose and a slight breeze from the open window cooled the sweat on his back as he crawled across the floor on his hands and knees to the shower. He held his breath and moved over the threshold of the bathroom.
       Ping! The he distinctly heard a girl sigh. His heart raced into his throat when what he had thought impossible was true, the laughing and singing were coming from inside the drain.
       The shower curtain was slightly open and with stealth he pushed it further to allow his shoulders and head through. Then he paused, breathed quietly, heavily through his open mouth and waited briefly for —
       Ping!
       And giggling.
       Positioned over the drain Larry quickly switched on the flashlight and peered into the hole past the steel cover.


       Larry didn’t go to work the next day.
       He sat on the edge of the bed unshaven and unshowered and unnerved. It wasn’t everyday that you saw a woman in your shower drain. And what troubled him more than the obvious was as the girl stared up at the blinding light she looked as frightened as he had been. Then the naked girl scooped up the white garment on the floor by her little feet and ran out of sight.
       She had long dark hair and hazel eyes. She couldn’t have been more than eight inches high. Larry considered she was about as tall as a Barbie doll. But the girl’s dimensions were more realistic. She was shapely with small, firm breasts, a tiny patch of pubic hair and perfect, porcelain smooth features. Her eyes were large and she had a button nose and full lips. In a word she was: Beautiful. No, Larry shook his head reassessing. She was gorgeous! Then he sighed because he realized she was gone.


       Ten-thirty that night Larry wore his standard boxer shorts and a muscle shirt. He mad moped around the apartment all day trying to decide what to do next. His first conclusion was not to call the landlord on this one. No, that would never do. Ah, excuse me but could you bring something that would get rid of those pesky little fairies that have infested my drain? Larry knew the landlord would probably tell him he’d be over the first thing next week.
       The Larry thought of the newspapers or even taking a picture himself.
   Unfortunately it looked as though he was never going to get the chance. He would spend the rest of his miserable life with the emptiness that was going to consume his because he came to the conclusion that he was never going to see her again. She had probably moved on to some other lucky guy’s leaky drain.


       Another two weeks passed and there was still no singing, giggling or sighs of pleasure from the girl. There was only that constant Ping! Larry had taken to sleeping on the couch with the bathroom door open. He wanted to be a little closer if she decided it was safe to return.


       When another two weeks went by and still no singing Larry retired to his comfortable bed with the idea that he hadn’t actually seen a beautiful girl in his drain. There was no way she had been standing in the fall of the water with her arms out. She couldn’t have had her tiny hands open and her pretty face turned up to catch the next splash of cool, clean water. She had been a fragment of his overworked, overtired imagination. A hallucination brought on by the heat exhaustion or heat stroke he’s experienced but hadn’t realized.
       After the period of denial Larry finally reconsidered that there was such a thing as magic and he was living in an enchanted apartment. The night made the magic come alive and she was real and living somewhere under his feet in the very old, but sturdy pipe works.
       In the middle of the night, because he found it impossible to sleep now, Larry had taken to sitting on the bathroom floor leaning against the wall and talking to thin air. He directed his one-ended conversation into the drain.
       It was a slow, clumsy start. Larry had never been good around women. Not that he was bad looking. He was average. He had average features, a thin build and a short regular haircut. He was the first to admit he was introverted. He lived in a new town with no friends. He was at a new job that he thought was a waste of time. The long unstill nights were wearing on him. He had a little optimism because he thought he might now have someone to talk to.
       So it started with a lot of ums and ahs and countless apologies for scaring her off. And please come back.


       After a few weeks of the talking he learned how to have a conversation with himself. He wandered about the apartment and talked. He assumed she could hear every word. Then he finished every night with another apology and I liked your singing. And please, please come back.
       Of course Larry assumed she understood and spoke English. She was just a miniature human after all. She was living in the United States so of course she understood.


       Then one night when the moon was full before the clouds covered it and the rain brought the blessed coolness to the sweltering summer air, Larry stirred in bed and sat up listening hard over the rain outside and the Ping! to hear her singing again.
       Larry smiled to himself and closed his eyes content that she had forgiven him. He felt relieved that he hadn’t really lost him mind after all. He ached to speak to her but felt it would jeopardize what they had now. He waited to speak to her. He wanted her to feel safe.


       Then Larry came home from work on evening to find the punctual landlord coming out of his apartment. The man was carrying a toolbox in his chubby grip.
   “Well.” He told Larry and wiped his brow with the back of his already slick hand. “I fixed that leak in the shower.”
       “Oh?” Then Larry thought for a second. “Oh no!”
       “What?”
       “Um, nothing.”
       The fat man looked hard at the Larry. The toothpick shifted in his mouth. He moved passed Larry and walked down the sidewalk. Then he turned back has Larry opened the front door.
       “By the way.”
       “Larry looked back at the bloated man.
       “I put some rat poison down, just in case.”
       “Down where?” Larry felt his heart rev.
       “In the corners on the floor. Under the kitchen sink. You know. Just in case.”
       “Oh. Okay.”
       Larry closed the door and listened. The Ping! was gone. He sighed and smiled then thought of going to the shower drain to see, well, anything. But he refrained from disturbing her.


       Later that night it wasn’t the leaky showerhead that woke him. It was the crying. He sat up in bed and listened. The sobbing continued as he padded across the floor to the bathroom. The squeaky floorboard gave his presence away. By the time he reached the bathroom she was gone.
       Larry realized his folly as soon as her heard her crying. How he had forgotten her enjoyment from the leaky showerhead was beyond him. He wanted to kick himself because it occurred to him that was the reason why she went to his shower.
   So he did what he thought would be the ultimate sacrifice, he turned the faucet handle until the Ping! was back. It had changed to a Ping-Ping! He gave up and thought she might like the extra water.


       After a few sleepless nights from the showerhead Larry heard the girl singing and laughing again.
       This time he made his way to the bathroom boldly. She stopped singing but he suspected she was still there, hiding somewhere close in the darkness.
       “I’m sorry.” Larry told her quietly. “The landlord fixed the leak. I heard you crying the other night and I thought I could turn the water back on for you.”
       He waited for a response but none came. He sighed and said. “I’ll leave it on for you from now on.”
       Larry turned to start back across the dark living room to his waiting, lonely bedroom.
       “Thank you.” It was ever so quietly.
       Larry stopped. His ears perked. “Excuse me?”
       “I said, thank you.”
       He made his way back to the bathroom and stared at the dark drain. There was no way to see inside without the light on but he didn’t want to risk scaring her again. Now that they were actually communicating.
       “Um, you’re welcome.” He waited but got no response.
       “Do you have a name?” He asked tentatively.
       “Of course I do, silly. I’m Clara.”
       “I’m Larry.” He padded his chest and grinned.
       “Nice to meet you, Larry.” The high-pitched sweet voice replied from the black drain.
       “It’s very nice to meet you, Clara.” He squatted on the floor by the shower. “Can you see me?”
       “Yes, I can.”
       “I can’t see you.”
       “I know.”
       “I want to.”
       “Why?”
       “I don’t know. I guess because you’re very pretty.” He would never have dared to talk like this with a woman before. He had practiced for the last few weeks by talking to himself in the dark.
       She laughed, seemingly embarrassed.
       “Thank you, Larry.”
       “You’re very welcome, Clara.”
       Their conversation lasted until dawn. When the robins started calling to each other outside Clara said she had to leave.
       “Where?” Larry desperately needed to know.
       “That’s a secret.”
       “Can we talk again?”
       She paused a moment. “I don’t know, maybe. Goodbye, Larry.”
       “Goodbye, Clara.”


       Larry didn’t go to work that day. He paced the living room floor wondering if he would be able to talk with Clara again that night. He hoped she would allow him to turn on the light so he could see her again. He walked on pins and needles and rat poison. The little green pellets had somehow gotten on his floor everywhere. When he stepped on them they stuck to his sticky bare feet. He pulled them off and tossed them in the garbage. He reminded himself that a vacuum cleaner was a necessity when he got some extra money.


       That night he waited as long as he could before sleep consumed him.
       The next day at work he was too preoccupied to concentrate. He was worried that Clara would be disappointed with him because he hadn’t gone to talk with her the night before.


       The following night he waited in the bathroom, lying on the floor. He finally heard her start singing and splashing in the fall of water.
       “Hello, Clara.”
       “Oh! Hello, Larry.”
       “Did I scare you?”
       “No, it’s just, well…” She trailed off laughing. “I was playing in the water and I’m sort of naked.” She said playfully in the dark and giggled.
       Larry was slightly embarrassed and felt a little stirring in his stomach and groin.
       “Sorry.” Of course, she was only eight inches tall. But she was beautiful, from what he could remember. It had been so long since he had seen her. His memory of her face was fading. But was it wrong to have a little lust for her?
       “It’s okay.”
       “Do you want me to leave?” He sat up.
       “No, we can talk. I put on my dress.”
       “You know I can’t see you anyway.” Larry pointed out.
       “I know. And to be honest I didn’t know you were lying on the floor.”
       “I was waiting for you.”
       “Oh? That’s sweet. Thank you.”
       “I like talking to you.”
       “And I like talking with you. Only…” She trailed off.
       “Yes?”
       “Well, She lowered her voice to a whisper. “My father would never allow me up here again if he knew you were here talking to me.”
       “Why?”
       “It’s forbidden.”
       Larry thought for a moment. He could understand that. A race of tiny people lived under his apartment. It would make news for a century. Or at least until another ex-football player slaughtered his ex-wife and her lover. Tonight on Jerry Springer: Little Women and the Men Who Love Them.
       “Where do you come from?”
       “We moved around a lot until we found this dwelling. It seemed safe.”
       “Have you ever talked to any of us before?”
       “I knew the young man who lived there before you.”
       Larry frowned. A flash of jealousy went through him.
       “Do you know what happened to him?” He asked the dark drain.
       Clara was quiet for a moment. “No, I don’t.”
       Larry sighed with frustration. “Clara?”
       “Yes?”
       “Can I turn on the light so I can see you?”
       Clara didn’t answer right away. Then she said, “If you like.”
       Larry clicked on the light and moved over to look into the deep drain. There she was. Clara was standing off the side a little. She avoided the splashing with her tiny hand shading her eyes. A loose white tank style dress covered her thin frame.
       Larry breathed again.
       “You’re beautiful.”
       She giggled and waved her hand. “Thank you.”


       They talked until dawn again. This time Larry dragged himself to work then home again in the evening. He lay down until midnight.
       When he woke he walked to the bathroom. His bare foot picked up another rat pellet and carried it into the shower. He had his foot over the drain out of self-consciousness. The rat pellet easily washed off his foot and dropped into the drain.
       At two-thirty in the morning he wandered back into the bathroom wearing his shorts and a T-shirt. He listened for Clara.
       “Clara?” He whispered into the drain.
       He switched on the light.
       Inside the drain he could see the wet metal of the bottom of the catch box of the drain. Lying naked in the dripping water was Clara.”
       Larry dropped to his knees.
       “Clara? Clara?
       He tried pulling at the drain cover with his fingers. He hooked his fingers into the grate but it wouldn’t budge.
       “Hold on, Clara.” He pulled harder on the grate, slicing open his fingertips. “Hold on, it won’t move!”
       Frantic Larry ran into the kitchen and searched the drawers for a screwdriver. He had brought one with him when he moved; it was just a matter of finding it. He dug around until he came up with a butter knife.
       Bath in the bathroom he saw Clara had turned on her side. She cradled her stomach. Larry twisted the head of the knife in the rusted screw’s slit in the drain cover. He put too much pressure on the screw and the knife tip slipped. It gouged his hand.
       “Shit!”
       He tried to forget about his pain and continued to pry at the screw until it turned with a whine. It finally loosened enough for him to get it off. The other came loose with a wrench of his wrist. Once the screws were out he pulled at the grate again with his fingers. The years of soap scum and old hair came off with the grate.


       There was an intense pulling sensation in his gut and Larry blacked out. He knew he was falling end over end but he couldn’t see. He held his hands out to break his fall but still cracked his head on wet, hard metal. Larry pushed himself up and looked around disoriented. He looked up, staring out of a giant hole at the enormous shower far overhead. He had instant vertigo.
       Darkness surrounded him. Water splashed on his face. Clara was lying beside him. She was his size now, or he was hers.
       His forehead was bleeding. He fingers came away bloody and watery blood stung his eyes as it ran into them. Larry crawled over to Clara. She was semi-conscious. He lifted her head gently from the metal floor and cradled her.
       “Clara, what happened?”
       “I—I need my father.” She whispered.
       “Hold on, I’ll take you to him. What did you do? Did you fall?”
       She tried shaking her head. Larry grabbed her dress and slipped it over her head and shoulders. He put one arm through the sleeve then the other. That was when he saw it. Clutched in her grip was what looked like a large, water saturated green Twinkie. Larry took it from her and noticed it had been nibbled on. He sniffed it. It had a faint odor and Larry recognized what it was.
       He took Clara’s face in his hands. “Clara, listen to me. Did you eat this?"
       She smacked her lips. “Only a little.” She grabbed Larry’s hand. “Help me, Larry. Take me to Daddy.”
       “Okay, Clara.” He lifted her off the floor. She was surprisingly light.
       Larry looked up at the drain opening. There was no way out that direction. There was nothing to climb on. It was too dark to travel in any given direction. He couldn’t see any route.
       “Clara, which way do I go?” He scooped her all the way off her feet.
       She barely pointed to the left.
       Larry had no choice but to follow her finger and hope it lead to help.


       He walked the tunnel for what seemed like twenty minutes. He kept talking to Clara to make sure she stayed conscious. They were on a decline, going deeper into the maze of black pipe work. There was what seemed like supernatural light that permeated the tunnel. Larry could see, barely. A hazy blue light from no visible source illuminated the tunnels. A heavy fog layered the floor. He walked bare foot on the built up piping. Rust and soap scum were like hard rock and just as unpredictable. Hair twisted within the mixture was like strong vines that threatened to trip him. Larry had stubbed his toes and cut his feet on sharp things. But he continued onward in hopes Clara’s father could work some magic and bring her back to him.


       The tunnel emptied into a rectangular room. Larry had to put Clara down then climb down into the stagnant water that settled there. He got Clara and pulled her to him. He carried her with aching arms through the knee-deep water to the other end. Her dress dragged in the muck. Then he heard it and stopped.
       A hiss made Larry take a step back from the mouth of the new tunnel. He could see a massive shape lumbering into view. He saw the silhouette waver then it hissed again.
       Larry pressed back into the rectangular room further. He was ready to get Clara back into the tunnel they had come from. The dark thing had red eyes that glinted at Larry. It was sizing him up, shifting its weight to and fro inside the mouth of the tunnel.
       Clara whimpered and pulled on Larry’s neck. He looked down at her and up at the creature again. He needed to get her to her father soon.
       The creature seemed to sense something. It twitched its snout.
       “Stay with me, Clara.” Larry whispered in her ear.
       The creature moved forward. A black wet snout sniffed at the air then something impossible happened. It spoke, a deep-throated dialect.
       “Clara?” It said.
       Larry trembled and his knees gave out. The water came up to his thighs. Clara’s lower half dropped into the still water with the layer of fog swirling around her face.
       It was the fog that shifted before the beast came into full view. A huge, bloated, oily rat with long shape nails that scraped on the rusted metal. Its head was full of whiskers and a wet black nose moved as it sniffed them.
       Clara came out of her delirium for a moment to see the beast as it stood on its hint legs. It extended its swollen head into the room cocking its ears back. It would have stood over eleven feet if Larry were still his five feet eleven inches he used to be before falling into this enchanted place. Clara looked hard at the giant rat and smiled lightly.
       “Daddy.”
       Larry shuddered.
       The rat leapt into the room and crossed to them in no time. Water splashed on Larry’s face and he licked his lips out of thought. It was bitter and stank like ammonia.
       The rat towered over them. Its front paws were going at thin air as they rested against its chest.
       It looked at Larry with burning red eyes.
       “What happened to her?” It asked with some compassion.
       “She ate some rat poison. She needs a doctor.”
       Larry found he couldn’t look directly into the rat’s eyes.
       Clara went still in his arms.
       The beast snatched her from Larry’s hold and cradled her to its furry chest. Tenderly it stroked her dark hair. Her arms hung limp at the sides.
       Larry began to cry. Clara was dead and he had no one to blame but himself. He could feel the room begin to fill and shift with the presence of the other rats gathering. Clara’s father hissed at Larry. One of the rats took Clara’s body from the huge father’s claws gently.
       “”I’m sorry,” was all Larry could say before the Rat King snatched him up and sank his teeth into his throat. The others moved in to share the feast.


      
END


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