by Rachel V. Olivier
Palm fronds brushed the clear blue sky; sunshine after a spring rain, washing everything sparkling and new as soft breezes wafted the smell of jasmine and orange blossoms through the air. Safely ensconced behind sunglasses and plexi-glass, glossy-haired beautiful people sped by, enveloped by steel machines and the sounds of their choice.
Up there, at human height, watching shiny, self-important people, it’s easy for newcomers to be seduced by this paradise, known to some as the City of Angels. The rest of us know better, the ones who lurk down back streets, living in alleys, dried-out drainpipes, and piles of refuse left to rot. I shuddered remembering the night before. I may be nocturnal, but even I am afraid of what goes on here at night.
* * *
Stealthily I scurried down the grimy, deserted sidewalk. The sun had retreated hours ago, but streetlights still cast weird shadows where others haunted the depths. The familiar smell of urine tainted every step even as I drew closer to the food I knew was in the dumpster behind the Italian place.
My back itched. There were others out there watching me. My nose and whiskers twitched with sensations of others who wanted to make a meal of me. I hurried on. I was a family rat with a brood of pups to feed and this was no time to balk at my duty. If my family were going to get their three squares a night, then it was going to be up to me to get it.
If I was lucky, the Boy would be working tonight. He liked me for some reason, saving the best scraps for me. I don’t know why he liked me, but he did. I put up with it as long as he fed me when I visited the dumpster near where he worked.
But besides feeding me, the Boy felt good in that part of myself where good things lived. Some rats have what I call ESW, Extra Sensory Whiskerification. The wife scoffs at the idea, but I think I have it and what’s more, I think that Boy is one of the Chosen Ones, one of those special people that makes the world a better place.
Whether he is or not, though, doesn’t matter. He just feels right. Maybe it’s just the food speaking, I can’t explain it. My nights just don’t feel complete unless I visit the Boy, let my whiskers trace his scent. Of course, none of that may mean anything any more. I don’t know.
There’s an area off of Vine, north of Melrose and bordered by El Centro. Italian, Mexican, Peruvian, Japanese restaurants, as well as a nice little wine bar line the alleys with gourmet cuisine dumpsters. Perfect place to find leftovers, if you can make it past the dingos, cats, and feral humans safely enough.
Boy works in one of the places there, on the border, where the scary things hang out. Most people think I’m one of those scary things, but I know better. There are things out there scarier than I am — they don’t always wait for night.
I paused to sniff. My eyesight’s not good, but I can smell. This nose knows. I sensed I was near. There it was, Boy’s scent.
“There you are, Señor Rata. It’s late, but I saved a little bit here for you.” A napkin with some food on it was placed before me, full of the odors of cheese and meat.
“Ew, Javier! Are you feeding that rat?” I heard a young female voice from further away.
“Never mind him, Jenny. Señor Rata is an old friend of mine. Keeps me company on my smoke breaks.”
The door banged shut as the Boy, Javier, returned to work. I set to work on the meat and cheese, eating what I could and brought the rest back to the nest. It would be slower going than coming, but if I made it back, this haul made it worth the trip.
* * *
Every place has it predators; Los Angeles some of the worst. Yet, there are those who continue to believe in the City of Dreams. Once seduced by LA’s siren call, they can’t leave her or the Evil that lurks in her secret places; the horrors that walk her streets leaving many who come here empty, wasted shells of themselves. Little did I know that I would meet one of those horrors, those scary things, face to face.
I was hiding in a dusty, laurel hedge, sheltered from the bright, white heat of the late afternoon sun as it blasted down on the asphalt before bouncing back up at everything else. Too early for me to be out, but a rat’s gotta do what a rat’s gotta do.
Waiting for the traffic to thin out in the parking lot of my favorite restaurant dumpster, I sniffed the air to gauge what was out there. I had my own predators to worry about. I also hoped the Boy might be working this afternoon. Tentatively feeling the air with my whiskers, I put out my nose, eyesight being even worse in the bright LA sunshine.
Then I smelled them — compelling and repulsive — tickling my whiskers. Javier was coming, but someone, some Thing, was with him. I froze where I was. Cocking my ears, I could hear them as they walked back into the alleyway off the street. Javier smelled wrong, a bitterness overlaying his normal scent.
The two males turned into the alcove where I was hiding. Peering through the branches I watched them pause, looking around to make sure no one else was around. Something in them made me want to flee yet impelled me to stay.
“So you’re an artist, Javier. Dude, that’s cool,” the older one nodded over to his companion as he packed something into a pipe. I wrinkled up my nose in anticipation of the sweet smelling smoke as I watched him light up the bowl and draw in a breath. I have never cared for the herb some humans smoke, though I know some rats who take to it like cats to ’nip. But there was something else that didn’t smell right, something more than just the natural pungency of an herb.
I watched as the man flashed his white teeth at the Boy, sharp canines glistening in the sun as he handed over the pipe. My whiskers pricked. The overly friendly voice and smile masked a threat. Had Javier been one of my pups, I would have slapped him away from the older one. Javier sensed nothing though, simply taking the pipe to inhale. The smoke almost camouflaged their odor, but it was still there.
The older one, White Teeth, was blindingly bright to look at. Teeth shone, eyes sparkled, and hair glinted in the sunlight. He could have walked out of any one of the ads or posters I found tossed in the trash every night. Underneath the sweet smell of his cologne and the skunky odor of the herb was the rich, fetid scent of rot and the acrid, repulsive feel of Other on my whiskers. Less enlightened beings would have said I smelled a rat. He wasn’t human at all, just wearing a human form. Though what he, It, was I still couldn’t tell.
Warily I sniffed in the direction of Javier. He was smaller than White Teeth; dark hair hanging over his face, brown eyes sad, yet kind. He wasn’t using the herb to camouflage his own scent like White Teeth was. Still human then.
I reached out more with my nose and whiskers, trying to feel Javier and the aura that brought me to him night after night. Food, sweat, other people, a girl, and (wince) a cat, but most of all, he smelled of dreams, hopes, and love. Sensing my attention, his brown eyes flicked over my direction and sparked in recognition.
“Señor Rata! I don’t have anything for you today, my friend, except maybe this.” The Boy knelt down, holding something out in his hand. Liquid, warm eyes held me in an embrace. I almost forgot about the Thing that stood next to him.
“Who’s your friend?” The scorn in White Teeth’s voice was obvious, vibrating through the air, directed at me like a weapon. He must have known I was trying to sniff him out. Kneeling down next to the Boy he blew a puff of smoke in my direction. Drawing back under the hedge I hissed, but remained to listen.
“Hey, stop that! He’s my friend!”
“That thing? It’s a rat! What do you want with a thing like that?” White Teeth handed the pipe off to Javier.
I shook, wondering the same thing about the creature next to Javier. It was after something. It was obvious to me it was a Predator after something that only Javier could give it.
“Thanks.” Javier inhaled and handed the pipe back over to White Teeth, who relit and inhaled again. Javier stretched his arms out, waving off another offering by White Teeth and breathing deeply before sticking his hands in his pockets and rocking on his heels. “I got things to do. I need to be able to write an application essay when I get home.”
“What? You’re not going out with us tonight? C’mon, man!” White Teeth slapped Javier’s shoulder in feigned camaraderie. “You only live once, Javvy. You need to kick back. Relax.”
Javier smiled tightly, wistful eyes focused on the distance. He shook his head. “Naw. Can’t. There’s someone coming tomorrow to look at my artwork, might help me get a scholarship or grant for art school, you know?” Javier looked down, blowing out and scuffing at the loose pavement. He looked over at White Teeth as he shrugged; expressively mute. I didn’t really know what they were talking about, but Javier wanted it bad.
Bright light flared up from White Teeth’s grin; his smile wide as a shark’s grin. In the animal kingdom, there’s no such thing as a friendly smile, and this was nothing like a friendly smile. All teeth. Sensing the death’s head behind the human mask, I hissed at the fiend, sound lost in the hum of afternoon traffic.
“’Sgood, man. Don’t wanna blow that,” referring to the scholarship. “Sure you’re ready for it, though?” White Teeth put just the right inflection in his tone as he took a last pull on his pipe. I watched Javier swallow down a lump. The stink of panic began seeping through his pores.
Whiskers finally picked up what my brain hadn’t. White Teeth didn’t want Javier to follow his calling. He wanted to feed on Javier’s spirit and all his youthful desires. He would drain Javier dry, leaving him an empty, bitter husk of a being, if Javier didn’t leave of his own free will. Would Javier become one of the wasted lives in the City of Lost Dreams? I waited, wondering what Javier would do.
White Teeth turned towards the hedge, looking directly at me — eyes a vacant abyss above the threatening leer. I went cold as I saw the glint had been replaced by a void. Realizing he had an audience, White Teeth turned his evil grimace on Javier.
“Okay. I’ll tell Jenny and the boys you won’t be there tonight.”
“Jenny?” Javier looked up. I remembered the girl’s voice from the other night, young and ready to mate. Hope made a triple play in the boy’s face, voice, and odor. Javier was young. He wanted to go out and heed the great yawp; White Teeth had just given him the invitation.
“Didn’t I tell you she’d be there? Dude, this is your chance to score! Maybe bring her back to look at your art, eh?” White Teeth put his arm around Javier’s shoulders, peering over at me meaningfully. The sun was not yet setting, but I felt a chill. Unless Javier broke away, White Teeth would feed on him — tonight.
“Maybe...” Javier demurred, looking down. Slyly, White Teeth leaned over and sniffed, inhaling; sucking in all the free air around Javier. Javier jerked back out of White Teeth’s arm, pushing him away. The acrid stench of evil grew stronger.
“Hey, man! Why’d you do that?”
“Just making sure you don’t smell like pot.” White Teeth grinned, held up his hands apologetically and then inhaled the air again significantly, looking in my direction. My nose contracted in revulsion. White Teeth’s scent was noticeably stronger while Javier’s was weaker.
My stomach sank as I realized he’d already begun stealing Javier’s spirit, feeding on it, suckling like my own pups did when feeding off my mate. A sliver of ice sliced my gut, heart plummeting: this would be the end of the meal train, the end of a friendship, and probably the end of a young artist. White Teeth was stealing Javier’s dreams, hopes, the parts that made him unique, compassionate and kind. Javier would become a shell, one more casualty in the City of Lost Angels.
I had seen the end result plenty of times, but it had never been someone I’d known. I had grown to depend on Javier to feed my brood, and he was my friend. Maybe if I broke White Teeth’s spell long enough Javier would go home — away from this too-shiny menace masquerading as a human. Desperately, I ran out, hoping to distract Javier.
“Hey, look at that rat, man! I think he’s coming back for more.” White Teeth gave me a knowing smile as he picked up a pebble and threw it at my head. I dodged, glanced only by a sharp corner, but it was enough to send me reeling.
“Dude, don’t do that!” Javier looked over at his companion disgustedly. “I’m going.”
“Sure.” White Teeth grinned over to where I lay too stunned to move; his teeth, hair and eyes all dazzling in the setting sun. Despite the heat, I was cold. Already the little bit of spirit White Teeth had sucked from Javier was making him stronger, brighter, irresistible.
Helplessly shivering in horror, I watched as the shiny, brilliant demon haunted Javier’s side; hugging him even closer as they walked out of the alley. I wondered how long it would be before Javier was sucked dry.
There are lots of scary things in the City of Dreams. The ones that come out at night are the least of your worries.
Copyright © 2009 by Rachel V. Olivier