Downstream by J.D. Hager

Upon purchasing their house, Ray and Melanie thought the creek was relaxing, rustic, serene, and all the other adjectives gleaned from that slick, glossy open house flyer. They didn’t consider the geographical implications of having a creek traveling through their patch of dirt. A creek was a low point in the surrounding topography, created by gravity and running water, and this unique combination simulated a funnel effect bringing various detritus and leftovers to their backyard. It was a veritable expressway of danger, dirt, and broken dreams.

There were bad guys taking unfortunate detours while rotor blast from the police helicopter sent patio furniture skittering toward the creek. There were wild animals misplaced and following the natural landscape for release, stumbling upon their patio and masticating their BBQ to a pile of rusty smithereens. Salt and motor oil and neurotoxins and pus washed from upstream, a constant toxic tide contaminating their mortgaged future, washing all the scum and afterthoughts to them and beyond to that big puddle of spit at the end of the line. And then there was the whole flood zone designation issue, and the paralyzing contradiction concerning the inflated price of flood insurance.They’d have to take a second mortgage out just to afford flood insurance on their first mortgage.

But the worst indignity was the rats. Hoards. Legions. A swarming and coordinated mischief. They tried every non-toxic method they could google, as Melanie had a stronger aversion to poisons and toxins than she did to rats. Ray personally tried to ignore the toxicity of daily life in the hopes his dumb bliss might protect him.

They got a cat, which mysteriously disappeared after only two days. Perhaps Whiskers escaped down the creek, or more likely was taken hostage by the rats, which was Ray’s suspicion. Melanie hung up missing posters around the neighborhood while Ray waited for a ransom note.

They tried a high frequency electronic device that was supposed to chase rodents and other squeaky pests away, but it only seemed to aggravate the rats, energize them even. They were eating the Christmas lights and fornicating on the lawn. They tried sticky traps, live traps, snap traps, doodle traps, Sartre NoExit traps (which sought to paralyze the rats by confusing them with existential paradoxes), and even a box perched on a stick tied to a string.

The scheming rodents outsmarted Ray and Melanie at every opportunity. The sticky traps went missing, and they found the snap traps unsnapped and the peanut butter replaced with mocking rat turds. When they found the Sartre trap strung from the eaves by a tiny noose they knew they were in trouble. Obviously, the rats were nihilists.

They hired a modern-day pied piper to assist, the self-proclaimed rodent whisperer. He used a kazoo and little portable keyboard to summon the rats forth, and was able to organize them into a squabbling mob that congregated on the muddy banks of the creek, but then things quickly turned. They swarmed him and chewed his little Casio keyboard to plastic bits. Though he escaped unharmed, they absconded with his wallet and toupee, and of course his little keyboard was reduced to a pathetic pile of plastic shavings that ended up in the creek and eventually the food chain.

Ray tried to convince Melanie that under such dire circumstances, a tactically precise chemical attack might be warranted, despite the potential damage to their future genetic integrities. But her non-toxic resolve could not be swayed.

Melanie suggested they call Animal Planet for help, but Ray demanded a more timely solution than reality television. A neighbor that dabbled in voodoo and other esoteric endeavors recommended a witchdoctor with a penchant for inducing conspicuous absences. His methods were unorthodox, even for a voodoo witchdoctor, but his results were beyond question. She told Ray that sometimes the success carried consequence, and when hiring his services there was no turning back. Ray told her he was no turn backer.

Hougan La Flambeau wore no ceremonial garb or voodoo escarpments when he arrived, and looked like an ordinary tiny man in khakis and tennis shoes. He demanded the fresh carcass of a rat to create his voodoo mojo, and Ray’s hesitation was immediately pegged as lack of commitment, so Ray rolled up his sleeves and hunkered down into the muck of the aquifer. He had an idea of the location of their den, their headquarters, and his only hope was to catch one of the rodents off guard. He closed his eyes and clenched his teeth, and reached his hand into the dark crevice of the creek bank. Ray extracted a blood-thirsty rodent attached with teeth to the flesh between his thumb and forefinger. The pain was extraordinary.

Hougan La Flambeau produced a small rattle and incapacitated the rat with a quick blow to the head. In a blur, he had cut the rat from nostril to anus and arranged his internal organs into a geometric pattern on the creek bank. He took some sort of powder out of his pocket and sprinkled it over the organs while saying incomprehensible words and shaking his rattle, and then wrapped the organ assortment into a small piece of fabric. This he tossed into the creek, and then walked away without saying a word. The eviscerated carcass of the rat was on the back lawn, and Ray wasn’t sure if he was supposed to leave it or not. All Ray could think was how unfortunate it was that he’d paid Hougan La Flambeau in advance.

The rain started that night. They called it the 50 Year Storm even though it was the worst incident of precipitation in 163 years, since the recording of such incidents had first begun. The flood washed the rats away, along with patio furniture, the replaced BBQ, and most of the worldly possessions residing on the first floor of their house. Ray thought he saw the rats riding their Lay-Z Boy downstream into eternity like a life raft, but he couldn’t be sure.

After the waters had subsided, and the rats were all rinsed away to ruin new lives, and after they scraped the mud and debris out of their kitchen and replaced the carpet, and after they fixed the landscaping and lawn and patio furnishings, the yard and house had a sparkly newness, but Ray knew it was a temporary illusion. Gravity and running water would conspire all the dirt and muck and denizens of nature back again, no matter where they tried to position themselves. They’d always be downstream of something noxious, something trying to impose the treacherous down-spiraling momentum of gravity upon them.

They broke down and finally bought flood insurance with the understanding that this would protect them from future liquidy disasters, realizing the sheer ironic tendency of the universe wouldn’t allow another flood as long as they had insurance to protect against it. It felt like things were finally moving toward equilibrium.

They enjoyed nearly a month of rodent-free living before the skunks arrived.

J.D. Hager lives in Northern California with his wife, his labradors, and the inspirational rats in his attic. He works undercover teaching middle school science, running a school garden, and scribbling furiously into notebooks when blessed with a spare moment. His code name is Mister Hager. He completed his first collection of short stories in second grade and has been writing ever since. His words have appeared in the Porter Gulch Review and Bartleby Snopes, and are forthcoming in many other yet to be determined places. He shares leftovers, incompletions, and other thoughtfully sequenced words on his blog.

Lead image“Oh no, a RAT!” (via Flickr user Socar Myles)