First published in The Gimmick #5 by Ahoy Comics | July 2023
The castle was old, but he was older. He’d lived in other places – in Berlin, in Glasgow, the whole floor of a hotel in New York – but sometimes it felt good to embrace clichés. It felt good to feel anything at all.
Once he would’ve let the last rays of the day’s sun strike him, their sting a reminder of when he’d been young. Now he just watched TV. Before his three brides had left, they’d rigged up an old set and a VCR for him and left him a handful of movies. It was a kind gesture, and one he didn’t deserve.
He liked movies about vampires. He knew that was embarrassing. He’d get drunk and heckle them from his couch, watching actors prance about in velvet, enunciating carefully around false teeth.
Tonight the movie was in color. The acting was hammy and the special effects weren’t bad. The vampire turned into a giant bat. A cloud of green smoke. And the old man somehow knew it was coming, but couldn’t look away, as the vampire turned into a seething pile of rats.
The old man wept in the TV’s gentle light.
He didn’t dare transform into rats anymore. The last time was to count himself, just to be sure. He tumbled down into two dozen large rats, eyes shining, lining up neatly across the stone floor. One was still missing. When he reformed, he could feel it was gone: a ragged hole inside him where his heart once was.
How could he have been so stupid? So clumsy? That rat was out there somewhere, lost and alone. It had his thoughts and memories, so it knew all about luring victims from bright taverns into dark alleys – but what did it know about being a rat? Nothing at all.
The vampire on screen was feeding, his fresh meal’s eyes rolling back in her head. It used to make him hungry, but not anymore. He didn’t really need blood to survive, he’d discovered. He had just liked the taste.
There’d been the man under the bridge, blood tinged with brandy. The woman who’d tasted like clove cigarettes. A boy who’d been sick with something incurable but delicious. Once these memories were so vivid they were hallucinogenic.
The old man wiped away his tears. It occurred to him, for the first time, that his brides might’ve left him mostly vampire movies to mock him. The joke’s on them. Sometimes watching an actor play him was all that got the old man out of bed.
The music crested; the credits rolled. The old man thought about his missing rat: could it make friends? Find a family? Was it dead in a trap, cut in two by the spring-loaded bar? In his memories, the rat beat like a heart with fur and teeth.
No, he’d know if it was dead. He’d feel it inside.
It was almost sunrise, and the old man went to bed. It was a sea of sheets in a windowless room. He sunk into it, grateful another night had passed. His dreams were still terrible, though. A palimpsest of screams, each laid on top of the next.
But not today.
“Hello,” said his rat. It bounded up and across the bed, perching on the old man’s chest.
His voice shook: “Is it you?”
“But – where have you been?”
“Did you know,” said the rat, pausing to clean its face with its paws, “that rats can chew through cinder blocks? That they look after other, sick rats? Did you know that rats dream?”
“I didn’t know…” The old man was close to tears again. “Forgive me.”
“Did you know that, if you tickle a rat, it will laugh?”
The old man reached out and crushed the rat to his chest. He felt its teeth – teeth that never stop growing – gnawing at his flesh. Soon it would be nestled back behind his ribs, its tiny heart beating where his should be.