Seventy years of life, I'd thought I'd seen everything. Turns out, no matter how long 'ya get in the tooth, life can still throw you for a loop. My name's Dale, and I've got one hell of a tall tale for you.
In the middle of every month, me and a couple of hunting buddies head out into the woods to bag some varmints. 'Ya can't hunt deer out of season, but nobody cares if a few squirrels get fragged. The hunting party consists of me, my buddy Jim from West Virgina. He's a nice guy, but about as sharp as a turnip. There's Hank, he's so big he could lift me over his head with one hand. There's Jack, who's such a nice guy you wouldn't believe he's been in prison twice, and lastly there's Buddy. That ain't his real name, its actually "Dale." But my name is Dale, hence the nickname, "Buddy." He's a shut-in and kind of a weirdo, but the sweetest guy you'll ever meet. He owns a couple pet rats.
These guys are like family to me I've been hunting with them so long. Even when things get rough, we love spending time together. A few weeks ago we all ran into some serious trouble, and none of us will ever forget it. My father used to say "A bad day hunting beats the hell outta a good day working." But if he lived to see a night like this, he'd never say that again.
I can remember the day it all happened like a movie. While most days, the woods are so full of runts that it seems like the ground was made of 'em, this was as dry as the desert after a fire. For a hunting party of five people, we'd nabbed about six critters all together before sundown. It was downright depressing. Of course, we might have just been depressed because of the weather. It was like a funeral march out there. Pitch black, thick gray clouds with no rain, and no animal life in sight. It was like Mother Nature had a heart attack and went into a coma. You couldn't even count the stars to pass time, on account of all the clouds. It was like the man in the moon forgot to pay the electric bill.
So there we all were, demoralized, demotivated and just plain de-sappointed. We're all sitting around a campfire burning our way through the alcohol we hoped we'd be saving to celebrate our glorious victory, telling tall tales and bad jokes to try to cheer ourselves up. The night was dead as a jackrabbit in a bear cave. The woods were so quiet you could sneeze and they'd hear it for miles.
On a night as dead, dreary and quiet as this one, it was the perfect time to tell some scary stories. We let Jack go first. His stories were the best because, being a character of questionable standing, they'd always be messed up, violent and terrifying. Which is just the way we like 'em! Jack had a great story for us that night, the story of "The Rat King."
Now, when I first heard him say "Rat King" I just pictured a giant rat. But the real thing is a whole lot different than that. See, supposedly what happens is a large group of rats living out of a nest get all this gunk and filth (and shit, don't forget shit) in their fur and on their tails, and they start to get stuck together. Their tails get tangled, their fur sticks together, and no matter how much they struggle and fight, they can never escape. By the time people find 'em, their dead bodies are all clumped together in a fossilized lump. They spend so long stuck to each other that their skin kind of melts and heals together until their bodies have sort of melted through, like a Siamese twin.
It was a terrifying tale, perfect to tell in the middle of the night when everybody's half-drunk. But Buddy, being an actual rat owner, pointed out a few discrepancies with the story. Firstly rats apparently groom themselves as much as cats. Makes sense rats and cats are so similar, since their names rhyme. Like any prey animal, they groom themselves so their smell doesn't stand out to predators, and so all that gunk doesn't slow them down.
Another thing is, as dumb as rats are, they aren't completely stupid. If their tail gets caught in something, they'll chew it off. Like how a fox chews off its own leg in a bear trap. Sure, it ain't the smartest means of self-preservation since they'll probably bleed out five minutes after they escape, but it's a much quicker death than slowly melting into a pile of corpses. Still, despite those glaring, oozing plotholes, we all agreed it was a damn good story. An hour or two later, we were all gettin' tired and ready to hit the hay. So, all five of us crawled into our individual tents, put the fire out and tried to get some shut-eye before the four-hour commute we'd have to take in the morning.
But in the middle of the night, I woke up to the sound of one of some kind of horrible screaming. As I shuffled out of my tent, I saw everyone else was waking up too. Nobody was quite sure what it was. We knew it was some kind of animal, but after forty years of hunting, I'd never heard anything like it. It was kind of like a large bird mixed with an angry dog. Sounded like some weird animal remix or something.
Me and the boys figured it must be coming from one of the traps. The first couple we checked had absolutely nothing in 'em. But the last one--hoo boy!--it had something in it alright.
In the dark, it looked like a confused, shambling mess. We thought for a minute that a rodent must have gotten trapped under some mud or something. When we shined our flashlights on the thing, we wished we stayed ignorant. It was a big, muscular rodent about as big as a small dog. It had large, razor-sharp antlers like an antelope, it had piercing red eyes that seemed to glow in the night, and the damn thing looked like a zombie with the way it was wasting away.
But the worst thing about it were the holes on its back. Large, gaping, covered in pus. For a moment there, we thought whatever this weird thing was had gotten into an accident and was maimed until he saw what was coming out of those holes.
Tiny little things, we almost thought they were giant insects, but upon closer inspection, they looked like little naked mole rats. Eerily smooth, bright pink, covered in a layer of muck, they looked like they had no eyes. I saw one that only had a single tooth, already chipped and yellow right out of the womb. They were ferociously chewing and clawing their way out of the holes, tearing open the flash like they were ripping through paper and causing tiny little puddles of blood to pool up around them. The creature seemed to scream in pain and as it wrapped its chipped, yellow claws on the outside of the cage. The little beasts were just small enough that they could slip through the holes in the cages.
They ran around at our feet making little squeaking noises. Understandably, we were just a little tiny itty-bit fucking terrified, so we jumped all around screaming like idiots and shooting our guns at nothing in particular. This made the freak scream and hiss even more. I guess it was protective of its kind, or maybe it was just scared of the loud noises.
It had a look on its face that could give a mortician nightmares. So angry, so hateful, seething in rage. Its mangled teeth clenched as hard as it could manage, spittle and bile flowing down its face. It was easily the most disgusting thing I've ever seen in my life.
Hank wanted to shoot it right away, but me and Buddy stopped him. Jim waddled over to a nearby tree and started puking his guts out, poor guy. We figured we could turn it into a science lab or the humane society and get a reward or help them discover a new species.
None of us had any clue what the hell it was. It didn't look like anything natural. Jack thought it might have been mutated by toxic waste, but Buddy pointed out that toxic waste would probably just kill you. I said it might be some kind of government experiment like those things on Plum Island. Even Jim, that ol' knucklehead had a theory or two. Apparently, he saw this thing on the animal planet where these underwater frogs, "Suriname Sea Toads" give birth to their kids by spewing them outta their backs.
Since none of us had a name for it, we decided to dub it after the story Jack told last night. "The Rat King." Now, since it was giving birth, it was probably a female whatever-it-was, but Buddy pointed out that maybe the female could lay eggs in the male's back. I didn't know, and I didn't care to know.
We got Jim to get the truck back it up to where the trap was. All of us surrounded the cage, making sure that if that freaky thing escaped, we could easily catch it. Me and Hank grabbed both ends of the cage (it was specially designed so you can pick it up without getting bit or scratched) and we tried to lug that thing into the back. Once we were done, I'd drive us home, Jim would sit next to me, and the other guys would sit in the back. Buddy, of course, would sit in the middle. Poor guy.
But something went horribly wrong. Another rat erupted from that thing, and it scurried down Hank's leg. He screamed and dropped his end of the cage, and the thing broke out. Everyone was in a panic, running around like nitwits with no clear goal in mind. I was the biggest nitwit of the bunch, because I tried to grab the damn thing with my bare hands and it bit me in the arm. Now, I've been bit by plenty of animals before, but nothing like this. It was like two sledgehammers smashing a bunch of nails down into my skin. I screamed so loud it nearly tore my vocal cords.
The thing jumped out of my grasp and I went down in pain. The other guys started shooting at it as it sped away. Jim and Buddy managed to tag the sucker in the leg and shoulder. It let out a shriek that could break glass as it jumped into a nearby stream. It sank right to the bottom, perhaps swimming down on purpose. As it disappeared upstream, it left a trail of green blood. The only evidence it had ever been near.
I rolled up my sleeve and observed the wound. It looked like it was already infected, with the opening and the veins near it glowing green. I don't remember much of what happened afterward because I fainted, but I heard some chatter about dumping peroxide on the wound and getting me to the hospital, and then it all went dark.
I thought for sure I was gonna turn into a zombie, or at least lose my arm. Turns out, a little antiseptic and some bed rest can work wonders. I spend about four weeks in the hospital and was discharged only a few days ago. The wound hasn't completely healed up yet, but it's getting much better. The doctors say I had some kind of poison similar to something a spider or a rattlesnake would spit out in me, but they managed to fix it right up.
I'm glad I lived through that ordeal, but I couldn't help feeling a bit depressed we didn't catch that thing. Now, nobody would believe our story. It was just another tall tale told by a bunch of hunters who were so drunk at the time they could light a fire by coughing. A great story to tell to friends, but nothing concrete to prove anything to anyone.
To this day, none of us are sure if the Rat King we caught actually died or managed to survive. It certainly looked like it'd been through worse, after all. Once I'm healed up and the 15th of next month rolls around, me and the gang will be out in those same woods, hunting like nothing ever happened. If we find that thing again, it'll be a damned miracle.
I just hope that whatever that thing was, it was the only one of its kind. God help us if there are more out there.