Pretty much nobody gets their first job before they’re eighteen and they sure don’t get one with the rat-catcher, that’s for sure. But I guess if you don’t live out west like I do, you don’t think that sounds so great. Let me tell you—it’s the top, the very top. If you’re in a Mechanical Operations family, you can’t do better than landing a rat-catcher job. Dad was just a plain janitor, the lowest of Mech Op, but he went to school with a kid who went into rat catching, so when funds got tight at home and I was getting close to my seventeenth year, he pulled some strings and I went to work with Dave Pulley, best rat-catcher in the entire Midwest.
I got to work early my first day and picked up coffee for Mr. Pulley because it couldn’t hurt to brown-nose a little, could it? After all, if this job didn’t work out, I was stuck cleaning toilets the rest of my life like Dad.
At exactly eight o clock Mr. Pulley came charging out of his office buildings to meet me by the white van with all our equipment. “Got a puny one out wreaking havoc on Mrs. Windlemyer’s chicken farm. Hop in.”
The words burst out of him in a machine-gun rattle as he drove, hands high on top of the steering wheel, peering out over it from under his pulled-down hat.
“Seen a rat before, Tom?”
“Just call me Dave. You’ve seen the pictures, right?”
I had, and I already knew he wasn’t talking about grey rodents that creep through sewers. Out west, our rats look…different doesn’t quite do it justice. I shrugged. “They’re like birds, right, sir? Big brown birds with humanoid heads. Kind of de-evolved humans. Monkeys with wings.”
He glanced at me, dark eyes bright under the cap. “Monkeys with wings, eh? Listen, son, monkeys with wings they may be, but if you ever meet one face to face, you shut your eyes and pull the trigger on your spear-gun, alright? Do it fast. They’re dumb, alright, don’t you doubt it. A monkey’s probably got more brains. But to look at ‘em, well, let’s just say you got to keep reminding yourself of the facts. Lotsa people wash out of this job. Softies. Let’s go over the basics before we hit the ground, ok?”
Twenty minutes later I exited the van, dazed by the high-speed orientation, my head abuzz with helpful information about firing a spear-gun, tactics for taking on a single rat, tips for staying clear of claws and talons, and finalizing procedures once we’d cleared the infestation. I was much too distracted to see the shadow skimming past on the grass as I climbed out of the van.
Dave saw it, though, and, cursing, ran around to the back of the van and started hauling out the spear gun bags.
“Get a move on, Tom! Darn woman swore to me it didn’t start its raids till at least 10AM! No time for more training! Get back here!” He shoved my spear gun into my hands. “You go down to the chicken coop—it likes coop 4A best, she says, keep watch.” He threw me a radio. “Contact me if you make sight. I’m going to go try to frighten it up past you.”
I ran off down the hill, elated, my regulation grey jumpsuit zip-zopping with my strides. I was out in the clean morning air, about to take on a large and dangerous prey, being part of a team—it just didn’t get any better. In a moment of cheap ingratitude, I mentally thumbed my nose at my father, who was probably about halfway through one bathroom now with sixteen more to go.
When I reached the chicken coops, I slowed down, the stench dampening my enthusiasm. The low white buildings gleamed in the sunlight and the chickens milled around each coop, bawking and clucking.
I ducked into the shade behind a utility building. Coop 4A was just over my right shoulder. I took a breath and was about to go check it when I heard a noise—a noise not two feet away from me, on the other side of the utility building.
Instantly every horror story I’d heard about rats flooded my mind: pictures of men and women with huge gashes all over their bodies from the razor sharp talons, that baby that one of the rats stole and then dropped off a cliff, the farmer who’d lost a leg after happening on one of them unexpectedly. I shut my eyes. No. I had to do this. Rats or toilets, I reminded myself. And I swung around the corner of the building, spear gun at the ready.
Even expecting her, I wasn’t expecting her. She was standing right there, right at the edge I was standing at. We’d practically been breathing the same air. We both froze.
The giant tawny wings were half unfolded from her back. I knew the talons were there at the ends of her feathered legs. I knew her hands curved into wicked claws. But in the instant I turned that corner, I only saw frightened hazel eyes set in the perfectly normal, human face of a girl my age. She squeezed her eyes shut and flinched back from me and I could hear her quick, shallow breaths. Her nose, scrunched up, had freckles on it, and she smelled of salt and wind and sunlight.
I still couldn’t move. She opened one eye, and then both, anger replacing the fear. “Just do it!” She snapped. That really put me off. They weren’t supposed to talk. They weren’t supposed to understand. This was supposed to be easy. I should be able to ram my spear into her heart. Why wasn’t I?
When I didn’t move, she launched suddenly into the air, pushing off of my chest with her huge talons and knocking me to the ground. Dust tornadoes stirred up by her wings stung my eyes, and then she was gone, skimming over the gleaming roofs. I stared down at the dusty, unmistakable talon prints on my jumpsuit and nausea stirred in my stomach. Scrambling to my feet, I ran after her.
Dave met me halfway out of the chicken coops. I saw him look at the front of my jumpsuit and, even worse, saw the disappointed shake of his head. I was going to be cleaning toilets my entire life. Up ahead of us, she was skimming through the air, one beat of her wings taking her further and further.
“Do it!” Dave half turned to me, waving and pointing, “Do it! Prove you can do it!”
It would be my last chance. I was a good shot, and spear guns are built for long distance shooting. I put it to my shoulder, sighted it. I saw her in my memory, the hazel eyes, the freckles on her scrunched up nose—but I pushed that away and thought about clogged toilets and smelly bathrooms. I pulled the trigger.
It hit her wing, right up at the base. It wasn’t a mortal wound, but it brought her down. When it hit her, she screamed, wavering in the air, suddenly unstable. She teetered, slipped sideways, and tumbled down to the earth. There was a wet crunch as she hit.
Dave had stopped running. He gave a curt nod. “Good. Broke her neck on impact. Should make things simpler.” He thumped me on the shoulder. “Good job, boy. You pulled through. Let’s go get the clipboards. Paperwork never ends!”
A minute later we stood over the body. A wingtip brushed against the thick leather of my boot making a papery susurrus as the wind lifted and moved it. I clung to the clipboard as if it could hold me up.
“She—” I started, with some confused idea about explaining how I’d been so close to her without killing her.
But Dave interrupted, still absorbed in scribbling down facts on his own clipboard. “It. Don’t say he or she. It’s an it.”
He continued writing for another few minutes then dug the pen into the clipboard and faced me, fixing me with his glittering eyes under his hat, “It doesn’t matter what species it is or who it’s related to. If it harms someone’s livelihood, it’s a pest. You’re an exterminator. You best adjust to that. Unless you want to follow in your father’s footsteps?”
I gulped and kept my eyes averted from the body on the ground. A hearty halloo came to us from across the lawn and a grey-haired woman in high-waist jeans came trotting down the slope.
“You got it! Thank you very much, you can’t know how much this means to me!” She shook both our hands. “And don’t worry about evacuation—I’ve got my own grinder here.”
Dave raised his eyebrows again. “Your own grinder?”
She nodded, hands on her hips, examining the rat with the tip of her tongue stuck out thoughtfully.
“Oh yes. Well, actually it’s a wood chipper, but same difference, right? I’ve done my research, and lo and behold, chickens thrive on rat meat and bone. So, I thought, why not?”
“Well, thanks, then. Saves me a trip to the incinerator.” Dave shook hands with Mrs. Windlemyer, collected the check, and moments later we were bumping down the gravel drive. I rolled down my window and let the breeze blow my queasiness away. It was only a rat, after all. I’d be more careful next time, keep the facts in mind. And it was better than toilet scrubbing, wasn’t it? I heard the grinder start up behind us.